My Weapon and my Friend: Bringing Words to Life. Inaugural English Poetry Competition, Thailand 2014.

It’s 1983. In a school playground in East London a teacher gives a crying boy two tools to change his life forever. First, a pen: “This is your weapon”. Next, a blank notebook: “This is your new best friend”. Though young Charlie had been expecting something quite different, he noted his teacher’s advice, “Write down how you feel about school”. The white pages gradually filled with vengeance, in what he called ‘The Book of Torture’, plans for what he would do to any bully who touched him again. So, when someone grabbed him in the playground and pulled his school tie around his neck tighter and tighter, he knew he needed to do something, to say something. “If you ever touch me again I’m going to crush you like giants crush mountains”. The bully was so surprised that he left Charlie alone, and that is when he realised if he kept writing and reflecting no one would bother him again. He has written a poem every day since this day, so over 11,000 in total, and the notebooks in their thousands, fill his childhood home.

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Poetry can give children confidence, a voice, and power. The microphone can let them say things they’re too afraid to whisper. UK Performance Poet, Charlie Dark, sees poetry as a useful form of self-expression, like “a silent movie on a snow white paper screen”. He advocates empowering young people with language and ultimately bringing words to life, which is exactly what the 20 finalists of the Inaugural English Poetry Competition did. Charlie and the finalists first met during a workshop. With only one day before the final, the students were given the theme for their poems: themselves. The short time period between being given the theme, and the actual final encouraged the young people to think on their feet and the result was a mixture of nerves, inspiration and raw emotion. The confidence, pride, positivity of the students and their belief in the possibility for change and improvement struck a chord with the adults in the audience. The cheeky smiles and enthusiasm proved to be infectious, and the Director of English, Brian Stott, was even caught on camera pretending to be a DJ.

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The levels of English were impressive and one of the students, Gun, introduced her poem as follows: “It is written in the snow with the footprint of a sparrow, listen to it before it melts.” Transience is beauty, and though this afternoon will soon be a thing of the past it has made its mark on a number of exceptional young people, and members of the audience. Especially the winners, the top prize being a UK Study visit for one week, along with a set of books and vouchers.Through a dramatic reading of one of his poems Charlie Dark engaged and enlivened the audience, and succeeded in drawing a crowd from passers-by. Taking it line by line; animatedly acting out each part, the audience copied him bit by bit. It was a rare occasion when the crowd was as energetic as the performer: the positive energy was obvious. It must have been quite a sight from stage for him seeing the 20 finalists, special guests, visitors and friends pretending to be DJs, holding their pens (weapons) up to the sky, break-dancing and mock aggressively crossing their arms. It brought poetry to life.

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The students’ individuality became clear when they walked up onto the stage in turn to perform their poems about themselves. Some strode confidently, others paced timidly, many forgetting their lines mid-way through, but recovering, taking a deep breath, a nervous giggle, and re-gaining confidence. One boy did a little dance and rubbed his head as if he was massaging his brain so it would work again, another dug out scraps of ripped paper from her pockets and incorporated it into her performance so well that she was awarded the prize for ‘The Best Improvement’. After each performance Charlie provided feedback and the pride in the young people’s faces was overwhelming. He inspired them, but this inspiration was not limited to the young performers. Charlie’s performance and their words combined to produce an atmosphere of hope.

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“I just want to be seen like a book on a broken shelf.”

“I sometimes fall down, but I never give up like the flow of streams… I believe in myself.”

“I dream I can swim across the Pacific Ocean in 1 minute… I dream I can be everything I want to be.”

“I am like a grain of sand in the sea, so little, but strong if you bring it together into a bigger stone. From a grain of sand to something better…like a butterfly I will fly.”

“I am a big shark that can swim in a dangerous and beautiful sea… I can swoop up into the sky and grab my dreams.”

All I need now is my weapon and my friend…and perhaps you do too…

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Advice for English Teaching Assistants (Part 2): British Council, Voices Blog.

