Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mothers and Kindy

And just as we thought the rainy season had finished - a TORRENTIAL downpour.  Luckily, this occurred overnight, and today it appears to have stopped - and it's rather pleasantly cool.  Too much rain makes it impossible to get into school on our bikes, but we hope that it holds off today for further English Activity at Spitler School.

We have a couple of new developments to report:  the revival of the 'sewing circle' and the introduction of English classes to the kindergarten children in both schools.  

A small group of women from the village turned up for this initial session and settled down to some very busy sewing of hand puppets which will then be used by teachers and children in their English classes.  The problem was that the back stitch suggested by Loll was ignored in favour of the much faster running stitch and soon a competition was in place for who could make the most! Eventually the suggestion that we fashion eyes, nose and mouths were picked up on and the puppets developed characters all of their own. Before the final tidy up and eating of biscuits and fruit much hilarity had taken place with the learning of the English for the facial features and similarly, but less successfully for Loll, those in Khmer! We hope in future to use old plastic bottles and yogurt pots to make toys for younger children and also using the session to discuss the nutritional and hygiene needs for the people of the village. One of the mothers is pregnant with her third child and we shared information about the situation for women giving birth from the village. Future events might also feature the need for play and how to get the children ready for school. Tomorrow a similar session will be held in Kurata school where we hope some mothers will get time away from the planting in the fields to enjoy a play and share session there.

The Scary Kindy Classes
 Several of our English teachers - and Nick - are rather apprehensive about trying to teach English to the youngest children in the school.  Nick is really only used to working with students who are over 16, and Ann Hoy, Ratha, Sokkol and Phoem are generally happier with older children.  You have to remember that while Western 4 and 5-year olds are rather small - the equivalent children from Ang Chagn village, many of whom are severley undernourished, can be absolutely tiny.  And many of them are also terrified of strange people, especially these weird barang (Westerners - the word translates as 'French person'.)  You begin to get an idea of their size when you go into the classroom and all the children are sitting at their desks.  'Stand up!' said Loll, yesterday, to our little group of Spitler children.  'Stand UP!' she repeated, in a more encouraging way - only for Nick to have to point out to her that they were already on their feet.  A few of them barely came up to the top of the desk, over which they peered with apprehensive eyes.

Yesterday, Ann Hoy was very worried about what we were going to do - and what we would be able to achieve.  Unfounded worries, of course, as he showed himself a natural with these little babies.  We all sang a 'Hello' song and waved; Hoy wandered around with a glove puppet scaring the socks off a few of them - but gradually gaining their confidence. (Actually none of them wore socks.  Only a few had shoes.)
The children began to respond with increased enthusiasm, though it was clear that a few of them were utterly bemused by the whole experience.  More and more, however, they began to join in until, when Hoy suggested we take them for a walk in the compound they all ran to line up ready for the adventure.  Still a little confused, a number of them decided to follow Nick, duckling fashion, despite Nick's attempts to shoo them off.  Luckily, the Kindergarten teacher was at hand to sort out these teething problems, and soon they were all happily following Hoy as he introduced them to various objects in the compound.  We looked at the teachers' motos, all parked under the shelter, to Sarin's car (and the dog underneath it), to the flag pole (with flags still at half mast for the death of the King Father), and we then headed off to introduce ourselves to the toilets.  Happy as I was to see the children say 'Hello moto, hello car, hello dog', I rather drew the line at 'Hello toilet', and the kindy teacher, who has only limited English, entirely agreed as she found the entire concept hilarious. We are very keen that the children gain this early exposure to English as we are all aware that opportunities for the children of the village to speak English are rare, and English is such a valuable language to have in this part of Cambodia.

And a final plug:  all this is entirely FREE for the children as the school is heavily reliant on funds from the Spitler School Foundation.  Luckily, anyone can make a donation to this fund by following the link on this page or going to the website.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Death of King-Father, Pchum Ben Festival and School Activities.

The death was announced yesterday of former King Norodom Sihanouk, in Beijing, where he was living and receiving treatment for his heart and other ailments.  Sihanouk was known in Cambodia as King-Father, although he abdicated in 2004 and his son, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, was appointed King. We understand that there will be a week's official mourning, followed by three months lying in state, before a ceremonial cremation.  According to the news he was 89, though some local people are suggesting that, using the Khmer calendar, he was actually 90.  A good age.

We have all been on holiday since last Friday, for the major festival of Pchum Ben which finishes on the 15th of the month.  Here's a brief description of this festival from a local contributor to Facebook:

"Every year in Cambodia, it begins with Kan Ban on the first day of the month, and ends called Pchum Ben on 15 of the month. During this two-week period, Cambodian who are Buddhist go to pagodas to give offerings to those who have passed away.
Held throughout the country, the Pchum Ben is one of the major annual religious-socil-cultural ceremonies in which almost every Cambodia take part. It is believe that this ceremony allows the souls of all those who have passed away to enter into peaceful journey in the cycle of life and death, including reincarnation.

