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Monday, September 17, 2012

What I Did During Summer Vacation

It seems that every learner is confronted by the request to report on what they experienced over the summer. It's a reflective writing exercise designed for the teacher to gain some insight on the interests of the learners new to their classroom and it enables the teacher to arrive at an understanding of the level of written expression exercised by the class members.

Here's my report:

It had been thirteen months since I saw my son. He left for his Peace Corps assignment in Mongolia on June 1st 2011. That's half way around the globe and twelve time zones away. Fortunately, technology allowed us to communicate with each other via email, facebook, and skype. Nonetheless, we were anxious to see him.

My wife and I departed from New York City late at night on July 10th. Our son met us at the Genghis Khan airport in the capital city of Ulann Bataar. He and a driver took us to the small village he has called home for the last thirteen months. Bayanchandmani has a population of roughly 2,500 which makes it about the same size of the village of Green Island. Our son is the only resident among the inhabitants of Bayanchandmani who is not Mongolian. He teaches English language classes to learners in grades 5-11 (there is no grade 12) at he local public school.

It was an eye opening cultural experience. The many different habits and traditions of the Mongolians, were confusing to us. The language is very similar to Russian, with nearly an identical alphabet. The climate was cooler, perhaps due to the higher altitude.

However, one thing was very familiar to us and that was the enthusiasm and friendliness of the people of Mongolia, particularly the teenagers who study English with our son. I was amazed at their eagerness to learn English, which is the official second language of Mongolia. We played Bananagrams with several teens and they absorbed new words like a starving person devours food. Not only did they quickly learn the new words, but they could effectively soon use them in context shortly thereafter.

American culture was evident in the phrases and clothing of these teenagers. They knew all the latest popular songs and movies and were conversant on a variety of subjects, especially involving entertainment. Technology had bridged gaps between countries.

Mongolia is a land of herders, with nearly 1/3 of the population tending livestock - sheep, camels, yaks,  goats, and horses. The unfenced open range allows horses and cows to roam freely throughout town. One night, after using the wood stove to make an American meal of fired chicken and mashed potatoes, we opened the door of the ger (yurt) in which our son lives to cool it off and a cow surprised us by sticking it's head inside the opening.

A ger is a traditional home for many Mongolians. It is a felt layered structure that has a single door and no windows. It is round, with five foot walls and a roof that is cone shaped like a Native American tee-pee. It can be assembled and disassembled in short order that suits nomadic people, The only difference in the ger is that there's only one layer of felt in the summer and three layers in the brutal winters of the steppe. There is a wood burning stove that rests in the middle of the ger with a smokestack that reaches up through the top of the roof. There is no running water. Electricity often comes from a solar panel outside the ger. A satellite dish provides access to the outside world.

So, generally speaking, Mongolia is a Third World or developing country at the cusp of significant changes originating from the discovery of large deposits of copper and gold that has attracted foreign investors. Cranes dot the landscape of the capital during a time of great construction. This tremendous growth (half of Mongolia's population of three million people live in the city of Ulaan Bataar) has crowded around gers that remain in the hustling and bustling capital. It poses a sharp contrast between the past and future.

One of the items that has accelerated the changes is the cell phone. Mongolia is a beautiful country with vast stretches of empty spaces. It is the most sparsely populated country on earth. As such, the many miles of endless empty spaces that separate villages did not make telephone lines practical or affordable. Mongolians went from not having landlines to everyone having cell phones - over night! It seemed like every teen had a cell phone, and access to the Internet. Those tools enabled Mongolians to suddenly acquire instant news and constant updates. It was an explosion of information and communication that combined to democratize knowledge and expand opportunities.

The learners that we met and spent time with (we took a three day trip to a Buddhist monastery with three of the teens) impressed us with their appetite for learning and their motivation to learn English. I was struck by their commitment and dedication. Perhaps we in America take so much for granted and under-value and under-appreciate what opportunities we have. Our schools are much, much better in terms of buildings and supplies, technology and instruction, yet we appear to lag behind in the desire to learn and the willingness to sacrifice for learning.

My belief in the power of the human spirit leads me to suspect that desire and perseverance can eventually narrow the gap that presently exists between our learners and their counterparts in Mongolia. Ultimately, it's not the factors external to a child, like buildings and technology, that makes a difference in their future, it's what's internal in the form of intrinsic motivation, determination and attitude. While the time and space available in this Blog do not allow me to articulate my opinions on the causes, I will volunteer my opinion that over my thirty-five years in school leadership I have observed diminishing amounts of drive and devotion to learning among the children in our society.

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