Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Smog, whispers and mystics

I started this post a week or two ago. There were just so many thoughts flying around my head that it took some time before they all made sense enough to share...

Today was one of those once in a lifetime, take your breath away kind of days. It was full of elation, endorphins and adrenaline. We started the day at 4:30am where we saw a sunrise over Annapurna in the Himalayas (if you're not familiar, this includes the tenth highest peak in the world). At first, only the very tips of the peaks began to glow. As the sun rose, the whole valley lit up. I have only experienced one other moment like this, an experience that words don't begin to describe, cameras can't capture and even your emotions don't feel sufficient. This was that kind of sun rise.  
Sunrise view of Anapurna

Following on from this stunning sunrise, I went paragliding for the first time. Today I literally soared with the birds over the Himalayas. 

Paragliding over the Himalayas 

In the afternoon we were rowed across the lake in Pokhara. From here we climbed many steps to a Buddhist peace pagoda where we saw the sunset over the Himalayas. The peaks of Annapurna were again highlighted in beautiful shades of pink. 

View of the lake in Pokhara

View from the peace pagoda in Pokhara

I also spent 90% of this incredible day in silence. On the first day of this fellowship we each had the opportunity to write down a pledge. My pledge was that I wanted to listen more and talk less. In a place filled with so much spirituality, watching the sun set while standing at the peace pagoda, overlooking the glowing Himalayas, it would have been easy to interpret losing my voice as something mystical. The explanation is actually far more sinister...

For two whole days I completely lost my voice due to a bad chest infection I picked up in Kathmandu. Chest infections are very common in Kathmandu because of the extreme levels of pollution. Many of the teachers we worked with were surprised that some of our fellows were over sixty. They explained that the extremely high levels of pollution here means that not many people live past sixty. While we were in Kathmandu, almost every day the smog levels were classified as dangerously high. A number of factors contribute to these incredibly high pollution levels. For example, Kathmandu is located between the mountains. On winter mornings, a thick layer of morning fog traps the smog inside the city. This is aggravated by the many brick factories that surround Kathmandu, and the incredibly high levels of fossil fuels that are burnt here on a daily basis. Public transport is extremely limited, many people use fossil fuels for cooking, and cars are badly maintained. 
The smog over Kathmandu
Rice paddy in Pokhara

The view over Annapurna was breathtaking, figuratively and literally. Climbing to the peace pagoda whilst still having a chest infection was quite the challenge. I literally had to rest every ten steps, my chest ached, my throat hurt, there may have been the occasional dizzy spell and some nausea. I got to the top though, and the view was 100% worth it. While these sights were breathtaking and awe inspiring, this was mirrored by an intense sadness. While most likely these were once in a lifetime experiences for me, I was reminded of just how accurate this statement is. Our guide explained that in the twenty years that he has been working as a guide and sherpa, the glaciers have been reduced to half their original size. While I may come back to Nepal some time in the distant future, chances are that the glaciers will have shrunk even more as we continue to burn fossil fuels and an alarming pace. Sooner than we care to admit, there may be no more snow capped peaks in the Himalayas. 

In New Zealand classrooms, we learn about pollution and climate change. In Nepal, this is already their lived reality. While we argue about whether petrol should include additional taxes to pay for public transport, fossil fuels are literally reducing the lifespan of the people in Nepal. While we enjoy our steaks and lamb roasts (and probably complain about the price), the people in Nepal are already suffering because changing climate has already impacted the production of their food crops - frequently their only supply of food and income. While we are arguing about what 'cleaning up our rivers' actually means in New Zealand, the streets in Nepal are filled with water trucks that use fossil fuels to carry drinking water to the people. A great many number of people still have no running water. And of course, tap water is certainly not drinkable.
There is no shortage of ways that our quality of life in New Zealand (and many other Western countries) leaves Kathmandu in the dust (pun unintended). We have everything from high levels of female literacy, a stable democracy, power, water, food, social benefits, good medical care and toilets. What is alarming however is that much of what we take for granted in New Zealand, actually contributes to the reduced quality of life for those people in countries like Nepal. We drive our excessively big cars to the supermarket to buy food that wasn't produced in New Zealand. We keep on eating meat, we keep on buying things we don't need. We keep burning fossil fuels because it is convenient, while more and more people around the world will suffer and struggle as climate change affects their critical food production. A critical lesson about climate change that we often forget is that it is not the most affluent of us that will be most affected. It is those communities already struggling for survival. 

As my fellowship here in Nepal draws to a close, I hope that I carry the extreme contrast of Kathmandu with me forever. While New Zealand students are learning about dystopian futures, in many places around the world this is their every day lived reality. I hope that at every moment I remember the enormous privileges and opportunities we are afforded in New Zealand, particularly in our schools. I hope that in 2018 and beyond, I not only appreciate these privileges and opportunities, but that I seize these to make a difference where I can. 

*All photos my yours truly (and the paraglider instructor). Please do not reproduce without attribution.  

Friday, January 12, 2018

New friends and lifelong memories.

