Archives For Education

Cultural diplomacy – the attempt by a government to win the hearts and minds of foreign nationals – has a long tradition in the history of the world. Akin to an early form of globalization, cultural diplomacy served as a tool of statecraft for ancient civilizations of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Through exchanging ideas, technology and individuals these societies built relations that enabled them to develop and evolve their agriculture, artistry, trade, and diplomacy. Ancient Egypt had the custom of bringing young aristocrats from conquered enemies to Egypt, where they were immersed in Egyptian society and returned to their home with favorable views of the Pharaoh.

Alexander the Great realized that he could not sustain his empire through military might alone. With this vision he built the great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the largest in the world at the time and a site of scholarly exchanges. The library was built upon Greek culture and learning, and facilitated the spread of Greco philosophy. Greek cities were famously employed poets and philosophers to go abroad as ambassadors.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offered the first example of modern state efforts to promote culture and education beyond borders. France, because of the Jesuits, exported high quality education to North America, China, and India. The Jesuits’ educational expertise was deployed in tandem with France’s colonization, diplomatic, military, and trade efforts.

Through their international education exchanges, Jesuits gained access to highly guarded cultural sites. Mateo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, was the first Westerner allowed into China’s Forbidden City. He invited to be an advisor to the Imperial Court, and was given this honor due to his contributions to Chinese academia with his conversion of European scientific texts into Chinese. For Ricci, as well as for students today, the importance of academic exchange cannot be overstated.

Like the French, America’s first source of cultural diplomacy was rooted in religion. During the nineteenth century the American Christian missionary movement sought to spread the gospel abroad. This involved imparting Western knowledge with an emphasis on self- reliance at many schools and universities abroad. They founded some of the first universities modeled after the American higher education system abroad: Robert College in Constantinople in 1863, the Syrian Protestant College in 1866, and Peking University in 1989. Peking University (Beijing Daxue 北京大学) is generally regarded as the Harvard (or Oxford) of China.

Many Christian missionaries sponsored converts to obtain higher education in America. One notable example was Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. Wing returned to China after graduating from Yale and convinced the Chinese government to send 120 young Chinese men to the U.S. for undergraduate studies.

As international exchange gained traction in America, the international peace movement of the early 1900’s promoted the ideal that mutual understanding could be achieved through educational travel. Under this worldview, foreign education played an integral part in ending all wars. Students and lecturers would serve as ambassadors and return home with a deeper understanding other nations.

In this context, Andrew Carnegie created his namesake Endowment for International Peace with a $10 million donation in 1910. His vision was to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization”. One of the main pillars of the foundation was the Division of Intercourse and Education, which sought to promote international understanding and cooperation.

World War I hampered Carnegie’s efforts to end all wars. However, the war brought about American government involvement in cultural activities abroad. President Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in 1917 to build support for the U.S. to enter and participate in the war. The CPI is noted for its work in Europe and South America. It coordinated with US Embassies to open reading rooms for US-based journalism; it also organized speaking tours for Americans. Through the Fulbright program these activities continue today.

After World War I the Institute of International Education (IIE) was founded to promote greater understanding between nations and foster lasting peace through international education exchanges. During the 1920s IIE organized student, faculty and teacher exchanges between Americans and Europeans. Stephen Duggan, IIE’s president at the time, persuaded the U.S. government to create a new category of nonimmigrant student visas, bypassing post-war quotas set by the Immigration Act of 1921. By the mid 1920s IIE was administering international fellowships on behalf of the American, Czechoslovak, French, German, and Hungarian governments. Duggan put forth proposals to bring foreign students to the U.S. as a form of foreign aid and a way to promote long-term relations between countries. He asserted, “If ever there were a time when America’s aid was necessary to help sustain higher education in Europe, and in the interest of reconstruction and of the intellectual life, to bring selected students to this country, it is now.” These efforts prompted the State Department to organize a meeting on the topic of educational exchanges in 1936, which ultimately gave birth to US government cultural diplomacy.

With the 1941 entrance of the U.S. into World War II, the State Department moved most cultural diplomacy efforts into the private sector. IIE was granted responsibility to manage the US-sponsored student exchange programs in Latin America. In 1944 the Secretary of State created a new position, the Assistant Secretary for Public and Cultural Affairs. This position marked a monumental shift in government policy towards cultural exchanges, as the government began to embrace these programs more fully.

