Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lessons packed for Nepal, and some "change"

The (physical) change

I was recently teaching in Nepal, and yes, my learning  curve was deliciously steep  and the journey incredible beyond words—but there were several lessons that resounded mightily before I even left.

Let’s begin with a little 3rd grade math:
Keep this in mind.
One picture may be worth a thousand words, and as I was about to learn, it can also ignite a passion never before realized. If you doubt that it can, please read on for an encouraging story about 4 girls inspired by one picture and the opportunity of a lifetime.

It was a month before I departed for Nepal to teach and train teachers for 3 weeks, and although I had told one group of my students, very few of my other students or even my colleagues were aware of my upcoming travels.  But, I felt it was time to talk about it, introduce them to what I was planning, and learn what questions they had so I could take their curiosity, along with notes and postcards, with me.
One group of girls in particular were enthralled with a single picture they saw of the SAV school in rural Bageshwori, Nepal...  
SAV School Nepal

Upon learning there was no electricity or running water, and seeing the differences between our physical learning environment and theirs, 2 of my girls decided they wanted to raise money for me to bring to the school and its students. By lunchtime they had recruited 2 more girls to help.
They asked if they could collect donations from their 3rd grade classes, and I said yes, they could try. Being in a Title I school, it’s a personal conundrum to ask for money, but how could I not honor their attempts? I said yes, and asked what they needed in order to do so. They gathered small boxes for kids to put change in,  decorated them, and off they went.

A couple of days later—emboldened by some success—they asked if they could go to their former 2nd grade teachers, and I said yes. But, I asked, worried about where this might go, do you know how to explain this? The teachers were unaware of my plans, hence the entire context needed to be explicitly explained. Were they up to the challenge?

Apparently they decided “not yet.” And commenced to make a poster with the picture of the school, and their goal—to raise money for the school in Nepal.  They visited the first classroom, but realized they needed a map when one teacher questioned them about the location of Nepal.
On and on it went, with their initial shyness and hesitation turning into a well-rehearsed plea for donations, buoyed stoutly by their growing knowledge about Nepal, skyping sessions with the principal of the school (who never knew of the girls’ plans), extending out to other classes schoolwide for donation requests. One girl even decided to set up a table at our school’s Cultural Awareness Night; although before doing so, she had asked me if it would be ok. I said it probably would—then she proceeded to inform me that she should ask the assistant principal. I agreed, nearly as a dare, saying yes, you’ll need to ask him. Go ahead.
And of course she did.
248 = 21,576
The week before I departed, they collaborated with a group of 5th graders who filmed them for the morning news show. One of the girls had created an entire dialogue and skit for the 4 girls to talk about saving money for the school in Nepal rather than buying snacks or going shopping for needless items. With each of the girl’s roles highlighted and written out, it was astounding evidence of their knack for foresight.
Checking out the girls' poster
Keep in mind that all of this happened during lunchtime and in the mornings before school began. They brainstormed while they ate, and worked as soon as they were done. It was completely their deal. The last week, they also decided to make a huge poster/ banner with pictures from around our school, photos of their peers, and of the staff members. The labeled pictures even included their bus, bus stop, and inside the school. Kids in Nepal were mesmerized. Donations topped the girls’ goal of $200, for a total of $248.

Asking questions, wondering, comparing

Now that I’ve returned, I passed along the messages of heartfelt thanks from the SAV School’s principal and teachers in Nepal. Because of the girls’ donations, their school will be able to “maintain the school’s playgroup”, which means the girls’ efforts have sponsored an entire pre-k class for the year, giving a priceless headstart of early learning to kids who benefit immensely. Their money was also enough to purchase supplies for hands on learning for kindergartners.
So, when $248 converts into 21,576 Nepali rupees, it’s not multiplication magic. The amount goes a long way, enough to pay a teacher’s salary for 6 months. What these girls did may be quantified by numbers, but not by the heart--and it goes without saying that their efforts are not quantifiable by test scores.
4 days after my return, the girls asked if they could make a video for our school, thanking students and staff for their donations…I don’t know why it surprised me, that they are thanking others rather than seeking it for themselves…but filming starts Monday and I’ll be supplying the Kleenex.
Thanks to these 4 girls, here’s what my journey to Nepal taught me before I even left:

1. Nurture the best of your students. I’ve worked in Title I schools for 13 of my 16 years of teaching. I know what kids are capable of and that surprises abound. Yet I still approached this whole project with ideas founded in deficit-model thinking. “They are students who receive free lunch, I can’t ask them to raise money….” Yet, they had the idea and will within themselves. Burning brightly—and my support was all they needed. How many other missed chances have there been for me to nurture the best of who my kids are?
2. Empower their passions. If we want kids to believe in themselves—to show tangible evidence of increased confidence, to know they are making a difference, to encourage their pursuit of passions, then we can’t always think about their weaknesses. We need to spend as much time trying to strengthen their strengths as we do their weaknesses. And yes, it necessitates taking time to learn what they are. How about an interventionist for student passion?
3. Step back and let students take charge. They will amaze you. “Wait time” is not just a strategy for responses to questions in class—give them the tools, maybe some guiding questions or redirection, but not the answers. In this case, the girls’ ideas were far more innovative and in-depth than I could ever have imagined.
4. Provide emotional and material support, and, in conjunction with “wait time”, be very slow to voice doubts. Often, during the three weeks of this project, I wanted desperately to caution them that they may not achieve their goal of raising $200, or that “x” might not be a great idea. I am so glad I didn’t. I was nervous—this was risk-taking for me, but oh, the rewards of shunning deficit-model thinking and releasing control.

Look at the strengths of your students today. Ask yourself what you are doing to nurture those passions and make them stronger. Then, until we figure out a way to garner data points on enthusiasm and passion, be willing to risk shifting instruction toward your students’ strengths at least as much as their weaknesses. Chances are, there will be a lot of change. Far more than $248 worth!

Raising global awareness one connection at a time

4 movers and shakers to keep any eye on
The circle goes around--one of the handcrafted thank-you notes
from the teachers in Nepal to the girls. 


  1. Brava, maestra!

  2. Marginalized poor in a remote village at Alleppey, Kerala has appointed Swatchalika, daughter of Govinda, as their English Language Trainer. Swatchalika will earn honorarium for chatting in English with her peers in the village and help realize Govinda's dream.