Shwe Ku school had long had a problem with reliable electricity, which affected not only lights but most importantly the well pump, and thus fresh water. A Myanmar donor had given a transformer but the school still lacked the funds for the hookup and wiring. That’s when Bob and Lucy Deaton of Holy Spirit Parish in Missoula stepped in. They decided to donate a sum that Lucy had inherited from her brother Richard, enough to complete the necessary work.
On January 26, we formally dedicated that critical project with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Four young women held the ribbon in front of the substation; four more bore scissors on silver trays and we four Missoulians did the cutting. One bunch of red balloons attached to the ribbon floated into the cloudless sky while we distributed three other bunches to a suddenly balloon-crazed crowd of kids and adults. It was joyful mayhem. One small boy climbed high up slender branches to retrieve a few that had been snagged in the treetop.
After enormous numbers of pixels had been expended on group photos, we adjourned to a large open classroom. Abbot U Wai Ponla spoke, followed by Karen Orzech. Gifts were exchanged. And we got to talk with the young women whose studies we had started supporting in 2014. All of them have now passed their matriculation exam and five are working as teachers at Shwe Ku while they attend college by distance learning.
Phalankone monastic school, 40 minutes away, is off the beaten path, but serves a large population in central Myanmar. It is now the proud host of a small dental clinic, thanks to the generosity of donors in Missoula.
On January 26, new Buddhist prayer flags fluttered along the road from the gate to the school. Our van stopped some distance from the school buildings because we could go no further. Hundreds of schoolchildren and villagers lined the road. Young women presented us with leis and beautiful bouquets. As we walked slowly up the road, we were greeted with broad smiles and choruses of “ Mingalaba.” We felt like royalty.
At the end of the road, in front of the dental clinic, ribbon and scissors awaited. Four young women held the ribbon; four more bore scissors on silver trays. Afterwards, we adjourned to a large, open hall, packed with villagers and teachers and draped with cloth banners. Taking off our sandals, we walked to the front and were seated in a row of automobile seats. The abbot, U Wi Thoke Darsara, spoke about the critical importance of dental care in this rural area. Villagers who had been treated at the clinic stood and flashed toothy grins. I said a few words, with Cho Cho Lwin translating. Other speeches followed. Then schoolgirls danced and sang. More gifts were presented, and of course there was delicious food, up on the abbot’s floor, where we sat cross-legged at low tables–rice, curries, soup and sweets. It was altogether a memorable and auspicious day.
Le Paw school is located in Kyar Tet village, west of the Chindwin River and south of Monywa, in the toddy-palm-studded, semi-arid heart of Myanmar’s agricultural lowlands. Three-fourths of its 800 or so students are 10th-graders, and the rest are 7th-, 8th- and 9th-graders. Pat King and I worked with 15 of the 22 teachers at the school, meeting daily on English conversation, which also became a seminar on teaching techniques. In addition, we observed the teachers in action daily and incorporated feedback into our classes. We brought and donated about 75 books, as well as puzzles, games and other materials to be used by teachers at Le Paw. We had many opportunities to observe farming and village life and local sights and everyone we met treated us with kindness and warmth. We slept in a converted classroom and ate delicious Myanmar food prepared in the compound, usually followed up by local jaggery to aid digestion.
In our classes, we used a curriculum we had developed in Montana that reinforced Studer Trust’s English instruction at its Teacher Training Centre. Focusing on conversation, vocabulary and pronunciation, we worked through a series of lessons with our willing and eager pupils. We discussed and modeled techniques aimed at more student-centered learning such as small groups, individual participation and leadership, word games, songs and even re-arranging the furniture to encourage interaction. We were delighted to see that, with the encouragement of head teacher U Pyinnyar, teachers began to implement some of these techniques.
Still, there is a long ways to go. With very large classes, insufficient and poorly paid teaching staff, no money for materials of any sort, outdated and irrelevant textbooks and pressure to hew to the traditional curriculum, it is no wonder that teachers rely primarily on the old model of repetition and recitation to a) control classrooms and b) get through the textbook. What is lost is any chance to foster critical thinking, inquiry or even any sense of enjoyment in the learning process. With all these daily obstacles and more, it was nevertheless encouraging to see that the teachers were open to change and willing to experiment with new ideas.
Being a native of the area and having taught for many years, U Pyinnyar knows everybody. With him, we visited local farm families who always invited us in for tea and lapet thote and other goodies, and showed us peanut threshing, peanut oil extraction, sunflower seed processing, basket weaving, pottery making and more. We were lucky to observe a novitiate ceremony with all the silk and gold finery paraded through the village’s dirt streets. We ranged farther afield to caves studded with Buddhas and wall frescoes (Po Win Daung), Monywa’s “Buddhaland” (Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung) and Bagan’s famous temples and stupas.
Of course, our time at Le Paw was too short, but we feel blessed to have had the opportunity to teach and interact with its wonderful teachers. Their loving-kindness in welcoming us and caring for us–known as metta in Buddhist belief–is a quality of the heart that speaks volumes.