25 July, 2017

Like the Game of Jenga

Melissa Vang is Hmong American, 
a 2016-17 Fulbright – AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant (ETA). She teaches Mattayom 1 – 6 (grades 7-12) at Banphaipittayakom School in Khon Kaen province and volunteers at a nursery center teaching nursery kids ABCs (ages 2-5 years old) in Ban Phai. She was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and graduated from the College of Saint Benedict in Communication with a concentration in Art. In her free time, Melissa likes to do Zumba, watercolor paint, and DIY arts and crafts. After the Fulbright grant, Melissa hopes to share her teaching experiences back to her community and pursue higher education.

The classic game of Jenga consists of 54 pieces of rectangular wood blocks, stacked with three pieces of blocks on every level. Players each take turns removing a block and placing it at the top of the tower with the game ending when the tower falls. The game restarts after the tower is restacked. While watching my students destroy and reconstruct the Jenga tower during class, I was struck by how the game of Jenga mirrored my experiences in Thailand.

The game of Jenga

Sometimes during the last 5-10 minutes of English class, I give students who finished their work early free time. During free time, students can choose between coloring worksheets, doing word searches or playing board games. However, I have found students of all ages to enjoy playing or watching others play Jenga. Typically, a group of 5 or 6 students will sit in a circle with the Jenga tower placed in the center of the classroom. Many students who are not playing will watch intensely as each student player takes a block out one by one. With each passing moment, the students playing the game will feel the tension rising as each player tries their hardest not to be the one who makes the mistake of taking out the wrong block, which will cause the tower to fall. 

M2/2 students immersed in a game of Jenga

As the players take turns pulling out the wooden blocks, I noticed that the student who makes the tower fall often will get a light punishment from the other players. For instance, players will lightly slap the wrist or forehead of the loser. In every class I teach, I find it rather amusing watching students from my desk play together, and hearing them laugh hysterically as the tower comes crashing down. 

Oftentimes, when I watch students tear down the Jenga pieces, I am reminded how far I have come as a teacher who had the opportunity to teach in Thailand for almost a year. Just like the tower that falls, there were moments that challenged me and made me feel knocked down. 


Back in February, I found out I had to host an English camp at Banphaipittayakom School. It was something I did not expect as my predecessor did not have one, putting me under the notion that I would not be responsible for one either. The unexpected meeting about the English camp was brief and ended with instructions to invite other ETAs to participate. 

With the unforeseen meeting, came the pressure and struggle to plan my first English camp. I had no idea what I was in for. The camp was to happen on the last weekend of February, right before the end of the first semester. The timing was not ideal as many ETAs were planning to wrap-up their school year, settle into their internships, and find housing for the month of March. Ultimately, I did not think the timing would allow for the ETAs to come and volunteer. I started to worry that there would not be any ETAs to teach at the English camp. To add to my stress, many Mattayom 3’s and Mattayom 6’s were graduating that week, meaning that many students were likely not going to show up. 

As each passing week went by, I became more anxious since nothing was planned and there was no follow-up meetings from the teachers in the English Department. During this time, I had to hold onto the Thai phrase, sabai sabai. The phrase’s meanings vary but it generally means to go with the flow or what will be, will be. This phrase was something I relied on as the date to start English camp was approaching. In order to fulfill some of my planning responsibilities and to the bewilderment of the other Thai teachers, I went ahead and decided to make a rough schedule of how camp was going to be structured. I needed a rough sketch of how camp would be like and characteristic to an extremely punctual person, I made sure to allocate time slots for each event that was planned for the camp. 

The week before English camp, I got the news that four ETAs had volunteered to teach at the camp. To alleviate some of my stress, materials, snacks, and food were all prepared for by the school the day before camp. On the first day of English camp, I was a mixture of both nervousness and excitement. I was nervous because I was worried by the thought of nobody showing up, and the activities failing, but I was excited at the possibility of this camp becoming a great experience for my peers and me. 

ETAs mini photo-shoot during lunch break

Begin Camp

Time: 8:30 a.m.

Setting: Conference room

Situation: The morning started with the Director making a speech in English. Because I have never heard him speak English, the sight of him speaking English to me, my fellow ETAs, and the dozens of students that showed up, gave me a boost in confidence for the success of the camp. 

The camp had 80 students who all had on sticker nametags. The ETAs, Thai teachers and I began camp with introductions. After introducing ourselves to the students, we jumped right into The Cupid Shuffle, a song and line dance from the artist Cupid. 

Activities: Students were split into five groups and placed into stations. Every 15 to 20 minutes, students rotated from one station to the next. Each station had an activity attached to it like playing bingo, making origami hearts, having students write their names with their butts, taking part in a guessing nametag challenge, and engaging in ice breaker games. 

Closing: After the stations and lunch break, the ETAs and I played ‘Ship Across the Ocean’ with the students where the ETAs and I would call out letters from the alphabets, and if the students’ first letter of their names started with it, they would run across the basketball court trying to evade getting tagged from the staff. The camp ended with the students being put into groups for a scavenger hunt and making posters. 

Students reflecting on their English camp experience

Camp went by smoothly; however, throughout the entire day, I had to keep reminding myself to be sabai sabai. Not everything that I planned took place and we did not keep on schedule. For example, what was supposed to be a thirty-minute event turned into an hour and what was supposed to be a ten-minute break turned into a thirty minute one. Despite not going by my meticulously planned schedule, everything worked out in the end. 

After finishing camp on a high note and receiving positive reviews from students, I began to reevaluate my initial stress and anxieties about the last minute planning. I realized that what I initially thought to be a stress-inducing, hair-pulling, nail-biting English camp, turned out to be a fun-filled, enjoyable time with the students, as well as with the other ETAs that were gracious enough to come. I was extremely thankful to the ETAs for taking time out of their busy weekends to help me make an everlasting and memorable experience for all the participants.


The Director, teachers, ETAs, and students at Banphaipittayakom's English camp

It is tempting to avoid the times when things in life get hard. I often experience this temptation when I feel there is a roadblock or large stressor in my life. As my time teaching in Thailand is quickly coming to an end, I will hold onto the Thai phrase sabai sabai when traveling back to the United States. As a person who likes to have a set schedule, I always have to make a to-do list and will check off tasks as I complete them. Because of this tendency to meticulously plan out my days, I am never truly able to enjoy the present as my mind is always preoccupied with the next task that is to come. My experience planning the English camp showed me that finding a balance between being goal-oriented and just allowing life to take its course is a good way to live by. 

Like the game of Jenga, where there is a rebuilding of the tower after it falls, there will always be a rising from difficult times. In these difficult times, I have learned to make the best out of those moments and surround myself with positive people. Similar to the Jenga tower that is rebuilt among friends with laughter, I too was repeatedly brought back up and supported over the course of planning for the English camp by my ETA friends, teachers, and school. 

*English camp photo credits: the fabulous Yeng Her

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