“Quality, not quantity, is my measure.”
(Douglas William Jerrold)
Hello, hallo, and sabaidee,
from Team X! In the past few months you might have followed our experiences, adventures, thoughts and challenges by reading our posts on this blog.
Now, after our stay, we would like to take a moment to revisit and reflect on the 1,5 months that we spent in Laos as part of the Bi-directional learning and teaching project.
As three months have now passed since our departure at Wattay International Airport, we look back on our time spent in beautiful Laos with a smile in one eye and a tear in the other.
It was both a fascinating, educational, and hugely enjoyable time for all of our team, which came to a frightening, sad, and – in retrospect – surreal end. After our rushed departure due to the worldwide pandemic in mid-March, we were relieved to have made it back home to reunite with our families before there were no more flights available and transit through Bangkok was closed.
Still, with a bitter feeling, we all felt that we had to leave right when we were properly getting started. We were reassured about our decision, however, when we found out that all of our new friends in Laos, our (tandem-)teachers, staff, and everyone we stayed in touch with, as well as our families at home stayed safe and healthy. Through the support by our Lao colleagues we felt cared for and supported at all times before, during, and after our return journey.
Let us share our final thoughts about our “Bi-directional learning and teaching”, about experiences that we encountered as a team, and how it felt to work together with our awesome tandem-partners.
Team X.1 at the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC), Vientiane
We are Morten Bilger and Christine Blersch, the two volunteers who worked at the Lao-German Technical College (LGTC) in Vientiane from 13 February to 18 March 2020.
The two of us met each other for the first time in the three preparatory workshops for the project and not only became a great team but also close friends during our stay in Laos. We held some of the classes together, did team-teaching in an English evening course for motivated students, and even German conversation classes for students who would have the possibility to spend future parts of their vocational training in Germany at BHS. We complemented each other during the English class for BHS-students, and both of us did tandem-teaching with our Lao tandem-partners Ms Moukdala Keomixai and Ms Ketsana Siphonephath.
In our English classes for Lao teachers (both Beginner and Advanced level), we both had the opportunity to try out our own teaching styles.1 After our work at the LGTC, we often enjoyed having dinner with our VEDI team-members (Team X.2), exploring Vientiane, or simply spending time together in the bungalow.
As I had just finished my Master’s degree before going to Laos, I originally planned to stay there longer than my fellow team-members, i.e. for four months, until mid-June 2020. Even though I ended up having to leave Laos almost three months earlier than planned, I am very thankful for the experiences I gained.
It was a great opportunity to learn how to teach learners of a completely different cultural background and age group, compared to the learner groups I am used to teaching here in Germany. In addition, working in a team with my friend and colleague Morten Bilger and my tandem-teacher Ms Ketsana Siphonephath was an experience I would not have wanted to miss out on, since cooperating with teacher-colleagues and working with a multicultural classroom are going to be important parts of my future everyday working life as a teacher.
My initial plan was to stay in Laos and teach English for about three months while conducting a study on informal digital language learning in Laos to collect data for my Bachelor thesis. This is a fascinating topic, with mobile devices and new media just emerging in the country and students adopting it more quickly and frequently than I would have expected. However, my plans were cut short by us having to leave only 5 weeks after our arrival.
For me, the time I spent in “the land of a million elephants“ was quite a special one. I knew that I loved visiting Asian countries from prior journeys (to South Korea and China), but no place has felt more welcoming to me than Laos with its affectionate people and vibrant atmosphere all around. Work with the students and teachers felt very rewarding and pleasant, as they all were interested in learning and furthering their knowledge of the English language while trying out new teaching methods together with me.
Christine Blersch, my “colleague-turned-friend”, was a great help for me as well, with her know-how in primary education and flexible and calm attitude to educational challenges. Obviously, we both took some time figuring out what would work best when teaching English to students and teachers in Laos – or them being taught by a German teacher-trainee – but this learning curve of bi-directional learning and teaching might just be the reason why these experiences feel like they are going to shape me as a teacher for years to come.
