Learning To Learn Again

Some weeks ago I contributed a post to the Asian University for Women’s  Center for Teaching and Scholarships blog. It is a space for teachers and professors to reflect upon their experiences as educators. I thought I’d share this post on my personal blog also, as it seems like an appropriate time. The current school year has recently come to an end and I’m feeling proud of the students I taught this year, as they have now successfully graduated from the one year Access Academy course and will move on to the full undergraduate program in August.


One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is the influence you can have on the education of your students. It sounds obvious of course, but well-planned lessons, engaging subjects, and interactive instruction is the catalyst for an effective learning environment. There may be times when you reflect on a specific class you have taught, or a topic you have covered with your students, and wonder if they gained as much from it as you had hoped. However, overall your support, guidance, and enthusiasm have the ability to direct your students on the path to independent and inquisitive discovery both inside and outside of the classroom.

 

 

Personally though, I have become aware during the past five years of incredibly varied teaching roles that it’s not solely my students who (hopefully) have this opportunity. From preparing lessons, teaching classes, facilitating discussion, and, crucially, from listening to my own students, I too have learned so much, and in many ways it has significantly reignited my individual desire for learning.

Upon completion of my Masters Degree, and prior to embarking on my life as a teacher, I spent 18 months working in an office. The job was fine enough and helped to clear some mounting post-university debts whilst introducing me to the day to day responsibilities of paid employment. However, it led to a noticeable stagnation of my motivation to seek out new knowledge. This may very well have been a consequence of my own personal misguided path, but the nine to five routine left me demotivated in other aspects of my life, and whilst I didn’t recognise it at the time, I needed something to change.

In hindsight I did learn tangible lessons from my first ‘proper’ job. It clarified in my head that having progressed somewhat zombie-like straight from school to university, I now needed to explore beyond that particular bubble. At this point I didn’t really know quite where that would take me, but as I reflect on the places I’ve lived, worked, and visited since that fork in the road, I feel pretty satisfied with the choices I made.

It began with an important and life-changing decision to rectify the dissatisfaction of 18 months behind a computer screen, and it was at this juncture I travelled to Rwanda as a volunteer teacher in a rural secondary school. It was a challenging year, but also highly rewarding. One of the main reasons for this was my assignment to teach Entrepreneurship.

 

 

My initial reaction was to panic and focus entirely on the fact that I considered myself to be the least entrepreneurial person I knew, most probably due to my cautious and frugal nature; two qualities that no career entrepreneur would ever claim to possess. However, once I set about building a syllabus, seeking out resources, discussing ideas with my peers, and thinking logically about how I could best guide my expectant students, it became something of a new and exciting challenge.

Entrepreneurship requires a great deal of “out of the box” thinking – something many of my students were not accustomed to. Therefore, in order to teach the students before me, I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. I recall sleepless nights, confused faces, and undoubtedly one or two lesson plans that in hindsight may not have been the most effective. Yet, by the end of the year this experience had taken me back to the period prior to my office job. I was driven to learn once again.

 

 

At AUW this experience has been no different. Teaching ‘Interpreting Texts’ in the Access Academy has provided me with broad scope to develop a course that covers a range of topics and utilizes a variety of sources and authors. This past year we studied issues relating to identity and gender. We debated the merits of anthropological research and scrutinized the influence of modern media on our lives. We investigated how fear and stigma perpetuates the global HIV crisis, and we spent time reading about the intricacies of a divided Sudan. We read textbooks, journals, academic texts, editorials, blogs, and even found time to analyze the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, and The Kinks.

Each week I feel I learn just as much as my students, and of course lesson preparation and in class instruction account for the bulk of this. What should not be underestimated though, and is a factor that has become abundantly clear during my time at AUW thus far is the knowledge I gain from my students.

 

 

We’re from contrasting regions of the world and they have faced significantly different journeys to my own, so whenever we discuss a topic in class or they write a response, I am exposed to new thinking and new perspectives I may have otherwise failed to consider. The wonderful consequence of this is that unlike my previous non-teaching job, which at times left me feeling uninspired and lacking direction, I now have no option but to learn and grow as both a teacher and a person, and to strive to consider the world around me. It is thanks to this job and my inspiring students that I am able to experience these opportunities.

 

 

Images of South East Asia


I’ve neglected this blog so far in 2014. A combination of work, misguided priorities, and the fact I’ve been slightly daunted by the task of describing a one month tour of South East Asia through words, which will almost certainly not do it justice.

So, for now I’ve decided that I’ll let images tell the story. I took many, but here are 15 of my favourites and a selection which I hope do the places most justice. I chose five photos from Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.

