Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Leaving Siem Reap

 This is probably our final posting, as we're off back to the UK now and will not be returning to Cambodia in the near future.  We've really enjoyed our time here, working with the teachers and children of  Spitler School and contributing what we could over the years.  It's become increasingly difficult for Loll to get out to the schools now, however, as her neck problems have made cycling the 40 minute trip impossible - and tuk-tuks over the rough terrain are not much better!  Anyway, everything is functioning well and the school will  continue to thrive with the support of donors and, increasingly, the government of Cambodia. 

Although we won't be able to update the blog from Siem Reap, we hope that we will receive news from Sarin and the teachers so that we can add the occasional update.  Sarin, Ann Hoy, Sineth and Ratha also agreed to send us material for the blog when we last met: so make sure you do, guys! It would be good to hear the experiences of new volunteers as well as from the children in the school.

So: don't go away!

The last few weeks of our stay in Siem Reap always seem to creep upon us rather quickly. We try to get jobs done, complete some tasks and set up for the following few months whilst we're away. While Nick and Jim were busy grappling with timetables, Loll was doing a final shop for hygiene and first aid equipment. The aides were well positioned to choose carefully the resources needed from the pharmacy on Road 6 and then a trip followed into Phsar Leu, the big market. It was important to involve the Hygiene Aides in this trip, especially following the Australian nurses training, as Loll wanted them confident for future shopping expeditions as she knew this was going to be her last trip out to Siem Reap. No need to have worried! They knew a good bargain and had lots of ideas of things to buy that would ensure a healthier and cleaner environment for our children. Whilst out shopping it emerged that our Aide in Spitler School was pregnant but had already sorted out a replacement when she is on maternity leave. The initiative of these two wonderful women leaves one gasping sometimes.

Our newest residence!
As long term volunteers we have experienced lots of different accommodation, from a large,shared, tiled four bedroom house, to guest houses, hotels and a wooden Khmer style apartment. Each area we have explored has opened our eyes to the different life styles in Siem Reap. Having advertised as potential  "house sitters" before we came out on facebook, we were approached by an Australian saying he was staying in the best place around and it would be free most of October and November. He approached his landlady and a deal was agreed that was mutually advantageous.

Around Taphul Road

Local petrol station.

So that's how we came to be living on Taphul Road in a laundry! And indeed it was a great place to stay. Despite the increasing proximity to each other in our bijou studio apartment, and the comments about the red light district we were moving into, we had a wonderful time. The family adopted us, chatted, showed us their homework, and sometimes shared their meals. This was a khmer family that really was unusually open, funny, demonstrative and always helpful. A pleasure to have got to know them.

We also wanted to make a final visit to the temples; we chose Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple as our favorites. Accompanied by our "adopted son", Khemrak, we spent a lovely, hot morning drinking in the atmosphere of these two great places. We have known Khemrak from our very first trip out to Cambodia, working in the guest house we stayed in and struggling to complete his university studies. Although he has since dropped out from university and gone on to manage another highly successful guest house he knows that we will support him through his studies if he chooses to return. It's a reminder of how hard poor students have to work in Cambodia in order to achieve anything. And how many people drop out of education as they cannot  juggle all the balls that make up their difficult lives.

Siem Reap is a place full of NGOs, shops selling wares and eating places supporting a number of charities. Before we left we were drawn to visit a laquerware workshop just out from town. Like many other places this was developing skills in some of the poorest, and in this case, many hearing impaired people. We were able to watch as the Christmas presents we had bought were transformed from cheap little boxes into a work of art.

And finally, back to Spitler and Kurata schools. We have always encouraged the English teachers to take a thematic, story-based approached to English teaching, and have made much use of fairy-tales on our activity sessions (and thank goodness for YouTube, we say).  Loll's sister, Lesley, very kindly knitted some dolls to accompany some of the books, and here is a little chap on an off-hours Grade 4 English lessons, grappling with the intricacies of a double-headed Cinderella: one happy face and one sad face.  The girls also took an interest later!

Around the school life went on as usual: women could be seen in the fields near their houses laying out rice to dry and kids were fishing in still-flooded land.

