A dinosaur grapples with technology's place in education

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Few Co-Workers, a Few Students

Just a brief introduction to some of the faces I work with:
This girl wrote and is directing a skit about integrity where a girl returns money a fruit salesman gave her by mistake.

And this is her friend. Together they constantly razz me about my pronunciation of Phnom Penh- which actually should be spelled more paanyom bpeng.

Here are two more characters.

Singing duet to the morning assembly. The boy on the right loves to sing and act. He wrote a short skit about a boy who abuses alcohol and is wasting his life annoying others, until one night he is badly beaten by a neighbor and so turns his life around.
The boy on the left is a day student. They both embrace opportunities to lead.
It will be an ongoing and interesting feature of the center to help this collection of ambitious and competitive children to collaborate and adjust to no longer always easily being top dog. To help in this effort is our Cambodian social worker, and a professional Khmer therapist who is available to work with students one on one.

Then there is Jo, from Australia, fresh off 5 years as the department chair at the prestigious Western Academy of Beijing.
Jo has that unmatchable Aussie wicked sense of humor; we bonded pretty much instantly. She and I apartment hunted in tandem, and I owe the fact that I am not living in a total dump next to continual construction to her discerning eye and experienced sense of living and working abroad. I thought Jo would never find an apartment, but just yesterday she landed a truly terrific deal with a crazy beautiful rooftop pool and gym. It took all my meditative practice not to throw myself off said roof in jealousy after I had pushed her to take a series of other smaller places!

This next photo is from orientation- my 'Team" that went out to gather information on the nearby 'study grid' that will serve as the locus for much of our learning. That is my AMAZING Khmer assistant teacher, Reksmey, to my right. Twenty years old and studying economics and politics at university in PP. She has come from a tough background and credits her Christianity with being a source that kept her going. She has adapted so quickly to my style of teaching and I trust her 100% to convey what I am saying in spirit as well as letter.
To my left is Caroline- from Boston and in charge of writing much of our emergent curriculum. She is a literacy expert and married to another teacher, Jeff. Next to her is Nica- who began as an intern, but with a Masters in Teaching Secondary English has already moved up into a position of responsibility for some teaching. And finally that is Lita, a house parent of Yellow Pumpkin House (which I officially just chose as my mentoring house). Lita is educated and sensitive and I chose YPH knowing that she is going to be someone I want to work with on community projects.
That is just a quick glance, but hopefully it gives a glimmer of the good fortune I have of being here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


In the second phase of the drama classes I am facilitating, I threw caution to the wind and decided to have them write and present plays connected to the 5 core values of Liger: Stewardship, Ingenuity, Integrity, Optimism, and Determination. I liken this process to pulling out into traffic in Phnom Penh on my moped- I sort of glance at the overall picture and gather in as much information as possible with my 'third' eye, shrugging off the zillion possible obstacles and dangers that could easily be my death, put on my most stoic Buddha gaze, and gun it.

Needless to say, there have been hairy moments, such as the actuality of, through a translator, discussing what such a concept as 'Integrity' means (with 8-10 year olds, some from the sticks and some from the city, some just a rung or two below the Khmer middle class and some just a rung or two above abject poverty), never mind what the heck I meant by 'making up original characters and a situation' that 'said something about it'.

If for a moment I dwelt on the potentials for catastrophe getting on Monivong Boulevard each morning, I would never leave my apartment (actually, I have already made contact with two mopeds, one pedestrian, and a Toyota Camry). Traffic here frankly possesses one of the most erratic and challenging set of seemingly irrational rules. If the US  traffic is arithmetic, Thailand is advanced calculous, and Phnom Penh is the elusive Grand Unified Theory that Einstein died trying to unravel.

The students were initially stunned and overwhelmed. But these are special kids, and they took their fear and moved forward, trying to perceive the parameters of what I was requesting, trying to locate the 'flow'. Over night approximately 90% came with some form of story idea and characters to present to their group. Here is a student working with Reksmey to elaborate his ideas on the board.

I had originally conceived of a voting process to pick the two plays each class would write and produce, but upon hearing their ideas I thought it best for Reksmey and I to choose. More on that, and the drama that ensued, to come.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Summer Camp

In order to make the students feel welcome and comfortable, as well as to have them form a broad range of friendships as quickly as possible, the Liger Learning Center instituted a sort of "Summer Camp" for the initial weeks. We created a rotation of sports and swimming lessons ( only 7 of our 45 students can swim, and with many water sources at the school this is a priority), interspersed with an art project, some initial English assessment activities, and some basic necessities like a full medical check and hygiene counseling. I am running singing and drama, along with my Khmer associate, Reksmey. Reksmey also doubles as a university student and often goes home from our work to take lengthy exams on political science and economics!

Our first plays were about animals.
After some introductory games about animals and animal noises, I had them each write a story about three animals who encounter each other. The animals, circumstances, and outcome were up to them.

Then each student chose actors to play out their story, and directed them in where to move and how to act as they read aloud. Interesting and fun...

The plays were followed by "crits" where the audience (we talked first about the nature of how to be a good audience), gave their feedback on the story and the acting.

So much came out of this- though I was of course mostly completely out of it language-wise. Occasionally I asked Smey for a quick update on what a student had asked or responded, but mostly I just let it "flow" and observed the individual engagement and response to the demands of the activity.
Two things stood out:
First- these students are indeed truly bright, quick, alert, and full o beans. They took the assignment seriously and had sharp and honest insights into the performances. Unlike their western compatriots, they did not hold back in saying so and so's rabbit was smiling at the wrong time, and such and such's story did not make sense.
Secondly, just as in Thailand, many of the students' first impulse when given a creative assignment is to "copy". When two or three stories clearly told the same tale, it came out that a goodly percentage of the writers had simply retold an animal story they had previously learned in the government schools. This explained the relative repetitiveness of the animals chosen and the range of stories. They gravitiate to doing things "right", which obviously has its benefits but can be creatively constrictive. So it will be interesting to see how the next phase goes, where they have to write a play centered on a value concept, and I will insist it be wholly original.
Here are a few more photos of the pre-play activity we did where the students imagined themselves seeds underground- then sprouting into whatever plant or tree they felt like:

Then we got old and tumbled back into the soil for the next generation of seeds...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Day One



A small, triangularish shape somewhere near...Vietnam right?

Cambodia -

Where they had that horrible genocide, yeah?
Really poor, I think.

Vagaries, but true. This is a house in a slum, a 10 minute walk from the school.

This is the mother and two of the daughters (you just see the older in the background) who call it home, being interviewed by Lita and Reksmey, a house parent and Khmer teacher from Liger.

What kind of future will these children have?

That is a primary question for Liger, as I understand it. And the Liger Center is an answer by way of an experiment.

In a loving, lovely environment, children can excel academically and flourish emotionally, and they will start a positive wave that will impact their families, communities, and country.

The gift we have been given, by an extraordinary benefactor, is the time and space and children to test this hypothesis.

This is one of our students. He is drawing his portrait on the first day. Who does he see?
Certainly more than vagaries. Hopefully more than labels.
Who will he see in ten years, when his experience at Liger is concluding? I hope  to be there to take the picture, but surely he will not need me to provide the answer.