We cannot decide the future for the children...we can only provide the path.
- Ashin Sandar Wara - Headmaster of the Sanda Ra Ma Monastic School
Yesterday, I visited a monastery school located west of Yangon, Myanmar. I was given a tour of the school and spent time discussing educational ideas with Ashin Sandar Wasa, a monk and headmaster (principal) of the school.
The monastic schools perform a key role in the education system of Myanmar. They fill a gap by providing support and education for underprivileged children who live in rural areas of the state. These are children who are not able to access the government schools. The monastic schools follow the same curriculum as the government schools but also have a strong emphasis on moral and social education.
During my tour the headmaster, through an interpreter, explained that the school does not get any funding from the government. Instead, the school relies on support from outside donors and whatever funds the local village families are able to provide. The school provides more than just education for the children, he showed me the nurses office that provides health care to children in the village. There were several unfinished areas in the building, on hold until the school had the money to complete them. One of these was the construction of a hall on the third story of the school, very much needed as the lower classrooms and courtyard routinely floods during the monsoon season.
I was treated to quite a special lunch after the tour. The food was prepared by Phyu Phyu, the administrative officer. She evidently problem solved many things for the school - rather like Colleen at Prairie Creek! After lunch I shared photos and video snapshots from life at Prairie Creek.
Although, as these photographs of the Sanda Ra Ma monastery school illustrate, our contexts are very different we found that we had much in common. Ashin Sandar Wara expressed his reservations about the mandated standardized testing. He emphasized the importance of the arts in his school. He proudly showed me the school music room and invited me to listen to the children as gathered in the courtyard to chant and sing before heading off to morning prayers and meditation.
A highlight of the tour was a viewing of the rooftop solar panels that provide the electricity for the school computer lab (six donated computers). The monk was very interested in my explanation of the role of field trips, experiential learning and visiting experts at Prairie Creek. Nodding vigorously, he shared that, in his opinion "education should not be framed by the walls of the school, but also exist beyond it's boundaries."
I poked my head in as many classrooms. There are over 400 hundred students in the school. The children all live in nearby slums adjacent to the school and walk to the school each day. The teachers were managing their instruction with very large classes - in one kindergarten class I counted 53 children. The children formed a huge circle around the edge of the room. Despite the obvious challenges in terms of space and resources, I was struck by the joyful atmosphere of the school. This was evidently a happy community of learners - children and teachers alike were happy to be together in this place.
Working with the teachers and school leaders this week at Lumbini Academy has been a remarkable experience. The teachers at Lumbini are hungry for new ways to think and teach. Ko Tar, the school's visionary founder, seeks to extend his sphere of influence beyond Lumbini. He organizes retreats and professional development for teachers in many of the 2000+ monastic schools in Myanmar. In our conversations, Ko Tar and the faculty often guide our conversation to social justice issues. To get a sense of his work relating to education and social justice issues in Myanmar you could watch his 15 minute Ted Talk entitled A Place in Space.
The Lumbini teachers are drawn to the idea that education has a big role in making the world a better place. As I learn more about the culture and history of Myanmar I'm starting to understand why the social justice conversation is so important to them. This is a complex, vibrant and beautiful place that is experiencing rapid change politically, socially and economically. The teachers are brave, creative and resourceful in their work to create a learning environment where children can think critically about their past, present and future. Perhaps this is why my presentation on the 4th/5th grade Game of Village was so fascinating to the teachers and school leaders. They found it amazing to consider that young children could participate in an activity that centered on creating a space for questions and exploration around ideas of governance, finance, education and society.
The physical spaces of Lumbini Academy, Sanda Ra Ma Monastic School and Prairie Creek certainly look strikingly different from each other. And yet, I'm finding that all three schools share the common belief that in attending to the education of the whole child, and guiding children to live with understanding, kindness and care for others, will in a small way help make the world a better place.