The alarm in Natalie’s and my – Anja’s – room goes off for the first time… one quick move to switch it off and here we go… five more minutes of sleep before we have to make our way out of bed. Being used to sleeping until 8:30 a.m. in Germany, we did not find it easy to adapt to this new rhythm and waking up so early, which, however, seems to be expected of a future teacher in any country.1
Leaving Natalie a couple of more minutes to snooze, I sneak into our bathroom, which is directly attached to our bedroom. Before taking a shower – what a privilege to have hot water here2– the first thing I do is to watch out for our flatmate, the cockroach. Whereas in Germany you might find a tiny silverfish in your bathroom from time to time, insects here come in different dimensions. The quite monstrous cockroach with which we have been sharing our bathroom from week one onwards measures about 5 cm, not including the feelers. Except the cockroach there are many more “flatmates” in our villa: Ants, geckos, spiders, and all sorts of small insects. They have become a part of our life here and I am sure that, in some way, we will miss them back home.
Like every day, I am not the first one to head for breakfast. Malin is already sitting at the table and finishing her oats. Lucky me, because we still need a few minutes to talk about our final plan for the “Mopsies“. While she teaches them twelve hours a week, I only have a two-hour block with them during which I join her – definitely one of my highlights every week!
While preparing my breakfast – mashed bananas with milk, other fruits, and oats – we plan how to introduce the vocabulary for today and practise pronunciation with the 5-year-olds. We also sing the song “Bear, bear, is the animal I see” (an adapted version of the song “Blue, blue, is the colour I see”) one last time to make sure that we are on the same page when it comes to melody and movements.
Dressed in our traditional sinhs and ready for the day, we climb onto our bikes and turn left onto the bumpy road heading towards Sikeud Primary School. I do not think the potholes on the way have ever been counted, but there would be hundreds of them if not thousands, after every new rainy season making the way to school quite an adventure. Avoiding those craters automatically makes you drive in zigzag manoeuvres on the one hand while still looking out for dogs, (dead) snakes, or vehicles passing by on the other if they do not happen to drive on your side at that moment avoiding other potholes…
We arrive at school in time and get ready for the “Mopsies”. Since it is not so hot today (around 28 degrees), and even a tiny bit windy, we decide to go out and have class in the shade of a big tree.
The first group of “Mopsies” is already lined up inside their classroom, greeting us with sunny smiles and happy “good mornings”. Silently holding on to the shoulder of the child in front, the children follow us to the big mat which is rolled out in the shade. We form a circle, starting our lesson by singing our “Good morning” song (other examples). I am still a bit uncertain about some of the names, which is why Mopsy – the dog handpuppet which comes with the Mopsy learning programme for pre-schoolers3 – is handled by Malin, greeting all of the children individually. “Good morning, Phonmany” is replied with a shy, yet excited “Good morning, Mopsy”.
For the next twenty minutes we read the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See by Eric Carle,4 talk about the different colors and animals, play “What’s missing”5 with the help of animal flashcards and sing the song. The children love to do the different movements and sounds – bark like a dog, fly like a bird, swim like a fish – and to be honest – Malin and I enjoy it at least as much!
After saying goodbye to one another, the “Mopsies” line up again. We bring them back to their classroom and welcome the next group, which is only the second out of five for today.6
I climb back on my bike and head towards Ban Phang Heng Secondary School for my next lessons, which is only a short ride away. In contrast to crossing the main road at 8 a.m. in the morning, which can be quite adventurous in itself, there is less traffic now, which makes it easier and less stressful to get to the other school. At the gate, I am welcomed by a friendly “Sabaidee” by the gatekeeper and make my way through the crowd of children on the schoolyard.
Some of the other volunteers are already in the “Didactics Room“, where I will be teaching the next two lessons, too. Since the next class does not start before 10.10 a.m. there is time to relax for a few minutes, prepare material, and chit-chat.
Mr Noy Sibounhueang, one of my tandem-teachers, and I use the time to plan a two-hour lesson for tomorrow morning, which I will be observing. It is a grade 3 lesson and the topic is the Pythagorean theorem. As always, we try to adapt the content of the one mandatory set coursebook to the individual needs of the students, choosing suitable material and involving various activities.
One of the latest additions to our new collection of maths material in the “Didactics Room”, which we were able to set up with the help of friends and family in Germany,7 are complete sets of triangle rulers for each student as well as for the teacher in front, which are used by Mr Noy almost every single day now. It is great to see that he comes up with his own ideas about how to use the material and get all students actively involved in his lesson.
After a bit more than one hour, we are both happy about a lesson plan which includes the intended goals of the lesson, a list of material needed, a structure of the different phases of the lesson, and a short game to activate the students and practise their mental maths skills.
Since we have a few minutes left in the end, he teaches me how to calculate the square root of any given number. At first I am quite confused, but the more I practise the algorithm, the better it gets and Mr Noy seems happy with my new calculation-of-roots skills.
