Of X’s and Why’s

It’s been two years now. Ever since the time when I, together with a bunch of misty-eyed young people decided to take a chance and be a public school teacher as a fellow of Teach for the Philippines.

I was naïve, passionate, and hopeful. Overconfident, if I may add. Then reality blew up in my face. Of overcrowded classrooms, of kids coming to school with empty stomachs, of students with behavioral problems acting out in class. Add to that the unmotivated learners, and the non-readers, and the list just goes on.

I decided to put on the mean teacher mask. I became super strict and tried to employ a military style of classroom management. But I was like a mad man as I switched from the non-smiling disciplinarian to the overly enthusiastic persona when delivering a lesson or a story.

Oh and there were occasional bursts of anger but admittedly I was really angry most of the time. Angry at the system, angry at myself, angry at parents who don’t attend to their children’s needs, angry at these kids for being their rowdy selves which I couldn’t blame them for because, well, they ARE kids!

Despite the challenges and frustrations, there are moments when I felt like I was doing something right. When I saw the sparkle in the eyes of my students when they learned something new. When I observed behavioral changes and academic improvement. When I witnessed these young individuals demonstrating creativity, optimism, and kindness.

Fast forward to now. My former students back in Third Grade are finally graduating from Elementary School. I don’t know why the occasion brought so much pride and joy to my heart as I look at these faces and think about the ups and downs we went through together. They made it. They’re a step closer to their dreams.

It’s a bit conceited to think that I contributed to their success. It’s of course mainly brought about by their own will and perseverance. But then again, maybe I was somehow a part of it, being the positive influence that I wanted to be.

A parent told me that her son could still remember the words I said in class about dreams and working hard to achieve one’s dreams. That right there reminded me of my why. I do it not for myself but for the kids. After all, it has always been about them. And I may not be a teacher now but the experience continues to motivate me to strive to add value to people’s lives in whatever I do.

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HANDs! Project: Looking back and looking forward

People often choose to forget the past as looking back can be painful. But when it comes to disasters, lessons from history should always be remembered. This could help you survive when disasters strike again.

This is one lesson I got from the second and final leg of the HANDs! (Hope and Dreams) Project, a research trip organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, focusing on disaster and environmental education + creativity.

In 2016, the HANDs fellows visited Manila, Philippines and Bali, Indonesia. This year, we headed to Phuket and Phang Nga, Thailand and Kobe, Japan.

The Thailand phase started with a site visit and dialogue at the Bangla Village Mangrove Forest. Members of the community expressed how the mangroves helped protect them from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and are therefore very motivated in preserving the forest.

We then headed to Baan Nam Kem where we listened to stories of the tsunami survivors and learned about community based disaster risk management.

The rest of our stay in Thailand was spent in Yaowawit School, a real-life education facility for orphans and less privileged, which was founded by German philanthropist Philipp Graf von Hardenberg initially meant to help tsunami victims.

Lectures and workshops on sustainability and gamification were given by Robert Steele, a sustainability expert, and Ruttikorn Vuttikorn, a game designer. After which, fellows had to design games and activities for the “Alarm Cat,” a disaster and environmental education program for students of Yaowawit. It was a joy to interact with the children of the school and be able to promote disaster preparedness and environmentalism through creative means.

We said our khop kun krap (thank you) and bid goodbye to the heat of Thailand as Kobe, Japan’s cold embrace welcomed us.

The trip in Japan began with a tour of the Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institute (DRI) which was established to archive and preserve the memories and lessons from the 1995 Great Hanshin-awaji earthquake. Hearing stories and going through the interactive exhibition of DRI was emotional but the importance of learning from the past to minimize risk and damage in the future is further emphasized.

A session and site visit of another disaster, the Toga River flash flood highlighted how providing sufficient information and education on disaster could save lives.

We learned about local initiatives on disaster prevention and environmental education from non-profit organizations namely Plus Arts, Kiko Network, and Tamba Greenpartner. We also participated in the “Iza! Kaeru Caravan,” a disaster drill program of Plus Arts, and facilitated games and activities for children.

Guided by HANDs adviser, Hirokazu Nagata, the fellows developed disaster and environmental education action plans to be implemented in our respective countries. We got additional inspiration to be more creative and to think outside the box from Kiito, Design and Creative Center in Kobe, which served as our work station.

HANDs Project provided a rare opportunity of visiting many places, learning from various experts and institutions, and forging friendships with co-fellows. And though the research trips ended, this is simply the beginning of more collaborations as we continue building our hopes and dreams towards a more resilient and more environmentally sustainable future.

Photos from HANDs! Project for Disaster Education Facebook Page.

Learn more about HANDs! Project here.

My HANDs! Project Experience

Putting a ballet dancer, a political cartoonist, a zero waste expert, and a teacher all in one room seems to be an odd combination. But that’s what HANDs! (Hope and Dreams) Project is all about. It brings people together from different backgrounds and help them leverage art and culture to address issues. Organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the HANDs! Project explores how disaster and environmental education can be made more effective through creativity.

