Teach for Nepal

Swastika Shrestha presenting at the PENN workshop

Swastika Shrestha presenting at the PENN workshop

Teach for Nepal (TFN) is a program in which recent university graduates and young professionals commit to two year fellowships to teach in public schools. The Fellows seek to improve education as they develop their own leadership skills.

Shisir Khanal

Shisir Khanal

TFN is a core member of Progressive Educators Network Nepal, a project I’m involved with here in Kathmandu. The co-founders, Shisir Khanal and Swastika Shrestha, have been big supporters of this initiative from the beginning, and many others involved with TFN have participated in the workshops or our community visit to Dalchoki.

Krishna Kumar KC

Krishna Kumar KC

I’ve now visited the TFN offices, met many of the TFN Fellows, administrators, and community coordinators. I’ve also observed actual classroom teaching. Throughout I’ve been impressed with the dedication, the knowledge and professionalism, and the desire to learn more and do better.

For example (and at the risk of leaving out several others), Krishna Kumar KC, Amrit Bahadur Poudel, and Nija Maharjan have been major contributors to our workshop, and absolutely necessary to the success of our extended community visit to Dalchoki.

Nija Maharjan

Nija Maharjan

The very need for projects such as TFN raises questions that people should also ask about Teach for America: Shouldn’t society as a whole assume the responsibility of full preparation and support for teachers? Shouldn’t it encourage and support teachers to stay in the profession? Shouldn’t it provide decent schools for every child?

Questions about quality education for all are even harder to answer in Nepal than they are in the US. Public schooling is limited and severely under-resourced, especially in rural areas.

In the very different economic and cultural conditions here in Nepal, Teach for Nepal is a positive force; it listens to criticisms; and it is committed to working with others. It also works closely with non-TFN teachers and the school plus community as a whole. I’ve seen little of the political agenda mentioned above.

Amrit Paudel from a deck at TFN

Amrit Poudel from a deck at TFN

In contrast to Teach for America Fellows, those in TFN typically stay in homes in the rural communities where they teach. This leads to a greater understanding of local needs and a deep personal commitment to the schools and the community.

TFN has also engaged with community members in an important student vision project. That led to an impressive mission statement,  not only for the students they serve directly, but for all children. It includes the idea that students should acquire knowledge, but also learn to “demonstrate a sense of responsibility towards people and the future of the community”. A key statement is ingrained in the TFN work: “One day all children in Nepal will attain an excellent education.”

 

Community inquiry in Dalchoki

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Himalayas to the north, past the Kathmandu Valley

It’s highly unlikely that you would just happen upon Dalchoki, given that it’s two hours from Kathmandu by jeep up narrow mountain roads, which are dirt surface with ruts and random rock from landslides. If you did, you might wonder what was there. You wouldn’t see an industrial center or a tourist destination.

Despite that, I had one of the warmest and most satisfying few days in Dalchoki that I’ve ever experienced. As part of our progressive education workshop we engaged in communtiy inquiry with the residents.

planning

Planning our visit in the Dalchiki Rising Homestay

From Dalchoki, some views are “blocked” by beautiful green hills, but to the south you can see the Terai plains leading to Ganges basin and India; to the northwest there’s a good view of Manaslu (26,781 ft) at the eastern end of the Annapurna Massif; to the north is the Kathmandu Valley; beyond that, the Langtang Himal, with 13 peaks above 18,000 ft; and to east, Sagarmāthā (Everest).

There’s far more than can be included in one blog post. But just to give a sense of what we did, I could talk about the milk collection center. We wanted to meet with people in the village, and knew that they would bring their milk to the center for weighing and testing.

talk

Talking with people in the village

At our time there, we saw the head of the village development committee, and many ordinary farmers. We also talked with the staff in the center. They told us about weighing the milk, adding sulfuric acid which reacts with the non-gay portions of the milk, centrifuging, and then assessing fat content.

