Volunteering report #2
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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Our days, between 10am and 4.30pm, are spent at Rajesh's house, learning Nepali and other cultural topics, such as 'Toileting and Bathing Practices' and 'Nepali History and Politics'.
We also get to go on a couple of excursions, to Boudanath - the world's largest Stupa (a type of Buddhist temple); Pashupatinath, an important Hindu temple; Swayambounath, a Buddhist temple on a hill, accessed by 365 steps representing the days of the year; and Patan, Kathmandu's twin city and formerly an independent state, now almost frozen in time like it was when it as captured in 1769. At Boudanath, Rajesh takes us to a touristy restaurant for lunch but it is so pricy that Jane and I can only afford to share a tiny plate of fries.
Our favourite excursion is a morning at the local government school. Government schools are public (cheaper) and 'boarding' schools are private and more expensive, but aren't necessarily real boarding schools. Some are conducted entirely in Nepali (generally the government schools) and some are all in English, like this one. Confusing, eh? There are about 1500 kids at this school, from age 5 to 17, packed into a building that is smaller than the science block at the 800-student high school I attended.
We were told that we would be observing, so the three of us each go to different classes. Jane is observing an English class first, taught by a stern and unsmiling lady. The topic is 'Going to the Post Office' and the lesson text is a drama-style scenario involving a customer and a post office clerk. The teacher beings by reading out the conversation in perfunctory, clipped English. To Jane's amazement, the text includes such exchanges as:
Customer: "Good day. My master has sent me to mail this letter."
Clerk: "Good day. Kindly tell me the address to which the letter is to be sent."
Customer: "I am afraid I do not know."
Clerk: "You stupid fellow!"
The children are then instructed to take turns reading the same conversation, which they do robotically but without any understanding of what they are reading. Jane tries to add some relevance to the class by suggesting a role play with a post office setting. The teacher looks at her and says dismissively, "No. We do not have any stamps."
My first class is, by contrast, a very enjoyable experience. The subject is Social Studies and the subject is "The Four Main Religions". In the opinion of the textbook's author, the four 'main' religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity - in that order. Even though I am a lifelong atheist, I am assumed to be a Christian and invited to talk about Christianity. The teacher is a young man with a loud voice that sounds exactly like Borat's. He reads the textbook's summary of Christianity verbatim to the class, who fill in any pauses he leaves for them, in unison. Appropriately I guess, it sounds a little bit like the Catholic sermons I have had occasion to attend. The first thing I do when I stand up is tell the children to close their books. They only use them for memorising anyway and I don't think they are learning much this way. I tell them about Jesus and how Christians reckon he is the son of God, and about Easter and Christmas and so on. Then the teacher pipes up from the back of the class. "What about Santa Claus?" I try to explain that Santa isn't exactly a central character in the Bible, but I don't think the kids quite understand the distinction.
The teachers are almost fighting for us to join their classes and the kids stand and cheer whenever we walk in. I attend a maths class in which the teacher discusses algebra for five minutes then happily turns the class over to me to talk about New Zealand. I try to keep some kind of mathematical theme by discussing New Zealand's geographical and population size in proportion to Nepal's, the exchange rate and the relative cost of various things. The kids get involved and really seem to enjoy the class.
At the end of the day, we all feel like we have gotten a lot out of it. We are amazed by the style of teaching they have here, so rigid and non-interactive. It is all memorisation and the kids have no understanding of what they are being told. The idea is to cram as many facts and figures into their heads as possible so they can simply regurgitate them come exam time. The students do not know how to think. Although they can tell you that Mercury is the closest planet to the sun and Pluto is the furthest away, they do not know that Mercury is hotter than Pluto because they have not been specifically taught this. Jane and I are excited to maybe work in a school like this because we believe we can offer our different learning methods to benefit the kids. On the other hand, we are anxious because we know next to nothing about the place we have been assigned to volunteer at.