Monday, June 21, 2010

Ami Ingreji Shikkhika: My Experiences Teaching English in Shaturia

Hello again. First off, I would like to apologize for failing to update my blog. It was truly my intention to document this year by writing at least once a month, but alas, I have learned through this experience that my expectations and reality are two very different things. I am currently just 2 weeks away from finishing my grant and leaving Shaturia (about 5 weeks from leaving Bangladesh).

A lot has happened since I last wrote. In April I took a trip to southern Bangladesh to see Chittagong and Cox's Bazar (the Bangladeshi beach on the Bay of Bengal). Mostly the last 3 months I've been teaching a lot, spending a little time with a local Hindu community, and going to Dhaka on the weekends. I also went to Bali for a short trip at the end of May. It was absolutely gorgeous and so much fun to play in the ocean and eat amazing food. Bali was exactly the vacation I needed. (Both of the pictures below are from Bali.)

The title of this post "ami ingreji shikkhika" means I am an English teacher. This is the actual reason why I'm in Bangladesh, and I figure it's time to start talking about what I've been doing these last 5 1/2 months. I'm currently teaching at Shaturia Pilot Girl's High School, which is a school of about 500 girls.
I teach Class 7 (about 13 years old) and Class 10 (about 16 years old) by myself and I team teach Class 6 (about 10-12 years old) with Lauren. I teach 3 classes a day for 3 days a week. Outside of class I've also attended various events at the school such as athletics competitions (the girls are great at badminton), debate competitions, the Bangla New Year celebration, and our school's Cultural Weeks, during which we got to see the girls sing and dance (adorable!).
Teaching in a rural setting has presented tremendous challenges. Firstly, I came into this experience with absolutely no teaching experience. I learned how to do basically everything through trial and error. Teaching is also absolutely exhausting! I now have a more profound respect for my teachers and professors throughout my entire education. My classes range from 20-70 students on any given day. "Luckily" absenteeism is so common among students that it makes class sizes a bit more manageable. The heat is unbearable and the fans are practically useless (that is if the power is even on). I teach for 3 hours in these extreme conditions with absolutely no break in between classes.

The other big problem is that there are no technological resources available in Shaturia (i.e. computers, printers, photocopiers, projectors, CD players etc.). I cannot print or photocopy handouts, which means that I am unable to bring in outside materials to the classroom. It also means that I must write every assignment on the chalkboard, which is incredibly limiting. Basically, I mostly teach directly out of our very mediocre textbook called "English for Today," supplementing lessons when I have the energy or time. The book is often irrelevant, with whole units on going to restaurants and travelling outside of the country when most of my students haven't done either of those things.

Another huge challenge is how little English most students actually know. Many of the Class 6 and 7 students cannot really read or write. Even if they can read, many students don't actually comprehend what it is that they're reading. By Class 10, students seem to be reading more proficiently, but many of my Class 10 students have trouble writing complete sentences. I think the situation is especially bad in Bangladeshi villages, where often English teachers themselves are not even fluent in English. Also, English is usually taught in preparation for the Public Exam, which students take at the end of Class 10. This means that students are encouraged to memorize passages for their "writing" as opposed to using original thought. Because conversational skills are not tested on the Public Exam, many students have incredibly poor spoken English.
I have done my best to bring in creativity and encourage more conversation in the classroom. I had the idea to create Participation Charts with my classes to increase the amount of students speaking in class. Once students realized that if they talk in class they get a sticker next to their name on a board, I had no problem finding volunteers to speak in class. Now every time I ask a question I hear a chorus of 45 girls yelling "Ma'am" and jumping out of their seats to volunteer. It's very cute. I've also had various Art Days throughout the semester with my different classes. The girls are incredibly excited to have access to construction paper and art supplies, which are very limited in Shaturia. They all love to draw the gram (Bangla for village) and typical village scenery.
Seeing how much they appreciate and enjoy simple art supplies makes me feel really sad that I don't have the resources to bring things like music, DVDs, the internet, and outside books into the classroom. I think it would have been really nice for them.

My most innovative teaching has been with my Class 10. As I mentioned earlier, they will take a huge exam at the end of the year which will determine if they will continue their education and go to college, (grades 11 and 12 in the American system). My goal for the last 6 weeks or so has been to help them prepare for the test by creating lessons on basic test taking skills and working really closely with them on their writing skills. I have made classes on how to answer true or false questions, how to summarize a reading passage, how to find the main idea of a reading, how to write a letter, how to write a paragraph, how to do basic brainstorming (this one was truly a foreign concept for them), and how to write an essay.
It has been incredibly challenging for me to try and meet their needs, because they really need a ton of help. Had I had more time I would have loved to set up a writing center where I could help students individually with their writing. I start feeling overwhelmed by how much help these girls really need, but then I realize I'm not in a position to give them everything. I've given them as much as I can given my limited time and means and it appears that some students are benefiting, so I consider it a success.