Meanwhile, children from Spitler School and Kurata school continued to receive an education - an education that would simply not have been available if it had not been for the vision of Chea Sarin, supported over the years by many members of the Spitler family - and with a little help from many volunteers since the start of the school. Finally, of course, it's the teachers who make a school, and we have to say that both Spitler and Kurata school now have a complement of dedicated, hard-working and cheerful teachers, working - like all teachers in Cambodia - for a pittance.  It says something about them and the schools that they work in that so many have stayed for so many years.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Carly and Steve Blog

Our month volunteering at The Spitler School started with much rain, so our first cycling journey there was a challenging one! We followed Nick through his "short cut" which would have been very efficient, were it not for the puddles and mud from the regular downpours. Despite dodging water, that first journey to school was memorable in a much more positive way because of the amount of children who shouted "Hello Nick!" as we cycled through the village. We could tell straight away that we were going to be volunteering in a school at the centre of a friendly community and might even get to know a few local faces.

The school itself took us both by surprise in a very pleasant way. For some reason we both anticipated a smaller, quieter place with less going on. By contrast, the lively buzz of The Spitler School was instantly noticeable; I later learned from Loll that Spitler has almost as many students on roll as my secondary school back in England! There were enthusiastic lessons going on with songs and smiles and we felt instantly welcomed by both teaching and non-teaching staff. We were lucky enough to be there during one of Danny and Pam Spitler's visits; an occasion in which the community spirit of the place was beautifully depicted through staff speeches and student dances, witnessed by the full range of people associated with the school. I was really interested in the presence of many parents at this gathering and their participation in a Q&A session with Danny Spitler and Sarin; seeing local parents so involved with and interested in the education of their children was a great testament to the difference the school makes to the families in this area.

We were soon making our own way to and from school, which luckily coincided with the weather drying up. We now only had to dodge pot-holes and other cyclists - which were usually the children attending The Spitler School, quickly cycling past us with their typical eagerness to get to lessons! Indeed, something which stood out every time we were at school is just how much the children enjoy the lessons. They play happily together in their break-times but as soon as the lesson bell chimes they cannot wait to get into the classroom - running towards their teachers with an enthusiasm I have rarely seen in English schools.We noticed this fervour for learning in our session of English language games and reading activities in the library with a [much larger than expected!] group of students. Steve tried his hand at teaching, surprising me with being brilliant and himself with really enjoying it! After that session many students recognised us on our journey into school, greeting us positively by shouting "hello teacher!" just as they do to frequent, long term volunteers such as Nick and Loll. By our second week at school the rain and puddles were no longer an issue and the heat was eased by water from the friendly stall at the school. An even better way of dealing with the heat was stopping for a deliciously sweet sugar cane drink to revive us on our way home, which we felt was thoroughly deserved at the end of the day!

We both busied ourselves with our separate voluntary work and found our hours at the school flying by! Steve had his eye on any electrical work and maintenance he could do from the start and was soon commenting on what was already in place with "well, it works...but..."! Once he received specific instructions from Sarin a trip to an electrical wholesaler in the centre of Siem Reap was in order; what a contrast from the usual tourist areas that was as we tried to get the tools and parts necessary for the best price possible, bargaining next to the local electricians! I thought I'd feel guilty having fun with company in the classroom whilst Steve did sweaty manual work, but he was rarely alone when rewiring fans and lights. Over our last couple of weeks at the school children crowded round him during their breaks, trying to hold wires or pass him tools as they said hello and asked him his name. I'm sure this all really helped Steve focus on the electrical work in hand!

Of course, this inquisitive friendliness was not just due to the novelty of an English guy up a ladder in and around their classrooms! I lost count of the amount of children who asked me - individually, as well as in a whole class chorus - my name, how I was and how old I was during their English lessons. My daily work with Sineth - a new and typically enthusiastic teacher - allowed me to be with the same classes each week and it was lovely getting to know the children and seeing the development of their English skills as we worked our way through sections of the valued 'Way Ahead' TEFL textbook. A typical lesson includes songs with lively actions and plenty of speaking and listening opportunities, so it far exceeded my expectations of textbook based work! Sineth started teaching longer English lessons at the same time as I started volunteering so together we worked on how to make the most of this extended opportunity for learning. These lessons were for 'off hours' students so technically optional, but each day between 30 and 45 students showed up for extra English! Sineth was out of his comfort zone with 90 minute lessons and I was out of my comfort zone with younger EAL students, but together we experimented with more developed tasks, increased writing time and activities that got the students working in pairs or in small groups. I showed Sineth some of the phonetic and visual strategies that I use with younger or less able students in England and encouraged Sineth to have a go at student-led activities and games.

