Feedback on Fellowship in Siem Reap

Martina with Sanith Kong on her last day in the learning center
Martina with Sanith Kong on her last day in the learning center

Martina Fraternali was BOOKBRIDGE fellow at our learning center in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In this report she sums up her experiences and impressions of her stay, reflects on the learnings and gives recommendations for future improvements.

The purpose of this Fellowship Report is to detail the characteristics, the goals and objectives and the currently running projects of the BOOKBRIDGE Learning Center Siem Reap. In addition to it, the Fellowship Report provides the reader with personal observations and recommendations that have emerged over the 6 months of my fellowship experience, from November 2016 until May 2017 at the Learning Center.
The following volunteers/fellows that will engage for long or short-term at the BOOKBRIDGE Learning Center Siem Reap are strongly recommended to read this document before commencing their work duties. This report aims at helping them to understand the dynamics of the learning center, its potential and what it can be possibly implemented and what has been attempted successfully or unsuccessfully in order to better direct the fellows/volunteers in their endeavours.

I wish to thank Sanith [Sanith Kong is Community Hero in Siem Reap] for having been such a great inspiration and source of personal and professional advice throughout these 6 months. She is a very strong woman with admirable values and dedication and I am certain that with her on board the learning center will become a lighthouse for learning and guidance in the community.

A special thank goes to my colleague and neighbour Sokhan and his family, Sona, Jerry and Jolie. They have welcomed me in their life, made me participate in significant events of their life and introduced me to the rich Khmer culture. Moreover I had the pleasure to get close to their amazing kids! Professionally, Sokhan has always been a point of reference when I needed professional advice and I believe he is doing an excellent job in Cambodia for BBOOKBRIDGE.

My last thank is for the students of the learning center who have been playing and joking with me as I was their peer and made me feel a bit more home. We bonded in a way that I did not think it could be possible and I am thankful to retain their friendship. They are extraordinary young people that fight every day and study hard to ensure themselves a bright future. We in Europe take education for granted and never seriously as we should. I wish them all the luck in the world and great success!

Playing games in the library
Playing games in the library

Learning Center Siem Reap and some numbers
[…]The Learning Center Siem Reap is composed of a big library space with tables, chairs and roughly thousands of books, both in Khmer and English. The library is not merely a place to read and do homework – although this is the priority – but it is utilized as activity room for the free offerings the Learning Center Siem Reap offers to its users, such as movie screenings, educational games, etc… Additionally, since December 2016, the library functions as a English classroom due to the fact that the Center does not possess enough spaces to run the 4 different English courses. In February 2017 we have acquired a new room positioned at the second floor of the building which will be used as a classroom for a new English course to be started in June 2017, if a sufficient number of students enroll.

Beside the library space, the Learning Center owns 3 classrooms dedicated to the English teaching classes that happen between 5 and 6 pm every day, from Monday until Friday.

The learning center has struggled with finances for a long time and at the current moment the budget is significantly reduced due to urgent expenses to be faced. However, in a positive note, in February 2017 we have finally reached a sustainability rate that ensured some margin of profit and this trend has carried on also in the month of March and April. Respectively these three months witnessed a sustainable trend of 112%, 109% and 100% of which we are extremely proud of.
All the figures of the LC Siem Reap are accessible on this page.

Our daily library visitors range between 35 and 40 on average and our classrooms enroll approximately 73 students presently. The library visitors and the enrollments in the English classrooms are made of students of the 10th January 1979 High School entirely. Sanith had tried in the past to promote the courses to other Siem Reap kids and young adults however the response had been discouraging and she made the choice to focus her efforts inwards, namely to the 10th January 1979 High School’s students. The school constitutes a great target as it hosts 4000 students in total.

Goals and objectives

  • All the BOOKBRIDGE Learning Centers share common goals, which are the following:
    Obtain steady and consistent sustainability rate that will allow the Learning Center to gradually repay the investment money;
  • Stand as a center of quality learning and a place where young adults and kids are encouraged to work hard to become who they really are, regardless of prejudice, societal pressure, etc..;
  • Provide employment opportunities within the community and simultaneously contribute to a positive change in the society.

