Reimagining School in Nepal

For about a month at the end of 2018, Janie Kaiser ’11 toured her older sister Leigh Kaiser ’09 around primary schools in Nepal. No, it wasn’t a conventional sightseeing adventure. Janie wanted to show her sister what she had been working on and the impact Leigh’s suggestions had made.

Two years earlier, Janie Kaiser co-founded the Education Concern Center (ECC) in Nepal with Min Bahadur Shahi. The nonprofit seeks to reorient Nepali primary school teaching from the traditional rote memorization model to one prioritizing interactive classrooms.

When Kaiser first visited the schools where ECC now works, she noticed a distinct pedagogy. “It’s just repeating, repeating, copy what I say, do what I do—never actually using anything that helps kids internalize ideas and critically think and really learn,” Kaiser said. “What we wanted to do was make teaching interactive and fun and actually effective.”

But to do that, Kaiser had to develop a guide for how ECC would teach the teachers. She leaned on her sister Leigh, an elementary school teacher in rural Mississippi, for advice.

Janie knew that the challenges she faced were similar to those Leigh dealt with: schools were poorly funded, poorly supplied and largely neglected. Leigh’s students were apathetic and Janie’s new teacher pupils were, too. As Janie brainstormed, she collaborated with Leigh and ultimately designed the Active Teaching and Learning Practices (ATLP) guide for the Nepali ECC teachers.

The guide consists of two parts. The first half is education theory, how to set up a classroom, manage and reward kids, use materials and break old habits of memorization and recitation. The second half is based on traditional Nepali curriculum and provides over 150 activities and games to play in the classroom, as well as reading and writing activities. The course comes with a set of materials including storybooks, notebooks, pencils, individual whiteboards, markers and stickers.

Leigh’s help was invaluable. When Janie fretted about the cost of buying and shipping individual whiteboards, her sister instructed her to make them using card stock and sheet protectors.

“I would say about half the activities in ATLP were actually her idea,” Janie said of Leigh’s role.

Regardless of who gets credit, the guide is working. While ECC started in only three Nepali schools, the preliminary testing was so encouraging that the government of Nepal offered to cover all expenses if the nonprofit expanded to an additional seven schools in late 2018 and then to another six in 2019.

The Nepali government funding runs for five years, allowing ECC to track the results of the teaching method through their students’ primary school days. But Kaiser hopes they can continue to work with these students for a decade, seeing how it impacts their secondary schooling and later life.

Although ECC has maximized its outreach in Nepal at the moment, it is expanding across borders to MICDS. For the second year, some Nepali students will participate in a virtual pen pal program with MICDS second graders.

“This year so far they have exchanged two videos, with introductions and explanations of the holidays they celebrate in their countries,” Kaiser said. “It has been a really fun little activity and very eye-opening for the students on both ends to learn about different cultures.”

In a sense, the pen pal program is a full-circle culmination of Kaiser’s own journey. For her senior year independent project at MICDS, she observed Beasley students and wrote papers on different child development practices and their efficacy. Now, eight years later, she’s helping shape how elementary students develop both where she began and in a country half a world away.

“I didn’t expect to start a nonprofit in Nepal, but you don’t always know what’s going to happen,” Kaiser said.