Wednesday, December 14, 2005

School Days

Robert and Kate are, of course, in the Peace Corps. They are teaching English, or rather, they are trying to teach Thai English teachers how to teach English with an eye toward student-centered learning. This has been a struggle for them, as Thai educational goals seem to be, for the most part, quite different from those of Robert and Kate. For instance, the schools are tidy and organized, with five different uniforms to be worn on different days of the week (government uniform, sports day, scout day, Northern garb day, and regular uniform day), marching and assemblies, and a toothbrushing song played every day after lunch while the children all clean their teeth . . . but the computer lab sits empty all the time. The science room is never used. The libraries are low on books, and kids don’t read them anyway. The principals’ offices are nice; one is the only room in the school with air conditioning. Another is the only room in the school with a mural of a forest glen and a water feature. Yes, I kid you not, there’s a fountain pouring through several jugs and down into a pond with fish and lilies—in the principal’s office. At another school, the principal informed Kate that the school had received excellents on 13 of 14 categories when the government inspectors came. “What was the 14th category?” asked Kate, expecting, perhaps, science or math. “Academics,” replied the principle. Oh. Well, if it’s only that.

Still, while it seems inappropriate to leave 25 first graders alone for an hour while the principal calls a meeting, or to have all the adult chaperones drive private cars to a field trip site while the students walk—unaccompanied—the entire way, the kids seem to handle it better than most would here. That is, they’re probably not teaching themselves, but likewise they’re not really getting into trouble.

We didn’t get to observe Kate teaching at all, but we did have two chances to see Robert. His students love him, not surprisingly, because he’s a tall, gangly guy with a great heart, a love for children, and a complete lack of self-consciousness, so he’ll jump around and sing goofy songs with the kids that have them screaming with laughter—in English.

Robert’s birthday took place while we were visiting, and we were treated to one of the sweetest displays I have seen in honor of it. First, we were invited to lunch with the teachers at Robert’s school, where we were served several excellent dishes, and a very, very densely decorated cake (the cake part of which was surprisingly good, at least in comparison). The teachers had written some short computer program that ran along a screen behind us, saying something like “Happy Birthday and Welcome Teacher Robert and Teacher Kate and Friends”, and also presented Robert with two wrapped presents. He asked “Should I open them the American way or the Thai way,” and the teachers all blushed and said “Thai way,” so Robert left them until he got home.

After lunch was English Club, where Robert led a one-hour song fest, complete with The Halloween Song, Where Are You Going, and The Alphabet Song (the last actually led by Ian and me, after one of the children asked us to sing something). At the end of English Club, one of the other teachers signaled to a group of children, and suddenly, class by class (first through sixth), the children filed up to the front of the room and started giving Robert presents. Every child had either brought a small gift or made a card, some covered with extremely painstaking English that had clearly been dragged directly out of the dictionary. The cutest was a group of five boys, about nine years old, who went in together on a large bottle of Coke. Midway through the parade, Robert half turned to me and murmured “This is surreal!” An equally amazing thing to the gifts was Robert though, who thanked every child by name. There were probably 75 or 80 students.

Robert and Kate continue to struggle with the differences in the educational system between the US and Thailand, and they are frequently frustrated by the evident mismanagement of teachers and administrators alike. However, two important things are happening regardless. One: These students, from a small rural community in Northern Thailand, where rice is still farmed basically in town, people fish in the river with ancient framed nets, and everyone knows everyone else, now have an awareness of the world beyond. They know that there are people speaking different languages, people who look different, eat different foods, behave differently. And they also know that they like these people—i.e. different is good. Two: Robert and Kate are learning that the US way of doing things, even the US way of interpreting things, and certainly the US way of judging value, isn’t a universal. Their understanding of the world is likewise infinitely broadened. And that’s one of the best lessons that can come from school.

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