All the Learning Centers work to meet these goals in the long-run and are continually monitored as well as aided in this endeavor.

However, each learning center – given structural, cultural and contextual differences – sets its own specific micro goals. For instance, the Learning Center Siem Reap due to the lack of space and resources will not be capable in the near future to provide IT courses to its students, therefore our attention was diverted towards English courses instead. We do not exclude the opportunity to initiate IT classes, however it’s not been set as a priority now.

The goals of the BOOKBRIDGE Learning Center Siem Reap are the following:

  • Obtain full and consistent financial sustainability by the year 2017;
  • Offer the students with more career-oriented seminars and workshops to raise awareness of job opportunities and invaluable personal skills and how to best achieve them;
  • Ensure the quality of the teaching and stimulate learning.

We have developed more concrete objectives for the year 2017 that will be conducive towards the goals:

  1. Improve the quality of the learning through:
    – parent-teacher meetings to be held regularly (bi-yearly or yearly);
    – keeping clear attendance record for each student and share it in a report to the parents;
    – implementing the student-centered approach through continuous teacher meetings and training.
  2. Improve the quality of our learning environment such as
    – more posters and students’ work in the classrooms’ wall;
    – provide access to clean drinkable water;
    – provide adequate student number in each class;
    – increase the number of classrooms;
    – offer discounts.
  3. Improve the quality of instruction at the learning center as:
    – Provide regular professional developments opportunities to teachers, specifically focusing on inclusivity, communicative approaches and strategies to language instruction, an
    student-centered approaches to classroom management and positive discipline techniques;
    – Implement, monitor and enforce English-only rule in the classes for teachers and students;
    – Increase the amount of classroom decoration to support language acquisition, including label for common classroom objects, language posters and student work;
    – Provide professional development on use of positive discipline to manage student behavior;
    – Create a self-assessment tool for teachers to use to guide their own professional development;
    – Require all teachers to make a lesson plan;
    – Set up new curriculum;
    – Implement Code of Conduct.
Martina initiated a donation campaign for buying new Khmer books
Martina initiated a donation campaign for buying new Khmer books

The objectives have been set following the guidelines that BOOKBRIDGE provided about the quality framework that each learning center should aspire to. After consultation with Sanith, we identified these 3 objectives to be completed by the year 2017 which resulted as the most pressing and important in our opinion. We are presently working towards the achievement of many of them and others have been successfully completed. In regards to the remaining, Sanith will focus on them in due time.

For instance, during my 6-month stay at the learning center we have successfully implemented:

  • Regular teacher meetings – one in January and one in April – about student-centered approach and teacher assessment by the students following the guidelines of the quality framework’s criteria. The following one will focus on the use of textbooks and teaching techniques, as suggested by one of our teachers.
  • Attendance records to be kept daily and to be sent monthly to the parents in a more comprehensive file about the student’s achievements written by each teacher.
  • Student-centered approach, English use in the classroom, self-assessment tool for the teachers for self-evaluation, encourage the use of class planning among the teachers were all issues being discussed at the teacher meetings and that will be followed up by Sanith throughout the months.
  • Implementation of Code of Conduct which has been written and it is now ready to be distributed among the employees and get enforced. Beside the Code of Conduct, also the Staff and Discipline policies have been drafted.
  • Provide the teachers with self-evaluating techniques and criteria for self-improvement delineated in the Quality Framework of BOOKBRIDGE.

Other objectives such as the offer of drinkable water as well as parent-teacher meetings were brainstormed by us, but given financial constraints as well as other more urgent matters could not be implemented yet. However there is full will to do so.

In regards to the goal of more professional offerings to the students, such as workshops on personal development and career-orientation, they are still high in the priority list, however due to budget limitations and time constraints of the students we could not develop a clear strategy on it yet.

Star Winner competition
Star Winner competition

Projects throughout the 6 months of fellowship
After having delineated the history of my fellowship experience, I want to now underline the projects that I had activated, attempted to or drafted to initiate, to deliver an idea of what are the potentials of the learning center and what can be/cannot be achieved with the approaches I have used and/or circumstances in place.

