Through the wonders of the internet (specifically, The Listserv), I met a new friend who happens to be a teacher at a school in Hanoi. Thus, when we started planning our trip to Vietnam, I reached out to set up a visit and jumped at the chance to not only tour the school, but sit in on a class and run an activity with the students!
The school is a large (or average-sized by Texas standards - 2,500 students) private school with an international program and traditional Vietnamese program. The international program consists of a combination of courses taught in English and Vietnamese and the English courses follow the Cambridge International Examinations model. They've been using Cambridge for 6 years now with good results and the school is growing in popularity and in size.
I got a quick tour of the school and definitely had both my designer and my organizational behavior hats on. First, the school is very traditional in design and use. Chairs attached to desks, all in rows was ubiquitous. However, they had great visibility going for them! Many classrooms were flanked with large windows, allowing me to peer in without interrupting classes.
One interesting fact about the dual programs in the school is that some students may take two math courses, one in Vietnamese, the other in English. Since the two programs are run so independently, my friend who teaches maths has no idea what or how they are learning in the competing maths course. However, being the educator extraordinaire that she is, this becomes an advantage and opportunity to show students multiple ways of solving problems. Best quote of the day was that she is there "not to teach maths, but to teach them how to think." Her class is lucky to have her.
Teacher Culture, or lack thereof
Teachers here don't collaborate, or even communicate for that matter. International educators and Vietnamese educators have separate offices. This links to the disjointed nature of the two programs. Further, the designs of both are set up as cubicles, limiting the ability for the educators to plan together or collaborate. While open to all, the Vietnamese teachers dine together in the teacher dining space and the international teachers eat in their offices. While there is a stellar amount of autonomy for teachers to teach each class how they please, it is clear that too much autonomy can also result in disconnected staff and no clear culture. Thus, as is most things in life, balance is key.
Artifacts from an older time...
Chalk is not just for sidewalks in this school and was the main event in classroom instruction. While nostalgic, it was taxing for my friend to shift from the projection screen, to writing on the board, to attempting to combine the two. Further, my favorite find of the day is this gem:
This board is a count of all students present for the day for the purpose of knowing how much food to cook for lunch (it's actually twice as wide as what I have pictured!). My friend had no theories here as to why this is still the desired mode but basically, all teachers turn in a student count in the mornings and each class is manually added up to give the lunch cooks a proper count. I find this fascinating! 1) Why can't they use google sheets or excel to calculate or some form of technology to collect numbers? I know that perhaps the lunch staff is not fluent in this tech but I reckon some teaching staff are. 2) Why can't they just use an average attendance count? Surely this doesn't vary extraordinarily from day to day. Again, fascinating! Anyone have some theories here?
Overall School Culture
To maintain cleanliness of the rooms, students and teachers (and guests like me!) remove their shoes prior to entering a classroom. Sometimes lockers are provided specifically for this purpose, other times they just line the halls (I would like to take a moment and apologize to all if my feet weren't clean enough. I was not warned about the no shoe policy). Students here stay in the same classroom all day long, with educators rotating throughout the day (one item that I think we should trial more in the States, though this school was not taking advantage of the staff collaboration opportunities this provides). This is the model all the way through year 12. It does build amazing unity between students but it becomes incredibly difficult to personalize the learning based on individual need (cue the worksheets here...). However, to get to the heart of what matters, students were engaged and happy and seemed to get on well with their educators.
Activity with Ms Raechel
Now on to the best part of the day - the Activity with Ms Raechel! Once the students asked the requisite questions (how old was I, was I married, do I have siblings, etc.) we got down to business. I shared with them some examples of schools DLR Group has designed back in the States and how different types of spaces can support different types of learning. I had a moment of doubt in this topic about halfway through when a boy in front exclaimed "Don't give us false hope!" However, my doubts were cleared when we got to the fun part - designing their own schools! Paper and markers in hand, they broke into groups, a difficult task since the desks/chairs were so heavy, and sketched out their dreams. I saw instant variety in approach from basically redrawing classrooms on a hallway to designing a tree with classrooms on various levels or a school with adjacent quidditch fields (the artist here announced to me she was undeniably a potterhead - well done!). One student had me cycle back through my presentation so he could get a closer look at some sample sketches I shared. There was a clear indication of which students felt free to be creative versus liked being told what to do. I was actually the latter in school and had to work to get out of that rut.