One aspect of the discussion was whether this process could become part of the school curriculum, in place of some of the Western content that seems so strikingly inappropriate here. Another was whether there were ways to add value to milk or other agricultural produce to improve the economic condition of the village. That challenge itself could become part of the curriculum. We continued this discussion with teachers at the school the next day,

On a personal level, I had a kind of peak experience, enjoying the incredible views, the warmth of our team of eight, our hosts for the stay, and people in the village. Whether eating delicious, traditional mountain village food, 100% organic, telling stories and laughing by the fire, playing cards, or debating views of education there ws an intense feeling of family and community,

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Breathing the same air

Last July, Eric Garner was killed by police who choked him as he repeated “I can’t breathe.” He cried out 11 times, but eventually succumbed.

We didn’t need yet another example of police killing a young, unarmed black man. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and way too many more reveal a pervasive inability of some individuals, and more importantly, of our entire legal system to recognize that we all breathe the same air.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program at first seems worlds away from the racism and social injustice of America’s cities. But it too reveals racism and social injustice. It too shows how those in power use that power to oppress even admittedly innocent people. Often, the “crime” was to have a different religion, to wear different clothes, to speak a language other than English, or to be poor. The parallels are disturbing, even without considering how a favored torture technique of the CIA was waterboarding–to deprive people of air.

In the commentary regarding both of these cases I’ve been struck with how little there is about the victims as living, breathing individuals. Those who rightly argue for legal due process for the police or agents involved, talk about mistakes the victims had made, but not about them as people. Some mainstream news coverage does point out a little, that Garner was considered to be an even-tempered, good-natured presence in his community. He was the neighborhood peacemaker. He had asthma and sore feet. And yes, he had run-ins with the police before. But as one neighbor said, “His last penny was your last penny.”  (see “Friends: Man in NYC chokehold case ‘gentle giant’“). Rapidly, however, the real “Eric Garner” vanishes from the discourse as a person and becomes just a term to signal a point of disagreement between factions that seem to have little ability to understand one another.

In the last chapter of her 1902 book, Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams writes about racism and corruption of a century ago, and the consequent need for political reform. Her examples draw on the glaring disparities in wealth of the Gilded Age, which are unfortunately being reproduced today.

Addams talks about the “honest absence of class consciousness” among the immigrants she worked with. That absence supported their faith in American democracy. They were taught ideals for “honorable dealing and careful living. They were told that the career of the self-made man was open to every American boy, if he worked hard and saved his money, improved his mind, and followed a steady ambition. [sic]”

Addams then recalls an anecdote from her childhood: “the village schoolmaster told his little flock, without any mitigating clauses, that Jay Gould had laid the foundation of his colossal fortune by always saving bits of string . . . as a result, every child in the village assiduously collected party-colored balls of twine.” In this way, children failed to learn that “the path which leads to riches and success, to civic prominence and honor, is the path of political corruption.” The end result was that every citizen participated in that corruption, even those who suffered from it. Her statement of this shared responsibility still holds today:

This is the penalty of a democracy,–that we are bound to move forward or retrograde together. None of us can stand aside; our feet are mired in the same soil, and our lungs breathe the same air.

The penalty that Addams describes is also the basis for making a democracy possible. Ethics cannot be limited to the individual virtues, such as honesty, courage, or duty, but must encompass social relations as well, the social ethics of her book’s title. That idea is expressed well in an essay she had written a few years earlier, called “A Modern Lear.” It’s about the railroad czar George Pullman:

Our thoughts . . .cannot be too much directed from mutual relationships and responsibilities. They will be warped, unless we look all men in the face, as if a community of interests lay between. . .To touch to vibrating response the noble fibre in each man, to pull these many fibres, fragile, impalpable and constantly breaking, as they are, into one impulse, to develop that mere impulse through its feeble and tentative stages into action, is no easy task, but lateral progress is impossible without it.

Addams knew that democracy was a hollow ideal without social ethics. So, it’s depressing to realize that the inequities of wealth, the racism, and the corruption of her day are still with us, and in some ways have become worse. Our social ethics appears piecemeal and ephemeral. At times the “mere impulse” seems nonexistent.

