Monday, April 4, 2011

It's almost New Years!

Edit: Pics are up on facebook!

Yepp, New Years is almost here. It'll be here in about a week and I'm not really sure which year it'll be but its definitely a new one. This'll be my third new year in Cambodia so far and not only is it a New year, but somehow Khmer New Year lasts three whole days! I'm anticipating a ton of food and parties around twon starting this Wednesday. School has already stopped and won't start again for 3 weeks. Unfotunately, or fortunately, the Health Center doesn't close for quite so long. I think we get 3 days of vacation time. More updates on that as the days roll on.

In other news, I finished my first major/minor project! I've done some other things but I think this is my first project where a start and finish are easily identifiable. Though, as with any project, you don't want it to ever really end because you hope that the change will last forever. Anyway, what i did was a reading contest at the local primary school. A few months ago I started hanging out at the primary school because my khmer tutor taught private english classes there 5 days a week to the high school students. Every once in a while the library would be open late enough for me to hang out there a bit. It's a fairly new library, very cute and well stocked. It's the perfect environment for young children to hang out, play games, and read some books. But, I rearly saw other kids there. So, I remembered that during summers at home in NYC I'd go to the library every week. Mostly because i was a nerd and I loved to read, sometimes I went multiple times in one day. But also because the library would have summer reading contests where you read as many books as you can over the course of the summer and you qualify for prizes. Along the way you have to record your books, give either a verbal or written summary, and have it checked by the librarian.

This project costs relatively nothing, just costs for prizes and photocopies. For prizes I gave some pens and some cute notebooks. In total, about 3 dollars per winner for 4 winners, and that was a splurge on my part. I proposed it to the school director in early February and he agreed immediately saying that he wanted to do something similar, but he couldn't think of a less labor intensive way. His idea was for each child to provide a lengthy oral summary of each book, which actually could be a great contest on it own. I remember we used to have storytelling contests in elementary school. So my plan was that my khmer tutor and I would make out a standard recording form, and write out directions, and photocopy everything. After that, it was up tot eh teachers to explain the contest and the librarian had to approve every sheet that the students turned in. At the end of two months I would collect back all the forms and figure who won. The top kids in each grade level would get a prize and all participants would get a certificate. At the end of the two months, the school would also organize, on their own, an award ceremony for the kids. So mostly all I did was work out the logistics with the school director and make a lot of photocopies. The school handled the rest and I tried really hard to trust them.

It all came down to last week. I sat down with all the forms, organized them, and wrote out about 90+ khmer with the help of one of my host cousins. She's 8 and has better handwriting than me... I was really happy overall because we had about a 25% participation rate in the end, if you count the kids that cheated. Which is a hilarious anecdote of its own. So i first became suspicious when I noticed some of the forms were photocopied. I thought that maybe they just wanted it to look neater. Then I realized that the forms were the same, which really was obvious because the handwriting was so distinct. Some of the kids literally took the form, photocopied it, then crossed out the names and put their own. Some were a little more highclass and used whiteout. Most of these kids were in 3rd grade, so in a way its understandable.

I had the school director make the decision on those and surprisingly he made the same decision I would have made and I didn't even have to lead him in that direction. He told me to just leave them out, even when it was obvious who made the original and who made the copies. At first he wanted to give the originals the certificates, but since it wasn't always clear he just made it a blanket ruling. Which in my mind is the most fair. My khmer tutor did protest, saying that these were just kids. And it made me hesitate, just a bit, but then I said that kids will never learn if you let them get ways with it all the time. And maybe he agreed. But part of me does feel really bad about the 3rd graders.

Anyway, the day of the ceremony rolls around and I really have no idea what to expect. I go to work for 2 hours in the morning and then I walk over to the school. To my delight, there's a huge crowd of kids. Some desks neatly organized. Flowers in vases, even a megaphone! Some teachers are there to help. I enlist some in taking pics, which will be up at a later date. The whole thing is a huge success. The certificates even go the official school stamp and signatures on them. The kids were all super happy and when I go home I saw my 8 year old showing off her certificate to everyone. I made a speech, the director made a speech. He even bought the water for everyone like we arranged and had an actual receipt which i had asked for! The clouds wnt away and the sun was shining, but it wasn't too hot. Everything was so perfect.

Overall I thik the project was a success. I'm hoping to see book borrowing rates increase and this project definitely solidified my relationship with all the teachers and students at the primary school. Some things I would have liked to fix : 1)  having the school come up with the idea on their own or asking me for help to make their idea happen instead of me proposing the idea. I tried to emphasize open communication in all my meetings and my speech so maybe this'll be better later on. 2) increased participation in 3rd and 4th grade with no cheating. I think it's really important to get people reading early on and these grades had the lowest participation rates. I think partly because they don't really know how to read. My host mom, a 5th grade teacher, told me once that her students didn't know all the vowels. Granted there are like 20+ vowels, but still...This is a problem that won't be addressed by a reading contest necessarily. I think this contest really will only push kids that were on the edge toward being better readers. Kids that just needed a little more motivation to go to the library regularly. It won't teach kids to read.  3) The library at the high school is not very good so after 6th grade there are no age-appropriate books available to the kids. That sort of just kills the sustainability right there.

In a week I hope to go to Phnom Penh to pick up some books from Asia Foundation which will then be donated to the library. I'm also hoping for some health education books because I haven't seen any of those in Khmer around. Pics will be up soon! I promise.


  1. Wow, congratulations Helen! I think I could maybe ask the Red Cross if we could raise money to buy more books for kids in Cambodia (but everyone's mostly focused on raising money for Japan, which-did you hear already?-suffered a huge tsunami/earthquake that has killed thousands and also created radiation risks because some of Japan's nuclear reactors were destroyed/overheated; so far, radioactive fallout has reached California I think, but according to official sources, the radiation is not life-threatening).