Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What have we been doing in Kampot, Cambodia

(By Mia)
Four main activities have dominated our time here in Kampot. During the day we work at an orphanage. In the evenings we help out teaching English at a subsidized language school for very poor children in the rural areas surrounding the town. And "late" at night (from about 9 - 10:30 PM) we eat Nutella straight out of the jar and watch The National Geographic Channel. That's right! Our room has a TV with, count 'em, THREE English language channels! We stocked up on books before leaving Phnom Pehn, in anticipation of being in the little town of Kampot for three whole weeks, and I've barely read 15 pages since we arrived. (Joe has read a book and a half because he already knows all about great white sharks and giant crocodiles- Joe)

Working with the kids at the orphanage has been a simultaneously delightful and exhausting experience. There aren't any adults around to help us organize the kids, and the few grown-ups that wander by from time to time don't speak any English. So we're pretty much on our own. This has been challenging when it comes to planning and executing activities with the kids, since we're incredibly limited in our ability to explain rules or objectives. From what we've gathered over the past week and a half, it seems that most of the 60 kids are in classes for at least part of the day (although we never see these alleged teachers coming or going). When they're not in class, there's really nothing at all for them to do, other than gather around the one black and white TV in the "library" (an otherwise empty room with one plastic bag of assorted crayons and an outdated world map on the wall) and watch American professional wrestling, a sport for which they all share disturbing fascination.

While trying to expose them to as much English as possible and give them a chance to practice speaking, our main goal has been just to get these kids involved in activities that engage and hopefully challenge them creatively or physically. That said, we have to keep in mind that any new activity we introduce must be very simple to explain through demonstration only, not requiring any verbal instructions whatsoever. Also, we never know when some or all of them will have to run off to class, so activities must be able to be executed quickly if necessary. One of our most successful crafts was mask-making, during which Joe and I spent the entire day frantically cutting out Mardi Gras-style masks out of a cardboard box we'd scavenged, as kids lined up to receive blank masks, decorate them, and then have them tied on with scraps of fabric. We've also played pin-the-tail-on-the-bunny (we weren't sure if any of them would have ever seen a donkey) with a board Joe and I painted. We have also been playing soccer, volleyball, and endless rounds of Bingo. We actually made the Bingo game for the English classes, but then added flash cards to accompany it so that the kids at the orphanage could play too. The individual bingo cards all have images relevant to the kids' lives (chicken, dog, apple...), and then we made cards to hold up with matching images, so that I can say "chicken" and show them a picture of a chicken at the same time. It's been amazingly popular, with both audiences. The kids at the orphanage will go round after round until I just can't possibly endure another game of Bingo. One would think that without any prize for the winner, it would get tiresome for the kids fairly quickly, but so far they can't get enough.

At the language school, we're supposed to be acting as teachers' aids, but end up teaching classes by ourselves much more than we'd anticipated. Frequently the teachers don't prepare lessons, but instead simply hand over the reigns to us at the beginning of class, and sometimes they just don't show up at all, leaving us to fend completely for ourselves in front of 30-60 students (depending on the class) without even the help of a translator. We're thrilled, though, to have been given as much control over the direction of the classes as we have been. Now we meet with some of the teachers during the day to plan lessons for that night, and other teachers give us the pages of the book they plan to teach the following day so that we can work out activities before class. However, when we first showed up, before they realized they could depend on us to come every night and started giving us much more input, sitting through an hour-long class could be painfully tedious. The standard curriculum in Cambodia seems to be entirely repetition-based, and teachers will often spend the whole class on 4 lines of dialogue from the book (dialogue which is completely irrelevant to the students' lives- using examples like German beer and Italian handbags for exercises). The teacher would have me read the dialogue all the way through: "A. Is Jim from Switzerland? B. Yes, he is. A. Is Jim an accountant (a pretty hard profession to explain to the class....)? B. No, he isn't." The kids listen to me go through that a few times, then they repeat after me, then they do "A" "B" back and forth between their rows, then I read a line and the teacher translates it to Khmer, then a student reads the same line and another translates it to Khmer, and on and on like this for an hour!

