Friday, April 27, 2012

Farewell to Meghan and Josh

Laying the groundwork
Meghan and Josh

The formal English program (or programme, to Nick and Loll) is officially up and running at Kurata, so this is sort of a wrap-up post from our experience as volunteers there. 

When we arrived at Kurata, there was no English program (or programme, for that matter!) whatsoever, and very nearly no English among students at the school.  Although Vebol speaks English, and a few of the teachers speak some, most children didn’t know anything beyond “hello”.  And of course, starting out, our Khmer was at exactly the same level!  (This was certainly a motivator for us to start learning Khmer.)

Meghan with the 5th Grade class
Because the formal program had yet to start, there was no dedicated English room or books, so we went into students’ regular classrooms to teach.  We were with each grade for 40 minutes twice a week.  When we started, the details of how the English program would shape up were still being hammered out.  With this in mind, the instruction was primarily verbal, rather than written, and did not rely on very many teaching aids, since we wanted to make sure that anything we introduced would be sustainable regardless of what resources were available to subsequent teachers.    At the time, we had no idea that a generous donation would allow Kurata to hire paid teachers and provide them with books, etc.! 

Our main teaching aids were cards with pictures printed on them.  Starting out, the language barrier meant that lessons focused on learning concrete nouns (words like “mango” or “spoon”), since these can be taught by showing a picture and giving its name.  We used the cards along with games and activities that our wonderful volunteer coordinators showed us, as well as a few of our own.  Having two teachers in the room was invaluable for this, because it meant that we could “explain” the games by demonstrating them together, one of us taking the role of teacher, and one pretending to be a student.  Without this, we’re not sure how it would have worked out, so we were very lucky to be team teaching!

For the lower grades, most of the lessons centered on learning simple words and greetings, and singing songs, using our laptop to provide the much-needed backup music.  It is only for the children of Ang Chagn that we would willingly sing in public!  The kids were pretty fascinated by the laptop.  There was one little boy in the kindergarten who would run up to the front of the room to touch it literally every time we had class. 

As we moved forward, students in the older grades began learning some grammar and phonics.  We introduced verbs that could easily be translated based on our growing knowledge of Khmer (e.g.,”have”) or physically demonstrated (e.g., “eat”).

Josh with the 3rd Grade class
In Khmer, verbs do not change form depending upon the subject, but of course, in English they do, which presented a real challenge for the students. With practice, though, they really began to get more comfortable with the idea that a verb might behave in such a strange, inconstant way.

Throughout the whole experience, the students were amazingly engaged and eager to learn.  The older students went from an English vocabulary consisting of “hello” to full sentences like “I eat fish,” and “I have the blue spoon,” and hopefully the time we spent there has left the students with a base of knowledge that will help them to succeed in their new formal lessons.

Over the past four months, the students at Kurata have worked so hard, and come so far.  And now, the students have two wonderful dedicated English teachers thanks to the Spitler Foundation!  

A deserted school with the MegJosh bikes - kindly donated to SSF.

A sad farewell to the pair of you - and, as they say here: good luck for you!  And thanks for the great contribution.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

At the Crossroad.

Actually, it's more of a spur off the 'main' road - but 'Crossroad' sounds more dramatic.  If you cycle away from Spitler School, Ang Chagn Village (and there is the sign to guide you), then turn right at this point, you have a short, but bumpy two kilometer ride before you fetch up, panting and sweating, at Kurata School.  The road itself is not dramatic, and there are a few houses and rather bare farms along the way - as well as a bit of local wild-life, who clearly takes an interest in passing strangers.

The countryside looks very barren at this time of year as we haven't had any rain for a few months.  Temperatures are reaching 37C and the humidity is high, so cycling between the two schools can be hard work - at least, that's what Nick discovered on Monday morning, the start of the new term and the first day for the two new English teachers.  The track may look passable, but in fact the ruts are filled with sand, so the bike slithers around alarmingly.  Nevertheless, Nick set out on this epic journey, at Loll's request (insistence?) as we could find no pencil sharpeners at Kurata School, and we needed a few other supplies as well.  This is one of the main differences between the schools at the moment.  Kurata School is still developing and resources need to be built up, especially in the English room where, once it has received a new lick of paint, some new cupboards and shelving,  teachers will be able to put up displays and posters and store resources away from the constant dust.  

