A school that talks with the parents.

Savong has always loved teaching.  He is a natural.

Savong has always loved teaching. He is a natural. This picture was taken in 2004.

Yesterday I had a nice long talk with Savong about progress  with the primary school and he told me something that was music to my ears. schools in Cambodia can be fairly laissez-faire when it comes to classroom attendance. What with the prevalence of illness, family dramas and seasonal needs – whereby kids are expected to help harvest the rice – classroom attendances can rise and fall quite dramatically during the course of the school year.

Well, Savong’s School has adopted a policy of  keeping a close eye on attendance, and contacting parents of those children who have not turned up. This kind of pro-activeness is virtually unheard of in Cambodia, and over time is bound to win more respect from the community.

During the conversation Savong was complaining about the amount of paperwork he has to handle. Yesterday he had representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs come and conduct a successful audit of his organisation SOC. “But brother,” he said, “I want to spend more days visiting the school and teaching.”

I have seen Savong teaching, and he is a formidable force in the classroom, with young students absolutely riveted and attentive. He employs humour, provides illustrations and stories, and  he makes eye contact with each of the students as if he is teaching only one person at a time. I dug around my computer files and found the shot, taken in 2004, posted above.

There’s a much younger Savong, engaging the students (at least one of these kids now has a University degree,) and showing his passion for the task. Those were good times, who really enjoys paperwork?

The key to education is making contact – firstly with the students, but also with the  parents.

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Savong’s School – Primary school classes are open

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Savong’s school now serves primary school-aged children, Grades 1 through 5]

Over the past 12 months in this blog I have called up statistics from the Ministry of education youth and sport (MOEYS) which highlights the pressing shortage of primary school resources for the burgeoning young population of the nation. Teacher to student ratios are unwieldy –  1 teacher for every 47 young children, nationally. The need is similar in our community of Bakong. Another issue is that the state system has a tendency to charge families for what ought to be a free service. In some respects this is understandable, given the low levels of government spending toward education: low by global standards. Other critics however refer to school fees fundamentally as a bribe.

Savong’s school has always operated on the basis of providing free education. For the past nine years the school has focused on teaching languages and computer skills to older students grade 6 through to great 12. This year the decision was made to open up the school to serve primary students as well.

It was a practical decision; the senior classes run in the later afternoon and buildings were sitting quiet for a good part of the day. So why not open to classes up to teach the local community of young children who don’t get taught at the regions primary school. Five teachers have been recruited – all females as it turns out – and enrolments of local students took place in September. The local community is always wary of new services, and they want to know that their children are going to receive a quality education. So our starting figures are modest, and we’re going to build from here.

A total of 39 students, 19 girls and 20 boys, have been enrolled at the school and with teacher to student ratio of one to every eight, we can expect some pretty good results!

  • Why not share the joy of participating in this project by helping sponsor the teachers? If you’d like to find out more, please email me duncan@kudos-dynamics

MY FUNDRAISING CRISIS

Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. Savong's School - like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps. The school – like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Last week I reignited this blog after five months silence. A few of you will know that this year I had a health surprise, namely a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.  So far the disease has not produced radical symptoms –  extreme shakes,  or, an affliction that strikes many sufferers, ( at least eventually,)  immobility. It is not uncommon for those with Parkinsons to freeze  when they get to a door,  and require some visual prompt to get them started again. I’d say I’m  bound to be on an interesting adventure to say the least.  But for now my symptoms include:

  • Loss of the use of my right hand when it comes to typing. My right arm is about as useful as a plank of wood.
  • The need for much more sleep!
  • A slowdown in my work rate –  my brain is sharp,  but it takes longer to get my thoughts down on paper.

During my  five months silence  I enjoyed a long overdue holiday with my partner, Susanna, and I spent quiet time ruminating about the impact of my condition.  It has scrapped the old rules, but the problem is there are no new hard guidelines.  Everybody with Parkinsons  experiences a different combination of symptoms,  and the onslaught of these occurs at different speeds. Who knows? So against this shifty backdrop I have been trying to contemplate what the impact will be on my life.  I’m starting to set goals  and objectives: of bucket list of things I want to achieve before – and just in case – I deteriorate beyond usefulness.

Some of these goals are very tangible.  I wish to complete a long cycle ride within the next 24 months,  and there are some writing projects that I have started already: things I have long wanted to write.

But there is one central crisis I have not been able to resolve,  and that is the funding  of Savong’s school in Cambodia. Savong’s project  has many branches –  two homes for children,  a student centre for older students in Siem Reap, as well is the school  in Bakong which serves primary school children as well is secondary.  It also provides scholarships to University  for the top grade 12 students each year.  These scholarships are worth about $1000 per student per annum  over the four years required to get a degree.

All up,  the school  requires at least $3000 per month to run, and a majority of this money has come out of my own earnings.  Over the past 10 years it has been more efficient for me to knuckle down to work, to earn my income as a researcher,  and to send the money over to Cambodia. Far easier than fund raising.

