Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Funky Buddha Cafe

This post comes to you from “The Funky Buddha Café” in Kathmandu, Nepal. After a journey to hell and back (literal not metaphorical), I have my new India Visa! I’m now off to do a week of Himalaya trekking in the Annapurna Sanctuary before making the 3-day trip back to Jaipur via bus/train, which is sure to be another adventure.

So, I’ve now been in India over 4 months. 2.5 of those months have been spent in Jaipur; I’m a quarter of the way through my volunteer term at NMS. The past month has seen lots of festivity here in the Pink City—10 days of Navaratri/Durga Puja/Dusshera celebrating the victory of Good over Evil, and now 6 days of Diwali—“Festival of Lights”. Which also means lots of days off from teaching—hence my extended stay in Nepal.

Some updates:

~I’ve completed my unit with grades IV and VI. After many ups and downs, I feel that we ended on a good note. I now move on to grades V and VII. I will continue to work with the grade VI Cambridge Honor students, which I greatly enjoy.

~I’m currently in the process of developing a syllabus for a grade 11 Capstone English class with the working title of “On Living, Dying, and Loving.” Yes, a pretty all-encompassing theme! The proposal was inspired by a great class I took senior year of high school, which was simply titled “Lifestyles” and dealt with the same themes. The Principal of NMS is very supportive and has pretty much given me free range to do what I want, which makes me very happy (see Einstein excerpt #2 from the previous post). I’m hoping to use 3 books, each dealing with one of the themes. The class will be largely discussion based with several reflection papers. I’ve already received some good suggestions for books, but would appreciate more. A few suggestions I’m considering: Tuesdays with Morrie, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, In Solitary Witness, Death in the Family, History of Love, The Secret of Staying in Love, A Fine Balance, Ashram Vows. I also plan to supplement the books with various excerpts and poems. There’s a plethora of Indian Folk Tales to choose from and I will, of course, include a section on Rumi. Please leave any suggestions in the comments section!

~Ballroom/Latin dance classes are in full swing with the Hostel students. I’m hoping to pick a group of the 12 best dancers (6 boys, 6 girls) and choreograph a Rueda routine for the end of the year function in December. I would also like to choreograph a piece for the Nischay girls. We shall see…

~I completed the “Volunteer in India” webpage for the SJU Men’s Center! See link on side panel. Or click here.

Ok, that’s it for this update. I’m off to enjoy some live jazz music tonight for the opening of the 6th annual Jazzmandu Festival—“The biggest Jazz party in the Himalayas.”

I leave you with a quote from Horace Mann—19th Century American Education Reformist and Humanitarian (also the namesake of my Elementary School):

"A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron."

For a more in depth reflection by H.Mann, click here.

(Dancing with the NMS girls)

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Challenging Week

(Note: This entry was started last Sunday, Sept.21, and is now being finished today, Monday, Sept.29th).

It has been a very trying past week. My remarks from the first post now seem a little naïve and overly optimistic. Things are no longer going “remarkably well”, which is not to say I’m disliking the experience (I'm very much enjoying it!), but rather that the experience is proving to be more challenging than anticipated.

On Friday I brought 35 kids to the Principal’s office. This was the result of Animal House behavior during an examination in a section of grade 6: paper airplanes, splashing water, cheating, running in the room, constant chatter, complete disrespect. Granted, the perpetrators consisted of a group of about 5 boys (or “donkeys” as a colleague aptly put it). However, at least half the class consented to the mayhem. After several unsuccessful attempts to bring control to the situation, I finally lost my patience. With 10 minutes remaining in the period I promptly collected the exams and coldly stated that the class had lost their privilege of having me as a teacher. Goodbye section 6F, my time will be better spent with students that value learning. I walked out angry and disillusioned. A fellow grade 6 teacher was sitting in the lounge correcting papers and called me in as I passed by—she must have sensed the negative energy radiating from my body. We sat down together at a table and talked, or rather she listened as I unleashed a flood of frustration that had been accumulating throughout the past week. She agreed that the behavior was completely unacceptable and advised me to return to the class and bring the students to see the Principal. As I marched the students down the 3 flights of stairs to the principal’s office, I began questioning the decision: What good would this really do? Would they simply be yelled at? Asked to apologize? Receive physical punishment (which is permissible in India)? Well, I ended up not being able to observe most of what took place, but I did notice several of the boys walk away in tears. 20 minutes later I was called in to meet with the Principal individually. This was my first time meeting her. I shared my feelings honestly and candidly and then she gave me her analysis. She advised that I not let these 5 particular boys ruin the opportunity for the rest of the class. If they misbehaved in the future, we agreed that I would send them down to her office immediately. If the behavior continued and they proved incapable of respecting their classmates or me, they would be thrown out of the school. Fair enough. She concluded our meeting by handing me a copy of an address given by Albert Einstein in Albany, New York on Oct. 15, 1936 marking the 300th anniversary of higher education in America. “Read this, I think you’ll appreciate it.”