We have now completed our first teacher conference here in Kathmandu. The four days working with one group of Nepali teachers was pretty spectacular. We started on day one with a quiet group who did not know each other. However, over the four days of the conference, together we discussed openly and honestly the challenges that we all face as teachers. As a result, we all learnt so much from each other. While the entire conference was great, there were definitely a few highlights for me.

We had a great afternoon going over 'relaxed vigilance' strategies for behaviour management. We really got into it with some role play where the teachers pretended to be naughty students for each other so that they could practice these new strategies. Our group was so keen to learn more, that they decided not to have afternoon tea but to keep learning about restorative justice instead.

Another huge highlight was seeing one of our teachers who was super quiet on the first day, really participate, discuss, laugh and ask lots of questions by the last day. I felt humbled and honoured by the honest sharing and the risk taking from this teacher. I am sure that they will be in my memories for a long long time. I was also honoured by the kind words from one of our students who was asked to make a speech to the whole conference.

We finished the first conference with a very long closing ceremony that involved many long winded speeches (at least, this was the 'translation' from one of the Nepali teachers). However, following this our group of eight teachers borrowed some official banners (without permission), and pulled us back into our classroom to have our very own ceremony for handing over their certificates. We laughed and clapped an took many photos. After this, our students sat us down and handed us each a wrapped package. They had  printed a photo of our group and framed it in a traditional Nepali window frame. Anna, Steph and I were truly touched by their thoughtful gift. Even more exciting, this amazing group of teachers have decided that they will continue to meet after the conference to support each other in implementing the new strategies they had learnt. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best possible outcome from this conference; building a sustainable professional support network for the passionate teachers of Nepal.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Some things are universal

Today we had the third day (out of four) working with a group of Nepali teachers here in Kathmandu as part of an LRTT Fellowship. The past few days have been incredible, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. 

I am currently reading The Culture Map. The book details some of the more subtle cultural differences that can get in the way of working successfully across cultures. This has been a great read whilst being fully immersed in a culture so different from my own. While in my culture shaking your head from side to side means no, here in Nepal it means yes. If I had not known this prior to working with our Nepali teachers, I may have misinterpreted much of our communication. While I feel that we have worked really hard to communicate across cultural boundaries, I can't help but wonder how a more in depth understanding of cultural differences may have helped us be more successful. One of the activities we did today, was to ask the group to arrange themselves in order of birthdays. Everyone had to be completely silent and had to do this through gestures, facial expressions, mime, etc. This was a great reminder that while some gestures are universal, others are definitely not. Gestures that might seem obvious to one cultural group, might mean nothing to another.

Working across a language barrier can also add in additional challenges. This week has made me painfully aware just how tuned we become to certain sounds. I have been trying very hard to pronounce the names of each of the Nepali teachers, however, I just can't seem to make the right sounds! In our tiny classroom, there have been at least three different English accents in the room. Sometimes we talk too fast, sometimes we use too big words. We have skipped and sometimes stumbled our way over educational jargon.

Yet, despite these differences, we have somehow managed to come together as a group. We have laughed together and learnt together. Because luckily, some things are universal...
Yesterday, Anna, my LRTT co-teacher/fellow did a model music lesson. It was a gold standard lesson. It was carefully scaffolded, fun, and she did great progress checks along the way to establish learning. By the end of the lesson, even I could vaguely keep a rhythm and clap the different beats. Anna also taught us an Israeli wedding song and dance. That means two Australians, a New Zealander, and eight Nepali dancing an Israeli wedding dance together in Kathmandu. We laughed, and danced, and clapped. It was wonderful. It was also a critical reminder that regardless of how different our backgrounds and context, some things are universal. Music is one such thing. It can transcend time and place to bring us together. 

Music of course is not the only universal way to bring people together. I had great fun learning a game from our Nepali teachers and students today called coco (not sure about spelling). Just like music, games also have a way of transcending cultural and social boundaries. While I was reminded of this at the NZCER Games for Learning conference earlier this year, this week has really made this sink in. Games have the potential to bring people together. It helps us find a common ground, build relationships and share our cultures. The explicitness of rules help us to navigate and explore new and different social boundaries.

With the last day of our conference tomorrow, I will certainly make sure there is time for at least one more game and one more song.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

First day reflections - A global community!

On Sunday we had our first day working with Nepali teachers. Limited Resource Teacher Training (LRTT) and their local partner organisation VIN (Volunteer Initiatives Nepal) have organised a 4 day conference for approximately 100 Kathmandu teachers. These teachers are then split into groups of about 10. Two or three of the LRTT fellows then work with one group of ten teachers for the four days of the conference. I am really enjoying this format as it gives the opportunity to design the conference around the teacher's needs. It also provides the time to really get to know each other and have some genuinely robust conversations.

