Back from a week in Northern Thailand where I took twenty-one 10th and 11th grade students on a week long journey into manual labor, teaching, and self-reflection. We arrived on Sunday afternoon and the first order of business after arriving at the lodge was to disconnect. As promised I made the students turn in all electrical devices. Cellphones, iPods, etc. The only thing they were allowed to keep was a camera. Nothing with earbuds, nothing that could distract them from each other.
I made the theme for the week Disconnect to Connect and then challenged the students with the following:
By the end of this week have one meaningful conversation with every other person here…..including me.
It wasn’t a big task…after all we were going to be spending every waking moment together over the next 5 days. Four of the days consisted of the same schedule. Half of the students would teach English to the students in K-5 while the other half built a new cafeteria for the kids and school. Wednesday would be a team building activity that included building your own raft and rafting down the Maekok River and hiking to a hill tribe village.
I had an opportunity to talk with the principal of the school (via a translater) about living in Northern Thailand. Basically there are hill tribes in Northern Thailand some of them Thai others refugees from around the region. Cambodia, Burma, Tibet, and other parts of Asia as well. The Thai government allows these tribes (villages) to operate in Thailand but does not officially recognize them as Thai citizens. Unlike in the U.S. or other countries where if you are born in that country you are a citizen of that country, Thailand does not follow this same rule and therefore some of these tribes are generations old and yet not Thai nationals.
Because they are not Thai nationals they do not receive any funding for things like education. For example, the school we were working at (Mae Sa Lak School) there were 160 students K-5, however only 50 of the students were actual Thai nationals, meaning the school only got funding for 50 students to teach and educate 160. To put this in perspective…the Thai government gives the school 10 Baht (32 cents USD) per child for lunch. So instead of having 500 Baht ($16.25) to feed 50 kids. They get 500 Baht to feed 160 kids. The same goes for school supplies, materials, etc. So you can see why this school and many like it in the region are in need of any help they can get. The tribes themselves get some support but it seemed to me to be sporadic in nature. One tribe, tibetan origin, that we visited on our hike on Wednesday had recently received two solar panel power converters to charger their car batteries that they use for power during the night. A huge step forward from having to take the car batteries into town to get them charged.
An ex-international teacher and his wife set up the MRV Educational Project about 12 years ago and work with local schools like the one we worked at and with schools around the world to come in and help where they can.
Our students donated 75,000 Baht ($2,437) to build Mae Sa Lak School a new multi purpose building that would be used for a cafeteria, a stage for plays, and just a shaded area to hold class and other gatherings. Mae Sa Lak has been working with MRV Educational Projects for awhile and different school groups have already built a nursery center (for kids 2-5 to go when parents work), a dormitory (so kids didn’t have to walk the 15km round trip to school every day) two sets of bathrooms, and repainted the classrooms.
I’m proud to say in the four days we worked on the building we completed the foundation, poured a cement floor, and started working on the brick wall. Because it’s so hot in Thailand and because they don’t have air conditioners the main part of the building was to remain open to the elements to allow for ventilation.
Each day after working on the project and teaching students we would come together to debrief about the day. I would lead the kids through the debrief session that went something like this.
Thoughts on Today
(Overall comments on the day, something funny a kid said, something you learned.)
(I wanted students to reflect on a moment…one of those moments we have from time to time where you just step back and go WOW. I wanted kids to think about those moments, when did they come and what did they mean to them.)
(I gave them time to talk about a conversation they had with another student based on my challenge above. Who did they talk to, what did they learn?)
A Take Away
(Each night I would add my own observation of the day and try to send the kids away thinking about something. One night we talked leadership, one night team work and another night about the kids at the school and their lives.)
I loved watching the kids get more comfortable with each other and with the process. By the last night….the kids talked for 30 minutes without any prompting. They were reflecting, thinking, and talking about the experience they had. Many of them talked about the kids at the school they had gotten to know over the week and how hard it was to leave them. “I didn’t think it would be this hard to leave” was a common theme on Friday night. I knew the trip had moved these kids when we loaded up to leave the school on Friday and there were tears in many eyes and the ride back to the resort was quiet. High School students who talked, and laughed the 30 minute ride to and from and the school each day were silent, deep in reflection and self-realization.
I wish every high school student had an opportunity like this…heck…I wish every person had an opportunity like this. To get out, help someone, love a kid for awhile, and change the world….no matter how small it might seems at the time….the students of Mae Sa Lak School where loved for one week by a bunch of high school kids who started the week on a school trip, but ended the week in passion and caring for someone less fortunate.
As part of their assignment ISB students have to write a reflection on their blog about the week. I encourage you to read the students thoughts on the week in their own words on our Global Citizen’s Week Blog here.