Can a bus change the way children are taught in Nepal?

- Amish Raj Mulmi

May 17, 2019-

A group of primary school children are huddled around Aakrit Shrestha, a Book Bus instructor, who holds a cylindrical contraption built of chart paper and has a few illustrations on the inside frame. As he twirls the pencil that holds up the device, the illustrations come to life. A baby chicken starts to jump up and down as the device rotates. The children look on in unbridled joy. One of the kids peers inside the cylinder to enquire how the illustration has animated itself.

The device is a zoetrope, an early non-film animation device that plays on the human eye’s limitations to create motion via sequential picture strips. A little earlier, Saira, another instructor, had read out Kukhura ra Haans, a children’s story by Durga Lal Shrestha about a duckling and a chicken being friends. The illustrations in the zoetrope come from the story. Once the children have gotten over the initial fascination with the device, they are ready to colour the illustrations any way they want, and create their own animation projects.

I am in Kalika Himalaya Secondary School, a namuna government school in Kalikasthan, Rasuwa, three hours away from the Nepal-China border. A little while ago, sixth-grade students arranged themselves into a circle on the grounds of the secondary school. It made little sense at first, but the view from the top was much better. They were recreating a cell—so a group was the outer membrane, while one was a nucleus and a few the mitochondria. Saira was a bacterial cell who attempted to invade the cell—allowing the children to visualise what infections did to the human body. Earlier in the morning, grade nine students made a mini-robot out of a paper cup, a nine-volt battery, a switch, a motor and some tape and drew colourful circles.

All these novel methods of scientific learning, these creative ways to inspire children to explore the world around us beyond their books, are part of the Book Bus mobile library programme, an American Space supported by the US Embassy in Nepal. The programme has travelled to over 300 schools and colleges in Nepal since 2013; it trains teachers in new pedagogy methods, creates modules for students (such as the zoetrope and the mini-robot) that go beyond traditional teaching methods, and, as 25-year-old Kriti Adhikari, the team leader, told me, ‘encourages students to think critically and creatively express themselves’.

It starts at school

On our way to a fort near Kalikasthan that saw battle during the 1792 Sino-Nepal war, Meghnath Ghimire ‘Prabhakar’ narrates the story of his escape from a military ambush during the People’s War by sliding down a ridge on all fours. A soft-spoken man, Ghimire was a government school teacher before he joined the People’s War in 1997, and was elected chairperson of the school management committee a year ago.

He learnt about the Book Bus programme when he visited the Innovation in Education Fair at Jawalakhel a year ago. ‘Schools in our rural areas cannot continue to be run the way they are. We need new teaching methods, new educational materials. Today’s world is an ICT (Information and Communications Technology) world, and it’s no longer just about books,’ he says when I ask him why he wanted the Book Bus to come to his school.

The idealism that took him to the jungles is still visible when he begins to talk about the school. ‘After I became chair, I decided I will try to make our school the first in Rasuwa to use different ICT methods to teach students,’ he says. ICT is a word he uses quite a bit; he acknowledges it will take time, but it will not be difficult for teachers and students alike to shift to such teaching methods.

The secondary school building has been recently painted and most classrooms have whiteboards. The lavatory for girls has a sign outside that said ‘sanitary pads available’; the pads are stored in a box outside the toilet. The Asian Development Bank funded the construction of a new senior secondary hostel and a laboratory that hadn’t yet been handed over, as well as providing new furniture. Solar lamps come on automatically in the evenings. Education is provided in both English and Nepali mediums till grade six, and Ghimire hopes to extend this to the tenth grade. I ask him what his goals for the school are in his three-year tenure, and he lists down the points. ‘One, existing teaching methods (of rote learning) need to change. Teaching can be done via dance or sports, too. Two, very few children are admitted to government schools because they are not English medium, hence the proliferation of English boarding schools. At the same time, English education is not enough by itself. Knowledge accumulation can come from different methods, and not just by a teacher standing on students’ heads holding a stick.’ Most importantly, he says, ‘Children today fear going to school. I want that to change. I want them to think “My school is a creative place, and I want to go to school.”’

Generation Y leaders

The night we reach Kalikasthan, the Book Bus team sit for a preparatory discussion to plan the lessons. The mobile library cannot come to Rasuwa because of bad roads; despite the disappointment, the team, all aged between 18-25, don’t let it cloud the meeting. There is a genuine sense of enthusiasm among this group. Most have come to Kathmandu for their undergraduate studies, like 18-year-old Atul Karn, who considers the physicist Richard Feynman as his role model and is currently studying engineering at Pulchowk. ‘If I can inspire others to take up science, to see how beautiful science is, I’ll be happy.’ Some joined the programme from a simple love of books, like 19-year-old Shaipa Pandey from Butwal. Shaipa says when she first saw the red-coloured Book Bus in her town, she thought it was a deluxe bus. ‘But then I saw the books, and being a book nerd, I googled about Book Bus right there on the street.’ Almost serendipitously, 19-year-old Sriyans Rauniyar, who Shaipa had met during the Colgate Nepal Spell Bee Season 2, told her the programme was looking for instructors. The two of them were selected after a round of interviews last October.

The travel is a bonus, as should be for the age. But the idealism the instructors hold is undiluted. Twenty-one-year-old Sumitra Bogati, who comes from Dharan and joined the programme after a Word Warriors’ workshop, says she feels ‘the Book Bus is right for me. I just want to grow in this process of teaching and learning.’ Nineteen-year-old Saira was inspired after meeting students who ‘were studying in adverse conditions and looked at us with hope and curiosity in their eyes.’

The overarching narrative of the instructors, however, is of imparting a different form of education to schoolchildren across Nepal. ‘Teachers take education for granted. Students don’t know what they

are learning, how they are learning things. How can we connect mathematical problems with daily life?’ Sriyans says the Book Bus wants to promote learning in a fun way, and by joining this programme, if he can affect thousands of other students, that would be ‘something really awesome’.

Glass half-full

It would be unreasonable to expect Nepal’s education system to change from the efforts of one such programme, conducted over the course of a week at the most. But it is an example worth emulating. The team follows up with schools every quarter after the programme, but it’s often easier with schools inside Kathmandu Valley. There have been times when teachers have incorporated their methods into the curriculum, or found continued interest when the team returns to a town.

The optimism such a programme generates, and the excitement it brings the children, is quite infectious. Kriti knows the programme cannot change things immediately, but ‘we want to inculcate and develop ideas that different methods of education exist.’ Similarly, Ghimire, who wants education to change, wants to make ‘every child able in this new changing environment’ because ‘if we are to succeed in the future, we need a population that is ready for it.’

At the end of the day is the hope for a brighter future if similar programmes can show Nepali children a world beyond their books.

(Travel to Kalikasthan was made possible by the Book Bus. For more information, visit qcbookshop.com/bookbus.)

Mulmi tweets at @amish973.

Published: 17-05-2019 12:44

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