Tuesday, July 1, 2008

English Camp, Farewell Party, and Return Home

On Saturday, we provided an English Camp for 120 students from the schools we have been working with. Our UTSA students paired up with each other to provide six fun activities which gave students practice in listening and speaking English. Everyone had a great time. The program ended with a song that still echoes in our heads -- "Goodbye my friends, Goodbye my friends, see you again someday." The stong was repeated for a good 20 mintues as our UTSA teachers stood at the front of the auditorium and each student coming through giving us handshakes and/or hugs. Many tears were flowing.

The good byes continued later in the evening with a fancy dinner at the resort hotel in Trang which for some odd reason is shaped like a ship. Joining us were many of the teachers, host families, and school directors. We presented certificates of thanks to each of them. We then gave the restaurant's Karoake singers the night off and took over the entertainment. The musical talent of our group members is quite impressive, as is the Karoake machine's repertoir of old American rock songs.

The hardest goodbyes were at the airport, with a large group of host family members and teachers showing up to say goodbye. Hundreds of photos, hugs, and tears later, were were on the plane heading to Bangkok. We got in early enough to do some last minute shopping and then left the hotel at 4:45 a.m. to come home. We happily did not encounter any problems in our travels.

A sense of excitement hit us as we landed in Dallas ("We're back in the U.S.!") and even more as we touched down in San Antonio at 7:05 p.m. ("We're home!").

As we were greeted by the dean, family members, and friends, students said their last goodbyes (and "see you laters") to each other.

It was a wonderful experience and it will take us several days to process all the amazing things we experienced in Thailand. We will forever remain in awe to our wonderful hosts, teachers, and students who did so much for us.

As students complete their final reflection papers, we plan to post selections here on the blog.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wai Kruu Ceremony

On Thursday last week (June 19th), most of the students were able to participate in an important ceremony at their schools – the Wai Kruu Ceremony. Wai is the word for the Thai greeting in which the palms of the hands are brought together in front of the body. Kruu is the word for teacher. Wai Kruu is a ceremony in which students pay respect to their teachers. By showing respect to their teachers, the students gain merit for the academic year.

The ceremony at Hadsamranwittyakom was especially elaborate and solemn. In addition to Lora Beth, Lori, Amal, and Paula who teach here, we were pleased to have Mary, Lissettee, and Candice from nearby primary schools join us for the ceremony. Our UTSA teachers were not just mere observers, but were placed front and center along with other teachers from the high school, to be paid respect by the students. The same was the case at two of the other high schools were our students are teaching.

Each class of students designed a special elaborate arrangement of flowers and/or incense sticks and candles. Each natural item used in the arrangement has a special symbolic meaning. For example, eggplant flowers represent respect as the heavy fruit bends down the branches, just as the students bend down to respect their teachers.

Part of the ceremony is a contest to see which class designs the most beautiful arrangement. Each student also brought a flower to present to a teacher. The traditional Thai music ensemble provided the music. One of the students provided a haunting but beautiful chant-like song at the beginning, the words indicating the students love and respect for their teachers.

A group of students presented the arrangements to the teachers. The teachers were sitting in a row at the front of the stage. Students were sitting in rows filling up the entire gym, wearing their best white and blue uniforms. As students came up to present their flowers, they would greet their teacher with the wai, then respectfully hand them the arrangement or flower, and then they would bow down and prostrate themselves on the ground – the way to show the greatest respect. Teachers would offer words of encouragement, and admonition, often patting the students gently on the head or back as a show of affection. This continued until each and every student in the school had come before the row of teachers to pay their respects.

A speech by the school director also included a brief ceremony where he paid homage at a shrine which included a large textbook, representing the importance of knowledge and learning. Dr. Perrotta was asked to say a few words. Her comments reflected what was in all of our hearts. We were deeply moved by the ceremony. The respect the students have for their teachers, and the affection they have for their students is wonderful to see. We could not help but reflect on how, in our own American society, respect for teachers has been declining. We do have our teacher appreciation week with little notes, small gifts, or gift cards to Starbucks, but it’s not quite the same as what we witnessed. In our society where teachers are suspect, where politicians constantly criticize and belittle teachers, where some parents feel it is their duty to question everything the teacher does, or where some parents feel they can do a better job educating their children and pull them out of the education system altogether for home schooling, we couldn’t help be feel a bit jealous of the esteemed position these teachers hold in their Thai society.

