Wednesday, May 18, 2016

School Is Back In Session

Hoisting the flag at Thasang Village Elementary School

Yesterday was the first full day of the new school year here in Northeast Thailand. I ended up at Thasang Village Elementary School just before the start of the school day.  I was attending a religious event at the house behind the school and planned my arrival to coincide with the start of day activities at the school.

Thasang Village Elementary School

The elementary school that Duang attended for four years and the school that is still used for six grade levels is located on the main road just outside of Thasang Village.  When Duang went to school, students started school when they became seven years old.  Today the children start when they are three years old.  The school is comprised of several buildings.  There is the main classroom building - an elevated 8 room wood structure.  There is an assembly hall about 10 meters by 10 meters square with a tile floor at grade that is also used as the 3 and 4 year old classroom.  There is a library building similar to the assembly hall but smaller.  There is a kitchen building.  There is a bathroom building.  A large playing field separates the school building from the road.  The school is typical of the schools scattered amongst the villages throughout Isaan.

This year, forty of Tahsang Village's children attend the school.  They are instructed by 4 teachers (a couple of teachers instruct in more than one class at a time), a Principal, a Deputy Principal and acting Nurse, and Administrative person.

There are some differences in this typical Isaan school and public schools in the USA.  Outside of the building there is a Buddhist shrine near the flagpole.  In the classrooms there is a religious Buddhist picture alongside a photograph of the King and a picture of the Thai flag. The Buddhist religion is an integral component of Thai daily living, Thai government, and Thai education.

Although 97% Buddhist and with Buddhism being the official state religion, Thailand is tolerant of other faiths.  I have seen and visited Catholic, and Protestant churches along with Hindu temples.  I have seen many Mosques and I have seen Mormon missionaries out and about Udon Thani on their bicycles.

Elementary schools in Isaan are constructed out of wood rather than steel, brick and concrete.  The schools here do not have air conditioning which makes sense because the schools do not have glass in their windows or ceiling insulation or even insulation in the walls.  The windows in the school do not have screens either.  There are a couple small fans in the class room to move the air around - just as in the student's homes.  The floors of the school are wide wood planking - I suspect teak wood.  The floors are smooth from many years of many students walking over them.

There is a TV mounted in a sturdy steel frame on the classroom wall so that media can be integrated into the teaching program.  There was also an old desktop computer on the teacher's desk of the classrooms.

The classrooms are illuminated by a couple of bare florescent tube lights - no reflectors or diffuser grids - just a bare tube - like in the student's home.  The school roof is corrugated steel with no sound damping application which must make for difficult hearing during downpours.  The classroom furniture is heavy wood and utilitarian.  I suspect that some of the chairs and desks that Duang used over 40 years ago are still being used.  As in so many aspects of Lao Loum culture here in Isaan, the schools fully utilize what is available and take care of what they have.  There is a focus on items being "fit for purpose" rather than "stylish" or "modern".

After parking my truck in front of the school, I was soon surrounded by some of my young friends from the village - Tey, Fugh, Nong Kem, Pizza, Eat, Omsim, and Care.

While older students were busy sweeping out the classrooms and corridor of the school, the younger children were free to play.

Omsim made it a point to show me what she could do with the playground equipment.

The playground equipment was quite rudimentary but fit for purpose.  There is plenty of ground for the children to run around - flat ground - dirt and some grass.  There is a small section that is paed over with concrete with a basketball hoop at each end.  There is also a soccer goal with tattered netting at each end.

There is a run set up similar to the tires that American football players run through during training.  However rather than being constructed of car or truck tires, this running maze is made out of recycled motorcycle tires painted with bright colors and bound together with parachute cord.  Little Omsim ran through the maze like a little champ!

Perhaps the most popular equipment was a series of wood columns of different heights and spacing driven into the ground.  Each of the columns was painted with a different bright color.  It was so much fun that even I gave it a try.  However my knees and tentative sense of balance reminded me that it has been a long time since I was in elementary school and that this piece of equipment is meant for children.

Another fit for purpose and recycled piece of equipment was a climbing structure constructed out of motorcycle tires lashed together with paracord and painted with different bright colors.  It looked  like a great deal of fun but was not meant to support someone my size.

After a while, the school principal struck a metal bell, which sounded like a ship's bell, several deliberate times to signal the official start of the school day.  Three of the older students came forward to the flagpole with the Thai flag.  All the other students lined up by class on the play ground.  The younger students, wearing their distinctive school uniform - red shorts, red skirts, pale blue shirt, and smock, formed up at the left closest to the flagpole.  The other students formed up by class and separated by sex to the left of the small students.

As the Thai flag was raised, all the students sang the Thai National Anthem.

It was quite a moving rendition of the national anthem.  The children more than compensated for their lack of singing sophistication with their energetic enthusiasm.

After completing the anthem, the student's attention became focused on the platform to the left of the flag pole. Inside of a cage on top of the platform is a statue of Buddha.  Led by one of older girls, all the students prayed and chanted.

Upon completion of the religious aspect of the start of day ceremony, the children then paid their respects to each other.  In Thailand, people demonstrate greetings and respect by performing the "wai" gesture.  The wai is performed by raising the hands in a praying position while bowing the head.  The degree the head is bowed and the height to which the hands are raised indicates the level of respect for the person and is dictated by the social status of the person that the gesture is offered to. The significance of the wai to Thai culture and social fabric is so great that children are taught how to do it starting when they are 6 months old.

After showing their respect to their classmates, the students then showed their respect to the older students and finally to their teachers.

The principal then made some announcements.  After the announcements, she had the older students pair up with the youngest students prior to all the students setting forth on "yard duty"  The students set forth about the school grounds picking up trash.

Yard Duty
After clearing the school grounds of plastic bottles, glass bottles, plastic cups, scraps of paper, candy wrappers, foam containers, plastic sheeting and assorted debris, the students assembled at the edge of the playground.  One of the teachers than gave the students a lecture on recycling.  She talked about recycling plastic and glass.  The students then placed the materials in the appropriate recycling bin.

The students then proceeded to the outdoor wash station to clean their hands and. for some, play with some water before heading off to their classrooms.

Cleaning up before going to class

Just like I have written about the differences in medical care and more importantly medical care costs here in Isaan as opposed to America, I have the same conclusion regarding public education here in Isaan.  A great deal of the costs of public education in America is involved in the physical facilities as well as maintenance of those facilities.  Those costly monuments, vestiges, and trappings of the current education system do not necessarily pay dividends in the quality of the student's education. They are more resume builders and testimonials to the administrators of the local education bureaucracy.  Here in Isaan the facilities no way compare to those in the USA however the students seem to get the education that they need for this society.

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