Reading at the Cambodian Children’s Fund

 “What do you like to do, Jeff?”

          I was being challenged by one of my students after I had quizzed them on their favorite activities outside of school.

          “The activity I enjoy the most is reading,” I responded without any hesitation.  It seems that these students had not yet considered the possibility that reading would be a desirable leisure activity, although they were definitely assimilating the concept of collaborative learning.

Srey Leap on the left and Srey Heang on the right. 

Srey Nuth on the right in the background.

          “But you don’t have to read.  You aren’t a student any longer,” was one response.

          A lightbulb went on in my head.  I believed that these students had as much intellectual curiosity as any American students.  What they lacked had been exposure and encouragement.  Has there ever been a more teachable moment?  How could I convince my students that reading was at least as much fun as watching Messi play against Mbappé?  Well, maybe that was a bit ambitious.  But at least I could try to make the case that after Argentina v. France, there was an argument to be made for reading.

          I had some help from The Rice Academy (TRA), the campus to which I had been assigned by the Cambodian Children’s Fund.  There are two sessions at TRA every day.  Group A goes to TRA in the morning and Khmer School in the afternoon.  Group B goes to Khmer School in the morning and TRA in the afternoon.  The reason is that, in order to be employable after finishing high school, the students need to be fully functional in reading and writing the Khmer language.  Before the morning class and before the afternoon class, students all gather in a “reading circle” in the assembly hall/basketball court.  Here they are on a recent morning:

          The next morning, at the usual assembly that took place before classes started, Samath, the chief operations officer, asked me if I would like to say anything to the group, which numbered about 100 students.

          “Yes” I quickly agreed.

          This was unusual.  I had not yet heard any volunteer speak at the morning assembly.  The students buzzed with excitement.  What would I say that had general applicability?

          “I noticed that every morning before school, you have what we call in the United States a ‘reading circle.’  This is something with which I am comfortable and something in which I have participated many times.  I would like to participate with you.”

          Some smiles and giggles.

          “I cannot sit with you on the ground because I am too old, and I would not be able to get up if I sat down,” I began.

          They were beginning to understand my sense of humor and everybody laughed.

          “But there are benches on this side where I can sit.  Starting tomorrow, I will sit on that bench over there every day before school.  I would like to invite anybody who wants to come sit with me and we can read together.”

          Sixteen students immediately raised their hands, and the next morning I realized that I had opened a flood gate.  I was overwhelmed with requests to sit on the bench, and I had to create a wait list.  They seemed to understand the concept and I started reading with two students every morning.  Three more light bulbs illuminated in succession:

          First, I was correct in my assumption that these children would have as much intellectual curiosity as American kids.  Actually, they were dry sponges thrown into the ocean.  Having been deprived of intellectual stimulation, they were exhilarated to be given the opportunity.  What a shot of adrenalin for an American teacher dealing with competition from cell phones, video games, and social media.

          Second, as with any population of 100 students, their current ability to read English (not their potential, which was more difficult to measure) was spread over a bell-curve.  My approach was different with each student.  They had not had the same background and I needed to work with them at their level, not at any assumed level for a 12-year-old.

          Third, the books available to them were limited in number and, although they had been treated with respect, were mostly worn-out from use.  The range of topics was limited and most of the books were picture books with a small amount of text.  A number of the more advanced students found them boring.  Not only were they too easy, but they were also repetitive because there were so few different titles.

          I went to work on this third lightbulb the next day.  First, I asked Samath, as noted above the chief operations officer of my campus, if he would welcome my donation of a collection of books to his school.  I felt the need to be culturally respectful, and not force him to accept books that might not be welcome.  His response was instantaneous, “I really appreciate your kindness.  I totally agree to accept the books.”  He did not ask to review the titles nor did he add any conditions.  The limited number and worn-out condition of the books currently available to the students were only the consequences of a lack of funds to purchase more and newer books. 

Next I contacted Matt Evans, the Head of School at St. Peter’s School in Philadelphia, the elementary school that my younger daughter had attended for seven years.  I had spoken to Matt before my departure for Phnom Penh and he had expressed an interest in identifying a way for the students at St. Peter’s to learn about Cambodia and get involved with the Cambodian Children’s Fund. 

          “Dear Matt,” I wrote, “Every day before school, my students gather as a group to read.  However, their reading materials are both limited and threadbare.  I would like to organize a shipment of books to the Cambodian Children’s Fund, but I need your help in identifying and recommending age-appropriate and content-appropriate titles.  I think this might be an interesting way to arrange for St. Peter’s and the Cambodian Children’s Fund to interact.”

          His reply was as immediate and as supportive as Samath’s had been. “This is a great idea,” Matt wrote back.  “We will organize a drive to collect the books.  We can work on our end to sort out the level and type.  I will share this with a few folks here and we can move ahead.”

          I knew it would take some time to collect the books, package them, send them to Phnom Penh, and deliver them to the campus, but I was already impatient to introduce more books, at levels of difficulty appropriate to their reading levels, to the students of the Cambodian Children’s Fund.  This will make a difference, I thought.  A small difference, but nevertheless a positive difference.  Remembering my personal pledge to maintain my small light and to add it to the other small lights, I felt happy with this progress.  Yes, I know that what I suggested was not scalable, and its scope was very limited.  But maybe the answer to some of the world’s problems does not involve bigger.  Small is beautiful.





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