The composition of Jillian’s and my class consists of young Tibetans around our age. To begin with we were at a loss with how to go about teaching a class of mixed skill levels of English, not really knowing where to begin. We went into class with almost no knowledge about what the class had already completed or what they had a firm grasp of and what they still needed to work on. Our intention for our class was to make it very much interactive and to make our students feel as comfortable as possible. We re-arranged the classroom to foster more group participation and interaction. We began with a few basic activities to get a feel for the skill level of each student.
Toward the end of class we asked our students to tell us their reasons for wanting to learn English. Most every student had a similar answer for us; being that English is such an international language, it would be helpful in communicating their ideas and experiences in Tibet to the outside world, experiences in and coming to India, to share their dreams and wishes for Tibet’s future. They really seemed to feel that their situation is not understood well enough in the international community and would like to be able to express themselves. What surprised me after working so slowly through the first few, relatively basic activities, was how eloquently some of the students were able to articulate this desire and convey their feelings and passion about the situation.
We played a simple game where we had each student stand and answer simple yes or no questions by standing on one side of the room or another. To follow up, we had students try to explain why they answered the way they did. Trying to keep it simple, we asked questions such as “Do you like the color red?” Their answers went much deeper than what I had anticipated; stating their dislike of the color red came from its connection to the Chinese flag and Chinese culture and it being the color of blood and pain.
We asked the class for suggestions for future activities and topics they want to be able to discuss and skills they know they are lacking in. The students discussed in a few moments what they wanted in Tibetan, and then related back to us what they wished to work on for the month that we are here in Dharamsala. To my surprise they wanted to have a debate, taking sides in a debate on Tibet’s future. I have since learned that debate is actually an important part of Tibetan culture, to really speak up for what they believe and foster deep discussions about important issues. I was taken aback with how open and honest they are with their political views and desires for what Tibet’s future should look like. My original reluctance came from not wanting to bring up sensitive and potentially taboo topics, making our students uncomfortable. While I have a desire to hear what they feel about these issues and their own life experiences, I was worried to overstep my bounds and selfishly use these interactions more for my own learning than what would be beneficial to my students learning. My realization after the completion of our first class was that our students really want to tell us about their lives and foster an open discussion about Tibet, despite the sensitive and sometimes painful associations that come with that. As much as we are here to teach our students, they have so much to offer and teach us.