Fundraising for Educating Indigenous Children in Bangladesh

An eager, if nervous, fourth-grader about to tell her family story to her class.
An eager, if nervous, fourth-grader about to tell her family story to her class.

My amazing students at Champlain College are once more breaking new ground in support of education for indigenous children in Bangladesh. In addition to publishing school materials in the endangered alphabets of Marma, Mro, and Chakma, they are working to compile the first-ever anthology of stories from the Marma people–stories collected by the children themselves by listening to their grandparents and village elders. Please help support this endeavor by zipping on over to their Kickstarter page and making a donation. Thanks so much.

Tim

Auction As You Carve, Step One: Picking the Wood

I’m trying something that may be entirely new. Working with the woodworker Tim Peters, I’m going to make a unique dining table, circular, about five feet across, carved with an exquisite Tibetan blessing based on the work of the Buddhist calligrapher Tashi Mannox.
I’m going to auction it while we’re making it. Over the next few months Tim and I are going to post regular updates so you can watch the project develop—photos, video, blog posts, sketches, computer design drawings. We’ll be asking you for your opinions, suggestions, and feedback.
Bidding will start as soon as the first post goes up, and it will begin at $250, the cost of the materials. The first five bidders will receive special thank-you incentives. Tim and I are still deciding what they’ll be, and we’ll let you know once things get under way. Twenty percent of the profits will go to Rokpa International, a non-profit that supports sick and homeless children in the Himalayas.

Photo: Tim Brookes
Photo: Tim Brookes

The project begins, of course, with wood.

Tim Peters and I (the name of our association is still in flux: we’re trying out Tim Squared, TimTim, TPTB, and Right Said Fred as possibilities, but we’re open to other suggestions) drove in his truck down Route 116 to Bristol, Vermont, heading south along the glaciated valley floors, ridges rising on both sides.
It was a spectacular morning, frigid, brilliant, a couple of feet of untouched snow everywhere, all the rivers frozen, a thick trough of ice at the foot of every field, rime on every tree making it glisten silver.

Photo: Tim Brookes
Photo: Tim Brookes

We were making for the tiny hip/trad town of Bristol, home of the Fourth of July Outhouse Race, home too of Lathrop’s Maple Supply, source of much of the best lumber in Vermont. We were looking to buy cherry for our Tibetan dining table.

When we reached what elsewhere might be called the Lathrop Industrial Park, in the river flats below the town, the Lathrop’s mill building was sending a steady column of white smoke-and-water-vapor mounting and expanding, untroubled by any breeze, as if to illustrate how cold the air was, how this was a working Vermonter’s environment down here, not a ski village or a fern-bar-and-cappucino town.

Photo: Tim Brookes
Photo: Tim Brookes

Tim parked on what woodworkers would call eight-quarters ice, the truck barely making it up to the loading door. Inside, we pulled on our gloves. Bristol was a good fifteen degrees colder than Burlington, and it was probably five degrees colder in the metal-sided woodshed than outside.

Around us stood racks of lumber—not only cherry (Pennsylvania, Vermont) but butternut, red oak, hard maple, soft maple, ash, birch, basswood, and spalted sycamore, the spalting fungus running through the grain like a network of tiny gray streams.

Tim measuring

At the front of the shed, a couple of dozen tall select pieces had been set up, including a spectacular pieces of curly birch with a gorgeous pattern of the lighter sapwood around the darker hardwood and figured lights running across the grain like an aurora. An indecipherable scribble ran up its face; someone had already pounced on it and would be coming back to pick it up, possibly when the temperature rises above freezing. April, in other words.

Tim set off among the racks, peering at the hand-lettered signs, pulling out his tape measure. He was now officially at work, checking out the color, the straightness of the grain, the density, and a dozen other factors the eluded my only-semi-trained eye.

Choosing wood is hard work. It’s not just a matter of pulling out boards that may be an inch or two thick, six to twelve inches wide, and up to a dozen feet long, or even shuffling such boards around to get at a more promising specimen underneath the stack.

