adventures in da nang

paper cranesAs we approach the season of Ridván, our little family is wrapping up a three-month-long visit with family in Da Nang, Vietnam. It’s been a time of adjustment and learning—mostly adjusting to the presence of our newborn son and to our new role as parents, and learning how to function, thrive, teach and serve as a family. Our regular neighbourhood children’s class has been in the capable hands of our team back in Canada, and we’ve had a few adventures of our own during that time.

The Baha’i community of Da Nang, blessed with a group of selfless and devoted youth in its midst, is currently at the forefront of activity in Vietnam, or so we’re told. Several active groups for the empowerment of junior youth have been established in three of the city’s districts, all of which are generating a lot of learning. In at least one of these districts, a children’s class has also been functioning, generating learning about the interaction between these vital activities. Our family lives in a different district of the city, where a junior youth group is active but, due to a lack of human resources available, there haven’t been any children’s classes for a while. During our visit, we wanted to help change that.

Qu?nh’s sister Quyên, who, you may remember, runs a kindergarten, has two young boys, aged seven and nine years old. After spending some time trying to get to know our neighbours, we decided to go ahead and start a small class with Quyên’s sons. The boys have two close friends—girls from a Buddhist family that are just like sisters to them—and when they heard they were having a special class with their uncle from Canada, they decided they were coming, too. We had four classes at our home in all, mostly on weekends. They were informal, experimental classes, but lots of fun all the same.

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a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Hu? this weekend, so Qu?nh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went. This post was originally blogged at doberman pizza.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ?’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Qu?nh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ?i (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Qu?nh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“th?a bà, con v?”, “th?a cô, con v?”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

game: birds of a feather

This video comes to us from a children’s class teacher training in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Participants are practicing a non-competitive variation of the game Birds of a Feather (with various animals in place of birds). Very simply, the game proceeds like this: exchange slips of paper with animal names written on them at “go”. Read the paper at “stop”. Make your animal’s noise at “action” and try and flock together with others making the same noise.

The game’s original rules (given in the link above) describe a competitive version, in which the last team to “find their flock” is counted out, leaving winners and losers. We chose to eliminate this competitive element, to focus on the cooperative skills required in matching oneself up with one’s flock; instead of being counted out, we simply play the game as many times as we wish, with everyone participating. To keep the game interesting without resorting to competition, we can introduce different modes of play. For example, instead of using sounds, we can use nonverbal visual cues. Players might mime flapping wings for birds, or walking like a cat or a dog; or, conversely, they might mime taking care of one’s animal—calling to a bird on one’s finger, petting a cat or walking a dog, etc. Competition, which can lead the children to develop the undesirable habit of seeking conflict, is thus avoided by the application of creativity—finding different, innovative ways of keeping games interesting.

allah’u’abha from vietnam

if you so happen to be subscribed to doberman pizza, my personal baha’i blog, you probably know that I’ve been busy over the past few months planning a voyage to Vietnam. I just so happen to be blogging from a Hanoi café (wireless internet café) at this very moment. With my usual children’s class safely in the hands of Baha’i friends back in Ottawa, I’ve turned my attention to such exotic projects as developing a national Baha’i website in Vietnamese for the community here. as well, seeing as I have a fair bit of experience holding children’s classes, I’ve been asked to put together a skills training workshop for prospective teachers of children’s classes, to be held in Ho Chi Minh City in July. A number of youth have eagerly signed up for the training, which will happen as part of a week-long intensive training session aimed at mobilizing Vietnamese youth into service, especially to support the growing intensive program of growth (IPG) in Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon) and two burgeoning IPGs in Da Nang and Hanoi, both to be launched soon.  I imagine that if the training session in HCMC is successful, it’ll be replicated in the other two places.

I’ll probably blog more about what the training workshop will look like, but just to give you a quick idea, I’m planning four days’ worth of sessions, with each day focusing on a particular aspect of children’s classes: arts and crafts, songs and memorization, storytelling, and games/drama. Each day will consist of an introduction / theoretical portion in the morning, followed by practical advice on how to plan for the day’s activity, and, after a lunch break, an afternoon of group work and presentations in which participants practice planning the different activities: telling stories, memorizing songs, and so on.

Has anyone had experience offering these kinds of workshops or training sessions? How about Book 3 refreshers in which lesson planning played a part? I’d love to hear from Baha’is who have tried this out before.