Posted August 6th 2010 at 9:17 am by
in Nepali Classes at MIT

Why Are You Here?

This week’s class marked the halfway point for our “semester”, and it was the first time that we almost did not have enough volunteers to teach all the sections. It was also the first time that we had to conduct the classes without two veteran volunteers who had been with us from the beginning. Their stay in Boston had ended and they had already taught their last class the previous week. On top of that, this week, one of the teachers was late to class because of traffic and one of the parents very generously agreed to cover for the delayed teacher.

Many people ask how we find volunteers. The volunteer teachers and organizers are students, and summer for students is supposed to mean freedom, at least relative freedom, from being bound to a physical location. Sunday mornings, when our classes take place, usually means freedom to sleep.  Therefore, we adopted the following strategy: try to sign up twice the required number of volunteers, and ask them to indicate which days they will be available. Then we planned around that availability. It has worked so far, although it has limited us a bit. Dividing up the students into even smaller groups is something we have periodically wished we could do. Although the reason is one most of us had not thought of at the beginning.

The students learn at various rates. To our surprise, some of the students who seemed to know the most have moved slower than those who knew almost nothing. We discussed this amongst the teachers and wondered why this was the case.  Each of us had a different suspicion. Maybe it was related to whether the students did their homework. Maybe some of the parents helped the students.  Maybe those who knew less were more motivated. Maybe those who knew more had closed their minds, thinking there wasn’t that much more to learn. An intriguing hypothesis was that perhaps those who knew more did not want to admit what they did not know, whereas those who knew very little had no such complexes. Maybe age explains it or perhaps it was as simple as intelligence and attitude.

This has pushed us to talk about rearranging the students in class.  Some of us thought that perhaps it was time to put the fast learners in one group, and the slower learners in another. The argument for this was that the slow learners were holding the class back.  However, if we put these slow learners in a separate group, would they even know that it was possible to learn fast? Perhaps they are learning faster than usual (even though they appear slower) because they are in the company of others who are faster. Some teachers expressed being together is what this is all about regardless of speed of learning.   This ongoing discussion did make us wonder though why the students wanted to join the classes in the first place, and what they expected before beginning.

As it turns out, we had asked the students to answer some questions before they joined and one of them was: ” Why do you want to study Nepali?” Here are some of the answers:

– To be able to read and write Nepali

– To be able to learn Nepali culture and pass it on to the next generation

– To be able to speak to my parents

– To talk to grandma

– I want to be able to speak Nepali when I go to Nepal

– I want to watch Nepali programs and cartoons

– I want to sing Nepali songs

– Be able to speak Nepali with my family back in Nepal

– To visit Nepal soon

– To know my dad’s country better

– To keep my identity

It was apparent though, to all the teachers involved, that some students did their homework and others did not. Those who did their assignments seemed to have parents who helped and forced them, and those who did not seemed to have parents who did neither. Parental involvement is not always desirable; parents who did the homework for the students hindered more often than helped them. As a follow-up, we had also asked why their parents wanted them to study Nepali. When you read the answers below, keep in mind the parents of younger students answered this question while the older students filled out their own forms. Nevertheless, here were some of the answers:

– They think it will be good for me in the future

– They want me to learn the language

– Because my dad is from Nepal

– It is the national language

– To be socialized  with the Nepali community

– To experience the Nepali culture

– To be able to talk to relatives when I go to Nepal

There are a variety of reasons amongst a variety of people as to why they are involved in this initiative. It is heartening to know that although we are providing a limited, basic language class, the students will use what they learn in many different ways and for things we could not have imagined.

Atul Pokharel is a PhD candidate in the International Development Group at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He is in his third year in the program and focuses on law and economic development. This summer he is in Boston watching the World Cup.

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