Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rules, Regulations and Regimes.

Panorama from today's walk

We are officially in the exam period now. 

This will be a long drawn out process. On Monday Trial Exams began for the class X and XII students who will be taking the board exams. Not long after they finish class IX and XI or those who have escaped the horror of board exams will begin their Home Exams and when they finish the real Board Exams will begin in earnest!

I have already gone on record saying that I loathe the exam period and this extended time frame makes it even worse. It is not only the tedium and long hours of marking without any moderation process and the pressure of completing the task in a ridiculously short time but more significantly the lack of contact with students that I hate. Since I teach classes X and XI, I am both supervising exams and continuing to teach for the first time ever, some contact remains and for that I am grateful.

The lead up to the exams has been long and that coupled with the events of the last month have cast a shadow over the whole atmosphere of the school in my opinion. For over a month we have faced one calamity after another. I feel like a dark cloud is hanging over my final 2 months in Rangjung and try as I might I cannot shake the feeling.

It all began with the 12-day suspension of several boys. It seemed to me that it was clandestine affair and the decisions had been made before some of us class teachers were even aware of the misdemeanors. A perfunctorily “sign here instruction” and 2 boys from my home class were destined to miss 12 days of school and crucial texts and review in the pre-exam period.

My flagging spirits took another blow with the tragic and unexpected death of Martha and a fire at school.

The arrival of the new principal heralded in a new regime of discipline and supervision and without any warning class X and class XII students were being woken at 3am and expected to begin their self-study sessions at 3.30am. This study time extends to the beginning of morning study at 6am when they are joined by the remainder of the boarding students for one more hour. As a reward for their compulsory commitment they are served black tea and therefore several staff are involved in the wake up routine and the serving. Thankfully I am not one of them. As anyone who knows me knows I am not a morning person and my heart went out to those students who are similarly afflicted.

For me the immediate effect has been to see some of the brightest and most engaged of my class nodding off in first period for the first time ever. I have tried to have more active lessons and be on the alert but I feel for them. Others have ever-darkening rings around their eyes and I actually thought that some of the boys were wearing eye makeup at first. In my study supervision recently I was astounded to see how many of the boys were battling to keep their eyes open at 8.30pm.

Nonetheless they have complied and tried to adapt to the new routine but with exams now in full swing, burning the midnight oil is also the norm. Most of them think that it is good for them and appreciate the efforts teachers are making to keep them at their studies, but they pay little heed to my constant nagging about getting enough sleep and I worry even more about their health.

The dark shadow that has hung over me deepened into almost despair when the girls were confined to hostels over a week ago. Now at all times when they are not in lessons, at prayers or in the dining room eating, girls are expected to remain inside the compound set aside for them. This is a new disciplinary procedure that infuriated me enough to discuss it with the principal. Thankfully he politely listened and even acknowledged that he had never seen it from the perspective that I outlined, however nothing has changed yet. Now that many of the class rooms have been deployed as examination halls that means even for the 3 one-hour study periods girls are in virtual lockup without access to the same facilities and resources that the boys have.

When I started checking my first bundle of exam papers on Monday it was certainly with a heavy heart. Those who do not make the grade in these trials have been told that they will not be allowed to sit the board exams and that deeply concerns them and me.

After wading through the essays for 2 days I decided that today’s public holiday “Dassain” was not to be wasted on this task and so as soon as it was feasible, after school yesterday Ian and I headed up to Phongmey Primary School to watch the Annual Variety Show there and spend the night with Becky.

That was a great decision. We hit the road at twilight with gorgeous autumn views unfolding before our very eyes with every twist in the road. The breath taking views finally chased those dark clouds out of the corners of my mind. I found myself staring opened mouthed out of the window in awe. Even the usual Dzongkha music playing in the taxi was familiar: with the rounds of cultural events, shows and social occasions that we have attended I now recognize many of the songs- not that I understand any of them.

Becky’s school concert with a hall full of villagers viewing us with suspicion and fascination was a hoot. The long exhausting walk back today reassured me that I still have some serious training to do before the celebratory walk we have agreed to participate in but it revived me enough to take one more final look at those essays and so it will be back to the grind stone tomorrow. Hopefully with enough enthusiasm and free time between classes and supervision to complete the remaining sections of this first paper before the second one materializes on my desk on Friday afternoon.

