Building Tibet’s first Montessori school
Over the last Spring Festival, Natasha McKenzie, who’s been teaching in Beijing’s Montessori schools since 2001, traveled to Lhasa to lend a hand setting up Tibet’s first Montessori kindergarten. Located in Nyetang Village, outside of Lhasa city, this combined school and orphanage is a project of the Tharjay Charitable Trust and the Shambhala Foundation. With the help of local teachers Gesan and Drolma, who traveled to Beijing to tour Montessori classrooms and observe Montessori teaching in action, the school will offer a free education to up to 100 children under the age of 8.
During her short eight-day stay in Tibet, Natasha kept a journal of her experiences, recording the thrills of discovering Lhasa, the hard work of building a school curriculum and interior from scratch, and the excitement of being involved in the early stages of such a unique project. The following is an excerpt.
Anticipation. After a few months of planning, one flight cancellation and a delay, I am actually on my way to Lhasa. I am really excited, and anxious to get there and see just what challenges lie ahead of me. It’s not a bad way to spend my spring holiday, helping open a Montessori school in Lhasa, “the rooftop of the world,” of all places! I wonder what Maria Montessori herself would think – 100 years ago, she was opening the first Casa De Bambini in Rome; now, on the centennial anniversary of that school’s founding, her thoughts and philosophy have made their way to Tibet.
I am greeted at the airport by Pemba and Yang Bei, two men who will soon become an immeasurable source of help and knowledge, who bestow upon me a traditional white cada. It reminds me of the leis you receive when you arrive in Hawaii. We quickly jump into a truck and are on our way. En route we stop by the Drolma Lhakang monastery and I have my first real taste of the spirituality that is Lhasa. The sounds of chanting and the smell of yak butter and incense envelop me. It’s hard to explain the feeling of peace and serenity that comes over me just by being in this monastery; I hope it’s a feeling that I keep during my travels here.
After the monastery we stop by the school so that I can get a picture of just what needs to be done in the coming week. The building is beautiful, much nicer than I had imagined. The classrooms are super small, though – too small too accommodate the movement the Montessori curriculum dictates. Figuring out a way to make them bigger goes down as priority number one on my “to do” list. After a brief walk through the halls my list gets a little longer: sourcing child-size furniture, installing suitable flooring and fixtures, putting together Montessori classroom materials, a few coats of paint..
Woke up this morning and felt good. The sun is so bright here and the air, although thin, is crisp and clean. Started off the day with a walk around the Barkhor, taking in all the sights and sounds. It’s amazing the number of pilgrims you see walking around the square, many prostrating with nothing but cardboard to protect their hands and feet.
Laurence (Brahm, founder of the Shambala Foundation) arrived in the evening – got to sit down and hear his vision for the school and his timeline for the week. He told me that while I’m here I’ll get a chance to meet Beru Kheyentse Rimpoche, the Lama whose ideas are the inspiration for this whole school-building project. Yikes: got lots to do and not a lot of time to do it.
The toughest day yet. Met up with the teachers Drolma and Gesan to go shopping for furniture and carpets. We spent four hours going from market to market looking for ideas and trying to give me a sense of what “Tibetan” furniture looks like. It is now becoming increasingly clear to me that I am in for a bigger challenge than I thought. How do I keep the simplicity of a Montessori classroom and still honor the beauty and diversity of Tibetan culture?
We visited the Lhasa Thebongkong Community Trilingual Prep School. Hearing the laughter of the children, I felt at home even before I entered the gate. Once inside, I was swarmed by 360 kids, who were all having their recess. With at least a dozen kids attached to my hands, pockets and shirt tails, I managed to take a tour of the school and was shocked at the conditions and the number of children in each class. A rough count included seven teachers, five classes and 360 children: that’s more than 70 children per class!
I met the principal of the school, Mr. Denzin, and introduced myself as a teacher from abroad. We had an interesting conversation about his experiences in education and his frustrations with only being able to “teach to the test” in order to prepare the children for the exam they must pass to get into primary school. He was sad that there was no time to teach things like geography or history, music or art. He believes that without these things the children are missing out on what he called a “universal education.” I asked him if he had heard of Montessori and her philosophy, and a huge grin spread across his face. He whacked me on the back and said, “I knew there was something different about you!” It was very surreal to meet someone of a like mind in the middle of Lhasa. It’s amazing how small the world really is!
In the afternoon I took the teachers to the new school building and we walked through and discussed the layout of the classrooms. We decided to use Tibetan-style arches to join three rooms and form one fluid space. I am totally in love now with the challenge of incorporating Tibetan style and customs into the design of the school.
Later, met a wonderful newlywed couple from the States for dinner. They have offered to donate in any way they can. I am so excited – the energy here is nothing but positive. It’s a great feeling and makes me really proud to be a part of something so special. Got lost in the Barkhor on the way home from dinner. The place really does look different at night!
The ladies from Roots & Shoots came by this morning; listened to their presentation and began brainstorming ideas about how to incorporate Roots & Shoots into the curriculum. (Add their materials to the pile of things I need to get translated!) They have great ideas about how to raise money and awareness.
We’ve found some good contacts and support for the project, and may even have a source for early education materials that have already been translated into Tibetan, which would be wonderful.
Spent the morning with Drolma and Gesan poring over training articles and discussing what makes the Montessori philosophy so unique. The girls finally seem comfortable and confident with me and are asking lots of questions and joking around. Sent them off in the afternoon to find bits and pieces so we can begin making classroom materials from scratch.
It’s really pushed the limits of my imagination to come up with ways to make these materials. It’s not like it is on the international school circuit, where there’s lots of money for beautiful new things – these are going to be homegrown Montessori classrooms.
I called Martha, my mentor back home, to talk to her about some of the radical changes I’d like to make. Tried to explain the uniqueness of the environment and my struggle to keep things simple, in keeping with my Montessori background. She assured me I was on the right track. “It’s for the children,” she said simply, and somehow it all made sense. She’s right: these kids will love anything that’s there as most have never been to school, ever. Attending this school is going to be a fantastic opportunity for them to become independent, responsible, social beings.
Winding down, tying up loose ends with the teachers. They were able to find many things that we can use in the classroom. I’ve asked them to carry on looking, and gave them a list of common classroom words and phrases to be translated. Once I get back to Beijing, I assure them, I’ll send care packages to help them get started making materials, and I’ll be checking in often.
All packed and ready to go. Had a relaxing morning – went for one last walk around the Barkhor. Took my mala beads to the Jokhang Temple to have them blessed and to listen to the monks chanting one more time. There is something peaceful in my heart when I hear them, and I hope to carry this feeling back home with me.
After lunch, we head to the airport. On the way, we stop again by the Drolma Lhakang monastery. The trip has now gone full circle – very Buddhist, if I do say so myself. At the airport, I meet Lama Rimpoche at last. He is a very happy, humble man, and every bit what I expected. We exchange small talk and he bestows one last blessing before I go. My flight is called and I board the plane.