In every challenge is a story of resilience: what an international school student sees when visiting small schools

In the pursuit of our mission to empower marginalised individuals and communities, for our work in youth and education, ActionAid International Foundation (Thailand) partnered with Thai Alternative Education Council Association (TAECA) and Thai Baan Association (TBA) for the ACCESS School Project. The initiative, which is supported by the European Union, was designed to improve the quality of education in rural Thai schools through increasing the role of civil society in improving the quality of their school and in working with local government agencies.

Since 2013, the Ministry of Education in Thailand has implemented a policy to address the issue of substandard quality of education. The policy mandated the closure of schools under 60 students or their merger with larger schools within a 6 kilometre radius. The objective was to consolidate resources and obtain additional funds to invest in equipping larger schools. However, what has been overlooked in this policy is the potential impact on more than 200,000 families. Many of them are unable to afford the travel expenses required to reach the new schools which limited the accessibility of education for their children.

I had the opportunity to visit Maha Sarakham in Northeastern Thailand, one of our designated project areas with ActionAid. The experience highlighted how the small schools have been withstanding after the policy was implemented. We visited three different primary schools and encountered a range of unique experiences. The first school we visited was a small institution with just 42 students, which met the minimum requirement for a school. What struck us about Ban Nong Bua Khu School was the strong community involvement, as community members generously volunteered their time to support the school in various ways, from taking the role of kindergarten teacher assistant or cook, to looking after the school’s rice field and vegetable gardens. We also had the pleasure of meeting a dedicated grandmother who took it upon herself to clean the school's toilets and sweep the pathways, contributing to a clean and tidy environment for the students.

However, we did observe a significant challenge across all the schools: the limited availability of teachers. This shortage was evident in the fact that a single teacher often had to handle multiple subjects and teach combined classes of students from different grade levels.

In every challenge the school faces is a story of resilience. We witnessed improvements in Ban Nong Bua Khu’s teaching methods through the introduction of a new curriculum based on active learning. Active learning is an interactive learning method that involves discussions and the application of students' own knowledge, allowing them to learn from each other in the process. Teachers had developed innovative programs that were better suited to the local environment, moving away from a strictly book-based approach. This shift encouraged greater student participation and engagement with their surroundings. The curriculum reforms also highlighted the incorporation of the philosophy of self-sufficient economy, which included the teaching of essential skills like cultivating vegetables and raising animals. By creating a supportive learning environment, students were able to enhance their critical thinking abilities and develop their own perspectives.

In addition to the positive advancements in teaching methods through active learning, the curriculum reforms were also influenced by the model school called Lamplaimat Pattana. With “Jitta-sueksa”, this school's curriculum placed great importance on emotional, social, and spiritual development, as well as fostering connections with the local community. By integrating these principles into the broader educational framework, students were provided with a holistic learning experience that went beyond academic knowledge.

What’s more, we had the opportunity to interview the director of the second district of Maha Sarakham from the Office of Primary Education, Surasit Thitsomboon. This discussion provided valuable insights into how the teachers effectively guide students on their path towards becoming responsible global citizens. Moreover, the director acknowledged the valuable impact that ActionAid and community involvement can have in creating a stronger and more sustainable impact.

We also met some of Ban Nong Bua Khu students. Initially, the children were hesitant towards us, as it was uncommon for them to receive visitors. To break that barrier, we introduced icebreaker games, which helped create a friendlier atmosphere. As the children gradually warmed up to us, they extended their kindness and hospitality, making us feel at home by giving us a tour of their vegetable garden and wild boar sty, inviting us to participate in volleyball games, and offering us the opportunity to taste different types of local food they helped prepare. It was particularly interesting to observe how, when students faced challenges in getting the ball across the net during games, the children displayed support and encouragement towards one another. This demonstrated the tangible impact of the curriculum's emphasis on honing emotional intelligence, as they had developed the ability to empathise and uplift their peers in times of pressure.