As I’m back in Bangkok working for the British Council Teaching Assistant Thailand Scheme (TET) 2014 it seemed appropriate to do a part 2 to compliemnt my part 1 ‘Essential Tips for English Language Assistants in Thailand’.

Here it is:

http://blog.britishcouncil.org/2014/07/09/essential-tips-for-english-language-assistants-in-thailand-part-2/

I also had this published on the British Council Teaching Blog for Asia:

http://blog.britishcouncil.org/teachingenglishasia/2014/07/14/life-as-an-english-teaching-assistant-in-thailand-2/

 

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Thai Dancing, English Speaking and (almost) a Day Off School.

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On Stage.

 

 

‘Let’s go, Teacher Charlie,’ calls Frenelly from the living room. It is 8 o’clock and I am still in bed. I had been told that the competition started at 9am so I had planned on an extreme lie in (until 8.30am perhaps). As is often the case I wasn’t told that we were required to go to the activity hall first to sit somewhat aimlessly for almost an hour. The highlight of this was that at the end of the nothingness two of the seniors from my school performed a beautiful, traditional Thai dance in costume holding candles. I was even bold enough to ask if I could have my picture taken with them.

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Elegant Thai Dancers and the (impressed) Farang Teacher.

So, today was the day of the dreaded and revered ‘English Speak Competition’, with competitors from other schools throughout the province of Phichit. I was nominated to be part of the panel of judges. There were five of us; two Philipinos, two Thais and myself; all English teachers. I had imagined that the competitors would be speaking in front of a large crowd, but it was just us. I had also imagined that there would be lots of competitors, but between the two sections (Impromptu Speeches and Story Telling) there were only five of them. In the first round- the “impromptu” speeches (which were in fact VERY pre-planned) the first boy, from Anubanwangsaipoon, remembered all of the words but spoke so quietly it was hard to hear any of them. The second student came in and started confidently with a good accent and an interesting speech but about half way trailed off into nothing and sheepishly left the room before finishing. As judges we were given a sheet which we had to give marks out of 5, 10, 15, 20 for various things (see the attached photo); it was very difficult to judge, firstly, a speech that I could not hear, and secondly, a speech that was not finished.

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Story telling was up next. One of my students was the first competitor and he honestly nailed the performance. The only unfortunate thing was the English that he had meticulously learned and rehearsed was rather incorrect. What made this frustrating was that a few weeks back I was asked to record myself reading the story. On finding that there were lots of errors I re-wrote the entire book in good English, only for it to become a hybrid of what it was before and after translation during the speech. The second student entertained me greatly. He was a lanky lad, much taller and thinner than the others and had a shy look about him. It was a shaky start. He was reciting ‘the dog and its’ reflection’, a story about the consequences of greed. After each line he would act out what had happened, my favourite section of the piece was when he started pretending to be a greedy little dog choking on/coughing up a piece of steak (with sound effects). I was visibly (and audibly) laughing, the others didn’t look impressed by this.

The English Department

The English Department

The competition was over almost as abruptly as it started. By 10am I was requested to leave my classroom and told that there wouldn’t be any more classes for the rest of the day. Usually this would have pleased me, but for some reason unknown to me I was unreasonably displeased by my lack of plans for the rest of the day. I felt like running to the bus stop and hopping on the first bus that came: going on an adventure, but I knew that this was neither acceptable nor advisable. As such, after trudging around the marshy football field briefly and ranting to a friend, I obediently wandered into the staffroom and sat down to write letters and do paperwork for various things (PT internship, university/ accommodation administration) until lunchtime. Admittedly it came round quickly and I felt churlish for my reaction to having a relatively student (chaos) free day.

The afternoon and evening were filled with the same again, interspersed with a bike ride and various chats with people at home in Thailand. I have included a photograph of where I sometimes sit when on Skype; it’s quite a change of scene from my desk in my student flat in Northeast London!

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Wifi Zone.

Duck, duck, goose; dog walking and dutiful daytime divas.

