Thursday, May 31, 2012

Word Lists

Today, as I mentioned in the previous post, I am not teaching, because my co-teacher is not here. He is instead at a teacher training in the Amphur Muang Sukhothai (the capital city of our jangwat). Side note: originally, I wasn't going to go. Then, yesterday, I was invited to go and told that I could attend all three days of the teacher training. So today at 7a.m., I was picked up by my co-teacher, and we drove the 25 km to the hotel in Sukhothai where the training was being held. We arrived at about 7:55, and were greeted as we walked to the conference hall by one of the trainers, whom I now, in hindsight, think may have been the same woman whose rental house Josh and I looked at just the other day. She greeted me in English, then spoke rapidly in Thai to my co-teacher, the gist of which I understood to be: Farangs aren't welcome here. She seemed quite flustered that I was there, and I gathered from her Thai explanation that they hadn't wanted Farangs to come to the training because the Thai teachers would then feel embarrassed about speaking in English and practicing their teaching techniques. To me, in English, she explained that none of the Farang teachers from her school had come, and that Farangs already know how to teach, so I would be bored for the three days of training. I assured her that I understood what she had said in Thai, and then I think she realized that I understood what she had said to my co-teacher, and so he and I turned around and he drove me back. And then I came to school, and he went back to Sukhothai for the all-Thai English-teacher training. Sigh.

The kids are pretty disappointed I'm not teaching - four of them came to find me and seem a little confused as to why I'm not. I had to break a rule that I've been trying to keep up - not using Thai to talk to the kids - in order to explain it to them. Of course, the rule has been bent at least five or six times before this morning - sometimes, like yesterday when I found myself teaching PE to a bunch of really hyperactive 8 to 12 year old girls, in skirts, no less, it just seems easier to tell them to put on their shoes or walk in a line in the language they understand! (Duh.) But we'll see how that impacts my authority, or my masquerade that I don't understand Thai, in the classroom next week.

At any rate, this is the second week in the classrooms and there have been some positive developments. I was able to convince one teacher that the books she uses are too difficult for the students, and that she and I will be better teachers if we plan more and use the books less. I am working on convincing the second teacher of the same concept, but that will take a little bit more preparation. He teaches six out of six periods per day, whether it be other English classes, PE, or art, and obviously that has left us little time to plan what we're going to do. So, right now I'm blogging while taking a break from searching our extensive Peace Corps volunteer wiki and various other resources for ideas on how to start the semester, essentially, over again in the next couple of weeks.

Specifically, I'm alternating between researching word lists and classroom management techniques.  I do not know how to manage 30 8-year-olds. For those of you teachers and parents out there, laugh it up. (And currently listening to another teacher teach the class that I would have been teaching had my co-teacher been here. Of course, it's all in Thai....) This weekend, I hope that the two of us will be able to make some decent progress on a course plan and some lesson plans. I will also need to figure out how and where to procure materials to make teaching materials (posterboards, glue, books, tape, markers, etc.). I know that lots of the teachers here use their own funds to stock their classrooms - I'm hoping I don't have to do that, and that the materials I end up making are durable enough to be used for a few years to come, so that my teachers can stop doing that, too.

And now, back to those word lists and humane reward-punishment systems... (Uh-oh - I just heard my name, "Kruu Erin" coming from the class I'm not teaching downstairs. What is the substitute teacher saying about me?)This is me learning to jai-yen-yen.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

2 weeks away: Refreshed.

If only that were the end of it. Two weeks away, refreshed. Four days back, exhausted!

Eventually, I'll get around to writing about the reason(s) I spent two weeks away (not on a purposeful vacation, although that was one pretty sweet outcome of having two of my teeth yanked out under local anesthesia with a washcloth draped over my face, but like I said, more about that later.)

At any rate, I'm back. And I'm finally working in both of my schools, although what that means is still somewhat under negotiation and up for interpretation.

