Thoughts on Education from ‘This American Life’ Podcast

Listening to the recent ‘Back to School’ podcast from ‘This American Life,’ inspired by the latest teachers’ strike in Chicago and the scores of students starting out their new year, led to some reflections on the Thai education system and a possible reason as to why it’s so difficult for Thai students to learn English. A very engaging show, I would suggest anyone interested in learning about a variety of topics through different stories from various perspectives.

Friday Five

Five Reasons I Get Out of Bed and drag my ass to school even when my coteacher won’t be there and no other teachers will be in their classrooms.

Because Someone Has to
I still don’t quite ‘get’ this about Thailand. How I can walk by classrooms and no adult figure is in sight. For the entire third-sixth grade section of the school. Well, besides me. You can tell what kind of chaos this usually guarantees. This has been occurring more and more often these past few weeks in preparation for the academic competition we had this week. I’m not required to go to school when my coteacher is elsewhere and there have been quite a few times I’ve skipped out. Lately though, I just can’t take the one hour of learning away from them because other teachers/society consider their other responsibilities more important than their students.

Spelling Test
This ties in with the paragraph above. We’ve started a weekly spelling test in my three grade levels. I’ve gotten tired of kids asking me how to spell things I know that they know already. Cat, dog, TV (totally serious) and the vocabulary words we just learned. So my hope is in providing some kind of consistency in their spelling tests, they’ll become more diligent with their studies in general. This means going to school on days I don’t have to and finding time in the day, sometimes my free period, to make sure they take the test that week. That and I can restrict their online gaming and uno playing until they spell correctly. Insert evil teacher cackle here.

Rescue Mission
Most Thai schools have many stray dogs roaming around because of the easy access to leftovers. My favorite dog, Ma-brang, looks like a normal dog, is knocked up, and is tiny. Naturally this preys on my weaknesses. She wasn’t quite sure of me until one epic morning I went to change out of my biking clothes in the English room, which is upstairs. The computer room is also up there. So if there is no English, usually no one comes upstairs, unless they’re going to use the computer room, which doesn’t happen every day. I heard Ma-brang barking relentlessly, but though she was downstairs howling at the microphone as usual. Turns out, she was locked inside the computer room from the previous afternoon to morning. This isn’t too out of the ordinary for a dog from the West, but for most Thai dogs that rarely enter any buildings for fear of being hit by humans, I can’t imagine how scared she was. There was a big hullabaloo about finding the keys, but a few sixth graders and I got her out in time for her to run downstairs to find some grass immediately after giving us a few licks (also weird for Thai dogs). She’s been following me around ever since.

Who could resist this face?

Better or Worse
Most days I’m exhausted once the school day is complete. And that’s just on a normal day. Sometimes I want to cry from frustration, annoyance, lack of effort from my students, and people laughing out loud at me for no reason other than I’m not Thai. I have on many occasions. But most days, there is this one moment that I find something good about going to school. My students making me laugh. Five girls in fifth grade getting 100% on their spelling test. Watching sixth grade sit down and review their words before coming in the room. Ma-brang sitting on my feet (fleas, smell, and all). A kindergartener mustering up the bravery to say ‘good morning’ instead of ‘Look! The white teacher!’. These are the things that make those long days worthwhile.

Last, but certainly not least…

Because These Lunatics Desperately Want Me To

These are the girls that ask me not to go on vacation because they miss me too much.

Friday Five

With the first day of school this past week, Five Times it Sucks to be a Teacher popped into my head

Waking up for the Second Day of School
After a summer break of sleeping in and lazing around with your homedogs, you’re temporarily filled with enthusiasm and excitement that help spring you out of bed ready to spread sunshine and sparkles everywhere. The second day of school when your alarm goes off, it looks like someone roused the troll from under the bridge. And it’s hungry.

The Moment You Realize Your Students Did Not Retain 99% of Last Year’s Material…
And they look at you like this…

She’s cute, but scratching her head thinking ‘wtf is this farang talking about?’

 The Night Students Take a Test…
And you’re there grading all those papers wondering where you went so wrong.

When You Realize After the Tenth Time Explaining Something…
And only half of the kids are still trying to understand, but only half of that number actually do.

Watching the Students that try so hard…
And wishing so much there was more that you could do. You never give up and they don’t either, but they never quite ‘get it’ as much as the smart kids.