According to one of the teachers, following the new curriculum, notable improvements have been observed in the students' confidence when expressing their thoughts. This approach not only allows teachers to better understand their students but also empowers both male and female students to potentially emerge as leaders within their communities. This progressive gender-balanced approach represents a positive step forward, providing students with a more relevant and enriching educational experience.

To apply the insight gained from our visit to Maha Sarakham and address the challenges encountered by small schools, it is important to provide a platform for organisations supporting these schools to raise awareness and establish an active network. One practical approach is to create small clubs within schools and their network, engaging students in activities such as fundraising or assisting with school improvements. This will enable the younger generation, who hold the potential for long-lasting impact, to actively participate in addressing the issues faced by small schools. Through these endeavours, we can foster a sense of shared responsibility and empower students to contribute to positive and green changes in their communities' education systems. I personally would encourage more and more small schools to learn from the example of Ban Nong Bua Khu School who has adopted innovative tools and thrived in their own context. The same goes for the model of Lamplaimat Pattana School, for which I would personally give a platform in my school. The approach of Jitta-sueksa can help develop a new generation of people who know their worth, respect one another, able to foster positive relationships and resolve conflict peacefully, promoting overall well-being in their personal and professional lives as they grow up.

This article is written by Gaia Bruno, an international high school student in Bangkok. With a keen interest in education and gender equality, she took an internship at ActionAid Internation (Thailand) Foundation for one month.

“What’s important is that we’re happy while learning”: students reflect on experience at an innovative small school

The holistic education model of Small School Model promoted by ActionAid Thailand’s EU-funded ACCESS School Project integrates innovative, child-centered learning tools into the curriculum to improve quality of teaching amid limited funding and human resources, a fate generally met by Thailand’s small schools.

At Wat Khok Thong School, a small elementary school in Ratchaburi Province, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and Jitta-sueksa are applied to the classroom. Instead of splitting lessons into eight subjects, as is done traditionally in Thailand, the school keeps three core subjects English, Thai and math, while the rest like science, social studies, and vocations and technology are structured into broader, activity-based units with PBL, where different fields of knowledge are interconnected.

If PBL is the brain of the curriculum, Jitta-sueksa is the heart – or the mind (jitta). Every day before morning and afternoon lessons, with the class sitting down in a circle, the teacher would lead various mindfulness exercises that not only improve the students’ focus but foster EQ and SQ. These exercises include meditation, brain gym activities, storytelling and discussion. The children are often asked to write down their thoughts in a personal Jitta-sueksa journal after listening to a short story or topical news, and then, by choice, share with the group.

Tik and Waan with fellow classmates sitting in a circle of Jitta-sueksa.

In their final weeks as Wat Khok Thong students, two sixth-graders, Waan and Tik, reflected on their experience coming to “a school just like and unlike others” in the last 3 years. “The methods may be different, but the content is similar, and the students really understand the class. I think what’s important is that we’re happy while learning,” said Waan. “Rather than comparing our school to others or school sizes, we should focus on how it benefits the students, teachers and parents,” Tik added. “This school is worth coming to because we gain new knowledge, and we can apply it right away and in the future.”

But to talk about how their school’s method of teaching has impacted them, a certain kind of comparison needs to be drawn. Waan recalled her timid character before moving to Wat Khok Thong School in Grade 4, but once she was introduced to Jitta-sueksa – where there are no wrong answers and judgment in the discussion circle – she found herself more confident to share her thoughts and speak to an audience. “I used to be too shy to ask questions. I know now that if I don’t, I wouldn’t understand the lesson and become better.”

Tik added Jitta-sueksa taught her to think beyond herself, especially of her family. “Like how I treat my younger sibling or do house chores. If I do that well, I can help my parents a great deal. I know that they won’t be with me forever so it’s good to take something off their plate and become more responsible.”

A Grade 6 student presenting about digestive and excretory systems as part of PBL class.

Sharing about Problem-Based Learning, Tik said she didn’t use to like doing classwork or handing in homework. But with how diverse and hands-on PBL lessons are, she decided to be open-minded and found herself having fun with the activities. “I especially like when the topics are scientific and related to outer space. One question leads to another, and I can do the research by myself.”

