The End of the Monsters

10 11 2012

Last week, I had my last class with the so-called monsters. To celebrate, we played games, I gave away prizes, and we gorged ourselves on snacks. It was the perfect way to end such a fun group.


A Day in the Life

26 09 2012

Most Peace Corps Volunteers write a “day in the life” post. This is mine. I thought now would be a good time to write one, as it’s the first stretch of time where I’ve felt like I’ve had something resembling a routine. It won’t last long, but here’s a look at my daily life in Cambodia looks like for now.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

6:20 – My alarm goes off. Normally, I’m quick to wake up, but I did not sleep well last night. It seemed as though there was a finely orchestrated, night-long chorus of alternating claps of thunders and mice squeals. When I was sleeping, I had weird dreams. Not ready to get up yet, I decide for the third day in a row that I’ll forgo breakfast.

6:45 – I drag myself out of bed, leering enviously at Tim, who gets to sleep for another hour today. I stumble to the bathroom, where I take a shower, which entails drawing water from a large basin and dumping it over my body a few times. I quickly try to find some clothes. The 10 straight days of rain we’ve had means I haven’t been able to do laundry. I grab a pair of wool pants and an ill-fitting button down top because they’re all I have.

7:00 – I hop on my bike. It’s got a flat, but no time to fill up the tires, as I’m running behind already. I, instead, head to the market to pick up bananas, which are my contribution to the feeding session I’m about to attend. From the market, I head to the session.

7:30 – I arrive at the house of one of the village health volunteers, Ibe. Ibe is there, cutting up the pumpkin that will go in the nutritious weaning porridge we’re making for the malnourished kids in the community. After twenty minutes or so, none of the other mothers show up with their contribution so Ibe sends me back to the market, which is about 2 kilometers away.

8:00 – I head to the market, wondering why no one has shown up yet. Today is the fifth feeding session, and usually by this time a handful of mothers have arrived with food or money in hand. “Oh well,” I think, pedaling through the slippery mud, “They’ve given so much more than I expected the past few days. I’m happy to help out today.” I buy 75 cents worth of pork, two carrots, a couple of duck eggs and some rice at the market and head back. When I get back to Ibe’s house, four mothers are there, chopping greens and chatting. I’m relieved.

8:30 – I sit with the women while they prepare the porridge. They won’t let me help make the food, so I instead try to keep the children happy and occupied. I feed each of them at least two or three small bananas while we wait. I play ball with the bigger kids. The mothers discuss everything including what foods make their kids sick, the man in the community who’s cheating on his wife, why learning English is so difficult, and how to get more women to attend the feeding sessions.

9:30 – The porridge is finally ready. I nervously get out my list of names. There are fourteen mothers who are supposed to come with their young children. Attendance was low the first few days, but yesterday we went house-to-house to talk with all the families about their reasons for not coming. I thought we had broken some ground with them, but only five of the target women are here, plus a few others who always come help even though their kids are healthy.

10:00 – The number is up to ten, but we’re still missing some so I scoop some porridge into a container and go to the kids’ houses to deliver the porridge and talk with their families again. I really enjoy this part. After listening to their reasons for not coming – some of which seem more legitimate than others –  I try to negotiate with them, and leave feeling positive about our conversations.

10:45 – I finish the home visits and ride back to my house, hoping to arrive before “the monsters” do. I beat them home, great news. As I enter the house and plop down on our rattan couch, I’m thankful that Tim’s mom recently sent us a package. I dig around in the box, and pull out a bag of almonds. As I throw a handful in my mouth and begin to open my laptop, the kids arrive, ready to study English. I’m hot and tired from the running around, but the kids are full of energy and need immediate supervision.

11:00 – Only six kids show up, so it’s an easier class to teach. We spend 15 minutes coloring in our health coloring books, then talk about words related to family, wash our hands and eat some fruit. By the time they leave, I’m happy for a break.

