The book-tuk, libraries for all

Roaming Library, Kathmandu Post, Mar 17, 2017

Roaming Library, Kathmandu Post, Mar 17, 2017

I like to season my bad news with an occasional snippet of good news. One such is from an article in the Kathmandu Post, “The roaming library,” by Rhythm Sah, a grade 9 student in Biratnagar, Nepal. He attends high school about 250 miles east of the capital, Kathmandu.

Sah writes,

I had never thought that mobile libraries existed. That’s why when I saw the Book Bus in my school ground one early morning, I was amazed. The bus reached us after hundreds of kilometres of travel from the Capital. When the door on the side of bus opened, we saw well arranged rows of books inside…. The bus, also known as a roaming library, had wonderful books with poems, stories and novels. I looked at some beautiful novels and pretty picture books.

The Book Bus, one of two, was started with help from the American Embassy about three years ago. There’s also a book-tuk, with solar-powered wireless internet service. It was made by modifying a type of small, three-wheeled, electric van, called a Tempo, or more commonly, a tuktuk.

Sah continues,

The main aim of establishing such library is to build reading habit in the youth, to exchange culture and to improve English speaking and writing skills. The bus reaches different corners of the nation and teaches the students how to enjoy books. I was very happy when the bus came to the school and was saddened when it continued on with its journey. The bus has made my love for books even stronger and I cannot wait until it comes back!

Tempo electric van, Kathmandu

Safa Tempo electric van, Kathmandu

The provision of library services, including books, video, and internet can make a huge difference in a country like Nepal, where many people lack the most basic services. This is especially true in the countryside, but for many in the large cities as well. For an amount of money that doesn’t even register in the US budget, the US can provide Nepalis with tools they need for education, development, and peaceful progress. With relatively small expenditures of money and no endangerment of lives, we can do more to promote peace and stability in Nepal and elsewhere than we have with any of our recent, ill-conceived wars.

The cost of a single B-2 Spirit jet is ten times the sum of all US aid to Nepal, including for democracy and human rights, economic development, education, environment, health, peace and security, and humanitarian assistance (such as earthquake relief). That jet is just one small piece of a military budget larger than those of the next seven countries–China, UK, Russia, France, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Germany combined. And yet, with already the largest military budget in the world, the President has proposed a huge increase in US military spending. The increase alone is about the size of Russia’s entire defense budget.

The new budget includes draconian cuts for library and museum services in the US and for similar programs abroad. Even if the cuts were justified, the savings from those programs would go only a small way toward funding the military increase. Whether one is concerned about ensuring a peaceful world, about spending taxpayer money wisely, about economic growth, about reining in the National debt, about creating opportunities for young people, or helping those in dire need, this is the wrong path to take.

Cutting programs such as the mobile libraries in Nepal reduces cross-national understanding and promotes instability that costs far more in the long run.

I hope that Sah and his friends can take advantage of the book bus and the book-tuk as long as they last.

Mira Rai

Mira Rai (Wikipedia)

Mira Rai (Wikipedia)

A short while ago, while in Kathmandu, I had a beautiful walk in Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park. Later, I read that Nepali runner Mira Rai had been in the same spot two years ago. She was jogging on the hilly trails, then joined other runners, chatting and laughing. They invited her to enter her first race: the Kathmandu West Valley Rim 50K.

If you zoomed through this text so far without a jaw drop, you may need some additional background. The Park’s trails are well maintained, but few people jog there, much less while chatting and laughing. It’s more a place to walk or climb slowly, with frequent stops to catch breath. And if you do decide to run competitively, start with a 5K, not 50K (31 miles).

Rai had never competed in a trail race before. She didn’t have any food, water, or hi-tech athletic gear. But she entered this one. Despite hailstones and rain, Rai, the only female competitor, completed the race.