  1. Establishment of regular library free activities: as soon as I arrived at the learning center, Sanith asked me to help in the involvement of the students in the library’s life by organizing free activities like educational games, reading clubs, etc.. This project has seen a mixed result. On the one hand, I have managed to identify English games that kept the attention of the students and that moreover can be played without the aid of an adult. On the other hand, many of the free offerings I had in mind like reading and speaking club could not happen because of the reluctance of the students to join in. Most of them have very poor English level and they do not feel confident in speaking or reading loud in front of their peers and a foreigner. Those who could easily understand and perform successfully in it were not participatory because of lack of interest, as well as need for studying.
    A thorough list of the games played has been sent to Sanith to keep as a record.
  2. Library contest called ‘Star Reader’: its aim was to encourage students to read both English and Khmer books; the game was a success the first two months of life where a lot of students took part in; however after a while they lost interest and/or motivation.
    I believe it has potential and should be developed further.
  3. Movie screenings every two Fridays: There is always a huge crowd and the kids begin asking weeks in advance what movie we will show and when. At the beginning I could also entertain them in a discussion about the movie and its meaning after the screening, however now they seem to have realized how it works and they all run away as soon as the movie is over, leaving no time or people for a conversation. This I believe has some connections with what said before about their lack of confidence at speaking English and also understanding it.
    A thorough list of all the movies shown in the library and also in the classrooms has been sent to Sanith to keep as a record.
  4. Co-teaching the English classes: I was asked by Sanith to take part in the English courses to help the students get used to a different accent and bring in various activities to improve their English level and I must admit that this part of the fellowship was a complete success. I am not a certified teacher therefore the planning of the class’s activities was hard at the beginning, as I had to fill one whole hour without letting anybody get bored. I started looking for online resource databases and found some that helped me a lot through the classes. I can proudly say that the students have become more confident in my presence and not are not afraid of speaking with me asking for clarification. The teachers too have entrusted me and some let me lead the class alone when they are absent.
  5. Quality Framework alignment: I have drafted the Code of Conduct, Staff and Discipline Policy; we have regularly arranged teacher meetings and worked on the content of them together in order to provide them with valuable learning; we have worked together in order to ensure that there is a more direct connection between the parents and the teachers by sending monthly students’ reports with marks and attendance level; and finally Sanith and I have conducted marketing promotion campaigns among the students of the school in order to attract them towards the library and to enroll in the English courses. The smooth collaboration with Sanith was secured by the fact that we had established a trustful relationship, in which respect for each other and flexibility as well as honesty were the key elements. Sanith would tell me her ideas for improvement and I would sincerely reply my opinion and together we would find a solution.
  6. Fundraise campaign for Khmer books: this has been one of the few projects that I developed entirely single-handedly. As I came to work at the learning center I noticed the visible gap between the English and Khmer books offer was considerable and I took the initiative to raise money that would be then used to purchase more Khmer books. Within 4 months we raised 639 USD. 220 USD were used for purchasing new books – a total number of 120 -, whereas the rest has been utilized for new chairs.
  7. Mend library books: another project that I began and carried out single-handedly was fixing the broken books of the library. Through the constant use and I would daresay misuse at time by the students, many of the books in offer had ripped pages as well as covers. Therefore with the help of duct tape I mended all I can find. They will hopefully last some time longer now.
  8. Promotion of the English classes for university students: in order to gain new enrollments for the English classes Sanith and I agreed on promoting our offers to the university students in Siem Reap. We printed out the flyers and Sanith went to distribute them around the campuses. The response was unexpectedly low and in fact we did not register any new students for the English courses. The reason is probably because many universities already offer English courses within their campuses as well as discounted prices for their students. Additionally, the reason for the absent interest is due to the timeframe of the English classes because university students are very busy and at times have classes in the evenings too, making it difficult to attend extra courses.
  9. Promotion of the library and library’s activities: Sanith and I decided that if we wanted more pupils to enroll in the English courses at the learning center we needed more visibility among the students of the schools. Therefore we prepared some flyers with a brief description of the center’s library and activities and we set off around the school ground covering class to class and explain to the students who we are and what we do. After our tour we noticed a significant increase of visitors in the library.
  10. Call between the Capability program/visitors of the library and our students: over the 6 months I spent in the learning center we have received the visit of many foreigners who are in a way or another related to BOOKBRIDGE. Some of them showed an interest in maintaining contacts with our students, therefore I have initiated a program of video calls with some of the visitors and the students of intermediate level English class. So far we had only one call. From the first call I noticed that the students are quite shy to speak with strangers, therefore it is a good idea to give them a topic to work on individually and then during the call they will have the time to express it. Still during the call they need to be pushed to answer, but if positively encouraged the results can be great. For the time being we are utilizing my computer, however as I am soon gone, we established that we will use the tablets the library possess. Moreover I would like to maintain a communication with some classes and I give my availability for some speaking sessions.
  11. Facebook page: for the 6-month fellowship I have been in charge of the Facebook page of the learning center and create content and posts weekly. The views and likes of the page has largely increase over this period – we are now at 1.101.

