Closing ceremonies

I was in Birtamod just after the Thanksgiving trip to Kolkata. I was having lunch with two guys from the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. They were security.

On guy told me that he had been doing, well, military intelligence in Somalia for a several years before retiring and coming to work for the Peace Corps. He told me that when Peace Corps has had to evacuate its volunteers from a country, it’s usually because of families calling the office. Or a senator.

The other guy had done similar work for the armed forces, but some time ago and in Vietnam. We asked him to talk more about what he did.

Counter intelligence, he said as if that was a complete explanation.

I wondered if he was joking, So you spent a lot of time behind a counter, eh?

No laugh.

It was convenient that they had come, because after their night in Birtamod, they were heading west and north to Dharan, where I was to give a teacher training to a government school faculty.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

Jen talks with Sunil, her counterpart at the Dharan nagar palika.

I was helping out another volunteer from my group, Jen, who was working in youth development but found time to teach English classes at this school and who wanted some help developing the skills of its teachers.

(The teachers in Birganj had clearly expressed their disinterest in what I had to offer, or at least doing those things, so I thought a change of venue might be good; though I was worried.)

I thought, If this training sucks and if the teachers fall asleep of if another student vomits while I’m teaching, then I have to start being critical—maybe it’s me.

I was going to use this training to evaluate myself for better or worse. It was the placebo.

When the Washington folks dropped me in Dharan, I quickly found out that the lovely ANNISU-R had called a bandha for three days—exactly when I had scheduled my training.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

A view from the north hills across Dharan.

When I met with Jen later that day, we immediately walked over to the school to see what we could do. The headsir told us that he was planning on asking students to come to class on Saturday so they could finish their exams, and meant there wouldn’t be time left for the training.

So we rescheduled. I left the day before the bandha and got to Birganj safely. I sat around my flat for those three days with not much to do, wondering exactly when I’d be working again.

Fast forward a month later. Our yearly All-Vol conference had just finished in the middle of January, and I’d been asked by my program officer to go up to the N/196 group PST to help facilitate sessions with the teacher trainers in Godavari, just outside of Kathmandu. I looked at a calendar and noticed something that didn’t make me happy

Date Agenda
Jan 22, 2004 Fly to Biratnagar; catch bus to Dharan
Jan 23, 2004 First day of training
Jan 28, 2004 Last day of training

This was troubling. I realized that the materials and the curriculum that I had prepared for the first and later rescheduled training were in Birganj. And I realized this on January 21, 2004.

I was up in Godavari and wouldn’t be getting back to Kathmandu until the night of January 22, 2004.

What in the hell was I thinking? I was going to have to conjure up a curriculum as well as the necessary materials in the few free hours I wasn’t traveling in the few days left before the training.

As soon as I got into Kathmandu, I went straight to the office, printed the curriculum I had written in Godavari and ran back to drop off my stuff.

I ate, packed my bags, and passed out. The next morning was January 22, 2004, and I had a early flight to the airport. When I finally opened the door, I was somewhat pleased that it was foggy.

If I’m late and it’s beyond my control, then I’m safe.

My flight left moments after reaching the airport.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Scott, your author, and Tony (left to right) giving instruction to the faculty.

Once we reached Dharan, I bought the supplies I’d need for the training and then tried to call Tony, who had been planning on helping me facilitate the training.

I got a hold of him and we made plans to meet the next day. The first two days were for all the school’s teachers and would have to be done in Nepali. The other days were for the English teachers in the area cluster.

I had to get in touch with the resource person. I had to find a pocket chart. I had to make flash cards. I had to revise the curriculum. I had to make a games/songs packet to distribute. I had to figure out how to speak Nepali. I had a few hours.

The next two days went well. I worked with the faculty to create rules and consequences to use school-wide as a method of classroom management and positive reinforcement, but it was tough.

I was trying to explain why each rule needs a logical consequence. I asked, What’s a logical consequence if a student is late?

Renu Miss, a bombastic Newari woman who had hugged me when I asked her in Newari, Bala du?, had answered the original question, Beat the student?

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

Students assemble at school on the day of Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

I tried to work through her answer, trying to illustrate through other examples of a rule with a logical consequence (several of the teachers were right on, coming up with some great stuff).

Then asked her if she thought a beating was a logical consequence or if it positively reinforced the rule

Well then, utpas, someone offered.

Utpas are up-and-down exercises that kids do while holding their ears.

So I didn’t quite reach everyone, but school and class rules were made and the faculty eagerly discussed making banners and posting signs in each classrooms.

One teacher, also a little hesitant in being so explicit with the students queried the other teachers, asked How about we give them the rules, but keep the consequences secret?

Once again, I realized hadn’t explained it as well as I should have. The language was an obstacle.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

A student gives another tikka during Saraswati Puja in Dharan.

In the end, the rules were made and the teachers as a whole were excited. After the final (second) day of the training, everyone was complementary on the evaluation.

I felt like I had done something good. That the students were suddenly going to understand exactly what teachers were expecting from them and vice versa. That made me feel good.

When the English training sessions started, I felt relived, since Tony knows English education backwards and forwards, and I would be able to relax for a while.

Tony really commanded the majority of the English training, and I just popped up between segments to provide an activity that the teachers could use in class. My favorite was something that Trey and Tony had developed called ‘paragraph sandwich.’

It was basically a formulaic approach of brainstorming vocabulary and then fitting it into a modeled descriptive paragraph.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

Jen was made an official assistant teacher to Tony and I during the training.

I thought the teachers could use it for their 4th and 5th grade classes, but after running through the demo and writing a paragraph as a group, most thought it would work well for higher secondary level.

They offered their concerns, which I thought I addressed well—but still, I couldn’t sure.

On the last day of the training, two teachers, Krishna and Hari Sir, approached me just before we started the last session. Krishna had actually been a student of Hari Sir’s years ago at that very school in Dharan.

They told me that they had tried the sandwich paragraph in a 9th grade class, and it had been a success.

The idea of collaborating, together, a teacher and his former student, trying an activity that I had modeled for them, just blew my mind. Usually the stigma between teacher and student is . . . well, prohibitive of such activities.

Imagining those two teaching a class together, trying new techniques and basically working to become better teachers—together—just overwhelmed me.

At the end of the training, when the teachers presented Tony and I with ties (quite nice, actually) as tokens of their appreciation, I felt like I had somehow found the right people, done the right things, and had actually made a difference.

And it was the first time in two years.