Lathrop’s is no suburban lumber store, laid out for the weekend shopper: merely getting to the steps leading to the upper level required squeezing between the ends of ten- or twelve-foot boards. Getting along the upper walkway, where the ends of the boards stuck out so far they nearly met the walkway handrail, was an Olympic duck-and-scramble event.

Photo: Tim Brookes
Photo: Tim Brookes

After perhaps forty frigid minutes, during which time I tried to send a text but it refused to leave the comfort of my phone, Tim had half a dozen pieces he liked.

How much cherry did we actually need? How big is the table going to be? Well, I’ve been thinking maybe five feet across, though that’ll be a pretty huge table, not only in terms of the dining-room that will need to accommodate it, but in terms of the working space it’ll demand. I have no workshop apart from my garage, and I don’t set foot in it in these temperatures. My working space is my own dining-living room where I’ll be carving this tabletop on my existing Balinese table, turning it bit by bit as I carve, standing it up on end when I need to use my house for some other social purpose than a carvery.

Photo: Tim Brookes
Photo: Tim Brookes

Tim ended up picking four twelve-foot boards, their grain strong with just a little fluttery figure here and there, their color gingery. Each was between six and eight inches across; milling, gluing and shaping them into a circle will be the first steps of his part of the job.

We sent up a smoke signal and the owner, Tom Lathrop, appeared, looking like a stocky, bearded, backwoods pirate in heavy overalls. He chuckled about the cold, saying in his Vermont accent that on days like this he can pull out his peanut butter sandwich knowing he won’t get any flies on it.

Tom’s sawyer cut our boards in half so they’d fit into the bed of Tim’s truck. They had undertaken the next leg of their journey from tree to furniture, but they brought with them, in their deceptive uniformity, that river of grain that is the visual signature of all the slow internal dynamics of wood, its internal elasticity, its energy.

The tree might be down, but the wood is anything but dead.

Tom Lathrop's sawyer at work. Photo: Tim Brookes
Tom Lathrop’s sawyer at work. Photo: Tim Brookes

Please repost this as widely as possible. Spread the word!

Auction As You Carve

Kindness table topI’m trying something that may be entirely new, both in the fields of both new media and woodwork (and, needless to say, endangered alphabets).

Working with another Tim, the woodworker Tim Peters, I’m going to make a unique dining table, circular, about five feet across, carved with exquisite Tibetan calligraphy based on the work of the Buddhist calligrapher Tashi Mannox. It will be a repeating design that will run in a ring around the table, perhaps six inches in from the rim of the table and perhaps six or ten inches broad. It will have something of the feel of a mandala—a variation on the design of a smaller table I made recently (see photo above).

It’s going to be spectacular, but here’s the experimental aspect: I’m going to auction it while we’re making it.

Here’s how it will work. Over the next few months Tim and I are going to post regular updates so you can watch the project develop—photos, video, blog posts, sketches, computer design drawings. Maybe even live feed.

So you’ll be able to watch it progress. More than that, you’ll be able to take part. We’ll often be asking you for your opinions, suggestions, and feedback. You may have a hand in the final look of the table.

Bidding will start as soon as the first post goes up, and it will begin at $250, the cost of the materials. I can afford to risk my time and labor (in fact, I do it all the time), and Tim has pledged to do the same, but we need to cover that basic nut.

The first five bidders will receive special thank-you incentives. Tim and I are still deciding what they’ll be, and we’ll let you know once things get under way.

As with all my carvings that feature the calligraphy of Tashi Mannox, 20% of the profits will go to Rokpa International, a non-profit that supports sick and homeless children in the Himalayas.

More soon!

Please tell your friends, relatives, and interested parties about this project!

The Latest Item of Endangered Furniture

Photo by the amazing Tom Way
Photo by the amazing Tom Way

As alert readers of this blog know, one avenue of the Endangered Alphabets Project is Endangered Furniture, a series of collaborations between yours truly, the carver, and a series of woodworkers who actually know how to make furniture. Joints. Mortise and tenon and stuff.
The latest piece is a king-sized bed headboard, featuring a Zen-style design and a central carving of the word “Sleep” in Chu-Nom, the endangered traditional script of Vietnam. (Translation by John Balaban of the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation.) The fact that it looks so polished and professional and the joints are actually joints (instead of screws, if I’d been the one trying to make this) is thanks to my collaborator Tim Peters, of the excellent Vermont Woodworking School.