The program began in the Philippines where I met other HANDs! fellows for this year. It is a diverse group of young professionals and students from Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, India, and Nepal. The passion and drive coming from every single person were invigorating. Hearing their personal stories and the work that they do for the community made me feel inspired and hopeful.

As a starting point, we were introduced to the idea of how “wind-water-soil” types of people help a community. The wind-types provide seeds of inspiration, the soil-types are the ones rooted in the community nurturing the seeds, and the water-types bridge the gap between the two aiding in the growth of the seeds of change.

To further understand social issues, Habi Education Lab, a Manila-based design and research group, conducted a design thinking workshop with the participants. We then had to put design thinking into action as we developed project ideas and prototypes for a relocation community in Navotas, a coastal town in Metro Manila. Being the local, I had to be the translator for the foreigners and I realized how tough a job that is. I had fun nonetheless and once again, it didn’t come as a surprise how our guests noticed the genuine happiness Filipinos have regardless of what situation they are in. I guess it truly is more fun here.

After a week in the Philippines, we all flew to Bali, Indonesia. I once heard you don’t choose Bali, Bali chooses you so we must have all been chosen! Balinese Hinduism is predominantly practiced in this part of Indonesia evident from sculptures, traditions, and altars everywhere meant for daily offerings known as canang sari.

We were able to visit rice paddy fields practicing Subak, a water management system that incorporates the Balinese concept “Tri Hita Karana” – the harmony among people, nature, and God. Pretty much like the Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippines.

As an environmentalist, I was so happy to learn about best practices of some environmental organizations in Bali. IDEP Foundation shared about permaculture and community-based disaster management. Kopernik talked about project management and how they raise money to fund their community projects. Green School showed how sustainability can be integrated in the classroom and the school system. Navicula, an indie band, illustrated how music can be used for activism.

Additionally, the fellows conducted creative disaster education activities at PAUD Cemara Kasih, a kindergarten school.

It was an enriching experience but it doesn’t end there as we’ll have the second phase of the HANDs! Project study trip in Thailand and Japan next year. After which, we would come up with our respective action plans on creative disaster and environmental education programs. So many things to look forward to. And the best thing is I’m on this journey with amazing people keeping the hope and dreams in me alive.

Photos from HANDs Project for Disaster Education Facebook Page.

The Noblest Profession

I always wondered why a lot of my teachers were grumpy. Well, not really a lot of them but for some reason, teachers in general exude this malevolent energy. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But in a funny twist of fate, I became a teacher – a mean teacher at that. And I realized it’s necessary to wear that “mean teacher” mask in order to have some semblance of a class.

I taught in the public school for two years and it’s one of the toughest jobs I ever had but it was also a character-building experience.

Sadly, the teaching profession in the Philippines seem to have lost its glory. Blame it on low pay (although better compensation and benefits is currently being pushed). Or they’re just being worked to death with extra tasks (serving as school nurse or librarian on top of being an advisory teacher). Plus tons of unnecessary paper work they have to accomplish. And the plain fact that they’re taken for granted and don’t get the respect they deserve.

In Thailand, they have the Teacher’s Day and Teacher Appreciation Day where the Thai’s get to show their respect for educators. We sort of have that too but I’m afraid it’s not as genuine as I hope it to be.

Today is World Teachers’ Day and as I remember my former teachers, I wish I could bow and offer you flowers, the way the Thais do it.

To the cool, everybody’s friend teacher who taught me kindness and compassion.

To the teacher who believed in me more than I believed in myself.

To the teacher who inspired me to be excellent in everything I do.

To the teacher who was a constant encouragement and who always saw the beauty in everything.

To the terror teacher who taught me diligence and discipline.

To the stand-up teacher who never failed to make me smile.

To the teacher who influenced me to be the successful person that I am today.

Thank you.

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‘School Sucks’

That’s how a lot of young people feel. That school is boring. It’s a burden. It’s the unfortunate road to success or to securing a job. The industrial economy’s way of “manufacturing” laborers.

Geopolitics.us explains why the school system is broken as school is compared to assembly lines. “The school assembly line is segmented into years. Students enter the schools and are sorted by age. Each day during the year students receive instruction on particular subjects and skill sets. Every subject is taught during a fixed time period in the day. Students are then tested on each subject to see if they meet the standards, so they can move along the line. Finally they receive their stamp of approval (diploma) at the end of the line.”

In the Philippines, the arrival of Thomasites or American teachers during the American occupation greatly affected the public school system. This mainly provided education to the citizens of this country, who consider being educated as the way out of poverty.

However, the sad reality is that a diploma wouldn’t guarantee employment. Not everyone can afford higher education. Poverty among other reasons hinder a lot of children to finish school and drop out instead. Plus the fact that school tend to be unattractive. Killing off creativity and self-expression. Considering music and art as unimportant. Subscribing to standardized tests and teaching methods that are supposed to cater to all types of learners.