Excerpts from Student Reflections - Other

Here are some random comments from Student journal reflections:

Student # 1 - Today I am waiting to call home – no phone service and no internet. I must find a way to call tomorrow for Father’s Day. I got a phone card today …

Student #2 – I investigated my bed – really hard with a thick quilt on it and hard sofa cushions. Luckily I brought my U-shaped airplane pillow and a “cocoon” from online. I wrapped myself in the cocoon—which is like a really soft mosquito net, and turned out the lights. There was a florescent light right outside my window. I scrambled through my suitcase and found my sleep mask. I can’t even imagine what I looked like sleeping. I had my covers on me and wrapped around my head and pillow. It would be a funny picture!

Student 3 – I am fascinated to see so much warmness from the Thai people. I feel like a celebrity. They do take it to heart to treat company like family.

Student 4 – So far, my cucarachas have been mosquitoes, wet toilet seats, and feeling obligated to eat. ... Also I am getting a little sick of the food here. I do not really care for eggs, rice, or seafood, so the food situation is always a little rough.

Student 5 – Thai food is amazing!!! The spices, the aroma, the taste, the sight, it’s like sensory overload. No words can describe true Thai food without one having to try for themselves.

Student 6 – My [host] mom took me to a Thai wedding party. It was very extravagant. It had several hundred people at a hotel. It consisted of an eight course meal. They played a slide show and video of the morning’s ceremony. The guest keepsakes were in English. The majority of the music was in English. The dress, suit, and cake were “Western.” No one at my table spoke English.

Student 7 – My only problem right now is this incredible heat. I just can’t believe how hot it is. Lunch on the river was nice until I bit into something hot. It was so hot flames were coming out of my ears. Four glasses of water later I can finally feel my tongue again, although I think it is traumatized now. I think the word of the day is HOT!

Student 8 – I had forgotten the thrill I get from speaking in a new language and having people understand me, even if it’s just two words.

Student 10 – I have already learned so much about what I take for granted back in the states. This is definitely an eye opening experience of the different things I thought was necessity is no just something extra to have and is not that important.

Student 11 – Before coming to Thailand I prepared myself mentally to taste everything I could. I told myself to not ask what was being served because if I did I wouldn’t want to eat it. So after lunch I found out I had eaten fish stomach which does not fall into the groups of food I normally eat. I must admit it was good. Kudos to the chef!

Student 12 – In response to reflection question #4 I have observed the following symptons of culture shock in myself: Fatigue – I am super tired and just want to sleep all day. … loneliness – I no longer have the convenience of picking up my cell phone whenever I am bored and calling friends and family. Longing for home – I want to eat Mexican food and sleep in my own bed. … Food anxiety – I don’t care for Thai cuisine and I worry that I will offend someone or be hungry because I don’t like the food. … This journal entry has reminded me of many times when I’ve felt like this and the one thing that is the same for all those instances is that I was okay afterwards. I will be okay this time too. I guess I would rather be here in Thailand feeling homesick instead of back in America wondering what it would have been like to be here.

ESL Workshop for Thai English Teachers

Yesterday (Wednesay June 25th), I had the opportunity to provide a workshop for the Thai English teachers from the various schools we are working with. The title of the workshop was Listening and Speaking: Strategies for Interaction in the Classroom. As we observed classes last year and this year, it was apparent that the focus in these classrooms in on reading and writing, and that students end up not being able to speak the language well. This is one reason the focus of our UTSA students’ teaching as been on oral language development.

I provided the Thai teachers with some of the same training I provided to our UTSA teachers. The focus was on using cooperative learning structures as a way to provide more opportunities for students to interact in authentic and meaningful ways. As I explained each structure, I had them try it out. They loved it. I also had video clips of an excellent lesson taught by JoAnn. As they watched the video clips, we discussed the strategies JoAnn used to maximize the interaction of her students, and how each activity built on the previous activity to enable students to speak and listen in English with confidence. The teachers were very enthusiastic. Many of them promised they would make changes to their teaching to incorporate the ideas they gained from the workshop. I was greatly impressed with the Thai ESL teachers.

We were honored to have Mr. Wanchai Pongsa, Director of the Trang Education Office 1, the provincial office for the Thai Ministry of Education. He helped present the certificates to each participant, and gave a speech at the end. At the ceremony he met some of our teachers, and also got to see the video clips of JoAnn's teaching. Dr. Perrotta and I had met with him in the morning to discuss the continuation of the program. We feel fortunate that he came by and got a close-up look at what we have been doing. In his comments, he mentioned how he was impressed with our program and wants to support it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Student journal excerpts - Schools and Teaching

The following are excerpts from student journals about their experiences at their schools and with teaching. Most of these were written after students had only taught for a day or two. Hope to post more on this topic in the next few days.

