Friday, 30 March 2012

7 last words

My plan was to put this poem up next Friday but I have now almost finished writing another poem, also on a Good Friday related theme, and thought two in one day would be excessive, so have brought this one forward a week: which seemed more appropriate than delaying it and putting it up during the Easter season.

The Philippines is famous for its Holy Week commemorations, particularly people nailing themselves to crosses although that only happens in one place, and nowhere near Cebu, so that's one cultural experience we won't be taking part in. It remains to be seen how Holy Week will be celebrated here, although so far Lent has been remarkable only by how unremarkable it has been. Other than purple stoles and no meat on Fridays, (and as we often eat fish anyway that's hardly worthy of much note), there has been little to mark out lent from the rest of the year .. but we shall see what this week brings.

Anyway, a few fruits of my own Lenten reflections:

Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing

Do they know?
This pain inflicted
Not with nails
But with oppressive domination
Do they know?
Their violence
Cannot silence the voice of love

In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise

Where am I going?
to death
Or new life
Where is this paradise?
Is it as you expect?
It is here on this cross
Journey with me

Woman this is your son. This is your mother.

Open your doors
Open your hearts
One to another
Be a family
Be my family
Be one
Share my love

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me

Alone and abandoned
Only I can live this moment
Only I can die this moment
Not forsaken
But dying to this world
Dying as humanity
Dying as God

I am thirsty

I thirst
In the depths of my humanity
I thirst
Not for the bitter wine of my pain
I thirst
For the living water
Of love outpoured

It is fulfilled

Is this what the promises promised?
Is this what the prophets saw?
Is this what you sought when you followed?
It is the only way
Fulfilment found
In love
To the point of death

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit

I give my spirit
I give my all
Offered to the world
Offered to the hands of God
Offered in love
Take what I offer
I say no more

And you
What will you say?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

I lift up my eyes to the hills

One of the many activities which make up the TVED programme is the "Youth Encounter" a three day retreat (encountering themselves, each other and God) which takes place in the "Don Bosco House of Peace" in Mantalongon. Each of the last three Fridays a group of students has set off, and each of the last three Saturdays, after our lessons finish, we have set off to join them, staying the night and returning with the students on Sunday afternoon. It has been a welcome break from the somewhat mundane routine of planning, teaching and marking, and also been very positive to spend some time with the students outside the classroom.

Mantalongon is about a three hour drive from Cebu, including the last half hour or so up a steep and only partially paved mountain road. For some of the students, who have never left Cebu city, it is a major adventure. For us, currently living on the opposite side of the world and accustomed to travelling fairly extensively around Britain and the rest of Europe, talking to some of the students gave a real insight into how small their world is. We talk about the world shrinking because of technology and transport, but for some of our students the world is very small in a completely different way, and the world outside that still seems like a very, very big place.

Being in the mountains, Mantalongon is noticeably cooler than Cebu, which for us has been a welcome respite for the ever-increasing summer temperatures; and for the students has brought another novelty: feeling cold. By British standards, it would hardly be described as cold, but then we do have glass in our windows, central hetaing and appropriate jumpers, coats and shoes.

The middle weekend was notably marked by my overnight battle with a very hungry mosquito, which I lost, spectacularly, meaning I spent the following two days looking like I'd been in a fight with my face so swollen that keeping my eyes open required physical effort. The swelling had gone down by Tuesday allowing me to count the 32 bites! For this weekend's trip, duly armed with an extra weapon in the form of insect repellant, it was my turn to come out on top!

Each Sunday morning we have been awake at 4.30am to be out and hiking up the nearby Mercado Peak by 5am. It has been a very pleasant change to be somewhere cool enough to go for a walk of a reasonable length at a reasonable pace. The top of the mountain is the location for photo taking, breakfast and individual silent prayer. Each week, the weather for these morning excursions has been gradually improving. The first week we sat on the mountain top buffeted by wind and rain, with some students believing they might die of cold.  The rain held off for our second climb, but any sort of view was shrouded in cloud. Third time lucky, for our final trip, the weather was perfect: still cool enough to be pleasant but bright with just a light breeze, meaning when we reached the top of our climb a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and the sea were spread out beneath us.