The two following chapters – Observations and Recommendations – are based on daily personal observations as well as experiences and ideas of the Learning Center Siem Reap and how it should develop. The 6-month fellowship period was sufficient to participate in all the activities as well as get a grasp not only on the superficial problems as well as dynamics of the center, but also on the less visible ones. The recommendations provided are absolutely not mandatory and may be subject to changes due to evolutions of the Learning Center, therefore they must be contextualized.

Christmas party at the learning center
Christmas party at the learning center

My observation of the learning center is divided in 4 different categories:

1. Head of the Learning Center:

  • Sanith is an extremely dedicated Community Hero who works hard every day to ensure that the center is functional and smoothly running;
  • She is open to suggestions and criticism and it is very easy to talk to her about center’s issues as well as personal ones;
  • She is not afraid of making changes in the routine of the center and to make long money or time investments in order to guarantee the quality improvements necessary. For example in May we began the renovation work of the newly acquired room for the pre-beginner level class without knowing with certainty whether we will have sufficient enrollment number to commence the class in June. This aspect of her personality shows confidence and decisive entrepreneurial skills, which is all about taking risks;
  • Related to the above point, she is however prone to pessimism in her judgements at first. For example, when I proposed to promote the learning center for university students her first argument was that it’d not work. After that she agreed however because, as said above, she saw some reason in my argument and she is not afraid on attempting new things. Eventually I was the one wrong and the promotion did not end up fruitfully;
  • Sanith is a mother and wife and her personal life is very busy, therefore at time her attitude at work may seem of disinterest and/or tiredness;
  • At times she needs to be pushed or reminded in order to make things happen, such as for example write project funds proposals, organize teacher meeting, etc.. When pushed then she will work 100% on it. She is sometimes stuck on the routine of the center and does not plan further;
  • She is very knowledgeable of managing skills and can keep the whole processes of the center under control, such as paychecks, enrollments, expenditures and savings, etc..;
  • She is to work more on leadership skills such as taking initiative, motivation, long-term planning and vision. The support of a fellow is of great benefit for her in this and many other aspects as she admitted. Moreover, I believe a leadership workshop/training will be of great benefit for her, for example through the BOOKBRIDGE Professional Development Stipend or the MasterClass.

2. Learning Center:

  • The Learning Center has space limitations: it is equipped with 3 rooms for English classes and we are currently utilizing the library as a fourth. Recently a new room has been acquired and will be used for a new course. In order to start new offerings, the above-mentioned room must be separated into two, however the process costs a considerable amount of money that the Center does not possess;
  • The position of the Learning Center within the 10th January 1979 High School’s ground is both limiting and beneficial. Limiting because it is very hard to be visible in the community due to the gates that surround the school; beneficial because we have a pool of 4000 and plus students that comprise the population of the school;
  • Siem Reap is a fast expanding city with a substantial amount of competing international English schools that make it hard for the learning center to retain its student population;
  • The city environment makes is even harder to become a focal point of quality learning for the learning center as the population of Siem Reap is large and dispersed;
  • The center is experiencing budget constraints due to many expenses which are not yet covered by the profit. We are in the process of beginning a new course and hopefully that will increase our revenues.
  • The center not have a librarian at the moment therefore I performed some of the tasks of the role. Once the fellow is gone, it will be hard for Sanith to keep up the pace.