“I personally hope I can study this way until I finish high school,” added Tik. “But if the next school I go to isn’t like this, I’ll adapt. I’ll see how what I’ve learned from Jitta-sueksa can help me.”

Covid-19 response story Ratchanee Paeseng

"At least someone sees that we are here": Ratchanee Paeseng

“The government should come to see what support the community is seeking, if they are too much for the government to provide. What we really need is a fund that allows each of us to start a livelihood. We can do the rest with our hands and strength. If it comes as the 50-50 co-payment scheme, it doesn’t last, better to put money in career support.”

Ratchanee Paeseng, a villager of the Sa Ton Pho community in Phuket Province, is affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Previously, she was forcefully evicted from a land where she put up her house seven years prior.

Ratchanee moved to Phuket from Nakhon Si Thammarat Province seeking career opportunities. She was evicted from the land she settled along with many others, but later the group joined the Phuket Community Development Rights Network and participated in social activities. Supported by Chumchonthai Foundation, People's Movement for a Just Society (P-move) and ActionAid Thailand under the EU-funded Land is Life Project, the community’s the land right issues were raised to the state and eventually a new Sa Ton Pho community was created in an area next to the old place.

Before the pandemic, Ratchanee had worked in a spa in Phuket, earning about 800-900 Thai baht per day. With it, she could live with little difficulty. After the outbreak, the spa was shut down, and income dried up. She was struggling to buy food for survival. Investing in a new occupation was out of the question. And because Ratchanee was a non-registered person in Phuket, she could not receive any support from the provincial authority.

Fortunately, the community once again received emergency assistance from the Chumchonthai Foundation and ActionAid Thailand under the EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project. On top of distributing relief packages, the project hosted a meeting where everyone could exchange and share issues, to find solutions together in response to the current and future disasters in the community.

Ratchanee reflected that past hardships taught that one had to fight to get through, expressing gratitude for the help and moral support from the Community Development Rights Network and the EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project.

“The help from the project made me feel better and strong enough to fight on. At least someone sees that we are here and doesn’t leave us behind.”

"อย่างน้อยมีคนมองเห็นว่ามีเราอยู่": รัชนี แป๊ะเซ็ง ชุมชน สระต้นโพธิ์ จ.ภูเก็ต
รัชนี พร้อมชาวบ้านชุมชนสระต้นโพธิ์ / ภาพ: สุริยะ ผ่องพันธุ์งาม / แอ็คชั่นเอด ประเทศไทย

Food security: sustainable lessons for future crises

Sustainable lessons for future crises

Due to the surge of the pandemic, many vulnerable communities were struggling to survive. They could not afford enough food and necessary daily nutrients. Food security was one of the solutions that the EU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Project, led by ActionAid Thailand in cooperation with BioThai Foundation, implemented. The aim was to reduce food expenses, improve nutrition in target groups, promote chemical-free vegetable cultivation, encourage growing for family consumption and spreading the practice in the community, and improve target groups’ overall physical and mental health.

In 2020, BioThai Foundation held workshops on basic food cultivation, from soil preparation to food production, for 30 community leaders from Pho Rieang, Thai Kriang, Thai Noi, Amnat Charoen, Chumphon, Wat Sawat, Suan Luang, Wathai Ayutthaya, and Wathai Nonthaburi.

ชุมชน มั่นคงทางอาหาร เสริมสร้างความยืดหยุ่นในยุคโควิด
ภาพ: มูลนิธิชีววิถี

Phonnarong Punthong, a leader of a northeastern network from Amnat Charoen Province, said that during the pandemic, his community was severely affected. Earnings dropped precipitously. Yet, food supply was not a problem, because his network had been working with and assisted by the BioThai Foundation on organic farming. As a result, his community was able to cope with food shortage during the pandemic.

Phonnarong recognised the importance of food security and decided to take part in the training because he hoped to enhance his food security skill and knowledge to sustainably develop his community.

