Visits in India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and Bali

This blog recounts a November 2017 trip to India with stops in Mumbai and Dharamsala; older entries come from a Spring 2014 trip which included stops in Ho Chi Mihn City, biking in Cambodia, a quick trip to Bali, and educational encounters in Singapore. 


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Delhi – a rush of people

I spent parts of two full days in Dehli on either end of my visit to Dharamsala. On the second day, this time alone, I was a little nervous, especially after reading the Hindi Times on the airplane into Dehli. Lead articles described an air quality index that had improved to “very poor.” One editorialist indicated that it was not like Bhopal. Phew.

Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 8.09.49 AMIn preparation for my final day in India,  I sought recommendations for what to see, do, and eat. One former Delhi resident urged me to visit Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, and to try a traditional Mughal (Indian) restaurant in the Mosque’s vicinity. I wrote down what appeared to be a short, manageable itinerary: Mosque; authentic Indian lunch; archeological site; National Museum. I figured with 7 hours, it would be easy. I hadn’t anticipated that I’d spend 4 of those hours traveling by metro, auto-rickshaw, and taxi.  Built in the 1600s in Old Dehli, Jama Masjid has four gates and four sets of steps leading upwards to a park-like, religious plateau.

Even on a smoggy day, I found myself grateful for the space and momentary exit from the chaos of the streets. Per the instructions, I took off my shoes and carried them in with me. What is masked by the peacefulness and personal space at the Mosque, is the volume of noise and humanity down each set of gateway steps. As I looked from my perch above the street, I tried to imagine how I’d convey myself to the restaurant, Karim’s, “just adjacent to Gate One.” The lure of curry gave me the confidence I needed to walk my way through the early afternoon throng (below left). At the recommendation of the waiter I tried some sort of red curry (right) and delicious dal. A student, sitting directly across from me, ordered lamb and immediately offered me a piece – which I gratefully accepted. He explained that I should have ordered the lamb. Who knew?

Getting to and from Old Delhi involved several rickshaw rides. Auto-rickshaws are a cross between three-wheeled motorcycles and taxicabs. Most are painted yellow and green. When you hop in for 100 rupee rides (about .60 cents), just don’t look for airbags, seatbelts or windows when when little white cars, busses, trucks, motorcyclists, and auto-rickshaws honk their way through the crowded streets. Old Dehli streets include pedestrians and cyclists, too. During two of my rides, pedestrians crossed the street by walking through my vehicle, brushing past my knees. While stopped at long lights (about five minutes), one my first day, the right lens of my glasses popped out. I couldn’t see quite right after that. But my ears worked fine as the horns blared. On my second visit, I was glad to have a camera so that I could try to capture some of the amazing colors and sounds and feelings of humanity. On the streets, you see people buying all kinds of merchandise, street food. On a few sidewalks, I even saw a few men getting shaved.

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Backwards Design & Craft Study

In addition to learning about western science from western scientists,* during their Leadership Institute the Monks learn about and develop their writing skills by working with educators from the National Writing Project (NWP). Along with NWP’s Tanya Baker, I was privileged to work with members of the third-ever cohort that launched a year ago.

Like science, writing is a recent addition to Monastics’ education. Although, in most cases, writing is not so much about thinking and learning, but serves as a proxy for memory.  In some of their examinations they are meant to reproduce some of the “root philosophies” in writing.  During one workshop session, Bryce Johnson, the leader of Science for Monks, spoke directly to the Monks and Nuns, and offered an eloquent explanation for why the program puts an emphasis on writing:

I want to say why we do writing in the workshop – we are trying to cultivate opportunities for you to grow your skills as leaders. And so – writing is a way to investigate your own understanding, your own mind… As Monks and Nuns, you have something valuable to say – you will have a much larger audience to share with those who are not in your presence if you can write.

Privately, Bryce expressed his hope that each member of the cohort would produce a piece of writing suitable for a group anthology. We opted to build on our predecessor’s work. In 2016, Richard Sterling and Christine Cziko from the NWP, invited these same monks and nuns to write about what amazes them.

I won’t lie. I felt apprehensive about how quickly we could form a plan to support the monks in writing this essay. Tanya didn’t flinch. Whether or not she uses the term, backwards design (see, Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), that’s precisely how I would describe her vision. Tanya had the monks create a graphic organizer, four corners and diamond, to see the whole essay. We asked the monks to write “What Amazes Me” in the diamond, and label each of the four corners: a personal encounter, a Buddhist perspective, a scientific perspective, and a teaching perspective. Eventually, we added a downward arrow and offered several ideas for how to conclude the essay.

