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Teaching English to Tibetan refugees

INDIA | Thursday, 29 November 2007 | Views [5690] | Comments [15]

Chuck leading discussion in our conversation class

Chuck leading discussion in our conversation class

11.27.07  Teaching English - What it’s like to teach Tibetan refugee adults at “Tibet Charity” in McLeod Ganj, Dharmasala, India

It is a privilege and a joy!  Although it takes some organization & planning for each session, we can tell that any effort is doubly rewarded by the student’s responses of ‘shining eyes,’ big smiles & lots of laughter!   

Although some people come here to teach (for days, weeks, or months) without any teaching experience at all, nor any TEFL/TESL training either, being trained (TEFL certificate) or having been a teacher appears to be a GREAT benefit…to both students and teachers.  Knowing how to put together a “lesson plan” for either a regular class or a “conversation” class is really a MUST!  The rule about “85% student talk-time” and “15% teacher talk-time” constantly runs through my head!  Good job Rodolfo!  Thanks for being such a good TEFL instructor!

It is evident by the students’ response & their feedback IF the lessons are planned.  Although they are very gracious if lessons are boring, they are so appreciative when the lessons are tailored to ‘fit’ the students.  These students LOVE to learn & are eager to work hard. 

Kirsten (our daughter who is also TEFL trained & has taught in Japan & India) says that her students request homework and want practice in everything – reading, writing, pronunciation, & conversation.  The way she structures her classroom activities is with a 5-minute warm-up that may include music, a pronunciation poem, or a game of word pairs (minimal pairs) in which they practice listening & pronouncing sounds like “th.”

She also may give a 2-minute speech in which they listen & then discuss what they heard in pairs or groups.  The students take turns in doing the speech as well.  They also write in a journal every day for the last 10 minutes of class with no dictionary, erasers, or speaking with their friends.  They may write about anything but Kirsten encourages them to write more every day.  The thought is that they will increase there quality as well as their quantity and become more comfortable with the language.  She has corrected the journals once with feedback, but it is mostly a tool to increase their skills & an outlet for their experiences!  Their stories range from what they cooked to much more emotional topics.  Some write about fleeing their homeland of Tibet in the dark to escape Chinese capture & prison.  Others have had to leave family members behind and most will never be able to go back to Tibet.  Some take the chance to help their family or friends. 

Kirst also works with 2 private students & occasionally meets with them for tea, lunch, or a hike - just to have fun talking with them about what ever they bring up…they love the opportunity to talk with English speakers!

Ann’s private 1:1 student, as I have written about before, is a housewife with 2 boys, ages 13 and 5 years old.  She is doing so well in writing English & then Tibetan captions in her photo album for her oldest son, who is in boarding school.  We have taken pictures of her & her husband, their house, cooking momos & mushroom soup, getting dressed up the traditional Tibetan dress – the chuba, & riding her husband’s motorcycle!  While we spend the hour discussing everyday life in English, she works on her photo album or other projects.  We will also go shopping, visit the local clinic & hospital, & she might show me how to knit socks!  All spoken in English of course!  We have also watched a video her family took when they visited her family in Tibet and she explained in English.  She says she will never be able to go back  to see her mother – it is too dangerous.  Getting together every day is so enjoyable!  We hope to stay in touch by e-mail or phone.

Chuck’s 2 private (daily) 1:1 students includes a monk who wants to become a translator.  Part of their lesson each day is going over vocabulary and also reading and discussing a book written by Nehru, “Letters to My Daughter.”  The monk wants to be able to translate it into Tibetan.  Another ‘lay’ student wants practice in speaking, reading & writing for his job as a cable installer in a small village.  Both are becoming more confident every day!   

Chuck & Ann’s daily conversation class: It is mostly ‘planned,’ but occasionally spontaneous, depending how many students show up, the English proficiency level of the students, & if we have any foreign visitors who also want to participate, etc – then we have to improvise & “read” the group.  We had a woman Australian professor of English one day & man whose background was in yoga, music, & drama the next day.  He was a good sport and participated in our ‘disaster’ lesson plan.  He graciously returned to present a brief history of ‘hip-hop’ the next day, which as he explained, is a combination of poetry, ego, & social/political issues.  He brought song lyrics that we could read along with the I-pod music of the Fugees (their name taken from the word refugees)!  This group apparently writes about political/religious themes such as Buddhism & Tibet.  The English may have been a bit of a stretch for many of them, but great exposure to an interesting form of music!  And since several students write poetry and have expressed an interest in poetry, the handouts are great homework worksheets!  We ended the last half of the class with breaking the 20 students into 4 groups.  I played 6, 1 min segments of songs from 6 different countries.  They had about 3-4 min to discuss what country did they think it came from & how did it make them feel!  What GREAT discussions if provoked.  It is good to have a world map on hand – many have not had much geography.      