Friday Five

My Favorite Photos I’ve Taken This Year

January 2011- Ayutthaya

The hammock is where I spent most of my Sundays

March 2011- Site

First month at site, I needed to get out of the house and this was one of the places my family would let me go without an escort

May 2011- Rai Lay

Rai Lay in May, I'd go back any day

July 2011- Reconnect Conference, Suphanburi

Reconnect Fourth of July celebrations marked the end of the 'loneliness at site' slump for me

October 2011- Surat Thani

Elephants Hills

Did you think I could let you go without any honorable mentions?

Tradition meets modern

Friends make you smile the biggest

The river in Phi Chit, tree next to the wat

Lanterns for the King's birthday celebration

Technology in the classroom, the first time my kids were this excited to learn with me

Sunset on the water, living on the water

Hiking up a big ole hill to see what this Buddha's view is like

Big tree, big wat, good photo

Flowers in front of the temple

This gal was to hit the ping-pong ball fifty yards with that soda bottle... Thai games

My Ayutthaya family's backyard

I've posted this photo before and I'll likely post it again

Friday Five

Five Things to Read about the Penn State Scandal
Because there has been a flood of articles written about Sandusky, Joe Paterno, and other opinions about the events that surround the famous institution, I decided I’d give you some of the ones I’ve found through various sources and let you make up your own mind rather than tell you what is on mine. Being from Pennsylvania, making yearly visits to Penn State to visit relatives there, and with a serious contingent of old FCers there, this is something that has been weighing on my brain a lot lately.

The Grand Jury Report
This is the most direct piece that I’ve read about the timeline of events. Very informative, very chilling. Find it here.

Heath Evans
I think as a former NFL player and the husband to a former victim of childhood abuse, Heath Evans has a unique perspective. He’s able to understand both sides of the fence, but you can definitely tell which side he’s on. Check it out.

The Jackie Blog
Naturally my post-a-day homegirl had something to say about the happenings in Happy Valley. She got me to consider whether morals should be part of the work force and if we as a society decide that is the case, to apply it across the board. Something tells me we wouldn’t like it. See her post here.

The Faded Glory of Penn State
From a Penn Stater’s perspective, someone who ‘grew-up’ Penn State and how sometimes even heroes don’t do the right thing. Denver Post.

Joe Paterno’s Tears
The New Yorker does it again. I’ll let them explain themselves.

McQueary, who for now still works at Penn State—one of his responsibilities is recruiting—told the grand jury that he “noticed that both Victim 2 and Sandusky saw him.” What did the boy think when he saw him walk away, and of the silence that followed? What did it say to him about his own dignity? One wonders how the implicit message about how others judged his worth shaped the young man that boy would, by now, have become. On Tuesday, Linda Kelly, the attorney general, put out a plea for him to come forward; he would be nineteen years old now—the age of the students now at Penn State.

Read the rest of the article here.

Let us not forget the true victims of the situation.

The Saga Continues…

Yes, I’ve told you about the flooding, but gee whilickers, who knew it was going to have such an effect on my daily life? I went to school yesterday and taught an epic lesson (not really, it was an easy-peasy soft-toss lesson to get them warmed up to English again) before there was a meeting of some sort called. I didn’t pay attention at all, but for once wish I had because important stuff was going down this time around.

Turns out being in one of the ‘affected’ provinces in Thailand means that even if your roads are bare bones dry with ‘cold’ season moving in, your school might be closing for an extra ten days until the 15th of November. It could be extended if it gets worse, it could be shortened. I was told not to go too far in case school opens back up again (with all the flooding, where could I go?).

I was given two reasons why we closed:  to help others in our provincial city/Bangkok and the decision came higher up than us. I can see the idea of going to assist those struggling right now, many of my friends and students did just that over school break. However ‘they told us to’ seems devoid of most logic, but this is Thailand, it’s normal.

The frustrating thing about this (and I mean frustrating because it seriously cuts into my free time) is that the ‘make-up’ for these days means the next ten Saturdays of mine are going to be spent at school. Yummy. I haven’t broached the subject with my coteachers yet, too afraid of their answers, but even though I don’t want to, I would feel guilty if I didn’t go. I already have Friday that I’m not required to go to school, they seem to think this is a free day. I seem to think it’s sometimes the hardest day of the week because it typically means I’m getting myself into awkward situations. Should I be encouraging the differences between us even more though? Even if it means no Thanksgiving celebration with other Volunteers, three-day holiday weekends in early December, or the much-needed space I need from my students in those three-day blocks.