Checking out her own image on the road today

I just hope there will be a few more inspiring free days scattered among the onerous responsibilities before these final 2 months evaporate. 

Masked up to avoid the dust on the road that was once a monsoonal muddy mess.

The freezing but no longer raging torrent of water we still need to wade  across. 

Rahdi red rice still waiting to be harvested. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

RLSS Annual Variety Show

The Annual Rangjung Lower Secondary School Variety Show was performed over three nights from the12th to the 14th of October 2012.
The audiences were impressed by the enthusiasm of the young dancers, the dedication they showed and the support of their teachers and helpers.
Culture is a huge part of life here in Bhutan. The country is walking a fine line between material development for her people and maintaining its age-old traditions.
Many of the items on our playlist were of a traditional nature while others were set to modern foreign music or songs.

The younger students are always a hit and this year was no exception. Class III performed a very moving patriotic song complete with National Flags and a live vocal accompaniment by their Class teacher, Madam Kezang. Her hauntingly beautiful voice provided the perfect foil to the energetic 8 year olds as they waved, swayed, stomped and chanted.

The PP students routinely steal the show and this year was no exception.

Our school’s Cultural Club delighted audiences night after night with their well-developed routines, disciplined and professional execution and obvious delight in showcasing their skills.

The welcome dance or ‘Joenpa Lekso’ had the singers off stage providing the vocal back up to the dancers' well-practiced moves.

Below is a picture of their rendition of the very traditional Zhungdra dance in which all the dancers sway slowly and rhythmically in a sort of hypnotic trance dance.

Each class level had their own special cultural assignment and many of them also chose to do a special item that they worked out amongst themselves utilising all those life skills we have been learning and discussing this year.
The ‘Thunder Boys’ from class VIII strutting their stuff in a very modern dance.

Not to be outdone, the class VIII girls performed their own modern number.

One solo song by our own ‘singing cowboy’ Pema Wangdi, had the audiences clapping along and cheering. 

A duet by two class VIII students, Dendup Zangmo and her co singer Pempa Wangdi almost brought tears to many eyes.

A Hindi dance by class VII girls transported us all to the set of a Bollywood movie; they must have spent many hours carefully analysing their favourite dancers’ moves.

What was one of my my favourite items of the show was a Nepali number with the almost unpronounceable title, ‘Resampheriri’. It was a fun dance with Bollywoodesque moves very well done by the class VIII girls.

The staff also performed one item, a traditional Bhutanese dance that they can do as easy as falling off a mountainside… I was asked/told/invited/instructed to join in with them. We held several practices and despite Madam Tshering’s best efforts I was still at something of a loss as to what to do most of the time… I followed along as best I could much to the enjoyment/amusement of the audiences.
Below is the photographic evidence of what was most likely my one and only serendipitous moment of synchronicity!!!! 

There is, of course, ample evidence of my distinct lack of coordination and inability to remember what must be the easiest set of dance steps in the eastern Himalayas, but it was all good fun!

Class V did a great colour coded traditional number and carried it off with aplomb.

 Class IV kept the pace hot giving us all a taste of Saturday Night Fever with their disco number.

 Class II performing under the watchful eye of their class teacher Mr. Sangay Penjor.

 Of course not every one can be a star and there was a host of behind the scenes assistance. The cooking team deserves a special mention as they set about turning piles of cabbages, oodles of onions, fresh greens, chillies and a huge 45 kg bag of flour into delectable eatables every night.

Momo production in full swing.

Q. What Bhutanese food does not have chillies?
A. None!
Here we have the ingredients for a delicious snack called chilli chops, deep fried batter coated chilli, yum yum!!!

No sign of nerves here as bigger kids help the little ones get ready for the final performance held at the Rangjung Institute of Electrical Engineering.

I am sorry to all those performers and helpers I have missed here. Rest assured you will all live on in the memories of those who were lucky enough to see the show!!! 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Problematic Portfolios!