Now that I am back home, looking back at the pictures that I took (lots of them, actually) really makes me want to go back to Laos for a second time as soon as I get an opportunity to do so.
Team X.2 at the Vocational Education Development Institute (VEDI), Vientiane
We are Celine Victoria Seeger, Chelsea Hog, and Lena Koch, and from 10 February until 17 March, we worked at the Vocational Education Development Institute in Vientiane. (Originally, we intended to stay until the beginning of April.) Now we are going to tell you about our work and tasks at the VEDI.
We took up our work from the first team at the VEDI, Laura and Phi Ha, and each of us was assigned to a Lao tandem-partner, with whom we taught classes to students together. Additionally, each of us taught one teacher-class (Pre-Intermediate level, Elementary level, and Beginner level). Last but not least, we also taught two student “Activity Times”: These are classes which are less formal and enable students to engage orally in meaningful learning activities to improve their English communication skills further.
Celine Victoria Seeger
Just like my co-volunteers, I was warmly welcomed at the VEDI and quickly adapted to working there. In general, I noticed that Lao people are very grateful for each other’s work and really appreciate each other, so naturally working here was a wonderful experience. Furthermore, students and teachers alike are eager to learn and this is what makes a teacher’s work truly enjoyable, precious, and motivating.
As mentioned above, the three of us each had a tandem-partner. I was very happy to be Mr Khonekham’s tandem-partner, who had previously worked together closely with Laura Jakob, a member of Team IX. He also was part of my Pre-Intermediate teacher-class. Together, we prepared lessons for two student-classes and co-taught them. Luckily, we also were able to share an office, as the VEDI’s English staff had managed to establish an English Department office shortly after our arrival.
This was excellent, because this way we were able to constantly communicate and get to know each better. Still, six weeks is a very short period of time, and looking back now, I would have liked to get to know my tandem-partner even better. Nonetheless, working together with Mr Khonekham was a very enriching experience: He is a very open-minded, positive, and motivated teacher.
Next to working closely together with Mr Khonekham, I was also responsible for the Pre-Intermediate teacher-class. This class is a small, but very nice class and consists of the VEDI teachers with the highest level of English proficiency. What I loved most about the class was that – even though there were not many teachers – they were all extremely eager to study and liked to talk a lot. They were also partly fluent speakers of German (as some of them studied in Germany) so it was very easy to handle any language-related communication problems. Furthermore, I was in close contact with many of these teachers in private, e.g. Mr Khounmany, who invited our whole team to join his brother-in-law’s engagement Baci and also spent a day with us at Nam Ngum reservoir.
Last but not least, together with Chelsea Hog I taught the “Student Activity Time” at Beginner level after interviewing all interested students in order to group them. Interestingly, teaching this class was a totally different experience compared to teaching the Pre-Intermediate teacher-class (which consisted of comparatively fluent speakers of English), and, honestly, I was nervous, wondering whether I would be able to successfully cope with this challenge.
As many of our students had never had any English lessons before they started studying at the VEDI, often we were not able to communicate our “Activities” or even the time at which we would offer these English lessons.
However, this class has also definitely taught me a lot: First of all, never underestimate the value of the Google translator app. In Germany, using this tool is considered as something one should rather not do, and using it makes its user look like an unprofessional language teacher. (This is because the Google translator app is often used for word-by-word translation, which can cause a lot of misunderstandings and ambiguity.) However, in Laos, it certainly was a helpful tool, and vocabulary knowledge gaps could easily be bridged by using it.
