This blog has been focused on sharing stories about Cambodian life from a personal perspective. But I get asked a lot about what work we are doing here. Tim and I work as unpaid volunteers for a local NGO, established about 8 years ago by a young Australian woman, a mover and shaker. The NGO provides much needed social support to Battambang’s poorest families. It was once an orphanage but quickly decided to move away from the model due to the perils of institutionalisation and the knowledge that children are better off with family members. Relatives such as aunties or grandmothers have been tracked down and in most cases, they are happy to relocate to Battambang where they get support to care for the kids. For those children who are legitimate orphans without family, they are cared for by devoted foster aunties and uncles who have been working with the organisation for a long time and understand the life long commitment of raising children. In two words: remarkable humans. What has impressed us most about the NGO is their child protection policy is bullet proof and international best practice, the benchmark (and the reason I can’t plaster the kids’ gorgeous mugs here).
There is a saying ‘Cambodian Time’. A phrase that refers to being patient as things take time, plans change and do complete somersaults only to land back at the beginning. This has definitely been true of the culture shock and adjustment for our family. You can basically double the figure you think it will take and add some. And this is primarily why I’m so glad we didn’t come for a short time (we are fortunate to have no set return date) because you are always working to that date and as it draws closer you begin to mentally withdraw from the place you’re in. In the past, I’ve always travelled to a deadline (like most of us do!) but more than that, it was like I had to cram all these things in (tick it off the list) which is so different from letting life and the journey unfold naturally.
I have been teaching English over the past month as we eagerly await the opening of the School in the Cloud classroom. It’s been a great foundation to get to know all the kids (all 80 of them). First I taught yoga over the summer break and now we sing songs, incorporate yoga and practice English. These kids have had no formal English lessons. The local public schools are fraught with problems. So the level of education is dubious. As is so often the case across the globe, teachers are poorly paid so they often moonlight in other jobs and their attendance rates are low! Often they don’t show up and the class sizes are large, they feel pretty overworked and under appreciated, I’m sure. Again the cycle of clever graduates who could help improve the quality of education choose to work in banking or for foreign corporations where they get more dosh.
The space was previously a cabana where I taught yoga and a much needed shady place for sweaty football players mid afternoon. The design is quite simple and uses easily sourced materials like concrete. But since the School in the Cloud program is about encouraging creative thinking and inspired by Earthship Cambodia the top part of the walls will be recycled bottles letting fractured light decant the space.
We want to put vertical gardens around the exterior walls. The computer stations will have curved edges much like surfboards.
What is The School in the Cloud?
School in the Cloud is the brainchild of an Indian bloke Sugata Mitra who is one inquisitive guy posing lots of big questions about how children can learn for themselves through the use of technology. Let’s face it we are in a period of unprecedented change and the education system needs a face lift. He has his critics (mainly from the academic fraternity who want to see proof) but I’m willing to get involved in the experiment and see what happens. Part of my job is to document observations throughout the SOLE (Self Organised Learning Environment) sessions and funnel this data back to India.
We’ve begun testing the kids’ English levels this week to get a baseline from which to chart their progress over the course of the program. Some of them are so hungry for knowledge. Painstakingly trying to identify letters even though they’ve only learnt the alphabet via the ABC Song and can barely recognise individual letters. It will be very interesting to see where their knowledge goes from here. Another part of the testing is to gain qualitative data relating to their aspirations. All in Khmer, I work with an awesome Khmer counterpart, Chantha who is so perceptive and caring and gets the nature of the work, allowing the kids space to explore. She asks them the perennial question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. The answers range from ‘”cook rice” to a painter (it “makes me happy”) to the usual suspects of doctor, nurse and teacher. The point of this exercise is to see if their dreams change as a result of access to the internet and School in the Cloud philosophy, and in what ways they transform.
Tim is working on the building helping Buff who is his Khmer counterpart. These two, as thick as thieves, both with a killer sense of humour and matching Buddha bellies (Tim’s is fast shrinking though). For first two months before Tim got his own bike, these two were spotted cruising around on the one moto sourcing potential materials and sites. Tim is also infiltrating the local arts scene working at the NGO’s gallery and undertaking an artist residency (another post).
As you can see we are busy and there is loads we can do.
For any education nerds, you may find this video interesting. A light bulb moment for Tim and I- sparking us to embark on this journey and giving us confidence in our own kid’s education.
Happy Wednesday x