11:15 – Tim comes home from teaching his hospitality class. We sit on the couch for a few minutes, zoning out as we check our email, Facebook and the news. Then, I head to the small balcony attached to our kitchen. This is where I do dishes.

11:45 – Tim begins to make lunch. Today, we’re having scrambled egg sandwiches, a quick lunch option with a lot of protein.

12:30 – We sit down on the couch again, this time to eat. We stream the new episode of The Office, and relax for the next twenty minutes.

1:00 – Laundry time. I head back to the balcony with a large armful of dirty clothes covered in mud and dust. I hand wash each garment, wring it out, and hang it on a clothes line that’s strewn in front of a patch of fruit trees.


2:00 – Emails. Boring.

2:30 – I spend a few minutes lesson planning for the daily English class I teach at the health center. I write out a list of words for a dictation exercise and decide on a conversation activity so the students can practice speaking some more.

3:00 – I arrive at the health center to teach. The usual crew is seated, waiting for me to arrive. There are five students, all staff members at the health center. I’ve been teaching this class since last November, so it’s my longest lasting project. It’s a fun class to teach, and I feel close to this group. Today, the students ask me about “vacation,” “light” and “faded,” words they had seen earlier in the week.

4:00 – I go back home, stopping at a friend’s house for a few minutes to “neeyay lang” (chat). She apologizes for not coming to study with me today and tells me that a patient came to her house, looking for help. The patient has low blood sugar and was dizzy, according to my friend. I am supposed to have a Skype meeting with an NGO staff member in Siem Reap at 4 o’clock, but when I get home I see an email postponing it.

5:00 – It’s time to exercise, but it’s raining. I stare at the sky a while, but decide I need to go out anyway. By the time I leave, the rain has died down to a sprinkle, but there’s a cool breeze. It’s the perfect time for a run. When I head toward the south, I’m greeted with a clear, bright rainbow. On my way back, the fiery orange sun is setting over the palm trees. It’s an idyllic view I never get sick of.

6:00 – I take another bucket shower, just as Tim is finishing up the private class he teaches on our porch each night. I quickly wash the dishes for dinner, and head off to get some work done while he cooks. I work on a document about proposal writing that I plan to post on Peace Corps’ information sharing website. I don’t get much done before Tim brings out the food.

7:00 – It’s pasta! A treat purchased in Siem Reap last week when Tim was there for work. We watch The Daily Show and catch up on each other’s days. We spend some time talking about our own projects and schedules, then decide to start planning our upcoming vacation to the southern part of the country. We poke around on a few websites looking at guesthouses and restaurants.

8:30 – I am exhausted since I didn’t sleep well the night before. I spend a few minutes stretching, brush my teeth and head to bed. Lying in bed, I think about everything I need to do for tomorrow. I’m asleep before 9:30.


The Monsters

6 09 2012

In the late morning, several times a week, I hear giggles down the street. “Oh no, it’s time!” I think, as the giggles come closer and closer. The children responsible for those giggles ride through our front gate and park their bikes under our house. “Cher, cher,” they yell, using the common abbreviation for teacher. “It’s eleven o’clock, cher.” I don’t even have to check a clock to know it isn’t eleven. If I’m lucky, it’s 10:30, but usually it’s earlier. I’ve realized by now that our 11:00 start time gets pushed back each time we meet.

The kids leave their shoes at the bottom of the staircase and hustle upstairs, by this time requesting their books. Although this is supposed to be an English class, we begin most days by coloring in our health-based coloring books that a group of previous Peace Corps Volunteers put together. The older kids like to read the health messages written in Khmer to the rest of the group, while the younger kids try to figure out how to stay within the lines. I use this time to talk to the kids about their days, reinforce positive health messages, and slowly transition into English. “What color is this,” I’ll ask, pointing to a marker that one kid is using. “YELLOW,” they’ll all reply in English, proud of themselves for remembering. “What is this,” I ask, holding up the page on dental hygiene. “TOOTHBRUSH,” they’ll scream.