Secondly, this class taught me the power of pictures, illustrations, and the total physical teaching technique commonly used in German English classes at primary school, which requires the teacher to semanticize or contextualize words, tasks, and expressions with movements or facial expressions to “translate” to students the meaning of a word or task without having to use letters or text (because the young learners cannot read yet). For German primary teacher-students this is normal procedure, but as I train for teaching at secondary level, this was new for me, and I was amazed at how the students and we teachers could perform complex tasks such as competitive group games with only a little knowledge of English and simultaneously expand our students’ English vocabulary with this technique. Our students proved to be just as eager learners as the VEDI teachers.
All in all, my time in Laos was an amazing experience. I loved that our colleagues and we volunteers became just like a family and how everybody appreciated our presence. Not only did I teach a lot – I also learned a lot. “Bi-directional teaching and learning” is the title of our project work in Laos – and this is what it really is!
Five weeks instead of eight weeks – we learned (and taught) so much, so our time in Laos is definitely a time all of us will never forget. Lao people are very positive, grateful, and welcoming. Whatever you contribute is appreciated – this made every minute spent on the project worth it. The role of a teacher is a special one in this country, and although I had to deal with many (cultural) challenges, I always enjoyed teaching in Laos.
I taught the Elementary class at the VEDI – three times a week with 90 minutes’ input. I focused on teaching communicative lessons, so I started to introduce role-plays, listening activities with quizzes at the end, and singing songs. One aspect which was really important to me was to “decolonise my teaching”2 – by making the coursebook: “Top Notch” fit to the Lao context.
I shared an English office with my tandem-partner Ms “Laa” (Ms Davone’s nickname), Celine Victoria, and her tandem-partner Mr Khonekham. Together with Lena, Ms Laa, and Ms Vankham we prepared lessons, as Ms Laa did not teach an English course herself. In this tandem–work I learned a lot, not only from my Lao-partners but also from my work with Lena, as she had a lot of ideas – she is and was a true inspiration for me. Thank you, Lena!
In our last two weeks, Celine and I taught the student “Activity Time” at Beginner level – the so-called “Games Club.” Unfortunately, we had very little time and only about four classes before Covid-19 forced us to leave. Nevertheless, we had some good lessons with vocabulary introductions and language games to follow.
Celine already mentioned the “Games Club” in her section and she describes the challenges and learning very well. Working with Celine was nice – she is very professional and does everything 100% and in all detail – this meant that I learned a lot from her, too. It was good to work with both Lena and Celine as we shared the same experiences and challenges and worked together on understanding and overcoming them. Thanks to you two, you made my time in Laos very special, too, and I am grateful to you both.
My time in Laos was amazing. The workload was high, but enabled me to learn a lot about teaching in general, how to prepare lessons effectively, work productively, and challenge myself. As it was my task to organize meetings and write the minutes, I accomplished a lot of organization and autonomous planning. I am glad I chose this task in one of the preparatory workshops, as it was challenging, yet beneficial. The worldwide pandemic destroyed our plans of staying longer in the country – so our plans changed, but what never will change are our memories, which are filled with joy, passion, and gratitude.
As my partners already described above, our time at the VEDI was shorter than planned because of COVID-19. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful experience for me. Many things were so different compared to what I expected them to be – but in a positive way. I definitely did not expect the staff at the VEDI to be so extremely friendly and such open colleagues. Whenever I needed help I could ask someone. It was easy to get in contact with the staff and to make friends, which gave me the possibility to experience Laos in an authentic way. I am grateful for all these wonderful moments with my colleagues, who became friends to me.
Teaching was an impressive experience, even though it was completely new to me to teach adults. In my previous internships, I had taught students at secondary schools aged between 11 and 16 years.
At the VEDI, both teachers and students are motivated to learn something new and are open to any kind of activity. Trying out new things in a new context was an enrichment for my professional career as a teacher. Also, at the VEDI organisational matters were sorted out very quickly.
Three times a week I taught 90-minute lessons to the VEDI teacher Beginner class in the afternoon. It was a lively class and fun to teach, because the teachers were very motivated to learn English. I was always looking forward to these classes. After I went back home, I continued with three teachers to teach English through online conferences. This was a new experience for me as well, but staying in contact that way was very nice.
