Sounisa Oun Alom, left, and Chasy Somwhang talk with Frenchtown Elementary fourth-graders after a presentation on their home country of Laos last week. The educators have been in Montana to learn about teaching strategies and administrative structures through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.

More than 7,000 miles from home, Sounisa Oun Alom and Chasy Somwhang have spent the past month at a strange version of a familiar place: a school.

The two Laotian educators came to the United States as professional fellows from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and managed by the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Since October, they have analyzed the administrative structure and teaching strategies at Frenchtown schools for ideas they can take home.

Alom, the child participation and partnership coordinator for Plan International Bokeo, said her biggest takeaway has been the emphasis on student participation rather than simple absorption.

“I like how you engage students to engage children to learn together,” she said. “It’s different from our style. Completely different. Mostly teachers speak more at children and (do) not engage in participation much.”

Somwhang, a project education officer for Save the Children International, agreed, adding that he was impressed at how education was equal for all.

“Even if they come from poor family, rich family, from minority, they have equal learning,” he said.

The educational and cultural exchange is designed to “build the leadership capabilities of youth in the region” and “strengthen ties between the United States and Southeast Asia,” according a press statement from the university. The group studying at the center this fall includes three fellows from Burma, four from Cambodia, three from Laos, three from Thailand, and three from Vietnam.

Alom and Somwhang spent time in 40 Frenchtown classrooms from Oct. 16 to Nov. 8. They also attended lectures at the university and spoke with educational leaders. For their first couple of days in Frenchtown, Elementary and Intermediate Principal Riley Davis said he pulled nearly every book about school management, educational leadership and instructional techniques from his office shelf as he talked with the fellows about various strategies.

“The big piece was to give them the opportunity to observe instructional practices and leadership skills,” he said. “We started sifting through books and talking about how the structure is different in their school.”

In Laos, getting to school often is a barrier. Particularly after it rains, dirt roads turn to sticky mud. The kinds of technology common in American classrooms is rare in Laos. Many schools in rural areas do not have electricity or running water. Blackboards and chalk are the norm.

“We don’t have SmartBoards,” Somwhang explained to fourth graders during a Wednesday presentation about Laos.

He works in the central Luang Prabang Province, home to the country’s capital city. His work focuses on improving access to education, especially for girls, through teacher development and parent engagement.

Somwhang noted that children can be turned away from school if they are not wearing a uniform, although teachers have discretion to admit children who legitimately cannot afford the clothes.

“There’s my kindergarten class,” he said, pointing to a photo of himself. “You can see some of them have no shoes and (wear) very dirty clothes. You are lucky here.”

The PowerPoint advanced to the next slide, showing a photo of a bamboo structure outside a white building. The walls reached only to mid-chest height except for one row of bamboo fashioned into a full wall, which held a blackboard.

“The third grade. They don’t have a school,” Somwhang said. Parents had to build the classroom “so their kids could go to this grade because (the school building) is full.”  

Alom lives in the northwest, rural province of Bokeo where 15 languages are spoken. The Laotian alphabet includes more than 100 vowels, some long and some short. The diversity and complexity of language makes early education “critical to closing the language gap between children and teachers” that can hinder future learning, according to her biography. In her free time, she provides free English tutoring.  

She hopes that by sharing the teaching styles she saw in Frenchtown with educators in Laos, they can build the confidence of students.

“Here you can see the children speak. They’re so clever. They always raise their hand when they have questions,” she said. “How can we help the (Laotian) students to be more engaged and be more confident? They are so shy. Always so quiet.”

But they can't bring everything they’ve seen to their own schools, primarily the tangible tools like textbooks, classroom decorations such as maps, and technology.

The schools here “have lots of resources to help students learn faster,” Alom said.

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.