A tiny addition from Joe follows: Hi, Joe here. In my class today the english lesson covered the average day of George, a Computer Millionaire who had gotten rich from his website NetShop24.COM. (George has breakfast at 7:30, etc.) I had to sit down with the teacher and explain that a millionaire was a man with millions and millions of US dollars. (US$ is the currency here as well but the average person only makes about $50 a month.) I then had to explain internet shopping, which led to me explaining credit cards, online banking and the UPS and FED EX shipping industries that all work together to bring anything the average american anything wants directly to their door within 24 hours without ever leaving the house. By the end of my explination this guy's head was spinning like a top. He was holding onto the table with one hand all bent over as if he had just run a marathon, taking little gulps of air like a fish and staring up at me with wide, glazed over eyes. This is a good example of a lesson not being written to suit it's target audience. Peace out, love Joe.

(By Mia again)
Joe and I each work with different teachers, and once we persuaded them individually to let us try out the Bingo game, and the students were so incredibly enthusiastic about it, they've started letting us implement more interactive lesson plans. It's really incredibly how well the kids respond to even the simplest variations- letting them come up to the board and fill in answers, designing some kind of competition, even singing Head Shoulders Knees and Toes! They're so excited to participate, with absolutely none of that too-cool-to-raise-my-hand crap you see in American schools. It's also been fascinating to observe the different ways that teachers manage their classrooms, and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of different crowd control styles. None of the classes have any system of punishments or rewards for behavior, and the students are remarkably willing to do what's asked of them in spite of this. And yet some instructors are unquestionably better at keeping their students quiet and engaged than others. Having been a student for most of my life, it's been incredibly interesting to have the opportunity to watch different teachers present the same information to the same demographic, and see such wildly different results. From what I can tell so far, when you take grades, time-outs, and prizes out of the equation, personal presentation and demeanor is the most important factor in commanding an audience, even if when that audience ranges from 8 year old kids to 20 year old monks.

For the past few nights, we've been going over to a little cafe to help out with painting the walls after classes are over. The cafe is run by a British couple and was set up to support the deaf and disabled community in Kampot. Almost all the staff at the restaurant is deaf, and they also host workshops and exhibit art for disabled members of the community. Now that we've got the interior of the cafe looking bright and shiny, Joe's scheduled to lead a painting workshop next weekend to create some new art with which to decorate the walls. We had a long weekend (two days instead of one- all schools hold classes on Saturdays here) for Human Rights Day and took the opportunity to step a little bit out of our Kampot routine. Yesterday we took the motorbike (Joe's gotten really good at driving it, and he administered my first lesson today) out to the beach, about an hour drive through the beautiful Cambodian countryside. It's amazing how many people they'll cram onto a motorbike around here- three adults is a common sight, or an adult and three children, or a father, two small kids, and a mother holding a baby. They even make little baby seats for motorbikes here that attach like a basket between the front of the seat and the handlebars. Doesn't have a seat belt or anything, just a tiny removable chair. The overcrowding goes for bicycles too. And men have no qualms about piling onto one bike or motorbike seat together. In fact, you'll very often here see two men riding their bikes down the street holding hands- very refreshing!

Being out among the farms and chickens and Cambodian people is such a joyful experience. Children always wave and yell "Hello" as we go by, and if we're going slow enough they will squeeze in a "What is your name?" as well, more for the fun of shouting in English than because they actually care to know the answer. It seems like no one under the age of 8 bothers getting dressed around here, and naked children are a common sight- bathing in the muddy water along the roads, wandering around a restaurant, or sitting in their mothers arms on the back of a motorbike. Most businesses are at least in part melded with the family home, and its quite common to have your bank teller be ironing her laundry as you're asking for a money change, or for the man at the convenience store to have an infant in a baby carriage tucked right text to the cash register.

Over the holiday weekend we also too a boat trip up the river that runs through the middle of town. Kampot is a dusty, run down town where the French colonial architecture has deteriorated far past the point of being quaint. But once one emerges from town, the countryside along the river is absolutely breathtaking. Capitan Bart (a 50 year old Belgian with blond dreadlocks down to his waist) took us on a day long cruise with two friends, first up the river and onto tiny, slow-flowing streams, and then out into the ocean, stopping a few times along the way at riverside bars to restock the cooler with Anchor Beer.
A naked little boy just ran past behind my computer.

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