With the sessions mostly conducted in Cebuano, I can't really comment on the content of the retreat, but I know enough to know that the whole experience is something the students won't forget, and, in spite of the very uncomfortable bus rides, and not having had a lie in or day off for a month, it's something I am very glad we were a part of.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

In their own words, part 2

You may remember that a while back I posted numerous quotes from the brochures for TVED which the senior students wrote for their English group assignment. Along with the written task, part two of that project was to produce and perform a television advert promoting TVED.

The quality, as you might imagine, varied considerably, as did the amount of effort the students put in to their production (not everybody made their own set of chalices from cardboard and silver foil, or paper ties colour-coded for the different courses, or borrowed uniforms from the students on other courses). It has taken me a while to get round to it, video editing is a time consuming process, but here are the edited highlights of what were probably the best three.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

What we take for granted, part 4

It is now summer in Cebu. I'm not sure why the Philippines has its summer in March and April, but it does. TVED are still hard at work, but the main school broke up last Friday for the long summer break and the college will be ending their term soon too.

But although it is now summer, there aren't many indicators of the passing of the year and the changing of the seasons. It may be the hottest time of the year, but it hasn't exactly been cool the rest of the time, and the temperature increase is fairly negligible. The length of the days has changed slightly, but the shift from darkness falling at about 5.30, to about 6pm is insignificant enough to be barely noticeable.

In some ways, I have really enjoyed missing a winter. I have enjoyed not having to wrap up in endless layers to step outside. I have enjoyed swimming in the sea when I know friends back home are curled up by the radiator.

That said, there is a rhythm created by the passing of the seasons that just isn't as marked here. The year is passing by, but there is little to differentiate this month from the last. We might not like winter much, but maybe we do take for granted the variety of the seasons and the way it structures our experience of the passing of time. We might not like winter much, but it does allow us to appreciate spring.

Don't get me wrong, on those days next winter (of which I'm sure there will be many) when it scarcely seems to get light all day, where the wind whips your face and when although it is not exactly raining you end up soaked to the bone only minutes after stepping outside, I will be dreaming of a Filipino December.

But the crunching of autumn leaves beneath the feet, a bright, crisp day with a sparkling frost (and then coming in and snuggling up with a duvet), buds of leaves and blossom and the first daffodils, long summers evenings where the sun shines until way past bedtime. Maybe these are things I will appreciate just a little bit more next year.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Literacy and literature

I am a great lover of literacy and literacy teaching, so designing a literacy curriculum from scratch ought to be my dream job: and I am enjoying putting together an appropriate and adapted programme for our students. I am, because I am a bit of a grammar geek, enjoying organising the progression of skills and finding ways to explain at least some of the complexities and subtleties of the English language. But there is one thing that has made planning the curriculum here less fun than it might have been ... there are no books.

I have never taught literacy without books before, and, if I am honest, I wouldn't want to again. Being here has only served to reinforce in my mind (as if that were needed) that literacy and literature are and should be inseparably intertwined. I am sad enough to think that grammar can be fun and that playing with words is endlessly stimulating, but it is more fun in real books than in an abstract form. 

Part of the reason for the lack of books is financial, and my best laid plans of photocopying texts were also stymied by financial restrictions on paper, but the subject matter and expected outcomes also squeeze out the potential for literature in our literacy. The English curriculum here is teaching "functional literacy skills" - the English the students will need to survive in the workplace - so they can write an application letter, but we never write a story, they can read a set of instructions but not play with words in poetry. It is a sad reality that function has squeezed out fiction.

Don't get me wrong, I agree language should be functional. Its primary purpose is to enable communication and it is a great joy to me that, as an English speaker, language opens up a whole world of potential friendships, but I can't help feeling that language is also so much more. Yes, some would argue, linguistics is a science, but language itself is definitely an art: and like all the best art it should communicate something certainly, but also provoke questions and move you to new places, it should inspire thought and invoke emotions. It should be beautiful, which even the most well written CV, well, isn't.

