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.