Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Books For Bhutan

We've been home from Bhutan since January, and although I feel fully immersed in a rich and happy life here in Australia, I still think of Bhutan everyday.

I've become a Bhutanophile whose heart was captured by that magical place like no other at the top of the mountains.

Daily I read updates from Bhutan Street Fashion on Facebook and keep up to date with goings on in Chumey and beyond through friends across the country. Recent tragic news from my village pulled at my heart strings and I wished I could be there to understand and offer support to my students and the community. Friendships are developing with other Australians involved in various projects in Bhutan - the networks created are friendly and supportive.

I wanted to share a project I've been working on for a few months and which is starting to take some shape.

If you read my blog last year you would have known I developed a real passion for teaching reading to my students - within my classroom as well as in my role as primary school librarian.

Reading seemed to me to be the most important skill my students needed to acquire. Most started school with no knowledge of English and yet this foreign language is the medium for their primary and high school education. Becoming a fluent user of English is imperative to success at school and the only pathway to further education and opportunities in Bhutan and beyond.

I saw how critical fluency in English was for my students, but I felt the odds were stacked against them with limited resources for learning English, the teachers' reluctance to speak English with students and a mainly antiquated rote method of teaching language and reading.

It's a huge dilemma and there's no quick fix. However, one resource I brought with me seemed to have a great effect.

I bought a bundle of levelled readers in Thimphu and used these to listen to my students read one on one every morning before school. Most started with level 1 and struggled with even the most simple sentences as they had so little vocabulary in English. The books were made for Australian kids so they were about trips to the park, rock pools or museum, Australian style birthday parties, school fetes and making cheese tomato and lettuce sandwiches!

Characters called Jake, Anja, Emily and Jessica featured and try as they might, my students stumbled again and again over these unfamiliar names.

Despite these hurdles, day by day my little group of enthusiastic readers powered on through the levels, supported by our intense vocabulary work in English lessons, to become fluent and confident readers by the end of the year. I had 8 out of my 25 students achieve level 24 by the end of the year which puts them on par with Australian children of the same age. Most were not far behind with levels from 14 - 20. The lowest had still achieved around level 8, and it's not unheard of to find a level 8 reader at the end of grade two in Australia. The fact that these children were learning English as a third or fourth language filled me with enormous respect for the huge achievement they'd made.

So, my mind began whirring with the idea of producing a set of very similar levelled readers that were Bhutan-ised. They would need simple modifications to content to draw on Bhutanese children's prior knowledge and life experience. I thought clear and colourful photographic images of familiar scenes would engage students and help them identify vocabulary. And Jake and Anja would need to make way for Dorji and Deki!

Anyway, I'm really happy to let you know that these ideas are coming to fruition. I wrote 20 very simple books and since then have been collecting photos from my friends and colleagues in Bhutan for the illustrations of the book. And thanks to my obsession with photo-a-day last year I had thousands of photos of my own that perfectly fit the simple topics of the books.

Setting out was like starting a scary and new adventure, but once I began I've noticed how things seem to fall into place. I recently went to a friend's birthday party and sat next to a woman named Andrea. We chatted about this and that, and perhaps inevitably the conversation veered in the direction of Bhutan. Andrea was a great listener and I started to tell her about this project and where I was at. She looked at me and said 'You need a graphic designer' and without hesitation offered her skills voluntarily to help move my little books forward.

I am so grateful to Andrea  (of Studio 77 Graphic Design) for her generosity and her support of the project. Yesterday she emailed me the first rough draft of a front cover for the books and I am excited to share it with you. She has done a lovely job of incorporating the very Bhutanese image of prayer flags. I'm happy to see one of my brightest and most delightful students from Chumey, Sonam Choki Dorji grace the cover.

Andrea is working on developing a few of these books to have ready to present at an upcoming Bhutan related event and I'm hoping to meet the contacts I need to move this project forward to the next step which will involve having them printed and distributed to as many Bhutanese primary schools as possible. Next year will be National Reading Year in Bhutan to celebrate His Majesty the 4th King's 60th Birthday. It would be wonderful to have the books ready to launch by then.

I don't know exactly how this will happen but I'm open to what will come. A dear old friend of mine, a Buddhist monk who went by the name of 'Venerable Stardust' used to say 'Learn to live with little question marks'. Let's see what happens next.