Friday, July 4, 2014

Entering July with a Bang

                July started off with a bang after an unfortunate hammock incident on July 1st. The rope on one end of the hammock I was relaxing in came untied, dropping me about two and a half feet straight down onto a concrete step. Thinking back, we chose a really terrible place to hang our hammock. Won’t make that mistake again! The fall left me unable to walk of bear weight on my right side. Not only is it really frustrating to have to miss school, but Zack and I had also been planning a 4th of July BBQ at our house.

                This leads into another, much more positive beginning-of-July experience. Zack and I had only organized one get-together at our house (last Christmas), so we decided to celebrate Independence Day by inviting all of the teachers from my school and all of the staff from Zack’s office to join us for a classic 4th of July BBQ at our house. We saw it as a really great opportunity for cultural exchange.

Poor Zack bore the brunt of preparing everything and was just awesome in every way. He cleaned the house and made all of the dishes I had been planning on making myself. He may have even discovered a new enthusiasm for baking since his brownies and chocolate chip cookies were such a success. Luckily for us, Thais are used to pulling together for big events, so chairs and tables, dishes, two grills, drinks, fruit and a ton of food magically appeared. We played some classic American music with a patriotic theme and just enjoyed the party, just like we would have back in the States.

The evening even ended with our own fireworks show to go along with Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.” Also, we can’t leave out the epic dancing that followed. Zack’s and my Peace Corps service has been making us better, more appreciative Americans, and it felt so great to share our American pride with our Thai friends.

Click HERE for more pictures.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Back to School

School is finally back in session! The break completely flew by, once again. It's so nice be be back at site, and Zack and I are hunkering down in our community for awhile. We were so busy over the school break that it feels good to know we're going to be in one place for awhile. Even though I'm off to a much better start this school year compared to last year, the start of school comes with many little frustrations that I hadn't considered in quite a while.

Technically school started last week, but I was in Bangkok having my wisdom teeth extracted. It was a relief since they had been giving me a lot of trouble for awhile, but it was still a far from enjoyable experience. The first week of school usually consists of the students coming to school and just cleaning, so fortunately I didn't miss anything too important. Between all of the meetings and git-ja-gam pii-set (special activities) going on this week, we only had one actual day of school. Today is Thursday and I am "working from home" because everyone is at a meeting in the city for the next two days. I'm grateful that I don't have to go to the meeting because I can actually be much more productive from home. I'm planning on dedicating the next four days to getting our teaching materials organized and creating more materials for upcoming lessons. I'm grateful that I have the time to do this now since there was no opportunity for me to do it over the break. Funny how things work out sometimes...Anyway, my whole point is that after expecting to be back in full-swing, my co-teachers and I only had one day of actual teaching this week. At least this year (compared to last year) I am a little more prepared for the inconsistencies and interruptions.

Also on my agenda today is a visit from Eye, one of my favorite little buddies. Eye is a seven-year-old who lives a few houses away. She's also one of my students. She came by last night at around 8:30 when she was biking past our house on "errands" for her family. I asked her if she was afraid to bike alone at night and she told me "no," as she explained that everyone around here looks out for one another. After that comment, it was funny when she responded that she thought my plans for staying home today and working alone sounded "scary." It was then that she asked if she could come and visit. At some point I need to post a picture or video of Eye so that everyone can understand how special this little girl is. She has more patience and understanding when she talks with me than any other Thai person I have ever met. She'll come over to me just to hold my hand or wrap her arms around me. She's thoughtful and loving and has a spark in her eyes that just melts my heart.

It's interactions and relationships like this that make me so grateful to be done traveling around for awhile, grateful to be home. People here are so kind and caring. Yesterday evening Zack and I took a walk together on the dirt roads behind our house that wrap through the rice fields, along the irrigation canals. We admired how clear the mountains in the distance are this time of year as the rains start to come. As we passed one of the tiny shack houses on the opposite side of the canal we were walking along, an older woman called out, telling us she had mangoes for us. She was on the other side of the canal though, so we were pretty confused regarding how we were supposed to go about meeting her. As we continued our walk and started to head back towards our house, she pulled up from behind us on her motorcycle, and sure enough, was carrying a huge bucket of ripe mangoes in her motorcycle basket. She made sure we'd be able to carry them home alright before turning around and heading back to her house. Thailand and the Thai people have been so good to us, and it's becoming very real that our time here will eventually come to an end.

Another school year is underway, and we are determined to make the most of it!

