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“Yes, they can!” – Lao pupils become authors and illustrators

Sabaidee!

We are Pauline and Meike of Team VII. In addition to our diverse regular tasks during our stay in Laos this past winter, we took responsibility for a new, temporary project, which started shortly after we arrived in Laos: Within a course of six months, our pupils wrote their very own stories and illustrated them afterwards before they were finally published as picture books. The whole project was carried out in cooperation with Vientiane-based Pum Anh Book Promotion House, and now we both are going to take you along on the whole journey and share our experiences, findings and learning processes!

 

Step 1: Establishing contact

Last autumn in Melbourne, Australia, Prof. Martin and Prof. Joseph Lo Bianco continued discussing their shared academic area of interest, namely language education and policies in Asia. When Prof. Martin mentioned that she was headed to Vientiane next, Prof. Lo Bianco put her in touch with Mr Cliff Meyers, the founder of Pum Anh Book Promotion House. At short notice, a meeting between the two of them was scheduled, and both sides were interested in each other’s work. So it came that on the following day already, a second meeting was arranged, during which Team VII also had the chance to get to know Mr Cliff Meyers and his wife Ms Soukphachane Saysena over lunch.


Step 2: Setting the frame – preparatory bits & pieces

Soon after, another – more formal – meeting was organised, this time at the schools. The two of us (Pauline & Meike) were filled in on the publishing procedure, i.e. from first workshop to final product. We received enough insight into Pum Anh’s ways of working so as to be able to make the following decisions:

  • How many different books could or should we realistically opt for? (between 5 and 10, depending on the children’s abilities, creativity and motivation)
  • Whom would the workshops be suitable for? (year 3-5 primary school pupils)
  • How many pupils would be able to participate? (around 30)
  • Would we want to give them a topic about which to write, or did we want to give them complete freedom of choice? (freedom)

Once this frame was set, we derived the first and next steps, first agreeing on a time frame and concrete dates, then pinning down who would be responsible for what. In order to prepare for the first workshop, the primary English teachers, Ms Mittaphone Sichampa and Ms Bounpheng Singhalath, kindly helped us select children who had previously stood out positively or simply had shown an interest in literature, reading, writing, books, or participating in this new project.


Step 3: Workshops – writing the stories

In total, three workshops were held: Two 1-hour sessions, which took place during Activity Time on the 30th of October and 1st of November 2018, and one longer session on the following Saturday. The workshops were held in the newly built library of Ban Phang Heng Primary School, and were attended by 32 children of said year groups.

At first, the pupils were presented with a short input about the general structure of stories and were then led through different examples, with room for their own ideas and questions. Further, they discussed the criteria of an interesting story and worked out how to make it engaging for the reader, i.e. by choosing an appropriate main character and setting for starters.

After the children had been divided into small groups, they started writing their own group stories. Just in case that they were lacking ideas, Mr Phoulavanh Phengphavanh – Mr Cliff’s and Ms Soukphachane’s colleague – had prepared a list of possible fictional characters and settings to make the start easier for them. They entailed different animals, living objects (e.g. a pencil) or a man on the moon, to name our favourite examples. We imagined they would make a good start for a great story! 

The next session was all about revising the group stories: The children received enough time to go through their story once more in order to decide if it made sense, check that it did not lack any information, make sure every group member was happy with the content, and, if not, change it accordingly. Due to the language barrier, the two of us were no big help in improving the stories, but we enjoyed observing the rare group work setting and lively atmosphere very much.

On Saturday, 3rd November, we came together for the final, longer session. In the beginning, the children presented their group stories to each other. The other children in the plenary listened carefully, gave feedback and suggestions for further improvement. Madame Engel kindly provided enough water and snacks for everybody, which we all enjoyed during our first break.

Now that everyone felt refreshed, the children started writing their own stories, this time individually. We were both pleased and proud when we learned from Ms Bounpheng and Ms Mittaphone that the children’s stories made sense, and Pum Anh seemed to be pleased with them, too. After the hard work was done, we were all rewarded with noodle soup for lunch, which Ms Bouangeun Hanthavong had arranged for us.


Step 4: Editing processes – arriving at the final versions of text

Next, a copy of each story was given to Pum Anh, who then read all of them, to choose the most well-written or creative ones out of the 32. Those stories were slightly edited and handed back with suggestions how the story could be made even better. The authors then had the right to decide whether they wanted to keep the changes or not and whether to take the suggestions into consideration.