Ratha was in bright and early, and was delighted to find a class of eager students all ready to start their English programme, with a song and some phonics.  He was also delighted to find that the class size was manageable as he had been used to some classes of 50+ at Spitler school.  We could actually hear him from the main gate as we arrived: 'Are you READY!' - and the chorus of shouted 'YES!' from his new students.
We stayed in the school over the two-hour break between morning and afternoon sessions, cleaning the desks (Loll, with assistance from some young helpers) and doing important things on the computer (Nick.)  At about 11.30 a number of children stated to arrive, and began crowding round the door of the English room to see what these strange barang were up to.  We invited them in and Loll showed them some English books that we had put out as a display at the back of the class. They dived onto these books, and soon more and more children arrived, Nick put on some songs on the computer, and they all sat down with their books and looked expectantly at us.  An hour before afternoon class!  Clearly, there is a demand for tuition here at Kurata, and if we had some lunchtime help then maybe we could  run more structured classes over the break. 

The lunch time English session. 

 It was interesting to watch these kids, however, and compare them with the Spitler children who have had English lessons for longer and whose school is much more established as a place of education.  The Kurata children stared at the computer monitor, and one or two of them began to imitate our actions to 'The Wheels of the Bus'. But their response was very muted compared to their fellows of only 2 kilometers away.  They will need much more exposure to English and to the lively teaching methods that our teachers will bring to the job..

And at 12.45 the sound of an approaching moto heralded the arrival of their first lively teacher of the afternoon:  Pheoum.  He got stuck in straight away - lining the children up at the door and insisting on a greeting: 'Good afternoon, teacher. How are you?'  Then he got on with the Jolly Phonics, a song and some further greetings.   We left, to let him get on with it.  But this is a very promising start to the English programme at Kurata School.

Phoeum meets his first class.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

New Term - New Teachers

We're all back in Siem Reap now - to the hottest weather we've experienced yet!  I know that those Arizonians out there may say this is nothing, but to those of us used to an English April, swimming in our local pool in temperatures more suited to a hot tub and cycling back to the house with the hot air merely brushing over the surface of our sweating bodies is a tad uncomfortable.  Perhaps we should be grateful, though, that we don't have to put up with the rain and gloom of England. 

It's certainly wonderful to be back.  We arrived at the airport, were through customs within five minutes (largely because of our new multiple entry visas: expensive, but worth it) and out into the car park where we were met by a gaggle of young tuk-tuk drivers: no hassle - all smiles and helpfulness - and a twenty minute trip into town.  It really felt like coming home, and reminded us why we are here and how naturally friendly the people are. And, for those who know Loll: why did we fly back? Well, because the 36 hours travelling to Hue, in Vietnam (including a 20 hour journey by train from Saigon to Hue) was, we felt, better replaced by a one-hour flight from Danang to Siem Reap.  Simple. Mind you the torrential rain, thunder, lightening and strong winds which delayed us at Danang airport was a bit of a put off!

We had set up some training sessions for the new teachers and were really pleased that all four of the Khmer English teachers were able to come to our house and spend a couple of days in the make-shift classroom (our kitchen) while preparing for the new term.  It's going to be hard work for a while as we are introducing a formal English programme to Kurata for the first time.  Meghan and Josh, our two American volunteers, have been preparing the way but we are now in a position to employ two teachers (one for the morning session, one for the afternoon) so that all Kurata children will be able to start the Way Ahead programme which is running so successfully at Spitler school. (This is largely due to generous funding from Kenny King and his family.)