We started the first day of this conference with an opening ceremony. Various Nepal leaders spoke about the importance of this opportunity. Rachel, one of the team leaders from LRTT gave a fabulous speech too. After this the whole group of LRTT fellows, made up of mostly Australians, a handful of kiwis, and a few people from the United Kingdom got up and sang a waiata we had taught everyone the night before. Sarah, one of the kiwi fellows then explained the meaning of the waiata. It was beautiful. One of the Australians remarked later in the day that they felt proud to be a little bit kiwi today.

I am really lucky to be working with two fabulous teachers here, Stephanie and Anna. They both bring the most incredible sets of experience and expertise. Anna is an encyclopaedia of folk songs. Stephanie also dabbles in politics where she is an elected councillor. Both are deeply passionate about education.

Using the Question Race game to generate questions.

The sessions we ran with our Nepali teachers on day one was largely focussed on getting to know them personally and professionally. As a result, we had SO many great discussions! I found a kindred spirit in one gentleman who wanted to revolutionise education, and another in an enthusiastic woman who was interested in global citizenship and creativity.

We used the Question Race game to help identify the areas that the teachers in our group wanted to focus on over the course of their training.

Our group of teachers identified student motivation, behaviour management and parent engagement as issues that they would like to learn about throughout the conference. These are the same things many of the teachers in New Zealand, Australia and everywhere else struggle with. Perhaps one of my key learnings from the first day working with the awesome Nepali teachers, Australian teachers, New Zealand teachers and those form the United Kingdom, is that we really are a global community. We are never alone in our journey to do the best for our students, and if we reach out to learn from and support each other, there is so much more that we can accomplish.  

Friday, January 5, 2018

Tea with a monk and sunset with a monkey

Today was the third day of my LRTT fellowship in Nepal. We started the day by getting stuck in Kathmandu's crazy traffic. The roads are full of pot holes, wild driving and so much dust!

Our first stop was a Buddhist monastery school. We were served delicious sweet tea and biscuits, while learning about the school from the monk who has worked as the principal for the past few years. The school moved to Kathmandu from another site after the disastrous earthquake here in 2015. As a result, many of the students are orphans. The school provides everything for students, books, pencils, food, accommodation, etc.

We also had a chance to observe a maths lesson. Students sat in rows and watched their warm and friendly teacher explain percentages. Interestingly, all the textbooks that we saw today were in English. Yet, when speaking to students and teachers, their English was fairly limited. While observing the maths class, I also managed to disrupt the lesson accidentally... I asked a student about their Frozen pencil case. Before I knew it, half the class were asking me to sing. Oops!

Next we had a brief visit to the school where we will be hosting a four day conference for about 100 local teachers. We had a quick look around the classrooms and a brief chat to the incredibly friendly students.

Finally, we ended the day with sunset at Swayambhunath Temple, also known as the monkey temple. There are hundreds of monkeys that are hanging out at the temple. We arrived here just in time for sunset over Kathmandu. It was a stunning sight!

It was a busy day and left me with lots and lots of questions. Two of the key ones for today:

  • Digital technology is completely absent from the school we visited. From what I can tell, it seems to be absent in most schools. With digital technology playing such a huge role in our global economy, will this absence of this affect Nepal's chances of building a stronger economy in the future?
  • Through much of its history (and even today), Nepal is very isolated from the rest of the world. I'm reading a great book at the moment called Culture Map by Erin Meyer. The book suggests that often in cultures that have been very isolated, there are lots of reading between the lines communication. For example, the same word could have lots of different meanings depending on the context it is being used. Additionally, much of the communication is non verbal. This has me wondering, in the west where our communication is much more explicit, how much do we miss when working in a multicultural context? 


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Introducing Kathmandu

Gems with dirty feet
Hidden in the dirt and dust
Kathmandu's contrasts.

Some of you may be aware that I am spending January in Nepal where I am doing some volunteer work with Limited Resource Teacher Training (see my Give a Little page for more information). More about that in the days to follow! For now, a few snapshots of the city. I arrived a day early to squeeze in some extra exploring. 

Kathmandu seems to be a city of contrast. Hidden between dilapidated buildings and dust are beautiful coloured buildings with pretty balconies and accented windows. As you walk, you pass the odd chicken, stray dogs, and curious little hole in the wall shops. The many cars and scooters are constantly honking.  We are staying at the Volunteers Initiative Nepal. From here it is a 20 minute walk to Thamel, a tourist market. Thamel, is a nirvana for the handicraft enthusiast. This market is made up of small busy streets covered by coloured prayer flags. Walking back from Thamel to our accommodation at night, you pass fires that made in the street. Locals sit around them to keep warm. The roads are dusty and filled with litter. 

After breakfast today, we will have our induction. We will find out more about the work we will be doing here, our schedule, teams, etc. Excited, curious and nervous for now. And full of questions...
  • How will our group of 30 people from across New Zealand, Australia and the UK work together with the local teachers from Nepal? What will be the biggest challenge?
  • What cultural differences are there in regards to leadership and communication, between the contexts that I am used to, and those of Nepal (and my fellow LRTT fellows)?
  • What is the Nepal curriculum like? Do they have one? And if they do, what are the ideas that informed it?