She had the one big advantage that most successful people have: She worked hard. Growing up in Bhojpur, a remote mountain village in eastern Nepal, she had chased goats, gathered firewood, and carried heavy sacks of rice and buckets of water up and down steep hills. Like many other Nepali girls, she dropped out of school (later than many, at age 12).

A BBC article quotes her:

“I would run to the market – three hours away – buy sacks of rice, then run back and sell them for profit,” she says, flashing that wry smile. She forgets to mention that the bags weighed 28kg (60lbs), and she was just 11 years old.

After that first race, Rai had a long string of running achievements, including the Mont-Blanc 80 km, where she set a record. She’s received well-deserved international acclaim for these many accomplishments.

When she was injured early this year, she began to train other village girls and now organizes running competitions in her village for young girls. She uses proceeds from Mira, the film about her life to provide equipment for them. That film was a finalist in the Banff Mountain Film Festival this year.

Rai herself is now a finalist for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. Although there are nine other excellent candidates, I had no hesitation in voting for her.

As my friend Chris pointed out, the world of running will be in for a big awakening if Nepalis start to take up competitive running.

First PENN conference, Kathmandu

15232068_1685659911459594_7389935162873165852_n
The First Annual Conference of
Progressive Educators Network of Nepal (PENN) held on Friday was a big success, thanks to collaborators from King’s College, Kathmandu Living Labs, Karkhana and Teach for Nepal. The theme for this year was “the community is the curriculum.”

15355647_1684340441591541_5119271557140173330_nThere were about twice as many people as we expected, but more importantly, many people directly contributed with activities or presentations, and everyone seemed to be engaged and committed to continuing the effort.

I was very fortunate to be a part of this. As the foreign visitor, I was officially the “lead facilitator,” but I felt that I was the one who was learning. I also shared quite sincerely that I can’t recall another such meeting with the same level of commitment or willingness to listen and learn from one another.

15267728_1684346728257579_116754909530787023_nWe talked about the issue of importing ideas from abroad. But there are impressive things underway here in schools, colleges, and informal learning that could be a model others around the world.

I’d like to add that when I heard the initial plans for my trip to Nepal, I couldn’t quite believe that it would all come together: workshops, community inquiry in a village, and a national conference.

15220016_1684347144924204_2798198498524614991_n But that all happened better than I expected. The reality went beyond the original plan and came to include multiple organizations, trips to excellent schools, and the creation of PENN.

I want to both thank and congratulate Umes Shrestha, Narottam Aryal, Nama Raj Budhathoki, Swastika Shrestha, Pavitra Gautam, Aakriti Thapa, Krishnakumar KC, Amrit Poudel, Shisir Khanal, Raj Poudel, and so many others.

(Now, I’m thinking of all those I just left off the list, some of whom made perhaps even more major contributions. Please accept my apology, but especially, my thanks to all.)

You can see more of the activities pictured in this facebook album.

Nisarga Batika School

Learning math through games

Learning math through games

On the US Thanksgiving Day, I was sorry to be away from family and friends, and looked in vain for a stuffed turkey. But i had something else to be thankful for.

I was hosted for the day at Nisarga Batika School. I was thankful for the warm visit and also that there are at least some schools like Nisarga Batika. At the same time it made me sad that not all students have such great opportunities.

Teachers at the school are eager to find ways to improve, but as of today, the school would be the envy of some of the best progressive schools in the US.

Backpacks of the little ones

Backpacks of the little ones

The school’s philosophy statement begins:

is a thriving community of learners who engage in education that is holistic, relevant and meaningful. As an experiential learning school, Nisarga Batika offers an environment where each individual looks upon the world as their classroom and values self-motivated learning as a way of life.

Discussion about paper money

Discussion about paper money

I visited every classroom and talked with children there and on the playground, where diverse activities were underway. Although that’s just a small sample, it made me feel that the school is doing as much as anyone can to realize the philosophy statement, including seeing teachers as facilitators towards goals of critical thinking, self discovery, and creativity.

