Jessica Schmidt was the Grinnell Corps Nepal fellow for 2002-2003.
Jessica Schmidt's Reports
Report 1Jessica Schmidt
The three months I have enjoyed so far in Nepal have been at times overwhelmingly action-packed and at times excruciatingly slow. I feel as though I have learned so much about Nepali culture, people's beliefs and values, about teaching and about the country's politics. At the same time, I feel like I have so much to learn! Sometimes I am so enthusiastic about the rest of our nine months in Nepal that I want the time to last forever-- and sometimes I count the months remaining and it feels like an eternity. I think these ups and downs are part of any experience like this, and I always am so surprised at how quickly I can shift from being on top of the world to a floundering mess (even within one class period!) I am grateful for how much I am learning, but I am also frustrated by how much more I want to know. On the whole, however, this is an amazingly intense and incredible experience and I am having a wonderful time here!
By far the most challenging part of this experience for me is teaching. I have such a new respect for all my old teachers! At first, even the idea that I was the authority in the class (or the novelty Alison and I shared at passing break time in the Teacher's Lounge) took time to get used to. It was a little odd to be called "Miss" by all my students, to stand in the front of the class instead of sitting at a desk, and to correct the homework instead of doing it myself. However, I think the fresh-out-of-college edge really helps my perspective because I feel I can relate more closely to the students and remember only too well what being a student is like. During the students' final exams (where even my Class 4 kids endured a week of two-hour exams worth 80 percent of their final grades), I felt for them and remembered a student's sense of dread at finals week. I think it is important for a teacher to be able to remember what it is like to be a student and, for me, I am starting to realize what it is like to be on the other side of the desk.
Having accepted the fact that I really am the teacher, proving my authority seems to be more of an on-going challenge. When I walk by the classrooms of the other teachers, all the students appear to be busily taking notes and look so studious, but I feel that my own time in the classroom is spent trying to maintain enough quiet to be able to give my lesson! Actually, that is somewhat of an exaggeration, but I still feel that I have a few things to learn on the order of discipline to keep my class quiet. However, class conduct is already phenomenally better now then it was when I started just two months ago, which gives me hope that I can master the fine art of the infamous "teacher's glare."
Teaching English is surprisingly challenging. I had thought coming into this experience that teaching English would be a breeze given that it is my native language. However, not only is English full of funny quirks (ask Alison who is trying to teach kids why we say the radio but not the TV), but also I am still trying to understand what exactly my subject "Extra English" should cover. I am under the impression so far that the principle function of Extra English is to give the students more chances to practice English speaking, writing, and listening. However, it also seems to be a grammar booster and maybe even an attempt at actual literary analysis. In my Class 8 class we have dissected poems, discussed the fine art of writing an opinion essay, learned what a thesis is and how to successful use topic sentences. In my younger classes, however, I tend to focus on grammar review, reading comprehension and, the favorite, acting improve. (The kids love to act out the stories we read in class). At first, I felt like if I were teaching any other subject like Biology or Math, I would have a more clear idea of what exactly I was doing, but with the ambiguous Extra English, I was a little mystified as to what indeed it was. As time passes, I think I am finding my own definition of Extra English and what I want to do with it. I am very excited I am teaching Extra English because I feel like it gives me a lot of creative license. My Class 8's have been most entertaining on Debate days, and my Class 5s are preparing to write their own class books (which will, unfortunately not be for sale) but I am hoping to type them and put them in the library. Despite my initial confusion, I think the ambiguity of Extra English is really positive as it allows me to do so much more in the classroom.
Lastly, after becoming embarrassingly excited at new creative lesson plans in "Extra English," I have felt another frustration of teaching is that it is difficult to get know the individual students and their creative potentials. I felt very frustrated at the beginning because I felt like I was only commanding the students (Read this, Write this, Practice this), and not interacting with them. I wanted to know the students as thinkers and I felt like all I knew was their handwriting. I think in part this is due to the school set-up, with about 250 students who I see four times a week for 40 minutes in a fairly formal setting it is hard to get to know them well. On the other hand, I feel like it is also a matter of time. As the weeks go by each student, especially the Class 8 students, are developing such unique personalities! I have been trying to encourage creativity (my Number One teacher goal this year) and the students are responding incredibly with new and interesting ideas, opinions and thoughts. To get to know the students better (and in an attempt to learn all their names), I asked each student to fill out a notecard with "Why I Want to Learn English" and a passport-sized photo attached. It is really exciting as a teacher as a teacher to be able to read all the students' responses and know who has future plans to be an English teacher, or study abroad or simply "to learn good English to have good marks, etc."
I think the most rewarding, and the most challenging, thing about teaching is that it is a process of continuous interaction with the students. Good teachers do not teach facts, they teach ways of thinking. My goal is not to just tell the kids about proper grammar, but to motivate them to use English to express their own creativity and imagination. In that sense, teaching becomes a process of exchanging ideas between teacher and student. I certainly feel that I am learning as much from the students as they (hopefully) are from me! I hope that as the school year goes on that we can establish a mutual respect and comfortable environment for the exchange of ideas from teacher and student and between students.