Once the stories were finalised, they were roughly translated and sent back to us. They had also been broken down into small chunks, thus making the next step a lot easier for us.


Step 5: Illustrations

Traditionally, picture books combine text and images, so mentoring the creation of the images came next. Since Madame Engel fosters the children’s artistic competences at the AfC schools and is very proud of their achievements, it was only logical that they were involved in this process as well. Luckily, one of us (Pauline) is an arts student and was able to join Ms Khongphet Phantavong’s voluntary artwork club, which she offers at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School during “Activity Time”.

Once we had gotten the final seven stories, broken down into the individual sentences, Ms Khongphet identified eight talented students who would now work on the illustrations with us.1


Step 6: Constant contact between cooperation partners

As this project was carried out in cooperation between our project “The Laos Experience” (by AfC & PH Karlsruhe) and Pum Anh Book Promotion House, we were constantly in touch, either via email or meetings, thus making sure the project was progressing well.

Many formalities had to be discussed, ranging from the question of language(s) (Lao and English) to the amount of copies which were to be printed of each book, and then also financial matters. When the texts and illustrations were finally finished, there was post-production work to do still, i.e. writing the preface & thanks pages, in which we listed all the children who had been involved as authors or illustrators. After this, the original Lao versions of the texts and their English translations had to be proofread, then checked against each other. To ensure high quality, the book drafts were passed through many different hands for these processes until we could be sure that the result in each book was coherent and everything fit in the end.


Our own learning processes

Unsurprisingly, neither of us had prior experience in book publishing. The steps that were easily summarised and described above called for quite a bit of extra work in real life, which came on top of our regular workload. However, it was interesting for us to accompany the whole process from beginning to end, and it also held potential for professional, project-related, as well as culture-related learning. Here is our list of the most important aspects:

 

1. “Yes, they can!” – proving sceptics wrong

The Lao culture is an oral culture, in which reading and writing have always played a subordinate role. For a long time, books were used in and for school only, whilst reading a book for pleasure used to be a rather foreign concept. Nowadays, reading and writing are becoming ever more important, which is reflected in the “National Curriculum” and brings other projects to life, i.e. Big Brother Mouse. (Various teams in our project have also used picture books for teaching.) However, this is an ongoing process and cannot be expected to bear fruit immediately.

For this reason, we were a little worried beforehand. We wondered if the children would be able to write their own stories, as we were also confronted with contrary opinions on this question. Knowing that we would not be able to actively contribute much due to the language barrier further added to our initial insecurity.

It turned out that we worried unnecessarily, and we were very pleased indeed when we learned that the children came up with good stories. Even though regular lessons in Lao schools offer little room for including – or even fostering – the children’s imagination, the Lao storytelling tradition seems to make up for that. Generally, this proves once more how expedient and valuable a supportive learning atmosphere is which takes children’s competences and prior learning into account and in which new learning processes are adequately adapted.2

 

2. Unforeseeable changes and events – Spontaneity is the key!

Shortly before the extra workshop, it became apparent that Pum Anh and us had entered different dates into our calendars. As ours would not have worked for everyone involved, we had to move it forward. At first, we felt a little overwhelmed – not to say disquieted – as we now had to spontaneously pull it all together. However, we soon learnt that this feeling was owed to our Western (German) mind-set and – luckily – entirely unnecessary. Since weekends in Germany are usually packed and an event like this should ideally be announced weeks in advance if so many other people’s schedules have to match, we were worried that none of the children who had taken part in the first two sessions would be able or allowed to come on the Saturday as well. Even though Lao children and families have private weekend arrangements and appointments, too, of course, they do not know the concept of “free time stress”. Many of our teacher friends were kind enough to help us send a “perfect parents’ letter” home (Ms Saysamone’s words) in order to explain the situation and invite the children for two days later…. and then, 32/32 pupils participated.

