Mapping out the past
This article looks at why Thai students have difficulty reading maps, and the process of having my class create its own a map of Ayutthaya to learn from. Bored of the standard activity of finding locations on a London map, my students started to develop their own material, which could be used to teach future students.
Teaching in the provinces has its share of advantages. For one, there are many opportunities to conduct field research with students. It would be a logistical nightmare to transport a dozen students across Bangkok to select tourist sites, but in Ayutthaya this can be done with comparative ease.
Ayutthaya, being a smaller city with less traffic problems, is much easier to navigate during three hours of class time. Plus, many provincial schools are willing to support activities within the community rather than limiting education to the usual classroom environment. For example, my university supplies mini-vans for day excursions around the Ayutthaya province, which opens all kinds of doors for hands-on learning. This field research often snowballs in surprising directions. One experience with a map recently altered my entire class syllabus.
It all started when I gave a tourism class a surprise quiz using a map produced by the local TAT office. I supplied students with a list of ten places that they had to locate. Nearly every student failed this quiz, and some couldn’t name the street that they lived on. I spoke with my class afterward about why they had difficulty understanding a basic tourist map. They explained that they did not need addresses or street names to find something. Basically, they could just meet a friend at the nearest landmark and take it from there.
Students are not the only ones who find it difficult to read tourist maps. Many tourists are frustrated when tuk-tuk drivers fail to arrive at the proper location marked on a map. Even notes, hand-written in Thai, can be a source of confusion. Maps simply don’t have the same importance for Thais as they do for westerners. I spent the remainder of class time having students practice directions (turn right at the traffic light, turn left on Rochana, go forward, etc.). Nevertheless, I decided to build on this map lesson during future classes.
The following week I brought old European maps of Ayutthaya. My students had to make comparisons between four Dutch and French versions (Chao Phraya River is ______er on map A; map B is more ______ than map C; map D is as ______ as map A). We practiced this English skill for about one hour, but it somehow felt stale. Students had already done this activity in countless English books, and they found the exercise rather boring and repetitious.
As attention was drifting away, I spontaneously taped a modern map on the wall. This time I tried to engage them in conversation about how Ayutthaya maps have changed over the years. Then I asked them to start labeling rivers and canals. Since they are tourism majors, I pointed out that entire clusters of temples existed in the remote countryside. Few students had ever heard of them. I began to explain a little bit about the histories of these temples and their curiosity grew.
By the third week, our class was conducting field research. I took students around the city to see places off the island. We began by visiting countryside temples in the east, many of which predate the founding of Ayutthaya. I explained some theories about the origins of this city and pointed out how the chain of temples was once connected by a canal (now land blocked and partially covered). I also took students to some very obscure temples in the north, which are hiding in a maze of dirt roads. These had once been connected by Sa Bua canal (usually dry, but fills up during flood season).
While introducing students to these place I pestered them with questions: What is this temple similar to? How are they different than the ones on the main island? What handcrafts were produced in this village? To be honest, I didn’t know some of the answers myself. My objective was to engage them in dialogue and to perhaps trick them into the role of an accidental tour guide.
These field trips clicked with some students afterward. For others it was just a matter of having fun. But, a few of them visited the local Fine Arts Department and brought back better maps. Others gathered a detailed list of 100 temples, which was broken down into the geographic zones of Ayutthaya. Before long we had accumulated enough documents to start a major project. Thus, the Ayutthaya Map Project was born.
One day, an innovative student came to class with a refrigerator sized wall-map. She had blown up several copies for our class to look at. This was well timed, since I had my students label all of the temples from my list. Each week my classes are adding still more information to our maps. We have now named over 200 temples, nearly all of the canals, and about 45 villages. Already some student are scouting out locations for future field trips south of the island. They are designing an original tour to a little seen part of Ayutthaya.
The Ayutthaya Map Project is growing into something greater than a simple exercise out of an English book. My students are learning more about Ayutthaya by creating a useful tool – one that will eventually be referenced by other students and possibly tourists. The exciting reward is that nobody has ever produced a map like this before in English. Our map will serve as a springboard for future research. Students could start writing reports about each village or translate information about more obscure temples. There might even be a chance to market the thing. What we are doing is creating a reservoir of information.
In result of this project, I find that I am having to raise my own level of knowledge about Ayutthaya. Many teachers forget that their own learning is ongoing. Once the textbook is selected the rest is routine. However, I have to anticipate the next stage of a growing project. For the sake of teacher development, I enrolled as a member of the Siam Society so that I could have access to their library. I am tracking down details about old Ayutthaya; as well as researching the waterways near to where my students live (Ayutthaya, Sena, Angthong and Rangsit). I am learning about where all the foreign settlements, floating markets, and handicraft villages were once located. These will also go on the map one day. Once in a while, when the timing is right, I will have to pull myself away from books to conduct more field research.