Saturday, November 23, 2013

Loy Krathong in Thailand: Cultural tradition or environmental problem?

A home made krathong

Loy Krathong ("floating crown") is a traditional Thai (not Buddhist) holiday that falls on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, near the end of the traditional lunar year (but not coinciding with the official calendars). This generally is in November, at the end of the rainy season and the rice harvest. People make elaborate lotus-shaped decorations of banana trunk slices, banana leaves, flowers, incense sticks and candles, then float them on waterways. Many people add a baht coin, and some place clippings of fingernails and hair on the float. It traditionally signifies letting go of negative thoughts, such as anger and hatred; some use it to honor the water goddess, while many use it as one of the year's biggest social events. Thousands are drawn to rivers and canals to not only float krathongs, but to be blessed by monks and to party with friends, or indeed, all of the above.

Krathongs and Chinese lanterns (Loy Fa) released at a lake in eastern Bangkok. The lantern captured by the tree eventually escaped!
In recent years, it was noted that the floating of so many krathongs, along with the waste generated by the event, has quite a negative impact on the environment. In response to the use of styrofoam for the krathongs that eventually ended up clogging the shores of the Gulf of Thailand, Thais were encouraged to use biodegradable materials, such as banana stems and leaves, as well as making krathongs from bread, which the fish can eat. During last week's festivities, I did not see any styrofoam krathongs, although there may still be some made. However, the krathongs are generally held together by nails or staples, which contribute their own negative impacts on the aquatic life. Some Thais argue that using banana doesn't matter, that the event still pollutes the water with decomposing vegetation, and they thus refuse to participate.

A krathong salesman near a Buddhist wat (temple)
I spent an evening documenting two Loy Krathong events near my home in the eastern suburbs of Bangkok. One was in an upper-middle class development, the other at a large temple complex that straddles a major canal running through Bangkok. The celebrants obviously enjoyed themselves, the pious went through many of the Thai Buddhist rituals, and nearly everyone bought or made krathongs and floated them on the canal. The celebration lasted well past midnight under a bright full moon.

Making sweet treats outside the temple complex

It is considered good luck to place small coins in a series of goblets at a wat.

Even the monks got in on the selling of krathongs

Monks teach and give blessings inside a temple outbuilding

Throngs of people jammed the temple complex and the footbridge spanning the klong (canal) that separates the sister wats.

Hundreds of people take turns floating krathongs on the klong.

In addition to floating krathongs on the water, Chinese lanterns (Loy fa: "float in sky") are also released (directly into the flight path of planes landing at the international airport).

Krathongs on the canal between the two temples

A few boatloads of people intercepted the krathongs looking for any one baht (3 cents) coins that were added.

A monk ties simple blessed string bracelets to celebrants who wear them for good luck until they disintegrate and fall from the wrist.

Sidewalk merchants continue to sell their wares outside the temple until early morning.

After the celebration: the waste and the wasted.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

You know your school is in trouble when...

I have had the privilege of teaching in three top tier international schools (ISBrussels, ASLondon, ISBangkok), all quite different in their orientation due to geography and culture, yet all sharing the same high quality standards for teaching excellence. I have also taught at other international schools that are considered second or third tier (for various reasons), that have excellent faculty, but less than quality (read incompetent, indifferent or clueless) senior administration. Indeed, the one thing I have seen in all of these schools is the consistent high quality of teaching (with admittedly a few exceptions; to this day I do not understand why those were allowed to continue).

Over the course of 40+ years, I have seen schools--both independent and public--struggle, schools prosper, and schools maintain an even keel. There are certain manifestations of such schools, each unique to the situation, yet consistent enough to draw generalities. So, here is my list of characteristics that show a school is in trouble. Does your school exhibit any? Add your own warning signs!

1. Fewer teachers are hired than leave.

2. Positions are eliminated.

3. Successful and/or innovative programs are eliminated.

4. Administrative duties are consolidated.

5. Entry requirements are lowered or eliminated.

6. Parents are asked to pay for supplies.

7. Food prices take large leaps.

8. Unqualified teachers are hired.

9. Half truths and outright lies are part of the recruiting strategy.

10. Nothing in the curriculum is unique, yet the school advertises itself as "innovative".

11. Scores dip, so teachers are pressured to give more homework.

12. Large teacher turnover.

13. Inexperienced (read "cheap") teachers are recruited and experienced (read "expensive") teachers are pressured to leave.

14. The "bottom line" becomes more important than students or teachers.

15. Salary schedules are "adjusted" without prior notice.

16. Faculty do not know the first names of administrators.

17. Administrators do not know the names of the teachers.

18. There is no Q&A section at "faculty" meetings.

19. Policy changes are not announced, or if announced, are done by email.

20. Fewer people make more decisions.

21. The school spends a great deal of money on the fa├žade (new gardens, fresh paint) while at the same time cutting teacher benefits.

22. Teacher bonuses are replaced by random drawings of door prizes at the annual party.