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American teacher devoted to Tibetan students

American teacher devoted to Tibetan students
Anne F Thurston
2005-01-11 07:05


While Kevin Stuart was in the hospital recovering from an emergency operation, all 60 of his first year students came to visit.

Gathered around his bedside, they burst into song:

"I'm a little teapot short and stout

Here is my handle, here is my spout

Tip me over, pour me out!"

Starting from ABC

Teacher Kevin, as he is affectionately known, was born in Oklahoma, in the southern part of the United States.

Stuart, 50, has a PhD in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and has been teaching English in Xining, capital of Northwest China's Qinghai Province, since 1987, when the now thriving and modern provincial capital had only a single paved road.

Most of his students start with the alphabet, and "I'm a little teapot" is one of the first songs they learn. It is memorable not only for its simple melody and silly words but because it can also be performed.

As the song is sung, the performer's right hand touches the waist to form a handle, the left arm points outwards to make a spout, and the finale is completed by tipping the entire body leftward towards the ground, as the "teapot" pours out.

Teacher Kevin's students are Tibetan, part of a programme introduced to the Nationalities Department of Qinghai Teachers' College in 1997. The college has expanded into Qinghai Normal University today.

Each spring, a team of teachers visits a dozen or so middle schools in the Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and the Tibet Autonomous Region.

They ask each student to name the best students in their class, and the answers are remarkably consistent. The best students are then given a series of tests, including tests that measure ability in written Tibetan and Chinese.

During an oral interview, finalists are presented a topic and asked to give a spontaneous speech on the subject in both Chinese and Tibetan.

Only the most motivated, able and hard working are selected. Sixty students enter the programme each year. Funding is provided by such international organizations as the Bridge Fund, the Christian Board for Higher Education in Asia, the Trace Foundation, Good Works Institute, Miseror, and the Ford Foundation.

Those students who are chosen for the programme are smart, highly motivated, and good-hearted.

In two years, they are speaking excellent English and reading such American novels as Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea" and Steinbeck's "The Pearl."

Today, there are 120 students in four classes in the two-year pre-college programme and 90 students in three classes at the two-year college level.

College level courses, taught in English, include such subjects as natural science, linguistics, world literature and cultural anthropology.

The best of the two-year college students, some 30 a year, may complete a four-year college course, earning a BA degree in English.

Students are grateful for the opportunity to study English with Teacher Kevin.

"I never thought such a happiness would come to my life," one student says. "I didn't think I was good enough to be chosen and never thought I could learn English that quickly."

However, one student remembers entering the classroom and being given a piece of paper upon which the teacher wrote some unrecognizable letters. Not yet knowing the ABC, the new student did not understand that his teacher had just written his new English name.

As Teacher Kevin approached to explain, the student says: "I felt very afraid. Sweat came out of my brow. Poor me! Oh dear!"

That day he learned to say yes and no. Today he speaks fluently.

Students talk, too, about Teacher Kevin's ability to encourage them to study hard without ever actually speaking the words of encouragement, and about his insistence that students speak up in class and ask questions, however trivial they may seem. They say that the more they learn the more their thoughts change.

"I'm very lucky to be teaching students from all over China's Qinghai-Tibet Plateau," Stuart said in an e-mail to China Daily. "They are carefully selected and extremely clever. It is very rewarding to teach them starting with ABC and then, a few months later, be able to carry on a very good conversation."

Beyond teaching

Kevin Stuart's teachings extend well beyond English.

With the onslaught of modernity - the ubiquity of television, radio, VCDs, and DVDs - he worries about the preservation of Tibetan language and culture.

Young people who once listened to their grandmothers' stories in the darkness of night without electricity now listen to their CDs, watch television, and go to movies.

Modern American pop idol Britney Spears is listened to more often than the traditional grandmother.

Concerned that traditions of the past may eventually be forgotten, Teacher Kevin has motivated many of his students to participate in a variety of folklore preservation projects.