One of the more onerous tasks as an English teacher in Bhutan is managing students’ portfolio writing. It is one of the few grades that students receive, which is not exam based but it is difficult to utilize the portfolio writing to improve students’ writing skills. I have struggled with finding a way to make it more useful and better able to bring out the best in students.

After several trial and error efforts at improvement last year finally, I struck upon the idea of insisting that the pieces a portfolio should contain be a balance of original, teacher corrected and copied writing. Why these 3?

Original writing often seems to be poetry and as such by students at least, it is seen as a quick and easy way to fill a folder with writing without applying a great deal of thought or effort. I have tried to overcome this by requiring a balance of each of the 3 types of writing mentioned above and also by assigning supplementary pieces, which relate to our class texts and suggesting that students attempt them as a part of their portfolio writing. In this way they are practising writing skills that will be useful to them in their academic pursuits but they continue to have a choice about which ones they will attempt if any so it is not totally prescriptive.

I specifically tell students never in their assessment, written assignments or exams will they be asked to write poetry so they need to question whether this skill is valuable to them.  I too, wrote poetry as an adolescent and I know that many genuinely enjoy writing it. That is admirable but is it equally admirable to include it in a school required portfolio? Perhaps a personal collection is a better endpoint for that kind of writing. My opinion may simply result from the fact I may have read too much adolescent angst in the form of poetry!

Including assigned class work that has already been corrected in the portfolio collection on the other hand, ensues that the time and effort I put into thoroughly checking their work is not wasted. Universally students are primarily concerned only with the grades they receive and I hope that my insistence on them rewriting and making a perfect copy of corrected work to include in their portfolios, makes them focus on their own strengths and weakness as writers, while also giving them a sense of pride in the final result. I hope that in this way they are able to get a clearer picture of what needs improvement and I usually offer suggestions about how to improve those aspects of their writing in the comments at the end of the corrected pieces. My heart sinks when I see them read the score and then toss the paper in the rubbish bin in the classroom, so this strategy also attempts to stop that practice. This alternative approach works side by side with editing and redrafting on the original piece. I have diligently tried to stop students from making endless drafts: a process, which requires them to copy their own mistakes again and again, reinforcing their errors. I therefore hope making a copy of the corrected piece gets them to focus on the accurate forms and ensures even if their original score was low they now know the correct answer: thankfully something they are obsessed with.

As for copying the writing of other students, authors they have read or even my own writing used as examples; stop them if you can! I have tried to turn this into an advantage by encouraging them to always correctly record the sources of the material they copy and to use quotation marks accurately when they “steal” from other writers. These referencing skills are ones that will be useful to them when they attempt research papers of their own in class XII and beyond in tertiary education if they continue studying beyond high school. Example pieces of high quality can be valuable in teaching style, structure and form, but mindlessly copying to avoid thinking and writing for oneself is unacceptable. Plagiarism is now a word that every student I have taught is familiar with. Still it is hard “to teach an old dog new tricks.”

The last time I collected portfolios it took 3 full weeks utilizing every non-teaching period at school, to wade through the mountains of words that 98 class XI students can produce. Those aiming to become journalists ignore the instruction to balance the content and produce 20 or so original pieces believing that that instruction cannot apply to them because writing is their passion! That means it takes more than an hour to check just one student’s work. Others thinking I will not read every line, in every piece cunningly begin with an original introduction and then copy the rest of the essay from another student! Still others regurgitate what was obviously assigned and corrected by an English teacher at some point in the past. A precious few stun you by doing exactly as you have asked at an incredibly high standard.

Just occasionally a piece of writing strikes your fancy and you wonder if the whole concept of portfolios remains in place just so you can be surprised and delighted by something that you would never have asked them to write.

When I return the portfolios to the class, I spend a lesson on common errors and ask them to record which of those errors they can see in their own writing with examples of correct usage. Ideally this becomes the common error checklist at the back of their exercise books and they then take the next step to use it to edit their own drafts the next time they write. Optimist to the end, am I.

No matter what way you look at it portfolios are problematic and I wish an alternative method of assessing students’ writing would be adopted sooner rather than later.

The following is an original piece submitted in the portfolio of Cheki Wangdi Class XI Science, 2012. I have reproduced and made slight grammatical alterations to it with his permission.

