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 🙂

In a cabin by the sea

Before school started, I completed my first solo adventure around Thailand.

The first leg of the trip was Consolidation (a Peace Corps practice drill in case an emergency breaks out in country). I learned how to get a Krabi by public transportation and rewarded myself with a large pineapple mai tai while being treated to a one night stay at a large resort.

Then, another volunteer and I headed back to Surat Thani, found a cheap hostel and went to watch Guardians of the Galaxy 2 at the cinema. By 5 am the next morning I was at the airport on my way to Bangkok for some eating, shopping, and the next day took a 5 hour bus ride and a 1 hour ferry to Koh Mak (an island in the Gulf of Thailand, off the coast of Trat, near the border of Cambodia).

Here I stayed in a beautiful mansion with 12 girls and met up with the other Peace Corps volunteers for the annual MayCation (a celebration including a Cinco De Mayo fiesta and feast and a chance for the 129 group to meet with the 128s).

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I lounged hard, swam in the warm shallow water, and cooked an epic Italian meal of three different types of pasta while drinking a wine bottle I paid way too much baht for – my favorite way to relax.

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Then I stayed 1 night by myself in a cabin by the sea before heading back to Bangkok and my flight back to site.

I indulged in my favorite eats at the family restaurant right next to the Island Huts and I fell asleep and woke up to the sight and sounds of the ocean outside my window.

I took a walk in the sprinkling rain, smells of wet dirt and rotted fruit, and later returned back to my cabin under a firefly lit path. I sipped on a lime, coconut and rum mixture on my porch, to a playlist of beach tunes. I was on my own private beach.

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The isolated experience by the sea after a fun reconnect with volunteers was a recharging and healing experience. Now if only I could live in that cabin for the remainder of my service…

 

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing

there is a beach. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that sand,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”

doesn’t make any sense.

 

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.

        Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

        Don’t go back to sleep.

People are going back and forth across the shoreline

where the two worlds touch.

The door is round and open.

        Don’t go back to sleep.

 

The excerpt above is from a poem “A Great Wagon” by Rumi, with only the bold words changed (field to beach, grass to sand, and doorsill to shoreline) to fit the setting of my story.