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 5.07.42 AMOnce I could see the whole essay, I could imagine what we needed to teach. And for each of the next several days, we used our 90+ minute workshop time to support the monks and nuns in generating drafts for each section of the essay. For my part, I took the lead on the personal encounter. At Tanya’s urging, I introduced a favorite concept of mine: Reading like Writers. The main idea was to help them see that writers – even His Holiness – make craft decisions in order to bring readers into an understanding of their worlds and perspectives.

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 5.03.04 AMAs a way to explain the concept – and I wasn’t sure how it translate – I brought a hand-crafted leather belt out of my backpack and tried to frame writing as a series of “craft” choices, not too dissimilar from those a belt-maker might make about what color leather, what stitching design, what buckle, what width, and so on. Katie Wood-Ray introduces this analogy in her book Wondrous Words (1999) about an expert seamstress.

Then I asked one of the translators to read aloud – from the original Tibetan text -passages from chapter 2 of the Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality. In these passages, the 14th Dalai Lama recounts being a little boy in the Potala Palace and discovering his early, satisfying encounters with taking apart and putting mechanical things (e.g., watches, microscopes, and automobiles) back together again. The young Dalai Lama lived by himself with tutors in the Potala Palace. Also known as The Winter Palace, the palace was completed for 5th Dalai in the 1600’s.

The passages, when looked at as writers, are memorable for how the author helps readers empathize with his early perspective, while also offering description of objects, people, and places. We worked to identify “details” and “description” that allow us to “see” the author’s point of view. After “naming” the craft details that we saw, I invited the writers to craft a description of an early encounter with what amazes them. Below the photo of the palace is one of the passages we studied for its craft.

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* The purpose of the Sager Science Leadership Institute is to build monks and nuns’ capacity to be leaders of science education at their monasteries. Broadly speaking, participants deepen their scientific knowledge while developing also materials to help them teach science. Keep in mind that science was not a part of Monastic curriculum for centuries and this effort, less than 20 years old, reflects the vision and hopes of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, to bridge this gap. Each institute cohort meets several times over the course of three years. The cohorts include four participants from 8 different Monastic sites in Southern India. [I was surprised to learn how large some of the Monastic universities are: one, Sara Jey, has 3,800 monks].
















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What amazes me? Taking a curricular baton.

I am personally amazed by the slow, almost imperceptible onset of springtime. What amazes you? This question became a throughline of our instruction with the cohort of Monks and Nuns.Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 2.54.08 AM  Just like they did last year, members of this third Leadership cohort, representing a total of 7 monasteries and 1 nunnery, traveled from Southern India to work with several western scientists and museum educators and exhibition makers. Last year Richard Sterling and Christine Cziko from the National Writing Project led them in writing instruction. This year Tanya Baker and I did.

After Tanya met with Christine to learn about what they did instructionally, Christine kindly shared notes that she had kept about the curriculum. The notes as well the Monks’ descriptions of their experience, left me with a sense that at least four important things happened: 1) The Monks learned about double-entry journals as a tool to make sense of content generally; specifically they practiced by writing and commenting on quotations excerpted from the Dalai Lama’s book, Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2005); 2) The Monks considered (and named) ways to teach content that extended beyond the didactic exposure and debate to which they are accustomed (e.g., tell a story, draw, role play, model, write and perform a song, etc.); 3) Teams of Monks then tried some novel methods to teach Richard and Christine particular Buddhist concepts (e.g., Impermanence, Cause and Effect, Karma, etc.). 4) With regard to writing, the Monks started writing drafts about “what amazes me.”

What Amazes Me became a baton that Tanya and I reached for in our instruction, especially after Bryce expressed a hope that the Monks and nuns would complete essays that could be anthologized. Realizing how little time we actually had, Tanya conceptualized how to make this happen. Through a backwards design process, we tried to envision what the final essays might look like. From there onward, we tried to scaffold practice time to compose drafts of each piece of the essay.

On the first day, woven into a getting-to-know-you exercise, we asked groups of four participants to write down their personal topics of amazement, something that they looked forward to at the start of this three-week workshop. We also asked them to write their names, ‘home’ monasteries or nunneries, draw an animal that either represented them or that they appreciated. After the four tablemates re-introduced themselves, we asked them to consider and write/draw areas of overlap between them in a diamond in the center.