“Joining this training is very useful. It helps create skills in agriculture from scratch. Instead of the uninformed traditional approach, there was the methodical instruction on growing vegetables and proper storage.”

พรณรง ปั้นทอง แกนนำเครือข่ายภาคอีสาน / ภาพ: สุริยะ ผ่องพันธุ์งาม / แอ็คชั่นเอด ประเทศไทย

Phonnarong added that the factor that changed his life after the training was the proper knowledge that was practical and highly beneficial to his family and his community. It led to his intention to pass on the knowledge from the training to other areas in his northeastern network in future.

Sukanya Kerdtim, from an Ayutthaya community network, said that before the spread of COVID-19, she had been a company employee in Bangkok. When the outbreak occurred, her working hours were reduced until she was finally dismissed. She did not have the income to support her family. Then there was the food shortage as it was very difficult to buy food during the crisis.

After joining a training about soil preparation and vegetable growing, Sukanya could better appreciate the importance of food security and would raise awareness on the issue, starting by growing greens at home and transferring this knowledge to friends in the community.

“I believe the vegetables that I grow will be shared with colleagues and friends. The sharing is not limited to vegetables, knowledge can be shared too.”

ขจร ฉูตรสูงเนิน จากชุมชนไทยเกรียง / ภาพ: สุริยะ ผ่องพันธุ์งาม / แอ็คชั่นเอด ประเทศไทย

Kajorn Chutsungnoen, from the Thai Kriang community network in Samut Prakan Province, was a repairman. During the pandemic, he struggled with food shortage. Sometimes his wife could not make her daily trip to the market. With his interest in food security and experience of growing vegetables at home, he was interested to join this training. He wanted to properly grow his own food and to set an example for his community.

“I have never known some of the information taught in the training, like in planting, I didn’t know that you have to clean it first. Coming to this training, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge, which is truly practical.”

After the training, Kajorn would be able to have his own vegetable garden, eat them every day, and share them with his neighbours. Importantly, he believed that this knowledge would help him survive this pandemic and any future crises to come.

สอนคิด คำนึงถึงความแตกต่าง: คุยกับครูบัว–บุณฑริก ซื่อสัตย์ โรงเรียนบ้านฮากฮาน จ.น่าน โรงเรียนสอนคิด เครื่องมือสอนคิด

Critical thinking, individual differences: what Khru Bua's small school fosters

After a successful recruitment procedure, Ms. Bua Buntharik Suesat or, as her students call her, Khru Bua (khru is Thai for teacher) had her first teaching job at Ban Si Wa Doe School in Sop Moei District, Mae Hong Son Province, teaching Karen children from remote communities four years before making her transfer to Nan.

Today Khru Bua is teaching sixth graders at Ban Hak Han School, located in Nan’s Wiang Sa District. The school is under the Nan Primary Educational Service Area Office 1 and, with it being a small school of only 57 students and much fewer teachers, Khru Bua has to teach every subject required by the curriculum.

What made Khru Bua who she is today traces back to her childhood: coming from a low-income family, she had received student aid over the years. Although her family faced financial challenges, her education wasn’t overlooked. At fifteen, Khru Bua had to make a choice between pursuing vocational training or a university education. Choosing to follow her childhood dream of becoming a teacher, she got a student loan and applied for various scholarships. Eventually, the then-high school senior Khru Bua secured her place in the Bachelor of Education Program in Elementary Education at Chiang Mai University.

The reason she wanted to be a primary school teacher stems from her own experience with a short-tempered teacher who tended to hit students. The disdain for this particular teacher made Khru Bua feign mild sickness many times in order to miss the teacher’s class. But skipping lessons took its toll when her own grades worsened. For future students to like their teacher and not be driven away from school, Khru Bua wanted to start with herself and become a teacher. “Primary school is too important,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t feel like fending off the very foundation of their education.”