For a more comprehensive album of photos from the trip please follow this link;

http://www.flickr.com/photos/106865437@N03/sets/72157641803829505/


Myanmar

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar


Floating village community, Inle Lake

Inle Lake, Myanmar


Roadside tea shop, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar


Sunrise and hot air balloon rides over Bagan

Bagan, Myanmar


Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar


Cambodia

A quiet village road, just outside of Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia


Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Cambodia


One of the many faces of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat, Cambodia


Village home, Siem Reap

Siem Reap, Cambodia


Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial Site, Phnom Penh

(This is the main memorial to mark the genocide that took place in Cambodia during the late 1970s. It is also a burial site for thousands of Cambodians who were victims of Pol Pot’s brutal Khymer Rouge regime, executed here at just one of the many sites across the country, which became known as the ‘Killing Fields’.)

Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


Da Lat hills, in the southern highlands.

Da Lat, Vietnam


Village road outside Thai Nguyen, northern Vietnam

Thai Nguyen, Vietnam


Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam


The northern hills of Tam Dao

Tam Dao, Vietnam


It was an incredibly diverse and eye-opening trip. Once again South Asia completely failed to disappoint, and armed with a camera I feel like I saw so much in such a short space of time.

Here is a larger set of photos from the trip;

http://www.flickr.com/photos/106865437@N03/sets/72157641803829505/


All photos © John Stanlake

Sir, why do you always take photos of…


…poor people?  This was a question posed to me by a student a few days ago. It stopped me in my tracks a little, and I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. In actual fact, her exact question was why do foreigners always take photos of poor people? I presumed however, given the nature of some of my recent photos, that I most probably fell firmly into this bracket and was the inspiration for her pressing question.

I thought for a second or two and my response was simple. “I don’t take photos of poor people, I take photos of people.” That’s all I could think to say when put on the spot like that. However, after contemplating it a little further, I realised that my initial response had been fairly accurate. I never actively or purposefully set out to capture images of so-called ‘poor people’ but maybe I am naively guilty of it appearing this way.


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The whole question though makes me uncomfortable. One of my favourite weekend activities here in Chittagong is to wander somewhat aimlessly with my camera capturing anything that makes for an interesting shot. This pastime has earned a pronounced regularity since I returned to Bangladesh, but a simple question posed by one student has made me question every aspect of it.

My photography subject of choice here is predominantly people, so I am certainly in the right place. I cannot deny though that this does weigh heavy on my conscience at times. For example, a couple of weeks ago I visited one of the railroad communities, and as I peered down from the bridge above, I felt a certain amount of embarrassment.  Why is this interesting to me? Why do I presume it’ll be interesting to the people I eventually share the photos with? All I can say is that it is different. That is all. Different in so many ways.


Railtrack community

I really appreciate this quote from Dorothea Lange,

 “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”


Railtracks


Living in Bangladesh, I want my photos to represent life in all its forms here. So when I share them, my hope is that viewers will see beyond just the single image. I want people to be able to contemplate this country and the people of this country in a much deeper capacity.

The residents of the railroad communities, I would hazard to guess, are poor in the most simple and raw form of the word and in the sense that their single image suggests. However, who am I, or we to judge if they are poor? And how do we define poor? That is not something for me to do, and it is not something I want to do. All I want to do is take photos of people, not poor people…people.


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Therefore, here is a collection of images representing just a tiny corner of Chittagong, Bangladesh taken quite recently in the past few weeks. And here is one more quote;

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”  – Richard Avedon


Tea shop kitchen


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All images © John Stanlake

Early Morning Eyes


Armed with a new camera, I have been exploring Chittagong a little more by foot in the past couple of weeks. Last weekend it took me to the fisheries market. Arriving at 4.45am, we waited for the sun to rise and for the energy of a new day to dawn.

By this time however men were already rushing by, scooping the night’s catch out of nets and piling it upon waiting baskets and wagons. The tea shacks were already serving hot, sweet tea to the various workers, and it was difficult to sense quite when night ended and the new day began.

The photos I was able to capture that morning reminded me of a simple, yet profound lyric from one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands – ‘Alone Again Or’ by Love. I hope the images speak for themselves.

“I think that people are the greatest fun.”


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


Bangladesh faces


In my next entry I’ll touch upon an example of just why the people of this country continue to make Chittagong and Bangladesh an easy place to live.

Abar Ashben!


All photographs © John Stanlake

Abar Ashben

“Abar ashben” roughly translates as “come again” in Bangla. In the days leading up to my departure from Bangladesh back in June 2012, these words were delivered insistently at times, and on other occasions in polite passing. At that point I gave a standard response of “Heh, heh…inshallah.” Or, “Yes, yes…god willing.” And then I left.

