Friday, August 7, 2009

On charting a curriculum

For these four weeks we spent our afternoons teaching. I, along with one other Duke student and two Vietnamese students, were responsible for teaching health/p.e.. That was at times challenging, for the school yard was not ideal for playing typical outdoor games, and the whole first two weeks it rained practically everyday. Another interesting challenge was that we first had to explain our game to the vietnamese roommates who then had to convey the game to the children. Futhermore, sometimes the children were less than enthused about typical american games. Yet, we slowly began to get a better sense of the types of games the children enjoyed. They even sometimes just had fun playing catch with a small soccer ball that we brought everyday.

The health portion of our curriculum was a bit more of a challenge. We generally turned to health when it was raining outside. We attempted to teach about energy, the environment, nutrition, and aids. For the environment lesson we had the children pick up trash in the schoolyard. It is very disconcerting to me, for when the children eat food outside they will simply throw their wrapper on the ground. This is a common practice that is not unique to this one school. Of course there are many explanations for this behavior, one of which is that there simply are very few trash cans around, and that there is no system of trash disposal (at the school we renovated they simply dump the trash in a giant whole--their version of a landfill). So, we talked to the children about picking up trash, the environment, etc. They seemed to have a pretty good understanding on an academic level of the correct trash practices. Then we went outside and had the children pick up trash. The slight hitch in this plan was that as we were picking up trash a bunch of reporters descended upon us, clearly seeing a photo op in "vietnamese children and american volunteers clean up school yard" (a bit wordy of a title, but doesn't it just tug on your heart strings). This was a bit frustrating, especially since I wasn't entirely sure if it was creating the best impression of us all.

Another one of our lessons involved nutrition. We taught the children the food pyramid and had them chart out what categories their daily meals fell into. This doubled as an english lesson, for we taught them how to pronounce the foods and categories in english. They had little knowledge of the food pyramid (actually our vietnamese roommates also seemed unaware of it) ie many of the students thought rice was categorized as a vegetable. As I reflected upon this lesson, I began to doubt whether it was the best choice. For one, it is difficult for many of these students to obtain the foods recommended by the food pyramid ie whole grains and dairy. This is partially a cost factor and partially an availability factor. Furthermore, what can be gained by informing them that white rice, the staple of their diet, has very little nutritional value, especially when it's not within their means to switch to a healthier alternative? Yet, upon discussing this issue with several of the americans, I came to the conclusion that teaching them some of the basics of the food pyramid would at least create a sense of food awareness that could have a positive impact.

On a sense of community and hospitality

We have now finished our time in Định Thủy. Today we return to Saigon. So many impressions, it's really hard to begin to sum them up, but I will try through a series of probably somewhat random posts.

One of the most striking elements of the culture here is the sense of community and hospitality. Once we finished working on the school we helped to build a local road. At times we were unsure how to contribute to the road for there were many workers on the road. These workers consisted entirely of the members of the community who wished to help pitch in to create the road. They were very welcoming of us. The way they welcomed us was through food. We joked that at the road we worked, ate, rested, worked, ate, ate, work, ate again. In one day we were given corn, grapefruit, and watermelon as a snack. Then at the end of the work day we were given "sweet soup." Sweet soup is a vietnamese desert that comes in many forms. We were given a tasty sweet soup at the end of each work day, and I have to admit that sometimes the thought of the sweet soup awaiting us helped get me through lifting ridiculously heavy bags of rocks and sand (admitedly my principles got in the way and in an attempt to work against the local stereotype that women aren't very strong I might have tried to lift bags that were a bit too heavy for me). Also, most days we were given fresh coconut juice (which we drank straight out of the coconuts) for coconuts are the main source of income in ben tre.

Throughout our time here we have constantly experienced hospitality through food. The local people would often give us food, even when it was perhaps above their means to do so. Yesterday was our last day working in the community. We were given two large lunches. Also, one man had become particularly attached to our group. This man was the contractor and had helped us work on both the school and the house. He had invited us over to his house on the first weekend to eat traditional vietnamese food. Yesterday he bought us coconut juice, coffee, and chewing gum. He said that we had become like family to him (especially the girls, for he has no sisters) and since he was unable to express his sentiments through words, it made him happy to buy us food. It was very sweet. Also, it was somewhat suprising to the americans, for people are generally far stingier with that kind of strong emotion in the U.S.

As a side note I'll mention the scene in which I write this post. I'm sitting at an internet cafe, which is always an interesting scene in Vietnam. Most of the patrons are children. Some of them are playing games, some are watching videos, and others are browsing online. Occasionally one of them will stare fixedly at my screen. Also one girl has had some upbeat american techno song playing on loop for the past twenty minutes. Quiet the interesting scene.