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

This blog recounts trips to India in 2018 and 2017 with stops in Mumbai, Delhi, Dharamsala, and points south; older entries come from a Spring 2014 trip which included stops in Ho Chi Minh City, biking in Cambodia, a quick trip to Bali, and educational encounters in Singapore. 

 

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Writing and being – community

This is one in a series of memos I am writing about what I am seeing/thinking about learning episodes. The process involves taking field notes, photographs and then trying to write fast enough to remember.

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In 2017, as a member of the Science for Monks western faculty,  I co-taught with Tanya Baker from the National Writing Project in Dharamsala, India near the Himalayas. This year, I am co-teaching writing with Jessie Early at Dzongkar Choede Monastery, located in a Tibetan Settlement near Hansur in southern India.  The vast majority of the cohort – 28 monks and nuns  – are meeting for a third year in a row to learn about science and science leadership; the class includes four new participants. Our faculty has changed, too. I am looking forward to learning from my co-teacher, Jessie, and the two science educators, Eric Muller and Modesto Tamez, each with deep experience teaching teachers how to incorporate activity-based science investigations.

So, the “same cohort” of students, translators, and faculty members, is different. And more than that, even if we were the same people in the same place, we are different. What we feel, think, and see is different. So, just as you might in any class, it is important to build and re-build a classroom learning community. Informal speaking and writing do much more than “break the ice.” To re-launch this classroom learning community, one at a time we quickly introduced ourselves by name, monastery (or university), and by one strange encounter with food. Within 15 minutes, we heard about someone’s first terrible taste of fish and about a former vegetarian who ate chicken by accident and liked it. One monk shared a story not about food, but instead, of smoking a first and last cigarette with a friend. After smoking and upon entering home, his mother immediately smelled the smoke; she cried as she beat him. I shared a first encounter eating cow tongue at my grandmother’s house; I did not explain how the texture and idea of eating taste buds has repulsed me ever since. I wasn’t sure that would translate.

After introductions were complete, Bryce, the leader of the Science for Monks program stood up and said, ‘Pay attention to how the room feels now that everyone has shared. The room feels different than it did ten minutes ago. We want to pay attention to how we create a climate for learning’

Next, for nearly two hours, Jessie led our first “writing into the day.” This involved listing, mapping, and then writing about personally meaningful places that “feel like home.” At the Hudson Valley Writing Project, we regularly do writing like this called the “neighbourhood map.”

Jessie began by sharing a quick list from her own life: “Grandmother’s kitchen when I little; A library where I read; The beach I visit; Hiking trail where I go on long walks; My garden.” She asked the monks to make their own lists and then to select one which they’d put on a map as she soon modelled. Screenshot 2018-12-04 at 11.30.20 AM.png

Next, Jessie drew a quick map, an outline of the United States. She identified and named her home state of Arizona and placed a dot for Tempe, her home. She then drew a cutout and continued to draw – a stick figure house and a special place there: her garden where she grows vegetables and has a favourite bird feeder.

Like Jessie, the monks and nuns made lists of special places, drew their own maps, cut out maps, and closer-in detailed maps with drawings and labels (see figure at right). Each person shared these figures in pairs before writing short pieces about one place.

I loved learning about the students’ special places. One person zeroed in on the Kiwi fruit and tree beside a grandparent’s house (above). Here are some other special places: a backyard well, a cat caring for her kittens, a dusty intersection where elephants walking, a 2-kilometer foot path around the lake, and different points at monasteries and nunneries.

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In addition to the  eventually each person added a post-it note to a larger map of India, Tibet and Nepal. The [re-]launch of this community involved quick ‘food’ introductions and a mapping sequence that invited all members of the cohort – student, teacher, and translator – to reassert their presence. When we are present and accounted for, when we have used our voices in a room, when we have named ourselves, when we have geo-located one of our stories on a collective map, we are here. Even if our being current “be-ing” is temporary or impermanent (as the monks would quickly remind me), for the short while we are together, writing offers a way be in a collective moment, to be in learning.

 

 

 

 

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New Paltz to Newark to Mumbai – cultural crossing

I spent months imagining a second trip to India. I pictured being in a classroom with monks and what sorts of writing might transpire. I pictured collaborative teaching with my travel mate, Jessie Early, the Director of the Central Arizona Writing Project and Associate Professor of English Education at Arizona State University. I didn’t picture the moment the travel day would arrive, nor the touchdown in Mumbai, either.

In New Paltz, it was an ordinary Monday until it wasn’t. Julie and I took an early morning walk with the dogs; I taught my regular afternoon graduate class; I left class happy to know that my students – future secondary teachers – would be discussing how/if teachers can be activists with my colleague and friend, Jackie Hesse and three of her 10th graders from P-Tech, Newburgh Free Academy.  As they met, Julie and I drove in heavy traffic through three, emergency flash flood warnings before finally arriving for a curbside kiss goodbye at Newark Airport, Terminal C.

Believe it or not, 15-hours on a plane goes fast when you have time to write, read, eat, and sleep. We emerge from customs into the balmy night and stepped out on to a huge, arrival terrace through a wall of hundreds of people holding signs and awaiting other travellers. We walked past a freestanding Starbucks, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and many other kiosks without westernized names. We walked up and down flights of stairs, travelled a few elevators and ramps only to find ourselves back where we started by the Kentucky Fried Chicken – ughh.

“How do we get out of here? Gotta’ ask someone.’ We stopped a well dressed gentleman and asked if he knew where we could find a ride to our airport hotel.

He looked at our bags: “That’s all you have? The two suitcases and those backpacks?” We nodded. “Follow me.” He quickly surmised that we were tuk-tuk-eligible and personally escorted us down a long flight of stairs. Instead of yellow taxis, a line of three-wheeled tuk-tuks awaited travellers seeking rides along the curb.Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 11.16.48 AM

A woman commandeering each traveller/tuk-tuk pair leaned in and spoke directly to us; our escort intervened. The woman bobbed her head with what appeared to be consternation as she waved us into a tuk-tuk. With our suitcases where our legs should have been, a silent driver drove us into the evening, swerving confidently, beep-beeping around cars, jockeying for position from the British side of the road. It felt as if we were at a midnight amusement park in Mumbai with air breezing through the open Tuk-Tuk.  Almost as soon as the ride started, it stopped; at a checkpoint station manned by hotel guards, we pulled our legs and luggage out of the tuk-tuk, up a ramp, past a strange cavalry of horses lit up by the night into a hotel lobby redolent with jasmine

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At the suggestion of a Writing Project colleague and friend, Darshna Katwala, I’m reading Sharmila Sen’s memoir about immigrating to Boston from Calcutta as an adolescent. In Not quite not white: Losing and finding race in America (2018) Sen writes about the experience of cross-cultural border crossing. “Languages, religions, tastes, beliefs, hair color, skin color, and even the shapes of bodies change… Except they do not.”

Except they do not.

As we touched down and found our way out of the airport, I felt strange.  Looking at dark faces and headbobs and hearing Hindi and tuk-tuk beep-beeps, inwardly I tried to process impressions. A man whom we had never met extended kindness to two confused travellers. A woman we had never seen and will never see again, had already resumed her job, barking orders at drivers and the next would be travelers.  People exist whether we are aware of them or not. Maybe it’s not that people or places are strange, but rather, we feel strange in a new place seeing out and looking inwards, recognizing at that instant the limits of what we know.

 

 

 

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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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