It's been a while, internet in Cambodia was harder to find and now that Spencer is here I have not taken time to write, but the next few posts should be a good update. Happy New Year!
From Siem Reap I took a boat across Tonle Sap, the large lake in Cambodia to see the floating villages and bird reserve along the lake and river. My journey then took me to Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia and a huge dirty city I had very little desire to spend much time in...except for the fact I had an opportunity to teach Environmental Ed. to some of the poorest kids there for a week.
I was connected to Drew McDowell and Village Earth Cambodia by Kelly Hynes, a teacher at my mom's school. Luckily they had a lot of flexibility and were able to take on a short-term volunteer. Village Earth works with three schools around Phnom Penh, Azisa School, Lakeside School and Youth School. There are classes for young children during the day and at night older students come in for class. Some of the students actually live in the schools and the older students teach the younger ones or take care of them. It is a very positive community but the education quality was so poor because of lack of funding. One small school house for over a hundred kids, easily, ranging in age from 14 or 15 to the little brothers and sisters that toddle in to find their older siblings at school.
They had told me they were interested in me teaching about the environment and luckily I ran into Drew that first day so I could talk with him about what he saw me teaching since I had very little structure to work with..."Yes, come and teach about the environment, it is important the kids know about things like global warming" was about what I had to work with. No lesson plans, no idea how much English the kids know, just that I have three schools and four classes a day to teach. Oh boy, here we go.
I figured climate change was a bit too much for the younger kids (enviro ed principle number 1: no tragedies before 4th grade), so I decided to just talk about the lake or river near the classroom and the animals living there, then most importantly, get the kids out there to explore. I scratched out a few lesson plans that night in my sketchy hotel room filled with bugs near Azisa School, which made getting there easy at least.
If only I had known the kids barely speak English.
The first morning was chaos. The kids didn't understand English at all but luckily their teacher could translate...when she wasn't changing her clothes or texting on her cell phone. I figured just some vocabulary would be good, so we started with "nature" which proved to be a very confusing concept for kids growing up in the city. Once we had that covered, I tried to get them to draw a river, label it and come up with natural things around the river. "Boat" was among the first suggestions for things to draw. We had some work to do.
After the kids got antsy with that and started shouting more than before, I wisely decided it was time to go to the river to explore. Where was the teacher? The kids were starting to walk on the tables and didn't understand English! Ahhh!
When she came back and the kids found out about going to the river, they were out of the classroom and buying snacks down the alley immediately. Somehow everyone found their shoes and followed us along a very busy street (buying snacks the entire time) and miraculously dodging the heavy traffic. I found myself with one little girl clasping each of my hands at all times and tried to repeat vocabulary words to whoever was around me as we saw things like flowers and grass. Miraculously, after 20 minutes of kids running everywhere and dodging cars, we made it to the river, which was not exactly as I had pictured it (aka it was not the Poudre River or Boulder Creek). It was about a mile wide, brown, whooshing, filled with garbage and cargo ships. I guess "boat" was right to draw after all.
I tried to communicate that they were to explore, check out the water, try to find fish or animals, plants, anything interesting. I don't blame the kids for not leaping in; the water was disgusting and filled with trash. But they edged in bit by bit and caught tiny minnows in cups and even saw a toad. Then we went to a grassy area and they got to climb trees and dance and of course buy more snacks.
It was really hard not being able to speak the language. They didn't really understand why I was there or really learn much vocabulary because there were so many kids at different levels and some just didn't do anything. That night I worked with the older kids though and gave them a briefing on climate change, which none of them had heard of before. With good translations the kids were really interested and asked great questions and really learned something. I felt better about those classes.
The next day I went to a different school to teach younger kids again in the morning and older kids at night. I didn't want to take a motorbike taxi so I rode the really crappy bike I had borrowed from Village Earth about 30 minutes through the ridiculous traffic of Phnom Penh. I will never do that again. The lake was much closer to the school which made things easier but it was still filled with garbage and hard to access. After the vocabulary we walked down to the water and I had the "no going in the water above your knees" idea in my mind however before I knew it 5 of the boys had jumped in the water, little kids were wading or squealing trying to get through the tangled plants on the shore, and then everyone screamed and bolted from the water as a police officer blew his whistle and came toward us. Oh good.
Most kids had run yelling back to the school, and after I found out the sand we had been standing on was like quicksand, that's why we were not supposed to be there (oh, that's why), we moved to a different part of the shore to explore with the few kids left outside. This was very successful, lots of fish and snails and flowers and crabs to be found. They would say "Cha, Cha, (teacher, maybe?), fih! Fih!" instead of fish. We collected different creatures to count and talk about back in the classroom, but by then they had lost all focus and I just said goodbye.
The next few days followed similarly: younger kids packed into classrooms, older kids really getting something out of my lesson on climate change, police not letting us go to the lake and me having to try to explain games like snake in the grass and a relay race where they run around like ducks but just turned into a free-for-all with kids running around quacking and flapping their arms. At least the parents were completely entertained with me crawling around trying to tag little kids in the dirt, but we all had fun.
I was shown incredible kindness from the older kids at the schools, giving me rides across the city on their motorbikes so I wouldn't have to get a taxi at night, or even getting a ride on the back of one girl's bike! Or being invited to have a take-away dinner in Azisa School on the floor with two of the older kids living there who were really nice and very welcoming. But walking home through the alley that night was super sketchy dodging rats and mysterious puddles in the dark.
It was just such a different experience than teaching at the Environmental Learning Center. The kids were just as rowdy, that was the same, but not having a natural, safe area for them the play and explore in was hard for me to plan for. Also having no resources other than a whiteboard (at least I had that!). It was especially interesting doing all this with a cold after not washing my hands enough the first day with the little kids and them sneezing and coughing everywhere. I just hope I was able to help and leave them with a few new bits of information.
Outside Youth School
Youth School students and me
Attempting to set up a relay race. Harder than it sounds when you don't speak Khmer.
Outside Lakeside School
The river. Who wants to go exploring?
One brave kid
Azisa neighborhood and near my hotel