A few thoughts on teaching in Rangjung Higher Secondary School.
At last we seem to be getting into the swing of things at school.
I began all my classes with the writers’ workshop as suggested by the curriculum guides and was amazed to discover that 99% of students had never done this before. It is a rather drawn out process, which involves a lot of conferencing and group work. The 10-lesson format suggested was both time consuming and work generating but I figured that I should at least try it. For a single section of class nine it seemed worthwhile to start them on the right track of planning, drafting, redrafting and editing and to set up expectations about how to write successfully. The common habit of assuming that a single piece was done and dusted on the first attempt didn’t seem to be entrenched in them at this early stage so that was good enough motivation for me. The class eleven group however with 3 separate classes of almost 40 students were mostly actively involved in the process in the classroom but that generated 24 hours of after school time marking and for the second piece of work I have now set, many of them went right back to the no plan, no draft and one attempt and it is done system that they have employed up until now!! If nothing else the experience gave me a benchmark for all the students I teach all 117 of the class XIs and the 40 in my home group class IXC.
There were some incredible essays written and some astounding insights into the lives that many of these students have led thus far. Common themes across both year levels included the impermanence of existence, my first love, our benevolent king, my struggle to get an education, my journey to this school (sometimes involving 2 or 3 days of walking), the importance of studying hard and Gross National Happiness. Strong family values, a sense of commitment and responsibility and deeply felt Buddhist beliefs underpin almost all their writing and make me marvel at the mix of innocence and maturity their writing displays. One unusual student chose me as his topic and after waxing lyrical in the most poetic of terms, laden with metaphors of buds opening and fresh spring air about the new teaching style he has experienced in my classes, he began the paragraph assigned to my physical appearance with, “She is tall and old and fat.”
Class nine have now finished their second piece and there has been compliance with the process so I am feeling hopeful that I will see big improvements over the year. There are still plenty of surprises and shocks in the revelations about their lives that the content of their writing exposes. One student when comparing a previous English teacher to me wrote, “If he looks also he will never look line by line like our madam here.” I struggle with the “if” implying that he may not and also find it hard to believe that her work has never been thoroughly checked and she is in class XI. Although I am not capable of checking 157 papers that thoroughly every time, it certainly motivates me to keep doing it as often as possible. This sentiment appeared in several of the class papers and I am still in a quandary about it.
I am also impressed with the classroom behaviour and willingness of most students to participate in all activities and tasks. Although there certainly are a large number of chronically shy students, there are also plenty who can confidently express their options and are keen to discuss and share ideas in both group and whole class settings regardless of their ability. Even the shiest of the shy have something to say when asked and can often be coaxed out of the shells. Almost without exception when a task is set they set to it like their very lives depend on doing it well and plead for more time and one more explanation when they feel that they have not done it justice.
I think I fear the exams as much as they do given that I am not at all sure that I am teaching in the way I am expected to and I fear that I am not preparing them for the rigors of the system when I hardly understand it myself. It has come as a shock to me that those who can often participate well in class and be lead to understand the texts later demonstrate almost no understanding in their writing!
Still the biggest surprises of school life are in the non-teaching times, when doing Socially Useful and Productive Work (SUPW) means that we all go to the river bed, now, and carry rocks back to school so that a new prayer wheel can be built or when an envoy from the king with a full entourage arrives at short notice and all sponsored (by the king himself) students and their class teachers are required in the office immediately for a formal meeting.
Both of these things occurred in the last week.