“Teacher Chabaaaa… Meeting!” I wake blurry eyed to these words at a time unknown to me. I fell asleep at about 4am. Frantically looking around I see that my phone is out of battery (so no alarm clock) and my watch is not in sight. I don’t even know what time it is. Until Teacher Tim from outside shouts ‘Meeting. 9.30!’ In my whole time I haven’t overslept, but this time I think it is excusable. After a long weekend in Bangkok and an (overnight) bus ride back to school my tiredness caught up on me. Standing pathetically at the ‘window’ (there is no glass) she sees me and her eyes soften. She lets me sleep… a little longer.

Gathering strength and forcing my eyes open with cold water (also tipping it over my head), I jostled through various school buildings to my classroom to find ALL of my students outside and a big fat lock on the door. (Beware: tense change). There is a girl in this particular class who, for the first two weeks, came and ‘dragged’ me up to the classroom when I thought I have a free period because of errors on my timetable. I asked her to fetch a key. She returned with no key. This meant that we had no access to the room, the desks, the books… anything. I thought that this meant no class, but the students stuck by me. After playing briefly with putty, which stupidly to surprise the students I put in my pocket only for it to get green goo stuck on the inside, I knew I had to step up and come up with something for everyone to do…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Somehow I managed to sort a group of 30 rowdy ten year olds into a single file line of boy, girl, boy, girl etc. Off we went. First playing follow the leader, then duck, duck goose (which I can justify because it fits into the category of revising animals…tentative, I know) and finally ‘zap’. This was very difficult to explain and took a lot of trial and (mostly) error! Unfortunately the impromptu class outside ended in tears. One of the boys took his rope and hit one of the girls unexpectedly, what a shame. It is quite ordinary for the students to carry ropes on Wednesdays, as it is the day of scout uniforms and ‘survival’ activities. Often I see them with big red bamboo sticks, hats, orange shoes and neckerchiefs in beige uniforms with badges sewn on. The girls wear very smart, long green skirts and shirts.

In position...

In position…

Sleep was on my mind and by midday I was shattered and felt like locking the door of my classroom and kipping on the floor. However, this is not what a responsible adult should do, especially a teacher. I left my door open only to be greeted by friendly hello’s and the familiar faces of the grade 4s. The class started well with the call and response and I found myself again at the front dancing around, singing, joking around. The class was really responsive, especially when we were doing vocabulary about ‘things to do’ and ‘walking my dog’ came up. One of the boys who sits at the far left of the back row fidgets endlessly, with anything (ANYTHING) he can find. Today he was concentrating on his rope, which I promptly confiscated. To try and use a little of his excess energy, keep in mind he has a sense of humour, I got him to kneel on the floor and loosely tied his rope round his wrist and took him for a little walk around the classroom. He woofed eagerly and wagged his imaginary tail. It is at times like this when I adore working with young’uns.

When I came to Thailand I never expected to have such divas in my classes. Three of my more rotund students volunteered themselves to stay behind after class to clear up the room in time for the English speaking competition tomorrow. I put on some ‘housework music’ and the responded hilariously. Firstly, they danced around gleefully and then, at a particularly ‘punky’ part of one of the songs they changed the position of their brooms so that rather than looking like cleaning implements they looked like electric guitars (allowing for a bit of imagination). Although this portion of the day was relatively short it was amazingly sweet and I felt at peace dancing around my classroom goofily with these little critters.

Dutiful Divas...

Dutiful Divas…

Finishing school at around 3.30 I wondered what to do with my evening. It was filled with replacing my Thai sim card (which for some reason gobbles all my money as soon as I top it up), cycling around the area, munching rotis (and getting to know a little bit about the seller), lounging outside a small shop at a table drinking Fanta and writing a letter, watching a cat fight (literally), making French toast, chatting to friends from home and Thailand, running through the kitchen to fend off a hungry rat from my unattended French toast, wiping away the sweat, rubbing mosquito repellent onto my already bitten skin… I think that would be a quick and easy summary of the evening.