The next hour or so, I desperately try to keep the group’s attention while we sit on the porch and study. With an average of ten students, ranging from 4 years old to 10, it can be difficult to find lessons that they all enjoy and can follow. Three or four of the younger students have trouble writing so I use the older kids to help teach. We also sing songs and play games to keep things interesting, but it’s difficult to predict how the day will go. On the days that the lessons work well and everyone is engaged, teaching “the monsters,” as they’re affectionately called in our house, is one of my favorite activities. On the days that the kids come in riled up or refusing to participate, it’s more difficult.

At the end of the lesson, I always feed them a healthy snack. First, I teach them the word in English. “Peanuts,” I’ll say. Or “popcorn,” “apples,” or “bananas.” Then, in unison, all of the kids start clapping and pleading, “Leeing, dai, cher??” That means: Can we wash our hands, teacher? I know it’s the snack they’re excited for, but I consider it a small victory that they’re all cheering and clapping when they ask. If nothing else, I’ve gotten them to associate washing hands with yummy foods.

To end class, we all wash our hands in the standard basins and sit down to enjoy our snack. Then, all at once, after they’ve eaten every last piece of food, they mount their bikes again and disappear, always asking, “Will we learn again tomorrow, cher?”

For more pictures of my friendly monsters, look here.


Teaching English at the Health Center

20 06 2012

I have never been a fan of teaching English. Before coming to Cambodia, I had taught English abroad several times, and I had always dreaded it. Teaching English was the worst! Although I’ve always appreciated good grammar, explaining the difference between indefinite and definite articles was enough to drive me to tears. Now, however, I have an English class that I enjoy teaching, and I consider this quite the breakthrough.

In November of last year, my health center director asked me to start teaching the staff English. I reluctantly agreed, assuring myself that their interest would surely fizzle after a few weeks and I’d be off the hook. More than six months later though the class is still going strong. It goes to show that I still haven’t learned to predict what will be successful and what will flop here.

Our English classroom

Honestly, I think part of the reason I enjoy the class so much is because it helps ease the guilt I feel for not yet figuring out how to be effective in the health center setting. Although I have many other activities that I think are positive, working in the health center still feels like the least effective thing I do. But teaching the staff English is something I feel proud of, something that has made a difference. It’s not necessarily the kind of difference I was hoping to make, but it’s a start.

I also enjoy teaching  because it allows me to show the staff my real personality. Operating in a foreign language all day really limits the ways in which I can express myself. But teaching English lets the staff see a different, more outgoing side of me than what I’m often able to show them in Khmer. Between my improved Khmer and their improved English, we are able to communicate with one another much more easily and naturally.

Finally, I like the class because the students want to learn. They come voluntarily four times a week to study with me, and are always actively engaged in the process. Even though most of them are in their late 30s or 40s and will probably not benefit professionally from the basic English classes, they are still devoted to learning with me. The class has been a great way for us to get to know one another better and has been a great tool to learn more about the community. We have no textbook and learn using more fun teaching techniques than can be used in formal classrooms. It’s been a huge surprise to me that the English class is still flourishing, but it’s been a pleasant one since the class has turned into one of my favorite activities.


One Semester Down

29 01 2012

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already been at site for almost four months. So it was a rude awakening when my coteachers told me that semester exams were coming up already. These months have been both busy and slow, productive and not, and, naturally, rewarding and frustrating.

I think my time here is significantly different from Katie’s, since I have much more structured time at the school than she has at the health center. Peace Corps requires education volunteers to be in their school for at least 16 hours a week (slave drivers, right?). It is somehow surprisingly difficult to teach much more than 22 hours at my school based on English teachers schedules. So between my English Club and public school classes, I’m at the school for about 20 hours a week in an ideal week. Once you take away holidays, community service days, coteachers not wanting to teach days, and whatever else comes up, it seems rare for me to put in a full week’s work at the public school.

