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Life in a Vietnamese School

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:

Analog Daily Lunch Counts

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.

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