Once a week I had a tandem-lesson with Ms Vankham, whose office I was kindly allowed to work in. Together we prepared lessons and material for her English class, which was interesting for both of us while Ms Vankham took good care of me. So whenever I had questions, I could just ask her.
Two afternoons a week, I offered students the opportunity to join the “English Conversation Club.” It was the first time that this kind of offer was given at the VEDI. This club was optional for students, which were at an Elementary level of English with regard to their proficiency. Here, I put the focus on speaking activities. Sadly, it only took place four times during the time I was there. In the first two weeks of our stay, we organized the clubs and interviewed every student who wanted to take part in one of the clubs. This way we were able to split them into three groups of students who were at similar levels of English proficiency.
All in all, I can say that I had a wonderful time in Laos. The VEDI gave me so many possibilities to work on my teaching, challenging and enabling me to improve my work. Colleagues became friends and showed me the Lao way of life, which stands for so much love.
Ultimately, we are very happy to be a part of this project. As we have mentioned several times now, of course we would have liked to stay longer, but surely enough our introductory quote sums it all up nicely: “Quality, not quantity matters.” We had an amazing and very educational time in Laos, and we think our partners and students think the same way about us.
Prof. Martin also managed to offer two afternoon Workshops for us and our tandem-partners during her packed week in Vientiane, one about “Professional Learning Communities” (“PLC”) and one on “Academic Writing in English”.
Now what we can do next is to support future teams to pick up right where we left off and inspire others to take part in this project. If you now feel like this project might be something for you to participate in, do not hesitate to get in touch with any of us. If you feel up to the task, it is going to be a highly valuable and unique experience that you would not want to miss.
In the end, we would like to thank all of the people involved in the organisation of this project once more, and especially Prof. Dr. Isabel Martin, who was always very supportive during our internship and anxious to help whenever she could. We would also like to express our gratitude to all of our Lao tandem-partners, teachers, colleagues, friends, and students that we met along the way.
We also do not want to miss out on mentioning everyone else who supported us, be it family or friends. Our warmest thank you to all of you!
Text by C. Blersch, M. Bilger, C. V. Seeger, C. Hog & L. Koch, notes by I. Martin
Photos by M. Bilger, L. Koch & I. Martin
1 In the terminology of didactics and methodology, we differentiate between “approach”, “method”, “design”, “technique”, “procedure”, “practice”, and “teaching styles”. In education, teachers’ “styles” are manifestations of their distinctive charactistics and talent combined with their choices regarding methods and preferences for certain techniques. Ms Selina Stegmeier’s academic paper, which clarifies the terminology to compare different teaching styles in Norway and Zanzibar, will be summarised in a post for our “Language Education and Global Citizenship” series.
2 “Decolonize your teaching” is a consequence derived in 2003 from the tenet “Decolonizing the mind” first formulated by Kenyan author and emer. Professor of Literature Ngugi Wa Th’iongo in 1986. This was developed into new “postmethod” teaching concepts by emer. Professor of Linguistics Dr. Balasubramanian Kuramavadivelu and others, which, however, were not taken much notice of by their European colleagues in the field of Applied Linguistics. This year, though, the climate of eco-political discourse has been changing rapidly, and decolonising our minds, languages, cities, museums, street names, consumer habits and much else is a regular feature at long last in the daily news.
In our series “Language Education and Global Citizenship“, Ms Selina Stegmeier and Ms Chelsea Hog will introduce the main theories in their forthcoming articles in order to explain how to decolonize one’s teaching: “From Method to Postmethod”.
Dr Kuramavadivelu is the author of Language Teacher Education for a Global Society (2012), Cultural Globalization and Language Education (2008), Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod (2006), and Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for Language Teaching (2003). Another related and seminal publication is Robert Phillipson’s Linguistic Imperialism (1992).