With video cameras in hand, students spend vacations in their home villages recording the stories of the elders and video-taping wedding ceremonies, traditional festivals and folk songs.

They study the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to record the words, and translate songs and stories into Chinese and English. Some have worked with scholars from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and the United States. Several have published joint articles with both Teacher Kevin and other international scholars.

As modernization wreaks inevitable changes on culture, many Tibetan traditions and stories will thus be preserved for posterity.

But it is his work with poverty alleviation and development that has made Teacher Kevin an icon, why so many regard him as venerable. In exchanges with his students and visits to their homes, Teacher Kevin comes face-to-face with continuing poverty in some of their villages.

Some come from mountainous areas where fuel is scarce and women have to gather yak dung from the grasslands and kindling from distant hills to cook the food and heat their homes.

In other villages water is scarce and has to be carried in buckets from several kilometres away.

Some villages in the most remote areas do not have proper primary schools. A few, on the highest, most remote mountains do not have electricity.

In 1994, a former student who had returned to teach English in his home village wondered whether international funding might be available to renovate his village school.

Teacher Kevin discovered that the British embassy in Beijing had a "small grants" programme for such projects. His application to renovate the village school was approved. With a grant of 70,000 yuan (US$8,400), the school was completed, and the villagers were delighted.

Learning of this success, other students began approaching Kevin Stuart, hoping he could find a way to fund projects in their home villages. Gradually, he realized that many foreign embassies in Beijing have small grants programmes, and so do several international foundations.

One success followed another, and the range of projects expanded. By now, Teacher Kevin, his students, and his local friends have implemented more than 200 projects, totalling more than 8 million yuan (US$964,000).

Many of the projects are focused on educational infrastructure, such as the building or renovating of primary schools.

Local communities often contribute their labour to such projects, and local governments also make a contribution and agree to provide teachers once the work is finished.

Many of the new schools are built in the traditional Tibetan style, with stone walls and multicoloured slanted windows.

Similarly, water delivery projects that carry water down the mountain in pipes and through spigots to village homes are built by the villagers themselves.

Not only does local labour reduce the cost of water delivery systems, the villagers know how to repair the system when something goes wrong.

Many villagers have received solar cookers, which look like satellite dishes covered with tiny mirrors. Pointed in the direction of the sun, the cookers can boil water in minutes and cook potatoes, meat, and bread, thus reducing the need to gather fuel.

Remote mountain top villages, where electricity is difficult to obtain, have received solar electricity generating panels.

Other projects include building greenhouses to grow vegetables in the off-season, medical clinics in remote villages (combining Tibetan and modern medicine) and yak loan projects for nomadic people who have lost their herds through snow disasters.

Some villages have been able to build pigsties and new latrines. English language training programmes are expanding from the provincial capital to local areas.

Most of Kevin Stuart's students will return to their home towns to become English teachers themselves.

They will also continue their efforts to preserve traditional Tibetan culture. And they will work together with rural communities and local governments to promote economic development in their villages and towns.

Kevin Stuart's teaching has thus had a multiple effect through which everyone wins.

Local villagers benefit when children can attend nearby schools and women are freed from burdensome, time-consuming chores to work at more productive endeavours.

Local governments benefit by working with new partners in development.

His students benefit by making contributions to their local areas. Many say that such work gives new meaning to their lives. Kevin Stuart benefits, too, even though he has remained unmarried and his mother, two brothers and a sister live in the United States.

"I can't imagine it ever getting better than this," he said. "The rewards are so fast.

"My students come not knowing any English, and then they do."

He recalls the villages he visited that had no primary school, returning for the opening of the new school, learning about the growing numbers of children able to attend the school.

He says that he will always know that there was a time "in my life that I did something beyond myself."

"My life has meaning if I am able to help my students improve life in their local communities," Stuart said. "I hope to continue to stay in Qinghai as long as I can continue to help people by teaching and helping my students help their local communities."

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