The New Teachers
This is Thun Sokkol, a young man who originates from Kratie province, but now lives in Siem Reap.  Although he is still studying at University he has a good deal of experience as a teacher, having worked in schools in Kompong Thom and Siem Reap and is looking forward to working with the children of the Spitler Foundation.  He's also a bit of a sportsman (volleyball, football and cycling) so maybe he'll be joining us some days on our cycle rides into school.  Or not.  Well - why cycle when you have a Honda Dream!

And this is is Phan Phoeum, who was born in Siem Reap province.  He went to school in Siem Reap and he's also still studying at University, majoring in TESOL.  Like Sokkol, Phoeum has experience of teaching English at a Pagoda as well as at an International School.  He, too is something of a sports man and enjoys volleyball.  He says he's not good at football, which makes him a man after Nick's heart!

We all spent a very jolly Friday in the kitchen/classroom, with our improvised whiteboard (the kitchen tiles) allowing us to complete the illusion of a state of the art seminar room.  We are all incredibly pleased that we are unable to project PowerPoint presentations during these sessions, and this is one of the major advantages of working in a country with limited resources.  Long may it last!

Phoeum showing how to form the letter 'n'.

Loll showed the new teachers how to approach the Jolly Phonics material, and they took to it immediately, telling the stories which are associated with each letter sound and making the silly noises and gestures that help young children learn the relationship between the letter shape and its sound.  The programme begins with six letters - s a t i p n - and from these the children quickly learn how to combine letters to make words.  The teachers, however, have to lose a bit of dignity by, for instance, pretending to be an aeroplane, with arms extended, making the 'nnnnnnnnnnn' sounds which the children eventually learn to write as an 'n'.  Sokkol impressed us mightily with his story of the mouse and the 'i-i-i-i' sound the mouse makes.  I think both  these lads need to add acting skills to their CVs!

'i-i-i-i' says the mouse.

Ratha and An Hoy, the original English teachers, also joined us for the training sessions and it was great to see all the teachers sitting round a table and discussing teaching techniques and sharing ideas.  As they normally work different shifts, they rarely get to see each other, so this was a perfect opportunity to get to know one another and begin to set up a sharing network.  (We all use Dropbox to share resources - and Teesside University colleagues will know how very useful this can be.  Occasionally not...)
We covered quite a lot of ground in these sessions and although Nick has insisted that he would run a mile from such events in the UK, even he thought these performed a necessary and useful function.

On Saturday, we went over to Kurata to prepare the English room for the start of the new term on Monday. The classroom needs a bit of work yet, but we managed to start putting up some English displays and Vibol, one of the administrators at Kurata, demonstrated his versatility (he is also one of the new drivers of the tuk-tuk) by screwing a new whiteboard over the old blackboard.  The room certainly looks different, and should provide a pleasant surprise for the children when they arrive on Monday.

Vibol at work with the new whiteboard.
 It now also has a computer and sound system, so the action songs that went down so well at Spitler school can be used with the children of Kurata.  Results will be posted on Youtube!

Phoeum setting up the computer and speakers.

Phoeum and Ratha will be the English teachers at Kurata, and Sokkol and An Hoy will work at Spitler School.

Tomorrow we'll see solme kids!!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Around and about Ang Chagn Village (but with a digression).

Well, school's out so it's an opportunity to do some travelling in South East Asia until the new term next week.We (Nick and Loll) are in Hue, Vietnam, while Meghan, Josh and Jule are visiting other parts of the area.  Teachers from Kurata and Spitler are taking a well-earned rest, with the added bonus of a trip to the ancient temple site of Preah Vihear, on the border of Cambodia and Thailand.  This space, then, gives us an opportunity to write something about the village from which all the children from Spitler and Kurata come. But before that:  the purpose and audience of this blog.