The children loved questioning each other, playing guessing games with new English phrases and had a good go at working for longer periods without a teacher leading them - this was a time when I really saw how supportive they are of each other as peers regularly helped each other with words or phrases they were unsure of. Sineth began to really enjoy the longer lessons and we both noticed the excellent opportunity they provide for consolidating the learning of new English language.

I really hope to keep in touch with The Spitler School through this blog (and Facebook!) as just a month volunteering there has had quite an impact on both Steve and I. What a fantastic place of enthusiastic teachers, friendly families, dedicated volunteers and students who love to learn English!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A month of volunteers.

One of the joys of being long term volunteers here is the relationships we have with other volunteers coming out. Recently we had the arrival of Olympians keen to share the message of keeping fit with children in both schools. Though they weren’t around for long we managed to catch up with them in town and share some ideas. At the same time we were lucky enough to have Carly arrive, fresh from her travels around China and Vietnam. Nick and I were able to meet up with Carly, and her partner, Steve, near Birmingham a few months before. They had been in touch with Michael Horton at ConCERT Cambodia and he had pointed them in our direction. We are always keen to welcome native English teachers of high quality, and having trained at Worcester University, as I had, we knew she would be a safe pair of hands! She and Steve worked some sessions in the library, reading, speaking and getting the children to listen. Soon Carly found her niche working with Sineth on a regular basis and exploring different methods of teaching.

 Sineth found the opportunity of team teaching with an experienced teacher and teacher trainer really helpful but challenging.  Cycling each day to school proved equally challenging for Carly and Steve, especially as the floods hadn't entirely disappeared for the first week or so. However they gamely persevered - and we reminded ourselves that these youngsters were facing nothing compared to our trips through flooded fields of a year ago.  So no sympathy there, then!

Steve an experienced electrician meanwhile had been given a list of jobs to do around the Spitler school campus and we caught occasional glimpses of him balancing on top of chairs – or even step-ladders – with wire cables in his mouth and metres of new, sturdier wire looping behind him.  Things are certainly beginning to look neater around parts of the campus, and many of the joins in the wiring have now been replaced with continuous, safer and more efficient lengths.   

This weekend we will wish them bon voyage as they set off for Thailand, Laos and India. As they have six more months travelling they hope to get to know much more of South East and South Asia. They are already exploring dates and ways of returning to Siem Reap  and our schools sometime in the future. 

As it happens a previous volunteer, Kim, is returning this weekend from Vietnam. He has settled into a journalism job in Hanoi after volunteering in Hue. As his parents are good friends of ours back in Saltburn it will be great to catch up with him and report back that he is indeed eating well and looking fine.

Edith Cowen University Trainee Nurses

Another project that has taken quite a lot of organising is the arrival of ten trainee nurses for two weeks. In collaboration with Billy Gorter at This Life Cambodia, Jim and Loll have helped build a schedule that takes each student into both our schools morning and afternoons to encourage good hygiene practices. They are also attending local clinics where conditions can be very basic for the poorest of the poor in our area. We have been heartened to see how well our hygiene aides have been doing in their jobs since their appointments last December. Regular classroom checks are made, hands – and sometimes even clothes - washed, and advice given. They also grapple with the perennial problem of head lice (not unknown in the West, either!), and have developed some effective methods which involve pounding special leaves and then soaking the powder in water before applying to the head.  Sounds pretty effective.

Zoe, Georgia and Kelly work with the Spitler staff.
The nurses have spent some of their time working with the admin staff and the Hygiene Aides, showing them how to wash their hands effectively, clean wounds and deal with broken limbs or snake bites.  They then did sessions with some of the children dealing with similar matters and stressing the importance of good habits – for instance in regular teeth cleaning.  It was most encouraging to see the response of the children to the question of ‘Who cleans their teeth with a toothbrush?’ (100%), but we became a little more suspicious when they all chanted – in unison – that they cleaned their teeth three times a day, usually spending 5 to 9 minutes in the process each time. A cursory glance at the children’s teeth – and the amount of sweets that they consume – would suggest that their responses were, at best, disingenuous!

A grade 4 pupil demonstrates how to manage a broken arm.
 Over at Kurata another group of trainee nurses worked with staff and children on a similar programme.  Here are some shots of Ross, Liberty and Kellie at work. First demonstrating teeth-cleaning techniques:

 And here a song to entertain our visitors:

They later went into a Grade 2 classroom where Soeu Savang (the hygiene aide) and other teachers helped to deliver the teeth-cleaning message and a toothbrush each.