Photo: Patchgorn Pattawipas/ActionAid

Before getting to know Thinking Tools, a set of innovative pedagogical tools that Ban Hak Han School has incorporated in their curriculum, Khru Bua was skeptical. But she took time to reflect, as a teacher, what resources could be leveraged to help students develop critical thinking skills. “I came around,” she said. “It would be useless if a teacher has their students repeat things after them. That's rote learning and it does very little to help them solve problems in real life.”

“It would be useless if a teacher has their students repeat things after them,
That's rote learning and it does very little to help them solve problems in real life.”

On classroom management, Khru Bua notes, “positive disciplinary behaviour development is crucial. The teacher has to provide understanding, guidance and warmth. There should be no punishment and violence. The classroom should be a safe, stress-free space where students can express themselves and their views, where they can also laugh and play. That’s the ideal classroom. Its size may be small and we may not be equipped with the latest technology – only old fans and worn wooden desks – but if the teacher and students understand each other, that’s what makes a happy classroom.”

“Personally, I think physical tools and resources are necessary, but no more so than a good teaching method and how the teacher is towards the students. Even though Ban Hak Han School is a small school with no abundance of resources, we will overcome any material challenges.”

Khru Bua’s ideal school is not different from what society expects: a sufficient number of adequate classrooms, structural durability, a bright and well-stocked library, a playground and other physical environments that enhance learning. However, there’s no denying that small schools, particularly those in remote areas or in the mountains such as Ban Hak Han, don’t have everything of the ideal. They still face limitations running on funding the central government has allocated.

In many ways, a public school teacher is a civil servant working according to their line of duty. On her specific line of duty, Khru Bua reflects, “Thailand’s education system is always changing. When the person at the top changes, the policy changes. The system never stays still, and teachers need to keep pace with it and be ready for change. At the same time, we teachers have to be firm in the goal of student development. Like bamboos bending with the wind, we’re firm on the ground, but we’re also malleable.”

"The Thai education system needs to do better in recognising individual differences.
Forcing a fish that swims well to compete with other animals at
climbing trees is impossible and of no use. It’s the same with students.
As long as we use the same set of academic standards to appraise them,
there will only be 'smart' and 'slow heads'.

Ban Hak Han School became a Thinking School after the teachers had taken a learning visit to Chiang Rai Provincial Administrative Organisation School (the first school in Thailand to adopt the Thinking School methodology). The trip was supported by ActionAid Thailand. "We learned from hands-on experience and came back inspired to put the Thinking Tools to practice," she called. "We met with positive results and were able to create a positive learning environment. We’ve been doing this for about three years now.”

“Implementing the ten Thinking Tools in class has led to significant changes. Firstly, there’s change within the teachers – we’re more proactive, always learning. We make use of technology and don’t just recite books like before. I also personally see changes in the students. They’re more focused, responsive, expressive, and understanding of other people’s views. They’re able to communicate their thoughts more coherently, explain their reasons, make comparisons, summarise information, and make their own decisions.”

Cause and Effect, Compare and Contrast, and Mind Mapping are some of the Thinking Tools used at this school. Photo: Burassakorn Gitipotnopparat/ActionAid

For Khru Bua, the Thai education system needs to do better in recognising individual differences. “Forcing a fish that swims well to compete with other animals at climbing trees is impossible and of no use. It’s the same with students. As long as we use the same set of academic standards to appraise them, there will only be 'smart' and 'slow heads'. The current system takes teachers away from students. It takes away the students’ humanity and encourages them to be more like a machine."

Khru Bua is a notable example of a teacher who has adopted Thinking Tools. She has proven that an effective classroom doesn’t necessarily need to be equipped with abundant resources. This is because learning can take place in any circumstance, even in a Thai highlands community shared by various ethnic groups like Ban Hak Han. Today, Khru Bua remains committed to guiding and developing youth through innovative tools that not only teach them how to think, but how to exercise empathy – how to be human. She is an important player in the movement that’s bringing about change in the area and making an impact on many other schools in Nan and beyond.

โรงเรียนขนาดเล็ก “ขอให้ทุกโรงเรียนไม่ถูกปิด”: พี่ทรอส นักเรียนชั้น ป.4 โรงเรียนวัดโคกทอง

“I wish every school gets to stay open”: Tross, Grade 4, Wat Khok Thong School

How long have you come to Wat Khok Thong School?

