The Retarded-ness of English Camp

General Facts
This past Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I was required to attend my education office’s English camp. We hosted two days of sixth graders, Wednesday and next Monday are for two different sets up ninth graders. Due to their ONET scores (the standardized test these guys take for English), the government identified these students as needing more training in English. With some extra money left in the budget before the new fiscal year starts in October, ‘Funny English’ camp was born.

They planned rotations of about 50 minutes including, ‘Conversation’, ‘Look, Like, Read’, ‘Grammar’, ‘Phonic’ (sans S, this was my group), ‘Vocabulary’, and session about the test. Students were required to take pre and post-tests of which I got to take a look at as well. Teachers in the group were to plan activities ahead of time to both entertain and teach their students about their subject area.

The Reality
Thai’s aren’t really known for their organizational skills. And by organizational skills I mean that in the sense of planning ahead of time, informing the necessary parties of said plans (if they do actually exist) at appropriate times, formulating some sort of schedule of events, and finally, sticking to the schedule. I was told at 8:15 on the Monday before camp that we needed to email activities for our rotation by noon that day as well as sit through a school staff meeting (unsurprisingly, there was no teaching that day). I pulled it off with an activity that I made up to practice vowel sounds and my coteacher was thankful. So thankful that it took me going through it with her no less than five times and reassuring that no, we don’t in fact need a song and dance (literally) to entertain (and hopefully educate) the students.

Part-time educator, Full-time entertainer

It turns out I was really lucky to have some control over the activities we would teach. The other Volunteer that attended was treated as talking parrot and read things from a powerpoint presentation as students drool all over themselves in boredom. Why yes, she was the conversation rotation, lots of chatting going on there. A sample of the things she had to read out, with lots of enthusiasm no less: Cheerio! Take care of your health! How are you getting on? What’s new? Nit a thing. As if being forced to come to this thing wasn’t bad enough, but being used to only say silly phrases that people don’t actually use in real life is downright torture.

We get there and things are all over the place. No one had ‘set up’ their area for teaching ahead of time (you know, the reason why my teacher was going to pick me up ‘early’ when in reality she was an hour late from her originally stated time), students were hanging everywhere talking, as were teachers that were supposed to be organizing students and teaching areas. After the way too long introduction ceremony that no one, including myself, listened to, I thought we would start teaching, but wait, the students hadn’t taken the pre-test yet. Another half an hour passes by and it’s time for break…from the work that hasn’t even really started yet.

The big group

Things continue this way. We finally start teaching around 10:30. Sessions start at 50 minutes each, down to 40, down to whenever the organizers decided to blow the whistle. We just worked our way through repeating the same lesson over and over again, six times. There’s only so much dancing and hopping around I can do before pooping out. The students were getting pretty exhausted themselves. These are the worst students in their classes from schools across my province, they’re not used to spending an entire day trying to learn a language they’ll likely never use in their adult lives.

Believe it or not, both of these guys gave me huge smiles after I took this picture and were actually having a lot of fun

The Retarded-ness
Retarded: delay or hold back in terms of progress, development, or accomplishment… a perfect description of what it feels like is going on here. Thailand has everything that it needs to support it’s own development from a ‘third-world’ country status, it just seems to trip over it’s own shoelaces that are tied together.

Instead of investing in the teachers that are actually in front of these (failing) kids everyday to know how to teach their students English outside of plain old rote memorization, they think a two-day English camp is going to magically fill the students’ heads with information without any kind of follow-up in the classroom. Then they’ll be able to pass the ridiculously complicated government exams right?!

Wrong. Why? Well something about most Thai students not being taught how to read might have something to do with them failing standardized tests that I don’t think most Thai English teachers could pass (I’m extremely lucky to have two coteachers that were English majors and have the ability to speak fairly well). (And don’t even get me started on the current methods of teaching kids how to read in this country, literacy being something I’m extremely passionate about, I’m likely to go on a huge rant, another time, another post.) The best part about the tests the students took at English camp… they were loaded with improper English phrases/questions and wrong answers! I shutter when I think of what the ONET tests look like.

I’d like to point out this is not the fault of Thai teachers. Like their American counterparts, they’re often stuck in situations out of their control due to the politics of the system, like being told they need to show up for these kinds of activities. They have so many extra duties that even if they wanted to be in the classroom (some don’t and thrive on this kind of thing), they can’t because of the ‘higher powers’ they are forced to submit to. This though, is content for an entire post.

Essentially there’s a GINORMOUS disconnect with reality from the government’s expectations and ideas they put forth to fix the problems that stem from their disillusionment. People that are not (and probably never were teachers in a normal Thai classroom, by normal I mean out in the rural farming areas where most of the population lives) set these outrageous standards that only set students up for failure. It’s all well and good to try to incorporate grammar, conversation, and reading for students at an English camp like I attended, but it’s a bit pointless when they hardly understand the bare basics of the language.

Sitting in the meeting room with the other Volunteer before the craziness ensued, we were discussing these problems, our frustrations with having to be at the camp instead of our classrooms with the students that we can actually have a positive effect on, and general dissatisfaction with how Thai organized things function when she had an amazing point. This was just going to be one of those things that, as Peace Corps Volunteers, we just have to do, no matter how pointless and stupid it is. All with a smile on our faces as we demonstrate the chicken dance, over and over and over again.

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