8 MIN READ
In Nepal, sadly, teaching usually means lecturing and learning means memorizing. Even essay writing is often turned into a thought-killing rote exercise.
Few people in Nepal are doing more to improve the way teachers teach than Laxman Gnawali. From his perch at Kathmandu University’s School of Education, Laxman-sir has worked for years to help Nepal’s English teachers develop innovative site-specific methods besides straight translation and memorization. He also works to improve how teachers teach writing.
Over chiya at a rooftop restaurant the other day, Laxman sir, in his funny and thoughtful way, observed that even teacher trainers whose job it is to show teachers how to use non-rote methods almost always rely on rote methods to do so. They lecture about how teachers shouldn’t lecture.
A few years back, Laxman sir wrote a marvelously self-reflective and humble essay describing his own journey as an English learner and English teacher. He described some of his early confusions about English (“mind your head”) and also how his rote methods squashed the life out of plays like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. His essay is funny and insightful. I think every teacher – not just those who teach English – could learn from it. (Laxman sir also has a short but important research-based analysis of Nepal’s broken teacher training culture that no education policymaker or researcher should miss. The essay can be found here, page 257)
Laxman-sir’s Writing Journeys essay recounts a couple of his realizations about how to teach writing. He recommends encouraging students to analyze how more experienced writers choose to structure their work. He also takes aim at student “cut and paste” essay “writing” through a story about how flummoxed he became when a hands-off foreign instructor asked him to do some “free writing” – write his own ideas in his own preferred form. No teacher had ever asked him to write and think for himself.
Writing can and should be a powerful way to help students develop independent critical thinking skills. As Laxman sir and others are helping us see, Nepali schools and universities can and should do more to foster these crucial skills.
Laxman Gnawali, PhD, leads English language teacher education at Kathmandu University. He holds an MA in English from Tribhuvan University and a Masters in Teacher Training for English Language Teaching from Marjon College, Plymouth as a Hornby Scholar. He has taught English at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels across Nepal for 15 years and was the Founding Editor of the Journal of Education and Research published by the Kathmandu University School of Education. He is currently senior vice-president of the Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA).
My journey as a writing teacher
“The first writing task you are going to complete is a formative essay,” said Tony Wright one afternoon in October 2000. Tony – he asked us to call him Tony but he would be Tony Sir in Nepal – was our first tutor at Marjon College in Plymouth, England, and he was trying to make us, students who had come all the way from South and Southeast Asia, as comfortable as possible. He had taken us to the sea (the first time I ever touched seawater!), had lunch with us, and helped us with our computer skills. When he felt that we had settled well into college life as well as the classroom, he announced that we had to write a “formative essay.” It took me some time to understand that a “formative essay” was an essay on free topics; we could write about anything and in the way we liked.
In Plymouth, I was trying to make myself feel comfortable. It was my first visit outside Nepal and I was adjusting pretty well to the physical and social ambience. But the academic side was confusing. My first task was free writing the “formative essay.”
It took me a while to figure out the importance of this kind of writing, but ever since then, I’ve insisted that all my students learn to free write.
The phrase “formative essay” did not initially sound strange to me, but in the evening, I started wondering what my task really was. What was “formative” as a lexical term? Did it come from “form” or “format”? Either way, it did not make much sense to me. To be honest, I had met with the word for the very first time.
I had received a Hornby Scholarship to do a Masters in Teacher Training for English Language Teaching in the UK, though I already had an MA in English Literature from Tribhuvan University (TU). But this was very different from what I was used to. At TU, students were required to read literary texts but write only during examinations. We would outline historical periods, sketch characters, describe settings and plots, etc, and produce critical appreciation using literary theories. But, although we were allowed to freely express our personal feelings and our understanding, we never did. Instead, we would parrot ideas borrowed from the ‘critics’ of the time. (These ‘critics’ included both real critics and commercial note manufacturers.). Because we wrote only in examinations, citing sources was not required. I didn’t know much about citations anyway.
After earning my TU degree, I had taught General English courses first at a higher secondary school in my home village in Gulmi, and later at Kathmandu University (KU). These courses mixed language and literature. When I had to teach writing, I applied the tricks I learned during my TU Masters experience: I trained students to write by ‘borrowing’ content from their required readings. Free writing on unspecified topics was not something I had experienced as a student or as a teacher. The examinations my students had to face did not demand independent thought either. So, I continued the tradition, with comfort.
But right at the beginning of my second Masters in the UK, I was faced with “formative” writing. “It’s just writing on something you like,” echoed my classmates Thinn, Huong, and Tina when I started asking around. I could pick a topic of my choice and scribble down anything I liked. I did not need to think of any particular pattern or structure; I could just write freely, as the ideas flowed in my mind. But this was much easier said than done. I finally produced something and submitted it to Tony. I do not remember the content, but with positive feedback from Tony, I grew confident that I could manage to complete written tasks.
Back at KU, when I was creating an academic writing course for the Masters program at the School of Education, I recalled my “formative essay” and decided to include the same exercise for my students. I not only set it up the way Tony had but also behaved like he did. I said what he had said and did not explain very much. The students brought no experience of essay writing on free topics. So, they repeatedly asked me how to write one. I told them to write on any topic and that it would not be graded. Their essay would only help me to assess their writing proficiency.
When I received their submissions, I realized why free writing was necessary – it provides a real diagnosis of writing skills. As students couldn’t just ‘cut and paste’, I got a clear picture of who was at what level and who needed support in what areas. Whenever I received later submissions for grading, I could focus exactly on the problems each particular student had.
Teaching writing took a lot of practice. I had to wait for the second semester to see what worked and what didn’t when it came to developing skills and sub-skills in the nuances of writing. Though I had learnt techniques for teacher training at Marjon College, I did not know enough about teaching writing. The reason was obvious: the Marjon course had focused primarily on the skills required for training English teachers, not exactly on how to teach writing. And before that, the Masters in English literature at TU had focused largely on literature, material not very relevant for language classrooms. So, I had to learn the ‘how-to’ skills for teaching academic writing.
I collected books on English Language Teaching pedagogy. Reading books by Penny Ur, Jeremy Harmer, and Scott Thornbury, I discovered a new piece of knowledge: students first develop academic writing skills by imitating the structure of other people’s writing. Seeing good models and samples is a must.
Until then, I had not fully understood the value of analyzing published papers and book chapters and adding insights to our assignments. Reading articles would not just provide evidence to substantiate our arguments, but would also display how other scholars structured their writing and organized their essays. Simply put, the models would show us how to write. The tutors at Marjon had always stressed reading before writing but I had not fully understood the rationale. It was only when I explored the how-to-teach-writing sections in language pedagogy that the penny dropped.
My journey of learning and teaching academic writing has taught me two important lessons: samples and models are critical to open the eyes of writers who are just starting out, and formative essays or free writing can be equally crucial to open the eyes of writing teachers.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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