I have studied here since the second year of kindergarten. So it’s five years.

How do you like it here?

I like it. We have a big BBL (Brain-Based Learning) activity ground. The teachers are nice and good. I like my homeroom teacher, Teacher Mob, and my favourite activity is PBL (Problem-Based Learning). I get to find out answers and write them down. Sometimes we work alone, sometimes in groups, and write about things that we’re studying.

The term has just started. Now we’re studying about burners and ovens. The teacher asked us to think about what they look like and write the details down. We also think about what they are made of and their use. We can use them a lot to cook. I learned about different types of burners like gas stoves and charcoal burners. I know that we can cook food with them or burn trash. To burn trash, we will need dried tree leaves or twigs as fuel.

Jitta-sueksa is fun. Some days it’s fun, some days it’s boring. When it’s fun is when I get to draw, because I like drawing. And stories. I like drawing cartoons, like Ultraman, because I’ve watched Ultraman since I was very little. Jitta-sueksa lets us write and draw, and the teacher is kind. He gets angry sometimes when students don’t listen. I would listen to the teacher because if I don’t, I may not be able to catch up with the class and send my classwork in time. When the teacher asks something and I have an answer in mind, I would raise my hand. The teacher said to raise our hands when we want to speak. If not, no one will listen to us. I think I can still use this lesson when I grow up. When I grow up, I will listen to the question carefully and raise my hand before I say something.

If you have to choose between going to a big school and coming to this school that is closer to your house, what would you choose?

Coming to this school, because there aren’t too many students so it isn’t loud and crowded.

If one day you have to go to a different school, what do you think would be the impact on your life?

It would be tiring for my grandfather and he would spend more money on gas. My grandfather gives me a motorbike ride to school. It doesn’t take a long time to get here but it isn’t close enough to walk from home. I can’t ride a bike by myself because the road is too big. If students here go to a different school, this school would be left empty and there won’t be a good school like this anymore.

What can you do if you want to keep this school open?

I can go talk to the school director.

What do you want to do when you grow up?

I want to help my parents sell mushrooms. I think by helping them with calculations. How many kilograms we can sell, things like that, because I learned it in maths class. My parents usually sell the mushrooms to regular customers. And I help them pick fresh mushrooms on the weekends sometimes.

What would you like to say to adults?

I wish every school gets to stay open. Because some students live near their schools and if they don’t want to travel a long distance, they still get to go to school.

Located in Ratchaburi Province, Wat Khok Thong School is a small school of 102 students, teaching from kindergarten level to Grade 6.

Like 15,000 other small primary and secondary schools all over Thailand, Wat Khok Thong is facing the risk of closure and merger with a magnet school, after the Office of Basic Education Commission has issued a “most urgent” letter to directors of education service areas to begin considering closing and merging small schools in order to achieve budget efficiency.

In the official document dated 19 November 2019, there is no mention of improving the quality of public education in the long run, or the multidimensional social and economic impacts on students and their families.

Wat Khok Thong School, led by the school director Ms. Chanita Philachai, believes the voice of strong school networks and local communities, coupled with innovative tools and a strategic move to improve local education beyond the roadmap drawn by central authority, will help them win over a policy that views education through an economics lens – as a commodity that has to be worth the government’s per-head investments.

Diamond in the rough: The dreams of Oum and Mafueang

With only 61 students, Baan Nam Lat School is like one big family. The oldest class, sixth graders, helping teachers to take care of the younger students, from minding the kindergarteners during milk breaks to guiding the primary juniors on discipline and morality. For 12-year-olds and close friends Oum and Mafueang, this “big sister” role is one they are happy about. They like that it makes them more responsible.