I do think that I have done the best that I can given the circumstances, but I have felt incredibly frustrated with the lack of support and resources throughout this process. Had I had more support and a less stressful living situation I feel I would have been able to devote much more energy to the school and I probably would have accomplished more. This was the pilot year for English Teaching Fulbright grants in Bangladesh, so hopefully they'll improve the program in years to come.

This experience has been a huge learning process for me. Teaching and living in Shaturia has been one of the most difficult things I have ever done. It has pushed me to confront insects (including flying cockroaches and giant spiders!), endure illness, frustration (inside and outside the classroom), and daily physical discomfort. It has also pushed me to make the most of what I have, and has helped me to cultivate patience and a profound appreciation for my privileged life at home (AC, my education, the freedom to wear and say what I want, I mean everything).

While I must admit that I am rather thrilled to be leaving Shaturia (to say otherwise would be a lie), I have come to value the experiences I have had here. I now know what it is like to wake up to birds chirping at 5 a.m. and go an entire day without hearing a single car or plane. I have lived surrounded by green wide open spaces in a place of beauty. Never again do I plan to live in this rural of a setting, but I do appreciate having had the opportunity to live so differently. Okay, that's all I've got for now. I will do my best to write at least one more post in my remaining 5 weeks here in Bangladesh. I promise!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dui Mash Shaturiai: 2 Months in Shaturia

Hi Everyone! So I've been living in Shaturia now for almost 2 months! It has been a struggle, to say the least. I think that I put off writing, because I didn't want to be completely negative in my first village post. I wanted to be able to say that things are at least improving, which they are.

I'm not really sure where to begin. I guess I'll start by saying that life here is difficult. There is no mistaking that fact. Life is also incredibly different from my life in the U.S. and even my life in Dhaka. Village life is slow. I'm constantly fighting my impatience at every turn. Nothing happens on time and nothing happens quickly.

Shaturia is beautiful. On my rickshaw ride to school I pass rice paddy after paddy field, other crops, green open spaces, ponds, countless tin huts (the typical home of a villager here), a gorgeous variety of trees, 2 rickety bridges, and a collection of absolutely adorable baby goats hopping around on the side of the road.

I live in an apartment with my friend Lauren. Our apartment is spacious, with concrete floors and 2 balconies. The conditions are the best Shaturia has to offer, but are a far cry from what I'm used to. For example, power is out anywhere from 5-12 hours per day. For the first month and 1/2 we would do everything by candlelight (which is charming at first, but quickly becomes old). We finally purchased an incredibly costly backup power supply (IPS), but before that we would sit in the heat with no fans and no ventilation (windows here have no screens and mosquitoes swarm at all hours of the day and night, so we mostly keep them closed). Things are better now that we have our IPS. We can use a fan all night as long as we don't use lights (so strange to be rationing power!).

Another struggle is water. The groundwater here has an incredibly high heavy metal content (with iron and arsenic at the top of the list). So, we get distilled drinking water from a nearby town, but must boil it for 30 minutes to ensure it's free of parasites etc. For the first month our tap water would run out every other day, so we had to pump the tube well in order to start the motor that brings water to our rooftop tank (although, the motor only works if there's power, so we sometimes end up with no water AND no power). I must say that pumping that tube well for 10 minutes, I can't help feeling like I am a frontierswoman (think Little House on the Prairie).

The other noteworthy difficulty is the bathroom (I'm sorry if this is crude or disgusting, but it's worth mentioning). I'll say it in 5 words: squat toilet and bucket showers. I've included a picture in case anyone has not had the pleasure of being acquainted with a squat toilet.

Okay, so the living situation has made up a huge portion of my struggles these last 2 months. I am finally getting used to doing things here and hardly notice how different things are anymore. I can't imagine what a shock it will be to return home and find AC, a normal toilet, unlimited power, fast internet, and a hot shower waiting for me! While I know it will be glorious, it is actually difficult to conceive of going back to my comfortable life at home knowing that half the world (or more?) lives in such destitute poverty. 60% of Bangladeshis never have power in their homes. It is a very humbling (albeit miserable) experience to sit in the dark in the heat and realize that this is the reality of many people's existence all around the globe. Understanding what it means to live without light and fans (not to mention food and water) is something incomprehensible until you have actually done it. I certainly did not realize the full implications when I read about these conditions in the past. I feel guilty and uncomfortable with the idea of going back to my sheltered and privileged life, unsure if conditions will ever improve for people here.

