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Students head to Myanmar to build peace, teach orphaned students English

October 05, 2014

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    Sam Shugart ’15, Nway Khine ’15, Katie Schirmer ’17, and Ira Yeap ’14 with a group of their students in Myanmar.

By Kaiya Gordon

For five weeks this summer, Sam Shugart ’15, Nway Khine ’15, Katie Schirmer ’17, and Ira Yeap ’14 taught English to orphaned children in Myanmar through a self-designed project funded by 100 Projects for Peace. Sound intimidating? It was––but the group didn’t do it alone. Once in Myanmar, social support from the local community of Taunggyi, the city where they held their classes, helped them.

“It was interesting how everything was community based,” Schirmer said of Taunggyi. “Everything is about the community––you have to have trust.”

The group focused on tutoring children ages 13 to 18 in English, collaborating with local teachers to build the curriculum and with local religious orphanages to find kids interested in the program. Because of its varying religious communities, Myanmar struggles with ethnic violence. Tension between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority sparked violence in the city of Mandalay just weeks before the Lewis & Clark students journeyed to Myanmar, causing the group to reevaluate their goals and reassure partners of the project.

“My parents, throughout the program, asked me if what we were doing would make someone come and burn our house,” Khine said. “My aunt, who helped us meet leaders in Myanmar, would be the first to go to jail if anything happened.”

She continued, “In order for us not to be politically involved, we had to go out and seek political leaders in my home town. We invited them to the opening ceremony and emphasized the educational aspect of our program.”

Though the group hoped to build relations between children of different religious backgrounds with their program, they were unable to make that goal explicit while in Myanmar. Shirmer stressed that while their “end goal was peace building,” they “couldn’t overtly state that while in Myanmar.”

With their end goal in mind, the group spent long days building curriculum and teaching students, often keeping busy from 8 a.m. until late at night.

“At the beginning, we were working with a teacher from an interfaith program named Saw Han,” Shugart said. “He was very passionate about interfaith work in Myanmar––our goal, regarding interfaith, was to bring equal groups of different faiths in the classroom, and Han was awesome about connecting us to different religious leaders.”

Those religious leaders, in turn, smoothed things over for the group within Taunggyi, ensuring support from the city for the project.

In fact, the prospect of English-speaking children was economically compelling to many of the religious organizations that the group worked with, who hoped that having native English speakers would help stimulate growth in Myanmar.

To teach English, the group relied on social, academic, and kinesthetic activities to engage and motivate the students––the majority of whom had not previously received a formal education. In fact, the group’s active approach confused some of the students, who were used to very different learning expectations.

“The Myanmar education system is all about rote memorization,” Shugart explained. “The idea about teaching and building something bigger…that was hard for the kids to understand. There were some stragglers.”

Even so, the students made leaps and bounds into their new language.

“Seeing students facial expressions when they understood something…that was an awesome feeling,” Shugart said.

Khine said that she was particularly impressed with the kids’ enthusiasm and willingness to try new things. “At the end of the program,” said Khine, “they weren’t really at a comprehension level to speak English, but they did it anyway.”

At a closing ceremony for the project, students performed speeches, dances, and songs in front of a crowd.

“We didn’t do anything to train them!” Khine said. “We just asked them what they needed. I was so proud––at first they were really shy to talk in front of the whole class…but at the closing ceremony, they performed in front of about 100 people.”

“All the kids were incredibly respectful and eager,” agreed Schirmer. “They all looked out for one another.”

Though the Lewis & Clark students continued to stress the educational aspect of the project to leaders in Myanmar, they were happy with the social progress that the kids made.

“Towards the end of the program,” Shirmer said, “the kids had no barriers in the classroom.”

One of the group’s last lessons was a field trip to Inle, a lake in Myanmar. The leaders brought their students to the lake to learn about sustainable fishing and to practice technical vocabulary about the lake. Then they asked the students to present in front of the class.

“That trip was the culmination of a lot of the program,” Shugart said. “Having kids ask questions about the world, in English––it was really cool to see.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Pioneer Log.

100 Projects for Peace Overseas and Off-campus Programs

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