The thing that I’d like to point out to my Thai people though is that if we sat down and had real school for ten days, like actual learning, teachers teaching instead of going to x,y, and z, and kids not cleaning, giving their teacher a massage, or other chores of the teachers, while they should be learning, that could easily give us a month to go help flood victims in the surrounding areas. Alas, this is Thailand, that’s not how it works here.

The other bit I’m realizing his how much of our supplies in my village come from Bangkok. In most of the convenience stores in town, there’s hardly anything, especially so in 7/11. The shelves are extremely bare. This is usually a spot for teenagers to hang out, get snacks, and chat (especially after school). Now hardly anyone is going in to buy things (though there’s a plethora of things you can pay for at 7/11 though, like your bills or in my case, add baht to your phone). We no longer have any sort of ‘fresh’ things like milk, bread, or most snacks.

I say all of this because it really is making me change the way I live in my village, but it’s not bad here at all. Everyone is banding together. There are tons of Bangkokians and the like moving in with family and friends here and are truly welcomed with open arms. My friend Pi-Chaai alone has six people staying with her and there’s no tension at all, she’s happy to have a place for them to stay. We spend days chatting with her visiting friends and family, showing them around to our favorite spots, and they’ve accepted me as part of the group (or should I say I’ve accepted them?). I can usually spot the other new people into town when occupying a favored location of mine and the ‘fresh’ stares start (not the ‘hey there’s Erin, what’s she up to’ kind, but the ‘who is this farang and what is she doing here’ kind. I get an eensy bit annoyed with this because they’re here visiting my town and act like I’m the one that doesn’t belong).

This is the worst flooding in Thailand for nearly half a century. It’s claimed the lives of more than 350 people, disrupted more than 2 million, and caused the country billions in damage. But together, we’re moving on. We’re working together to make it through this disaster. Thailand, I’ve got full faith in you, even if you do make me teach for the next ten Saturdays.

This isn’t the ‘Real World’, it’s The Only World: Thailand

Ignorance in the United States is nothing new. We’re known for being quite good at how little we know about other countries and our own. Being a world superpower, we expect everyone to know about us though. Try moving to rural Thailand.

It is an essential attribute for Peace Corps Volunteers to be open-minded, accepting people. And I mean really, really broad-minded. Things that were all so new in the beginning, but vital to the culture, like the food, the hierarchy, and the foot thing have to be taken in stride, as much as possible even though we’re plopped in a brand new place. While it is difficult enough remaining upbeat about things in our new culture, it’s much more challenging to not be given the same luxury (and it feels like a priceless one) of acceptance for your own way of life.

As if I don’t get stared at enough for my outward appearance, any Thai person is quick to point out the differences when I want to do something my own way. When this happens, it’s enough for everyone to stop, watch, point out what the person is doing differently, and have a conversation about it. Sometimes they’ll even stop me or take whatever I’m doing out of my hands to do it their way. The idea that there is a whole new set of ways to do things is just mind-boggling to most of my Thai peeps.

Want some examples?
After hearing from my host father for the millionth time to eat more Thai food and he suggested the two things I hate most in the food chain, fish (and deep-fried at that) and bananas, I had enough. I said, as nicely as I could muster, something to the effect of, if you moved to America and lived there for nine months, do you think you would still want to eat Thai food? Blank stare. I waited. We stared at each other. Then he made the motion of scooping up food and inserting it into his mouth and said the word for eat. I continued staring for a few moments before turning and walking away.

I was being urged by one of the other teachers from school to eat spicy food, fish, and in general to try new things. Already having such a success with my host father, I tried the route of her eating farang food in America, to which she said she would eat gladly. Everything I named, she accepted it with open arms: pizza, ice cream, not deep-fried chicken, pasta, spaghetti, lasagna, soups, cheese, most dairy products…this was going to be a hard nut to crack. I sat thinking for a moment as she celebrated with my coteacher as they triumphed that I couldn’t come up with something she couldn’t or wouldn’t eat. And then with a deadly smile, it came to me: all the food I just mentioned, you don’t eat it with rice. I knew within moments that I won. ‘What do you eat your food with?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing, you just eat it with the other things.’ I told her and sat back folding my arms. She tried for a few more seconds, but eventually conceded… she shoots and scores.

(A little sidebar here, rice is so important in Thai culture that the rest of the food on the table is called ‘gap cao’ or with rice. So when my friend asked me in Thai, she literally said ‘what do you eat your ‘with rice’ with?’ They’re also surprised that I tell them there isn’t much that is considered straight American food, but rather, we eat a variety of different foods that originated from other cultures, much like the citizens.)