Can those who defend the CIA or the all-too-common official homicides imagine how they would feel if their own child, lover, or best friend were subjected to the same treatment? Could we instead see every person as a citizen who shares in a community of interests, regardless of race, religion, or official papers? What would it take to recognize the humanity in every one of us?

I’m reminded of the ending of “Salute to Life” by Pablo Casals:

Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are?

We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body–what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work–we all must work–to make this world worthy of its children.

Sharing science across generations

In my last post I talked about an intergenerational reading experience. The day after that occurred, I had an intergenerational science experience when I attended the 12th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference.

The Harbor conference is always interesting, moving smoothly between very local issues in Wellfleet Harbor to regional issues in Cape Cod and New England, and on to global issues, especially those related to human activity, such as global warming, sea level rise, pollution, and decreasing biodiversity.

The presentations and posters dealt with a wide variety of topics: river herring spawning migration, including transponder tracking, training robots to assess landscape change in the Herring River floodplain, shellfish for nitrogen mitigation, horseshoe crab conservation, modeling sea level rise and vegetation change, ocean sunfish strandings, eel monitoring, restoring the Mayo Creek salt marshes, diamondback terrapin nesting, among others.

Although the sessions were diverse, there was a common theme of restoration, going from “How can we assess the damage?” to “How bad will it get?” to “Is there anything that can be done?” It was depressing to see the many ways that we’ve destroyed a beautiful habitat, even one that is supposedly protected by the National Seashore. On the other hand the efforts at restoration are impressive and may at least provide information about what not to do in the future. There was discussion of plans to restore Herring River and Mayo Creek, salt marshes, and many individual species of sea life. If these restoration projects are to succeed they need to involve a large public of all ages, not just a few scientists.

The conference was a delight to attend, even more so since most of the topics related to areas easily accessible by walking or paddling from our home. For example, we’ve seen the amazing ocean sunfish stranded on Mayo Beach only ten walking minutes from home and friends have encountered live ones while kayaking just offshore.

Aside from presenting an opportunity to learn about many topics, the conference was another good example of an intergenerational experience. Presenters included college students and volunteers of all ages. The audience was diverse as well, with some who remember well times long before the National Seashore was created.

One of the presentations was by Nauset Regional High about their own research in collaboration with the Wellfleet and Truro fifth grades. It was the first time to have K-12 presenters at the conference. The students wanted to compare oyster growth and mortality in Herring River and Mayo Creek. An interesting question for their study is that the streams experience tidal variation and high salinity at their outlets, but vary to mostly fresh water higher up: Would oysters be able to survive and thrive away from the sea? Each group of students measured and marked a set of ten oysters. There were five bags for different locations on the Herring River and three for Mayo Creek. The young scientists left each bag with oysters for six weeks, then collected it and re-measured the oysters.

The students learned some of the challenges of field science. For example, one of the oyster bags was missing when they went back to collect it. Valerie Bell, the environmental science teacher at the high school, asked the audience almost as a joke, “if you come across a bag like this can you give us a call?” To my amazement, someone in the back called out that they had in fact found the bag. It must have broken from its mooring and floated with the tide to another location. It was a small thing, but a nice example of community science in action.

Sharing reading across generations

I recently had an enlightening day reading with middle schoolers. It was definitely more fun than when I had to be in middle school myself. I had volunteered for an intergenerational reading group, part of Project Read. This meant that adults in the area would read the same texts and do the same homework as the students. We would then meet with them in small groups during regular class hours to discuss the reading.

On this particular day, we had all read Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery. This classic of secondary school has long provided fodder for discussion, confusion, and in some cases distress. I know at least one person my age who says that she’s still disturbed by it. It’s interesting to read the reactions of readers as shown in their letters to the New Yorker, where it was first published in 1948.

