Writing with the students

Hello again.

I've spent most of this week trying to acquaint my students with an effective writing process.  I've tried to follow the prescribed curriculum, but I keep running into the inevitable fact that it seems to be written for students who speak English as a first language and who have been writing in English all their lives. Well - they have been writing in English, but they've been writing in English like I wrote in French in high school.  It's one thing to learn how to write a sentence, another entirely to learn how to write with a readable and consistent voice.

One example - for our first assigned essay, the advice was to begin by having students paraphrase the essay.  Fair enough.  Then we were advised to move on to other activities during the first class. (I should explain -- there's a national curriculum in Bhutan that all teachers are expected to follow, and along with it there's a "teacher's guide" that gives fairly precise suggestions for the way to approach each text.)  That all seemed completely fine to me; it's a good, standard practice to have students begin by paraphrasing.

So I went in that day feeling pretty good about the plan I'd made, the plan that corresponded with what the experts recommended.  But... When I introduced the idea of paraphrasing, the students had never even heard the word, let alone the concept of summarising a piece of writing in their own words.  Add to that the fact that this first essay dealt with an African-American's struggle for education in the 19th Century and you get an idea of the difficulty I encountered.  Ten minutes to paraphrase?  Phaw.  Try a week.  You can't paraphrase if you've no idea what that means.  You can't paraphrase an essay you can't understand.

I've never believed it's proper teaching to just press on regardless of your students' comprehension.  That's not teaching at all, in fact.  That's just talking to hear yourself talk and ignoring the needs of your students.  Not for me.

So we moved slowly, step by step.  These students are so keen to learn, so earnest in their efforts.  Many of them wrote long, detailed paragraphs that were practically a retelling of the essay, so I had to correct these efforts by explaining what it meant to summarise something abstractly.  (Do you know what "abstract" means?  "Nooooo sir!"  OK... and there went another day.)  Then, finally, we were ready to move on to the ultimate recommended goal of the unit - students writing their own narrative essays about their own struggles for an education.

To me, this is a fascinating and worthy topic.  Many, even most, of these kids are the first in their families to go to school at all.  Studying their notes, I found many students talking about their parents who never went to school, but sacrificed a great deal - including the simple fact of having a child at home to help them with their work - in order to guarantee that their children would have a different, better future.  Many students even have siblings who stayed at home rather than going to school.  This is a story that needs to be told!  In so many ways, this generation of Bhutanese in a pioneering generation.  Only they will have been born into a kingdom that became a democracy; only they will be the first in their families to receive a formal education.  I deeply believe that they must become effective writers, because their stories will be precious in the history of Bhutan.

So I don't compromise with their development.

I chose to teach them sentence combining in order to help them negotiate the multiple challenges that composing in a second language.  (Or third, actually - students in the East speak Sharchop, are taught Dzonkha, the national language, and also take all of their classes speaking English.)  Even this needed modelling; the students needed coaching in order to generate lists of simple, unconnected sentence that could be combined later.

And all of the above is a preamble for what comes now.  Two days ago I took each of the four sections I teach outside for ten minutes.  The activity was to write down as many sentences as they could, simply recording what they saw.  We made it a competition to see who could write the most in ten minutes.  No concern about style, no attempt to write paragraphs, just a bunch of descriptive sentences, as many as they could write.  (One kid, surely a future novelist, wrote ninety-five sentences in ten minutes.  Ninety-five!)

The next day we had a workshop in which the students grouped related sentences (ie. all sentences about what they heard went in a group, all sentences about trees, etc.).  That done, they combined these sentences, looking for repeated language and other commonalities that invited combination.  I love this technique, both as a teacher and a writer.  It's simply too much to ask students to try to figure out what they're saying and how to say it at the same time.  Sentence combining allows students to decide what to say first, then focus upon how to say it.

And the results, so far, have been incredibly encouraging.  One girl showed me a paragraph that I told her was better than Booker T. Washington's writing.  She says she wants to be an engineer; I told her I'll let her as long as she promises to write fiction on the weekends.

I did all of this along with the students, staying always one step ahead of them so I could explain from my own recent experience what they needed to do next.  And that means I can offer you my own piece of descriptive writing, the product of 40 minutes' careful inspection of Tashitse HSS.  I don't promise it's perfect, but it does serve as a sort of written panorama of my new home.  Maybe it will help you to see how I see the school, and the sometimes boundless happiness I feel being here.  Or maybe it will show why I'm an English teacher and not an award-winning writer.

But here it is.

It is a shock to step outside from my classroom; my eyes struggle to adjust to the strong sun, forcing me to squint, but the sun feels warm on my face.  The trees sway gently in the cooling breeze that crosses the courtyard.