One thing I really want to work on is befriending more villagers. My interactions with villagers have been quite limited, unfortunately. It is incredibly difficult to have meaningful interactions with people. So far I have chatted with 2 or 3 women, befriended one rickshaw-walla (I'm a regular customer now), and have gotten to know a few local shopkeepers. Most people here have never seen a foreigner before. Some people are afraid of us, some laugh, and some stare. Others are overcome with excitement and yell out any random English words they know or various other noises. Many people stare and point and yell, "BIDESHI!" (which means foreigner). Most women our age spend most of their time in the home so we rarely get a chance to talk to them.

Unfortunately, many of our interactions are with either young men (often sleazy) or older creepy men. Many of the men take pictures of us on their camera phones as we pass by (surprisingly common here) or try to follow us, desperate to have a word in English or Bangla and find out where we are from. While I fully understand their curiosity, it is difficult not to become weary of being treated like a spectacle. I try to take it all in stride, because I know that my being here is incredibly unusual and that we are all learning how to get along with each other. I must say, though, that every time I go to the market a crowd of 20 men will form within 2-5 minutes. They stare at me with fascination as I bargain with the shopkeeper and they fill each other in on the action as each new observer arrives (just like people watching a sporting event). It's actually quite funny, because I can understand what they are saying (it's moments like these that I feel as though I live in a David Sedaris novel):

Villager 1: "Where does she live?"
illager 2: "She lives in Shaturia."
illager 1: "How many months will she live here?"
illager 2: "6 months."
illager 1: "Which country?"
illager 2: "America."
illager 1: "What is she buying?"
illager 2: "Eggplant and tomatoes!"

All in all village life is interesting. I must say, one of the most difficult parts of being here is the boredom. I only teach 2-3 days a week, which leaves 4-5 days of doing nothing. There is literally NOTHING to do here. No cafes or restaurants, no places to go shopping, only one road on which to walk, no friends to talk to (besides Lauren, and thank God she's here with me). I've been doing plenty of reading, watching TV on my computer etc., but these activities get old after a while. I've tried drawing and doing yoga, but there are still too many hours in the day. As someone who thrives on leading a busy life, the boredom is truly challenging for me. I am looking into volunteering at a local NGO about 45 minutes away, so we'll see if that works out. I also end up going back to Dhaka for many weekends (which is a hellish trip on 2 different hot and crowded buses that takes about 3-4 hours in total). All in all I'm making do with what I have, but I'm constantly looking for things to keep me busy (thank God for the internet!). Also, I'm totally open to suggestions for new hobbies/activities. Any ideas?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In January I Went to India

Once again, I have been incredibly delinquent with my writing! Now that I’m living in the village I should have ample time to write. Before I recount the enthralling details of village life (I know everyone is anxious to hear), let me first give a quick recap of my January trip to India. Basically, I went to India with my friend Lauren (also an ETA in Shaturia). Let me preface this by saying that North India in winter was not the brightest idea, but it was definitely worth it. We flew into Delhi and left the next morning bright and early at 6am for the Taj Mahal. The Taj was huge and magnificent and even though we were distracted by the cold, it was certainly a sight I will always remember.

The next day we were happy to be on our way to Jaipur (Agra is nothing special). We took another long bus ride and arrived in the Pink City. Jaipur is a vibrant city and is characterized by its unique architectural style. We explored many beautiful places including Old Jaipur, the City Palace, Hawa Mahal, Galta (aka Monkey Temple), and Amber Fort.

After Jaipur and a bout with strep throat, we made the absurdly long and hellish journey from Jaipur to Amritsar (via Delhi) by 2 separate trains. By this time we began to realize how ambitious our itinerary was, given the state of Indian public transport (kind of a nightmare). Amritsar was very cold, but I fell in love with Punjabi music, people, and food. The Golden Temple was absolutely spectacular (a rival to the Taj in my book) and we walked barefoot for over an hour in the cold and fog as we circumambulated the complex (once again, so worth it!).