Daily class - We begin by writing the daily objective on the board & begin with a 5-min warm-up that usually includes a song or game.  Yesterday, we sang the song, Apples & Bananas, practicing the vowel sounds.  The day before we sang B-I-N-G-O, as it tied into the BINGO game we played last Thursday at our Thanksgiving party.  One of the monks said he liked the BINGO song so much he was singing it at home.  Some weeks, everyday is a different theme/topic, but this week is a ‘disaster’ and ‘planning/preparedness’ theme to go with the Red Cross “Game Plan,” (disaster preparedness) card game that Chuck helped develop with the Portland Red Cross. 

Yesterday, for example, we started the day using our Tibetan names (Ann is Tenzin Dolkar & Chuck is Tenzin Lungrig).  Per one of the student’s suggestions, we ended the class having students pick & use English names, while demonstrating an activity they like.  The next person in the circle would repeat the last person’s name and repeat that activity (like soccer, dancing, etc) & then adding their own name & demonstrating their own activity like, “My name is Bob & I like to play basketball.”

We also write a list of vocabulary words on the board, pertinent to the theme & clap out the syllables.  This seems to help with pronunciation.  Since we have beginners and advanced students in the class, we try to cover all levels as best we can – the advanced seem to be quite patient & willing to help the beginners.  

We have had a short 2-3 min listening activities – our US visitor talked a bit about a natural disaster he experienced & how he has generally prepared for them.  (Here in Dharmasala, there have been earthquakes.)  The students paired up and talked about what they heard.  After a short discussion, we grouped them and handed out the “Game Plan” resource cards.  They practiced pronunciation & discussed.  Then debate - the top 3 most important resources needed, here in their city, should a disaster (earthquake) hit.

We have also had daily 5-10 min time for “polite conversation.”  We pick a different topic every day, so they get a chance to work in pairs with different levels of English, talking about such everyday things as work, weather, sports, or family, friends, & holidays.

All these activities need to be carefully timed, so that there is also time for a game at the end.  What used to be an hour class is now 1 ½ hours because the students love the card games, “Cheat” (Bullshilt) or “Apples to Apples” (nouns & adjectives), so much that they requested a longer class.  Today, however, we will try using the disaster planning ‘resource’ cards to see who can acquire the MOST resource cards by saying & matching the cards as they turn them over.

This is just one day in the life of a TEFL teacher at the Tibet Charity refugee school.  It is cliché, but true, that we as teachers get far more out of this than the students!  We will miss them when we have to leave next week.


Tags: dharmasala, india, mcleod ganj, refugees, teaching english




You guys are doing a great job! I am so much impressed, reading about your adventures and your teaching job! I think it is so important to have people like you in the world and it is wonderful to see that you are still the same open minded, interested and creative person I met 12 years ago! Hope to read more about ann on the loose in asia soon!

Lots of love, your german daughter Tanja

  Tanja Nov 30, 2007 8:01 AM


Thanks Tanja,
So GREAT to hear from you! Would love to meet your daughter. Please call us or give us your ph# so we can call you when we return to the states!
Take care, your American mom, Ann

  annanderson Dec 1, 2007 8:50 PM


Your Tibetan names, word games, pictures and impressions provide indelible images of gracious people-- both teachers and students-- for those of us in urban jungle of HK. Many, many thanks for sharing and informing and stimulating. We're invigorated by manifest resourceful resolve. Much peace, B & L

  Bernie and Linda Dec 4, 2007 12:19 AM


Dear Ann & Chuck,“When you love people and have the desire to make a profound, positive impact
upon the world, then will you have accomplished the meaning to live.”
Sasha Azevedo
Being a teacher myself a teacher of EFL, I can add that teaching doesn't mean filling a bottle but lighting an interior light. You're doing an amazing job!! because it has a lot of lOVE and you're making a terrific impact not only upon your students but upon us all. You're an inspiration!!
I love you guys. A huge hug from Argentina.