Who's this for, then? (The digression)
This is a blog devoted to chronicling the lives of the members of the school - its children and their families, staff and volunteers - and it's aimed at those with an interest in the school, either because you know it or us or because you are donors or would-be donors.  We hope that the blog might also be taken up by other schools around the world as a method of two-way communication.  We often get requests from schools to set up partnerships - such as pen-pal links - and we usually have to decline, explaining that our children don't yet have the English ability to communicate regularly and easily with other children, and obvious means of communication such as email or facebook are not available to them.  So - let's hope that schools around the world - such as Saltburn Primary School in the North East of England, who have done some fund-raising for SSF and put together some Story Sacks for the English teachers, will be able to follow the progress of the school and, perhaps, contribute to the blog.  We hope that in the future we will feature the work of Spitler/Kurata children and will include some video links.

Ang Chagn Village
Although the village seems very isolated, it is only a few kilometres from Siem Reap and the major temple complex of Angkor Wat.  The buildings of Spitler School are actually on land controlled by the Angkor National Park Authority (the Apsara Authority) and they are very strict about what can be built on the land.
There are 558 families in Ang Chagn with a total of 1333 children aged 1—15, the average number of children in each family being five. The families in general earn between US$1.50 and US$2.00 a day in manual wages or through commerce activities such as selling merchandise at local markets and driving motos or tuk-tuks, for example. Many families survive through subsistence farming (fruit picking, rice and vegetable farming.) Most households do not have electricity, have no sanitary/toilet facilities, have limited access to clean water, and little or no access to medical or emergency services. As you can imagine, life here is a perpetual struggle but despite the fact that children in rural communities are usually expected to help with farming or manual labour, the villagers are fully supportive of the school and the children (as you will see in later blogs) love coming to school, to the extent that if we put on extra sessions in the afternoon for 'morning' school kids, we are usually overwhelmed by the response.  Education is highly valued by parents and children alike.

Northlight students visit the village.
We had some visitors from Singapore last month, highly motivated and public-spirited young people from Northlight School, and their walk around the village was something of an eye-opener for them, coming as they do from a protected society in which the majority of the population live in high-rise public housing. They may have been surprised - and exhausted - by the tour around the village, being unused to walking anywhere! - but they certainly provided a couple of days of fun for Spitler kids as they introduced some games and art activities.  (If you receive the newsletter, you will know a little of what they brought to the school.) The Singapore students and staff were able to introduce our children to some very successful, but low tech games, art activities and a wonderful lunch for all. The experience has widened their understanding of life in the poorest area of SE Asia. Friendships were formed, eyes were opened, and certainly for some, a life-changing promise of , "I'll be back".
A helping hand feeding the very youngest children.

Learning new art techniques with the volunteers.

Talented new artists.
A study in concentration during the lamp-painting session.


  It sometimes feels that we at Spitler School Foundation are more privileged than most rural schools: the infrastructure is there, staff are kind and turn up regularly, and there is a genuine interest in the development of the whole child. Yet we know this is only possible due to the generous donations from people throughout the world. We have met many visitors, interested in what we are doing, who do continue through donations to make this work possible. As Pam Spitler pointed out to us on her last visit, in the early days the children never ever smiled. Now I can assure you they have plenty to not only smile but laugh about!

New Year Party time at Spitler School.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Chaul Chnam Thmey បុណ្យចូលឆ្នាំថ្មី

Suddenly the Khmer New Year celebrations are upon us.  Chual Chnam Thmey - as the teachers at Kurata said to us over repeated toasts on Tuesday - Happy New Year, although for some reason we heard it as Joel Chnam Khmer and were assured that - yes, it did mean Happy Khmer New Year. (Wrong!)  The schools now take a well-earned break until 20 April, with some of the teachers going on a trip to Preah Vihear Temple on the Thai border.  This should provide more material for another blog entry.  It should, however, be noted that most teachers have to go into school on a rota basis over the holiday in order to act as security guards.  It's not an easy job, this teaching in Cambodia!