Those meanings, I thought that there could be inspiration for thinking about issues and questions of reconciliation, or memory, or mourning."

We have been told that the week of mourning will mean all government offices will be closed, though Sarin  says that school will be open again from tomorrow.  This is good news as we have a lot of work to do!  So what's been happening since the start of the new school year?

One step forward . . .
We have started working again with the English teachers on the activity days and helping to produce materials and planning for new classes that we want to introduce.  First of all, we are extending the English programme to the Kindergarten children in both schools and introducing extra classes for children in morning or afternoon sessions when they would not normally be in school.  To a Western child, this might seem like a mild form of torture - but most of the Spitler/Kurata children are really happy to be in school. Look at these shots of the kids in activity sessions at Kurata and Spitler:

Little girls cutting out Goldilocks characters at Kurata.

Warm-up exercises before singing, at Spitler School.
Our theme for the activities has been Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  It's always amazing to us how well these Cambodian children take to traditional Western fairy tales - even the older ones happily joining in with the story as re-counted by Jim or Nick with much drama and role-playing.  Loll always does some word-building with them (just to show that it's not just entertainment!) and they also do singing in English along with some craft-work. We always try to use the parachute, although there was some concern last time we got it out as some of the kids got a little dirty because of the mud under foot, and this may place some strain on school-family relations! 

So - this has been a successful start to the term.  Less successful has been the establishment of a mother and child 'Play and Share' session with Loll.  When we first arrived in Spitler school, Loll started these sessions partly as a way of getting puppets made for the English classes and partly as a way of getting to know some of the women of the village.  They were remarkably successful  and involved not just villagers but kids not officially in school for that session and the caretaker, too.

Women of the village, last year, at Spitler School.

Loll directs proceedings - with volunteers Kim and Koljia
in the background.

The whole school became involved in the end!
We had hoped to begin the sessions last week, just before the holiday - but our local knowledge let us down once again. Vebol had put the word out to the women living near Kurata school, but none of us had realised the importance of the rice planting at this time of year: everyone is involved.  The result: no women, but plenty of activity in the paddy fields.

The view from the English room at Kurata School.

Still, there's plenty of time for this, but we really want to get it going as it will help to bring the school and the village closer together and also help to bring the Kurata experience closer to the Spitler experience.  

One other thing on the agenda is the training of all Spitler and Kurata staff in the Child Protection Policy, which we have been developing and recently had translated into Khmer.  (The full policy, along with volunteer Guidelines, will appear on the Spitler School website soon.) We are working with Nari, from ConCERT Cambodia, on delivering the training in Khmer.  Nari, the assistant director, has a lot of experience working with volunteers, and she will be able to engage our staff in discussion on the vital importance of child protection and then take them through the policy in some detail, which they will then sign in agreement.  We have a similar policy for volunteers.

We are looking forward to getting back into the schools after the break and re-invigorating the English programme.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The start of the new school year 2012-13

They came from far and wide at 7.30 am on Monday 1st October to be on time for the Opening Ceremony to mark the beginning of the new academic year at Spitler and Kurata schools.  The ceremony was to be held for the first time at Kurata school, so the streams of students, teachers and parents that can be seen in the photographs are the Spitler family travelling along the dyke between the two schools.  Once we got to the school ourselves (and no overland trek by bike this time: Jim, Nick and Loll arrived in state by tuk-tuk) we found more streams of people young and old arriving by the main linking road, carrying banners and flags.

Parents arrived with their children and their children's siblings and offloaded them at the main gates of Kurata and gradually all the desks which had been set up on the volleyball court were filled.

Children crowded round the ice-cream seller and a few of the neater girls washed themsleves down at the pump after the long, muddy walk through the wet and dank countryside.

The opening ceremony was soon under way with speeches from Sarin, the Village Head Man, the Principal and, of course, the barang  (Jim, Loll and Nick.) The best, we thought, was from one of the children who spoke with wonderful confidence and optimism for the future. (You can just catch her in the photo below right.) The children managed to stay focused for a while, but by the time Nick spoke they'd just about had it and they began to drift off both metaphorically and physically.  For Nick, of course, this was quite normal as he's used to teaching in front of a class of sleeping students...

Overall, a great start to the year - and particularly auspicious at it was held at Kurata school and it is hoped that many of the parents of the children of Ang Chagn village will now take the opportunity to send their children to this school which has all the potential to develop and to grow as successfully as Spitler School has.

And the best of it was .. the children got to keep the balloons at the end of the morning!