“Do I need to learn x and y when I buy bananas?” students would tease especially when dealing with relatively tough subjects such as Science or Math. But the thing is, these develop analytical thinking and problem solving. And formal education which exposes you to seemingly irrelevant learnings actually prepare you indirectly to be productive members of society.

In an ideal world, you would choose the things you would want to learn and learn it the way you want it. But in a way, today’s generation is lucky to have the worldwide web that introduces endless opportunities for learning. From free online courses offered by Coursera, to how-to videos on Youtube, to creative ideas on Pinterest. Progressive schools are also emerging following the experiential learning ways of Waldorf and Montessori schools.

There are a lot of efforts toward the improvement of quality of education here in the Philippines. The country is transitioning to K-12, shifting from 10 to 12-year pre-university cycle. Also, organizations such as Teach for the Philippines contribute to educational equity by enlisting promising fresh graduates and young professionals to teach in the public school. They help address teacher shortage and they bring fresh energy to the schools.

It’s still a long way to go. But here’s to hoping to hear kids say, “School doesn’t suck at all.”

This is a writing 101 post inspired by EJ Koh’s tweet.

The Mean Teacher

I’m an alumnus of Teach for the Philippines, an NGO that enlists some of the country’s most promising young leaders to teach for two years in public schools throughout the Philippines. This is an account of how the two-year journey began for me.

I will be teaching Science to five sections with 50 plus students. The good thing about this is I would just need to prepare one lesson plan. But I may get bored of repeating the lesson five times a day. Well, I guess that’s the least of my worries. Heck, I’ll be dealing with a big group of kids cramped in an overcrowded and poorly ventilated room… Bring it on! Challenge accepted!

I enter the classroom well-prepared as I could be. I can see it. I will charm them with my creative and engaging approach to teaching. And they will listen, learn, and have fun! A few minutes into the day and all my plans got thrown out the window just like that.

We learned about lesson planning, classroom management, child psychology, and everything that could possibly equip us to be effective, transformational teachers. But it’s totally different once you’re in the real world – the real classroom.

After my first week as an elementary public school teacher, all I have is renewed respect for teachers especially those in public schools. I can’t imagine how they do it. And now I’m wondering what I got myself into.

I have pulled my hair in front of the class. Literally! Banged my head against a cabinet, even. Out of frustration, helplessness… hopelessness? How can these kids have so much energy?!

It could be that this is their only chance to be playful. Life at home may not be that ideal. They may live in the slums, raised by a single parent who could barely make ends meet. They may have to resort to scavenging for recyclable scraps which they could sell for a few coins. They may have to skip school to try to earn a living for their family.

Come to think of it, their noise is not that bad. But multiply that soft chatter to 50 and you have the whole room practically falling apart from all the ruckus. And so I transformed to the non-smiling, strict, disciplinarian teacher. And it worked. I mean, I could quiet them long enough to actually be able to teach something.

A friend visited my classroom one time and asked me, “What happened to you? You don’t smile at all.” Yes, I’m the serious type but I’m normally cheerful and I definitely smile. I was even told that I was too kind a teacher. Wait ‘til they see me now. The thing is, if I become the light, happy teacher, the kids think it’s a permission to be rowdy. I want them to be happy in the classroom but that would make it so much harder to handle them. It boils down to the excessive number of students in the classroom.

“Happy birthday to you!” my students sang as they greeted me during my birthday. And without cracking a smile I said, “Thank you, sit down!”

A Character-Building Experience

Writing 101 Day 6: A Character-Building Experience Today’s Prompt: Who’s the most interesting person (or people) you’ve met this year? Today’s twist: Turn your post into a character study.

They never failed to drive me off the wall. I pulled my hair, banged my head against a cabinet, screamed at the top of my lungs. And they would continue on with the ruckus.

That’s how my life was for the last two years when I decided to teach elementary students in the public school. It’s not always that bad. There were happy days – Dead Poet’s Society moments where I led the class in singing, dancing, and lively discussion sessions. Generally though, it was a challenge of trying to teach in a small, cramped classroom filled with 50 plus rowdy kids, each with their own personality.

There’s the bundle of energy who can’t sit still, high with who-knows-what. Probably sugar from all the unhealthy snack they eat.

The diligent, inquisitive ones are a joy to teach.  They seem to be fascinated with everything you say.  Feels good knowing that they’re actually learning something from you.

There’s the genius, the leader, the athlete. Full of potential. With proper support and guidance, they would go a long way.

Of course, there are those just staying under the radar, low profile, quiet. Almost invisible. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I would actually prefer handling them because they would be easier to manage.

And then there’s the notorious – violent, disruptively playful, or just plain evil. They would test your patience. They could bring out the hulk in you. They’re unlovable but on the contrary, that’s what they need. Some attention, love, and care which they don’t really get from their parents. Sadly, a lot of them have a not so ideal family.  And that sort of explains the way they are.

These children have taught me many things. Patience, understanding, how to give tough love. I got frustrated, I got angry but I also learned to do what I have to do and just hope for the best. And I wish, for the sake of the nation, that we become more invested in these kids. They after all, are the future.