Phonics Project

*to see cute mugshots of first graders and their nicknames, scroll to the end

I never wanted to be a classroom teacher. As I knew it would be, managing a classroom is HARD WORK.

The reason I accepted a volunteer position that spends most of its time in a classroom is twofold:

  1. I enjoy the coaching – my main goal is to empower the current Thai teachers with extra skills to improve their English teaching.
  2. I also enjoy language – exploring how best to learn a language and analyzing language at its most fundamental core.

One thing I am currently enjoying is implementing the basics of Phonics across all the grade levels. I even have my 9th graders learning Zoo phonics (letter name, letter sound and animal movement for each letter) and playing games creating CVC words (C=consonant and V=vowel). I am using a lot skills from the LIPS program I used at my former Educational Coaching position that are multi-sensory and used in speech therapy.

Consider for a moment, what these kids are expected to learn:

  • In first grade, these students start to learn Thai
    • 44 consonant symbols
    • 13 vowels (which make about 26 vowel combinations)
    • each letter has a name, sound and a special position (vowels may go over, under, to the left or to the right of a consonant)
  • THEN these students are learning English
    • 52 new symbols (capitals plus lowercase letters, the former of which they don’t understand the concept since there are no capitals in Thai)
    • although we have 5 vowels letters, there are over 30 vowels combinations
    • learn which letters match (“A” and “a” do not exactly look alike)
    • each letter has a name, sound and with many “rule exceptions” to the latter

Needless to say, this is quite a challenging task compounded by the fact that the Thai teachers do not feel comfortable teaching the fundamentals of English, yet are given a curriculum that does a poor job of setting a foundation paired with standards that are morbidly unrealistic. Yes, children do have minds like sponges, but it’s difficult to soak up a foreign language when the content skips the basics and when your teachers are speaking in your native tongue.

I am lucky that even my counterpart in charge of teaching English from grades 4-9, is on board with starting from the basics. Below are my goals stated in a 2 year plan I must submit to the Peace Corps staff and the Thai government by the end of the month:

  • Year 1, Term 1
    • Phonics across all grade levels
    • Teacher trainings
  • Year 1, Term 2
    • Conversational English at morning assemblies and school-wide participation
  • Year 2, Term 1
    • English leadership roles: Morning English News, English Theater Project
  • Year 2, Term 2
    • Reading program
    • Thai Teachers training other Thai teachers

 




 

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A wider perspective

The first week of school has passed and in its passing I have a better grasp on the scope of my 2 year long project for helping my 2 counterpart teachers with their English and teaching skills, creating a sustainable Phonics program for each grade and quite possibly revitalizing the school library.

First, a few interesting observations about the Thai school system:

  • students all wear uniforms and must have their hair cut a certain way (otherwise a teacher will pull the student aside and cut the hair correctly right then and there)
  • the first week was spent having students clean the school yard and classrooms, and not much learning; teachers gave review lessons while schedules were still being ironed out by the Admin team
  • Thai teachers dress very professionally – currently every school teacher (and government employee) wears black every day to show respect for the late King Rama IX
  • also, I attended a teacher meeting for many schools in the area that involved a lot of sitting and listening to a lecture about how teachers can become better teachers while many teachers talked to each other and looked at their cellphones

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  • teachers roles at school are as educators and second parents, who show quite a bit of affection for the students and serve the school in many capacities: buying food for cooking at lunch, serving the food, eating with the students, running the student store and making sure the students are hygienic/properly dressed

*please remember that my observations are of one school in Thailand, a small sample size of a large educational system and therefore my comments definitely do not reflect the whole picture. Here is a great article by a foreigner who really sums up the issues in the Thai educational system: why-the-thai-education-system-is-running-so-poorly-the-main-problems-and-possible-solutions

I only taught 1 quick lesson on numbers to a group of 2nd graders my first week. The experience was enough to know that we’ve got a lot of practice to do and that the students are enthusiastic about active learning.

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I spent most of my time cleaning up a building that is labeled as the “Library” yet has been a storage space for years. I had to find some way to get the students to help the organization without throwing, tearing or jumping on the books, so I made a little competition…

And they succeeded 🙂

I will be helping co-teach English classes from elementary (Pratom) to middle school (Matayom). I also will need to start learning the names of my 300+ students with creative name-tags posted on a murals of the ocean like my counterpart Kru Doll created.

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The test scores at my school are low with students not only struggling to meet national standards for English, but for the reading and writing of their native Thai language. I hope to create a safe place for learning languages in the library and ultimately to encourage reading and writing for enjoyment. Spent my Saturday repainting the inside of the building and I am looking forward to decorating the room with learning materials this week (Monday and Tuesday are no school due to more teacher meetings).