From Amritsar we took another long journey to Dharamsala (the home of H.H. the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile), where I studied abroad during college. Dharamsala has begun to feel a bit like home to me. It was amazing to be up in the mountains again, away from the sounds of the city (especially after living amongst Dhaka crowds and traffic). In Dharamsala we ate and shopped. I was also able to see my homestay family and one of my dear friends from study abroad. I left Dharamsala feeling refreshed and reenergized. Next came the epic 12 hour winding bus ride back to Delhi (they actually handed out barf bags). Back in Delhi we shopped some more (I was a dutiful little consumerist) and ate A LOT. We also went to Old Delhi where we saw the Red Fort and Jama Masjid (the largest mosque in India).

Old Delhi was also my one time venture into street food, for the infamous Jalebiwalla (jalebis are my favorite Indian sweet –fabulous fried and syrupy goodness). After Delhi we flew back to Dhaka, and one week later Lauren and I moved to Shaturia –our village.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Malaysia etc.

Okay, I know I haven't written in forever. The longer I waited to write, the more difficult it seemed to try to update everyone on all that has happened in the last 2 months. So, my apologies regarding the delay, and I'll do my best to recap the last few weeks. Also, sorry if this post in incredibly lengthy and verbose (a lot has happened!).

On November 25th I went to Malaysia with 3 other Fulbrighters and 2 of our friends. We took a red eye flight from Dhaka to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. The city is pristine and organized (two things Dhaka is not). KL is also incredibly diverse; it has significant Chinese and Indian immigrant populations. The cool thing is that city feels very integrated, rather than being segregated based on racial lines. KL's diversity also manifests in the fabulous array of food available. Our first night, which coincided with Thanksgiving, we ate at this amazing Italian restaurant called NeroVivo. Feeling deprived of cheese and authentic Italian food, I stuffed my face with what was easily the best gourmet pizza I've had in all of Asia.

Our hotel was in the middle of Chinatown, which transformed into a bustling market of cheap goods and knock-off purses by night. We had a chance to explore the tourist attractions of KL, including the Central Market, the Petronas Towers (they used to be the tallest in the world), the King's Palace, the National Monument, and the National Orchid Garden (which was truly gorgeous).

We also made the short trip outside the city to the Batu Caves, where we visited Hindu temples, climbed 200+ stairs, and explored the inside of the caves, which was filled with Hindu statues carved into the cave walls. It was all very Indiana Jones-esque, especially the part where we maneuvered our way up the stairs through an obstacle course of menacing monkeys.

Malaysia was also an oasis of consumerism. I'm sorry to admit it, but after spending 2 coffee-deprived months in Dhaka I was actually happy to see a Starbucks (and that's saying a lot). Malaysian malls are monstrous, easily 10+ stories tall. They have all of the international and local brands and everything is very pretty. Plus, the air-conditioned comfort of the mall shopping experience is somewhat lacking in Dhaka. Needless to say, I kind of had a field day shopping.

KL is a great city in its own right, but for me it provided certain comforts of home that I had been sorely missing. Among these were sidewalks, public transportation, traffic laws, clean streets, open spaces, being out after dark, access to a diverse spread of cuisine, coffee, and the freedom to wear whatever I wanted. While I do love wearing the shalwar chemise (typical women's dress consisting of shalwar pants, a longer kurta top, and a scarf called an orna or dupata worn to cover the chest), after more than 2 months the initial charm is starting to wear off. The outfit is typically comfortable and does reduce the staring significantly. However, I'm constantly fighting with my orna, which is usually around my neck either too tight, uneven, or falling down about to get stuck in the wheels of a passing rickshaw. This is not to say that it doesn't have its perks. The orna can be incredibly useful, thrown over one's head if it starts to rain, or used to breathe through if one passes a particularly disturbing smell (also not uncommon here). For the most part I am learning how to peacefully coexist with my orna, but it takes practice.

So things have been going well for the most part here in Dhaka. I’ve been continuing my Bangla language study, which is coming along nicely. After many weeks my speaking capabilities are starting to improve dramatically so that I can usually get through a conversation, even if I’ve missed a thing or two and my verb conjugation is not perfect. It feels good when I’ve successfully conversed with a shop owner, read Bangla at random, or bargained the hell out of someone in overcharging me because I’m so obviously a foreigner (and yes, I do pride myself on my bargaining skills). Bangladeshis tend to be extremely excited and encouraging about my speaking Bangla, which is great.

In Dhaka in particular, Bangla has been very English-ized (I’m sure there’s a proper word for this) so it is easy to rely on the crutch of English words when my Bangla fails, although I won’t necessarily be able to do in the village. Interestingly the hybridizing of Bangla-English is actually a national trend here. Words such as “hashpatal” (hospital), “offish” (office, a personal favorite of mine), and phrases such as “ami tomake miss korbo” (I will miss you), have been adopted by Bangla and are even written in Bangla characters. It’s quite sad to see certain Bangla words, which are often extremely beautiful and meaningful (although viewed by Bangladeshis as too serious or poetic) fall out of use.

