Big Brother Mouse

Trip Start Nov 20, 2013
Trip End Nov 24, 2014

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, Louangphabang,
Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Last night we arrived in Luang Prabang, one of Laos' most popular tourist destinations. We quickly and easily found a terrific guesthouse and settled in. Before heading to Laos, I read a little about a place called Big Brother Mouse that provides volunteer opportunities for travellers. Sitting on a table full of information in the guesthouse were booklets about Big Brother Mouse. I took one into our room and started reading it aloud to Jason.

Big Brother Mouse was started when Sasha sold his US publishing company and travelled. As he traveled, he liked to learn how books are used in different countries. When he asked around about books in Laos, he noticed that the only books published in the Lao language are textbooks. As he spent more time in Luang Prabang, he learned that children here wonder why so many tourists read on their vacation since to them all books are textbooks. Laos did not have one single book published whose purpose was for the enjoyment of reading. No one in the country had seen a picture book. As I read about this and more stories about Big Brother Mouse aloud to Jason, I became really emotional and literally began crying. As a teacher and as a book lover, I can't even imagine living in a world without books. Big Brother Mouse is a not for profit organization working hard to change this.

The creator of the organization, along with many local Lao students began to write books in Lao and bilingual books in Lao and in English. At the time, 2003, Laos did not have any publishing companies and the government controlled every book (really only textbooks) that were published in the country. To become a publishing company, Sasha and his Lao "coworkers" needed to get a licence from the government, which they eventually did. They started out small by holding contests in high schools and universities for artists to illustrate their books. Once they had some books ready, they started introducing them to children, who quickly took a great liking to reading for pleasure. From here, the organization has grown to implement many different initiatives. As I read about all the young Lao people who want to help with this cause in their own country, I couldn't help but become emotional many more times. I had to check this place out for myself!

We didn't really do very much today other than plan a little more of our trip, but we knew that at 5pm we would head to Big Brother Mouse. Each day from 9-11am and 5-7pm the doors to this amazing publishing company (it's so much more than this!) open to Lao students who want to practice their English and to foreign tourists who are willing to volunteer their time to help. Jason and I were the first ones to arrive tonight and we were early. This gave us time to look around the office a bit. We learned more about the book parties that Big Brother Mouse organizes to help bring books to children in the villages around Laos. A book party costs between $250 and $400USD and provides so much to a village school. Each student will receive a pen, some paper, and most importantly, their own new book. Undoubtedly this is the first book they have ever seen, let alone owned! Big Brother Mouse has found out that some of the children become so attached to their book that they don't ever swap with a friend and they even bring it with them while they go work in the fields. In addition, the school receives 50 more books to allow for a book swap to take place each week at school. The party also includes lessons for the teachers on how to teach using books. As a primary school teacher, the idea of never using a picture book to teach a lesson in any subject is unthinkable. So much of my personal teaching programs revolve around books of all kinds. The party then moves outside where employees and volunteers of Big Brother Mouse teach the teachers and the students alike some educational games and songs, making learning more engaging for the first time in these children's lives. The sappy teacher in me became emotional again while reading about these book parties. The results of these parties have been wonderful, as teachers acknowledge that students are more eager to learn and read and there are fewer absences from school after a book party.

After looking around the centre, it was time to start speaking with some high school and university students looking to improve their English skills. In Lao cities like Luang Prabang, students begin learning English in secondary school for about an hour each day. Many students are eager to practice and learn more. I was blown away with the number of students who showed up at the centre during the two hours we were here as well as the number of tourists who were here to help. I think the ratio worked out to be almost one to one! I spent most of my two hours with three different students talking about where we are from, our interests, learning English, and just about anything really. At some points in the conversation each of the students asked me for help with grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. One student's English was fairly strong and he was using all kinds of slang phrases and asking to learn more. Another student works at a local restaurant and wanted to know how to ask customers questions about separate bills more politely. Jason spent most of his time chatting with two different novice monks and helping one of them with his English homework. Through his conversations, he learned quite a bit about what being a novice monk is like, including living way from their families and the colours of their robes.

Another volunteer from Singapore and I discussed briefly how sad it is that there are no high interest books available for the students to learn from. For example, I was chatting with a girl in her second year of university who is studying economics and the English book she was reading was an easy reader about a family with a fussy baby. This book might be interesting and funny to an eight year old, but it wasn't really enticing for this girl. When I taught English in China six years ago, we were provided with numerous materials that were of high interest for the adults I was working with (and to me as well), but they used simple enough vocabulary for the English language learners to appreciate. In Ontario public schools, there is a huge focus on finding high interest books for students at all different reading levels. In Laos, this isn't even a possibility in their native language, forget about English. When I stupidly asked two of the students what they like to read about in Lao, they both answered history. I say stupidly because I forgot they didn't have a choice of book genres like we do at home. They only have old, tattered, government created textbooks. There are no books written for pleasure reading. At least there weren't until Big Brother Mouse began publishing books!

This organization is phenomenal and has begun to do amazing things to bring Laos from a "country that doesn't read" to "a country that loves to read". It felt wonderful to help even in a small way with the initiatives of this organization and I'm sure Jason and I will choose to do a bit more before leaving. This was by far one of the most rewarding things we have done on our journey so far!
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Mom and David on

What a wonderful and rewarding experience. We so often take so much for granted and forget how fortunate we are. We are so proud of you.

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