The end of the war, international educational exchange had become a priority of the U.S. government. The Fulbright Program, America’s premier cultural diplomacy program, owes its creation to the efforts of Senator William Fulbright. He is “responsible for the largest and most significant movement of scholars across the earth since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.”

The Fulbright is America’s premier international fellowship. In your application essay, you need to include discuss why your research furthers the Fulbright program’s goals of fostering international communication and cultural learning. To better understand the program’s goals, it is useful to know the history of the Fulbright program and educational exchange as a whole.

For more Fulbright application tips download my guide.

Fulbright Skills

July 14, 2013 — 2 Comments

I received a lot of questions about the Fulbright when I decided to take the grant, many friends and family wanted to know what this would do for me, how would it help you I couldn’t answer those questions when I took the grant, but after months of living in Sri Lanka I have a sense of how the Fulbright has benefited my life.

The Fulbright has done a lot for me, in terms of personal development. Through the Fulbright I’ve become:

  • more open and honest in my communications
  • able to think outside of my life experiences
  • better at helping students learn and understand their strengths

I’m not positive how these skills will help me in my future, but I’m confident that the past nine months of living in working in Trincomalee will help me in my future endeavors. In his recent commencement speech, Dick Costolo spoke about his life and how he never could have put together the pieces going forward. When he reflects on his computer science degree and his time spent performing standup comedy, it seems obvious that he went on to become the CEO of Twitter. When Steve Jobs gave his commencement speech he cited a typography class as one of the classes that most influenced him – the class was not apart of his undergraduate curriculum. It’s easy to connect the dots when you’ve reached the finish line. It is not easy to see the dots when you’re still finding you way.

 

“We need students who can learn how to learn, who can discover how to push themselves…”
-Seth Godin
“Thank goodness I never went to school. It would have rubbed off some of the originality”
-Beatrix Potter

These quotes greeted my business English students at the Trinco Jesuit Academy, and they kicked off a discussion about what factors lead to quality education.

Over the course of the following weeks my students watched TED talks, read news articles, and debated the merits of different approaches to education. They then crafted letters to the Ministry of Education, expressing their ideas on how to improve Sri Lanka’s education system.

As a final class project, each student had to choose a part of their letter to record on video, these were then put together into one cohesive video.

I’m grateful for the Jesuit Academy of Trincomalee for letting me come up with creative lesson plans. My students could have worked out of a textbook for the month we worked on this, but instead they were forced to develop their own ideas. This project worked on critical thinking, public speaking, and writing skills. It also forced my students to address problems in their community.

Vipassana

June 3, 2013 — 10 Comments

Ten days of “nobel silence”. One hundred hours of still meditation.

For the past twelve days I was introduced to Vipassana mediation at the Dhamma Kūṭa center outside of Kandy, Sri Lanka. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. After this experience my mind feels lighter, sharper, nimbler than I can ever remember.

This is the longest time in my life I’ve ever gone without speaking or eating meat. For the duration of ‘noble silence’ we were not allowed to make eye contact with other meditators or walk with them, we could only speak to the teacher if we had a question about the practice. I’ve never felt so isolated while being surrounded by so many people.

Every day our meditation schedule followed the same routine:

4:00am Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 Meditate in the hall
6:30-8:00 Breakfast & rest
8:00-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
11:00-1:00pm Lunch & rest
1:00-2:30 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
2:30-3:30 Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 Meditate in the hall (old students may meditate in cells)
5:00-6:00 Tea break (new students get tea and crackers, old students only get tea)
6:00-7:00 Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 Teacher’s discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 Retire to room; lights out

During the first two days of meditation we were instructed to focus only on our respiration, the sensation of breathing in and out of our nose. You are supposed to breath your normal breath, neither too hard nor too soft. Just naturally. The teacher told us that focusing on this small area would train our mind, and it would become sharper. Day two was one of the hardest day. My back ached from sitting cross-legged the previous day, my mind was filled with random thoughts. After lunch was the hardest part of any day, because we had only short breaks from 1pm until 5pm. It was the longest stretch of the day. I sat there in the darkened hall, looking around at my fellow meditators and was struck by the fact that overweight elderly men were having an easier time than I (a fairly in shape 22 year old) was having.

