Inspiring Caring Leaders Across Cultures  

Mary Grace Sheers

Published Date : Dec 3, 2019

Having Fun isn’t Hard When You’ve Got a Library Card

Mary Grace (MG) Sheers is a 2018-2019 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at Yangtaladwittayakarn School in Kalasin, Thailand. They are from McLean, Virginia outside of Washington D.C. They graduated from the University of Virginia in 2018 with B.A. in Political and Social Thought, Linguistics, and a TESOL certification. This year, MG taught students in Mattayom 1-6, focusing on English for global citizenship. MG spent their free time at the community library, playing with local cats, and eating so much fruit. Upon completing their ETA program, MG will return in the United States to continue their career in teaching and curriculum development.

When I finish my fourth period class, I always head to the school library.

The Yangtaladwittayakarn school library is nestled between the social studies classrooms and an English classroom. Every day, cats rest among students in the comfortable chairs and corners of book shelves. Teachers and staff laugh around a lunch table sharing food and snacks with one another, as they call out “Gin Kaow Ruyang?” (“Have you eaten yet?). High school seniors read young adult books and sroll on their phones one table over. Some seniors help middle school students finish a poster project. They call out, “Teacher, Teacher “suai mai?” (“Is it beautiful?”). A few juniors’ students help student teachers put up a new poster describing rainy season health precautions. Middle school students learn Korean dances in the outside courtyard, laughing at their friend’s dancing. Most days, I walk through the students, cats, and books to the corner of the courtyard where a makeshift kitchen is set up. Mae Jum teaches me in Issan and hand gestures and whatever she is cooking today. I feel most a part of my community during my daily visits to the school library. This library and the community libraries are key points in my Fulbright experience.

The smell of books, the open spaces to relax or work, the range of people with different goals and life situations, the dedication to providing technology and access to a community- all public libraries share similar goals. Whether it has stacks of books on the floor, one desktop computer with WIFI access, or iPads to borrow, libraries always find a way to make their community feel like a home.

My mother volunteered in my elementary school’s library. Even as I struggled to learn to read as a child, I loved to sit in the room surrounded by books, new technology (i.e. a computer larger than me), and games. As a child, the Mclean Public Library was a comfortable place to relax after play at the park with my father. My high school library was the home of my friend group. My friends would visit the library during every free period and after school, sitting an area we belovingly named “The Perch.” It was a surefire place to visit to work in the presence of people I loved. I would stop at my college library every night on my way back to my dorm. I rarely opened my backpack- it was a place to reset before going home to do work. The Northside public library in my college town saw the day I picked my topic through the day I edited my 100-page thesis. Northside was built around books, but was so much more than a place to read. Anyone could come to their board game nights, citizenship classes, and free internet café.

Libraries have always been a home away from home. Connecting to two libraries in Yangtalat has shaped my Fulbright experience.

One of the first places I was introduced to in my new home in Kalasin, Thailand was the school library. The school library is the main hub of my community. I was first introduced to the cats. These adorable creatures spend all day lounging on the chairs and playing with students. I take a kitten to my office when I know I have a few hours of grading or lesson planning ahead of me. When I am feeling particularly lonely on a weekend, I will bike to the library just to play with a cat for a few minutes.

My next introduction was to Mae Jum, our school’s grounds keeper. In addition to upkeeping our school grounds, Mae Jum cooks her lunch in the library courtyard every day and is always ready to welcome new lunch guests. I learn Thai cooking by watching Mae Jum start to cut a vegetable, then ask if I can help once I know the basic steps. Despite our strong language barrier, she checks with me every step of the way, quizzing me on identifying ingredients in Issan. After she finishes the cooking and I set the table, I join a lively group of staff and teachers from all around our school for lunch at the library. The lunch is always filled with laughs, “Sep boa?”s, and homegrown snacks from our gardens.

These meals easily turn into professional learning communities. While grabbing second breakfast with some teachers and staff one morning, I asked Mae Bea if we will have an English competition team this semester. The conversation turned into a discussion on the best ideas for topics for our team’s English poster competition. We considered topics about the environment, American holidays, and Thailand’s economic plans. We settled our students will compare and contrast American, Thai, and Issan proverbs and discuss how culture and morals can be taught through language learning. Something about a library can turn a relaxing meal into a fun brainstorming session and professional meeting.

The longest time I ever spent in our library was preparing the students for their English skit competition. These students were excused from classes for a few days to practice their skits all day. We played theater games, studied the pronunciation of their lines, built props and blocked engaging scenes. These students spent hours every day memorizing lines in the comfortable chairs, trying to stop the cats from interrupting their scenes, and practicing together. The school library allowed us to work hard together and also laugh together. We could overexaggerate to give each other hints, practice lines like they were tongue twisters, and all slump down on a couch after a perfect rehearsal.

While my school library is a great find the hub during the school day, a little luck and helpful host teachers led me to the Princess Library, the local public library in my town. When one of Thailand’s princesses drove to my school to attend a speaking arrangement, I lined up with my teachers and students to pay our respects. Across the street, staff in government uniforms lined up outside of a purple building, waving Thai and Princess flags. After a few questions, my host teacher explained that this purple building was a local library started by one of Thailand’s Princesses. My teacher led me over to meet the director of the library. The Princess Library promotes literacy to my district and my entire province. They offer free internet access, free courses for adults without formal educations, and plenty of books to borrow.

The director of the library, P’Nan, has become a second host to me here. She organized a Saturday English workshop for any children who want to practice English with me. These children, aged 6-14, are all smiles as we play games, practice new English sentences, and study together. They often come to class with a sentence or word, one they learned independently or from a Thai teacher at school, to test on me and see if they can talk to me. We always end in giggles and more games. These weekend classes give me a chance to try more experimental teaching methods and reach students outside of my high school classes. They are a community when my host school is closed or busy in an activity. The director is always ready to take me to lunch or coffee after our workshops and always willing to help me explore my town and province.

Along with another teacher at my school, we were able to teach an English class for adults without formal educations at the library. This week of skits, games, and lots of practice helped me feel like part of the wider community. Lesson planning and working with Mem Mem helped me become a better teacher and remember that even adults like to play games and sing songs sometimes. More importantly, it helped some communities’ members gain basic English skills and see that they are never too old to learn a new language. I can still test some of these students every week when I see them at the market and they practice selling their foods to me in English.

Neither of these libraries have air conditioning, running drinking water, nor workable wireless internet. They are both familiar with unwelcomed insects. They don’t have iPads or free printing or a plethora of English books. But that’s not what makes them a library. What makes them a library is how students, teachers, staff, and community members can feel relaxed in a low-pressure educational environment. It’s me passing students working on an English project and lending a little help. It’s students reading for the joy of it. It’s community members having access to the internet for the first time. It’s students asking if their projects are beautiful or I like the new BlackPink song. It’s being part of a community.