This last year I was going to make the transition  toward fundraising however.  I am almost 60, retirement is around the corner,  and I need to find an alternative  source of income to underwrite the ongoing expenses  of Savong’s school. I saw this as a kind of baton change in a relay race.  What the Parkinsons diagnosis did was cause me to stumble badly and drop the baton.

So now by my reckoning  I have got eight months  to get my fundraising act together.  Somehow,  somewhere,  through some people,  I need to find sponsors  to the tune of US$3000 per month. The school in Cambodia,  which serves many hundreds of children,  faces many challenges of its own:  my health shouldn’t be one of them.

See also: About the school.

And how to donate the school.

The writing on the wall – a boy with connections in Cambodia

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This last week in Cambodia everybody has been celebrating New Year. For many students, this means school is out and for those who live in town there may be all kinds of attractions including fairs, events, parades as well as traditional ceremonies. Cambodians celebrate everything of course with food, and this is a time for feasting.

But not for everyone. The boy above, Mouencheat has spent the last few days back in his rural village 40 km away from Siem Reap. Mouencheat lives in a place called Kampong Kdei which is in the heart of the flat, rice growing region due-east of Siem Reap, and it is in his family house there that I took this photo above, in November 2013.

I always wondered what the writing was, on the wall behind Mouencheat, and this last week as we messaged each other with New Year greetings, (Mouencheat on his smart phone,) I asked what had been written on the wall behind him. He told me that these are tallies of the amount of rice harvested, and the wall provided a handy place to jot-down this information. It serves the same purpose as the Post-It notes on my fridge.

Mouencheat lives at the SOC, in Bakong, and is sponsored by a Singaporean. The boy is very intelligent, and often when we message each other I send him number puzzles which he gleefully completes – quicker than I can generate the next.  He can spot the Fibonacci series from 20 paces! But this week he has been at home helping as mother on the farm, and looking after his younger sister.

A few days ago, during the holiday Mouencheat was visited by an older Cambodian named Kimleng.

Kimleng actually grew up in Kampong Kdei and may well be the first local to have earned a law degree, in this case from the USA. Kimleng spent some time in New Zealand in recent months and I had met him via a friend of mine. We were both amazed that each of us knew where Kampong Kdei even was! The world shrunk by another notch. When Kimleng said that he had grown up near the historic bridge, I knew exactly where he meant.

I am so glad that he met with Mouencheat, and I am sure he will act as an inspiration for the boy. I am certain that Mouencheat will go through university, and given his obvious intelligence, I await with great anticipation to see where he will end up. The writing on the wall is all good.

By the way, it is almost exactly a year since I first encountered Mouencheat. He did his research and contacted me, asking for assistance so he could go to school. Here’s the story from a year ago.

Education under the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot’s new order in the classroom.

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Pol Pot traded in his comfortable French education for a radical repudiation of all critical thinking. He wasn’t against literacy – but he demanded a certain type.

I think in a year of blogs about Savong’s School in Cambodia I’ve referred to the Pol Pot years only sparingly. I refer only cautiously to those years because we are at risk of focusing on the Khmer Rouge as if this was the single shaper of today’s Cambodia. Just as surely today’s culture has been influenced by more than 1000 years of history, and by the French Colonial rule, and by the years immediately after Pol Pot when Cambodia lay adrift, deliberately rejected by the western world, during years of crippling poverty.

But today I thought I’d reflect on education during the Pol Pot years in order to fill a gap in my own understanding. One of the most destructive aspects of the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to disassemble Cambodia, was to attack three pillars of their society: religion, family and education. Sources reveal how they implemented many illogical laws to terrorise the population. You could be arrested for averting your eyes to the left rather than right. If you wore glasses, a sure sign of being a member of the bourgeois intelligentsia, you could also expect to be arrested and executed. Teachers were routinely rounded up, often in front of their students who later reported hearing rifle shots in nearby fields. Their beloved teachers never returned.

For teaching life before 1975 Mitty Steele’s excellent and deeply personal essay is an excellent place to start as she retraces her own father’s history.

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In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia Paperback by Frank Stewart (Editor), Sharon May. A compelling account of the survival of literature in Cambodia during and after the Pol Pot years.

In the book above, In the Shadow of Angkor: Contemporary Writing from Cambodia the contributing writers provide not only tastes of modern essays and poetry, but also the recollections from those who recount the elimination of the educated “elite” during the time of Pol Pot. Many writers survived by feigning illiteracy. Even so, by some estimates fewer than 60 academics are said to have avoided execution or death through starvation. Sixty.

What is important to understand is that the Khmer Rouge did not wish to destroy literacy: but they wanted their kind of literacy. By that, say authors George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov in their study: Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge (written as part of the The Cambodian Genocide Program, Yale University,) the Khmer Rouge wanted an education system that was strong on unquestioning literacy: the blind acceptance of propaganda without critical doubt. For this reason there were people classed as “correctly literate” (for example peasants who could scarcely read – and who accepted what they read,) and those that were “incorrectly literate.”) This latter class were seen as a threat to the revolution and the emergence of the new Kampuchea. So they started eliminating those with a traditional French-style education (most schools in Cambodia still reflect the educational template of the French,) and those who spoke foreign languages such as French. (Today some of the older generation are still fluent in French – though they would have hidden this in the late 1970s.)