But more importantly, it fits who they are and what they want to be: Like her cousin, Mafueng dreams of becoming a nurse to give care to people, while Oum sets her heart on being primary teacher. “I want to teach art to children and look after them,” Oum said “I want to get the Phet Nai Tom Scholarship (translated to “diamond in the rough” in Thai, the scholarship is established by Srinakharinwirot University to support youth aspiring teachers). My parents will have less burden. They’ll get the benefits. It’s what I dream for us.”


Diamond in the rough: The dreams of Oum and Mafueang
Photo: Burassakorn Gitipotnopparat / ActionAid


Encouraging young students to have an answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is not an arduous task if there is a learning process that understands and centers around children. Indeed, dreams can change, but another thing that Thinking Schools give dreamers is self-esteem and the ability to turn dreams into plans.

“Since this school became a Thinking School, I feel that teachers have become more interested to hear us. They want us to think more and express more,” Oum shared. “The tools are applicable to each subject. We’ve learned how compare things, tell the difference between good and bad. Tools can help me think faster. Like Six Thinking Hats, very useful when I want to make a decision.” “Wearing” the Six Thinking Hats helps students make a decision from all points of view, and each hat signifies a different manner of thinking. For instance, the White Hat focuses on facts and numbers, while the Red Hat urges students to look at a situation emotionally.

“Mind-Mapping is a good tool for ONET exam revision, too,” Mafueang added. “We can design it how ever we like. We can also use it for problems outside of class. We can design the solution. It can do anything.”



Oum and Mafueang are two of of the many children who have had access to quality education through the support of ActionAid Thailand.

Donate today to help improve education in rural small schools. Contact our Fundraising team at +66 2 279 6601 to 2 ext. 113.

“I like that I can think”: Meet Toey, a fourth grader from Kalasin

On a school ground in Kalasin Province stood a wooden two-storey building. The worn-out pale blue paint was telling of the years it had faced parching sunlight and rainstorms, a stark contrast to a colourful classroom inside animated by children’s eagerness to learn and participate – despite a class of only a handful students from two different years.

At Buengsawang Witthayakhom School in Kamalasai District, Grade 3 and 4 students were put together because there weren’t enough teachers. A condition that is, but never desirable in rural Thailand.

Chitraphorn Chunthakong or Toey from Grade 4 was doing the body scan meditation with her friends and juniors as Miss Pook, their homeroom teacher, led the activity. The meditation is one of the innovations the school had not long ago applied to its curriculum. In a circle, the children sat up or lied down on the wooden floor, some on their sides, some facing the ceiling, palms on their chests, all listening to the fable Miss Pook was telling. There is no wrong posture. “We would lie down for 5-10 minutes,” Toey said. “Not to sleep but listen to Miss Pook’s story and picture it in our head. When she finishes, she will ask what we think about the story and we have to share with the class.”

After body scanning, around half past two, Grade 3 and 4 students came down to the field and play sports. Toey likes volleyball. Her team’s server, she is relatively small but faster and more agile than many of her peers. The afternoon sun wasn’t too hot that day. The children’s shadows on the ground were quite proportioned to their moving bodies, allowing for a good game of “shadow catching” that let them exercise their imagination outside the classroom.

Photo: ActionAid

Toey was born in Bangkok when her family was working there. She had her first year of kindergarten at a school in the city before being moved to Kamalasai District in Kalasin to live with her paternal grandmother, whose side of the family grow rice for a living. From the second of year of kindergarten on, Toey has gone to Buengsawang Witthayakhom with her younger sibling, who is now in first grade. Meanwhile, her older sibling goes to middle school in Bangkok.

Beside listening to Miss Pook’s stories, drawing is her favourite activity. For a girl who loves realising her creativity onto A4 papers and having her imagination captured by her teacher’s tales more than anything, one might wonder why Toey often comes in second at an inter-school drawing contests, unlike her academic results, which show she has been at the top of her class since second grade.

Any child can only be so talented without practice and polish. Toey’s development is similar: before being at the top of her class consecutively from Grade 2-4, she didn’t do well at school or with other skills. This changed drastically after she had been taught Jitta-sueksa, innovative education that improve students’ concentration, mindfulness and emotional intelligence.

