I know it’s been a while since my last post, so let’s catch up. Recently, I went on a new land-based trip with the Magic Eyes Barge Program to Khao Yai National Park, which sounds more like a cowboy call (yippie-cow-yie!) than a beautiful nature reserve. Khao Yai is located about three hours northeast of Bangkok – a beautiful drive that I took with the staff working this trip. Jen (English), Ankit (English), Lynda (English and Head of Programs here at Magic Eyes), Te (Thai), and myself all teamed up to take on about 50 students, ages 12-15.
The class was made up entirely of Thai students (with the exception of one random Italian exchange student) that attend their school to learn their science and math curriculum in English. Thus, our trip served the dual purpose of teaching ecology and conservation as well as improving the students’ English speaking skills.And what a group it was! It was, by far, my best and favorite trip since I joined Magic Eyes. Not only was it spectacular to spend four days in a Thai national park, but the kids were enthusiastic learners despite their limited English skills. It was also a real pleasure to work with a different group of staff members and see some different styles of teaching. Lynda in particular was a real treat to work with. She’s been teaching for many years, and despite being closer to my parents age than to my own, I feel that she out-taught all of us by a long shot. She has simply boundless energy, enthusiastic and creative ways of presenting material, and commands the attention of even the most distracted pre-teen boy. What a treat for me to get to experience all of these new things in just one week!
We started the trip by driving about 2.5 hours from BKK to the entrance of the park, where we waited for the kids to arrive. They rolled up in a giant, brightly colored bus, unloaded, and reloaded into songtaews (trucks with giant beds meant to carry people; pronounced song-tow, but “tow” is spoken like the first half of the word “tower”) to be driven up into the park. We slowly cruised up the long twisting road into the park, and before we were even 15 minutes in, we rose up off the grasslands and into some beautiful rainforest. We even saw a group of macquaes (Thai monkeys) on the road. Needless to say, I was beside myself with excitement (my first wild monkeys!).
Because of the large group size, we broke the kids up into five groups of 10 students, and each took a group. Jen and Te worked through a different schedule than Ankit, Lynda, any myself due to limits in being able to transport large groups of students around the park, but we all met in the evenings and for meals throughout the day. I simply adored my group; they were funny, eager, and polite to a fault. I felt so well respected and listened to – a real gift when teaching in a foreign environment. The kids were awesome, and though very shy about speaking and writing English at first, they soon came out into their own and were using complete, grammatically correct sentences.
We started out the trip playing some ice-breaker and team building games. Thai children are very vocal as a group, and when something is funny or scary or they all disagree with the actions of one student, they tend to express those emotions with loud vocal sounds, all made in unison. For example, we played a game with a giant parachute where the kids had to move a soccer ball around as a group without letting it fly off the fabric. Whenever the ball would come close, all the kids would shout in unison “OOHHHHHH!” or “AHHHHHHH!” in such a way that had my giggling each time. I know most cultures tend to do this, but Thais have a knack for perfect pitch and unison.
The kids knew their English science vocabulary pretty well and were old enough to understand more complicated ecological concepts like predator-prey cyclic relationships, symbiotic relationships, and water quality indexes. It was great fun to teach them things that I find so interesting, and especially rewarding when they were able to discuss those things during our reflections time each evening, and write about them in their journals. Thai students, in my experience, are generally much more appreciative and gracious than Western students. This group was polite, thoughtful, and patient with each other, the staff, and the hot weather (though I shouldn’t complain as Khao Yai was at least 10 degrees cooler than BKK). They had impeccable manners, and easily entertained themselves when Western students would have resorted to complaining of boredom. Not to say that Western students don’t also have their finer attributes as a group, but let’s just say that it was truly a pleasure to work with and teach this group.
The activities we do in Khao Yai are not terribly different from the Barge activities (certainly of the same high caliber quality), but they focus, as one might imagine, on the ecology of the rainforest and grasslands rather than of the river. Our first day, we did a really neat walk through the grasslands and played a “bingo” of sorts, getting kids to identify tracks, animal sign (chewed leaves, scat, prints, trails, feathers, etc.) and getting a chance to see a salt lick and birds flying back to their evening roosts. My group was especially attentive, and noticed many things that escaped even my practiced eye. I was very impressed by their use of the English vocabulary and was blown away by their drawings! We had them sketch several aspects of the grasslands, and I feel that my own art skills, minimal as they are, were soundly put to shame. Before we departed on our walk, we had a group huddle to discuss being extra quiet during our walk so that we could hear any birds or animals that might be nearby. Normally with a group of teenagers, I would have expected perhaps 30 seconds of quiet. My group kept their voices to a low murmer for a good 45 minutes, and even when we joined the other groups at the end of the trail to climb a bird observing tower, they were still respectful with their volume. I couldn’t believe it! I think their willing obedience came partly from their excitement to potentially see an elephant, and largely for their respect for teachers.
Our first evening, we played a game with the kids that demonstrated predator-prey relationships. We had groups of “grass”, “deer”, and “tigers”, that all chased each other around. Depending on what each child “ate” (by catching a student of a different group), they either remained in their original role, or moved up or down the food chain. I had such a blast pumping the kids up before each round. Being in charge of Team Grass (as we were fondly known), we had a pep-talk before running out and hiding in the fading light.
“What are we going to do!?”
“We’re going to RUN, then we’re going to HIDE, then we’re going to NOT GET EATEN BY A DEER!”
Great fun, and even the shyer students were putting their hands in for a cheer by the end of the game. An interesting Thai anomaly popped up when some of the students wanted to hide in pairs for fear of ghosts lurking in the dark. Torn between trying to assuage their fear of potential ill-intentioned spirits and committing a faux-pas by arguing against a long standing Thai belief, we let the kids hide in pairs and tried to assure them that we were certified ghost busters of sorts. By the end of the game, Team Grass wasn’t looking too hot, Ankit’s Team Tiger was showing its stripes (ha!) with lots of new tigers, and we had a beautiful predator-prey relationship graph to illustrate the concept for the kids.
The second day, we took the kids for a short trek (the word the rest of the world uses in place of “hike”) through the rain forest. Our guide didn’t speak any English, but every now and again would stop, give me a meaningful look while subtly gesturing to a rotting log or strangler fig vine, and I would take that as my cue to talk about the interesting forest feature. It was so neat to hike through the huge trees, listen to all the interesting forest sounds, and we even were treated with a fleeting glimpse of some gibbons as they swung through the canopy! I was especially impressed by the huge buttress roots supporting some of the trees. Many of them were taller than me, and it was quite a humbling feeling to stand at the roots of these towering giants.
We also went to a waterfall that was featured in the movie The Beach, and after some brainstorming about the journey of water as it moves from the waterfall to the ocean, we let the kids swim in the shallows of the river. I had originally intended to stay dry, but that didn’t last long and I was pretty quickly sliding over the slippery stones and splashing along with the rest of the kids. I really wanted to take pictures, but was nervous about dropping my camera in the river and so chose caution over creativity. Sad, but some memories are perhaps better in your mind than they ever will be on a computer screen.
The last day was a little sad as I had to say goodbye to my amazing group. All 50 students and the Magic Eyes staff spent a good half an hour playing celebrity as almost every student wanted a photo with us. Such a great trip, and what an honor for me to teach such exceptional students and work with such a great staff.