When I am at school, I’ve been having a blast most days. My coteachers and I have really started to work well together, trust each other more, and have a good time while we teach. As a result, the famously stoic Khmer students are more relaxed, have more fun, and (hopefully) learn more. As I’ve slowly introduced new teaching techniques, my hesitant coteachers have seen the response from students and began to teach in the same way. This mimicry has been one very big positive sign here for me that the capacity building that we were sent here to do is happening – even on a very small level.

So this week the students have semester tests so I’m not teaching. In fact, I’m not allowed to be at the school to even observe the very tests that I wrote. Tests are always a contentious issue at my school (and probably most schools around Cambodia) due to several corruption issues. First, most public school teachers teach private classes immediately before or after school, and may choose to have a “review” session before the exam just for their private class for 4 or 5 times the regular price.

Second, at my school all the students are required to pay the teacher for each test, which is illegal in Cambodia. Early on, I recognized that making copies for all the students can be expensive so I decided not to tackle the issue since it would probably make me more enemies than friends. Recently, however, I found out that the teachers charge ten times the amount that it costs them to make copies. All told, this little test scam contributes about 20% of my coteachers’ monthly income. Not surprisingly, this makes the kids’ relationships with teachers more like customers than students. I found this out after I told my coteacher that I gave three ‘zeros’ on tests after rampant cheating in a class I was observing. He said, “The students paid for the test, so maybe we can’t give them zeros.” In spite of all the rigidity, formality, and militaristic emphasis within the Cambodian education system, it only cost twelve and a half cents for those students to completely flip the relationship of student and teacher.

But this wasn’t meant to be about corruption. A running joke in our private advanced class is how many minutes will go by before someone mentions corruption. Whether we talk about education, the environment, development, gender issues, or sports, corruption seems to come up.

Speaking of private classes, they have been going well too. I really enjoy being able to teach exactly what I want to my private students without the constraints of a book. I still have private classes four days a week. The advanced class continues to be the highlight of my week as we are able to talk in-depth about Cambodia in a structured way. I think I tend to learn more from the class than they do, but mostly they seem to be happy to be able to practice English in a relaxed setting.

With the first semester over, the thought of summer is starting to loom larger and larger over my head. I’ll need to find some work independent of the school for 3 months. There are a couple of NGOs in town that I may be able to work with; otherwise I’m going to have to get creative.

So since I have the week off, I’m taking advantage by cooking a ton, thinking about secondary projects, and spending some much needed time with my rabies-free wife.



Teaching in Kampong Kdei

2 11 2011

Since Katie has talked a bit about her work at the health center, I thought I’d try to answer some of the common questions about my work at school so far. That mean it’s time for another general update post.

School entrance

School entrance and assembly grounds

My school is home to about 1,000 students from grades 7-12 and is situated 3 km from the central market area of Kampong Kdei. It is a relatively modern school and seems to have gotten its share of attention from NGOs, USAID, and the Cambodian government compared to other schools that I’ve been to in Cambodia thus far. The school is clean and well kempt, with flowers planted along the assembly grounds, plants growing from makeshift plastic bottle pots in each classroom, and two colorful maps dutifully painted by students on the outer school walls. The school is separated into four or five main buildings, separated by grades somewhat by building. The school has both a basketball court and a football field, but the field has been underwater since I arrived four weeks ago.  Behind the school buildings, students plant corn which they later sell at the market to pay for school activities. Beyond the small vegetable plot is a pond used for all the school’s water needs (irrigation, drinking water, water for bathrooms, etc) throughout the year.

Unlike many Cambodian schools, my school has lights in every classroom, some ceiling fans, a library, and a computer lab. The library was donated by an NGO and has a librarian on staff, while the computer lab was donated by another NGO as well as by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The only problem is that the school doesn’t have money for electricity, leaving the lights off, the fans still, and the twelve donated computers covered in a fine layer of dust.