3. Students:

  • In the library we have a steady flow of visitors and many regulars;
  • Many of our visitors attend the library for the WIFI access therefore mostly come to play computer games, listen to music or watch videos;
  • Sadly the level of engagement of the visitors to the library is very low. As mentioned above, they mostly attend it for the Internet access and they are quite un-keen on participating in the free activities provided, such as reading club or speaking, etc… For instance, we took part in the PSA competition in April and when the voting system was online we asked all our visitors to vote for our Center; however we received very low numbers of votes;
  • In regards to the free activities offered, what they seem most interested in is movies and games;
  • The students have very poor care of the books of the library: many have been ripped of the pages, and daily I find the shelves messy and with books that should belong to different categories in the wrong place;
  • The students take the library as a playground and run, play hide and seek and scream in it. Sanith and I have plastered a sign forbidding to play in front of the facility as well as inside, but many students do not read it or pay any care;
  • The students are requested to bring the books they have borrowed within two-week time – unless differently notified – and in a decent status, however punishments can incur which range from payment to helping with the library tasks. However the majority of the students who are appointed these tasks fail to come back to fulfil them. This is also one of the reasons why we were missing so many Khmer books in the first place;
  • They all have very limited English proficiency which makes it harder to arrange activities other than simple games. As already mentioned, reading or speaking club are not yet an option;
  • In the English classrooms the students are more confident at speaking with a foreigner given their more advanced level;
  • In the classrooms the level of engagement in the lesson is quite low given the fact that they are taught all their life with a teacher-centered approach and our methods – student-centered approach namely – generates shyness and un-confidence;
  • In the classroom when I co-teach and assign homework, the students seldom do them as they see me not as a teacher but just a momentary visitor. Moreover even with the permanent teachers, some students do not do their homework as well as do not bring the textbooks;
  • The learning center has a core of students that are actively involved in its activities and always offer help. Moreover these students are friendly, open and their English is very good. They can be used to reach out to more introvert students.

4. Teachers:

  • All our teachers have excellent English and are professionals, meaning that they either work full-time as teachers in other institutes or have at some point in their life been teachers. Therefore they have plenty of experience;
  • They are busy with other jobs therefore they can only work one hour per day at the LC;
  • In my experience of working alongside them, all our teachers are easy to work with and appreciate the help given to them.
Impact assessment
Impact assessment

These recommendations are based on my experience at the learning center at the moment of my departure, end of May 2017. However the situation is bound to change and I encourage the next fellows to look at the context beforehand and then plan the actions necessary.

  1. In order for the learning center to become not solely a WIFI place for students but a center of learning and youth growth, it should organize and host more workshops based on the needs of the kids and young adults. With workshops I imagine activities related to personal growth, confidence, skills and/or career orientation as well as to continuously engage the students in educational games.
  2. In relation with point n1, beforehand the learning center should conduct a need assessment of the students and what they would like to learn more in the workshops. This could be obtained through a questionnaire, focus groups, single interviews, casual talks, etc..
  3. The learning center at this point needs a librarian that would carry on with the free activities and will engage the kids with reading. Sanith is busy and the work of manager plus the librarian duties are impossible to sustain all on one person.
  4. Sanith takes part in a leadership training through the Professional Development Stipend established by BOOKBRIDGE or the MasterClass. The opportunities are plenty between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and it may be possible to find something suitable.
  5. The learning center once reached the financial self-sustainability should look at the bigger community of Siem Reap and make itself known by participating in fairs, exhibits, etc.. There are many occasions in which social enterprises can promote themselves and the center should take the chance. This would by consequence not only enlarge the visibility but could boost the revenues too.
  6. This recommendation goes for all the next fellows. Cambodian students are quite introvert and often shy when speaking in English and bonding with a foreigner; therefore the best way is to gain their trust through games. It takes patience and a lot of hard work however rest assured that it will pay off. And as said above, use the students that are more open and talkative to connect with the others.

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