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!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Life, the Universe and some Dedicated Teachers

The weekend was upon us, the sun was shining after the recent rains - so what to do? Well, let’s go in to school for a meeting with Sarin, the admin staff and the English teachers! Our English programme has always been run during the normal curriculum time for each day, but in order to include English lessons into the Khmer curriculum, we have to ‘steal’ some teaching time.  This is not really satisfactory, of course, and the government has recently announced that the final three grades in primary school should start learning English for two sessions per week.  Obviously, we at Spitler/Kurata school are way ahead of the game (yes – and, as it happens, using the Way Ahead course book), but we realized that we would need to blend in with the government requirements as far as we could, so made the decision to teach two lessons of English during the Khmer curriculum, but to increase the English tuition during ‘of-hours’ time.  This means that children who normally attend school in the morning would return for a longer session of English on another afternoon.  This they will probably do willingly.  There is no shortage of demand for schooling in Cambodia! (For instance Carly, our new volunteer, was working with Sineth and a Grade 3 class on Thursday afternoon.  They were asked if they would like to come in on Monday morning at 8.30 to do some extra English with Carly. Forty-five hands shot up - the entire class.  Carly – with the noble support of Steve – is working with those children at this very moment!)

The Dedication of the Teachers: A little case study.
Sunday Morning planning with Ratha.
Saturday evening Ratha rings. Can he come round to discuss his new schedule (timetable)? We (well – Loll) are ready for bed. Come Sunday morning we say. Ratha rings up at seven thirty. We manage to delay his arrival til nine. So amid glasses of water, papaya slices all enhanced by fresh lime, we set to to organise and bring the Kurata curriculum in line with Spitler school. Ratha has the advantage of his timetable never switching at the end of each month so things can be set in stone for the next year. Already we were looking at gaps and seeing where extra classes can be fitted in. Ratha is keen that everyone should learn English and wants to add additional classes wherever he has space on his timetable.  We try to rein him in a little!

Later as we chat we find out more about his life. Everyone in Cambodia has an interesting story to tell that tugs at the heart strings and brings us up short when trying to imagine the hardships that people have and still do suffer years after the rule of Pol Pot.

Ratha told us he was born in the province of Banteay Meanchey in Sophy village.     He went to primary school there and really enjoyed it, being especially fond of his Khmer teacher whom he still tries to visit when returning home. His father had died when he was only aged seven from a mosquito borne disease which we assume to have been malaria, and his mother had struggled to bring up his sister and himself through much poverty. She became a policewoman in order to keep her family.  Ratha continued to study and only began English lessons at the age of eighteen at a small private school. Lessons were expensive for him but he persevered and eventually gained a place for General Management at Build Bright University (BBU) in Siem Reap. He stayed with an uncle here and recently he, his sister and mother have begun at last to build their own house. This should be finished in November. It has proved a very expensive project but is much wanted.

Rather younger Ratha and Hoy
Ratha, along with Ann Hoy, were the first English teachers at Spitler school starting the embryonic programme back in 2010, which is when we first met them both on our first visit to the school with Danny Spitler. Without a doubt Ratha has always been keen to learn and happy to impart his continuing love of education to all the children he teaches. He now teaches morning and afternoon sessions at Kurata school and is a popular and hardworking staff member - who also manages to keep us on our toes!

Danny and Sarin talking to our little friend, Malin in 2010.

The building of the English block - 2010.

Around and About
Life around Siem Reap continues quietly but becoming busier as the tourist seasons kicks in. As the rains diminish and temperatures are not yet too high visitors begin to flock to this area to see the temples, visit the Tonle Sap lake and enjoy the life of a fast growing town. Those people that have not yet visited this area need to know what treasures we have around us. The faces of the locals, quite stern to start with will break into a smile after their initial shyness.

Tuk tuk drivers practise their English and are happy to try their luck asking if we want to go out to Angkor Wat at every turn. People operating at the many massage places will ask time and again if we want a massage, and the Doctor Fish operators still are friendly and chat despite not having our toes tickled by their mini piranhas! We hear how hard recent times have been for some and the hopes for making some money in the high season. We are greeted by old friends in restaurants, guest houses and shops who genuinely remember us from many months ago.

Sunday late morning we sit near the old market having a drink before meeting up with Jim for lunch. We watch as families clamber up on their motos, local people squeeze unceremoniously into tuk tuks, children come selling bracelets on the road side and another girl spends ten minutes trying to convince a large American to part with a few dollars for a book. A man walks by, carrying a box. He has no hands or lower arms, blown off by a landmine when he was a boy. He tries to sell books also. Another child appears attached by a rope to his blind father who asks for money. Almost everywhere there are the smiles amongst the heartbreak of a town going about its daily business.

AND FINALLY – Danny and Pam Spitler arrive today for a week long visit.  We are looking forward to meeting up with them again later – and to some planning meetings later in the week.  So more on that later.

PS:  A beautiful shot of Ratha in action in a classroom.  Exhausting stuff!!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Floods, Clinics and Teachers

Every morning we wake up, often after a night of torrential rain, to wonder if school is operating as usual now the term has really begun.  The Pchum Ben festival finished on Sunday and school re-opened on Monday (having managed one day's tuition in the previous week!) Of course, we shouldn't have worried.  Apart from Sineth, whose house was flooded out and his moto under water by the river, all teachers managed to get into school, even if they had to wade from their houses to their transport.  The school is reasonably accessible, although the 'river' that runs through it, and over which many of the houses are built, is very high and providing some excellent, though possibly dangerous, swimming opportunities to the children.