Monday saw the Spitler School New Year celebrations with many of the younger children dressed in their finery dancing to a disco set up in the compound.  The volume was turned up to slightly above distortion level, just about drowning out the noise of the portable generator, and the children crowded together around the stacked speakers to dance wildly.  We were invited by the teachers to their classrooms to share drinks and fruit (an especially lovely one called  a 'rose-apple') so we could watch the festivities from a distance without being compelled to make idiots of ourselves by dancing.  Soon the talcum powder was out - and anyone near was liberally sprinkled.  Things were a little gentler this year, as last year buckets of water were thrown over our German volunteer, Koljia, and water-filled balloons were thrown everywhere.  It would appear that the government has put a stop to that this year.  (Bit of a relief.)

Ann Hoy, one of the Spitler English teachers was enjoying the morning and looking very relaxed.  We know how tired he can get during a working week, what with a morning session at Spitler School, followed by an afternoon session at a government school (as a Grade 6 class teacher, teaching Maths, Geography and Khmer, among other subjects), a new baby daughter at home to keep him awake at night - AND a house to build in his village.  He also donates his time some evenings to teaching English to the children of his village.  He says he's determined to get the roof on his house before the end of the New Year holiday, and then he and his family will be able to live there together as a unit. He suffered rather on Saturday when an almighty (but very welcome for the rest of us) rain storm hit the area and all his belongings were soaked.
He was trained at Siem Reap Provincial Teacher Training College and has taken very well to some of the new ideas in communicative language teaching that we have introduced.  When Loll first encouraged him to use puppets with the younger children he was very apprehensive: 'I can't do that, ' he said.  And then, a week later he could be seen entertaining (and educating) the Grade 1 and 2 children with the most convincing puppet work we have ever seen! He also tells the most entertaining stories when teaching Jolly Phonics, the children's reactions proving that a fun approach can work wonders and they really learn.

New Year celelebrations at Kurata
On Tuesday, we were picked up by Vibol in the brand new SSF tuk-tuk and taken out to Kurata School for their New Year celebrations.  We - Nick, Loll, Meghan and Josh - sat sedately in the back of the tuk-tuk feeling a little like royalty arriving at a state occasion.  The fact that we were sharing the seats with two enormous bags of bread rolls, so we had nowhere to put our feet except to poke them out each side of the chariot - rather let the effect down.  Nevertheless, we managed some energetic royal waves as we entered the school grounds (though Meghan and Josh, being American, had to follow our lead on this one and didn't quite manage the British subtlety.)

There was no dancing at Kurata.  Instead, large pots of chicken curry, rice and various vegetables were cooking over an open fire outside the library, and the teachers delivered bowls of the wonderful food to the children who all sat patiently waiting at their desks until everyone had received their share.

 Then they all tucked in.

Theary with her kindergarten children, chicken curry and bread rolls.

The Angry Birds pose for a photograph.

Once the children had all been fed they left the school and all the teachers gathered in the library for their own celebration.  Joel Chnam Khmer (or, more accurately, Chaul Chnam Thmey) we chanted periodically as we toasted each other and tried - through our different language barriers  - to communicate with each other.  The staff are so incredibly friendly and welcoming to us barangs, and they are clearly really happy to see us there and appreciate the introduction of the English programme to the school.  Some of the teachers have good English, so we manage to learn a little about each other.  Meghan and Josh - whose Khmer has come on magnificently over the last few months - also help bridge the communication gap.  Though how we bridge the American/British English divide we don't know. (As Mr Churchill, or Shaw or someone observered, the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language...) Still, this blog will continue resolutely in British English - until Jim gets his hands on it, of course!

Vibol and Sophat present certificates to the English teachers.
We had a very enjoyable time with the teachers and began to get to know each other.  Let's hope that this will continue in the future.  Nick was very pleased to hear that one of the younger teachers thought he was handsome, though she finally admitted, after some prompting from Loll, that this was in a grandfatherly sort of way.  Ah well! And Meghan and Josh were presented with their Spitler Certificates by Vibol and school Principal, Sophat.

The teachers' New year celebration.
Finally, Vibol informed us that our 'chariot' was ready, and we set off back to Siem Reap and two weeks' holiday.