On the morning of day three I woke up refreshed, and actually eager to get into the hall. After breakfast we were instructed to start focusing on the area just below our nose and above our lip. Focus on the sensation of your respiration against this patch of skin. I felt nothing. Nothing at all. I sat there trying to keep my mind silent for hours, and I couldn’t feel even my breath blow against my nose. We broke for lunch and afterwards I took my requisite nap. When we sat down again at 1pm I started to feel my breath against my lip, and it all clicked.

On day four we began practicing Vipassana, the ancient meditation technique developed by Buddha some 2500 years ago. Though deeply rooted in Buddhist teachings, Vipassana centers around the world maintain a non-denominational stance, and they welcome all religious beliefs. Vipassana seeks to gain an awareness of sensations across the body. These sensations can include: temperature, perspiration, itching, or just about anything else. You start going methodically from the top of your scalp, to each place on your face, down the front of your neck to your stomach, then the back of your neck to your shoulder to your fingers. Examining the body slowly and fully. On day five the teacher asked us to start trying to do this in a flowing manner, examining the body in a sweeping motion from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

The goal is to be aware of sensations but not to react to them; take the sensations without a feeling of pain or pleasure. All sensations are impermanent, and being attached to them is what leads to suffering. You are trying to learn to see what things truly are, and to separate the mind from the body.

Day six was, by far, the hardest day. I could only get my mind to be still for one of the sessions. The rest of the day my mind raced around, and I tried to quiet it as best as I could. One of the volunteers who served us food must have recognized what a rough day I was having, because he brought me some extra sweets at lunch.

Day seven was the first time that I managed to go a full hour without moving or opening my eyes. I exited the meditation hall for breakfast feeling incredible. My mind is truly empty. Vipassana is an attempt to control the subconscious mind, to empty it and allow the conscious mind to have full control.

On day ten nobel silence was lifted, and for the first time I was able to speak to the 60 other meditators. There were participants from China, the Netherlands, Italy, the UK, America, and Sri Lanka. For the first hour or so everyone whispered to each other, but the voices gradually got louder as we all became accustomed to speaking. People’s faces glowed.

I vividly dreamt every night during meditation. I easily woke up every morning at 4am. I stopped feeling hungry after two days (we were only given two meals a day). It was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life. There were days that dragged on for endless amounts of time, and days that flew by in what seemed like a breath. 
On the morning of the 11th day after cleaning our bunks and having breakfast, I spoke with the elderly teacher who had been instructing me for the course. Her final words to me were “those who practice Vipassana always die with a smile.” 

Qualified Teacher

May 15, 2013 — 1 Comment

I’m not TEFL, TOEFL, or CELTA certified. My only qualification as an English teacher are that I have a Bachelor’s degree (in finance) and I speak English.

As a Fulbrighter the State Department gave me two days of English teaching training before sending me off to a foreign land. After some time of teaching they flew me to Nepal for a four day conference on English Teaching, most of my fellow attendees were nearly finished with their teaching grants.

As far as the American Government is concerned, I’m here as a cultural ambassador. The Fulbright program funds people, not project. They look for people who will be good representatives of America abroad, all the better if they can teach.

Having some training in English teaching would have been helpful, but I’m afraid it also might have been stifling. I’m fortunate to teach at the Jesuit Academy of Trincomalee, since  they have encouraged me not to use a textbook and to go on my own. Not having been trained in English teaching has forced me to be more creative, and allowed me to focus on what I think will have the most impact.

I don’t teach to a test and I don’t teach out of a book. I am quite lucky.

When I was in China I was so frustrated that my Mandarin classes were based out of a textbook designed for students in America. I was living in Beijing and my teacher was instructing me on how to introduce my family and talk about clothing when I couldn’t order food at a restaurant. Priorities… After eight weeks in the classroom we got around to learning food words – needless to say I spent my tutoring hours working on more useful vocabulary and disregarded my formal studies.

I strive to to have my students value our time in the classroom together. At the end of every class I like to ask “what did we work on today?” This forces my students to reflect on the class and think about how it could be applicable to real life.

Teachers teaching to their students’ needs and desires, its a novel educational concept.

Learning Colours

May 2, 2013 — 3 Comments

Learning Colours

by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

I hear the maid tell my daughter,
three years old and just able to make out

red from pink and even blue from purple,

as they sit on the verandah
avoiding the glare of our tropical sun,

that she is fair.

If it had been someone else, I would have

stomped up, red in the face, and given my spiel:

“When the one real line is drawn,
even the fairest here is black!”

