The sun is shining through rain clouds, bikes are parked next to the volleyball court, kids are teasing their peers, playing in between classes, roughhousing in gentle ways, and singing the Khmer alphabet as they walk home. The boys are jocular, the girls mostly shy. The bell rings for classes to begin, at breaktime, and when its time to go home for lunch. The principal is in the classroom observing, and the vice principal is working with weak students in the first grade room. Most people would look at Chanleas Dai today and think that it’s an average day. What an outside observer might miss is the significant departure that this scene represents from the typical afternoon at Chanleas Dai.
It’s hard to express the accomplishment that I feel being a part of this scene this week. When Daniela and I first talked about a Khmer Literacy Camp in April of this year, my heart skipped a beat. I didn’t know anything about Khmer literacy, I’m not a certified educator, and there was already a great deal of work I knew was on my plate over the summer months. She would be in Brazil speaking at a conference just before the camp, so I knew it would be up to me to make the idea succeed or fail. We brainstormed and painted a portrait of something we would have seen in our elementary schools, an opportunity to start a lifelong love of reading and a time for teachers to see how their enthusiasm in teaching can spread to students learning. It seemed like the vision we were talking about would be impossible given the context that we knew.
We knew that teachers only came to school about 50% of the time before our teacher award program this year, and that even when they began to attend more they were often inactive in the classroom. Many 4th, 5th and 6th graders still struggled with basic reading and writing, and were too shy to admit they needed to learn to read as a beginner. We had seen the lack of interest and initiative of the school director and many of the teachers they pretended to supervise. Desks sat in rows, the teacher lectured with a pointed stick and a blackboard, even in grade 1 and 2. Efforts to engage students were minimal. The only songs and laughter came from the English classroom.
The picture we painted was an ideal. We talked about a literacy camp that brought 300 students to focus on learning to read and write for the week, with testing that placed them at appropriate levels and active lesson plans that brought books into the classroom. We talked about hiring fabulous teachers to work alongside the Chanleas Dai team, and a week of teacher training prior to the camp to share ideas and bring child-to-child and child-centered methodologies into the classrooms. We talked about material making, students creating their own books, and using XO computers to teach Khmer literacy. We talked about a week that students and teachers alike would enjoy….that might become the standard for teaching during the regular school year. It was a lot of talk.
I honestly thought that it couldn’t be done, or at least that I couldn’t make it happen. Of course, I underestimated the power of the team that PEPY has grown to be. They have made this happen and I have pretty much sat and watched as it has developed, and become exactly what we pictured, perhaps even more. A special thanks to Aline, our Country Manager. Her experience and drive have helped make impossible ideas become a reality. I wish that words and pictures were enough to truly show the high level of engagement and enthusiasm we have here this week. What I see today literally blows me away. Not so much for what it is, but for how far it has come. It is about an average school day for most countries in the developed world. Here, it feels like magic. Perhaps more than any other moment I have had here in Cambodia, I am extremely proud to be a part of PEPY.
By Maryann Bylander