Miss Pook recalled how the children didn’t like coming to school before it applied teaching and learning innovation. “They didn’t enjoy learning because they felt it’s difficult. They couldn’t write or spell. But everything changed after Jitta-sueksa. When I assign them something, even though they naturally can’t stop chatting, everyone completes the task. A year ago they would have been running around the class, playing and teasing their friends. There would have been no concentration.”

The children are now more composed and focused, the teacher added. Every week, they would gather in a circle to discuss; for instance, on Mondays, where innovative education is integrated with core academic subjects, they would reflect on what they have learned in the previous week; or on Tuesdays, where they learn about nature and their connection to it, the teacher would ask them to find something from nature within the school grounds, like a leaf, and set a task based on it. “Each student would come back with different kinds of leaves,” said Miss Pook, “and I’d have them imagine what these leaves can become. They can paste them on a paper and turn them into all sorts of things, a face, a car.” And Wednesdays? Students get to sing while their teacher plays music.

Photo: ActionAid

Buengsawang Witthayakhom has put innovative education into its curriculum for a year, or two semesters, and its success is reflected in students like Toey who, her teacher recalled, quite a troublemaker. In third grade, Toey would take people’s things without permission, both at school and at home. When confronted, she said she knew what she was doing but couldn’t stop herself. She also didn’t want to come to school, and because of this she would always go hide inside a big earthen jar. In the following year, however, she got to learn Jitta-sueksa and hasn’t behaved like she used to ever since.

Miss Pook talked further about body scanning, which may seem like an ordinary afternoon nap but really isn’t. It is about reviewing one’s thoughts, meditating on the self from head to toe. “Some kids fell asleep in the beginning,” the homeroom teacher said, “but we explained to them and kept them thinking about their life on earth. ‘How long have you got to live? There isn’t much time. Have you done any nice things today? Have you done more good than bad today?’ We would ask them like this and those that have been up to mischief all morning would automatically feel guilty, but in the way that motivates them to be better. They would be pay attention in the afternoon classes, because we don’t scold them but encourage them, let them know that people can acknowledge their mistakes and better themselves.”

Every child has dreams. Even beyond childhood, many reminisce their youthful aspirations or base future ones on them. Toey said she wanted to be a math teacher when she grew up, and would apply art to her method, because she loves to draw. “I don’t like English, though,” she added, “because I cannot read and speak it yet, but I know how to multiply numbers up to 12 now. When I am a teacher, I want to teach either third or fourth grade.”

Can’t she start teaching today, we asked. Toey replied with a smile and said she couldn’t, she didn’t know enough yet. “I must know how to multiply all the numbers first.”

Toey knows Jitta-sueksa had helped her at school and enabled her to think for herself. She also has a newfound fondness or journal keeping, and writes every Saturday and Sunday and has completed four entries now. As for weekdays, she would write on Facebook about her friends and how she misses them after school.

What would have happened if she hadn’t been introduced to Jitta-sueksa? Toey looked at empty grounds in front of her, before saying she wouldn’t have been able to use her brain. “The brain is for thinking, for commanding your limbs and all of your body.”

And if she didn’t have any brain? Toey contemplated. After seconds, she replied, “I would die or be stupid. I would not be able to move, think or talk to my friends. I prefer it like this. I like that I can think.”

Photo: ActionAid

In the school garden, Chinese kale and cabbage are grown by students and teachers without any chemicals. Today, they agreed to sell a portion of these greens to villagers to raise money for the school and so that the villagers can eat organic vegetables.

Toey and her friends took out a garden hose and water the patches. Soft sunlight made the sprinkling water twinkle like crystal beads. Some of the produce were now ready. Toey took a small knife from her friend and chopped off the Chinese kale masterfully.

“The brain is for thinking.” “I like that I can think.” These are the words from this fourth grader collecting vegetables to raise money for her school. If you really think about it, that afternoon, the sun might not be the only thing that shone in the picture.

Toey is only one of the many children who have had access to quality education through the support of ActionAid Thailand.

Donate today to help improve education in rural Thailand.