So I read it, and indeed I was quite impressed. Here are a few excerpts (with my commentary) that I found notable:
The most important motive for work in the school and in life is the pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community. In the awakening and strengthening of these psychological forces in the young man, I see the most important task given by the school.
Well said, Mr. Einstein. In my experience, education, or teaching for that matter, does not work if students don’t want to learn (unless coercive measures are employed). Students don’t want to learn if they don’t find value or enjoyment in what they are studying. So, how does a teacher “awaken and strengthen these psychological forces”? Let’s look at excerpt number 2…
The teacher should be given extensive liberty in the selection of the material to be taught and the methods of teaching employed by him. For it is true also of him that pleasure in the shaping of his work is killed by force and exterior pressure.
Aha! The teacher must also enjoy what he/she is teaching. There has to be freedom and there has to be passion. And the final nugget of wisdom…
Give into the power of the teacher the fewest possible coercive measures, so that the only source of the pupil’s respect for the teacher is the human and intellectual qualities of the latter.
The students must genuinely respect the teacher. Not out of fear or need of praise, but for being a source of knowledge/experience. And ultimately, for their common humanity.

So, in addition to being one of the most brilliant scientists, Einstein was also a pretty impressive philosopher of education. Now, let’s get back to those 35 kids from 6F. The following week I returned to the class and discovered a complete change in behavior—they were respectful and attentive. I expected this to only last for one day, but they proved me wrong with equally good behavior the following class. We’ll see if it continues… and whether their change in behavior is a result of fear or respect (most likely it is influenced more by the former). If it is motivated primarily by fear, then I see one of my challenges being to help these students learn to value their education, to see it as a privilege and a responsibility. If they can do that then they will hopefully learn to respect me not out of fear of punishment, but rather, in the words of Einstein, for "my human and intellectual qualities."

To conclude this post, there are a few positive happenings that I would just like to mention (future entries will go into more detail):

~I’ve begun teaching grade IX girls at Nischay and I love it! I will also start teaching them Latin dance in the weeks ahead.

~I’ve begun teaching Salsa/Merengue dance to the Hostel students. Girls on Tuesday, Boys on Thursday (unfortunately, they’re not allowed to dance together, but that may change…).

~I’m thoroughly enjoying the grade VI Cambridge honor students (8 very intelligent, but very rambunctious boys). Right now we’re doing a unit on Storytelling. They’re writing ghost stories, doing Mad Libs, and reading/listening to Shel Silverstein. Lots of fun!

~I’ve completed correcting all of the papers from my first assessment (test) for grades IV and VI on Verbs/Tenses (356 papers, 2 minutes/paper = 712 minutes ≈ 12hrs of correcting!). I celebrated with a Masala Dosa and a banana smoothie.

(The corrected exams)

Monday, September 8, 2008


Today marks the beginning of my 3rd week teaching at the Neerja Modi School (NMS) in Jaipur. So far, things are going remarkably well. The students seem excited to have a foreign teacher (although they have a difficult time understanding my American accent) and they are motivated to learn—which hasn’t always been my experience teaching in the U.S.

This being my first Blog entry, some introductory remarks are in order. So, hello lovely readers and greetings from Jaipur--The Pink City. My name is John Van Rooy and I hail from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I am a recent graduate of St. John’s University in Minnesota where I studied Spanish and Peace/Conflict Studies. I have had 3 teaching experiences prior to arriving in Jaipur: 1st/2nd grade in Valdivia, Chile; ages 10-25 in Chocó, Colombia; and 2nd grade in Green Bay, Wisconsin. At NMS I am teaching English to grades 4 and 6. I also work with a special group of honor students in grade 6 who are following a Cambridge English program. This week I will begin teaching 3x a week at Nischay—a school for girls below the poverty line that is funded by NMS. Additionally, I have been asked to teach Ballroom/Latin dance to the boarding students, which will begin next week.

Neerja Modi School was started in 2001 and after only 7 years has risen in academic excellence to become one of the highest performing schools in Rajasthan. It is also ranked among the top 5% of schools in India. NMS serves grades K-12 and has a student body of 2700. There are currently about 80 boarding students who live in “The Hostel”, which is still being constructed and when finished will house between 300-400 students--this is where I also stay. The day is divided into 8 periods and on an average day I am responsible for 4 class periods (some days I have 3 and some days 6). Classes begin at 8:15am and end at 2:00pm (sometimes there is a morning assembly or what they call “zero period”). The school week runs Monday—Saturday (yes, kids in India have classes on Saturday!).

I hope to update this Blog frequently with pictures, stories, and reflections from my “experiments with education” (to borrow a line from Gandhi).

In honor of this Great Soul, I will close my first entry with some of his words on Education:

“As I came into closer contact with them [the students] I saw that it was not through books that one could impart training of the spirit. Just as physical training was to be imparted through physical exercise, and intellectual through intellectual exercise, even so the training for the spirit was possible only through the exercise of the spirit. And the exercise of the spirit entirely depended on the life and character of the teacher. I saw, therefore, that I must be an eternal object-lesson to the boys and girls living with me.” ~from Gandhi’s Autobiography “My Experiments with Truth”