I wasn’t sure quite what was willing me to come again (so soon at least), but I did, and here I am, back in Bangladesh, back in Chittagong, back again. I’ve never returned to a place before. Rather, I’ve never returned to a distant land before where I have previously spent a prolonged period. However, the chance to continue working for WorldTeach and back at AUW was compelling motivation to make this a first. Two organisations close to my heart, both of which have provided me with unique experiences in the past few years, and both working in partnership here in Bangladesh. I’m proud to work for both, because not only do I get to lead another group of conscientious and dedicated WorldTeach volunteers,  I also get to teach another set of inspiring AUW students, hungry for education. It’s difficult not to be motivated.

Never go back. These three words floated around in my head for a long while as I contemplated my next move. As a big football lover, I can think of various occasions when a player or manager has returned to a club only to experience a torrid second spell. For any fellow, hardy Plymouth Argyle fans out there….Paul Sturrock. Yet, I was willing to risk this for the reasons given above, and after one month back in Bangladesh I so far feel satisfied with my decision

In the coming months I hope to once again utilize my blog to express my experiences, though more importantly I would like to use it as a platform for other stories, for other images, and for other perspectives.  For anyone still reading I say thanks, and I will try to ensure I keep you interested so that you too ‘come again’ to my blog.

Abar Ashben!

Here are some photos taken since my return. The second photo shows the WorldTeach Bangladesh group and Dr. Fahima Aziz, AUW Vice Chancellor (third from right).

One People, One Nation, One Destiny.



Sunday, May 5th 2013 was a notable date here in Guyana. It marked the anniversary of an event which played a huge part in shaping the face of the Guyana you find today. Exactly 175 years ago to the day, on May 5th 1838, the very first indentured Indian labourers arrived to work in the sugar plantations of the then British colony of Guyana. They weren’t ‘slaves’ as such, however their workers’ rights were neglected and conditions were often poor. They did however have the right to repatriation in India after five years. Some took up this offer, others decided to make Guyana their permanent home.

Over 200,000 workers in total made the journey from Asia to South America in the 19th century, and possibly the most telling statistic of all is descendants of those immigrant workers now account for 44% of the total population in 2013. The Indo-Guyanese are therefore officially the largest ethnic group in Guyana.

One aspect of this country that has intrigued me most during my time here has been the incredible diversity. For a nation modest in geographical area and with a total population comparable to the city of Leeds (UK), or Austin (Texas), Guyana is a melting pot for such a diverse range of cultures, peoples, languages, and traditions. In addition to the Indo-Guyanese; Afro-Guyanese account for 30% of the population, whilst mixed heritage Guyanese make up 16%.  The Amerindian (indigenous) community accounts for the remaining 10%, aside from small Brazilian/Portuguese and Chinese communities.

This diversity manifests itself in so many aspects of Guyanese society. As I touched upon in a previous blog post, language is certainly a strong reflection, with the presence of English, Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and nine Amerindian dialects. Cuisine is another. The popular ‘cookup’ is a Caribbean style dish made of rice, beans, meat, coconut and various vegetables all cooked together in one pot. Curry and roti dishes are readily available and popular, as are Chinese options, including the Guyanese style chow mein. Meat eaters get their fix at various Brazilian barbeques, and Amerindian cuisine is known for the spicy beef or pork stew, Pepperpot – customarily eaten during the Christmas period.

Music and dance is another diverse characteristic of Guyana. Traditional south Asian beats, tablas and sitars, and popular Bollywood songs frequently fill the air. Calypso, Soca, and Reggae are equally prevalent, and a reminder that despite being part of mainland South America, Guyana is very much influenced by its Caribbean connection. Brazilian and traditional South American music is also a common sound.

However, I feel I’ve been struck most by the religious diversity of this country, which is quite evident in Georgetown. Perhaps it’s because my eighteen months prior to Guyana were spent in the predominantly Islamic state of Bangladesh, where 90% of the population identify themselves as Muslim. My religious experiences were therefore defined by the distinct daily call to prayer, the abundance of traditional Islamic dress, and the Mosques of varying shapes and sizes. There is of course a sizeable Hindu community in Bangladesh as well as a modest number of Buddhists. Yet, overall society is defined by the teachings and values of the Qu’ran.


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Christianity is the most widespread faith in Guyana, but given the history I touched upon earlier in this post, Hinduism is also very visible. Islam has a noticeable presence, despite being less represented in terms of actual followers.

From my front porch if you look to your left you will see a large Seventh Day Adventist Church, and if you look to your right you will see the towering structure of Guyana’s newest and biggest Mosque (currently under construction).


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In the foreground a church and behind this Guyana’s newest mosque.


I decided a few weeks back to take a series of photos that would demonstrate Georgetown’s religious diversity, and I’d like to present these in this blog post.