A quoted goal from the Grand Plan, put together in 1976 by Pol Pot and eight other leaders stated:

Continue the struggle to abolish, uproot, and disperse the cultural, literary, and artistic remnants of the imperialists, colonialists, and all of the other oppressor classes. This will be implemented strongly, deeply and continuously one after the other from 1977 onwards.

The educational policy of the Khmer Rouge was also very strong on “technical skills” namely the skills required to grow rice, to fish, to farm, as well as to share simple medical knowledge. The goals were not about personal advancement but, rather, the advancement of the collective. The new school system was designed to “teach” not only through classroom activities but through physical labour.  As the plan said:

Daily Education Methods.  Half study, half work for material production

The Yale authors research shows how Individualism was seen as a threat to the Party’s ideology. In the same section of the document that calls for dividing the day between study and work, they found this statement:

“In our educational system there are no examinations and no certificates; it is a system of learning through the collective and in the concrete movement of the socialist revolution and the building of socialism in the specific contexts, especially the co-operatives, factories, and military units.”

The general school syllabus – at least that proposed for 1977 – included:

  • reading and writing
  • arithmetic
  • geography (importantly that of the nation)
  • history of the revolutionary struggle of the people, the revolutionary struggle for the nation, the revolutionary struggle for democracy, the revolutionary struggle for socialist revolution, and the struggle to build socialism.
  • natural sciences, physics, chemistry (as base)
  • the Party’s politics, consciousness, and organisation

That was the stated goal anyhow. In reality the school system was collapsing and the much vaunted revolution ended up an economic disaster. Grand plans, modeled on Chinese efforts under Mao and dubbed The Super Leap Forward failed miserably. The lofty objectives for rice production per hectare and for a bounteous agricultural  production to be shared by all were never even approached. Very soon the nation was cast into famine conditions and the dream to build a new school system never advanced past the opening of a handful of model schools, if that.

What I find amazing is how, through all this, the DNA of the educational system even survived. The collective memory of the education system, as it existed prior to Pol Pot remained loosely intact due I think to three things. One was the capacity of educated people to feign illiteracy and to simply survive by staying quiet and compliant. Next was the escape of Cambodians, mostly to Thailand before locating – mostly to France and the USA – in the aftermath of Pol Pot. Within the Paris and Long Beach communities existed survivors who later helped resurrect the fragments of the education system.  And finally the re-emergence of an education system came from the people themselves – people who had been through school as children. People who knew the value of what they’d lost.

I don’t think of the Pol Pot years without ultimately thinking of the courage of those who faced the terror. Today’s education system in Cambodia is developing again. We now have a cohort of teachers who have had teacher training. There are Khmer text books and universities. I think of today’s system as not only preserving the DNA from earlier times, but also being a system fueled by a deeper thirst for education, and a system laced with resilience and courage.

For more history of Cambodia.

For more facts and figures about present day Education in Cambodia

Savong’s School takes another step.

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Agony or Ecstasy? Students at Savong’s School clamour to see how they fared in the latest exams.

Hey I’m back. It’s been a month between blogs in part due to a need to recharge my batteries and also to give you gracious followers a break!

This last week I had a terrific Skype call withe Savong regarding the school. This year marks our tenth year of working together and I’ve often reflected on how the vision of Savong – to provide free education that gives a vocational boost to poor rural students – has remained intact while the expression of this vision has had to move with the times. Ten years ago providing language skills that would get a student work in a guest house was truly aspirational. Today that vocation is pretty basic and students are wanting to reach higher. Some want to be doctors, lawyers and business owners. Their dreams are bigger.

What Savong talked about is a reconfiguration of his school which two weeks ago received fresh licensing from the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) and is seen by Government as part of the network of local official schools rather than as an NGO “rival” to the State system. That distinction is important because up until now Savong School has been operating in a complementary fashion to the local high school in Bakong. When it operated in the morning, Savong’s school opened in the afternoons: the aim being to give local students a booster shot of additional education.

This year Bakong High School extended its hours, which we’re certainly not complaining about, but it has squeezed Savong School opening hours later and later. Right now it opens not at 2:00pm but at 4:00pm and finishes in the black of night which in Cambodia arrives at 7:00pm. This is late for the students, and less safe for those who walk to their homes.

Rather than be sandwiched like this, Savong sees a better solution which is to extend the hours of the school and to teach a wider syllabus including Khmer lessons (mathematics, history) as well as the languages and computer skills already taught.  Students would be allowed to choose this school rather than Bakong High School and of course Savong would stick to the core vision of providing free education. State Schools are supposed to be free, but the practice of charging a monthly fee to help boost teacher salaries is widespread and hurts poorer families.

Examinations held at Savong School will – as they are already – be recognised by the State system.

The change of syllabus offering needs planning. Teachers, support textbooks need to be prepared, and any change needs to be carefully communicated to the community. Savong is picturing any changes to take place in October when the new school year begins.

I’m very excited by Savong’s plans and look forward to the additional service and support his school can offer local students.

Here’s the latest on the new school plans. Can you assist?