It was a hot, crowded one hour songtao (Thai version of a local bus) ride to Jen’s House today. I was glad to finally arrive at my stop and make the short walk down the lane into the cool shade of the trees on the property. As I walked towards the door the only sound coming from inside was the clicking of weaving sticks. It was too early for the twenty students that live at Jen’s House to be home from school. Tamla and her sister smiled as I entered and Tamla unhitched herself from her back-strap loom, and set her weaving aside to greet me.

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After my initial meeting with the students a few day ago I was back to start building fledgling relationships with the new students and reestablish my connection with those who I’ve know for a while. I would also be assessing how I could best help the students with their English studies. During my first visit I’d gone over the current standing of the students and reinforced the 3.0 GPA expectation at Jen’s House. English is the subject that is holding some of the students back from achieving their goal.

The low level of the English education in Thailand never ceases to amaze me. Learning a language from a teacher who cannot speak English makes for a difficult learning experience and most students graduate high school unable to carry on even the simplest conversation. For decades the practice for English studies in Thailand has been focused on writing and grammar; comprehension and speaking take a very distant second.

The students start to arrive home and it’s not long before the ten boys make a circle around me in the large common room. We begin with a review of my expectations so their are no surprises if it becomes necessary to make adjustments: miss three of my group classes and you don’t return to them. However you’re not off the hook, English lessons then become a one-on-one with me and no one wants that. I am a firm but fair teacher, or so I like to believe.

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We move on to basic phonics and I’m pleased to see that the older boys are enthusiastic about learning with me and have retained some of what they have learnt over the years. The first year students have never heard the sounds of the letters so we begin a group lesson learning and reviewing the sounds. The boys twist and turn their tongues and lips in an effort to get around these unnatural sounds. We laugh together and eventually the sounds start to come through. We move onto the pronunciation of numbers from one to twenty with more laughter but a concentrated effort. It’s a slow process and will take some time before these basic sounds come instinctively to the new students. We pause for dinner and later the girls gather around me.

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First to the circle is Areeya who has been at Jen’s House for a number of years, she places herself beside me. Areeya’s perseverance to fulfill her dream of becoming a Canadian exchange student is unshakeable. Three of the four new girls gently pull their bodies into the circle hoping they are invisible to me. They come from the same mountain village and stick to each other like glue. The others join in and we follow the same basic lesson plan as the boys, albeit with more giggling than outright laughter. I include a lesson on possible responses to the question, “How are you?” I let them know that I want to hear any other response to this simple question than the automatic robot reply they learn in school, “I’m fine thank you and you?” We explore other possible responses to the question: I’m tired, I’m not feeling well, I’m happy to see you, and I’m hot. The goal is to increase their comfort level in speaking and increase their vocabulary. It’s a good lesson and by 8:30 it’s time to call it a day. I will sleep at Jen’s House tonight, as there is no bus back from Thung Siao to Chiang Mai after 5:00 pm.

Areeya has made a bed for me and as I lay my head down on the bottom bunk beside her I am astonished to see a collection of pink sticky notes attached to the underside of the top bunk. On each bright pink paper Areeya has written an English word in large letters with the Thai and Karen translation below it. A smile comes over my face at the thought of her willing these words into her memory each night before she drifts off to sleep.

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It is the crack of dawn and in the dim light girls are quietly moving about. In one corner a girl is ironing her clothes, another is putting the final touches on a homework assignment. Another is packing her backpack and another folding clothes into a basket. Someone turns the overhead light on and the movement increases. The last of the sleepers rise and join in with their morning routine. Blankets  are folded and stacked high in readiness for tonight. A place for everything and everything in it’s place is the order of the day.

The dress requirements are firm right down to the manner in which their hair is styled and the mandatory colour of ribbon that finishes off their neatly pulled back hair.

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It’s 6:00 a.m. One of the girls brings a cup of coffee to my bed as everyone else heads to the breakfast table. It’s good to be an elder.

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Off to school, it’s 7:30.