We would love the opportunity to show you and even make for you this and other items of Endangered Furniture. And we are open to suggestions for other possible collaborations between Tim and Tim.

Cheers!

A Suggestion, and A Request

The Suggestion: Happy New Year cards in Mongolian calligraphy. Just beautiful. Check them out at http://society6.com/product/happy-new-year-cards-in-mongolian-calligraphy_cards#16=71.

The Request: I would love to take the Alphabets to the West Coast, preferably California. Anyone got any suggestions about colleges, universities, libraries or galleries that might be interested?

All the best to all of you!

Tim

Our Golden Hour Part II: Gifts from Bangladesh

A nervous third-grader...
A nervous third-grader…

As I was saying in Part I of this extremely short series of posts about Our Golden Hour, on Sunday morning I met with Maung Nyeu (the founder of this wonderful non-profit) at Algiers Cafe on Brattle Street in Cambridge. I handed over the materials created by some of my students in the Champlain College class I teach called Publishing in the 21st Century; what he gave me blew me away.

Over the summer (remember summer?) I had the idea of making room numbers to mount of the doors of the classrooms in the schools created and supported by Our Golden Hour.

...and an eager fourth-grader.
…and an eager fourth-grader.

Here’s the thinking. The children of the Chittagong Hill Tracts speak a variety of languages, but Bangladesh has a policy that the only way to be a Bangladeshi is to speak Bangla. Plenty of evidence, especially first-hand evidence in the Hill Tracts, shows that if you educate a minority child in an unfamiliar majority language, you’re condemning him or her to a miserable, unsuccessful education and an even more marginal life thereafter. But how to give the endangered Hill Tracts languages (and in some cases their endangered alphabets) a respect and status equal to the national language of Bangla?

That question is at the heart of much of the pedagogical thinking Maung is developing in the PhD program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; my part is much more modest. I decided to start with the number on the classroom doors.

At the moment, each school teaches eight grades, though the numbers drop off alarmingly grade by grade as a variety of forces outside the schools combine to deter children from continuing their education. I decided to carve a plague to go on the door of each classroom with the room number (1 for Grade 1, 2 for Grade 2, and so on) in all four of the scripts/writing systems used in the Hill Tracts: Bangla, Mro, Marma, and Chakma.

Signage, you see, is very important. It gives authority and value to whatever it conveys, and in this case the number of the room is less important than the fact that the number is in the indigenous scripts, which are rarely if ever used for official signage in Bangladesh. The majority of Bangladeshis have never seen anything written or printed in Mro, Marma or Chakma–nor have the Mro, Marma or Chakma people themselves, reinforcing the sense that they are outsiders, even inferior outsiders. Hence the door numbers.

Another aspect was that I wanted all four letterforms to have equal value on the signs. It gives one wrong message to make the Bangla form bigger–but it gives a different wrong message to make it smaller and ignore the fact that these students will almost certainly need Bangla as part of their repertoire if they’re to make their way in the country at large. So the signs imply a kind of egalitarian diversity, or diverse equality.

So I made the signs, gave them to Maung, and pretty much forgot about them as he was lugging them halfway around the world. Until Sunday morning, when he gave me something wrapped in gold holiday gift wrap: a framed panel of photographs, each of one of his students recounting their family oral history story to their class–holding the door plaque corresponding to their grade.

It’s impossible not to be moved by these photos. In some the student is young and nervous. He or she may never have spoken in class before, let alone spoken to the entire class. In other the student is radiant with the joy of telling his or her story, in some cases in remarkable detail and at great length. One story, Maung told me, went on for 15 minutes. Whenever the kids in the classroom were included in the shot, they were looking on attentively and eagerly, for perhaps the first time in their educational lives.

Six months ago these were nothing more than a pile of pieces of wood on a table in Vermont...
At this point these were nothing more than a pile of pieces of wood on a table in Vermont…

Then there’s a sequence showing the brightest student in one of the older classes, a girl who is also the shyest student in the class. At first she is hesitant, looking down, holding her door number low. With each shot she gathers her courage; by the last she is speaking out. She has found her story, and her voice.