Although there is relatively little ‘to do’ I feel like I’m always busy, but in quite a relaxed way. I’m so pleased to be back at school and am curious as to what tomorrow has in store!

Bangkok. ‘Around the world in 80 days’ and ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’, eat your heart out!

Wangsaipoon and Bangkok are not comparable; they are totally different worlds.

In one Bangkok day I do more than I could in a Wangsaipoon week. I enjoy the contrast of city and country. Although I can appreciate the hustle and bustle for the weekend I know that if I lived here the novelty of navigating the buses, the motorcycle taxis, the train lines, sky-high buildings, sky-high prices, farang everywhere would ware off.

Oil, a fascinating young woman who works for the British Council, suggested that Frances and I visit Terminal 21. It was only a walk and a train away and when we arrived we were not too surprised to see that it looked and was set out like an airport terminal (the clue is in the name). Each floor was done in the theme of world cities. ‘Around the world in 80 days’ eat your heart out; we went around the world in less than an hour; to Paris, Istanbul, Tokyo, San Francisco, London etc.…all over the place. Even the bathrooms fitted in with the theme and all of the floors supported ‘Japanese style’ loos with various functions, including heated seats. Needless to say people were so comfortable that a queue developed fairly quickly. The views were also amazing. I was particularly amused, being a ‘Londoner’ to see what was picked out. There were road signs to various sights, a red telephone box (which was bigger than life) and a mock tube train with a ‘Bakerloo line’ sign. If the only qualm I have is that the colour above this sign was blue (Piccadilly line colour), rather than brown, I think it is safe to say that they did a pretty good job.

Cycling through San Francisco!

Cycling through San Francisco!

Lumpini the lizard.

Lumpini the lizard.

After a quick waffle on the run Frances and I boarded the train to Lumpini Park. This is where I was robbed on the second day, but today I had quite a different experience. It took us a while to navigate our way from Lumpini station past the police station and an extremely long, uninterrupted (by doors) gate. On entry to the park we were ‘inspected’ by some guards. Lumpini Park is enormous and green with lakes, aerobic areas, a food stall section, and lots of trees and surrounded by tall Bangkok-ian buildings. From a distance it appeared as if there was a large market on, but on closer inspection there were lots of little tents, lots of little children in pyjamas and stalls selling very specific items (such as body lotion… I’m still not sure why). Many of the people had been camping out for a large, peaceful protest. A friendly Thai lady saw our slightly lost faces and explained that there were there to fight against corruption in the government. There were queues at various tables beside the action and the stage. We decided to hop into one of them and learnt that they were free food and drink stalls. So, whoever said there is no such thing as a free lunch… We were given a plastic bag full of ice and extremely sweet, dark green liquid; a little pot with porridge, rice, sugar, water and condensed milk and a deep fried desert that was covered in a mixture of crushed sugar and sesame seeds. What a treat.

Lunch.

Lunch.

Tom, an English artist, has lived in Bangkok for 3.5 years. He is a friend of Frances’ big brother; they went to school together when they were younger. Frances met him for the first time on her first day of her Thailand trip, but because of the family connection they seemed to have an instant bond. We were so lucky to get shown around by a ‘local’. First off we took the metro to a station called Hua Lampong, which marks the end of the line. We walked for about 10 minutes to take a look at the hostel where Frances stayed on her first night. It was nestled at the end of an incredible street filled with real people working in tailor shops, sitting outside with their families, tending to crying babies; the brightly coloured washing brightening up the fairly drab flats and buildings covered with corrugated iron. So, we saw that even within Bangkok there are different worlds. Sukhomvit, the area where we were staying, is both a business district and apparently one of the largest ‘adult playgrounds’ in Asia.

Holy Tree.

Holy Tree.