My favorite anecdote of the activity involved one disengaged student in the back corner of the room. He was not having it. However, when I crouched beside him for a chat, I saw he had a table full of his comic strip drawings. Turns out he makes these comic books, copies them, and tries to sell them around town! What an entrepreneur. So I asked, what would a school look like in which students made things like this all day? Turns out it'd be a four-quadrant design with each area dedicated to a different focus, chosen by the students. Beautiful idea and a beautiful day.
It was no surprise to me when moving to Australia that folks would be very interested in and knowledgeable about political affairs in the United States. The interest is palpable. So much so that it sparks things like what I picture here, an ad for nail polish disguised as political commentary...or is political commentary disguised as a nail polish ad? Statements and signs like this are everywhere, even months after the election.
Each time I meet a new Aussie and they find out I'm American, the conversation inevitably leads to my views of American politics. The Fulbright committee must have anticipated this as during my interview for the scholarship, they introduced a double-loaded question regarding not only how I would explain my views of the election and then candidate Trump, but also my stance on immigration. I suppose they do go hand in hand. While the Fulbright committee did not laugh at the jokes I made during my bumbling response (I was reassured by all other scholars that they too, were caught off guard and fumbled here...), this was good preparation.
Now what has surprised me is the impact American politics has on students and I've heard stories of kiddos as young as four making insightful conclusions about the state of American affairs or experience worry about what will become of the world. To point, the daughter of one of the PhD's working with me here, four years old at the time, told her mum that Donald Trump must not like his wife because he does not like women. It's amazing what young children can pick up from brief glimpses of the news.
I had another encounter just yesterday. I was ordering lunch while visiting a local school in Brisbane. The very polite Year 9 student in front of me asked if I was American and sparked a lovely conversation around animals that can kill me, drop bears, and Vegemite. All pleasantries until he felt we were acquainted enough (and confirmed I wasn't too radical) for him to bring up what he was really after, my thoughts on the presidency. He began with a joke: Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump go down together in a plane crash. Who survives?
At least he's bipartisan. I found this joke quite funny and apparently, it's a popular one around here. We then had a honest discussion about world powers, war, and nuclear codes. We both agreed that we feel very safe in Australia and are glad for its lack of resources worth bombing for.
In Launceston, Tasmania last month I visited "The Battery Shed" a space next to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery that holds after-school and weekend coding and gaming classes. It was the final day of the current session and students were all frantically testing out their games, holding their breath as they press "run". Most of the games seemed to follow a similar premise (and bear with me here, I am not a gamer): your artfully designed main character move about through your game path, pouncing on your enemy to avoid your own demise. Basically, they reminded me of Mario running around and jumping on goombas. One student in particular had designed his game replacing the goombas with mini-Trumps, complete with their pixelated American Flag jumpers. The student next to him was putting the final touches on one of this game pieces, a "Trump Tank".
I am not one to discuss my political views online and I am not going to start now but I find it fascinating how much of an impact the US has on even young students over here. While one may assume that these games and comments are spurred from a surface-level knowledge of the US picked up around the dinner table (I know that when I was their age, that's all I knew and I lived there!), I can attest that these students are very well informed and articulate about their beliefs, their fears, and their concern over what is happening stateside and what it may mean for their own future. We should pay attention to what they are saying (and if you'd like to purchase your very own bottle of "Impeachment" click here).
When I help plan a school, each choice has a purpose. The size and shape of a room afford for certain activities, the technology in place and its location can support various types of instruction, color choice can create a certain mood. However, in a time in which I am researching the often reality that these envisioned possibilities don't live up to their potential, it is great to attend a tour in which the choices, and their success, are tangible to the users. This was apparent on a recent tour of Ruyton Girls' School and their new "Margaret McRae Center". The building is a transitional space for girls in years 7-9, providing the middle year's a unique experience apart from the traditional classroom.
One our tour guides Ella, a year 7 student who insists she was not coached beforehand, spoke of the round tables and how they help them communicate. She loved the ease of storage and how it allowed the space to be organized and in her words "calming". She touched on the lack of a front of a room in the classrooms with multiple monitors and how each space, with their different furnishings, operated a bit differently. I was impressed - not just with the design but with how the purpose had been communicated, whether overtly or unconsciously. It was excellent! See below for photos.