Learning Bangla has truly been a window through which I can better understand Bangladeshi culture and people. The language itself is very much a part of the culture and being able to speak it has allowed me to make more meaningful connections and have incredibly valuable and interesting interactions. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to learn Bangla these past months.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Going Places, Doing Things

So it's been a few weeks since my last post and a lot has happened! The week before last I went to New Market and Chandi Chowk, which are both part of a very huge and very crowded shopping district in central Dhaka. Shopping around in the narrow stuffy corridors of Chandi Chowk, felt like the real Bangladesh. The day was exhausting and extremely intense, but I was able to buy a gold nose ring and beautiful silk for new shalwar chemise (with the help of my Bangla-speaking friend and her mad bargaining skills). It was quite a day!

This past week was incredibly busy as Lauren (the other ETA) I had an orientation where we visited different Bangladeshi schools in order to get a sense of the education system. We first visited a girl's madrassa ( a Muslim school), which was very interesting. The school used to be an orphanage and was actually the first girl's madrassa in Bangladesh (typically they are only for boys). While the school's resources and quality of English education were not the greatest, the girls were obviously bright, extremely enthusiastic, and very sweet.
We also visited two private schools (Scholastica and Viqarunnisa). These schools were huge, well-funded, and obviously catered to the Bangladeshi elite. Throughout the week I was able to recognize the huge range in educational opportunities and resources in Bangladesh, as in the U.S.

On Tuesday of last week I went on a field trip with the BLI (where I'm taking Bangla classes). We went to the Red Fort also called Lalbagh in Bangla (literally meaning red garden). It is a 17th-century Mughal palace and it's really beautiful. The day was really fun and it was great to see a little bit of Bangladesh's history. This was also my first trip into Old Dhaka!

On Wednesday I took my first trip out of Dhaka to visit Shaturia, the village where I'll be living for 6 months, beginning in January. It took us 3 hours to get to Shaturia (mainly because of the insane traffic in Dhaka and because of the road quality around Shaturia). Once we got there it was a bit of a shock. I knew that it would be rural, but I did not realize just how rural. Shaturia is approximately 30min from the nearest town. The village is comprised mostly of farmland and houses made out of tin (we are lucky enough to live in an apartment in a relatively nice government complex). There are no restaurants or shops apart from the roadside stalls. Anything besides basic groceries (like fruits, vegetables, and rice) will need to be purchased in the nearest town. We have yet to figure out how we will get clean drinking water (which may have to come from the nearest town Manikganj). Needless to say, things will be very different in Shaturia compared to my comfortable privileged life here in Dhaka.

This is not to say that I'm feeling completely negative about my village stay. The landscape in Shaturia is absolutely gorgeous. The school where I'll be teaching is very beautiful and the principle of the school has been trained to teach English in the U.S. She is honestly amazing and is absolutely willing to do everything in her power so that we have a good experience. We will be teaching grades 6-9 and will teach for about 6 hours a week. Class sizes are substantially larger than in the U.S., usually between 60-80 students! Although this is a little intimidating, the girls are polite, incredibly sweet, and very excited to have us. Right now the thing I'm most excited about is teaching the girls and getting to know them. I guess the rest will figure itself out.

So, skipping forward a little bit, I went on a really fun day trip to Srimongol (near Sylhet in NE Bangladesh, which is where all of the tea in Bangladesh is grown) with some Fulbright friends and one of our teachers from BLI. We left early in the morning and arrived at Lawachara National Park by around 10am. The park was absolutely gorgeous and jungle-y. We were greeted by a very social monkey who proceeded to follow us around for a few minutes. We went on a really beautiful hike and encountered approximately 20 of the largest spiders I've ever seen -they were literally larger than my entire hand! As if that wasn't scary enough, they were so close to the path that I had to keep my eyes peeled to ensure I didn't walk into them (we had a few close calls).

After our hike we drove to one of the tea estates and made a little picnic for ourselves in a pathway amidst the tea plants. We were having a great lunch, when we were suddenly interrupted by a herd of cows heading straight for us. We moved out of the way as they passed by, and especially enjoyed a few calves that were running to catch up with the herd (they were adorable!). The tea estate was comprised of lovely rolling hillsides covered in tea bushes and tall trees. It was serene and probably the most beautiful thing I've seen since I've been here. So that's about it for now. More to come soon...