This is Poy, one of my many
adorable new first grade students.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Genki English Camp and Teacher Training

Right after the youth leadership camp ended, Zack and I traveled to Khon Kaen where we were scheduled to have a Peace Corps consolidation drill for our entire region. One night in an air conditioned hotel (especially after a week of sleeping on the tile floor with all of the campers) was a much welcomed luxury. We were also so excited to be able to finally spend a little time with some of the new Peace Corps volunteers (group 126) in our area. After a morning of safety and security-related activities, Zack and I headed to the hospital to have his infection on his leg cleaned and dressed once again. He had undergone minor surgery to remove the entire infected area a couple of days prior, so it still needed regular attention. The doctors decided that he should have it cleaned and dressed one more time before heading back to Chaiyaphum, so we stayed in Khon Kaen one more night before heading back to site the next day.

 Upon arriving back at site, Zack and I had a major camp to finish preparing for. There was quite a bit to organize since we were using the English camp as an opportunity to train teachers in our community as well. Since arriving in Thailand, Zack and I have taken part in many-a-camp. The major factor that bothers us about most English camps is that there are very seldom any long-term skills learned at the camps, making them fairly unsustainable. We knew that we wanted to use Genki English as our method of instruction since it is the curriculum that I have used in my classroom with my co-teachers with great success. I had also been to a couple of Genki English camps at a fellow volunteer's site and they were some of the most fun and successful camps that I had experienced to-date.

Zack and I had been trying to brainstorm ways to improve the teaching methods of more teachers in our community for awhile, so we saw the camp as an opportunity to introduce Genki English to other teachers in the area who are responsible for teaching English at their schools. Genki English seemed like a good option because the Thai government purchased the software to be used in all Thai schools, making it somewhat easily available for all Thai teachers to use.

With the help and support of our education officer at the SAO (Zack's workplace), Zack and I developed the camp so that the first day was a half-day training devoted to the six Thai teachers who had agreed to come to the camp. Luckily, my co-teachers have been using Genki English for awhile now, so it was much easier to explain the benefits of using this method of teaching and to provide concrete examples. The training helped to clarify everyone's responsibilities and the structure of the camp. My co-teachers and I also demonstrated how to use the Genki materials and taught a sample lesson.

The basic premise of the camp was a "modeling" approach. For the first day of the actual camp, each Thai teacher worked collaboratively with one PCV. Each PCV was responsible for modeling and leading one Genki English lesson while each Thai teacher observed the structure and flow of the lesson and also acted in a support role. The next day, the Thai teachers were responsible for leading the same lesson they observed the first day while the PCVs took on a support role. All of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders in our entire tambon (subdistrict/community) participated.The students rotated around so that they were able to participate in all six lessons. The basic structure worked really nicely and everyone did an outstanding job.

As part of his work plan for this next semester, Zack is aiming to work with the same teachers who participated in the camp. He will most likely offer support in the classroom and monitor their growth throughout the semester. Our goal is to be able to host another camp in the next six months that relies on these same teachers leading the lessons both days rather than bringing in so many other PCVs. We'll see what actually happens with this, but it's always nice to have goals to work towards!

Click HERE for the entire album.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Brighter Thailand Foundation Youth Leadership Camp in Chaiyaphum

One of the best projects Zack and I teamed up on over the school break (and have worked on since arriving in Thailand) was hosting a Brighter Thailand Foundation youth leadership camp at our site in Chaiyaphum. After months of planning and adjusting said plans, the camp finally became a reality.

A team-building activity during
one of our "pre-camp meetings"

One of the most difficult parts of organizing the camp was finding and encouraging youth involvement. In the months leading up to the camp, Zack and I worked with the community development officer to try to arrange several meetings to get the youth in our community engaged and interested in the idea. The community development officer tried to get the word out through the Puu Yai Baans (the elected leaders from each village in our community) by having them nominate the students for the community youth council. The youth council would then take part in the leadership camp. Unfortunately, that method only produced a handful of students.

As a last resort, Zack ended up convincing several of the boys with whom he works with regularly through the school band to join the camp. We were personally very happy with this approach because it gave the opportunity for growth to students in our community who are not typically though of as "leaders." Typically, whenever there is an event in our community only the "best" and "brightest" students are invited. Oftentimes, this leads to the exact same students participating in every single event. It was refreshing to switch it up a little bit.

Playing "Ninja"

The site of the almost week-long camp was an abandoned forest wat that is often used to host events and trainings. For the first two days, Zack and I plus four other Peace Corps volunteers, two global ambassadors (Americans who were not PCVs), one Thai ambassador (a Khon Kaen University student), and the BTF program coordinator worked directly with the eight youth counselors from our community to promote leadership skills and prepare them to lead activities with younger students. After the two days of training, the younger "campers" arrived. It was so encouraging to see our youth counselors embrace the roles of leaders and have such a positive impact on the younger students.