Student # 1 – The students were great and the lessons went well. I covered more then expected due to no electricity or CD player. I taught the first 2 hours with no fans or lights. Took the classes outside to help with the heat. I am definitely more in my element when teaching.

Student #1 – When we arrived at the school, the children chased our truck and surrounded it to greet me with “good morning!” They followed me and crowded around the office door to look at me. You would think I was a celebrity. One of the teachers brought flowers from her yard for my hair.

Student #2 – Values of Education: All the children stand up and say “good morning teacher” and they stare at you. You have to tell them to sit down. Everything is done slowly and you don’t have to worry about discipline problems. Everyone stays in their seats and does their work. Everyone takes their time and there is no rushing. … The students seem happy to be here. I like the environment of the school. It isn’t as intense as it is in the states.
Student 3 – I had my first day of teaching and it was a very neat experience. The school and classroom structure is very different than how it is in the United States. In Trang, it is a more relaxed and informal school environment. Students are left unsupervised for long periods of time. Other classrooms had no teachers, students were in the classrooms just interacting. … I also saw a lot of students outside helping with chores, playing on the playground, digging, running around, and just sitting around. … Another conclusion I made is that students can be trusted to be left unsupervised without getting into any kind of trouble, and are independent. If students were left unsupervised in the United States, hell will be raised, and not to mention lawsuits. In my opinion, I think we live in a very paranoid, uptight, and worrysome society. Again, cultures are very different, but at the same time this experience provides an opportunity to reflect on one’s values, beliefs, cultures, and standards. This is a good time to reflect and analyze our values since we are so far from home.

Student 4 – Today was my first day of teaching. I was very nervous during my first class and expected to the students to speak more [English]. … I taught my students basic greetings and colors. We played the racing game with colors and they really enjoyed it. … I look forward to teaching more tomorrow.

Student 6 – I hope my students are not disappointed in my “non-American” appearance.

Student 8 – The opening ceremony during the morning (at the high school) was quite impressive. The students were lined up, row after row, while different teachers talked in front. Keo introduced each of us and encouraged us (OK, forced!) us to say a few remarks. Classes went really well. I feel so energized when I’m with the kids, even when I sweat so profusely. The students are constantly laughing and smiling and they are very easily entertained by farang (foreign) teachers.

Student 9 – When I walked into my first class, I was so nervous. Any planning or rehersal that I did in my head went out the door. [but] the kids, they are so beautiful and eager to learn. I feel my nervousness and lack of confidence interfered with my ability to teach. When will teaching become more natural to me? Dr. Perrotta sat in on my class after lunch and she helped me so much. She gave me to the idea to do some games and it worked out beautifully! I was thrilled to see the excitement and smiles on the students’ faces. They were having fun!

Student 10 – Today was exciting but I was really nervous. The first class they gave me, the class was outside. I immediately realized how difficult it was going to be without a chalkboard, but Mai Pen Rai (no worries!). I used a notebook and was able to write the words on it. The students were hesitant to talk in front of the class, so I gave them stickers for speaking. When they saw the race car stickers, they immediately wanted to share! … Never having taught a whole lesson before really made me see how important it is to be prepared and how necessary it is to stray from the lesson plan if needed.

Student 11 – I taught my first class at 10:10 a.m. And boy did the time go by fast. I took me a couple of seconds to find out that they didn’t know much English. Well, there goes my lesson plans. I tried to come up with new ones. Right now the #1 thing is to teach them how to answer and ask questions.

Student 12 – I taught my first class this morning from 9:00 to 11:00. I was expecting 50 minutes max. My lesson went great but I feel that I had to improvise to fill the time. The students were very nice and took to me well even though I didn’t speak much Thai.

Monday, June 23, 2008

JoAnn and Lori's Lessons

Today we had the priviledge of watching two great lessons, one taught by JoAnn and the other taught by Lori.

We first observed JoAnn's lesson in the morning at Paliengdapungsith High School. JoAnn warned us this was her quietest and least participatory class beforehand. However, we never would have believed it. JoAnn's lesson had the students interacting in a wide variety of activites, and the students did a great job. She had a similar lesson as some of the others, with a graphic organizer for students to write their name and then describe their favorite food, activity, sport, and animal. To prepare them for the lesson, she reviewed some vocabulary they had learned over the past lessons. Then she had them play a game where two students representing their teams had to give the proper sentence for the picture shown (i.e., My favorite food is fish). Once students finished their graphic organizers, they shared them with their neighbors, and then practiced them in pairs. She then had invidual students come up and share them with the practice. Her lesson was a great example of scaffolding, as each activity built on the next and prepared studnets for the individual presentations to the whole class.

