Sunday, September 19, 2010

Orchid Garden Nepal

For most of my stay here, I will be working at Orchid Garden Nepal (OGN). OGN is a day care center and preschool for children with low income parents. Many of these parents are day laborers, street vendors, housekeepers, etc. They are barely able to support their families and, as a result, don't have time to care for their children. OGN also serves as an orphanage for a few children. One of the most common questions people have asked me in emails and over skype has been what the children are like and what OGN is like. Now that I've spent most weekday afternoons for the last two weeks at OGN, I feel better equipped to answer that question...

So every weekday after Lunch, I set out on the 35 minute walk to OGN which usually means I arrive around 2. When I get there, I'll either go and help out with the older kids who are in classrooms (4 classrooms total, about 15 kids per teacher) or the little ones who are in the nursery. For my first few days at OGN, I spent much of my time with the nursery kids. These guys range anywhere from 9 months up to two or three years old. By the time I arrive, they will have already had lunch (usually rice, lentils, and milk) and should be settling down into nap time. In practice, this means that thirty of them nap, while two or three troublemakers walk around stepping on or throwing toys at their napping compadres.

Nap time in the nursery. This room actually flooded last week and there were fish swimming in it...
The playground is still flooded. This is the problem with being adjacent to a poorly maintained rice paddy during monsoon season.
The youngest of this lot is nine months old. She has an older sister who is five and both of them have recently started at OGN after Bina (the woman who runs OGN) heard about their situation. Their mother was like many of the mothers who have children at OGN: she needs to work all day to feed her family. As a result, the five year old was left at home, taking care of the baby. When Bina heard about this from some of their neighbors, she went to see the mother and organized for the kids to come to OGN. Obviously even the most mature five year old isn't really equipped to care for a baby, so the mere fact that that situation has been changed is a positive step. But because OGN also provides lunch and a snack to the kids, as well as a roughly kindergarten level education to the five year old, they can take some financial pressure off the mother by reducing the number of meals she has to provide for the kids and by giving her children an education she couldn't afford otherwise.

The recent parent's meeting.
Working with the little kids is mostly a matter of keeping them entertained by any means necessary. That usually involves distributing a metric ton of stuffed animals and then giving additional attention to the special few who seem to have a knack for getting into/causing trouble. One boy, for instance, likes to throw his toys out the back window into the flooded rice paddy behind the nursery. Another girl, has figured out that if she climbs up on things and then falls off them, she can have a really great time provided someone is there to catch her. This is obviously nervewracking, especially as the nursery floors are solid concrete. All this makes working in the nursery a kind of constant triage. There's just too many kids to play with them all simultaneously...Unless you are this woman.

She is the real reason the nursery doesn't devolve into chaos. She feeds the kids, changes diapers, and comforts crying babies. Since she is some kind of miracle worker, she also seems to manage to play with all the kids, all at the same time, all while doing other things that need to be done.

Sometime the little ones do thing that they shouldn't...

The rugs were outside because they were being dried out after the flooding.
This worm drew the interest of a small crowd of toddlers.
So that's the nursery. Lately though, I've been spending more time in the classrooms with the older children. This is mostly just because I'm able to contribute more in the classrooms. The older kids are learning to read and write Nepali, basic math (i.e. counting, addition, etc.), and concepts like shapes, colors, parts of the body, and animals. There is also a drama class where the kids get to sing, dance, and do a little theater. Between my broken Nepali and their broken English, I can communicate well enough with the kids so that I can be some aid to the teacher in the classroom. This usally involves asking the kids questions (what color is this, what is this *point to nose*, etc), checking their written English for mistakes and helping them correct those, and just serving as a second pair of eyes in the classroom.

Class UKG.

Amusingly, the older children speak really polite English because that's what they've been taught. When you show up, you can expect to be greeted by "Good Afternoon, Sir" chanted in unison. Similarly, they've been taught to ask permission before they enter or leave the classroom.

This doesn't mean that they're always well behaved though. Some of them fall asleep in class, hit their friend who is sitting in front of them, steal each other's toys, and generally cause trouble. The teaching method can be a bit repetitive at times so these things tend to happen when the kids get bored. Not surprisingly, they've figured out that volunteers are far less likely to punish them (not least because of the language gap) and so they're usually at their worst behavior when the teacher leaves me or Oliver (the other volunteer) alone in the classroom.

I wish I had a better memory of what I did in kindergarten for two reasons. First, I'd have a better idea of what I should be doing to teach the kids and second, I'd have a better sense of how OGN compares to a typical kindergarten class. I suspect that the OGN education is a little slap dash. A few of the teachers are very young and this is their first time teaching. The lessons are too easy for some of the older kids in the class but difficult for the younger ones. Ideally, there would be a little less rote memorization. But these are small things. At the end of the day, it's an education. Maybe it's scrapped together a bit, but it's something. Hopefully, when some of these kids transfer into private school (usually with financial aid from OGN) they'll be ready for the harder curriculum because of this sort of thing.

So that's OGN. I usually stick around until 5 or 6 pm, at which point most of the kids have been picked up by their parents. Then it's 35 minutes back to Boudha through the traffic and dust. And then I'm home, exhausted and hungry and ready to sleep...


  1. Hi Nick - your interaction with the kids is awesome but obviously challenging. Are the new teachers formally training and just out of school?
    Uncle Pete

  2. Nick, if I remember correctly my kindergarden education was rather "slap dash" in that we spent most of our time fooling around rather than doing any substantial learning. Though, the age and level difference present in the classroom is somewhat worrisome. This being said, I did not post to comment in this regard. When going through the post I noticed that the older children especially the girls have tended to put their hands out palm first at the camera. Though intuitively this did not appear to be a wave that was my first inclination. So, are they waving? or doing something else maybe posing (sort of like how Julia would make a ballerina pose whenever someone took a picture of her for the first eight years of he life)?

    I edited my last comment there were too many typos.

  3. @Pete I'm not sure about what sort of training the teachers have had. My guess is not much if any, but I'm not sure that's such a problem. Trial by fire is a good way to learn in this case. A month in these classrooms is probably more than enough training...

    @Matt A few are waving. But I think more generally what's going on is that a few of them had henna on their hands, and wanted to show off the design.

  4. So interesting. What an experience!

  5. I loved reading about the school and the children there, especially the way Bina, who sounds like a saint, intervened so that a five-year-old could be in school rather than at home, caring for a baby. So interesting--and so universal in many ways (eg, misbehaving once the reacher leaves the room...). I'm sure your help is very much appreciated, Nick. What a wonderful experience. Keep writing.