Thursday, January 30, 2014

Outside Learning

I remember my elementary school days being full of creative projects and hands-on experiments. We watched butterflies emerge from cocoons, constructed geometric kites, listened to stories read in character voices. We turned the room into a paper Amazon jungle (surely a fire hazard), held silent auctions of our old toys, feasted as Robin Hood and his Merry Men, made our own story books. Of course, we also memorized multiplication tables, practiced writing in cursive, learned all those basics. But it wasn’t only sitting and listening to the teacher; it was learning through discovery and experience.

As an elementary and kindergarten teacher in a foreign country, I am witnessing firsthand just how varied the approaches to education can be from culture to culture. As young as first grade, Thai students are expected to spend a great portion of their school day sitting in a desk and being taught lecture-style. From the age of three up through high school graduation, copying and repeating are the standard methods for information transfer. Math, science, English, students copy the answers off the board. It is assumed that they have then learned said information. There will be a test. I hope you were listening.

Of course, the enjoyable part of school for most students is all the extras – art, dance, gym, swimming – and the Thai school system has those in spades. In this department, the Thais go far beyond, holding special events, activities, camps, and holiday celebrations on a regular basis.

Over the course of the past semester, the classroom sitting has been interspersed with more holidays than you would think could fit into four months. Before Christmas, not a single week passed without some special event or activity to prepare for a special event; since Christmas, we have had two undisrupted weeks of class (though I, personally, have had at least three classes per week cancelled to rehearse for a play for next week’s special event); through the remainder of the school year, only one week has nothing special or cancelled.

Between Thai holidays, American holidays, and school events, the activities list is pretty impressive. So far we have had:
  •  A Halloween party -- a wonderful way to have first graders come up, hold out their hand, and say “Teacher, candy” or “Trick-or-treat” for months to come
  •  Sports Days – from football to chair ball to tug of war, plus a fairly impressive parade
  • Three weeks of shortened days to prep for the Sports Days
  •  A field trip to the local science discovery center, complete with a busload of students dancing to Thai pop songs
  • Loy Kratong
  •  The King’s birthday, which doubles as Father's Day
  •  Constitution Day – tinted with irony this year, as parliament was dissolved just days prior
  • An open house for the kindergarten
  • Christmas – literally weeks of activities and parties

  • New Year’s Eve/Day – huge holiday in Thai culture
  • Midterms – okay, not really an event, but definitely an interruption to regular classes
  • Children’s Day – let’s dance, eat free ice cream, and drink free Fanta
  • Boy and Girl Scout Camp – walking field trip, camping at school (for the 6th grade), lessons in knot-tying, first aid, crawling through tunnels, and generally getting prepared
  • Teachers’ Day – One of multiple days to honor teachers, for this one school is closed. Best way to reward teachers for their hard work

Which brings us to this week, during which time everyone is preparing for next week’s Open House. My January has been packed with rehearsals of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, which my 63 first graders will perform for the evening portion of the Open House.

The only remaining activities are:
  • The aforementioned Open House and evening Khantoke dinner for parents (traditional Northern Thai Lanna dishes in endless portions, shared among the table, while watching performances)
  • Promotional Drive for CVK – literally a drive, as we foreign teachers join other faculty members in driving to other districts to hand out pamphlets and try to increase enrollment
  • Valentine’s Day – the Thais love love. And they love giving gifts. It’s the perfect storm of a holiday
  • Makha Bucha (Magha Puja) – Theravada Buddhist holiday celebrating the arrival of 1250 monks to listen to the teachings of the Buddha.
  • Final Exams – the end.

Between all of the reasons to cancel class and the fact that class is mostly spent zoning out while the teacher talks (even the best student can only listen for so long), the difference between Thai school and American school is stark.

Through the activities they learn how to become members of a team, how to dance, how to do craft projects, how to be a member of Thai society, but they do not necessarily learn how to be good students. After all, we were all, in some manner, taught how to learn and how to work hard. I have greatly enjoyed being a part of the Thai school system, but I think they could bring some of that spice and variety, seen so heavily in their activities, into the classroom.

That being said, fault them for what you will, but the Thais sure do know how to throw one helluva party.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Skin and Bones

Chiang Rai’s Baan Dum Museum, alternately known as the Black House or Black Temple, falls well outside the norm of Thai beauty and art. Though often touted as the counterpoint to the White Temple, typically while citing a heaven-hell motif, the connection between the two is based more on color and the student-teacher relationship of the artists behind the two structures than it is on any intentional artistic correlation.

Baan Dum is a fairly unique project. Black House creator Thawan Duchanee has painted black numerous houses of varying sizes and filled them with a hodgepodge of religious paraphernalia from different Southeast Asian cultures. These adopted images and architecture -- which come from as Far afield as Sri Lanka and Bali, as well as from neighboring Burma and Cambodia -- are interspersed with the artist’s own creations, crafted from animal bones, shells, and skins.

The presence of massive throne-style chairs made from animal hides and horns, rows of skulls and shells arranged in geometric patterns, the black-painted roofs and buddhas, the strange and uncomfortable rocks sculptures and odd buildings, all contribute to the Black House’s ability to give an eerie, unsettling, or downright disturbing impression.