Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Lateral Route

Tomorrow morning I leave for Samdrup Jongkhar via Bumthang and Trashigang. It's a three day journey, though I hear Phunthso would like to do it in two. I'm asking him to drop me off in a small village about 2 hours before Dewathang so that I can go meet the nuns who might participate in our project. I'll spend the night at the nunnery and then catch a bus to Dewathang the next day. I'm sure there will be much to report.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why Testing Doesn't Work - New York City

I taught a 300 level English class at CUNY Hunter College in New York for two semesters in 2008-2009. Many of my students could not even write a coherent sentence. They had no understanding of basic punctuation, they used phone text abbreviations like "u" instead of "you." It was appalling. It was obvious that teachers before me had passed them through the system rather than taking the time to teach them. If I gave them a B or higher, they would be eligible for master classes. I ended up giving out quite a few B minuses. It was painful, but necessary.  This article in the New York Times talks about a new CUNY program that is teaching remedial English and math to high school graduates who passed all of their exams but can't do basic functions. The SJI Curriculum advocates testing for mastery, not failure. Tests will be used to asses whether students have fully understood the material, and if they have not, they will receive further tutoring.

How to Pass On Tradition, Venezuelan Style

Rural-Urban migration is a major issue in Bhutan, in fact Bhutan has the highest rate of rural-to-urban migration in south Asia. Some progressive educators blame the education system for, unwittingly, further promoting this trend by discounting native wisdom traditions in favor of consumerist ideals. 
This project in Venezuela is working to preserve and strengthen indigenous culture in such an interesting way. It's an accredited university open only to students from tribal areas. They receive lessons in indigenous rights, language and mythology and in the afternoons they get the chance to put practical skills to the test, herding buffalo and tending vegetable plots.
I wonder if such a thing would work in Bhutan. 

The Power of Film

Hazelnuts on the branch
I returned to Thimphu on Friday to start conversations with potential teachers (some great leads) and to sort out my Indian transit visa so that I can make the journey to Dewathang in one day (through India) instead of three (the Bhutanese lateral route). But the visa office was closed and so it was back to the Ambient for more chance meetings of the best kind. Daniel Spitzer and his colleague Justin Finnegan, the hazelnut maestros, came in just as I had gotten settled. We sat together and began formalizing our collaboration as if we had planned the meeting. While their project is based in the Mongar Dzongkhag, it is still in eastern Bhutan and the education for workers model that they are developing could easily be sent down to S/J to help businesses in the region. I'm really seeing the balance of having these four pilot projects in place and am excited by the possibilities. We discussed where the December vipassana retreat for teachers should take place. Bodhgaya? Burma? Bhutan? Somewhere warm would be nice.

In the evening I attended Lama Shenphen's movie night at Deer Park. It's a wonderful offering on his part, sharing alternative and independent films followed by a discussion of its themes every Friday night. The film nights attract a good mix of Bhutanese and chillips, young and old. This week's film was All the Invisible Children, a series of shorts from various directors on the theme of child exploitation. I was struck, of courses, by how education can shape a child, both in a positive and negative way. By the way, Lama is always interested in collecting more films to show, preferably contemporary, in English or with subtitles, with content that does not glorify drugs, misogyny, etc.

When I think back about my own education, about the moments when I was shown a new way of thinking, I realize that film played an essential role. Documentaries have had a particular impact on my behavior, such as The Corporation, after which I changed my spending habits, and Earthlings, after which I stopped eating meat. If you care to comment, please share your favorite educational films, I'm interested to know, particularly if there are online resources, such as the PBS site, that we can use in our teacher training or in the classroom. SJI has already translated The Story of Stuff and The Story of Bottled Water (with approval from the filmmakers) into the local dialect of east Bhutan to great effect. I am starting to think that translation might ending up being a big part of the work we have ahead.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Nonformal and Informal Education in Bhutan

As I was googling for a good image of Lama Shenphen that would illustrate what wonderful work he is doing here in Bhutan, I came across this document that I thought was very interesting. After the landmark Educating for GNH Conference in 2009, Lama participated in a workshop to discuss formal and nonformal education. A group of participants came up with some very specific recommendations.

In particular they emphasized that "learning often primarily occurs outside schools — informally in families, peer groups, and communities, and through the media, internet, and other means, and also ‘non-formally’ in courses such as Bhutan’s literacy programs geared to mothers in rural areas. Thus, ‘non-formal’ education is defined as coursework that occurs outside credentialed or degree-awarding institutional frameworks, while ‘informal’ education is defined as learning that occurs outside coursework altogether. The December workshop therefore emphasized the vital importance of extending the Educating for GNH initiative into the informal and formal education sectors, the Education Secretary gave an introductory presentation on this subject, and a breakout group focussed on this potential on Dec. 11. A summary of this group’s significant observations and recommendations is provided here."