Life in Nepal
Apart from teaching, the rest of my life in Nepal is very relaxing. Nepal is a very peaceful place and even in the chaos of downtown Kathmandu with all the traffic, stray dogs, vendors and crowds, people walk the streets at a relaxed pace, drink tea in front of their shops, and generally maintain a sense of calm. The area we live in is absolutely serene and it is a wonderful haven to return to after the smog and smoke or Kathmandu and even Lagankhel (where the school is). Our house is surrounded by rice fields and has the most amazing view of the hills all around! We have caught sight of the snow-capped mountains from behind the clouds a couple of times, they appear as though they are no more than a mile away and are absolutely amazing! By far the best thing about our house, however, is sitting on the roof, which is the family hangout, and watching the clouds. The clouds here are the most marvelous, gigantic white and bilious clouds I have ever seen. The sky is incredibly vast and I love to marvel at how the white monsters can stretch from one horizon to the other. After a stressful day teaching, I appreciate nothing more than the instant calm of gazing at those beautiful Himalayan clouds!
At school, at home, on TV, and even on restaurants menus English language abounds. English is required in Nepali schools and so almost all Kathmanduites are at least somewhat knowledgeable in English including taxi drivers, shop owners, and the ubiquitous little children who scream "Hallo, hallo" at me on my walk to school each morning. Nepali language in the Valley also has a wonderfully quirky way of mixing in English words, for instance, people might say Malaai dherai tension chha. However, I believe it is essential for myself as a volunteer here to have a working knowledge of Nepali, and language is, in fact, my biggest frustration after teaching. Alison and I have been risking the muddy rice-field crossing and taking Nepali lessons twice a week from our neighbor and the most incredible teacher ever, Shangkha. Each lesson, I feel so pumped and I am absolutely convinced I am fluent because in lesson Shangkha uses only words we know. However, once in the real world I find in very difficult to follow all but the most basic conversations. Learning Nepali is possible on this program, but not easy because it is not an "immersion" experience. We speak English all day at school, most of the time at home, even Ashima, the 5-year-old, speaks English with us. It took me awhile to come to grips with the fact that I probably will not be fluent in Nepali by the time I leave, but at least I will understand some conversation. The real advantage of being here a year though, is that there is time for learning, I still have a long time to perfect my language skills.
Another note on language, Nepali is written in a script called devnagri, not in roman letters. Devnagri is a beautiful when written and I am secretly a dev-addict. We are learning script from Shangkha and I love to write it and practice it and even turn English words into their Nepali equivalent. In addition, devnagri is also used for Hindi, so learning the script could be a nice skill to have for those prospective fellows who also have in interest in India.
Right now in Nepal, outside my own bubble of school, Nepali lessons, and cloud gazing, the country of Nepal is experiencing very difficult times. Two weeks ago, the State of Emergency was lifted. The Emergency has been imposed since last August after the massacre of the Royal Family, and in essence it restricts constitutional rights in order for the government to try to put down the Maoist insurgents. Since the Emergency was lifted, the Maoists have unleashed a wave of violence and terrorism not only in the rural areas of Nepal, where most of the activity has taken place so far, but also to some extent in Kathmandu Valley. Two nights ago, thousands of Maoists attacked a police post in Eastern Nepal about 30 km from Kathmandu and killed close to 50 police officers and civilians used as human shields. The following night, in another attack to the west of Kathmandu, over 60 police and army personnel were killed. In Kathmandu, everyday for the last week or so there have been small bomb explosions. The bombs in Kathmandu, in my opinion, are not so much a safety threat as they are small (made out of pressure cookers), detonated in the early morning when no one is at work yet, and have resulted in only one death (from an army trooper who was trying to diffuse a bomb), but are more of a psychological attack. It is disarming to be attacked in the capital, and it is increasing people's anxiety toward the problem. On an everyday level, however, I do not feel unsafe and my Nepali colleagues at school seem relatively calm about the situation. The upcoming elections on November 13, however, could be tense. We are maintaining a very cautious attitude toward travel around the city of Kathmandu, but for the most part, the problem is still somewhat removed.
Lastly, as I am calling this section "Life in Nepal," I feel I should make some comments on the most important aspect of my daily life: food. For prospective fellows reading this report, or for anyone else curious, I thought I would take a moment to describe Nepali food. This is very important: If you want to live a year in Nepal you MUST like rice. Rice is the main staple of every meal, the word for rice, bhaat, is actually synonymous with food in Nepali. A typical meal consists of rice, daal (a watery lentil soup) and curried vegetables. Nepali food is not particularly exciting, but I think it is soooo good! I really enjoy meals here and I like the simplicity a meal of daalbhaat offers. Some other Nepali food highlights are, of course, somosas (curried vegetable filled pastries) and momos. Momos are a Tibetan dish of steamed meat dumplings that are absolutely amazing. I am already worried about finding my momo fix in the United States! Besides momos, my other personal snack favorites are the roasted peas that are sold in carts on the street and I also love a sort of fruit called lichie, a little like an albino grapefruit with a pit that is twice as sweet as a peach. Besides daalbhaat, the other Nepal staple is chiya or milk tea. Chiya not only is absolutely delicious, but chiya culture is one of the most relaxing things about Nepal. At school, everyday we have chiya break, visiting friends there is always chiya, we wouldn't survive Nepali lessons without Shangkha's chiya, and even at the immigration office we shared chiya with the staff. I find it hard to imagine returning home and not pausing at least twice a day for a nice chiya/tea break.
At this point in my sojourn in Nepal, approximately a quarter of the way through, I feel a mix of comfort with stabs of challenge. Enough time has passed that I feel like I have a rhythm and a place here. Alison and I have library cards, I now own three kurthas (Nepali dress like a Punjabi), I know my way around downtown Kathmandu, and have become a regular somosa consumer at a little shop close to the school, but there are always new challenges that keep the sense of comfort always just a little on edge. The challenges, however, are part of the package deal and keep this stay exciting. Overall, I am very happy to be here and very much enjoying my experience as a teacher, living with a Nepali family, and the incredible natural beauty of Nepal!
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