  Tuky Dec 4, 2007 3:02 AM


Ann, It was wonderful to read about your teaching experience and the people and country customs etc. It certainly brings back my own adventure in Nepal and makes me long for the time when I can return. I look forward to talking with you when you return.

  Judith Wilson Dec 4, 2007 5:46 AM


Wow! I am impressed. Your students are so lucky to have you guys. Ann, with lightning speed, it sounds like you have become a wonderful teacher.

I'm so glad to hear that Kelsey gets to join you soon. I guess you'll actually have Christmas together!

Thanks for the update. What an experience for all of you! Hi to Chuck and Kirsten and Kelsey, too. Merry Christmas.

  Syl Dec 4, 2007 5:54 AM


THANKS to you all who have left so many wonderful messages! It keeps us going when we feel like we don't have the energy! We get weary at the end of a teaching day! After walking up a mile steep hill, then stopping for hot lemon/ginger/tea with honey & momos, we still have to climb back up to our apt by a series of 133 steep steps in the dark! But, the next morning, we get to read your e-mails & comments & it keeps us going! Plus we get to see the smiling eyes of the students! Better post this before the electricity goes out again!!! The joys of a developing country! Love to you all! Take note of your clean water & comfortable homes! We have sooooo much to be thankful for! ann

  annanderson Dec 6, 2007 6:10 PM


it's so great to hear all about your wonderful experiences! i can't wait to see you all in less than 2 weeks!!! i love you very much!!!! lots of hugs!

  Kelsey Dec 11, 2007 12:19 PM


Ann, I can't believe I didn't read this until now. I am with Syl in saying that you certainly picked up the skills to become a wonderful teacher so quickly. I am impressed by the variety of teaching methods and tools.Viv

  Vivian Feb 3, 2008 2:27 AM


Wonderful works!

I was needing some english assistance to find a Tibetan name for my new Tibetan Terrier puppy! Her name is Charity! Her full call name is 'Sister Sweet Cherry Charity' and her kennel name has 'Players Cardinal Virtue' in it. I would love and assistance you could provide with your students. I love in Canada and love reading about your work.

Many blessings,
Marilyn and Keiko and wee Suzi and soon to be 'Sweet Charity'

  Marilyn Mar 18, 2009 12:29 AM


Hi Ann

I was really interested to read your posting about teaching at the Tibet Charity school as I've applied to teach there from August to December 2010. I'm a CELTA trained teacher - just qualified this year, so I'm still learning. Any more useful tips you can spare, I'd appreciate very much. Cheers, Gill

  Gill Winter Nov 15, 2009 8:39 AM


Hi again Ann. Since posting my first message to you I have discovered the other blogs you wrote about living and teaching in McLeod Ganj. The information is fascinating and will be really useful for me as I prepare to go there next year. I now have a pretty clear picture about what to expect, from the bus journey to the monkeys! Not to mention some very useful thoughts about teaching and the things which the students particularly enjoy about English lessons. Thanks so much! Hope you are enjoying life wherever you are now. Gill

  Gill Winter Nov 17, 2009 9:05 AM


Gill, Thanks so much for your comments - we taught a little in Thailand last year - so we do continue to enjoy teaching! I have heard that Celta training is GREAT!!! My program in Guadalajara, Mexico was patterned after Celta, BUT we didn't get the advantage of getting a Celta certificate! MUCH luck to you! Ann

  annanderson Nov 21, 2009 3:08 PM


Hi This is Ngawang who came from tibet but live in Kathmandu Nepal right now..but my wife she've gone to the Oregon State around almost two years ago.. and I am here. when I read your Testimony I was really encouraged by your teaching english among my own tibetan fellow thankful to you guys..I am really impressed what you've done to our people. GBU

  Good teacher and good advice Feb 16, 2010 4:53 AM


I live in Portland Oregon, currently visiting family in Poland. I have been thinking for some time already to help Tibetan refugees in India learning English.
Please contact me.

  Lilianna Zipser Mar 26, 2012 9:20 PM

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