Published on September 12, 2007
Last week, I swapped my 250 points for a canvas gecko," says nine-year-old Anucha Thong-lom. "I've got 50 points left, but I need 500 for a Barbie for my big sister. Her right arm is paralysed."
Anucha is one of 30 students enrolled at Khong Len Khunna Tham, or moral toys, one of the many projects of Baan Sai Roong, or House of the Rainbow.
In remote Lanka Mountain, Kaeng Khro district, Chaiyaphum, children learn lessons in morality in unconventional ways.
Anucha knows he is to learn through the set exercises, but he likes that he can accumulate points for toys, too.
This is exactly what Issara Sukhongkha-ruttanakul, the former monk from Chachoengsao who established Baan Sai Roong, hopes for. He understands some children simply have no patience for lessons, but the chance to earn toys is an incentive aimed at getting less well-off children hooked on the teachings.
Khong Len Khunna Tham started here in July. It uses donated toys. To win them, children must attend non-formal classes as well as normal lessons.
The pupils are all 10 or younger and have been recruited from the village. Almost 300 applied.
"Children at this age are easy to teach. If we guide them effectively they will grow up understanding correct behaviour for the future," insists Issara.
The potential prizes are integrated into lessons. For example, if a student likes a teddy bear they must write a moral tale involving the item.
"Children here are poor and can't afford toys while children in big cities always have a lot but get bored of them easily. Second-hand toys are fascinating for the children and encourage them to concentrate in my lessons," he says.
Last month, the 30 children were encouraged to use their imagination in classes on unconventional and positive thinking. In unconventional thinking, they were asked to write about the benefits of cockroaches. In positive thinking, they stretched their minds to seeing how losing a wallet might actually be a fortunate event.
In another lesson, they're asked to write 16 apologies for any wrong they may have done.
Powers of observation are tested, too, with exercises that emphasise understanding of science and nature. Students are asked to focus on trees or vegetables and draw them, highlighting the important parts. An example of this is the requirement to identify and explain differences in three types of basil.
"Practical exercises are better than memorising text. They might be attending for the chance to win toys, but they will soon learn how valuable the lessons are."
Issara hopes his pupils will become "more moral, thoughtful, optimistic and shielded from the influence of the media".
Locals have welcomed his efforts. Thongmaak Kluiraan-yaa, a teacher at nearby Thamafaihwan primary, says the school appreciates Issara.
"Schools concentrate on academic matters. But children's minds and behavioural influences are complex and schools don't have enough time to take care of these. Issara fills this void. We teach students and Baan Sai Roong develops their minds," Thongmaak says.
Issara has no formal qualifications. Buddhist teachings as well as a desire to encourage children to learn inspire his work.
"Buddhism is based on logic and reason and wishing good for others," he explains.
Involved in several educational projects over the years, the 48-year-old established Baan Sai Roong 15 years ago while still a monk to provide informal education for needy students. It started with seven students but became a full-time job, so he left the monkhood.
Today he is the father of five boys and has his own website, budpage.com, promoting Buddhist teachings, care for the environment and Khong Len Khunna Tham.
Issara earns nothing from his devotion and nor does he seek grants.
'This is small and it makes me happy. If I made money I might not be happy. This project doesn't require money; just time, toys, books and other teaching materials."
Besides donations of teaching items, he is helped by volunteers. The English class had to be dropped after his volunteer teacher left for the USA to continue her university studies.
"We have to carefully screen people who work for us. We live in a remote area. Accommodation here is not as comfortable as their city homes and some people might not be patient enough to succeed.
"Others may not understand my teaching methods."
In the future, Issara may take the project on the road with "mobile class" reaching out to more students.
Donations are welcome at Baan Sai Roong, Moo 11 Tambon Thamafaihwan, Aumphur Kaeng Khro, Chaiyaphum 36150.
Special to The Nation