Lauren Crosby of Georgetown, Maine is a Fulbright scholar teaching English under a Fellowship in rural Northern Thailand, in the province of Sukothai. She observed that, as many of the students come from a farming background and do not have much need for English in their daily lives, they did not feel very motivated to learn or speak English. As she contemplated how to shift this, she thought about her simultaneous desire to share cultural experiences with young people who have not yet had the opportunity to see what goes on "outside" of the world they live in. Reflecting on the many similarities between her rural homes in Thailand and Maine, she came up with a plan to motivate and excite her students by connecting both cultures with international pen pals! This project was intended to give her students the opportunity to actually write english to REAL english speakers, and to share their culture with students in the US. Lauren teaches about 500 students at the Thungsaliam Chadnupatahm School, and she was able to connect each of them with their own pen pal by organizing with 16 schools throughout Maine. The project was a huge success! We'll let you learn more in her own words. . . .
It's not even 9am and the sweat is already pouring down my back. I'm trying to keep cool as the 45 sixteen-year-old Thai faces stare back at me—but it is impossible with no AC unit and ceiling fans that look like they are straight out of a 1985 Sears Catalog.
My students sit on the floor around small square tables. For years, their English classes have consisted of memorization, grammar practices, and vigorous testing with Thai teachers who can't speak fluently themselves. By their junior year of high school, the majority despise english class because they simply do not understand. After a couple of weeks teaching in Thungsaliam Chadnupatahm School, I realized how the system worked, and I really started to think about ways I could make English class realistic, fun, and interactive—because if I didn't, it would be a helluva long year.
I fan myself with the cheap oriental paper fan that I picked up at the market, wishing I had two cabana boys with those small misting fans at my side. My mind is trying to think of the clearest way possible to explain THE POST CARD PROJECT to the students so they understand. My options are limited, as I work in a public government school that doesn't have money for resources like computers, projectors, etc. I pick up a white board marker (silently pray that it's not dried out) and draw a sketch of America. Most of the students recognize it— "AMELIIICA!!" Good, I say, my beloved home. I then sketch Thailand on the other side of the board—"THAILAYYYND!!!" Fabulous. I then define MAINE in a different color, and draw a bunch of smiling faces. We discuss how America has 50 states, and Thailand has 77 provinces. Same same. Maine is a state, and there are sixteen-year-old students there too!
I connect the two countries with a dashed line—and drawn an envelope smack dab in the middle. The students are gasping now as I slyly pull the colorful bag of shiny new materials out from behind my desk (curtesy of Mexicali). I show an example of a couple of post cards I picked up at the Sukhothai historical park, and now the kids are clapping, as they have figured out what we are doing—writing and designing post cards to send to real live "falang" students in MAINE, USA!!
Seeing their expressions reassured me that all the legwork I put in the previous weeks was worth it. When I was brainstorming this project, I didn't want to be lazy with it. Sure, the kids could have just made post cards and I could have given them a grade and that would be that, but where was that "fun" aspect I decided I was trying to incorporate?! Because I did my undergrad at the University of Maine at Farmington, several of my peers have gone on to be fantastic educators in the state of Maine. I sent everyone who I knew an email, and then started cold-emailing educators from rural schools with whom I did not know to see if they would be interested in participating in the cultural exchange project.
While simultaneously doing this, I was really trying to pull some funding for postal and material costs. I tried contacting the Fulbright organization, The Department of State, and the United States board of Education with no such luck. I got frustrated and then it dawned on me: MEXICALI BLUES.
My favorite memory of Mexicali Blues was with my nana when I was 9 or 10 years old. At the time, my nana was working the night shift as an emergency room nurse at Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta. During the days, she would cart me and my sisters around on various shopping adventures on Route 1. After Big Al's, she loved to go to Mexicali Blues to shop around. My younger sister and I always thought the store was somewhat odd–the smells, the stones, the clothing. Coming from a lobstering family, we were not what you would called *worldy* girls yet. When nana lit incense and rubbed patchouli under her nose, we wrote her off as crazy—but we loved (and still love) the liquid licks of Jerry's guitar and the crumbly voice of Neil Young that spun softly on the stores speakers.
Nana had come to the house one day to rave that she had seen these plastic hand-shaped chairs in the window of Mexicali, and us girls had to have them! So there we were, a forty-five minute drive later up to Newcastle, in Mexicali, purchasing two of the most exotic hand-shaped chairs I'd ever seen. Now, 15 years later, they are still on the porch, waiting to relieve anyone who comes around. Everyone in my family has their favorite Mexicali tapestry for the beach or for their bed, and I'm now using patchouli soap and prefer incense over candles.
Before leaving to teach in Thailand, I attended a Friends of Thai Daughters fundraiser on the coast of Maine, sponsored by Mexicali Blues and other small home-grown Maine businesses. I met Pete and Kim, the Dead-head, do-good owners of Mexicali, and hit it off with both of them. I thought it would be worth reaching out to them for funding, but I had low hopes because all my other options for funding had been exhausted. Turns out, Pete's father was once a Fulbright scholar in Thailand too, and Mexicali would be pleased to fund the project!
Because of my family's vast history with the store, I instantly felt a sense of home, and was honored and excited to have Mexicali be on board with this project. After I explained the post card template directions, my 45 sixteen-year old students began meticulously making their postcards using rulers and straight edges. I comment that they can use scissors, but I am ignored. In Thai culture, crafts and such things like clothing, art pieces, theatrical performances, or public displays of any kind, are given lots of time. The students work vigorously with The Grateful Dead playing on my portable speaker in the background. No one complains, no one acts out, they are all focused. A miracle. Engaged, realistic, and fun. They haven't even met their new Maine friends and they are beyond ecstatic. Class ends 25 minutes later as I collect the beginnings of their special post cards. I explain through hand gestures that next class we will write our postcards using the slang American greetings, goodbyes, and questions we have learned the first month. The kids leave with smiles—everyone says goodbye to me as they walk out the door, "See you later alligator; see you in a while crocodile; peace out Girl Scout, LATER!"
~ three months later ~
It is early May and it is so hot that I can only stand up to teach when it as absolutely necessary. My New England-born skin does not understand why it's being baked in an actual oven, and I have to apply copious amounts of prickly heat powder to soothe the heat rashes on the creases of my elbows.
I walk into my office, my glorious air conditioned office, and see several small packages on my desk. I'm stoked! Rarely do I receive mail in Thailand. I've been looking forward to this moment for months.
I open the first envelope in my first period class. Beautifully designed hand-written post cards spill out from students at Boothbay Regional High School. Images of lobsters, lighthouses, boats, chickadees, saltwater sunsets, and four wheelers. My heart bursts with happiness. Each card I share with my students feels like little seeds of my home, the place I feel the most grounded. The students "ohhhh" and "awe" at the oceanic scenes. They ask several questions and read and reread their postcards throughout the whole 50 minute period. Students bring the postcards home to show their families. Students follow their new American friends on social media. The atmosphere in the classroom is jubilant and peaceful--the sounds of two cultures connecting.
Over 800 students participated in the post card project. Two nations brought together by art, the English language, and a funky clothing store located in MAINE, USA.
Thank you Mexicali Blues for making the project a reality!
We couldn't be more pleased and honored to be able to help such a wonderfully enriching and enlivening project. Big THANKS to Lauren for inviting us to be a part of it! We would also like to thank YOU, dear reader, as 1% of every Mexicali purchase goes towards supporting projects like this that are dedicated to doing good in the world!