It was hard to believe I had made those pieces of wood the students were holding. It was astounding to be a tiny part of the transformation that was taking place.

It’s no exaggeration to say that even the smallest donation to Maung’s project makes a substantial difference to the lives of the 265 children at the three schools he helped to create. Read more about it HERE.

From now on, 20% of the profits from any Endangered Alphabets product will be donated to Our Golden Hour. See what I’m talking about on Etsy or Society6. Thanks.

Our Golden Hour Part I: Gifts for Bangladesh

CHT Coloring Book-7Quite quietly, in the upper room of Algiers Cafe on Brattle Street in Cambridge, an extraordinary seasonal gift exchange took place yesterday morning.

I was meeting with my friend, colleague, and collaborator Maung Nyeu, founder of the amazing non-profit organization Our Golden Hour, which aims to provide mother-tongue education for indigenous children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. With us was Kim Wilson, a microfinance expert who teaches at the Fletcher graduate school of business at nearby Tufts University.

The gifts I was carrying for Maung were created mostly by three students–Paige Merrow, Rhianna Graham-Frock, Alex Warlick–in my Publishing in the 21st Century class at Champlain College in Burlington. With a suitably festive air, I passed the presents over the table to Maung one by one.

The first was our coloring book, Color My Story. One of the pages is reproduced over there on the left.

Here’s the thinking. We wanted to create something interactive, partly because kids are more engaged in learning if it involved action and materials they create themselves, but also because the education in Bangladesh, as in much of the developing world, is anything but kid-centric: the teacher dominates the classroom and, as Maung said, the children are often afraid even to lift their eyes to look at him, let alone express opinions or be creative.

We also wanted to create something non-grade-specific, as these schools have very, very, very, very few resources, and if a coloring book or coloring sheets could work in different ways for different grades, so much the better. (Thinking along the same lines, we threw in colored pencils as the school will not have such items, and two pencil sharpeners, ditto. The money for all this came from a Kickstarter my students ran last semester, by the way.)

So my students conceived of a coloring book, or a collection of coloring sheets, that could also be used for writing stories–hence the ruled lines under the picture. The Hill Tracts children can color the image and then add their own visual embellishments, and then write something about it, either from their own experience or from their own imagination. The facing page, by the way, is blank, to allow further drawing or writing.

The images were based on photos Maung sent us. Another Champlain student, Jane Adams, did a spectacular job of rendering the photos into outline form, preserving their visual character and, just as importantly, the characteristic features of dress, landscape, people’s faces.

When Maung saw the coloring books, his face lit up and his mouth fell open. Then he explained why these apparently simple creations are something exceptional.

For a start, he said, the children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts who start working with these books in January will never have had an art class. The act of producing visual images on paper, something we see as essential both in the sense of its importance to a child’s development and in the sense of it being part of our essence, is not taught. The only books they will have seen are textbooks.

Next, he went on, these images are vital because they are familiar. This has at least two very important qualities, especially in the context of trying to save an endangered indigenous culture.

One, the children can color and write about what they know, which makes the act of creation more interesting, enjoyable, and easier. Maung tells the story of his own schooling, when he was forced to memorize Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils,” even though neither he nor anyone he knew had ever seen a daffodil or knew what it looked like.

Two, the choice of images gives value to the child’s own background and experience. This is a major factor in minority education everywhere; here it is especially important because some of the images represent a cultural way of life that is different from what takes place elsewhere in Bangladesh, whose government denies indigenous peoples their civil rights and even denies the existence of any indigenous peoples in Bangladesh.

And from a pedagogical point of view, the coloring book fits in with a magnificent and novel (especially for the developing world) series of curricuar activities going on in the schools. The children are asked to go back to their villages and ask their grandparents to tell them a story they heard when they were little boys or girls. The children come back to school and retell these stories, and when they do so for once they are at the head of the class–and in telling the stories they often use gestures and expressions they have picked up from their elders. They get excited; the rest of the class listens, rapt. The storytelling is videotaped and the transcribed story is the ready for publication as a children’s book for the schools.

