I realize that blogging isn’t my greatest skill. Every so often I will think about writing something, but then I just can’t decide what to write about. So much has been happening… I’ll take Dad’s advice and just start with my day to day life.
I usually wake up briefly between 6 and 8 to my roommate Karma rising, praying and working on his school work. I fade in and out of sleep, listening to the Bhutanese preparing for class. Unlike in our college, the students here take 5 classes a day, typically beginning around 9 and ending at 4 or 5. As a Wheaton student here, I only take one RTC course—Buddhist Social Theory. I have three other classes that are facilitated by our Wheaton Professor, Hyun Kim.
One is Dzongkha, the national Bhutanese language. One class we spend learning phrases and grammar, while the other involves going out to town and learning about Bhutanese culture. We’ve visited the official offices for Music and Culture, Language, as well as had scholars come and speak to us. Our second class is Contemporary Buddhist Society, in which we study Bhutan in social, historical and political context. We focus on questions of democracy and monarchy, education, Gross National Happiness and so forth. Interestingly enough, it seems there is a lack of scholarship on Bhutan’s past mostly due to its geographic isolation and lack of education outside the monasteries. No doubt the information we receive is the dominant narrative. As social scientists here, we are faced with the challenge of critically analyzing this narrative and its correspondence to our observations.
The third class is our practicum which certainly warrants its own paragraph. My practicum site is Jigme Losel Primary School. What drew me to this school was its approach to values-education, or its goal to instill humanist values in its children through education. This is an entirely new initiative that has evolved from Bhutan’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Everyone has already heard of this concept, but what does it mean in reality? It’s quite fascinating to debate the implications of developing to maximize the happiness of a people, but ultimately such a philosophy must concern itself with changing the way we think about ourselves. How do we change the way we think? And as a nation?
Somewhere in our drive to be competitive, advanced and productive we have lost the ability to cultivate basic human values. Empathy. Love. Compassion. In many schools in the West, education has become an apparatus to teach us to calculate, obey authority and produce results. But what of those qualities that make us human? Enough, I agree, of this critical philosophy… Back to Jigme Losel.
I spend about 4 hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Jigme Losel. Class ends at 12:00, at which point I rush to eat, secure my Gho and run to the city bus. And about five minutes from the city bus station is Jigme Losel. It’s a very large school for Bhutan, about 800 students, with ages ranging from 6 to 13. I walk into the courtyard of Jigme alongside Ludi, another Wheaton student. Usually we enter during the end of lunch break. Everywhere we look are students running around in their blue Ghos and Kiras. As we walk to the main building of the school, nearby students stand firm, bowing their head, saying “good afternoon, sir, good afternoon, ma’am.” My heart simply melts when the youngest students stand before us and say those words, half hesitantly but wishing to fulfill their expectations.
Initially, Ludi and I were to spend one day at Jigme Losel. One hour was for observing a class and two hours to teach class. But soon enough we became the mentors for a student initiated project. One of the sixth grade section wanted to learn about global warming and present to their friend. We are working with this class to help them create a powerpoint and present to their peers. Little do they know, but we are trying to get them approved to present their information in a conference on climate change that will occur in November. Working with these kids has been incredibly enjoyable: I felt such deep pride when one of my students was explaining to her peers that they were the future of their nation, and the importance of leading by example—picking up litter instead of just speaking of it. The idea that I am partaking in Bhutan’s endeavor to instill values in their children leaves me feeling amazing!
Ludi, Aaron (who just joined the Jigme teaching crew) and I now also facilitate a debate club after school. Our goal is to teach Bhutanese how to think critically, speak publicly, and gain confidence in themselves. From my experiences at RTC and Jigme, students in Bhutan have just not been taught these skills.
I now spend two days at Jigme a week. Both days I teach about 46 5th grade students and 42 6th grade students. The first class is incredibly challenging sometimes. The classroom is small and there are just so many of them! Sometimes it feels I am trying to conduct an orchestra that cannot recognize their instrument… As I speak to a student about not hitting his friend, three other students are hitting their friends. As I request a student to stop talking, others begin talking almost immediately. Some days I leave Jigme feeling like I was hit by a train. But then, every so often, I feel I have taught my students something. And suddenly all my work is worth it. Best of all, I think I’m learning how to become a better teacher.
A last anecdote for this post. This last week I tried to approach the problem of peer-hitting in a new way. I brought two students to the front of the class, asking one to demonstrate hitting his friend. A little uncertain, he complied. “Class, Ngawang has been hit! What does he do now?” I asked and they all look frazzled, before shouting “nothing, nothing,” or “tell on him, sir.” Good answers, of course, but far from reality. I prompted Ngawang to demonstrate striking back in retaliation. “Was that okay?” everyone was laughing, some yelling “yes!” and some “no!” I tried to make my point, “if Kinley strikes Ngawang, Ngawang will hit back, no?” the students were peering at me questionably, “so why doesn’t Kinley hit himself and save some effort?” Kinley, being the good sport he is, started hitting himself as students were rolling in laughter. I kept referring to this concept throughout class, as students hit their friends. I do believe they enjoyed my dramatization of it.