3 Weeks in Santi Niketan

     There seems to be a phenomenon when you are in a new place that the first third of the trip just creeps along but, once you’re comfortable and adjusted, the rest of the time accelerates and passes with the blink of an eye. My three weeks in Rayale were no different,  though while the time there was fleeting, the memories I made will be engrained forever. My experience working with the children and teachers of Shree Santi Niketan School will shape the decisions I make in one of the most important years of my life and beyond.

     I arrived in the village of Manudhovan, with the four other GROW team members (Emily, Linda, Morgan and Nick) with zero expectations and a rough plan to help implement child clubs in the two schools in the district, Balchandra and Shree Santi Niketan. The trip from Kathmandu took about 4 hours– consisting of a 3 hour bus ride and a one hour hike. We were received at Shree Shantiniketan during their morning assembly, in which they do a series of odd calisthenics and sing the national anthem, with great enthusiasm from the principle, teachers and students. They introduced all five of us and presented us with traditional Nepali scarves then we spoke briefly about what our goals were for our time their and we were on our way to the second school, Balchandra. Emily, Linda and I would be working in Santi Niketan, which was about an hour walk from our lodge and was less funded than Balchandra. We worked our way up to the second school (where Nick and Morgan would be working), introduced ourselves and had the rest of the day off to walk around the village. Because all five of us were staying in the same village it was impossible to accommodate home stays for everyone so we were placed in a “lodge,” which a family ran as a secondary source of income. The family consisted of five direct relatives (grandfather, father, mother and two daughters) and what seemed like 30 extended family members who also lived in the village and were always around. They were so accommodating and helpful, cooking all our meals and teaching us Nepali every chance they got, it was hard to say goodbye when we finally had to leave.

     Getting back to the the real theme of this post, our first day of school was the Monday after we arrived. The Nepali work week is Sunday-Friday, Saturday is their only Holiday, which holds true for the schools as well. The one redeeming factor about a six day school week is that school didn’t start until 10:05 every morning, which gave us plenty of time to walk the two mile path to school everyday. Our first day we went early to meet with the teachers and discuss how we would implement the child clubs and what other resources we could bring to facilitate better learning. Our main goal for child clubs was to teach health education and child rights as an extra class but after meeting with the teachers and the PHASE staff who accompanied us, these goals widened greatly. SSN School is a relatively new project site for PHASE in all programs (healthcare, education and livelihood) so the teaching techniques PHASE is trying to apply were not fully realized in these schools and they wanted our help in this facet. PHASE and the school’s three English teachers wanted us to help facilitate English language conversation and writing for the older grades as well as teach health education and child rights in the child clubs.

     The first day got a little awkward when instead of observing like I thought we had discussed, the higher level english teach expected me to teach a full lesson for her tenth grade class. I stood in front of the room introducing myself for about 2 minutes before asking her what her plan was for the day, to which she replied, “you will not conduct the lesson today?” I told her I didn’t know this was the plan and maybe it was best I observe a day before teaching anything, as I didn’t know the level or content of the classes English. Things could only get better from here.

      At first I was surprised they were so eager to have us in the classrooms working to improve the English of their students. Coupled with this emotion was nervousness that our methods would not be up to snuff and we would be taking away from valuable English class time these students desperately needed. The first week I struggled with this dilemma but soon after I realized even having native english speakers around the school encouraged the students to speak english and within the classroom we could help correct english usage and facilitate participation from more students, an aspect which seemed to be lacking in the English classes especially.

     Working closely with the English teachers we designed games and activities that encouraged active learning. With the older classes especially, writing paragraphs and speaking publicly in english was of utmost concern. We would provide prompts to these students and encourage them to work with us to effectively convey their thoughts in English. After the prompts we had students share in front of the class– at first this was like pulling teeth because the students were so shy. With the younger classes simple sentence construction and vocabulary were emphasized. We played word lottery and matching games where students had to choose words out of a had a and construct a sentence using them as well as interactive vocabulary activities sometimes having them draw and label to encourage everyone to think creatively.Of course at times, especially in the beginning, the language barrier was hard to overcome and we felt like we were struggling to convey the concepts we hoped to teach but we found the more comfortable the students became with us the more they would participate and benefit from the exercise. Once we were able to break through the reticence of the students, the activities started to work very well and teaching them became very enjoyable. I was excited to go to school everyday and help teach. I wanted to help these students improve and after every lesson I felt like we had contributed to their learning. On the walk to and from school I was constantly thinking of new activities we could help introduce and fun games that encourage full class participation- though this was hard and I gained a lot of respect for teachers through this process. One of the main problems we noticed when observing classes was that the same talented students would be continuously chosen for contribution, which would increase the separation between them and their classmates. We spoke with the teachers about including everyone and encouraging involvement even if the answer wasn’t exactly correct. Even in our short three weeks in SSN I saw more and more different hands be raised in class and heard new voices previously unheard. hands on hands

     This experience made me realize how important sound teaching techniques (like the ones PHASE is implementing) are and how simple shifts in thinking can result in considerable success in the classroom. Additionally, this revealed in me a newfound love of teaching. I had always known I liked working with children, running summer camps and coaching, but never thought I would enjoy teaching like I did in the school. I realized I was able to engage the students (most of the time) even in a foreign language and now am seriously inclined to pursue some form of teaching. Before my time in Santi Niketan I took many teachers for granted and never appreciated the hard work that goes into engaging a classroom with many different ability levels and varying desires to learn. It was hard work but extremely rewarding and I feel that this experience will significantly alter my upcoming career choices as I reflect on my time there and the importance of motivated educators like many of the teachers of Shree Santi Niketan.

reilly2

Reilly Walker is a senior majoring in Biology.  He is a member of the campaigns team.

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