We all exchanged looks across a busy road, and about 3 minutes later, when the traffic cleared for a few seconds, we were able to scamper across to the other side in time to meet Tom. He took us on a personalized tour of the little streets surrounding his studio, past engine sheds, old men playing checkers, old women complimenting our modest clothing in Thai (which Tom translated for us), boarded up buildings, Chinese pagodas, and the river. He took us to a concrete platform right by the river’s edge, which he had tracked down purposefully after spying it from a boat when numerous locals practiced yoga and aerobics in unison. I didn’t mention earlier but today was the queen’s birthday, and therefore a national holiday in Thailand which doubles up as mother’s day. We saw numerous little groups of mothers with their children of diverse ages. I accidentally became a temporary personal photographer for one such group who got me to snap them in various poses with quite different backgrounds while Tom and Frances waited in the shade for me.

China Town.

China Town.

The next stop on our tour was China town proper. I’ll put in a picture to give you a little impression; all I’ll say here is there was a lot of meat! I introduced Frances to the wonders of fresh pomegranate before we were led into the entrance of Tesco Lotus. We didn’t go inside the shop, but instead into a little lift, and up to the 10th

10th floor passing a multiple storey car park en route. What awaited us at the top was actually quite mind blowing. The 10th floor is empty except from a couple of little shops that are in the process of being built. So we had a vast concrete expanse before us, and beyond the walls was Bangkok. High rise buildings, flats, temples, the river, houses, people, and bright umbrellas appearing only momentarily as flashes as their owners scurried through little alleyways. Stunning. After being on the ground for the weekend, in the markets and the red lights district it was very refreshing to be able to just look down on it all from somewhere else.  The monsoon rain changed the atmosphere even further to one of contemplation and we all looked down on the same block of flats wondering who lived inside, wondering what their lives had been like and what stories they had to tell.

 

The view.

The view.

The rain was incredible and unending. When it ceased (a little) we went to get the lift, and I just saw Tom looking in lovingly saying ‘hello there’, imagining it was a lost child, only for a minute later to see it was a dog. Frances was scared, but managed, and I’m sure our laughter helped. We ran out into the middle of the busy road, hopped onto the bus and took it to the studio. It was such a creative space, quite modern and open planned with various desks covered in paint, freshly screen printed t-shirts and bags, quite a few laptops and scanners, drawings, paintings, and… of course… the Artists! The majority of them were gathered at a table on an outside porch, which was covered from the rain, surrounded by flashes of green outside and buildings. They sat playing dominoes, smoking (they must have been) and drinking cider. It was about 30 degrees and humid. One of the women stood out to me in particular. She was Thai with a heart shaped face, thick, dark rimmed glasses, and bleach blonde spikey hair. At various intervals she nipped inside to talk to Tom or Nathan (a Thai/Australian who was working away). They (at least Tom) have an exhibition coming up in a week or so to mark the anniversary of the gallery that they have downstairs and were working away hectically so we dashed off when the rain died down a little. I didn’t mention that Tom has been sleeping (with various friends) at the studio for a few weeks… that’s how busy he has been, so it’s amazing he fitted us into his plans and showed us around.

Two of the artists 'at work'.

Two of the artists ‘at work’.

By the time we left Frances and I were ‘hangry’ (hungry and ‘angry’- more like desperate). She led me to a vegetarian restaurant, which she had been to before and told me that they serve almost any meat dish (including shark fin soup and ducks legs), which looks and tastes the same, but is not made out of meat. It was jam packed when we arrived, but we managed to bag ourselves a small table outside at the end. Many of the things on the menu were either finished or unavailable so in the end we went for a fairly unadventurous ‘vegetable fried rice’ and ‘vegetable noodles’… Maybe next time we can eat a dog?!? (made out of soy).

By the time we got back to Sukhomvit we were tired and craving ice cream. After this ‘need’ was satisfied we proceeded back to our apartment. The sky was like nothing I have ever seen before. We experienced a real tropical lightning storm with sheet lightning illuminating the whole sky and various buildings too. It didn’t start raining for quite a while after the lightning begun. I was stunned and a little too excited to go to sleep, so yet again it became a little bit of a late one. Not too late though, it’s just living in a rural area in central Thailand has changed my standards.