My good friend Emily, who taught sixth grade (I believe) in the States, just wrote a great blog about her frustrations with teaching in the Thai system, and especially in the TCCO program that Peace Corps and the Royal Thai Government have created. She says, "My job is to help train my co-teacher in how to write effective lesson plans that include student-centered learning activities, help her create materials and integrate the local culture into the lessons, and to help her build a network of teacher support. My job is not to teach English. My job is focused on the teacher, rather than the students and this is the aspect that breaks my heart the most right now. I understand it’s for sustainability purposes (in hopes that we’re training the teachers to teach English more effectively, even after we leave in two years), but it is still hard to sit back and watch the students miss out on English for a week because my co-teacher is at a conference in Bangkok and I am not allowed in the classroom without her.... The other hard part about my job is that I’m not here to change how my co-teacher does her job, change the way the education system works, or stop teachers from hitting the kids. I’m simply here to add to what they’ve already got, to help, support, and encourage my co-teacher whenever I can and to love the kids the best I can."

That pretty much sums up the frustrations a lot of TCCOers express. For me, the frustrations of the co-teaching situation are somewhat different, but not entirely. Primarily the differences stem from the fact that my pre-PC experience is very different from Emily's, and that of many volunteers who were teachers before they arrived here. In short, I never really wanted to teach English to kids. (I never really wanted to teach kids anything.) I was always more excited about teaching teachers, and so while I share Emily's frustration with the fact that the students sometimes lack instruction because their teachers have other priorities and there are no viable substitution options, I don't feel (or at least I haven't yet) inclined to jump into the classroom and start doing the damn thing myself. Granted, I haven't yet faced the prospect of being at school when my teacher is not--the first time that happens will probably be next week, when my teacher is at a training that I may not be able (or allowed) to attend.

No, my frustration and confusion about how to do my job stems from the fact that I'm realizing that the teaching/learning techniques - rote memorization, choral repetition, and copying down "the right answer" - are ingrained not only in the students, but also the teachers. The problem is the system, if you will, as Emily also alluded to. In just four days of teaching, I have seen both of my co-teachers be completely unable not to tell students the answer to a question I asked them. Completely unable not to lead the students in a chorus of repetition even when they agreed to having the students work in pairs or alone. Completely unable to give the students time to think and then respond to a question. This isn't to say that they aren't actually able to do those things, just that to them, they're such foreign ideas that even if I expressly ask them to do something (or not to), what I ask doesn't make any sense to them. Likewise, the students are almost completely unable to write an answer unless they are copying it, and that's because they're scared. They don't ever want to say anything wrong, do anything wrong, or be corrected in front of their peers. Today, after having given students a worksheet as part of a game, I asked them to write one sentence (one!) at the bottom of the worksheet, a sentence about any of the 16 pictures that we'd previous been talking about during class. (Seriously folks, the sentences were of the following format: There are some tomatoes. There is some milk. There aren't any lemons. There isn't any yogurt.) They couldn't do it. Okay, not fair, about 6 out of the 25 could, and did. The others just waited, pretty patiently, until my co-teacher wrote a few examples on the board, and then they copied those down.

The same thing happened in another class. I asked students to write three sentences (of the form, It/she/he looks sad/happy/ill/beautiful/sleepy) describing any three of the 15 the pictures we had already talked about, using the same sentences. Even after my instructions were translated into Thai they still were terribly confused about the fact that they could CHOOSE to write about anything they wanted. Baby steps.

Disclaimer: So far, I have not "planned" a class with either of my co-teachers (meaning, if you can't read between the lines, that neither of the above lessons is anything like where I would have started, thank you very much!) Instead, I have been jumping in to help during what I tried to create as an "observation" week before we really get down to business. Both teachers have been, predictably, pretty willing to give me the reins during class, and fortunately, neither of them are wilting violets when it comes to playing their part. We are definitely co-teaching, although I'm not sure yet what the benefit to the students is, since we're co-teaching and playing tug-of-war at the same time.

At any rate, I'm enjoying the kids more than I thought I would, and I'm baffled at how to get my teachers to see that giving the students the answers and ignoring their mistakes and letting them horse around for 45 minutes isn't really teaching them any English. Then again, what do I know about teaching English?