For me, it's a must read. 
In particular I liked recommendation C:

c) The curricular needs of monastic communities should be examined and reviewed, with a view to utilizing aspects of the monastic curriculum more effectively in secular education and conversely to evaluate what aspects of the monastic curriculum may need modification and updating for present times. Students might be engaged in active surveys of the monastic and secular communities in an effort to bridge the present and growing gap between the two sets of curricula.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Way Things Move in Bhutan

The roads were closed between Paro and Thimphu for the royal couple's visit and I was stranded in Thimphu at the Ambient Café. There are surely much worse places to be stranded! In fact, as always is the case at the Ambient, there was a wonderful parade of familiar faces and fortuitous chance meetings. First I ran into Sonam Choephel, my old friend and attendant of Rinpoche's who just came out of three year retreat. We had a cappuccino and in walked Lama Shenphen who was full of wonderful ideas about potential candidates for the pilot project we are planning at Chokyi Gyatso Iinstitute. Then the Swiss contingent, Casper and Sabine, came in and promised to take me on their next hike. As Lama Shenphen and I discussed the project, I noticed a man seated nearby perk up listening. This is what the Ambient almost seems designed for. So many times I've changed the course of my work due to a simple bit of evesdropping at the Ambient. He came over and introduced himself as Daniel Spitzer and we began talking about our respective projects, his is a hazelnut farming initiative in east Bhutan. Lama went off to help rescue some addicts and Daniel and I sat and talked with no small amount of enthusiasm for nearly an hour. The synergy abounded. On top of all the alignment of our projects, it turns out he was Rinpoche's English teacher back in the 1970s. I think we may have just found our third pilot project! Here's a picture of Lama at the Ambient that I took last year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Information sharing

At the recommendation of Rinpoche, I had a wonderful meeting with a high ranking official with many years experience in the education system here. He is working on some very interesting education reform projects himself and I found the conversation both stimulating and challenging. Reform is never easy. It's like mounting a revolution, any educationist will tell you. He gave me some sage advice and loaned me two interesting books: Leading Out: The True Purpose of Education (Ritinjali, 2010) by Arun Kapur of the Vasant Valley School and Dominique Side's textbook on Buddhism for classrooms (Philip Allan Updates, 2005). I hope our lively discussion will continue. He also told me that his aunt is here in Bhutan from Berlin. She is a dear friend who was my tent mate during the filming of Travellers and Magicians back in 2002. He said she's on a trek right now and I just love the idea of her far out in the mountains but on her way back so that I can see her. Last time I saw her we rode our bikes to a river in Berlin and released little paper boats in which we had written down our wishes. Now I need another little paper boat (biodegradable of course) for my current most fervent wish: new education alternatives for the youth of Bhutan.

Monday, October 17, 2011

SJI Heads Meet in Thimphu

SJI's primary head was not in attendance, alas.
SJI had its first meeting of the season at the offices of Dasho Neten Zangmo, Chairperson of Bhutan's Anti-Corruption Commission, a member of the Executive Committee, and a dear friend to SJI. Also in attendance were Tshewang Dendup, who is taking up more leadership responsibilities, Tshering Dorji who has been expertly managing the Center for Appropriate Technology, Tashi Colman who is the firecracker of the team – we wouldn't be here without his energy, Karen Hayward, who has been working for GPI Atlantic finalizing the fantastic research report that Linda Panazzo compiled on all aspects of the Samdrup Jongkhar region and helping out in myriad other ways. We updated each other on all that has happened recently and it was a lot to cover. Solar engineer trainings, agriculture trainings, extensive research. And it looks like everything is moving ahead in good order. The three-person Executive Committee was dissolved as we restructure our management model to be more focused. We are all heading east to Dewathang at the end of the month.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Partnering: Bhutan Nuns Foundation

With wedding fever in the air, meetings have been difficult to arrange so I felt very fortunate that Tashi Zangmo, PhD, Executive Director of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, made the time to come to my home office in Olathang for a discussion about a possible partnership between SJI Education and BNF. 

BNF, and its patron Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuk, have a mission: "to provide a high leverage means of empowering and educating Bhutanese girls and women, improving the living conditions and economic vitality of rural villages, and preserving Bhutan’s strong, sustainable culture as it faces rapid economic development." 

Could we train one of her nuns to teach integrated curriculum? Could we teach her to develop her own unique curriculum for nuns in Bhutan using the same framework, criteria and resources that we are using to develop the CGI curriculum? It looks like the answer is yes! It seems there is great synergy between Dr. Tashi Zangmo's vision and the SJI vision.  And we both seem to be fans of good dark chocolate.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Education Alternatives in Bhutan

Since we began the Samdrup Jongkhar Initiative's education project in May 2011, much progress has been made and along the way I've met some fantastic people, read inspiring passages in great books, made great connections, found incredible resources and learned so much. I wanted to create a space where I can share the latest news and links and chart our progress as we help create an alternative education model for east Bhutan and beyond. So…here we go!