After a very busy and rewarding morning at school, my empty stomach is longing for food and I walk over to the cafeteria. Our almost daily lunch in school – rice and vegetables – is made freshly by Ms Soutsada Nanthavongdouangsy (Mr Khamsing‘s wife) and her helpers. While waiting for the food, I get to catch up with the other volunteers and some teachers. Behind the fence, which separates the primary from the secondary school, there are several “Mopsies” having quite a lot of fun hiding from us. Whenever we wave at them, they get really excited and giggle a lot.
On the way back to the “Didactics Room”, two of the teachers, Ms Nalee Vonkhamsai and Ms Malaitong Louxai, approach us with some interesting-looking food. Not knowing what to expect, we dare to try. The small green fruits – called star gooseberries – are dipped into a chili-salt mixture and the extremely sour taste of the fruit is mixed with the very spicy one of the chili. It leads to an explosion of taste in my mouth and I fail to resist squinching up my face. Happy moments with lots of laughter!
As the afternoon classes start, I begin my second preparation lesson with Mr Noy Vienglakhone8 the year 4 mathematics teacher. He has some questions about the content of the next unit – all sorts of roots – and we work on them together. Since I did not study secondary education, I do not feel as comfortable with the mathematical content of the higher grades as with the lower ones, but together we make a great team and are able to answer the open questions.
Like every afternoon from 3:15 pm to 4:00 pm, the children get the chance to join a club – offered by teachers and volunteers – during “Activity Time“. About twenty children are waiting in front of the classroom where Pauline’s and my “Maths Club” is going to start any minute.
We are eager to start with today’s “Activities” – working with the tangram and calculating frames which we brought from Germany.9 We also encourage the children to practise their mental maths – they are more used to solving problems on paper – and introduced several games for doing so already.10 Even though in our lessons we focus on mathematical problems and strategies, it is always our main goal to show the children that maths can be fun!
Done with school for today, the next stop is the market. As I did not know any numbers in Lao in the beginning and the Laotians did not know them in English, it was quite nerve-wracking until some days ago. With the help of the tandem-teachers, especially Ms Saysamone Singhalath, I am now “fluent” in Lao numbers and counting and am always proud when the market communication succeeds.
On the shopping list for today: Vegetables for dinner, fruits for the next morning, and most importantly – fried bananas and banana bread. This makes us drive back to the villa in joyful anticipation.
As soon as I enter the villa, my bag finds its way into some corner, while I myself relax on the couch and ease my mind. Luckily, it is not my turn to cook today, so I have plenty of time to write my weekly report and prepare my lessons for the next day11 until the much awaited call is heard: “Dinner is ready!”
After a round of playing the card game “Wizard” and chit-chatting with the others I head to bed, knowing that the alarm will go off early in the morning again, as usual. I need to get eight hours of sleep to manage my workload on the next day – therefore I put my mobile phone away, jump into my pyjamas and switch off the lights. When I go back to Germany I will definitely miss hearing the crickets chirping at night while falling asleep, just like seeking out my other flatmate Mr Cockroach in the morning.
Text & photos by A. Schuler & P. Faix
1 Many of our tandem-teachers get up as early as 4 or 5 a.m. for doing their household chores and cooking breakfast.
2 Team III apparently had no water at all for a few weeks, until the plumming got repaired.
3 Fröhlich-Ward, Leonora & Gisela Schmid-Schönbein (2004). Mopsy and me. Lichtenau: AOL Verlag.
4 Carle, Eric & Bill Martin Jr (1996). Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? New York: Henry Holt and Company.
5 For this game, it is best to use real objects or flashcards which are presented to the pupils. The children then close their eyes and one (or several) objects or flashcards are removed. By guessing which one is missing, the pupils revise the vocabulary.
6 There are 170 Mopsies in total at the two primary schools. Classes normally consist of 50-60 children each, as there are many children in Laos and not enough teachers, and we divide them up into groups of ten for our English Mopsy classes, to guarantee enough speaking time for each child.
7 A special thank you to all the donors who enabled us to bring a lot of new material over for the maths lessons: Calculating frames, triangle rulers, compasses, tangrams, several books, geoboards, and many more.
8 Mr Noy Vienglakhone, who has been teaching English lately, is now the mathematics teacher again for grade four. Although he studied mathematics at university, he had to fill in and teach English last year because one of the English teachers unexpectedly left to go back to university.
9 Our special thanks go to Wissner GmbH, who generously donated twenty calculating frames and six sets of multi-system blocks.
10 The pupils love to compete against each other. We introduced a game in which we divide the group into two teams and let them both line up. We give them oral problems to solve, mostly in Lao because we want them to focus on the mathematical solution of the problem rather than having to deal with the language barrier as well. The pupil standing in front of the team will compete against one pupil of the other team. As soon as the first knows the answer, he/she writes the result onto the blackboard. If it is correct, he/she earns a point for his/her team.
11 All of us volunteers teach around twenty hours per week at school, and in our other twenty working-hours we prepare lessons, workshops, material, blog posts, weekly reports, and other project-related files back in the villa, where we use the living-room as our communal teachers’ room in the afternoons and evenings, complete with our own printer, laminating machine, and well-equipped teachers’ library, which was stocked bit by bit with each new team arriving from Germany.