My intention has always been, to become involved with teaching conversational English classes during our travels. Let's face it, 3 months is a long time to be a lady of leisure. Mind you, I am now well used to having my meals prepared for me, my washing done and returned, coffee made for me, the house work and bed made each day and being driven anywhere I want to go! Time to give back.......
We had originally intended to provide conversational English opportunities to children and youth in Cambodia, but it didn't work out due to the timing of their Term breaks.
I had researched all about Big Brother Mouse and had discussed this with my teaching colleagues at school. We agreed that it sounded like a very beneficial program, so a decision was made to allow time for an extended stay here in Luang Prabang.
Mr Wombat was also very keen to lend his knowledge and time, so we had a number of discussions about areas to target during our sessions. During my research, I had noted that grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure and articulation were areas of focus EG, articulating 'th', 'sh', and 'ch' correctly. We had no idea really what to expect, so armed with some primary level educational and activity magazines, off we went.
We arrived a few minutes early, shoes off as per custom and we went inside and introduced ourselves to the shy group of teenage boys and 1 girl that were waiting for visitors. After a quick discussion, we decided that Mr Wombat would move to the group at the back of the room, where the older students were and I would remain at the front, with a group of boys and the only female student. Within minutes students appeared from everywhere and our groups began to swell in numbers. Before long there were easily 40 students and just the two of us, it was hard not to feel pressured.
Luckily, some extra travellers showed up to lend a hand and small groups formed with 6-8 students in each group. There were no resources of any kind, which makes it difficult once the normal topics have been covered. I was lucky as I was able to draw on my ESL knowledge and substitute and adapt, introducing things like Hangman, Opposites, Positional language etc. I was concerned about Mr Wombat, who was surrounded by students and does not do this work for a living, therefore may have been struggling to think of ongoing activities. I needn't have been concerned, he was doing a sterling job with these young men, adding his own brand of humour and building a great rapport with them.
The session eventually ended, well past the 2 hour time slot, we bid our students farewell and stumbled out, mentally exhausted but overwhelmed with the gratitude, respect and shy acceptance that these students showed us. We were humbled but sad, at the poverty and lack of any kind of resource, even pencils were unavailable. I kept thinking about how well resourced I am in my position at work, then continued thinking about all the activities we could do, if only I had 5 literacy resources with me. Our Australian students are so very fortunate!!
Big Brother Mouse was born in 2006, its objective, to bring reading and books into the Laos culture. Previously, virtually nobody read books and reading was a foreign concept. There were no books for children or students in the Laos language, it was just accepted that 'Laos people don't read'. This has changed now, with children attending school and learning to read and write in their own language as well as learning English.
Parents and students realise that being proficient in English is the key to opportunity, success and a positive future, especially as most students help to support their families financially.
We have now completed 3 sessions with Big Brother Mouse and have become very good at improvisation and adapting to the needs of the students in our groups. Mr Wombat is becoming a whizz at certain language activities and diligently looks for new ideas for our next sessions. I mentioned to Mr Wombat that I wanted some cardboard to make flash cards, but I am not prepared to spend money and buy the cardboard, as these items appear quite expensive. So, there we were today, rummaging through some boxes and cartons that were abandoned outside of a shop, yep, cardboard in hand, off we went. We had enough for flashcards for both of us!!!
It is now not uncommon for us to run into some of the students, as we move around the city and we are met with huge smiles and handshakes, with many of them asking us if we are coming back tomorrow to help them. We are planning a trip to their other pilot program, Big Sister Mouse, which is situated in a village, 45 minutes away from Luang Prabang. This will be a huge day of English immersion for the students and a massive day of Laos culture for Mr and Mrs Wombat!!!!