But this is a woman from a highland village.
She will look at the child’s dark mother and laugh

with her knowledge that coursed two centuries

down hills and dunes into her blood.

She will tell me that nothing gives one

a better advantage in life
than a bit of creamy skin.

 

Poetry can be very powerful way to teach English, but for a students it can be menacing. Last week I shared this poem, written by the Deputy Director of the Fulbright Program in Sri Lanka, with some of my more advanced students. It led to an engaging and thoughtful discussion about skin color and society.

My lesson plan for teaching poetry to ESL students went something like this:

During class we read two poems, and discussed the meaning of the poem. After that the students had to write a response poem. For homework I asked each student to write a poem, based upon Ramya’s. The results were fantastic.

There is no correct way to write a poem; after years of learning in a rigid test based environment that can be frustrating for my students. After working with them for two months though, my students have gotten used to my challenging questions, and they come up with some really great answers to open ended questions. This exercise was so different from traditional Sri Lankan school exercises, because it focused on student creativity

I want to share with you two of the poems that my students wrote:

Skin Colour
Some peoples are white,
Some peoples are black.
Doesn’t think about these skin colours
When you close your eyes
All things are same.

 

Black and White
A man came to my fruit shop
He took and mango and smell it
Perfectly checked my fruits.
I cut a small piece of a mango
Gave it to him.
His face became bright.
Not by his white skin, but
The fine taste of my mango
Grown in a black sand.
He took 5 mangoes.
He put 150 rupees on the bench,
Not in my hand.
Few ones only knew.
Only in dark milk moon is beautiful.

 

I was thrilled reading these expressive poems. For some time I’ve debated teaching this poem. I wasn’t sure how my students would respond, and if it would be culturally insensitive to teach it. After some time of worrying, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and see how it goes. I couldn’t have been happier. My students voiced strong opinions on how skin color affects their lives, and they wrote some really beautiful poetry.

Poetry can make for a great ESL lesson plan and help foster creativity. I think the key is to make it relevant to the students, I was fortunate to find a really touching poem written by a Sri Lankan.

I utilize my public library more now now than I have in the past eight years. This is especially surprising because I live over 8,700 miles away from it. I can’t recall ever checking a book out of the library while a high school or undergraduate student, but since moving to Sri Lanka I’ve checked out over a dozen books from my library’s online program. My downloads have ranged from Bill Clinton’s Back to Work to Haruki Murakami‘s Norwegian Wood, and I’ve read all of them on my kindle.

While at Fordham I was at the library almost daily, but I used it as a place to study and work – not as a place to look up information (isn’t that what the internet is for?). This seemed to be a pretty common practice, as my generation is more inclined to utilize google than the dewey decimal system.

The role of libraries is changing rapidly, just last week this shift was highlighted by the launch of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA).

The DPLA was launched by Harvard’s Berkaman Center, with funding coming from a variety of foundations. It is an open source archive that has partnered with the Smithsonian, the National Archives, New York Public Library, the University of Virginia, Harvard, Digital Library of Georgia, Minnesota Digital Library, Mountain West Digital Library and others. These collections are open to the world to be searched by place or time. Even in its infancy, its an intriguing collection. I expect it will become even more relevant and useful as the collection partners with more archives, libraries, and museums. 

One of the more intriguing things is that the DPLA has an API, so that developers can build off of their archives. I’m excited to see what new products come out of this partnership.

The function of libraries has changed rapidly over the past decade, and many local libraries are struggling to justify their cost to the communities. With resources like the DPLA being launched, local libraries will have even less relevance. Libraries need to revamp themselves, and they can learn a lot from coworking spaces.

Its estimated that by 2020 about 40% of America’s workforce will be freelancers. Coworking spaces allow freelancers and young companies to have flexible office space, that can scale cheaply. Libraries can be turned from stagnant spaces that foster an environment of silent study to engaging environments where creative thinkers can thrive. The content libraries can curate is constrained by their physical space, so they should embrace the digital era and help patrons to hack through the endless information available on the web. Access to the web, and data, should be the entire point of libraries. They should be spaces where community members can teach classes, in the style of Skillshare.

Our world is changing, and the old models need to be challenged and improved.

