July 2021: Another Crazy Month in Thailand

As we reach the end of the scariest month in memory, let me try to summarize where we are now. It has, indeed, been a frightening couple of weeks as the national numbers continue to rise to astronomical levels and I do my best to try and avoid contracting the virus myself. Let me tell you, it hasn’t been easy the past few weeks.

I don’t recall what the daily average in new COVID-19 cases was at the beginning of the month. At mid-month, we passed 10,000 new cases for the first time. Today, it was nearly 19,000 in a single day. People have been dying on the street and are just left there as there is a lack of first responders available to remove the bodies. The Thai media is full of photos of these tragic victims and these are rarely censored. I don’t think the shock of seeing these in my news feeds will ever wear off.

Before this week, I had only worked two full days in a school since the start of April. After starting work at my new school on 1 July, it was closed down for a couple of weeks due to a virus outbreak. A week later, all schools on the island of Phuket were shuttered for another two weeks. Then the central government in Bangkok mandated that the entire nation shutter the schools which pushed the prospective opening date back to 2 August. As of today, this has further been extended to 16 August.

With the number of local transmissions on Phuket beginning to rise, I was more or less comfortable with staying at home. Several months ago, I upgraded my tiny fridge (which could only fit four small cans of soda and never got very cold) to one that is about half normal size (the freezer works great!). I also bought a new desk for my computer; whenever I am thirsty, I just lean over and grab an ice cold bottle of Miranda brand root beer from the ice box.

I had several periods of illness over the course of the last two weeks or so. I developed several symptoms similar to what sufferers of the virus endure. I was scared that I had contracted the coronavirus myself. On my rare forays to the market and mini-mart to restock my food supplies, I feared that I would set off the temperature scanners and be unable to enter. For the most part, I avoided these but finally got scanned at 7-Eleven a couple of nights ago. I was at an acceptable 36.5 degrees Celsius.

In the midst of my isolation, my trusty Lenovo laptop was in its death throes. I’d already had my external hard drive fail (still working on scanning to recover nearly 3TB of data — mostly music and movies) when the main hard drive began showing signs of imminent failure. I did a full backup and then tried a clean reinstall of Windows 10. Those measures didn’t seem to do much good. I felt that it was time to take the plunge for a new system, even though my formerly trusty Lenovo was not much more than three years old. The wear and tear on electronics in this environment is brutal not to mention the tiny ants that somehow get inside and chew on cables no matter what preventative measures you take.

I had long wanted an all-in-one desktop as I felt that would boost my productivity. I spent some time doing research and learned much about faster processors and graphics cards as well as SSD’s versus HDD’s. I wanted to boost the amount of RAM (and easily be able to upgrade). I am certainly not a gamer so I didn’t need something that could handle the most intense games or anything like that. I wanted to be able to upgrade to Windows 11 when that is released and also return to doing video editing (I used to try to do it on the laptop but it was difficult and time-consuming). I was prepared to purchase online but I told a friend of mine what I was looking for and wondered if the local shops even carried all-in-ones. A couple of days later, a brand new Acer Aspire C-24 arrived at my door, fully paid for. I will make payments to my friend over the next ten months which certainly made me feel better as the return to work was at that point nowhere in sight.

I absolutely love the new computer and am constantly shocked at the speed with which it boots up, shuts down, and how everything I do on it is especially zippy. I wanted to slowly organize the folders and files from my backups as I put them onto the new machine. I am even creating custom icons for all of the folders. I have had this computer for only two weeks now and have probably installed only four or five programs on it — just what I need when I need it. After a week, I added Windows 11 wallpaper to further inspire me. It’s beautiful!

However, now my school folders are starting to become somewhat cluttered.

The latter is because last Friday afternoon, my agency contacted me and told me I was to create teaching videos for each of my 19 classes per week. They wanted four 30- to 60-minute videos for each class (a total of 76) by the following Wednesday! I had to explain that I could not possibly deliver that many videos in that short of time; I don’t think that they knew what creating videos entailed — that you can’t just turn on the camera and talk for 30-60 minutes and expect the children to learn from that. You need flashcards, short video clips with singalong songs, brief activities to break things up, etc. I knew from past experience that even a short video would take me hours to create and that was if I had a clear plan and organized materials beforehand.

It took a lot of convincing, but I talked the people in charge down from 76 60-minute videos in five days to just one 30-minute video per class level for a total of six. I felt that was entirely doable (and who came up with the earlier number anyway?). I spent the entire weekend working on these. I didn’t sleep much as it was still a herculean task.