There were four class periods with small reading groups, then whole-class discussion, so I was able to hear a variety of responses and share my own:
  • Many students were excited to discover the similarity of the story to that of The Hunger Games novel/film, and even more to learn that others had made the same discovery.
  • I was surprised to hear one boy say that the story must have been set very long ago, because “the heads of household were all men.” Another added that “the men did all the talking and mostly talked about the women, rather than letting them talk.” I don’t believe that middle school boys from my time would have said the same.
  • One student said that the stoning in the story was wrong “because there were only 300 people in the village.” (One death would make a big difference.) We then talked about whether stoning someone to death was ever justifiable.
  • A big question concerned why people in the story, especially Mr. Warner, didn’t want to change. Several students agreed that the people who resisted ending the practice of stoning were similar “to the people who resist allowing fast food restaurants into Brewster. People are afraid of new things.” I didn’t do a poll, but I imagine a sharp generation divide on the fast food issue, with the older ones opposed. The students were right: The older folks don’t want change. Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable equating stoning people to death with opposing fast food.
  • A volunteer adult added, “sometimes you’ve been doing something your whole life and it’s hard to admit that you were wrong.” I doubt that the 13 year-olds have that same feeling about doing something their whole life.
  • I was dismayed to hear two girls in separate groups describe incidents in which boys had thrown (multiple) stones at them.
  • Another student said that Tessie Hutchinson was stoned because she was engaging in protest. The usual reading is that her cry that the stoning was unfair was disingenuous since she never said anything until after she’d been selected. But in the context of Ferguson events I can now understand the interpretation the student made.
  • My best contribution was to bring up Martin Niemöller’s famous First they came… statement. This much-quoted passage reads all the more powerful for me knowing Niemöller’s own earlier national conservative views and anti-semitism. And it makes his analogy to Tessie Hutchinson more telling. The statement is quoted in a book that the students will be reading later in the year in their Holocaust unit.

Like any good learning experience, this one was shared broadly. The teachers, volunteers, and middle school students had to cross some boundaries, but all learned something about the story and about each other. A quote on the classroom wall seemed especially a propos for this intergenerational encounter:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” –Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Personal geography: Life and death

Russian oil tanker

Russian oil tanker

As I watch the Russian oil tankers going through the Dardanelles, I’m reminded that Turkey has little oil, but does have large coal reserves. Looking away from the straits, I see the hills towards Soma, just 100 miles away, where over 300 coal miners died in a disaster that should never have happened.

Miners at Soma coal mine

Miners at Soma coal mine

Despite the callous response from the mine owners and the government, most people I see want to say “Soma ,adencisi yalnız değil” (Soma miners are not alone). On campus, students sell pastries to raise funds for the victims’ families. In town, people march and spray graffiti to protest the government’s policies before, and the response afterwards. In the countryside, I see people whom I can imagine as not so different from the villagers whose family members worked in the mine.

Trying not to think about Soma, I walk to the Dardanos Tümülüsü (tumulus). This is a burial hill not far from our apartment, with artifacts dating from the second century BC, possibly earlier. The Çingene (also called Gypsy) people in Çanakkale say that they have been there for six centuries, possibly before the Ottoman rulers. But long before they arrived, who were the people who built the tumulus? I wonder about their walking on the same hills and coastlines, which they did when there was no choice to take the bus or car.

Dardanos Tümülüsü

Dardanos Tümülüsü

My wanderings lead to wonderings about how we as humans, or any life, will survive the growth-at-all-costs ethos, dominant around the world. Fifty years ago, in the month I graduated from high school, Lyndon Johnson asked:

whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth…expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature.

At least, here at Dardanos, there is some respite, if only within an hour’s walk. I see children in the large playground. There’s a vineyard. In the scrub forest there is a maquis ecology, with small pines, fir, cedar, holly, cyprus, and other evergreen trees, as well as some nut and fruit trees, such as valonia oaks, almond, fig, apple, and olive. The underbrush includes flowering broom, sage, oleander, and many interesting grasses. Most striking are the wildflowers–poppy, petunia, aster, and rose, plus many I can’t name. There are butterflies everywhere, birds, frogs, and lizards, all mocking the many wild cats. The ocean seems full of life, with octopus and squid, many kinds of fish and seaweeds, in spite of the heavy ship traffic.