If you click on the photo below, or here, you can see a series of additional photos that convey the flavor of the school, including field trips in natural settings and the vegetable market created by children for the plants they grow.

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.”

 

Not a lonely park

p1090537

NagiGumba

The map/brochure for Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park describes it as

a lonely park to represent mid-hill ecosystem of Nepal. It is famous for globally threatened wildlife, birds, and butterflies.

I suspect a misprint, and that the text should read “a lovely park…”, which it certainly is.

There may well be lonely parts, since the park covers 159 sq km (61 sq mi), and most visitors follow one of the popular routes as I did yesterday in the Nagarjun portion of the park. What i’d say instead is that it offers a perfect blend of solitude and connection with nature interspersed with chances to interact with nice people.

(I can’t say whether people who go on these mini-treks are nicer to begin with, or just become so when they’re away from the stresses of city life, but either way they’re fun to visit with.)

Arjun and Vibatshu

Arjun and Vibatshu

Although I did see several people, especially at NagiGumba (Buddhist monastery), I was disappointed not to see any leopards, bears, thars, boars, deer, or monkeys, which reside there. I did see many birds and butterflies, mushrooms, and all sorts of subtropical  plant life. I even saw the Asian bittersweet that is so well loved on Cape Cod.

The walk up to NagiGumba is done by people of all ages, school groups, couples, and pilgrims. It’s an easy to follow trail, with steps for all the steep portions. Nevertheless, by the end of the day my knees were rubbery, my shirt was soaking wet. and I had resolved to get myself in better shape.

It was some consolation that my fitness tracker registered well over 200 floors (~3000 steps). The steps were good ones, too, with treads and risers that matched my legs. I wonder how some of the smaller children could manage it.

p1090535Along the way, I met a man who had been a mountain guide. He was walking with his 15 yo son. He gave me some good tips for hill walking. I talked with the military guards (the park is adjacent to a military camp), a couple of groups of schoolchildren, some “+2” students, and people at NagiGumba hanging prayer flags.

When I arrived at the top, I learned that there was some kind of ceremony about snakes (which I also failed to see on the trail). A monk served me slices of apples, oranges, and some pear-like fruit, which were hugely welcome after the climb.

Shivapuri Park is new (2002) and the Nagarjun portion was added just in 2009. It makes me happy to know that Nepal is able to establish these parks making possible mini-trekking in the urban area and preserving biodiversity.

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Karkhana, a factory for learning

20161105_110713Karkhana, which means “factory” in Nepali, is a place where people make things and learn through doing.

The teachers are engineers, designers, artists, and scientists, but in contrast to some traditional models of learning, the environment is a teacher as well. The Karkhana site is filled with marvels: home-built antennas, a laser cutter, colorful child-designed posters, musical instruments, and more, which make the visitor ask questions and want to touch and make things.

So, it’s an education company and makerspace, one that turns the classroom into a lab for discovery. There’s an excellent slide show with many photos explaining their approach and an overview brochure describing the variety of classes they run.

20161109_164243Karkhana works directly with learners ages 8-14 through an after-school program. They also do teacher professional development. I’ve been fortunate to participate in both of these.

There were several good things I noticed beyond the general idea of learning through hands-on inquiry. One was an interesting mix of design though felt pen and whiteboard (or more precisely, whitetable), through physical construction, and with the aid of computers. The point was not to let the medium control the activity, but to let each medium offer affordances that could further the goal–planning a school fair, designing instruments for use on a space station, or building a musical instrument.

20161105_104138Another was the concern for making the Karkhana approach accessible to the ordinary school and ordinary teacher. In addition to workshops for teachers, Karkhana develops a special technology: ziplock bags filled with simple, low-cost materials that can be used in a low-tech, minimal skill situation.

Karkhana already makes new kind of learning available to many children and adults. But it also stands as an example of what could be done someday in Nepali schools, or for that matter, schools anywhere.