Most Thai people don’t understand why I’m tired all the time. They take me to a party after a day at school and are shocked, (shocked!) that I’m exhausted at 7pm. I’ve tried explaining how much energy it takes to be constantly on the fence between two languages (teaching English and often having to explain in Thai) and be on the Thai side of the cultural wall when my own is pulling my body back to its old habits, no matter how hard my brain is trying to keep me on their side. This is all to no avail. It is beyond their grasp to realize that I need to be constantly on guard to communicate with them and not offend anyone, constantly on, and it’s not always a comfortable place to be.

I can’t tell you how many times my homedogs have been astonished that America does or does not have something that is considered typically Thai. Or that, gasp, it was created in my country! We were at a wedding and someone thought they’d surprise me by bringing me cotton candy. While I accepted quite graciously, as least I thought so, my friends watched anxiously as I tried something new and then applauded me for doing so. When I told them we had it in America as well, they were amazed. ‘Does a Thai person sell it?’ they asked. I thought they were joking. When I explained that it was created in the United States, there were many a fervent glance around the table to see if anyone else could confirm this crazy factoid. (I’m fairly certain they wrote me off.) My favorite is when some crazy (to me, normal to them) fruit or other food product is not available in America and they are flabbergasted to the point of laughter. ‘What do you have then?’ they taunt me with. This is when I want to jump in and say, ‘Well, quite frankly, I’m astounded that you only have cold showers and bucket ones at that, have no sinks in your bathrooms, live outside, consider it acceptable to show up to school late, not at all, drunk, or sit in the classroom while the students learn from the television, sit five on a motorcycle, allow men to have multiple mistresses and sometimes support them with school funds AND have no oven…but you don’t see me bragging do you?’

One thing that both cracks me up and aggravates me is how a Thai person cannot stand a conversation going on in English without having me or one of my coteachers translate it, even if it has nothing to do with them. Even if I’m just muttering things to myself or making a pun in English, my people wait, quite expectantly, for an explanation of what I just said. Most of the conversation at the lunch table is in Thai. I fully understand that, would never want that to change, and use the time to try to understand conversation idiosyncrasies.  However, I had the nerve to ask my coteacher, in English, about our schedule for the day since things got switched around and another teacher at the school gave me the stink-eye! What, you don’t understand the two sentences I just said and I’m supposed to feel bad even though I had to work on full brainpower and still didn’t pick up the gist of the conversation for the past 45 minutes?! Welcome to my world lady.

My students understand the concept of English letters, that they have to learn them, and you can do crazy things like write words/sentences and communicate with them. What they are continually amazed about though is that I prefer to have things in English rather than Thai. They picked up my phone and started messing around with before stopping and asking me why I had it set to English. They’re also shocked that I can understand most songs in which English is the language. My sister gives a yelp of delight every time I confirm this. Other gems they’ve asked me: Why is your book in English? How do people understand Facebook if it’s in English? Do dogs speak English in America? Can all Americans read Thai?…kids say the darndest things.

On a more serious note, I had a conversation with a teenage gal the other day and when I told her about certain liberties in America, like not having to wai your teacher, there are no polite endings (outside of please and thank you) at the end of sentences or hierarchy pronouns with those older than you, and that we think those with more education as just as important, if not more than pure age (and gender) status, she couldn’t believe the freedom we had. And that whole bit about not having to wear a uniform to school or cutting your hair to your ears was pretty enticing to her as well. Now imagine what would happen if I told her about the right of freedom of speech and certain gender equality requirements…baby steps Erin, baby steps.

As I’ve said, time and time again, living in ‘Thai world’ is actually pretty fantastic despite all my writings of its craziness. I truly love my people here with all my heart. With that though, comes many struggles because I grew up in a world on the complete opposite end of the cultural spectrum. Sometimes it frustrates me to my wit’s end that I’m constantly told to do something their way or given odd looks for something completely normal to me. This hits especially hard when I spend the day with my ‘Thai face’ on in public and all I want to do is relax into the comfort of the few old standards I can get here and my host family points something out to me about how I’m not being Thai enough. ‘Can’t you see how hard I’m trying to fit in here?’ I want to scream at the top of my lungs. My language, my diet, my hygiene habits, my life, my everything have been thrown upside down, tossed into a blender and pushed to the max and you’re going to fault me for eating cereal for breakfast?! This is the trouble when everyone around you is tuned in to the Thai transmission and you are the only one with your eyes set on the world.