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It’s been a slow start to the year, with a lot of work ahead, but then a slow pace is the Thai way of life and the much needed work is reason I volunteered here. Work isn’t a burden when you love what you do 🙂

What does teaching mean to me personally?

TCCS (teacher collaborator and community service) volunteers start training pre-departure for a TEFL certificate. We were asked to write a reflection on:  

  • How do you feel about being a teacher?  
  • How does being a teacher fit your identity?  
  • What are some practices you are going to try to add to your teaching repertoire after this session?  
  • What are some practices you will want to avoid?

“I feel confident and reverent about being a teacher. I know that being a teacher is a challenging and rewarding role. I have always felt that the label “teacher” renders too much to a giver of information rather than the true role of a teacher: that of a guide, a coach and a learner. Teachers are guides who open up new opportunities, facilitate growth and create a safe path in which to explore the world. Teachers are coaches who encourage, problem-solve and nurture the growth of young minds. Teachers are also learners who are forced to face a daily mirror of self-reflection and continual self-improvement. I feel that teaching requires flexibility, fearlessness and humility to successfully meet challenges that arise. Later, the rewards can be found like the first blossoms of spring, few and far between at first until there is a whole garden of bright, blooming flowers reaching for the sun.

Clearly, I have an optimistic view of teaching. While I revere the role, I am not naive to its monotonous moments, its frustrations and its ability to provoke vulnerabilities. Even so, I choose to face every challenge as a positive moment for growth. If every day is a challenge, than every day provides the opportunity for learning. By making learning enjoyable and a safe place to make mistakes, an effective teacher can motivate a younger generation to become lifelong learners and independent thinkers. This module emphasized that teaching is about the students more so than the teacher, and I completely agree.

I identify myself as a lifelong learner; therefore, I enjoy the role of a teacher because it provides a constant learning environment. As a child, I always loved learning and was a role-model, teaching others by my actions without knowing what I was doing. In middle school, I soaked up books, watered my competitive nature and sprinkled my enthusiasm into a plethora of extracurricular activities. In high school, I became critical of the educational system that fit my learning style yet left so many others behind. I went to college for the pure love of learning and yet I realized that not everyone valued the education they were being given. What pushed me forward into more teaching roles was the desire to share my enthusiasm and gratitude for education while also improving its implementation and effectiveness.

My training has taught me to be observant and to discover ways to facilitate individual achievement so that the whole team succeeds. I know that everyone learns differently and that everyone is capable of achievement. Having worked with the challenging population of learning disabilities and anxiety issues related to learning, I have a huge compassion for different learning styles, different attitudes towards learning and the lack of skill sets provided for students so that they can succeed.

I look forward to teaching English because I enjoy teaching fundamental skills from the ground up. As a sports coach, I enjoyed the aspect of taking inexperienced kids, training them with the basics until they had the ability and confidence to become independent and creative with their skills. Furthermore, as social human beings, language is so essential to our connectivity and understanding. I know that language is challenging to learn and also rewarding, much like the act of teaching. With language as a communication tool, people have an unlimited canvas to experiment, build relationships and become leaders.

I am looking forward to collaborating with Thai teachers, learning from them and contributing whatever skills I can. Some practices I would like to add to my repertoire have to do with structuring and scaffolding. Although I am familiar with employing these concepts, they are not natural to me and require my due diligence. To be an effective teacher, I believe that I will need to be well-prepared with strong lesson plans that effectively facilitate retention and include learning practices that incorporate many modalities. I would like to be exposed to more lesson plans and more theories of language learning.

One practice I want to avoid is the attitude that the American way of teaching is superior to Thailand’s. Being aware of cultural norms and respecting the teaching methods already employed by Thai teachers will be important. Adopting an attitude of humility and curiosity will be key to learning, improving and gaining respect. I naturally feel confident in my ability to connect with people, to build a safe learning environment all while maintaining respect and authority. However, that is in an American environment. There will be subtleties and nuances in Thai interactions that I will need to learn and follow. I plan to observe closely, ask many questions and show the utmost respect for my host country.

Also, I want to avoid rushing while speaking, being unclear in my expectations or being too serious. I want to make sure I am speaking simply, clearly and precisely. I want to add more interactive activities to my repertoire, more attention-getters and more light-hearted fun that will enthuse my students and allow them to blossom into their own leadership roles. I am sure to gain a lot of insight and ideas in training from my experienced colleagues. I am very much looking forward to this wonderful opportunity to learn from my Thai counterparts, to learn from the students and to build lasting relationships within my community.”