English Club classroom

Students attend school from 7-11 and 2-4 Monday through Saturday. School starts at 7 with an assembly consisting of the national anthem and some announcements over a loud speaker. Classes generally get underway at about 7:25 or so, with a fifteen minute break at 7:50. The second half of class will usually start at 8:10 depending on the teacher. This pattern follows until lunch break when all 1000 students rush out of the school gate and flood the national road with bicycles and motos, all operated by students with perfectly bright, pressed white shirts with their names printed on the left breast. At two o’clock, the tide comes back in for one final two-hour afternoon class.

Needless to say, there is a lot of movement and a lot of time off from learning at school. In any given two hour class at 7 am, there is about an hour and twenty minutes of class time. With this time, I work beside a Cambodian English teacher in relatively small classes of 40-45 students. Between classes, the teachers tend to retreat to the teachers’ lounge to discuss teaching methodologies with me and much more exciting topics with their Cambodian counterparts.


Bikes in the courtyard

My school’s students, teachers, and administrators have all been very friendly and welcoming throughout my first month at site. They tend to hold me in very high regard (too high if you ask me) and respect what questions I’ve asked (many) and ideas I’d had (few).  Right now the primary challenge is adapting a teaching style to the book that is set forth by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. The book does not encourage communication in a way that an introductory foreign language book in the US might, for example. It focuses heavily on reading and vocabulary, which, in my opinion, is creating high school graduates who are walking English dictionaries, but can’t form sentences since they never had to practice the skill during school. Another issue is that many lessons in the book would be incomprehensible to the students in their native Khmer, never mind in English. It should come as no surprise then that students struggle to read a passage about Windsurfing in Malta when none of the students have ever seen anyone windsurf or have the slightest clue where Malta is. In short, the book is incredibly challenging for all the wrong reasons.

World Map

World map mural, painted by a previous volunteer

So how do my coteachers and I deal with these issues? First, I’ve started an English conversation club to give students an opportunity to practice what they learn and teach them some colloquial English. So far, these have been a lot of fun and will allow some creativity that might not fit well in a regular class. Second, my coteacher and I will be introducing new teaching methods and supplemental lessons to teach students more effectively. Third, I will be working with coteachers to improve their English and encourage them to be more confident and creative in the classroom.

I’ll write more about the Cambodian classroom periodically in the future since I think it’s an interesting look into some very real differences in culture between the US and Cambodia. If you’re into reading about teaching methodologies and learning styles, you’re in for a real treat. If not, I’m sorry. Read Katie’s entries.

In addition to English class and English clubs, I’ve also been teaching some private classes with Katie at our house Monday through Thursday. It’s been a good way of getting to know people here, learning more about Cambodia and Kampong Kdei, and staying busy. We have three separate classes (kids beginner, adult beginner, and advanced) so every lesson is different. It’s also allowed me to try out new methods and lessons that I can use with my larger public classes.


Observing at the Health Center

28 10 2011

I have spent the past few weeks doing little more than observing at my health center; however, I have gotten to see quite a few things already. For example, a couple of days after I arrived, a Cambodian NGO—sponsored by the US government—came to the health center and led a one-week training on birth spacing practices (ie, birth control/family planning) for all of the village health volunteers (VHVs). So I got to witness the training techniques, soak in the new technical vocabulary in Khmer, meet NGO professionals and get acquainted with all 16 of the VHVs.

One of my favorite Village Health Volunteers

The health center where I work serves 16 villages, and each village appoints a health volunteer who serves as the liaison between the health center and the community. The VHV is trained in topics from general hygiene to malaria prevention to nutrition and more. In my district, each volunteer also has basic medications that (s)he can sell to the community. This would include things like ibuprofen, birth control pills, oral rehydration salts, etc.

So I met all the VHVs at this week-long training at the health center, which was great. I got to introduce myself and my role with the health center, and informally ask them about the health problems in their communities. But then, it got better! The midwife asked me to join her on village outreach events—two a day, for eight days. That meant that I could potentially see all 16 villages that are served by the Kampong Kdey Health Center.

