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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 6, April 2007

Helping out in Phuket

by Peter Adams

Furthest from my mind, as I disembarked from the Vancouver to Bangkok flight four months ago, was teaching English in a Phuket primary school. After 35 years as a secondary teacher in Canada, I believed I was about to begin an extended vacation in Southeast Asia. Within a week of my arrival in Thailand, however, I read an article in the Bangkok Post describing a special English language program in Baan Kalim School, Phuket Island, Southern Thailand. I was greatly impressed by the Phuket Has Been Good To Us Foundation’s efforts to help children in a village that was ravaged by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

Phuket Has Been Good To Us was formed in response to the tsunami by a group of Phuket business and professional people, together with educational leaders. The foundation works with local educators to improve the economic opportunities and life chances of young people, by funding and implementing high quality, practical English-language education in government schools on Phuket Island. The foundation wants to help Thai youth become capable and confident English speakers, so that they can secure well-paying employment, remain close to their families on Phuket Island, and ultimately begin to assume the reins of the economy.

Phuket is a place where English is widely spoken, but where few Thais speak English well and most high-paying jobs and upper-management positions on the island are dominated by expatriates. In a recent study, Thailand ranked second to last among nations in the region in English-language skills. The foundation is committed to addressing this in a positive and proactive way.

With its warm waters and fine sandy beaches, Phuket is an idyllic location for work or vacation. It is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, with a cost of living about a third of that in BC. The country contains some of the most beautiful Buddhist temples, often set amongst verdant rainforests. With world-renowned cuisine and warm, friendly people, it often seems like a tropical paradise.

A week later, after being accepted as a volunteer teacher in the school, I was on my way to Phuket. What a wonderful experience it has been. The children, ranging in age from six to twelve years, are an absolute delight. Eager to learn, the pupils energetically engage in every classroom activity, in the same way they would join in playground games. It is no wonder, as the program emphasizes a child-centered approach. Using the most up-to-date materials and teaching strategies, and with class sizes of less than 20, the pupils learn practical verbal, reading, and writing skills.

Kate Cope, the foundation’s educational director, has put in place a wide array of learning materials. Teachers use an interactive approach to teaching English, which includes the use of a miniature, hands-on, "educational playground" for the English-language classroom. The program is focussed on "total physical response," which engages the children by hearing, seeing, and actually doing.

The children eagerly move about the classroom examining maps, posters, books, games, and models of everyday objects found in the home and the market. I am constantly being served with impromptu meals of model sandwiches, pizza, ice cream, fruit, and vegetables. It felt strange at first to pretend to eat plastic grapes, but after seeing the delight on the children’s faces, I now welcome the opportunity to engage them in conversation about the various kinds of fruit being held in a child’s pretend shopping basket. We even have plastic models of life-size lobster, clams, and crabs. All of these provide perfect opportunities to ask, What is this? Do you like that? and so on. Imagine the delight in hearing a little seven-year-old reply "This is a ham, cheese, and lettuce sandwich."

There is no emphasis here on memorizing lists of words and phrases. We use games, puzzles, and role-playing to such a positive extent that many children arrive early to class and linger after the lesson is over. Bingo games, using the names of objects rather than numbers, are a real favourite.

Co-operation among pupils is constantly encouraged. It is most rewarding to observe children helping each other to finish a crossword puzzle or match-up game. Imagine the beaming smile of a child basking in the applause of the class after correctly pronouncing a series of words in English. I can’t think of more conclusive proof of the success of the program.

I came to Thailand to see the sights and learn something of the culture. I had no idea that my insights would be provided by the pupils of a primary school in Phuket. I have been led to conclude that children all over the world love to learn and are eager to help each other. Given the appropriate setting, both of these can be accomplished in a co-operative and supportive fashion and at an astonishing rate. In my case, the teacher has become the learner.

If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities at Baan Kalim School, please contact Stephen Cope, Director of Development, +66 (0)76-341-932, stephen@phukethasbeengoodtous.org, www.phukethasbeengoodtous.org

Peter Adams is a retired Langley teacher.

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