I’ve returned from another two-day trip with the NIST school, doing a repeat of the same program we had done before, but for a different class. I got to lead some different activities this time, and am learning each day what a major challenge it can be to try to capture and maintain the attention of 20 5th graders. I may be smarter than they are, but they can speak many more languages than I can and thus have the ability to plot and gossip without my being aware. Needless to say, this is both frustrating and can leave me feeling young, dumb, and out of my element. I do have on my side, however, that I am significantly taller and bigger than most of the students.
In fact, let’s take a pause here, and talk about the size difference in humans on this planet. For those of you who don’t know me particularly well, I’m a smidge under 5’7″ and about 125-130 lbs. (probably closer to the latter with all this fried food), and in Thailand, I can pretty easily see over the top of a crowd, especially on my tiptoes. Most Thai men are around my height, but I feel that sometimes I tower over the women. Also, I am probably on the largest end of readily available clothing sold in most stores here. My feet, which are around an 8.5-9.0 in American sizing, and could MAYBE squeeze into a very large pair of shoes here. How Thai people stay so thin and petite while eating all this sugar and fried food is beyond me. Yet, they are a petite, graceful, and surprisingly strong people, and I am left feeling like a clumsy giant, especially amongst children.
On that note, I’ve had to have a think (as my Australian supervisor would put it) about how to communicate and engage the children effectively. It’s easy during activities like brick making, which we do during our trips to Ayuttya. The kids get to use river clay and wooden frames to make their own bricks, and the class keeps one to dry in the sun and take home to their classroom.
Brick making is a ton of fun, and both the girls and boys like to get involved. However, during more listening-based activities, the kids sometimes have a hard time volunteering to help get through the activity, or sit still and listen. The latter is, in my opinion, to be expected from kids this age, especially in the easily distracting setting of being on the barge. And while I don’t have much control over whether they choose to listen or not, I do have a lot of control over my teaching style and methods of classroom control.
As my IE3 supervisor has pointed out, Thai people believe in collectivism and not individualism. Asking Thai students to distinguish themselves from their classmates may be not only a risk for them, but also goes against their social training from their parents. When we teach groups that have both Thai and Western international students, it’s obvious who is who simply by who is willing to volunteer and make themselves noticed, and who would rather be part of the crowd. I realize that instead of asking students to read out loud alone, it is more effective to ask all the boys to read together, or ask all the girls to read together, or all the people with hats, or all the people with shoe laces, etc.
I also have taken the step of asking the accompanying teacher right off the bat if there are any students in the group with very limited English (understanding or speaking) or major behavioral issues. This has shown to be very helpful with dealing with language barriers, but can backfire with immediately pointing out potential “problem” kids. For example, on this most recent trip, the teacher pointed out one boy in particular to me, and half-way through the trip I found myself targeting that student’s behavior more than other students who were misbehaving. After catching myself, I tried to be more fair and correct all students’ behavior equally, but it was hard since I was already irritated with this student.
The teachers review our performance as a staff, and the trip as a whole, to give us something to help better our trips in the future. On this last trip, the teachers noted that our staff would perhaps benefit from learning some classroom management skills. I think this is teacher-code for “how to get the kids to quiet down!” without actively yelling at them. I see their point, but also realize that these students look at us as temporary entertainment in matching shirts, and they don’t have to answer to anyone later if they misbehave with us. Their teachers, on the other hand, have developed close relationships with these kids, and see them every day. The incentive to behave day in and day out exists to some extent with a regular classroom teacher. Not so much for us. Either way, the point is taken and I will have to work on some other way to get attention on me and my activities other than exhibiting my notable ability to be louder than most.
In other news, I continue to be impressed at the way the barge program teaches key concepts to students. On some of our trips we teach students about adaptations, using birds and their unique beaks as an example. In this activity, we give all the students different “beaks”, such as tongs, tweezers, straws, pliers, and spoons. We then present them with various “foods”, such as nectar, worms, stick bugs, bark bugs, and water insects.
As one might expect, certain beaks are much more adept at retrieving particular bugs than others, and the students get a very clear picture of the purpose of adaptations. We also cover what might happen if a food source that one particular bird beak is adapted to should disappear. It’s a really good lesson, and the students always seem to walk away with a solid understanding of the purpose of the activity.
In some random news, I saw my first elephant on our trip last week! It was incredibly exciting, and seemed very fitting with all the temples surrounding us. I even got to try my first ice-cream sandwich, Thai style. Upcoming blog posts I’m planning include one on transportation, others on barge activities, one solely on food, and many more. Thanks for reading!