Ruby and Alex from Belgium work as BOOKBRIDGE Fellows at our learning center in Tonloab, Cambodia. In this article they describe their impressions of the learning center.
During our first two weeks at Bookbridge Learning Center Tonloab, we have been engaging in a diverse number of activities. What follows should give you an idea of what life as a BOOKBRIDGE fellow can be like!
One of our goals is to improve the quality of the English classes. In particular, the teachers told us that they have difficulties to motivate the children to speak English in class. The students are afraid to make mistakes in front of their friends. In fact, not showing loss of face is a common part of Cambodian culture. We actually noticed that also the teachers needed some time before they felt comfortable speaking in English with us.
It’s important to become familiar with the teachers, their teaching methods and – most important of all – the students and their knowledge of English. We’ve been observing and teaching English classes for students with different proficiency levels. The first time we enter a class, children are usually both very excited and quiet at the same time. Later on, the most brave students raise their hand and voluntarily speak in front of the class. By now, we see most students become more and more active.
During these first classes we already learned that the students’ knowledge of the English vocabulary and grammar is decent, while their greatest challenge lies in listening and speaking. The children are used to listening to teachers with a Khmer accent (who are aware of this) and don’t always understand our ‘native’ English. As opposed to children in our home country – Belgium – who hear English songs all day and watch American movies with subtitles, Cambodian children don’t hear native English speakers often. That is why we will focus mostly on listening and speaking skills in class and are looking for tools to help the teachers in this area.
Teaching currently still happens in a relatively traditional way. Teachers go through the chapters of their handbook, explain the course content to the students, subsequently let them repeat words or phrases out loud several times, and ask students to make exercises during class sessions or at home.
We are testing a number of changes in teaching methodology that may lead to more active and more engaged students:
- Introduction of a demonstration phase at the beginning of the class session to indicate how the course content is relevant to the students in a broader context (e.g. we do a dialogue, show a movie or a picture, etc.).
- Introduction of a discovery phase where students are invited to talk about what was demonstrated through questions and answers, and in this way “discover” the course content.
- Introduction of a speaking exercise in pairs in every session, to maximize speaking time of students. Before, students didn’t practice in pairs but only when together repeating the teacher or when going in front of the class room one by one to do a speaking exercise.
We are working with the teachers to test and validate these ideas. Certain ideas work, others don’t. We are focused on those initiatives that can have a lasting impact also after the end of our fellowship at BOOKBRIDGE. Although teachers have limited time available, they have decided to hold a weekly teacher meeting to discuss potential improvements. Moreover, they have accepted our invitation to give them three computer classes every week of half an hour each.
Speaking of computer classes, a big advantage of the learning center in Tonloab is the IT room with 13 laptops available for the children. We believe it is a big opportunity for these children to learn how to work with computers, learn to type, search for information on the internet, use educational tools, etc. However, although some students are learning how to work with Word, Excel, Photoshop and Moviemaker, most students prefer to watch YouTube or surf Facebook, which does not meet the educational objectives of the learning center very well. The last week we have been testing various English learning resources with the children: English learning videos, English learning games, vocabulary memorization websites, etc. It may seem obvious that these are great opportunities for learning in a fun way, but when students already study twelve hours a day, it is not illogical that they only want to watch Youtube videos when they are spending half an hour of free time in the IT room. We are working on ways to combine the best of both worlds.
Besides these ongoing projects, we have participated in some other activities in and around the learning center:
- During the morning break from 8:30 till 9AM we often play ball games outside in front of the library with the most active children. This way, life in the library is more quiet.
- We are helping Mom to reorganize the library and to encourage children not to run, shout or throw books. We are also organizing a separate shelf for teachers where they can easily find interesting books to use during class.
- Together with Vannak, we organized a big clean-up of the playground, which was covered with rubbish. We made a short movie about this clean-up.
- Ruby organizes a singing workshop three times a week from 10h00 until 10h30 during the break of the public school.
- Alex has put the laptops in the IT room back in their original state and has created a web portal for the learning center where children find all the useful online resources for them.
- We’ve visited the local market with some older students so they could introduce us to delicious local food.
- Vannak has invited us to his homeland to stay with his family for a couple of days, showing us around the more rural areas and ending up with us at a regional scouts event.
- In order to learn about Cambodian culture and bond with the people we’re working with, we have been sharing lunch or dinner with several of the teachers at the learning center.
We have not been bored during our first weeks at the learning center. Hopefully this leads to positive impact as perceived by the local children and teachers. As for our own well-being, we are delighted to be among a very nice group of people in a professionally run learning center!