Green. And yes, I promise, more on that blog that I said I didn't have the pictures for, weeks ago, and more on Bangkok. Later.

Monday, May 21, 2012

May brings life

So the blog has slowed down a bit. Hopefully this has not caused you lack of sleep and caused us lost readership by leaving our dedicated readers in limbo. Seriously though, it has not been a busy second month at site, but there were a lot of things going on that dragged our thought patterns in new and erratic directions. That is sort of the point of this whole excursion, yet as always, life at any point is more textured than what you imagined it to be.
We came out of April with a newfound understanding of hot weather. As I have long suspected of of tobacco products, extended periods of weather above 36 degrees C (about 97 F) have serious psychological effects. Our hottest day last month was 44 degrees C which broke a one hundred year record even during the hottest month for a country at 17 degrees latitude. I will leave the conversion to degrees Fahrenheit to you on that one. The physical I think we expected; increased fatigue, decreased appetite, longer sleeping hours. But the brain too gets worn down by the heat. It’s sort of like being overworked for a long period of time. Even if you sleep a lot, and eat enough, you still feel like you are lacking somewhere, and this drives you a little crazy. Although the weeklong Sonkran water festival was a spectacle, to say the least, I can say now that I really did not enjoy it very much, and the reason why is because it was so damned hot. Now that the hottest month of the year is over, and a few decent rains have helped to cool the sauna conditions of rice paddy living, I can see an overall improvement in my feelings toward everything about life. Toward the beginning , the life of many PC volunteers in Thailand is one of waiting, one of confusion, and one of desperately seeking to be useful, somehow. My personality is better suited to the “sabai, sabai” (think “manana” with people that don’t use calendars) attitude of Thailand than Erin’s, but even I was struggling with nothing to do but read this last month. That was compounded a disturbedness brought on by the heat.

A few decent breakthroughs have been made on the order of community development in Sukhothai this month. Erin and I met the medical practitioner at the dtambon clinic earlier this month. Our new friend is 28 years old and married to a woman just slightly older than him who as well is a medical practitioner at the clinic. Assisted by two nurses, they administer government sponsored healthcare to all of the Thais in our village for free. Interestingly, the only people who are required to pay something for healthcare, medication included, are government workers (who later get reimbursed). The clinic is supported by some 140 volunteers in the dtambon who perform house visits, mostly to elderly in the community. All together the dtambon has about 5000 people divided about 10 villages. When I asked the doctor (all medical professionals are called doctor in Thailand) about how many of those volunteers were really active, he said about 20. Since my background consists primarily of working with environmental issues, working with the clinic seems like a great opportunity to learn about health and environment interactions in this area and identify projects that address both. In fact, PC encourages CBOD volunteers to make contacts at the clinics early in their service. I feel lucky to have found such a young and approachable counterpart there.

Since we met the folks at the clinic, I have altered my schedule to spend two full days per week with them. On Wednesdays and Fridays I have been going to the clinic and observing what I can about how they operate as well as discussing local health issues. They are extremely hospitable and up until this point have insisted on feeding me for free every day I come over, as well as taking me to the market after work or along to run errands in the city during the day. Both the head clinician and his wife are Master’s of Public Health students and work five days a week at the clinic while doing 8 hour days at a Sukhothai university on Saturdays, and half days on Sundays. The man speaks some English, while his wife seems to understand more than him but can speak less. Both are a great help for improving my Thai.

Although we identified 5 excellent projects we could work on together on during only our second meeting, it is difficult to formalize any sort of agreement to pursue these projects. We have been trained not to be too pushy, but since I am still scraping around for things to submit to the PC and Thai government, that has been challenging. It seems when your voice takes on any sort of a serious business tone here, Thai people become uncomfortable. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to know what they are agreeing to through the butchered Thai leaving this farang’s mouth. Most of the volunteers we have met from the previous two groups of PC Thailand insisted they did not begin work any actual projects until they were in their community for a full year. Some days that makes you feel better about things, and others it does not.

