Teaching Creative Writing in a Foreign Country

I hope you enjoy this blog about  a U.K. citizen teaching Creative Writing in Sri Lanka.

If you read my bio you will see that I have worked as a Creative Writing tutor for adults in the UK. My husband and I retired and came to Sri Lanka for 6 months 7 years ago, now for 3/4 months every year. His voluntary work is in medical research and he has studied snake bite reactions as part of a team improving the care of patients.He is based at Peradeniya University in Kandy – the hill country.

I didn’t want to sit around and I when asked to work at a private school of 3000 girls as a volunteer I was delighted. Feeling ill equipped with a young age group I started with the under 5’s but quickly developed a rapport with the upper school. The little children were so lovable and well behaved. I have always kept in touch. The teachers are hard working, dedicated and underpaid.

Us as Santa and helper going to school
Well behaved children in school

Faced with a large class of 9-10 year olds to teach English, Creative Writing came to my rescue. Group work was the answer. English is a vital part of education here. The main languages spoken are Sinhala, Tamil and English. The English language is used everywhere, on road signs and by the poorest of workers. It’s a common language. An English qualification is a  way into a job and  helps you find a marriage partner.

I progressed to teaching GCSE classes and A level English literature. There is a gap of three months between the exams and the next course, I was given a free hand to teach this group of students. I taught what I knew and we worked on writing projects. At the end of my time the school reported a marked improvement in the English of the students. The result was repeat invitations to work in this school over many years. I am happy to have a good relationship with them every time I visit.

The school concert at a private school where I worked

My next task was to teach teachers, this was fun and an experiment. Rote is the preferred  method of teaching and it works well. The thing about teaching Creative Writing is that it engages the students to a greater degree. They love doing projects and sharing. If they can’t do everything in English I allow them to use their own language but to keep going and keep trying. At the end of a session we look collectively at vocabulary and grammar relevant to their project. This requires new skills from the teachers, they may be caught out on things they don’t know.

Creative Writing is a method of improving  the English of some of the teachers as well as students. Writing creatively  is a skill that cannot be totally used without guidance.

I always respect the culture and never try to change anything. For a country still recovering from civil war, facilities and resources have been in short supply but are improving. Sri Lanka was also a country badly hit by the tsunami. Both events increased the need for orphanages. Children still write about both. They write about the roll of women and  poems about their lives and emotions – this area is where we discuss boundaries and if there should be any. The teachers know their culture and children best and I don’t try and influence in any way, but I make them aware that with new freedoms comes responsibilities for the teacher.

The teacher training I was a part of was videoed  and shown over to teachers. I was invited to run a work shop at a conference weekend for all Sri Lankan teachers in Colombo.

This is about the teaching, there is more to my voluntary work than this. The teachers are wonderful people, I have made such good friends.

I visited a poor state school and threw myself into renovating a library to give the school a heart. The government is now able to put more money into schools and state schools are improving.

Our life here has been dependent on renting a house every time we come. The first one was on the top of a hill with the jungle above. We were closer than I liked to snakes and insects. I have what I call my Sri Lankan hat on when I come here and forget my UK standards of living. That said I love the experience of living alongside the Sri Lankans. The rains came the first year and deluged down our hill for months. There was no doubt we were living in danger of a land slip. When the house was hit by a large boulder. The challenge was on. The hole made way for the jungle life to enter the house. My husband was determined to stay and finish his work, the compromise was that we went to a hotel while the house was fixed. On our return I reacted to every sound. When I heard a thud on the roof I went to investigate and found myself face to face with two 7 foot snakes. I learned afterwards they were not dangerous. I have seen vipers and cobras here but not many. The mosquitos are a bigger threat. Dengue is not uncommon but Malaria has mostly been eradicated. Rabies exists and it is best not to engage with wild animals including the street dogs and cats. Bats and monkeys can also be carriers. I console myself with the thought that there are a lot of Sri Lankan people still alive, on balance we should be. This is not a way of life I would choose if I had the responsiblity of a young family, although families do come here to work.

The food is good, we eat mostly fruit, veg and rice. The numbers of modern restaurants and the variety of food is increasing. We prefer Sri Lankan food, it’s what we are used to here.

Going home to the U.K to friends and family is a real pleasure, I look forward to it for weeks. I see my own culture through different eyes. The consumerism, and the way families and extended families don’t function in the same way are here are obvious. In Sri Lanka the elderly and sick are always cared for in the family homes. This is great when it works but there are old people mistreated as well as those well cared for. Women have to work and cannot always be at home. Family money is shared. Our house maid washes cleans and cooks for us. Her wages keeps five members of her family. When families can’t manage they borrow from the loan people who come around to your door. They pay back at 2% interest. Sickness and disability can wreck a family’s limited finances.

Our tuk tuk driver introduced me to a village where people live in shacks. Here I met a young family with three children. I decided to teach them English and stay in touch at all times. Parents and children are speaking English and the children growing up well. Twice their shack has been washed away in storms, it is now built of breeze blocks but not in a safe position.

Free health care is available to the poor. They can queue up at hospital and see a doctor. Drugs have to be bought, unless you go to the hospital for them.  People buy one or two tablets at a time and give up before a course is finished. If you have an accident you may or may not get repairs to your broken body depending on the cost. When it doesn’t happen then people languish in beds.

I am getting past teaching now and would like to be involved in sponsorship of patients that need false limbs they can’t afford. There are many young and otherwise fit men, who lost limbs in the war. There is some support for them.

Although I plan to get away from teaching and spend my time here writing, this is a country of surprises. I have been asked to teach the young monks at a temple but have preferred to teach someone how to teach them. The internet is great for devising programmes for learning and passing them on. Internet and phone connections are excellent.

I have been talking to an agriculturist about rural education, an area that interests me. The challenge is teaching farmers, especially rice growers, English, to enable them to use the internet and communicate with the wider world.

We visit swimming pools,  I belong to a book club and film club and go on tour – just in case you think our time is all about volunteering.

At the end of my teaching time at a school I gave them a Creative Writing Cup to be presented to the student with the best ideas – not the best grammar. This encouraged a different set of students. Every year book prizes are awarded in my name. What an honour.

Winner of the 2016 Creative writing prize

If you have enjoyed this brief blog about the past seven visits  of our life in Sri Lanka, you can read my husband’s blogs on Chandlers Ford today. http://tinyurl.com/ze92jfq This is about the library I renovated in a state school but search around his blogs and you will find more about Sri Lanka.

This is a limited view of what we do, I could write a book, but not yet. If you have any questions, please ask.

In quiet moments I write for myself. My first novel Marriage, a Journey and a Dog is a romantic comedy best described as women’s fiction . Writing is what I enjoy doing in my quiet moments. It’s great to know people in Sri Lanka have read and enjoyed my book, mainly expats. http://tinyurl.com/zexovoo

I have been able to advise expats about self publishing a book and about how the traditional publishing industry works. This puts me in contact with amazing and interesting people.

Many classes in one space