Ode to my English Teacher

Inspiring were and are the words she speaks,
Without any selfishness or bias she teaches,
With incredible effort and devotion,
She seeks to make the students witty.

I feel heartfelt gratitude for her dedication,
Because of which I prefer participation.
Responsibilities shouldered by her
Are beyond one’s imagination.

Entrance of her into the class evokes all kinds of feelings:
Of eagerness, hunger, and the foremost one, willingness:
To learn, discover the new – unknown fresh lessons,
About which she would teach us with generosity.

Our beloved English Teacher,
Is a living soul with amazing ideas,
Which we describe as a stroke of genius.
We acknowledge you for your teaching
And unwavering dedication to your profession.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

weekend escape to Phongmey

Last weekend we took ourselves back up to Phongmey ostensibly to see the Tshechu but also to stay with Becky and to have more than a few fleeting moments in the town.

We went on a brief walk around the outskirts of town. I just love that it was a loop and a daily routine for our BCF colleague. We did have one heart thumping moment when a huge (at least 2-metre long) cobra at the side of the road, raised its hood as we passed. I missed that spectacular display in my eagerness to flee but I did capture it before it disappeared down a hole nearby.

We circumambulated the small town, before plonking ourselves down on a bench conveniently placed to view the whole township and contemplate the universe. Apparently it is a favourite resting spot complete with picturesque crumbling chorten. As we were heading down we were insistently summoned to share tea with a local couple, who live nearby and were no doubt aware of Becky’s frequent visits to that spot but we managed to decline without offending.

There was an even more enticing village above us but at dusk with the light fading we did the gracious thing and saved it for another day.

At almost every turn in the main street we were greeted by Becky’s students and it is so obvious how much they adore her.

As is always the case the time simply evaporated once we got back to Becky’s beautiful little forestry department cottage. She had warned us, that the power was likely to go out and that it was damp and mouldy but it sure seemed like a comfortable home to us. Right on cue the power did go out and we were instantly grateful for the readymade momos and the plentiful supply of beer we had brought with us. On that account I am sure we were the bad influence.

Shortly after the power returned we had a squealing and chasing episode with a small but unwelcome rodent and managed to at least see how it exited. This inspired diligent closure of the gaping hole and we never spotted it again so it might just have been both dissuaded and excluded from reentry.

The next morning we donned our traditional attire and made our way up to the Lhakang for the second day of the big festivities. Becky doesn’t wear kira that often but she stole the show once one of her students fixed up my poor effort at getting her into her beautiful new hand-woven kira. I can dress myself in this attire but I am not at all adept at putting someone else into it. In fact that morning I had to take my own off to work out how to do it.

We wandered around and enjoyed the crowd, the atmosphere and the performances. I now realise that we understand a lot more of what happens than we did in November last year when we saw our first Tshechu in Trashigang.

It was wonderful to see Becky’s students’ eyes light up at the sight of her and how eager they were to interact with us all. Of course there were also a few of my own and Ian’s students in the crowd.

We had the chance to enter the costume room as well as being almost in the performing area. 

The black hat dance I am now familiar with and really love but I am still not quick enough to capture the flow and grace of the dancers.

One masked dance was all we got to see as we planned to walk the 16 kms back to Rangjung and wanted to leave with plenty of time to achieve that task before dark.

As it turned out we had incredible good fortune at the crossing we were most concerned about. While we were staring it down and considering the best route, a vehicle came through heading to Phongmey. The driver instantly indicated that he would turn around and drive us across and we jumped at the chance.

Our good intentions of hiking all the way back were tested a few times with offers of lifts as the afternoon progressed and at the half way point we succumbed and accepted as we were both feeling the effects of the 8kms we had covered already having done little walking recently.

That turned out to be a good decision as I think one of my toes is broken and that was causing me to walk oddly and I ended up with blisters on both feet from the distance we did cover!!

Time to get back into some serious walking as we have a 16km walk to Trashigang coming up in November as a part of the Sherig Century celebrations (100 years of education in Bhutan.) 

Thanks for a great weekend Becky. I just know that Martha would have loved Tshechu.