There are interesting further reflections beyond our own educational circle. In the bookshops in Cebu the vast majority of the books are written in English, and the remaining small section is of Tagalog books: neither of which are the first language of our students and the population of Cebu. Cebuano exists primarily as an oral language, meaning you have to be relatively fluent in a second or third language before really being able to read at all. It makes for a culture much less literacy based and much less literature based than our own. Being able to read and having access to more books than I could get through in a lifetime, in my first language is yet another thing I take for granted.

So although I hope our students will speak and write English more fluently by the time we move on from here, and although I hope they will be in some way inspired to continue learning and exploring the language, I can't help feeling a little sad that in its functionality maybe we aren't doing justice to the beauty of language. 

So I encourage you to go, read a good book, a book that inspires, a book that is beautiful.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

What we take for granted, part 3

We seem to be, at least briefly, in a period of relative routine at the moment, meaning our lives are dominated by planning, teaching and marking, which is, primarily, what we are here to do. Hopefully, by the time we leave, the students we teach will be marginally better at maths, and marginally more confident English speakers, and perhaps more importantly we will have written a teaching programme adapted to their situation and needs which will be able to be taught here after we leave.

Maybe because it is something of which we all have first hand experience, maybe because deep down we all recognise its central importance, education is something which generally incites interest and comment from, well, just about everybody. It is something that I, as a teacher, am of course very interested in, so prolonged contact with the education system here has given me plenty of food for thought.

On a global scale, the Philippines track record on education is fairly reasonable. Free, public school education is widely available and over 90% of children finish primary school, many of whom also complete high school. A system of state "night high schools" running in the evenings for students who have to work during the day, extends opportunities to those who might otherwise be outside the system. A closer look at the figures does show that the near 100% completion rate in Manila distorts the figures which range downwards to only about 30% in parts of rural Mindanao, but even so, the figures here are not as bleak as in numerous other countries.

All of the students we teach have made it through the basic education system, and emerged as high school graduates. For some, this in itself is a considerable achievement. TVED is the next stage, an opportunity for further education, which is the educational domain dominated here by private institutions and therefore for many students, including ours, prohibitively expensive.

As can be expected in any education setting, the ability of our students varies widely. Natural intelligence, of course, has a role to play. That said, as students who have "graduated" from high school the number who lack even the very basic skills is astonishing. How have so many of our students reached their late teens or early twenties unable to do simple calculations? Why did I spend a session teaching a 24 year old to count backwards on his fingers, something he appeared never to have seen before?

I haven't actually visited any public schools. I am sure some of them are doing an incredibly good job with very limited resources. I am sure there are some outstanding teachers striving to their very best for students in circumstances I have never had to contemplate. Obviously I don't know the many issues and questions which contribute to the difficulties of the Philippine Education System, nor is it, really, my place to judge. That said, I suspect an inability to fund the education system as fully as is needed, leading to huge class sizes and limited resources is probably a factor. I also doubt that the education system is exempt from the endemic corruption for which the Philippines is renowned. I have no easy-fix solution to offer, but it is certainly true that, whatever the causes and whatever the solutions, a lot of young people are being failed by this system.

Meanwhile, I certainly have no illusions about the British education. I do not think it is perfect. I wear no rose-tinted glasses. In fact, like most teachers, I can quickly identify many of its flaws and have experienced first hand its many frustrations. Our system's insistence on a results driven syllabus which can be measured by how many students can tick a certain box, and the valuing of individual academic achievements at the expense of everything else are, in my eyes at least, barriers to achieving perfection: the perfection of a system which inspires every student with a love of learning and a sense of their own inherent worth.

And yes, I know there are children who have been, and who continue to be failed by British education, which, in one of the most "developed" nations in the world, remains a scandal.

But somehow, I'm not sure we always appreciate enough just how good we have got it. So, even with a Conservative government claiming that I "am happy with failure" because I think academies are a really bad idea, even with Michael Gove at the helm of Education; we do still have an education system of which we should be proud. Not proud so we don't strive for something better, but proud so we don't forget to appreciate what we already have.