One of the highlights of the visit was to work alongside the interpreter, Kan. He has worked really hard at listening to what the nurses have tried to convey and then delivering it with a big smile to the listening Khmers. Not only does he translate the grunts and groans uttered to indicate stomach- or toothe-ache from Oz to Khmer (including appropriate facial expressions), he also told the children to be sure to clean their teeth with fish-paste. This got a hilarious reaction from the kids, and Kan insisted on using the same gag with the next group. Not all things translate, however - and we still have no idea what the leaves were that Savang uses to treat head lice or what 'chalk' is also used for a similar purpose.

Soeu Savang

Soeu Savang, the Hygiene Aide at Kurata school, has been working in this role for nearly a year now.  Loll first met her when she attended her morning sewing group (preparing material for the English teachers) and was immediately struck by her speed in picking up new ideas, her winning smile - and her delightful baby.  So when it came to selecting a person to take on the newly-created role of school 'nurse' - Hygiene Aide - she was an obvious choice. 

Savang is 28 years old, married with three children, two of whom go to Kurata school.  She was born in Ang Chagn village and went to Srey Thom school until 6th Grade when her father died and she had to leave to help out at home.  She was married in a lavish ceremony when she was 18 and has continued to live in the village.

Her duties include keeping the toilets and surrounding area clean, cutting children's nails, checking hair and clothing for cleanliness and also performing first aid on minor cuts and bruises.  She was a very keen participant in the trainee nurse training session and also showed the Australians a few local cures for illnesses and head lice. It has certainly made a big difference having Savang working a few hours at Kurata and with Kangna performing a similar role at Spitler school.  Hygiene - we have to constantly remember - is a life-saver in this country.  And simple hand-washing techniques help to avoid the spread of dangerous and sometimes fatal diseases.  Judging by the furious scrubbing that goes on in the wash room, even when children haven't just come from a training session, the message seems to be getting through.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Danny and Pam Arrive

Even before the arrival of Danny and Pam Spitler, for their first visit since 2011 to the school they helped found with Chea Sarin, the school was filling up with parents and villagers as well as children from the afternoon session.  Many of the children - some in their bright football kit after a successful match - were lining the approach road to the school while those children not outside the gates were sitting patiently (well, fairly ...) at their desks in the compound.

Curious villagers also crowded round the entrance to watch the spectacle of the arrival of the couple, preceded by a beaming and very proud Sarin.

Once everyone was inside the school compound and and the Commune Chief had arrived the speeches began, most of them being translated for us by Sarin and our English teachers.  Can't say we got every word - but we certainly caught the gist.  The highlight of the ceremony was however - and inevitably - the performances from the school Dance Troupe who demonstrated the beauty, poise and grace of traditional Khmer Dance.  This was certainly true of the girls who performed first and maintained the expressionless faces required by this style of dance with impeccable discipline.  The boys, when they joined in, certainly attempted the same level of sophisticated poise as the girls, but their broad grins showed that they felt much like young boys the world over when dancing in public with girls.  Anyway - everyone thoroughly enjoyed the routines, and the girls failed delightfully to maintain their non-smiling faces when faced with the determined attempts of the boys to remember all their steps.

A bit of relief here as the boys leave the performance area.

The school children always thoroughly enjoy watching the dancing - as you can see from these photos.

A special mention must also go to the sound system, sitting on the trailer of a local 'tractor'.  At about half the size of the system you might find at a local wedding, this one was still powerful enough to entertain most of the village of Ang Chagn for the morning.

 After the formal ceremonies and dancing came a question and answer session between the parents of children in Spitler and Kurata school and Sarin and Danny.  As Jim later pointed out, apart from the setting and climate, this could have been a Q & A session from any parent teacher evening in the US or UK.  The same concerns were there: safety of children getting to school on uneven tracks; the desire for more time to be spent teaching English; worries over children being sent home if a teacher was absent and so on.  But also plenty of praise from very vocal and articulate parents who are pleased with the schools and proud of their children's' achievements.

Some final images from the afternoon

And just to remind us where we are - here's a final photograph taken, not in the school, but on the main road home in Siem Reap: three guys on a moto carrying a large sheet of glass: We held our breath!