On the day itself, we were running late (or thinking we were running late), and it was of all things on this particular day that a stray dog ran into our garden when we were on our way out. After having chased it for at least five minutes, twice thinking we had managed to get it out, yet twice realising it had found another way to sneak in again – seemingly enjoying this game very much – we could finally set off for the workshop. Despite arriving late, very much to our surprise, we were amongst the first ones to arrive. The stereotype of Germans always being on time does seem to hold some truth, at least when compared to other countries. So that worked out very well for us! Also, while running late in Germany will be excused when explained by a good reason, we experienced on different occasions that this procedure does not seem to be a feature in politeness and is therefore not necessary at all in Laos.

 

3. Children’s attitudes

What was even greater to see was that the children came with smiles on their faces. Admittedly, since our Lao language skills are limited, we would not have understood phrases such as “oh no, school on a Saturday!” anyway, but judging from the attendance, results, facial expressions and overall motivation it did not seem likely to us that this had been the case. We cannot say for sure, of course, that the smiles had anything to do with appreciation for this additional educational offer rather than with various other possible reasons like spending time with their friends, diversion from their usual weekend routines, enjoying free snacks and noodle soup, or a mixture of all of them; but we both thought we felt a different, more positive attitude and atmosphere than we probably would have encountered in a German school during a Saturday activity.

 

4. Lao children’s stories: different to ours?

Another aspect we observed is that most of the stories’ endings leave room for reflection and come with a moral as stories from the oral tradition usually do. However, this aspect left us puzzled at first and it took us a while to “unmask” what our initial astonishment was rooted in, namely the current Western tendency to spare (young) children from sensitive topics. In terms of stories and endings those are preferred that draw a rather unrealistic and sugar-coated picture of the world. Also, as future teachers we often see didactisised (EFL) books which concentrate on language development more than content, so the story “problem” usually comes with a “solution”, i.e. a happy ending. After being reminded, we realised how these influences impacted our thinking and then we of course remembered enough Western stories without happy endings, e.g. the fables and ancient fairytales we grew up with.

When we had understood that our surprise was caused by the discrepancy between our (initial)  Western expectations and the actual endings written by our Lao pupils, we still kept speculating about possible explations of the absence of happy endings: They may be owed to cultural differences, i.e. Southeast Asian or Lao children’s stories generally being more serious and reality-oriented. Further, stories might generally not be as common, which could be in line with the less pronounced reading culture. Another possibility we thought of was that Laos might just not be as influenced by current Western trends. Be that as it may, it was highly interesting for us to make this discovery, and we could well imagine using our Lao pupils’ books in our future German classrooms to discuss them with our pupils.


Prospect

All in all, seven stories underwent the production procedure before being printed, and 240 copies of each story were ordered.

Half of them are going to be shipped to Germany and used as corporate gifts, whilst the other half is going to stay in the three AfC schools in Laos, and complimentary copies are hopefully going to be handed to the authors and illustrators. It would be desirable if they did not remain in the corner unread and unused, but if they were used by the teachers either for teaching or as examples of what can be achieved, and hopefully filling the authors and illustrators with the same feeling of pride as us!

 

Text by M. Weis & P. Faix
Photos & videos by P. Faix, M. Weis, J. Zeck & restaurant owner

 

Notes

1 Our pupils were responsible for illustrating three of the seven stories. Depending on their lengths and content, the number of illustrations varied between seven and eleven.

One could ask why we would ask them to write the books – or ask them to read and write at all – if it was meaningless to them and irrelevant to the Lao culture in the first place. Why not just let them enjoy their weekend by letting them do what Lao children do? We would like to point out that as invited guest-teachers we do not simply “import” ill-fitting Western traditions and competences, but carefully observe and then reflect with our partners on what is needed or wanted and can be supported by us.
Laos aims to progress from Least Developed Country (LDC) status to a Middle Income Country by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2030). One of the criteria is scoring a certain level on the Human Assets Index (HAI), which entails to permanently reduce its illiteracy rate. Helping the pupils learn how to read and write, and how to use their imagination and creativity, should help for their individual futures.

 

References

Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. “Entwicklungsländer”. http://www.bpb.de/nachschlagen/lexika/lexikon-der-wirtschaft/19220/entwicklungslaender (accessed 19th of April, 2019)

United Nations Development Programme. “Lao PDR’s eligibility for graduation from LDC status confirmed”. http://www.la.undp.org/content/lao_pdr/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2018/3/19/lao-pdr_s-eligibility-for-graduation-from-least-developed-countr.html (accessed 19th of April, 2019)

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