The school is up and running and full of lively children.  The high water levels throughout Siem Reap and around the school allow for the expression of one of the deepest passions of Cambodians: fishing.  All along the river banks you will find young and old with rudimentary fishing rods hovering hopefully over the water, and - with more ambition - groups of men, waste deep pulling large nets through the water.  Even at the gates to the school we find one young man trying his luck!

The English programme is back in full swing, although the imminent introduction of a government programme to teach English to grades 4,5 and 6 will no doubt have an impact on what we do.  We have prided ourselves on the breadth of the Spitler programme, especially as we have also started to work with the youngest children - those who are in the kindergarten, a grade not found in government primary schools.  Occasionally we - and the teachers - worry about how effective our teaching of these tiny children is, especially as class sizes in kindergarten can be huge,  I don't think we need to worry.  Here's a group of Grade 1 children (last year's kindy) who gathered around me yesterday and insisted on showing me their expertise in English.  Not bad eh - and congratulations to the English teachers for persevering!

New Volunteers

Carly and Steve, our new volunteers from England, have just arrived after some serious travelling through parts of South East Asia and Cambodia.  Carly is a very experienced and highly qualified English teacher and Steve is a fully qualified electrician. There will be plenty of work for both of them to do!  We  paid a brief visit to Kurata school to meet up with Vebol, ask after his son, and see how things were running here.  Ratha is still, of course, enthusiastically running the English programme , and making sure that all classes are getting extra tuition. 
The grounds of the school, though a little submerged at present, are looking good - and we were particularly impressed with the floral decorations around the toilet area!

We were also delighted to see that the library is now fully functional here, as Sophat and Vebol (the  Principal and administrator) now have their own office. The children here do not need any encouragement to come into the library and settle down with a book - so long as there are plenty of pictures.

Teacher Profile

Khorn Sineth is our newest English teacher, and he has been working at Spitler School for about a year now.  Although he had little experience as a teacher before coming to Spitler, he has developed really well and the children clearly enjoy his lessons, as well as making good progress in their English.  Sineth is still a student at Build Bright University in Siem Reap and is in his third year training to be a a Teacher of English as a Foreign Language.  He was born in a little village about 35 km from Siem Reap, called Prey Chrouck Village and while in Siem Reap he lives with his brother, who is also a teacher. 

Clinic Soa Num 2 October

Loll, Jim and Sarin have been meeting with the local clinic director in order to help coordinate the arrival of some nursing students from Australia who will be spending some time in Siem Reap learning about medical practices in a part of the world where health care is extremely basic.  They will also be spending some time with us at the schools, providing - we hope - some basic health care training. 
The clinic, which is quite near Angkor Wat, is also pretty basic, with a rather severe birthing bed and a recovery suite with double beds for the mothers and their new-born babies to lie on.

The clinic caters for six remote and very poor villages with a total population of 8158. Most people are in the lowest poverty groups of 1 and 2 and they receive free care. Others will be charged on a scale that is clear.  The most common problems are breathing difficulties, diarrhoea, cholera, TB, Malaria, Dengue Fever, stomach problems, skin infections, insect bites, parasites and itching. Women also give birth and are looked after afterwards at the clinic.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The return of the wandering volunteers.

Well - we’re back again! Ten months ago we said our goodbyes hoping to be able to return to our schools in a short time. However illness, work, family commitments and so on have delayed our trip. As we made our way up Road 6 in the school tuk-tuk we were struck by the even heavier traffic and crazier driving all around. We picked up Geoff, a long-time volunteer who works closely with the English teachers, and set off for the school to meet up with old friends, exchange news, chat and try to remember our bits of Khmer. 

The village looks a bit different, yes the sandbags were still around, the flood water near the entrance to school was deep, but some house building had been in progress. The village was about its usual business of shopping, cleaning and caring for the little ones. We recognised some people, waved and were welcomed back. It was a great feeling!

School has not yet re-opened after the 'long holiday', but we were not surprised to see many children in the compound and also in classes with their teachers. 
It's always a bit difficult getting a new year under way - but this year is going to be worse than most as the major Pchum Ben holiday begins two days after the official start of term.  This is officially a three-day holiday during which time everyone returns to their home village to be with their families and prayers are said in Pagodas for ancestors, but in practice it will last from Thursday right through to the following Monday.  So there will be one day's school on Wednesday!

As soon as we had arrived in school and been welcomed back with genuine warmth (and none of the 'oh, here come the interfering old Barang teachers again!) - the heavens opened and the school disappeared behind sheets of torrential rain.

Our English meeting got underway, Jim had cycled in and was just able to avoid the storm, but was soon interrupted by the arrival of Sral and Sek San bringing in freshly chopped coconuts with straws so we could drink the water inside.
Beats an apple for the teacher every time! 

Against the background of shutters being slammed and children quietly discussing the displays in the English room, we learned of the successes of the English programme. It was good to celebrate the positive responses of the teachers and to grapple with the things that hadn’t worked so well. 

Our three teachers Ratha, Hoy and Sineth have grown confident in their ability to speak their minds and share ideas. Some things, like the use and development of English using the Way Ahead books had gone well. Some felt at sea with the kindergarten classes that were beginning English for the first time this year. Controlling and trying to teach this tiny barrow-load of monkeys was proving tricky. We exchanged ideas and were given some things to ponder. 

Our meeting finished, we went exploring again. Classrooms were being set up and we were able to admire  the new gallery which contains a potted history of the schools and the contributions of donors and volunteers over the years. We met up with the family who run a little shop on campus and have always been so generous in their friendship towards us. (Mother gave Loll a scarf to wear the last time we left as she was so worried about the cold weather in the UK.) Geoff was able to help out with some translating as he is fluent in Khmer. He tells us he gets the best rooms in hotels and cheap lifts when he speaks the language. For us, we contend with sous'day or whatever.