After each corner and diamond filled with words and images, we walked the room, recognizing quickly that we were the language learners grasping for anything that we could understand or recognize, for example pictures of animals and a sprinkling of English words. More profoundly, though, we saw that the Monks and Nuns had deep science interests and areas of amazement. Phuntsok, for instance, draws a yak, indicates his interest in “neuro” and is amazed by “Why [he] was born?!!!” With the help of one of the translators, I learned that Karma (at left) indicated her amazement for how the mind works and how it manages anxiety. Like Phuntsok, she appreciates neuroscience. Monks’ other sources of amazement included the internet, interdependence, atoms, evolution, the formation of the universe, and writing (!).

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False Starts and First day Writing

In one of our planning calls, Bryce Johnson, the director of Science for Monks, warned Tanya and me that Monks and Nuns can be reluctant writers since they come from an oral tradition of learning; more often than not, during monastic classes, learners listen to lectures and take notes  – a method of “transmission.” A regular feature of their studies involves public debates as a way to demonstrate learning. Sometimes the audience includes several hundred peers and teachers.

At one point, although Tanya and I agreed that we knew little about how to meet the particular learning needs of the Monks, given our National Writing Project work, we did know how to support people in writing for a variety of purposes. We also knew how to design “social practices” that support writers in generating ideas, composing, and sharing writing for response. Even so, we kept wondering what sort of writing we should invite the Monks and Nuns to do. How might we structure individual lessons? What could we prepare in advance?

One of my initial planning strategies involved looking at tens of favorite writing prompts that my colleagues and I have compiled and used at the Hudson Valley Writing Project (HVWP), a local site of the National Writing Project; in HVWP institutes, we often start workshops by “writing-into-the-day” as a way to extend participants’ experience with particular writing activities and, most importantly, to encourage a community of writers to form and flourish. Many HVWP participants describe that a daily writing practice helps them develop empathy for their own students, who they regularly ask to go out on a limb and write.

Two writing-into-the-day activities seemed promising – until they didn’t anymore.

One activity involved sketching out and then labeling maps of an early childhood home or neighborhood as a way to locate and remember stories before writing them. This activity invites writers to use art (more than language) as a way to generate ideas before writing. In another exercise, we draw concentric circles; in the bullseye, we write “I”; we label succeeding outer circles, family, school/work, community, state, country, the world, and earth; after drawing these diagrams, we superimpose notes about our personal cares and concerns that link to particular people and contexts. We talk about the diagrams we have constructed with a partner as a prelude to writing.

As Tanya and I reviewed these and several other writing activities we might introduce, we debated about how appropriate any were from a cultural perspective.  Imagine asking the Buddhist Monks and Nuns to draw write about their neighborhoods; what is a neighborhood in Tibet anyway? And what about “I” in the center of the concentric circles?  How appropriate is our American infatuation with “I” in non-western, learning contexts?

Although we opted not to have the Monks draw neighborhood maps or concentric circles, the first day, we engaged in an activity in which we asked pairs of Monks to tell each other two-minute stories about a time that they felt a joy for learning. After each told the story, the listener commented about one thing that s/he would like to know more about. The teller of the story summarized the advice before settling in to write their stories – for about 15 minutes. When time was up, we invited anyone to share what s/he’d written from the “author’s chair.” Imagine our delight when two people volunteered on the first day! The two writers wrote in English, something we had not anticipated. The writers then extemporaneously shared their stories orally.

In one of the stories, the writer described being born in a rural Tibetan village and taking part in a perilous journey across a raging river and snowy, Himalayan passes; the storyteller recounted how his older brother, hired an “expert Nepali swimmer” who helped him manage a scary swim. The story also included a moment, when as a young boy, he playfully jumped in a snowy bank and sank up to his hands. “Luckily [his] hands were on the top of the snow” and his brother could pull him out with his “wet cloth (sic).”

The writer’s draft ends with additional description that hints at the harrowing journeys many boys endured as they heeded a call to leave their Tibetan homeland, in order to pursue dreams of Monkhood and to escape the tyranny of the Chinese who were invoking their cultural cleansing of Tibet. The Monk remembered two days without food and that “half” of his fellow travelers’ suffered “blind eyes due to the reflection of the snow.” Of course, this story and others were eye-opening to me.