Related, and often somewhat infuriating, is when some Thais talk right in front of your face about how you never do any work, and how your coming to Thailand is essentially a two year vacation. Our Thai now, is better than I would have imagined after 4 months, and beyond that, bad-mouthing has a special way of traversing the language barrier. Without getting too deep into the controversial topic of the value of work done by organizations such as the PC, I will, in one of my should be famous analogies, state that work like this is like going to help clean up an island. It is not that difficult until you realize you have to build a boat to get there. I have started work on that boat and often find myself thinking back to something a mentor from Sandia told me about development work: “if it were easy, it would be done already”.

Erin and I need to submit our two year plans to PC by the end of this month. Erin met with her counterparts a few weeks ago to get hers done. It’s a bit easier for a TCCO volunteer I think, because people in Thailand have a better idea of what you came here for. So far, projects with the clinic, and my two day per week English class at the abotaw are the extent of what I have lined up for my plan. Before coming to site, my Nayoke mentioned he would like me to assist in water resource and waste management, as well as teaching information technology among other things, but so far there is not much going on in any of those areas. In America, three months to come up with a two year plan for one person’s work might be reasonable, but here it seems like at bit of a stretch. I have 8 more days to make that stretch.

We are still looking for a house, though prospects are improving. Last week, after passing one vacant house on my way home from the abotaw many times, I decided to inquire about it with the neighbors. It turns out the owner lives in Bangkok and the house has been sitting vacant for over two years. Seems like the perfect place for us with proximity to the abotaw and our host family’s house.  From the outside, I really liked the design. One hitch though, is that the house is not finished. I was able to have a look inside the place last Saturday evening, and found that the flooring and ceiling have yet to be installed. The plumbing in the kitchen is still lacking some work and of course the outside, as I already knew, needs painting.  With two bedrooms, a nice kitchen, a western toilet, and even two bathrooms though, this is the best looking option we have seen so far. I met with the owner’s father on Sunday and indicated to him we would be interested in renting the place. It sounds like following my inquiry, after sitting vacant for at least two years, the owner now has plans to finish construction within the next few months. In what I believe is possibly a direct contradiction of Thai subtlety, I plan to prepare an offer for the man this week and see how he responds. His father said that the house would be finished in the next few months whether or not we wanted to rent it, but I am afraid that if they do not think we are serious about renting, they may not finish the work. Hopefully we are settled in by the time some of you would be Thai tourists get to buying some tickets. And that’s over 1500 words folks.


Thursday, May 3, 2012


Just a quickie today, as I left my camera at home and therefore don't have the pictures for the blog I really want to write.

So, this thought, instead. I am amazed at how much we have grown to hate e-mail in our culture. It is a bother, it is spam, it results in an obligation to contact someone else or take care of some business that really isn't that pressing but since it's right in front of our face, we have to deal with it. I know that this is the pervasive sense of what e-mail means to people in the Western world because, well, look:

Look at what? you might think. Well okay, fair enough. It's just a screen shot of my computer before I started writing this blog. It's my Gmail inbox. So what?

Well, look closer. I have the inbox set so that all the unread messages filter to the top, separated from anything else I've managed to take care of. See there, under where it says "Unread": Google has taken it upon itself to make this empty inbox a joyous occasion. "Woohoo!" it says, "You've read all the messages in your inbox." (I'm surprised it's not followed with, "Now, go grab a beer and relax. That was hard work!")

Truth be told, this little message makes me sigh. I have no pressing e-mail business. No new bills (okay, not so bad). No new announcements about movies at the Guild (I asked to be removed from the mailing list, so that's my own fault). No new messages from friends or family (I MISS you guys!).

But the truth is, it's just an apt little commentary on how much things have changed. A few short months ago, I would have resonated with that "Woohoo!" and probably gone and grabbed a beer after all that hard work, paying bills, sifting through special offers, reading e-mails about jobs or from former professors or students, or Peace Corps updates... Today, that stupid "Woohoo!" kinda irks me, but I guess it would probably be bad marketing for Google to offer alterna-text in the form of: "Geez, loser! Go outside and play in that 105 degree heat!"