Lori's lesson at Hadsamranwittaykom High School in the afternoon was equally energetic. She used the song "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" to help her students learn body parts. She had a great graphic on the board of a person with the body parts labeled. She had students practing using the vocabulary words with the frame "Where is your _________? This is my ___________." She did great game where she had the students in a circle. She would throw a ball to a student, and then ask them a question like, 'Where is your knee?" Students would have to answer "This is my knee' pointing to the correct body part. Once they got it right, they could throw the ball to another student and the game continued. Lori ended with a game with several picture cards on the floor for the various body parts she had taught them. As soon as she said the vocabulary word, the students dove to the floor to find the correct picture card. They clearly learned the words well and their laughter and energy showed how much they enjoyed the lesson.

Given this is the second week, it has been exciting to see how these and other lessons we've observed today have been builing on previously learned lessons. Students are going beyond just learning single words, and are beginning to be able to use them in sentences for real communicative purposes. Students are building up to culminating activities on their final day of teaching when students will pull together all they have learned in a single activity. From the progress we've seen so far, we are sure each of their students will do great.

Student journal excerpts - Host Families

Here are a few excerpts from student journals about their intial experiences with their host families ...

Host Families

Student 2 – I met my host family. We went to the school where I will be teaching. I met a lot of people and they sat me down and brought chairs to surround me. They were all staring at me and they asked me to tell them something. I felt completely out of place but was trying to smile and be polite. … Turns out my family is really friendly and extremely happy. Mai Pen Rai (“no problem!).

Student 3 – Our host family is very sweet. They are so nice and always feeding us. One thing is for sure, we will never go hungry in Thailand. I really like our house, it is very modest but homey. This makes me wonder about how simple their lifestyle is. They only have the essentials, but it is all they need.

Student 4 – After much anticipation, I finally met my host family in Trang. … When [we arrived at the house] it was a dream come true. In addition to the house being beautiful, [my host mom] speaks English wonderfully and is very funny.

Student 6 – My host mother took me to a supermarket to buy me American food. I explained it was unnecessary because I will eat Thai food.

Student 7 – My host family’s home is beautiful! The family is so kind. The room is great but they are worried I don’t like it. I am so over taken by the out pouring of kindness. These people are so humble and kind. I am in awe of their kindness. I really do not know what to say except it has become so much to take in. I need some quiet time to process everything.

Student 8 – We arrived at my bungalow – paradise, and talked for over an hour (with my host mom). We walked around the property and a little on the beach.

Student 9 – I am really sad to see the group breaking up and going our separate ways. At the same time, I am ready to see the real Thailand. Bangkok is a fascinating city, but it also caters to farangs (foreigners). I am excited about having an authentic experience! … During my time alone with my host mother, I learned so much about her. She seems so shy and her English is a little bit limited and of course my Thai is extremely limited. But in that short moment, I felt close to her and happy to learn more about her.

Student 10 – As we were introduced to host families (at the reception), I as well as the others, started to feel a little sad. We realized that the 12 people chosen to come to Thailand are amazing people and we all became instant friends and now we have to leave each other. But most of all, reality set in that I was going to be living with a host family. As we said our goodbyes, the host families had an amazing expression on their face and made me feel better, comforted that they were excited to host us.

Student 11 – We all met our host families and in a blink of an eye we left with them. I was doing OK and enjoying meeting my new family, but later on I started missing everyone. I was wishing I could go back. This happened because I was surrounded by a lot of Thai people speaking their language comfortably and I did not understand. To me this was my #1 critical event. Throughout their conversation they talked about me, I know this because I heard my name said all the time. … I thought to myself that they were just as excited as I was wanted to find out about me from my host mom. I am a foreigner in their country staying in their home and that doesn’t happen that often. … Though I am starting to get used to this, I am still looking forward to seeing everyone tomorrow! … [a couple of days later …] This family reminds me of my family because they are all very united and are always together. This is my home away from home.

Student 12 – Today has been the worst day for me yet here in Thailand. The reception was lovely. The people were warm and my host family is very nice. Why the worst day then? I am feeling homesick! [a couple of days later] … In the evening when I finally drove up to the house and saw my host mom and host sister standing outside waiting for us, something changed inside of me. I started to feel like these people whom I had just met already cared for me. Communication between us this evening seemed easier even though we still couldn’t speak much of each other’s language, we were laughing and joking and opening up to each other.