To conclude, on our first day, Tanya and I went to our ‘wheelhouse.’ We modeled sharing two-minute oral stories and offering each other peer response, using a familiar stem: “I want to know more about _____________.” After our modeling, we invited participants to generate ideas through peer-to-peer talk, prior to writing. We then invited the writers to consider sharing their writing from an author’s chair, extending the normal audience who reads/listens to students’ writing. In following this route we established some yet-to-be-named routines or practices. Our decisions may have leveraged some of the Monks’ comfort in oral language.

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Acknowledging Teaching Fears

Tanya Baker, Director of Programs for the National Writing Project  (NWP), and I are working at Sager Science Leadership Institute.  Our task is to help Monks and Nuns (there are two in this cohort) use writing for a variety of purposes including the learning of science.

In spite of my experience teaching, I left for India with more doubt than confidence. In the past 30 years teaching – I have had spells teaching natural science and outdoor education to 5-6th graders, English to high school students, and courses related to curriculum, assessment, reading, writing, teacher research, and leadership to current and future teachers enrolled at SUNY New Paltz. I have been incorporating writing into my daily teaching for years; and my work within the NWP network has given me years of experience, designing and leading workshops that invite [English speaking] educators to write as a way to learn and write as a way to reflect on their experience as learners.

Even with these experiences, prior to my trip, I spent many waking hours wondering and worrying. What do I know that can help me with what I don’t know? Where I have never been? With people I haven’t met? Working alongside someone with whom I’ve never taught? Standing alongside interpreters I have never met? And the science part? Could my love of the outdoors and minimal background with natural science be of any use in a program that introduces monks to quantum physics? And what about the Buddhist Monk and Nun part? What are monks? Nuns? What is Buddhism, really? And how would language work? Would any of them speak English? Write English? Read English? Read or write in Hindi? Tibetan?

[I won’t go into any fears introduced by a travel doctor who insisted that I could get rabies, malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, polio, or meningitis; nor will I go into the challenges I faced when trying to follow directions  in order to procure a Visa for India].

Ignore doubts – just think. What do we know?  In one of our planning phone calls, after acknowledging several doubts, Tanya and I placed a mantra on the header of our google doc and promised to remember:

-We know how to help people write for a variety of purposes — narrative, writing to learn, writing to plan, to name identify intentions, etc.

-We know how to organize learning/social learning

-We know how to help teachers make sense of their learning.


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Setting up a Classroom for Monks

On Sunday, our first day here, we took time to organize the classroom which is on the third floor of the Sagor Science Center. I am drawn to the windows for views of the mountains, hawks soaring by and occasional afternoon hang gliders. The room has a fresh supply of hands-on materials to support science learning, and two strategically placed whiteboards. Setting up isn’t terribly difficult; we place tables so that the monks/nuns can easily share ideas in quads. The larger challenge is trying to imagine what it might be like working with them: there are 24 Monks and two nuns.

Bryce has placed black and white photos of the cohort on the back wall. As I stare at the photos, I am lost in thought, wondering how to pronounce names and what I have to teach and how we will go about it. I also feel a bit nervous about how to meet the Monks/Nuns in their areas of interest; under each of their names are the topics of amazement that they have personally identified to write about in essays with us: the human brain, the formation of the earth, the planetary system, etc.

Classroom taking shape

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Why am I here? Science for Monks

Bryce Johnson, the Executive Director of Science for Monks, a nonprofit, invited Tanya Baker and me from the National Writing Project, to join a small group of American scientists, a science writer, a lead exhibit designer/builder from the Smithsonian, and one Indian math educator, to work with 32 monks and nuns who are spending parts of three years as a cohort learning more deeply about science. The monks and nuns come in teams from 7 monasteries and 1 nunnery for workshops that span about 3 weeks. Their charge is to develop their scientific knowledge as well as their leadership and teaching skills.

The Science for Monks program reflects the vision of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, who believes that science and Buddhism, together, have potential to offer improvements to mankind and to alleviate human suffering, both physical and psychological (see The Universe of a Single Atom).

More concretely, the Monks and Nuns in this third cohort will collectively design and build a museum-like exhibition about the connection between physics and Buddhism*; each team will demonstrate their leadership by teaching and advancing science at their monasteries and in adjoining areas. During our workshops, they will write daily for a variety of purposes (e.g., writing to learn, plan/brainstorm, describe, explain, clarify, etc.). Members of this cohort are each writing essays about something that amazes them – grounding the essays with personal stories, connections to Buddhist philosophy and to science. How would you answer what amazes you?

[*Prior teams developed incredible exhibitions: one about the connections between sensory perception and Buddhism and another about the Climate Change and Buddhism].

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