Thursday, September 13, 2012

Compost Building Competition

To test the students ability to build a compost pile quickly and correctly, I held a compost competition. Four families competed at break-neck speeds over 30 minutes to win the prize: ice cream. Some words that the students are shouting include: "Nâu" which is the color brown - what they refer to as brown materials. "Nước" is water, the final ingredient to add to the compost pile.

How Do you Know a Topic Excites your Students?

When it makes it to the dinner table!

The context: I’ve been planning a classroom debate for the last 3 weeks. In my head I envisioned 4 community stakeholders for the kids to role-play: the community worker trained in environmental health, the municipal government, the city developers, and the farmers.
The scenario: a disputed 2 hectare plot of land that’s prone to flooding during the monsoon season and is critical to Hué’s ecosystem. Which group can justify their claim to it?
The Debate: started off slow but once it gained momentum the kids couldn’t stop arguing.
- What about the farmers? If you take the land away, how will we make a living?
- We’ll compensate you for the land and train you in construction. It’s a better career…
- The farmers have a better proposal, let us us the land for growing rice. We’ll feed Huế and all the ethnic communities.
- Do the ethnic communities eat rice as a main staple?
- How will the developers protect the ecosystem?
- It’ll be a green building. How do you propose Huế handle the huge influx of tourists every year?
- Homestays to service tourism.
We went well into the lunch hour and during lunch, they were still talking about how there were so many unresolved arguments! My work here is complete…

The Half Way Mark

(As you can already tell, I'm posting my journal entries after the projects have ended.)

1 month in and 1 month left

How’s my work progressing? What sort of metrics am I using to assess my progress? Is the glass half empty or half full? Am I willing to find out if the liquid in the glass is potable?
Questions my higher ups would welcome answers to. I still need to measure how much waste becomes compost – we’re at day 15 of composting using a protocol that assures compost in 14-21 days. Judging by the look of things and our frequent additions to the pile, we may need several more days before we can declare the compost officially ready.

The mushrooms have finally been delivered to the other site where I sometimes work, an elderly home housed within a Buddhist nunnery. The nuns have started growing the mushrooms, a practice which requires muscle memory and some background knowledge. The process of scaling up this enterprise uses up the most brain power and will most likely keep us busy for the last leg of my time in Huế.

The expectations I had are changing
The goals I set out to achieve have changed. I’ve been asked to come up with a curriculum on climate change for the shelter kids in addition to showing them how to compost. Now, I need to figure out how the nuns can generate income from the mushrooms. Admittedly, I did not come into these projects as prepared as I thought I was: I didn’t firmly grasp the importance of building relationships and I underestimated the necessity of mental flexibility. I’m working much harder on this front and making time to abandon my plans and planning for a much less structured experience. It’s not a stressful time but there are certain things which nag at me to complete.

On a more celebratory note, the students are accepting me into their family and – perhaps with some reservation – the task of cutting grass and gathering materials for compost. I daresay some of them even like me.

We're on Youtube!

A re-post of a previous video but, it is worth a second watch.


I would like to thank Alan Do for putting this video together for our shelter's project. Notice: at the beginning of the video while I'm lecturing, there are several confused faces in the crowd!

A video recording of the students turning and watering our compost pile, in Vietnamese:

Teaching in Broken Vietnamese is a Funny Experience

It was my first week teaching students at the Xuân Phú shelter about compost and waste management when I realized the reaction on my students’ faces portrayed a deep confusion. I had tried to make the material we were covering as accessible as possible but language was a difficult barrier to overcome.

Fortunately, within the next few lectures I picked up a technique: ask the students to find the word for me. Chi Dung, my boss, defuses the situation through questions. “Các em, cái nài là cái gì?” Or “Hôm nay các em làm gì?”  (“Younger siblings, what is this?” or “Today, what did you do younger siblings?”)

Asking questions is great for another reason: it gives the students a chance to participate. There is one boy in the class who always has the answers.

“What in manure can be harmful to human beings?” I asked on one occasion.

While most of the class maintained an air of silence, he replied most sensibly, “The smell.”

I almost fell over with laughter.

Mistakes have the property of providing comedic relief if we let them. This one student was unafraid to try. So, the next time I am in discomfort over finding the right words, I’m going to channel his charisma and try my best to get a laugh out of the experience.