Costs of War

April 2, 2013 — 2 Comments

I’m continually surprised by the challenges of working in a post conflict area. Trinco, the town where I live and teach, was relatively unaffected by the war. By this I mean there were a few bombings in town, but they did not suffer from heavy fighting. Just a few kilometeres outside of the town there are areas that were really hard hit by fighting.

Over the weekend I had the privilege to travel to Mannar to celebrate Easter. On Saturday I went sea bathing with a friend and his older brothers. They are divers by trade, and collect sea cucumbers and conch shells.

Raj, the eldest brother, and I were sitting on the beach chatting. We were sipping on toddy and eating fish and crabs that we had cooked over a fire. His English is good, and he told me how he loves working outdoors. When the conversation came to my studies at university, sadness flashed across his eyes. Raj told me that he was supposed to go to uni for science, but due to the war those plans changed. He spoke of his life and how he enjoyed the simplicity of his trade.

Every year in Sri Lanka only 2% of students get admitted to university. Only the top students can study in the science or medical faculty. Raj seems genuinely happy with his life, but its hard to imagine how different his life would have been had he gone to uni. It is impossible to quantify the opportunity cost of war. How many future scientists, engineers, and doctors found it impossible to continue their studies?

Paper

March 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

Paper, a film by 

  • Based off of the name of this film, what do you think it is about?
  • When in your life do you use paper?
  • Could you use less paper in your life than you currently do?
  • What would your life be like without paper?

My students at Trinco’s Jesuit Academy walked into class those questions written on the board, and I gave them ten minutes to answer before we moved on to watching this short documentary about a newspaper based in Jaffna.

In my four months of teaching, this was hands down my best class. After the video I was able to foster a discussion with my students that lasted nearly half an hour. They talked to me about their media consumption, and why they think its important to be informed. I was pleasantly surprised when they told me that they don’t trust the government run newspapers. I did not expect that kind of open criticism.

Sri Lanka’s education system is not geared towards creating independent thinkers. Notebooks are routinely referred to as copies, even by my students who speak little English. My students, who are among the best in Trinco, were initially frustrated by the questions written on the board. One girl complained, because there wasn’t one correct answer. This sort of open ended discussion is not common in Sri Lankan education. It was a tough class to start, but once the discussion got rolling I was thrilled with where it went.

After the class I reflected on what had transpired, and how a nation’s society reflects on its education system. Sri Lanka has an amazing medical system. Many Sri Lankan doctors leave the country to take positions at top hospitals in London, New York, and Toronto. Medical tourism is growing, as foreigners come to Sri Lanka for quality, affordable healthcare. The education facilities of Sri Lanka are doing something right, if they’re producing such top notch doctors, but medicine is just one factor that comprises a country’s society.

There is a divide in the world’s education systems.The two best education systems, Finland and South Korea, have taken radically different approaches. South Korea’s system rewards students who excel on exams, and focuses on rote memorization. Finland on the other hand doesn’t measure their students for the first six years of their formal education, which begins at 7. Finland’s holistic approach differs greatly from South Korea’s rigorous exam based education system.

While there is merit to both systems, I cannot emphasize how much I value creative education. I feel that my greatest educational achievements are a result of project based learning. My students may not have gotten as much out of the film as I wanted, but it was an encouraging start. I look forward to working with them over the next several months.

A Stroll Through Base

November 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

Trinco is a town dominated by the military. As you enter the main city you have to pass through multiple checkpoints, where uniform clad youths clutch their presumably Chinese made kalashnikovs. In the town itself, Tamil is the language of choice. Sinhalese is about as useful as English, many people don’t speak either.

Last Friday I headed to Fort Frederick, to look at the temple which sat atop the Portugese built fort. To get there you must walk through the army base, along the rather long uphill walk I stopped at a connivence store for a cold drink. I greeted the clerk in Tamil, and he looked at me and replied in Sinhalese. Apparently he didn’t speak any Tamil.
Later I continued on, and found my way to the top of the fort, at the temple. Here I met a solider by the name of Gayan. Like many, he only spoke English and Sinhalese. I learned that he’s spent six tours abroad, as a driver. He had just returned from Lebanon, and was on his way to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica to drive for someone. He was kind enough to allow me to take his photo in front of his landrover, of which he was quite proud.
The most shocking thing about my walk through the military base was that in a city where the primary language is Tamil, there is this world dominated by Sinhalese. Just one reminder, among many, that Sri Lanka is a divided society – and language is a tool to divide.