How is my teaching changed by being here?

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The first change is unsurprising, I need to use less complex English. The students are Karen speakers, most of them know either Thai or Burmese or both, and they use English almost only for their studies – remember that they watch no television or films, they read no magazines, most of the usual ways in which people around the world practice and improve their English are not available to students here. So, I need to choose simpler ways of saying things. Actually, like most teachers, I have loved reading since childhood, enjoy words and wordplay, and so even when I am teaching a University class of native-born English speakers I need to simplify the language I use. All classes need technical terms explained – that’s part of what teaching is about, not a new skill.

The paragraph above already introduced one of the changes that we had not really expected – at least not at the level deeper than “thoughts”. These students have far less experience of world than most. Quite a few of the class were born in the camps, even more first entered a camp while they were of primary school age. Few radios, almost no TVs, and very few print publications enter the camp. Most people here do not get holidays, but may unofficially visit a Thai-Karen village (along the border strip, but inhabited by Karen who have Thai nationality and so are free to move). There are two PCs which share the Internet connection that I am using, but few students get time enough to use these for long enough to really learn how to discover the world electronically. Those who can, print out pages with news from the Free Burma Rangers, and other Karen/Burma related news items, and post them up on the school notice board. Shopping means either a visit to one of the little “shops” that several of the neighbouring families run – tea, coffee, washing powder, water in bottles, even luxuries like banana chips, or Fanta. For larger or more complex shopping – like when we needed pens to write on the whiteboards – there is the small unofficial market nearer the middle of the camp. Their experience is limited to the few thousand people in this part of the camp, with occasional glimpses of the wider world beyond the wire.

A third change is again no surprise, though it might have the biggest impact on teaching. Students here have a greater and deeper spirituality than “Western” students. The Bible lives for them, and it governs their lives to an extent that few Western Fundamentalists can really imagine, yet they are not Fundamentalists. They are quite ready to read the Bible flexibly, and are open to notions that the people whose lives are recorded in the Bible grew and developed in their understanding of God. They are even open to the idea that different parts of the Bible can express God, and God’s purposes for humanity, more or less well, fully and clearly… nevertheless (or precisely because of this?) they read, pray and meditate on the Bible from morning to night, to an extent that even my uncle (a longstanding Brethren Elder, who tried to be as “biblical” as he could in every aspect of his life) could not manage in a “normal” Western context.

How this difference can/should modify my teaching I am very unsure at present, to some extent it was similar in Africa, but it was also very different. Congo celebrated the centenary of the first Protestant missionaries just before our arrival there, and the Old Testament was only translated into even the main trade languages as recently as the 1970s. Christian faith and the Bible both had shallow roots in Congo. Karen contact with the gospel and the Bible goes back to William Carey, and then the American Baptist missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson in 1812. There has been a Sgaw Karen translation of the Bible available since 1853. This means that Christian spirituality and the Bible are far more deeply integrated into Karen life and people, so a simplistic approach that merely teaches about the contents of the Bible is less appropriate.

Then there is the specialist knowledge that teachers always hope students will bring to the class, and which we assume has grown from year to year as a student progresses. With this class, while knowledge of the contents of the Bible and of basic theology are really good, their understanding of scholarship is low or even non-existent. Basic skills like analysing – breaking a problem down into simpler parts, imaginative reconstruction of the way things “must have been”, looking things up in a reference works (except the universal Karen-English dictionaries for unknown English words), organising thought to lead towards a conclusion… such skills that in a Western context we assume were learned (or at least first begun) in school, here seem strange.

A basic study-skills course, and an improved library with a small stock of good Bible dictionaries, concordance, commentaries etc. could make real changes. But that is to look at things from a Western Academic perspective, the sort of things that spring to mind as necessary changes are conditioned by my usual setting. One of my frustrations is that a combination of Karen introversion (and this must rate as a highly introverted culture by any standards!); cultural respect for teachers, foreigners and elders and the busyness of the coming jubilee – which is literally the biggest event in decades, all make it difficult to meet, talk with and learn from the Karen teachers who are probably the people with the best chance of telling me how my teaching should change to be appropriate here. Maybe next time?

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2 responses to “How is my teaching changed by being here?

  1. a great photo of Barbara teaching – and a fascinating interaction with the ways of the Karen with the Bible – and a bit of history as well. Thanks. Enjoying these posts, Tim

  2. Pingback: How is my teaching being changed through becoming a Theologian without Borders? « Teaching OT in faraway places

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