Human Knot

Toxic River

Even though there were some rough patches (poor Zack had to leave several times because of a pretty terrible infection on his leg), we worked through it together and everyone came out of the experience having learned something. We were reassured of the effectiveness of the camp when one of our youth counselors helped coordinate a bike event with our community development officer by gathering and organizing youth participants in her village. The same eight participants from the BTF camp also came over to our house the weekend following the camp just to talk and hang out. Some of them have been back multiple times since then.

It's all very encouraging, and Zack and I are hopeful that we will be able to continue working with this group of youth leaders to help facilitate more community service-based, service learning projects here in our village. There has also been talk of hosting another BTF camp in the future that will take place in our community and will promote leadership through service learning. We're excited about this prospect and plan to continue working towards this goal throughout the remainder of our time here.

Find the entire album HERE

Friday, May 16, 2014

First Trip Down South

Towards the end of our Mid-service conference, my wonderful friend Mallory came for a visit! We spent a couple of days in Bangkok exploring some wats and markets, then headed down south together.

Our first destination was Koh Phayam in Ranong province.

We stayed at a really laid-back bungalow resort called Sabai Sabai Bungalows. Our bungalows were right on the beach and looked out towards the mountains of Myanmar. It was a fantastic view with beautiful sunsets every evening. We were also really excited to discover bio-luminescence in the tranquil water!

After a few days we headed even further south to Krabi province.

From Krabi town we caught a song taeow (truck) to Ao Nang then from there took a long-tail wooden boat around the limestone cliffs to Ton Sai beach. Ton Sai is known mainly for it's great rock climbing, so most of the tourists there were climbers. We had a great time lounging on the beach and even went for a "free water soloing" day trip. From Ton Sai, we could trek over a small outcropping to reach the more popular Railay beach. For the most part though, were were content with just hanging out on Ton Sai.

As is usually the case, our time went by really quickly. We had to head back up to Chaiyaphum to make some last minute preparations for our upcoming youth leadership camp. Mallory decided to make a trip to Chaing Mai before meeting up with us again for the camp, so we said our farewells (for the time being) and left to find an overnight bus back to Bangkok.

For the entire album, click HERE

Mid-Service Conference

At the beginning of April, shortly after the school year ended, Zack and I headed to Bangkok for our Peace Corps Mid-service Conference. Crazy to think that we now have less than a year left. The conference went really well. One of the highlights was listening to guest speaker Mechai Viravaidya, also known in Thailand as "Mr. Condom." HERE is a link to a really interesting TED talk given by Khun Mechai. His presentation with our Peace Corp group focused on his work regarding social entrepreneurship, specifically in regards to education. Listening to Khun Mechai speak was incredibly inspiring. His talk really seemed to refuel many of us (volunteers) who had been feeling discouraged by the Thai education system. We are also very excited about a potential opportunity to actually visit Khun Mechai's "Bamboo School." Below is a video that explains more about Khun Mechai's school in Buriram, Thailand.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

March Monk Ordinations

With school coming to a close for the summer, the number of monk ordinations in our community has surged. In Thailand, young men spend at least a short period of time as a monk, usually at the local wat (temple). After food and ceremony at home, a procession makes its way to the temple, gathering more and more people as it progresses.  As one of these huge processions came down the street towards our house, we decided that we should go outside to watch. Extremely loud music is a typical component of the procession. With music blasting out of huge speakers and the bass turned up so far that it’s hard to believe windows aren’t shattering, the procession moves down the street at a snail’s pace. It being relatively impossible to do anything as the whole house shakes definitely encourages everyone to take part in the festivities. Rather than resist the noise, we crossed the street to sit at the neighbor’s house so that I could record some of the procession on my camera. Here’s the video footage:

For some reason we thought that it would be possible to sit on the side lines. That never seems to be the case for us here though! No matter what, we still tend to stand out…Naturally, we got pulled into the street to dance and celebrate along with everyone else. Moments after being pulled into the street, somebody put hats on us to help keep us a little bit cooler. Little candies and wrapped coins rained down on us as the young man being ordained threw them from the truck we was elevated on.

We continued on our way to the wat, dancing along to the music with everyone else.  Once we arrived, the young man soon to be ordained was lifted onto the shoulders of family members.  We followed him as he circled around the bot (a ceremonial part of the wat) three times and continued to distribute candy and coins to everyone. Once the three laps were complete, he was then lifted to touch the doorframe of the bot before being taken into the building. From there more ceremony took place, but our role and that of most everybody besides close family came to an end. We gave back the hats and wandered back to our house.