(The images are best viewed in full screen mode!)

Christianity

I’ll begin with the most followed faith in Guyana. It is estimated that 57% of the population are Christian, of which various denominations are present.  Below is a selection of images showing the churches of varying shapes and sizes across Georgetown, most of which were built during colonial administration and therefore possess a significant degree of historical and architectural charm.


St George's Cathdral, Georgetown



Susamachar Methodist Church, Georgetown

Susamachar Methodist Church, Georgetown


Susamachar Methodist Church


St George's Cathedral, Georgetown

St George’s Anglican Cathedral, Georgetown


Christ Church


Smith Memorial Church, Georgetown

Smith Memorial Church – built in 1844


St Andrew's Kirk

St Andrew’s Kirk, Presbyterian Church – The oldest building in Guyana, built in 1818.


Brickdam Cathedral

Brickdam Cathedral (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) – built 1920s


Queenstown Moravian Church


Burn's Memorial Presbyterian Church, Georgetown

Burn’s Memorial Presbyterian Church, Georgetown


Hinduism

Hindus account for 28% of the population, with the presence of Hinduism a result of the vast numbers of Indian immigrants brought to Guyana in the colonial era. Below are photos taken at temples across Georgetown.


Cummings Lodge/Industry Mandir

Cummings Lodge/Industry Mandir, Georgetown


Central Vaidik Mandir

Central Vaidik Mandir, Georgetown


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Radha Krishna Mandir

Radha Krishna Mandir, Georgetown


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Guyana Sanatan Dharma Mahasabha Ashram

Guyana Sanatan Dharma Mahasabha Ashram, founded 1934.


Islam

The exact root of Islam in Guyana is debated. It’s quite possible that it first arrived with a number of the West African slaves. It’s also widely accepted of course that like Hinduism, the presence of Islam is a direct result of 19th century immigration from India.

The first three images below show the new Queenstown Jama Masjid. The original was built in 1895, but succumbed to old age in 2007 and was dismantled. Upon completion it will once again sit proudly as the biggest mosque in Guyana and will be a place of prayer for much of the city’s Muslim population. It sits literally right behind my house, and I have watched its growth with great interest. When I first arrived it was merely a shell, but 10 months on it’s nearing completion and will certainly be a grand structure when finished.

Below this are images taken at other mosques across Georgetown. I’m always more intrigued by the role of Islam in society here, and I think this stems from my time in Bangladesh.


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Queenstown Jama Masjid

Queenstown Jama Masjid


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown


Queenstown Jama Masjid

Queenstown Jama Masjid


Queenstown Jama Masjid

Queenstown Jama Masjid


Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown

Prashad Nagar Masjid, Georgetown




LBI Masjid

LBI (La Bonne Intention) Masjid


So there you have it, a selection of places of worship, which are dotted across Georgetown, some of which bear a connection to a bygone era when the foundations of religious faith were being laid in Guyana. My impression has been that generally speaking this is a spiritual society, signified by the vast array of ‘houses of god’, which vary in shape and size.  Within one square mile of my house I believe there are at least ten different places I could visit to connect with god, if I were so inclined. I would therefore hazard a guess that there are at least fifty across the whole of Georgetown.

I could of course have delved much deeper into this subject area, but I was more interested in capturing and presenting the distinctive religious architecture that is displayed right across Georgetown. I am also pretty impressed by the manner in which religious respect seems to maintain a sound level here. Considering you have three significant world religions coexisting very openly side by side in such a concentrated area, maybe other places across the world could learn a few lessons on religious tolerance from Guyana.

Wild and Precious Life

I’d like to take this opportunity to share a wonderful project initiated by two great friends of my family. ‘Wild and Precious’ was created by Liz Scott and her husband Stuart. Combining a wide ranging set of skills developed through their respective jobs, they have dedicated this corner of the internet to documenting and presenting the stories of ordinary people who have very different tales to tell. The collection of short films is a growing mission and they are all wonderfully produced.

Last summer I was very honoured to be asked by Liz and Stuart if I would be interested in discussing my experience in Rwanda. I jumped at the chance as I had never done anything like this before, and I was really thrilled to see the fruits of their labour a few days ago. You can view the short film here;

John’s Journey to Rwanda

I was especially humbled that they asked me, given the nature of the other stories they have documented previously. I hope you enjoy viewing their films, and I’m excited to hear the stories recounted on their website in the future.

Their project is inspired and named in recognition of a poem by Mary Oliver, entitled ‘The Summer Day’.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

In many ways the final two lines reflect perfectly why I continue to write on this blog. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been on this journey, and my way of acknowledging this is by documenting it through words and images.