This cycle has all kinds of importance and value. Once again, it gives respect to the students’ own culture, and it also heals any potential generation gap by linking grandparent and grandchild. It preserves some of the mythology and folklore of the region–a region currently being overrun by armed settlers from elsewhere in Bangladesh who have been promised cheap or free land in the Hill Tracts–but that mythology and folklore itself preserves survival strategies, hard-earned wisdom, information about medicinal plants. It’s the education that matters to those people in that place as much as an education in literacy and numeracy.

Endangered alphabet stamps. These are in Chakma.
Endangered alphabet stamps. These are in Chakma.

The other gift from my students was a set of alphabet stamps.

We approached my friend Paul Ledak of Williston, who has a computer-operated laser, and Paul kindly agreed to take the 33 letters of the Marma alphabet and burn them in sheets of rubber. (Well, technically he burns the rubber around them so the letters stand out. The smell is appalling.)

The Publishing students then took the individual letters and stuck them on stamp blocks, inserted handles, and voila! Alphabet stamps for kids who don’t know their own (endangered) alphabet, or can’t yet form letters.

I handed Maung a cardboard box with the 66 stamps–two copies of the Marma alphabet. What he gave me in return left me speechless with delight. Read about it in the next post, “Our Golden Hour II: Gifts from Bangladesh.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that even the smallest donation to Maung’s project makes a substantial difference to the lives of the 265 children at the three schools he helped to create. Read more about it HERE.

From now on, 20% of the profits from any Endangered Alphabets product will be donated to Our Golden Hour. See what I’m talking about on Etsy or Society6. Thanks.

Unique holiday gifts!

I’m sorry to join the avalanche of incoming mail trying to get you to buy holiday gifts, but this is one of the most important ways to support the Endangered Alphabets Project and its continuing work. Please click HERE to find prints, mugs, wall clocks, iPhone cases, throw pillows and all kinds of other Alphabet merchandise. Let’s face it, nobody on your gift list will have seen anything quite like them!

Thanks so much, and best wishes,

Tim

 

Cham E iPhone case
Cham E iPhone case

 

The latest Endangered Alphabets mug
The latest Endangered Alphabets mug

 

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Gifts for All Occasions and All Budgets!

"Everything happens for a reason" greetings card, one of five different designs
“Everything happens for a reason” greetings card, one of five different designs

‘Tis the season of giving, and at last the Endangered Alphabets offers gifts that are not only (a) unlike any gifts anyone is going to get from anyone else, and (b) a wonderful way to support the continuing research and education goals of the Endangered Alphabets Project, but actually (c) affordable. And they are here.

Cham E iPhone case
Cham E iPhone case

Seriously. Framed prints of the carvings, greeting cards of the carvings, tote bags and iPhone cases and laptop skins and wall clocks of the carvings–I think you can even get an Endangered Alphabets shower curtain. Check out http://society6.com/endangeredalphabets and see!

The latest Endangered Alphabets mug
The latest Endangered Alphabets mug

New Carvings, Incredible Wood

Tom Way Enlightenment upright Tom Way Paduak Happy Beings upright Tom Way Salt upright

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Check out the latest Endangered Alphabets carvings, photographed by the excellent Tom Way! See more of his photography at http://tomwayphotography.com/

One, a commission, is on live-edge walnut and features a Mongolian proverb supplied to me by Chris Hoffmeister: “Work until finished. Salt until dissolved.”

The second, a sale piece, is on an amazing piece of paduak and features a blessing in Tibetan by the wonderful calligrapher Tashi Mannox that reads “May all living beings be happy.” Visit Tashi’s store at https://store.tashimannox.com/.

The third is carved on a breathtaking piece of knotted and cracked wood (maple?). The Mongolian script, provided by Chris Hoffmeister, reads, “After Lightning, Enlightenment.”

 

 

 

P.S. Some good news is that the Kickstarter campaign to fund an interactive Balinese-Indonesian-English wiki-based dictionary was successful, not only meeting but exceeding its goal. Thanks to all of you who supported it or passed along the word to others!

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