The school ground, dug into the top of a hill, is small and flat.  It takes the form of a courtyard with a cement basketball court in the center.  A circle painted yellow and red surrounds each foul line; the center circle is green, red and blue.  Old, torn nets hang from each hoop.  One of them hangs almost sideways.

The classroom buildings are constructed from stones arranged in perfect line like bricks.  Their roofs are red, corrugated metal.  Wooden stairs lead up the outer front wall of each building, sheltered by their own corrugated roofs.  They lead to long, wooden balconies that run the length of each building, the only access to the second-floor classrooms.  Square, wooden, whitewashed pillars support each balcony, and atop each pillar is an ornate, painted, floral design: a red background with flowers of green and blue edged in yellow.

A long flight of cement stairs leading to the administration building is cut into a steep hill planted with orchids.  To one side, at the base of the stairs, an altar stands, housing a golden goddess who sits holding a long staff on a throne inside.  A concrete wall next to the stairs bears the inscription, “strive together for wholesome citizens.”  A message on another wall exhorts us to “think higher, study seriously.”  Above this wall, on a small grassy step, a flagpole stands; the gold and orange Bhutanese flag flutters in the weak breeze.

A chorten sits across the basketball court and opposite the stairs, mostly hidden behind bamboo bushes atop a small, man-made hill, really a big pile of dirt.  The front of the hillock is littered with yellow, brittle bamboo leaves.  A lone rhododendron tree stands nearby, its blossoms a velvety red.

Crows argue in the distance as songbirds sing all around.  Two different songs come from opposite sides of the courtyard.  One bird sings a short, loud song; the other birds’ song is quieter and more constant.  Distant dogs’ barks echo from the landfill in a ravine behind the kitchen, where one can usually find the lemurs.

Between the classroom buildings I can see the brown, dusty football pitch, almost completely without grass.  I have played on this pitch and it is a minefield of big rocks, cow dung, and dog turds.  It demands careful vigilance, even when one is simply standing still.

A lone, yellow dog, almost asleep, lies nearby.  He lifts his head and then rests his muzzle again in the grass.  He lies in the shadow, right at the edge of it, right where sun and shadow meet.

The mountains, faint in the afternoon haze, form silhouettes as they ripple away in every direction.  It is impossible to see their details, the trees and terraced fields that I know are there even if they are invisible.  Tall, white clouds extend from the mountains high into the sky, although the sky above my head is clear and blue.  The clouds ring the horizon leaving a circle of blue over the school and the valley.  These thick clouds, like giant walls of cotton balls, hem us in, but they don’t threaten rain.

My students sit organized by gender in the grass.  The girls sit against the hillock, their red-and-blue plaid kiras seeming muted beneath their aqua blue degos with bright pink collars and cuffs.  The boys sit apart, between the classroom buildings; their ghos are the same plaid as the girls’ kiras, accentuating the pure white of their cuffs.  All of the students are writing except for one group who sit in a circle, their chatter drifting to my ears.  They don’t look like they are writing, but then they notice me watching them.  Now they are writing again.  The girls all giggle cheerfully when I yell “twenty seconds to go!”  It is a nice scene; everyone seems to enjoy this exercise.

Later in the day, I wander behind the classroom building.  There are many different species of tree here, even some that are uprooted and dead.  One tree lies on the ground with plants growing out of its decaying core, which is gradually turning into wood chips.  The tree lies at the edge of a ravine with steep, sparsely covered banks.

Scattered ferns grow along the banks of the ravine; at the bottom the ravine is flat with a green, grassy clearing and two trees growing.  Their leaves are very broad, some kind of palm tree.  Some of the leaves are still green but most of them are brown, dry, brittle and dead, resembling old paper more than once-living matter.  Doves coo from a tree somewhere below me.  A few pine trees with long, green needles that hang down from their branches grow on the far side.

Sometimes I hear a distant noise, like branches shaking just out of sight; I assume it is the lemurs.  In fact, they sound very near: I can hear them squeaking like giant mice, and craning my neck I can see an entire tree shaking each time they jump from branch to branch.  I can’t see the lemurs, though; I can only see the branches dancing and hear their chatter.

One very tall pine tree, distant at the top of the opposite bank, is full of crows.  They fill the tree, resembling black Christmas ornaments from a distance.  They seem annoyed as they look down at the lemurs below them, scolding them and flying away every now and then.  But they always return to the tree despite the restless primates rustling down in the ravine.


  1. Jon, I almost feel like I've been there now. Beautiful description. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing, Jon! Love the post and love the activity.


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