When we pulled up to Houay Lo Primary School dusk was fast approaching, the students were playing soccer, braiding hair and laughter echoed in the mountains. I could feel the similar energy I felt when staying in my own elementary school after hours – excitement, apprehension, the feeling that I’m getting a glimpse into a world I don’t normally see. But slowly the parents and older siblings started to arrive and lingered quietly, waiting for what was to come.
In February, I attended a Pencils of Promise (PoP) Community Day at Houay Lo village in Laos. Community days are part of PoP’s programming and are intended to unite the village around education and show the teachers, parents and students that they can all support one another via the classroom. We arrive after dinner so that parents and village leaders can come after a day of work and it doesn’t detract from the scheduled school day.
I was there to observe and take photos as PoP leaves it up to our talented local staff to lead the activities and facilitate the discussions. Although I knew the scheduled activities ahead of time, observing the programs and its various stations in a language I am struggling to learn left me with some very interesting observations.
First, I wholeheartedly believe that the children of this village feel ownership of their school and are excited to learn.
The majority of the students were already there before the PoP staff and parents arrived for the program. The kids do not feel that the school grounds are restricted to educational hours. Rather, the school is a meeting place, a playground, a safe place to run, jump and laugh.
One station at the community day was for parents and kids to draw their ideal school on large sheets of paper. As I walked around this group, peering over their shoulders at the images, I saw some really inspiring ideas. Families see the school as a springboard for a garden, clean water source, space to play and cultural meeting spot. Their new structure does not close when the last bell rings. It is already serving as a space for kids to play at anytime of day and when the community members are on the same page regarding the potential of this space, they can turn it into a comprehensive area benefitting everyone.
Second, families, particularly mothers, will go to great physical inconveniences to support their child’s education.
Most mothers who came to the community day did not come alone. After a long day working on the farm they slowly but strongly walked up the hill to the school with a baby in tow or a child in hand. Many mothers used a piece of cloth, similar to a scarf, to tie the baby to their back and stayed this way, readjusting occasionally, throughout the whole 3-hour evening. The babies, who often would fall asleep despite the voices of over one hundred people, were there with their mothers to support an older sibling. And the mothers were willing to bear this physical burden to understand their child’s education.
Third, it is a great equalizer when lessons move away from the traditional lecture style.
All of the community day activities were away from the chalkboard and incorporated physical movement and dialogue. I saw this working for two reasons: first, many parents in Houay Lo did not have the opportunity to attend school or have a primary level education. When unfamiliar, the classroom setting can be intimidating. Will the PoP Program Coordinator call on me? Will I need to discuss my own experience? But tonight, the desks were pushed aside and everyone was standing in a circle or split into smaller groups. Lessons involved moving from group to group in response to the facilitator’s remarks.
Additionally, PoP avoids the traditional teaching approach by incorporating arts and crafts into the community day. Another activity involved parents and students going through newspapers and magazines and cutting out images that represent what people can do when they have an education. This activity does not require the ability to read. It also puts many glamorized faces to the idea of receiving an education. Students and parents are cutting out images of people or places that are being honored in the media. In gluing that image to the paper they are saying, “I can do this, too.”
Pencils of Promise believes every child should have access to quality education. We create schools, programs and global communities around the common goal of education for all. PoP operates in Guatemala, Ghana and Laos.