Poppy field

Poppy field

Alongside the Dardanos, these life forms seem in tune with the beautiful setting and oblivious to the massive commerce steaming past and the construction boom on land. Let’s hope they can continue for a long time.

I’m afraid that my generation hasn’t done much to manifest Johnson’s call for “the wisdom to use…wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” We have more nuclear weapons, greater destruction of the environment, abuse of workers, and precious little understanding of neighbors at home or abroad. All too often, our “old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth.”

Petunias

Petunias

In that 1964 speech, Johnson said,

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

I can’t say that I’ve learned very much in the fifty years since Johnson’s speech, but one thing is that the leisure he spoke about is not lost time, but a central aspect of being. Walking becomes for me a way to ensure that it happens. Otherwise I too often feel compelled to check the computer, go to a meeting, or accomplish some task. Or, I seek escape as a spectator, rather than participant in life.

That leisure is a necessary means to build connections and become one with the plants and animals nearby, the people, the land and sea, and the history that ties them all together. It’s both an essential part of life and means to understanding it better.

The Icon Walk

Merchant's Arch, Temple Bar

Merchant’s Arch, Temple Bar

Temple Bar is an area with narrow, cobbled streets on the south bank of the Liffey in central Dublin. It’s famous the world over for its lively nightlife, but that’s not high on my list of reasons to visit it. There are better places in Dublin to experience Irish food and music, ones where you’re more likely to encounter people who actually live in Ireland. However, the area does offer much that’s special, such as the Irish Film Institute.

One that we just discovered is The Icon Walk, a project of The Icon Factory. It’s located just off Fleet Street, along Aston Place, Bedford Lane, and Price’s Lane. Local artists have transformed the lanes into an open air gallery of Irish culture. It’s recently been awarded approval as a UNESCO City of Literature site.

Someone described the Walk as a twenty minute activity, but it deserves more than that. There’s a great collection of photographs, drawings, paintings accompanying sayings of famous writers and artists, descriptions of moments in the history of sports, movies, fashion, and more.

Arriving at the Playwrights section, we read,

Around 1610, Shakespeare wrote the “The Tempest” and retired to Stratford on Avon where he died in 1613. Queen Elizabeth I having completed the conquest of Ireland was dead. The last of the great leaders, O’Neill and O’Donnell were gone to Spain and Ulster planted with Crown subjects.

Between 1613 and the War Of independence in 1922, which won back self rule for most of Ireland, no play of real merit was written in the English language by anyone other than by an Irish-born writer.

The selected icons–Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, and Oscar Wilde–won’t be enough to convince everyone of that claim, but their collective oeuvre is amazing.

Along the walk, you can see many great images produced by a wide variety of artists. A few of those are on the website, but the majority are visible only on the walk itself. They’re best seen that way, in any case, in the context of the other artworks and Temple Bar itself.

One of the best parts for me was the individual quotes, both from writer’s works and from their lives. For example, we read,

Beckett went on to live with an older woman who was not exactly a barrel of laughs. She took the phonecall that informed them of Samuel’s Nobel Prize. “This is a disaster, our lives are ruined” she responded.

In the eighties, Beckett was invited to Germany to direct “Waiting For Godot”. When presented with the script which he had not read in many years he exclaimed; “This thing needs a good edit”.

John Hume, third from left

John Hume, third from left

(Again, however, most of these texts exist only on the walls. I hope there will be an exhibition book at some point.)

One thing I learned was that in 2010 John Hume was chosen in an RTÉ survey as Ireland’s Greatest. He was also the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1998), the Gandhi Peace Prize, and the Martin Luther King award. He had modeled his own work for equality in citizenship on that of Gandhi and King. Unfortunately, his peaceful work was disrupted by violence and the “troubles” began. Hume became a leading figure in the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Through speeches, marches, hunger strikes, dialogues, and long-term negotiations, Hume was behind many of the developments and agreements toward peace in Ireland, and later for European unity.

You can get a sense of the walk from the video below (only part of which is in English):