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Diary from Bhutan: Cherished children are happy children

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In her sixth diary entry it's all exams, exams, exams for Stephanie Earnshaw. The celebrations for the King's birthday bring even more work but also a lot of entertainment as the children put on performances on Children's Day.

Celebrating the King's birthday, Bhutan

This month my brush with death came in the form of fire. It was at an exam-writing workshop with the other college lecturers (hosted in a rustic Bhutanese resort complete with wood-burning stoves to heat the building). I was listening intently to advice on how to set exam questions that make sure students use their evaluating and creative skills as well as their memory (see Bloom's taxonomy) when all of a sudden came a small voice from the back of the room. It was John, the politics lecturer, telling us, 'Uh, I don't want to alarm anybody but the roof is on fire.'

Sure enough the room had begun to fill with smoke, even more than is normal for a room with a wood-burning fire and no chimney. We didn't panic but walked out slowly, inspecting the burning ceiling on the way. Ten minutes later a member of staff scurried up the path, ran into the room and threw a pot of water on the ceiling. Who'd have thought that such a small fire could make so much smoke! Five minutes after that we were back in the room, smoke and all, discussing exam questions again.

Birthday banner for the King of Bhutan

Last Friday, in a three-hour exam, there was one student left with 15 minutes remaining. All the others had left – they probably had numb fingers since the temperature out of the sun is three degrees Celcius. I was sitting there wearing as many clothes as I could fit on my body, thinking what a conscientious student he was, when he suddenly looked at me and said, 'Oh, Madam, there are questions on the back. I didn't see.' The paper was only one and a quarter sides of A4 so the part he had missed probably constituted quite a large precentage of the exam. I suggested that he might like to have a go at those questions as best as he could in the time remaining. He was reluctant but agreed to stay for another 10 minutes.

At school, exams are marginally less cold because the school is at a lower altitude than the college. I've been assigned to invigilate exams for the special education group since I'm one of their teachers. All exams are two hours long. In the English exam this wasn't too bad as they could at least answer most of the questions, apart from Dendrup who has Down's syndrome and finds exams totally ridiculous. He does his best to humour us and fill in the answers for 15 minutes or so but after that he hides his exam paper under the table and starts blowing raspberries and making noises which have the rest of the class in hysterics.

The science exam was quite another matter. No one understood any of the questions, and while some made a good attempt, I noticed that a couple of students had just copied the questions repeatedly into the answer space throughout the entire paper.

In most Bhutanese schools even the pre-primary children (five- and six-year-olds) have to sit exams lasting an hour. The teachers say it's because parents want to see test results to prove that their children are learning something. I know some parents who make their five-year-olds revise after school for the weeks leading up to the test. I wonder why they can't just ask the teacher, since any good teacher will have a pretty accurate idea of what their students do and don't know, after a year of teaching them.

Children's Day banner, Bhutan

For fun this month we had Children's Day (part of the celebrations for the fourth King's birthday). At our school this meant that instead of getting a day off like everyone else, we had to organize dances for the Minister of Education and come into school to perform them on Children's Day. This was highly entertaining (once I'd got over missing out on a public holiday) especially the traditional dance act from the grade one class, who dressed up as kings and queens of Bhutan, with miniature crowns, swords and jewellery. Another one of my favourites was the performance from a grade eight class who dressed in costumes from around the world and danced to Michael Jackson's Heal the World and Alicia Keys' No one. I helped with the costumes, which were extremely inventive as I was only told to organize them the day before the dance!

On Children's Day teachers have to be extra nice to students and serve them sweets all day. After all, it's Children's Day! Unfortunately, this didn't quite make up for the fact that we all had to sit under the scorching sun for five hours (here it's baking sun or freezing shade) including the youngest students who were throwing mud, stones, sweets and dead flies at each other by the end of the day.

Children's Day celebrations, Bhutan

I was also interested to see a little girl who lives near me, all dressed up in her best Kira (Bhutanese national dress for girls and women) sitting in the audience with the parents. I normally say hello to her and her little brother on the way to school. They always say, 'Hi, how are you? I'm fine thank you, and you too. I love you.'  She doesn't come to school but her cousin (who's slightly younger than her) is in the grade one class I teach.

I've heard that this is quite common in Bhutan – children are sent to their relatives in the city because they will have more opportunities there than in a rural village with no electricity. But they usually end up helping with the housework and babysitting rather than going to school.

If I meet the little girl on the way back from school we often practise counting. I think she's picking things up from her cousin and she certainly seems bright. Maybe the school principal will persuade her family to send her to school next year.

Children's day banner, Bhutan

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