Up in the hills of Chobar, a historical site in the Kathmandu Valley, there is a nunnery called Tsoknyi Gechak. I visited this school as one of the instructors of the US Embassy’s Book Bus to conduct a three-day program around reading, Language and Arts, and STEAM from 19 December to 21 December 2019. Although we had worked with all-girls schools multiple times, this was the first time the Book Bus was visiting a nunnery. Later, while travelling through Chobhar, I would come to realise that Tsoknyi Gechak was a place I’d wanted to visit for a long time, having always admired the view of the hills surrounding it from my office’s terrace in Kusunti. I found myself extremely glad to be there.
Fellow Book Bus instructors, Bikash and Jyoti, and I reached the nunnery first in a taxi. Until Book Bus arrived, we toured the nunnery. We were amazed by the artistic design of monastery and the view of the Kathmandu valley from there. We were rendered breathless, not just because of the view, but also from walking the steep incline. Sadly, the Book bus was unable to traverse this steep road, and we had to leave the bus behind, parked on flat ground beneath the nunnery. We opened it for reading and left for the classes we had been assigned to.
Fellow instructor Bishnu Raj Bhatta and I had been assigned to facilitate a MakerStation session with the students from grade seven. We entered the class with boxes loaded with batteries, tapes, markers, motors, wires, etc. While we were settling down, a round of whispers rose in the classroom, disappearing as I looked around the 16 girls. I couldn’t figure out which of them the whispers came from, but the girls looked excited.
I was excited too, and so we got right into it. We discussed magnets, circuits, electromagnets, and uses of the motor. We then connected those wires we talked about to the motors and the batteries to build our own scribbler bots. In the cozy classroom full of beautiful artwork, the girls got into groups to create three bots on their own. We were all excited to see how they would turn out.
Once they were done, we set the bots into motion. The girls were surprised to find that each of them functioned differently than the other. One moved around very smoothly, one slowed down very soon, whereas the last one moved entirely in slow motion. Later, while discussing what they liked about the bots and what problems they encountered building them, one of the students raised the question, “We all used the same materials and followed the same procedures, but why did our bots perform differently?”
We could tell everybody had this question in mind, by the way the girls turned to us inquisitively once it had been asked. Bishnu and I explained to them that it varied according to the the power of the battery, the capacity of the motor, the placing of legs on a bot, and the weight of the bot itself. They were delighted to find out that they could play with these aspects to create the kind of bots they wanted, and they looked forward to making more of them.
The enthusiasm in the classroom was palpable, and the girls wanted to do and learn more. We left grade seven with questions on the rain precipitation cycle for the girls to ponder upon. We were hoping that the questions would pique their curiosity and also encourage them to do some research in order to prepare for the next day’s MakerStation session.
A surprise was waiting for us the next day. When we entered the class, our students, all brimming with excitement, led us to a desk on top of which was a 3D model that they had built. They had not only researched what rain precipitation was, but they had come prepared with a live demonstration of it. For me, that was one of the best things that happened during the trip. What could be better for an instructor/teacher than students being excited about learning?
The students surrounded us and started sharing the process of how they had built the model as a group. The session had already started off amazingly, with the girls eager to learn and participate, and we proceeded by discussing rain-cycles and also talked about rain pollution. Following the discussion, we conducted activities around our Maker component. The idea was to make the students familiar with the locally available resources and use them to make their learning journey more innovative and creative. We divided them into two groups of eight. One group had to do a presentation on rainfall in a healthy environment, and the other group was assigned to present about rainfall in a polluted environment.
It wasn’t just through classroom activities and discussions that we bonded with the students, however. Some of us left the nunnery in the school’s staff van, since it wasn’t an easy job catching a local bus up in the hills, so we would end up having a stretch of free time after the classes just waiting for the bus. This was when we got closer to the students, while the sun set and the days transitioned to chilly evenings. We all played a friendly game of basketball, which not just warmed us up, but also warmed us to each other. With the younger children from grade two, we played a game of Monkey Fraction, which is a fun card game that teaches kids simple fractions. It was through fun and games and bonding that we hoped to get the children to learn and to be excited about learning from us, from each other, and from the world around them.
This worked very well, since on the third day, when we reached the school, the students were so excited to start the day with us that they had completed their morning prayers earlier than the regular time. This was the last day of our trip at Tsoknyi Gechak, and we were putting up a mini-exhibition to share the work that the students had created during our visit. We held the exhibition on the school’s playground. We decorated every corner of it in preparation and set up booths as well. Two students from each workshop were responsible for each booth. The teachers helped us set up the exhibition and write down the titles of each exhibition in the Tibetan language, the students’ mother tongue.
We started the tour with students from junior kindergarten. Then, turn by turn, every class visited each exhibition booth, handled by the students of the respective workshops. We also gave a guided tour of the Climate+Change exhibition, which was a moving exhibition about the different climatic conditions in the mountains, the hills, and the terai regions of Nepal, highlighting the vegetation particular to these regions and the effects of climate change on their climatic and vegetative conditions. During the tour, we discussed the climatic differences between the hometowns of the students and Kathmandu Valley.
Class seven was also ready with their 3D models. Their artwork perfectly captured the beauty of nature with the model of rainfall in healthy environments, while also perfectly reflecting pollution and environmental degradation with the model of rainfall in polluted environments. They used motors and plastic bottle covers to build a little fan that demonstrated rainfall when switched on. Blue papers fell on the healthy model, whereas blue papers along with unseemly sand fell on polluted one.
After the exhibition, our trip was officially over, but we still wanted to spend some more time with the lovely students. We sat on together on the grounds and really got to know each other. There, I found that when they first came to the nunnery, they had all gotten new name in the Tibetan language. They taught me to write my name in the Tibetan language, too. When they learned that I wrote poems, they asked me to share some with them. I was glad to perform for them, before leaving them for my more official duty of sitting for a meeting with the teachers.
Though we didn’t part for good just yet, since the students of grade seven later invited me to their class. They asked me to sit with them, and entertained themselves by asking me impossible riddles, like, ‘Which stone is not found underwater?’, ‘Which is a dangerous city?’, ‘Which word is incorrect in the dictionary?’
I couldn’t answer most of them, but their answers made me laugh out loud and were a lot of fun. We laughed, learned, and played together. All the whiteboards in the school had been decorated by students with Christmas and New Year’s wishes and love-filled messages for the Book Bus team. I was fascinated by the creativity of the students and the way in which the arts were being practiced in the classrooms. I was also touched by the warmth and the kindness of the students and the teachers.
We shared an incredible journey at Tsoknyi Gechak School. We didn’t want to leave, but we had to go. We left Tsoknyi with our bags full of souvenirs and our hearts full of warm hugs and the cards that the students had made, with Christmas and New Year’s wishes and the hope to see each other again in the future.
Sumitra Bogati is a poet with the Word Warriors, a science instructor at Book Bus, and a cheerful and endlessly creative part of the QC team.