On Monday morning I met with members of the Myanmar Youth Empowerment Program. Set up by 11 young men and women, this
group teaches 'soft skills' to its students, based on education and training the founders received from the Pacific Education Trust.
The school is based just outside of Yangon. As well as requesting books, it was agreed that I would visit on the Saturday. I also met
with Kevin of I.C.E Youth to arrange a formal debate between his volunteers on Thursday.
On Wednesday I visited two monastic schools outside of Yangon - one run by monks and the other by nuns. This was part of the
mobile library program run by a teacher called Yee. NLR already donates books to this program. At the first school I met around
150+ children and read (with translation) several children's books. I then played a game whereby I wrote ten sentences on a
whiteboard in English, threw a ball into the audience, and whoever caught the ball stood up and read the sentence aloud. I helped
them with phonetics or pronunciation difficulties, and then had the whole group repeat the sentence. It worked very well. Afterwards,
the teaching monks - who were young and relatively inexperienced - asked that I teach them phonetics of the alphabet. The
standard of English amongst teachers and students alike was quite low.
The nunnery was hit by Nargis - one building was destroyed and several damaged. The destroyed building had been completely
rebuilt, and the teaching nuns were a bit older and more experienced. The overall standard of English amongst these students was
also higher. We repeated the same activity as at the monastery school, but this time I used more complex sentences and focused
even more on pronunciation and phonetics, as well as looking at emphasis.
On Thursday we held the debate at I.C.E youth. Dr. Thant Thaw Kaung and I explained the benefits of learning research and
presentation skills. Then, the topic was distributed to the 13 attendees, who were divided into two teams - proposition and
opposition. Each had an hour to research and prepare for the debate. Then, two speakers from each team spoke for 6 minutes
each. I made it clear that any arguments must take the format of assertion-reason-evidence, supported by objective and cited
authority, as opposed to personal opinion and speculation. I left the topic and methods of research deliberately wide as I wanted to
get a feel for the level of skill of the volunteers. The presentations themselves were mixed. The students were clearly inexperienced
in public speaking - one girl said she had never spoken in public before. Whilst the arguments were of varying strengths (and
accuracy), evidence in support, and general research skills, were clearly lacking.
A dearth of research skills was apparent when I spoke with Yee's volunteers on Friday. There were three students - aged 16-17 and one teacher who was 27, a former dentistry student. Whilst their English was relatively proficient, their life skills and sense of
direction was either lacking or pre-determined to please their parents. What I had intended to be a light conversation about anything
they wanted to talk about turned into a fairly heavy conversation about careers, economic conditions and prospects in the West for
education, learning life values and finding one's passion, then transforming that that into a livelihood where possible. The students
appeared to benefit from this alternative perspective; it was an opportunity to converse in English about personal matters, as
opposed to abstract textbooks topics. I'm really impressed by Yee. His English is excellent, his enthusiasm for teaching and
volunteering is apparent, and his passion no doubt inspires others.
On Saturday I presented at the Y.E.P. I initially thought it'd be a free and wide-ranging discussion. However, I was advised that they
wanted a presentation on leadership and negotiation skills. I had around 20 minutes to prepare this and did so in the taxi. It wasn't a
researched or comprehensive presentation, but the feedback was very positive~~ it was suitably pitched to the skill level, abilities
and age of the students. The students ranged from 19-30+ and came from different educational backgrounds. The Y.E.P founders
said they had taken a short course in 'soft skills' but only knew the basics, so I built on the basics, gave practical examples and drew
from my own experience in lieu of any time for research. They were attentive, interested, laughed when I injected humor and asked
questions. However, more interaction and workshop tasks will be more engaging and beneficial than what became a monologue.
That's a summary to give you insight into how I spent my week as a Library Reader. I enjoyed it and learnt a lot about the Myanmar
education system, both generally and in some detail, the role of private and government schools, matriculation and what skills are
needed. Whilst I don’t pretend to be a qualified English teacher, I feel that the presentations and interactions were suitable in terms
of content and contact, developing skills that aren't necessarily part of a formal government/private school curriculum, and in a
somewhat more relaxed atmosphere than that of a formal classroom. I also feel that the role of 'guest speaker' was more productive
than that of a formal teacher with ongoing and regular contact. If the directors feel this program should continue next year, I would
be happy to prepare more structured and researched material to send for approval, as well as being happy to deliver it, of course.
The students certainly seemed to benefit, and all have asked me to return to them next year.