Print Edition - 2014-09-06  |  On Saturday

The Pithauli project

  • My plan was simple. I wanted to focus on literacy. I was going to talk to the teachers about a few key ideas I had learned and practiced in New York schools
- NIRANJAN KUNWAR
The Pithauli project

Sep 5, 2014-

For my April visit to Santu Devi School in Nawalparasi’s Pithauli village, I was able to engage two organisations—Shanti Griha and Quixote’s Cove.

For the past 10 years, Shanti Griha has been constructing school buildings, toilets and community centres and setting up taps for safe drinking water in rural Chepang communities. Amir Thapa, who worked at Shanti Griha, got in touch with me through a common friend. He had also returned from the US the previous year and during his first months at Shanti Griha, travelled exclusively to Chepang villages in rural Chitwan. Amir went to check in with the villagers and conduct workshops around sustainability and environmental awareness. Additionally, Amir was also trying to instill a greater appreciation for education in these Chepang communities and find a way to improve the overall school environment.  

“Now that the school buildings are there, we need to think of the next steps,” Amir said to me during our first meeting. “For example, how to get children to stay in school. Which leads to — how to get teachers to make school engaging.”

I told Amir about the Pithauli project. “This is the first time I’m trying something similar. Why don’t you accompany me in April and we’ll see what happens?”  

On the other hand, Quixote’s Cove manages the US embassy-funded Book Bus program. Set up as a mobile library, the bus travels to different schools inside and outside the Valley, conducting poetry, art and library development workshops. Since I was going to Santu Devi School, I coordinated with Quixote’s Cove and scheduled dates and personnel for the Book Bus to come to Pithauli.

We left Kathmandu on a Wednesday afternoon with Amir, and Kaya, a Chinese psychology student who was volunteering at Shanti Griha for a few weeks.

I had gotten used to perfectly smooth, straight American highways. I loved the speed. Back in the US, whenever I thought of traveling inside Nepal, I got chills; the thought was dreadful. Perhaps it had to do with my childhood trips to Chitwan on a local bus. The windy roads, the bumps, the nauseating air trapped inside the steel and iron cage, the frequent stops.

But it’s incredible how memory distorts reality. That’s what I was thinking, at one point during the drive, very much enjoying myself. There was no traffic. The road ahead looked promising as well. And the ride itself—looping around green hills, the Trishuli meandering below us, passing shacks where steam rose from tea pots and stacks of freshly peeled boiled eggs glistened—was so much more stimulating than those smooth, straight American highways.

We all chit-chatted our way through Kurintar and Mugling.

Amir entertained us with stories of ghosts that had left him sleepless one night at Parkhal, a town accessible only by foot. We reached Pithauli before sundown.

My plan was simple. I wanted to focus on literacy. I was going to talk to the teachers about a few key ideas I had learned and practiced in New York schools. For practical purposes, Mahendra ji had agreed to fund a box of books as a starting kit for the literacy program. I had spent time researching bookstores in Kathmandu and creating leveled lists that could be used with language arts workshops.

The following morning, we hoisted the books to the school office and then to a classroom for the day’s session. Kaya mostly sat at the back, taking notes, asking Amir to translate some key ideas, while Amir and I took turns facilitating a discussion around literacy. Before passing the books from the kit, I picked up a Class One textbook assigned by the government as an example.  

I asked the teachers, “Can your students read this page by the end of the year?”

The response was a unanimous “No.”

“What about Class Two students? Can they read this Class One textbook? What about Class Three? Four?”

Not many students at Santu Devi school can actually read the books assigned to them.

“This is too difficult for the students,” I continued. “Asking students to take part in tasks that are way above their level causes stress and disengagement, which eventually leads to drop out. Learning is no longer fun. No one wants to do things that are very difficult. Not even us.”

Pointing to the books I brought from Kathmandu, I introduced the idea of Reading Levels, developed by Lucy Calkins at Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project. I talked about how primary school students’ abilities develop at different rates. And as educators and teachers, we have to match students with materials and assignments that are on their level. That teachers need to work closely with each student and support their individual growth as much as possible. The lowest leveled book from my kit, Level A, only has a couple of words on each page, printed in bold face and large font. The text difficulty gradually increased from Levels B to C to D. I had similarly leveled Nepali books with the letters Ka, Kha, Ga, etc. The Pithauli teachers browsed through these books, discussed the differences between the levels, and organised sets for their own classrooms.

While I focused on curriculum and teacher development, Mahendra ji set up a team to improve Santu Devi’s infrastructure. New fans were installed on the roof. I couldn’t imagine how students and teachers coped with summer heat before. Even though it was only April, the air was already thick and humid. A couple of hours outdoors left us sweaty and lethargic.

For Class One and Two, new tables and cushions were made. We reorganised the classroom so that the students could sit more comfortably in small groups. We also interviewed a few candidates and hired two new teachers. Giving teachers extra time to plan during school hours was important.

Finally, I was able to convince two of the teachers to take charge of Class One and Two full time. The previous structure, where teachers circulated in and out of different classes, wasn’t the best way to handle primary school students. Class One and Two are crucial years for socio-emotional and language development, I told these teachers. We really want capable teachers to supervise these kids full time.

Most teachers tend to gravitate towards older students, with the misconception that teaching older students is more difficult, and hence more prestigious.

In a lot of government and private schools, teacher seniority runs parallel to the age of students they teach. Consequently, the newest and least experienced teachers end up teaching primary school. This ingrained fallacy has been hugely detrimental to our education system. The foundation of our students’ cognitive, literacy and socio-emotional development has been shaky for generations.

The Book Bus arrived on the third day, with a team of bright and energetic facilitators. Sanket, a Word Warrior, had planned poetry sessions with the older students. Venisha and Megha were going to conduct art workshops and guided tours. Panels from the recently concluded Climate + Change exhibition, reprinted on flex, were used to turn a classroom into a temporary gallery.

For the next few days, along with the literacy work that I had started, the Book Bus team worked closely with the teachers and students at Santu Devi. While one group drew a map of their village, another group watched a movie. While some students browsed through books in the bus and sat under a tree in the schoolyard for quiet reading, another group learned about glaciers and endangered species. Amir and Kaya coached teachers, joked around with students.

I was grateful that we were able to work in the Pithauli community and get acquainted with everyone. It was clear that the teachers and students were thrilled to have a new experience. The provision of novel educational materials and unique classroom experiences seemed to spread cheer within the school community. Before departing, Mahendra ji and I met with the teachers and the school board, expressing our intention to continue working with the school as long as we feel that the teachers and the community members are also committed to improving the overall quality of the school.

Niranjan Kunwar is a writer and educator based in Kathmandu. He can be reached at metronir@gmail.com

This piece is a follow up to the article The Road to Pithauli, which was published on Saturday, August 30 in The Kathmandu Post.

Published: 06-09-2014 08:57

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