August 24, 2009
Mandalay and Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school
So here was the original plan: I was to stay in Yangon for a few weeks, teaching classes at Ngar Kyan Pyan. Then I was to travel through the Ayeyarwady Division and visit villages that had been devastated by Nargis last year. Then, I was to return to Yangon before going north to Mandalay to volunteer at Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school for the remainder of my time in Burma.
Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. Two days after my arrival in Yangon, U Aung Shien, the older brother of U Dhammapiya, asked me if I wanted to accompany him to the Ayeyarwady Division and then to Mandalay. He was to bring two orphan boys from Name village and admit them at Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school in Mandalay. If I had known at the time that this was to be my one and only chance to visit the Ayeyarwady Division, I would have said yes. But I (and U Aung) had thought there would be other opportunities, so I told him I’d rather stay in Yangon for at least a week before traveling again. However, one week dragged out to three weeks. I fell sick – twice, and U Aung was delayed in Upper Burma because of a death in the family. By the time he returned to Yangon, it was late June and the monsoon was in full swing.  The weather was said to be even worse in the Ayeyarwady Division. Many of the villages that Child Aid Foundation worked with were accessible only via boat, which is a hazardous means of travel during the rainy season when the rivers were flooded. So, with much regret, I had to cancel my trip to the Ayeyarwady villages!
Luckily, the weather in Mandalay is hot and dry all year long, so I did not have a problem visiting Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school. Despite what its name may suggest Phaung Daw Oo is strictly neither a monastic school nor a high school. Its seven thousand students are of all religions, ethnicities, and ages. On the school premises itself, there live over 700 novice monks, 100 orphans, about 80 children from ethnic minority groups at the borders, and about 120 orphans from Cyclone Nargis. The other 6,000 live in Mandalay, and often come from poor, working-class families. More information about the school can be found on its website: http://www.dhammadana.org/pdo/about.htm
When I arrived at Phaung Daw Oo, I met with the principal, Sayadaw U Nayaka and he introduced me to an eighteen-year-old volunteer, nicknamed “Kristy,” who took me under her wing. From Kristy, I learned that there were well over three hundred paid teachers at Phaung Daw Oo and about one hundred volunteers. Most of the volunteers (including Kristy) were recent graduates of the school, and many (including Kristy) were enrolled in distance learning programs at local Universities because they could not afford to attend classes.  Kristy also explained that there was a special program at Phaung Daw Oo called Fast Track. Fast Track (or F.T.) classes were smaller in size, taught entirely in English, and open only to the brightest students at the school. Many of the F.T. classes were also taught by young volunteer teachers like Kristy. This made sense because the F.T. classes only had 10 to 20 students, while the regular classes had at least forty or fifty students.
I also visited the children at the Golden House – the children who had been orphaned by the cyclone. There were over seventy boys and forty girls, altogether. This gender inequality was due to the fact that many families didn’t know that Phaung Daw Oo accepted girls until recently; because it was a “monastic” high school, they had been under the false impression the school would only accept boys, specifically, novice monks. However, more and more families were now realizing that both boys and girls were welcome at Phaung Daw Oo, and more and more girls were now arriving at the school.
My first day at Phaung Daw Oo, I observed two F.T. classes in the morning – a second grade class and a ninth grade class . In the afternoon, I taught my first two classes – eighth grade and ninth grade. It was easy for me to cut-in as a substitute/guest teacher for the F.T. classes because the teachers were volunteers and they were eager to observe my class and improve their own English. In the evening, I held an informal English-speaking class for the middle and high school aged children at the Golden House. Our class, which ran from 6 to 7:30 p.m., was held in an outdoor classroom with bamboo walls, wooden benches, and no lights. At about 7 p.m. it would get too dark for the children to see the board and I would have to review the day’s lesson orally with them for the remaining half hour. For the rest of the week, I fell into this schedule of teaching F.T. classes in the mornings and afternoons and teaching the Golden House children in the evenings.
I should also mention that during my first class with the Golden House children, I noticed two Europeans who were observing my class. They sat together with the children, participated in the speaking activities and occasionally took pictures of the class. The next day, I met the two Europeans again at lunchtime in the main kitchen, where all the guests were invited to eat. They introduced themselves as Nico and Frederique Schoenmaker, a married couple from the Netherlands who, along with their project partner, were creating a sponsorship program (not unlike Child Aid Foundation) for the Golden House children. They have a very nice website at www.worldexplorations.com (click “projects” on the toolbar) where you can find individual pictures and biographies of the children living at Golden House. The website does need to be updated, however, so the new children who arrived still do not have a profile.
 Due to its close proximity to the equator, there are only three, rather than four, seasons in Burma. In theory, summer lasts from March to June, the rainy season lasts from July to October, and the winter lasts from November to February. However, because of the diversity of the country’s geography, the seasons actually differ greatly depending on where you are. In Yangon, which is a port city in the southern part of the country, the rains start early in June and fall throughout winter. Moreover, the locals claim that the rains have been heavier and more frequent since the cyclone.
 Another volunteer teacher, nineteen-year-old Aye Aye who was also enrolled in a distance learning program, told me that such programs were “good-for-nothing” because “anyone can buy a cheat sheet before the day of the test” and “you don’t learn anything.” Aye Aye, a graduate of Phaung Daw Oo, was raised by a single father on a small farm. She is presently saving up money so she can hopefully attend classes at the University next year.
 Here, I’m going to call the classes by grade rather than htan, because that’s how they were referred to by the students and the volunteers. Remember that there are only ten htans in Burma and each htan corresponds to a higher grade. For example, my 9th grade class was in 8th htan and had only two more years before their graduated high school.
Posted by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint at August 24, 2009 01:51 PM