Women and children at one of the outreach events

I didn’t make it to sixteen, but I did go to ten. The midwife would come get me at the health center and off we would ride, her on her motorcycle, me on my bike. Although riding a bike on bumpy dirt roads in the Cambodian heat was not my favorite part of the day—especially because I was trying desperately to 1.) keep up with the midwife’s moto, 2.) smile at everyone I passed and 3.) not get too sweaty since I was about to meet new people—the village visits have been a highlight for me.

In each village, we met up with the VHV. (S)he and the midwife would then give a short presentation on birth spacing methods. An interesting aspect of Cambodian culture is that pre-marital sex is not very common, particularly in the villages. So these talks were generally aimed at women who were already mothers, but did not want or could not afford to have more children.

For those of you health people out there, the seven methods that were taught include the pill, condoms, IUDs, implants, the shot, tubal ligation, and vasectomies. And just to put things in perspective, 12 condoms here cost 13 US cents and the 10-year IUD costs US$2.50.

I took pictures in each village as a way of remembering each volunteer and meeting place. To check them out, go here:

Sometimes men attend, too!

In addition to the village visits, I have spent many mornings at the center, talking with patients and observing the system. I finally feel like I have enough information to start an assessment, so next week I will dive into that. In a few more weeks I hope to update with some conclusions and, hopefully, some initial project ideas.

Other than the work at the health center, I have been helping Tim with a few private classes that we co-teach at our house. We’ve also been doing our very best to meet with every NGO in and around our town, but you’d be surprised how elusive the staff can be. We’re also taking one short hour of Khmer classes each week, which provides an opportunity to ask about things we’ve heard throughout the week, but is not enough time for any real instruction. We are still searching for a more formal tutor, and, ideally, we would each have our own since we have different schedules and different interests.


Education Training So Far

18 08 2011

After a few weeks in Cambodia and nearly 2 weeks in language and technical training, Katie and I are both getting a better idea of the challenges of the work to come. For me, the daily technical sessions are a time to discuss the best methods of overcoming the challenges I’ll encounter working with youth both in and outside of the Cambodian educational system.

Some issues are glaring, some are less obvious, and probably the majority I have yet to uncover. Many of the issues in education stem from the destruction of the education system (and educators themselves, and doctors, and anyone that spoke French and anyone with glasses…) by the Khmer Rouge. For this reason and others, there is still a shortage of teachers today.

Probably the biggest compounding factor at play in Cambodia centers around the national budget and, subsequently, teacher pay. The average teacher earns $35 to $40 per month, which contributes to poor teacher attendance and spurs corruption within the school system. Due to the low salary, most teachers have to teach private lessons and/or work other jobs to support their families. This has led to a de facto dual education system in much of Cambodia. Students attend class from 7-11 am, may attend class from 1-5 pm if it is held (if the teacher shows up), and, if financially able, may attend private class during the late afternoon and summers. Since the public and private teachers are one and the same, this leads some teachers to hold back information during public classes in order to entice students to come to their private class (think something like a time-share presentation for high schoolers).

My job here then involves a few different tactics. First, it’s to supplement the overstretched teaching staff. As a volunteer, I will have the time to prepare lessons, teach free private lessons, and build relationships with students who really need extra attention. At least in the beginning, I’ll work with a co-teacher to better integrate the Cambodian and American styles of teaching. Much of the teaching here is rote memorization provided by the teacher with very little interaction or conversation. Subsequently, many students know tons of English vocabulary, but can’t form sentences, especially in speaking. As a native speaker, providing correct pronunciation and natural conversation will likely be a fist time experience for the students.

To start I’ll be teaching 16 hours a week at the high school level. This will be used as a connection to the community in order to better determine community needs to implement secondary projects. Ideas so far (subject to change based on site, needs, wind direction, etc): mental illness awareness, peer support groups, drug and alcohol education and intervention, prisoner reintegration, etc. In short, I’ll be working on needs that the community expresses and that I have experience with.