Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cambodia in photos

Well, here I am, home in Denver again, and finally getting my trip photos uploaded and captioned. Click on the Photo Albums link on the right of this page, and you'll see a new album called Cambodia 2010. You may have to put the slideshow on pause and flip through them manually because some of my captions are a bit long...my apologies. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Time for the lasts of everything. Leaving Cambodia in exactly 12 hours. (OK, maybe that's a little optimistic.) Got a head start on flipping my body clock by staying up till 4am watching the World Cup semis last night. I'll post photos sometime after I'm back in the States, but for now, I'll sign off and enjoy these dwindling hours to the fullest and try not to cry too much during goodbyes before beginning the 40-hour journey home. Leg cramps, I can feel you already. Wish me luck.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Magic marker magic

Sopheak and Malachi are married--congratulations, sister and brother-in-law! The wedding was beautiful, and I felt so honored to be a part of it. My own personal highlight, though, was the chance to play violin and sing as part of the band alongside Jenny on keyboard.

If any of you read my blog while I lived here in Phnom Penh, you know who Jenny is. She was 9 years old at the time, now 12. She was my host sister, Khmer teacher, game buddy, cultural interpreter, friend. And piano student. When I first came in 2007, she wanted so badly to learn to play the piano, and I said I'd gladly teach her--except that there was no piano. That fact didn't seem to faze her in the slightest, and when she insisted she wanted to learn even without an instrument, I decided that that kind of motivation deserved to be given a chance. I asked her for a black magic marker and drew two octaves of a keyboard on a white piece of paper, and with that, our piano lessons began. We practiced note names, fingerings, and little songs while I sang the notes that she played on the paper keys. After a couple weeks of this, I came home from work one day to find an electronic keyboard in the living room and Jenny grinning from ear to ear. Her parents, apparently, were as impressed as I was with her dedication and enthusiasm, so they invested in a real instrument.

The lessons continued somewhat regularly, with Jenny learning incredibly quickly and becoming really quite good, until I went back to the States in 2008. Every time I called or emailed my host family, we discussed the piano progress. In the spring of this year, I got an email from Seiha, a dear mutual friend, who told me that Jenny had started playing keyboard with the worship team at church on Sunday mornings. I thought of our magic marker piano and almost cried.

When Jenny sent me a facebook message asking if I'd play violin with her while she played piano at Sopheak's wedding, I knew I had to find a way to do it. Thanks to a kind violinist friend here in Phnom Penh who lent me his instrument, I got to join the band and became Jenny's student as she taught me the melodies of the Khmer songs we would play while I scrambled to commit them to memory, as there was no written music except for chords and lyrics in Khmer script, which I can't read fast enough to keep up with a song.

After hours of practicing, and some purely fun jam sessions in the living room with a few other sisters singing and a brother-in-law joining us on guitar, we made it to the wedding day. Jenny and I played a duet as Sopheak walked down the aisle, and the rest of the band joined us for a whole variety of pieces during the ceremony and reception, from traditional Khmer wedding songs to I Could Sing of Your Love Forever to Celine Dion's Because You Loved Me. Pisey sang, I harmonized on violin, and Jenny improvised complicated piano accompaniments to it all. All that from a little sheet of paper and one very magic marker.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lessons learned

Two lovely women in Prey Veng transplanting rice seedlings.

After a short but lovely two-day trip out to Prey Veng province, I'm back to my host family's place for one more week, helping to prepare for tomorrow's wedding and trying to fit in everything else I want to do while I'm here. Yesterday I spent all day at the Royal University of Agriculture, my old workplace, amazed, as usual, at how absolutely normal it felt to be back there again. Same sunny office, same barefoot classrooms, same mouthwatering spicy pork at the Organic Restaurant. New bathroom, though, miraculously enough, although the running water was not running yesterday, and the old bucket and cistern of water for manual flushing are now nowhere to be found...ah, the joys of "progress."

In any case, I got the inside scoop on recent university happenings involving accounting crises, strikes, administrative changes, and much other drama, which, I think, for political reasons, I'd better not expound on here. Let's just say it made me truly appreciate the flawed but functional educational system that is Denver Public Schools.

In addition to hearing about university current events, I got to teach two first-year English classes, courtesy of the current English teacher in my old position. Crazy, you may say, to choose to work during my summer vacation, but I was really curious to experiment with TPR Storytelling methodology in a Cambodian university context, and who knows how long it'll be before I get the chance again?

I taught both two-hour classes, walking the students through the processes of Total Physical Response, personalized question and answer, asking and acting out a story, drawing events on a storyboard, and retelling them to partners. I was thrilled with the creative and entertaining stories they came up with, and with the near-100% engagement and participation. I don't often get that in my Spanish classes at home. Afterwards, though, when I asked the students for their opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of language teaching and learning, I was reminded just how big a disparity there is between my perceptions of effective learning and theirs.

Jocelyn and one of her students act out the story the class is creating.

TPRS is designed to make language acquisition as fun and effortless as possible. For my Cambodian students, however, if they don't have to work hard and seriously, if their brains don't have to break a sweat, they feel like they're wasting their time. A number of them voiced concerns that although this sort of lesson may have been fun, it was keeping them from progressing in their textbook. While it is my humble but professional opinion that they gained far more from storytelling than they ever could have with a textbook, they couldn't see any tangible progress, no pages turned, and although they enjoyed the time, they were anxious to get back to what they considered "real" learning: explicit grammar instruction, drills, and worksheets. There has to be a third way, something that incorporates comprehension-based methods appropriately into a Cambodian university context. Into any context. I mean, I could spend the rest of my life answering that question.

Hmmm. Maybe I will.