The visitors are seen off the premises by Kurata Principal and staff.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Two Schools. 
Spitler school and Kurata School are both in the village of Ang Chagn, Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Spitler school was founded by Danny and Pam Spitler, in conjunction with Chea Sarin, and is run by the Spitler School Foundation (SSF).  Kurata School, also in Ang Chagn Village, was taken on by the foundation in 2010.

And this is the start of the volunteers' blog, which will give all of you out there who have an interest in the school a day-today account of life at  these schools.  Well, not perhaps day-to-day, but - we hope - a pretty regular account of the goings on at the school and in the surrounding area.

So where are these schools?  The best view, but not one that any of us sees on a daily basis, is from above.

This is a satellite shot of Spitler School, though since that photograph an additional block (the English Building) has been added. It's set well away from the road, along a few dirt tracks as well as a more substantial clay road built by the villagers with funding from the foundation.  Most people get to the school by tuk-tuk or moto (sitting on the back of a motorbike), but all of the present volunteers cycle, which can be a daunting experience especially during the rainy season.
Loll particularly enjoys her ride into school of a morning, especially when we take the short cut.  She has only fallen off her bike three times now and is always grateful for the concern of the local inhabitants who unfailingly disentangle her from the wreckage and send her on her way.  Nick prefers to take photographs.
As we ride into the village, local children will call out 'Hello!' 'Good morning' (a tribute, we think, to the splendid English teaching going on here...). Occasionally, 'Hello Jim' (to Nick) - despite the fact that Nick is considerably bigger than Jim and has grey hair and a beard.  Perhaps we barang all look alike!

The road to Spitler School is now good (thanks to some recent hefty donations) so the last 1000m or so is a very pleasant ride.

The approach road to Spitler School
Some wise words at the school entrance.

The compound at break time - with children sweeping the dust.

The children all walk or cycle to the school from the surrounding village.  There are two shifts: mornings last from 7.00 am until 11.00 am.  The afternoon session starts at 1.00 pm and goes on until 5.00 pm.  In the hot, dry season (now!) both teachers and students get pretty tired in the afternoons.  However, in common with all Cambodian schools, there is a 'flip' each month, and the morning students and teachers switch to the afternoon and vice versa.  Seems only fair!

Kurata School is a little further on than Spitler School, and was recently taken over by the foundation.  Kurata is actually a Japanese name; its official Khmer name is Sala Samaki Sahakhum ('the School for the Community'). Kurata is a smaller school than Spitler, having only 172 children against Spitler's 500, but it is likely to grow as its reputation increases and the English programme becomes established. At the moment there is no official English programme at the school, but two heroic volunteers (Meghan and Josh Riley-Graham) have been teaching English there for the last two months.  We are now in a position  (thanks to a wonderful donation from Kenny King) to introduce a formal English programme at Kurata.  We have interviewed two new teachers, watched them do a demonstration lesson, and are very happy to say that they are joining the foundation after the Khmer New year holiday (about 20 April).

Grade 6 children and their teacher, Kurata School.

 Volunteers at SSF

Meghan and Joshua Riley-Graham have been volunteering at Kurata School over the past few months, teaching English to all of the grades.  This has been the children's first formal experience of English classes, and they have all made tremendous progress.  This has provided an excellent foundation for the start of the formal English programme which will begin straight after the Khmer New Year holiday.  More on this later.

Meghan and Josh at work over the lunch break with Grade 7 students

Working with the Grades 6 students at Kurata.

Jim Latt, Loll and Nick Thorne and Jule Leister are also volunteers with SSF.  Jim, Loll and Nick have been involved for over two years, setting up the English programme and providing support for the local English teachers, Ratha and Ann Hoy.  Jule is on a one-year placement from Germany, and has helped with the sports programme, worked with the English teachers and helped develop the new libraries at the two schools.

Jule works with children in the Spitler library.

Jim re-creating the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.
Loll with Grade 3 students.

Nick working with the two English teachers on a training day.