My steps for creating such videos is to start with the curriculum and see what the topic needs to be. I then search my folders or online for images with which to create flashcards. Before creating the flashcards, I make the backgrounds transparent using a Windows 10 app called PhotoScape X (free from the Microsoft Store and I love it a lot). I used to make the flashcards themselves using PhotoScape but now I tend to use PowerPoint as I can create the flashcard design once. Then, I can easily duplicate the slide and just change the center image in far fewer steps than the same procedure in the photo-editing software.

If I had time, I would create animations and transitions in PowerPoint and could even record my narration using that. Since I am still not that adept at the program, I quickly realized that I needed to use something that was much, much faster. Luckily, my new Acer came with a preinstalled full version of CyberLink’s PowerDirector. When I am finished creating my flashcards, I save them as .png image files in PowerPoint and then put them into PowerDirector along with any other short video clips I want to use. I think it is good to break up the lesson with some videos with sing-along songs and I have accumulated quite a library on a variety of topics.

During the entire process up to this point, I jot down ideas for what I would like to say during each of the slides. Sometimes, I do not have the perfect slide for my planned teaching points and need to go back and create one. I start lining images and video clips onto the timeline in PowerDirector; not too many at a time as I still need to figure out how long each needs to be on the screen to match my narration. This is, I believe, what takes me the longest: I record my narration as I view the timeline. I stretch the slide or video to match the length of my commentary. I can add cool transitions between each bit if I want to but this adds a lot of time to the entire process so I stopped doing it except for a few spots in the intro and outro. Even with a script to follow, I still have to record lots of retakes when I go off script or the words get caught in my throat.

By Monday, I only had two videos remaining when I received a message late in the afternoon: “You must report to school tomorrow. Regular hours.” What? I thought the government ordered all the schools closed going into August….

I was told that we would be teaching online. Well, isn’t it unsafe to go there when everybody says to stay at home? I can work perfectly fine from home. I tried to explain that my laptop was unusable and in order to teach online from the school, I would have to lug the big 24-inch all-in-one computer on the back of a motorbike taxi each day. It’s a fairly long trip. And, what about the videos? I put a lot of time and effort into them. Will they ever be used and will I be paid for doing them as I had been promised. Really, who knows?

I arrived at school bright and early Tuesday morning — “the regular time” — after a 30-minute ride carrying my brand-new 24-inch all-in-one computer on the back of a rickety 150c.c. motorbike taxi. The only other living things on campus were the security guard (who told me “no school”) and a couple of stray dogs. Of course, my workspace (the rather small school library) was locked up tight. I sent a few messages to agency staff and found out that the school closures had been extended late the previous evening. I said that I would stick around for an hour before recalling my taxi. The first Thai teachers finally arrived about 8:15.

I chose a spot far away from the desks the Thai teachers use. The Chinese teacher arrived around nine o’clock and, of course, he sat down very near me. And, of course, he was maskless for most of the day. My misgivings for the entire venture kept increasing. After spending a couple of hours preparing for my first online lesson (mostly trying to get acquainted with the software they demand we use — the very limiting LINE app), I was told that I would not teach the P1 or P2 classes until next week (and that would be the only levels I would teach, for a total of six different classes all on essentially the same topic, Things in the Classroom). Naturally, three of the four lessons I was scheduled to teach that first day were either P1 or P2.

I did have one P4 class late in the day. I started up the program and immediately saw that my camera was black. Only four students eventually joined but none turned on their microphones or cameras so they may not have been there at all. They certainly never said anything although I gave them plenty of opportunities to do so. If they were watching, they couldn’t see me but I was able to share my screen so they could see the flashcards and hear me okay. After class, I checked if the camera worked with ZOOM or Google Meet and it was perfect. Several Thai teachers, including the school’s head of IT, took a stab at trying to make the camera work with LINE. It finally turned out that LINE doesn’t support my camera at all. Maybe it’s just too new. If the malls weren’t closed due to COVID-19, I would have just gone and bought a USB or Bluetooth webcam. Eventually, I found a workaround by downloading the software based Snap Camera (designed for SnapChat, I think) and that works just fine.

Wednesday was a holiday for HM the King’s birthday. I spent most of the day just relaxing. In the evening, I created quick scripts for the P3 and P6 lessons I was scheduled to teach the following day. I based these around the videos I’d already created and made a few new flashcards.

I arrived shortly before eight on Thursday and set up along the wall farthest from the rest of the teachers. When the Chinese teacher arrived, he again chose a spot to my right. Thankfully, it was a bit farther away and facing away from me. As far as I know, he wore his mask except when he was teaching. The biggest problem is that he is LOUD! Even the Thai teachers scrambled during their lessons to find a quieter spot (mostly crouched behind the bookcases).

When checking the LINE group for the first P3 lesson on Thursday morning, I saw a note in Thai from the homeroom teacher. I threw that into my Translate app and found out there wouldn’t be any P3 classes until next week. I later found out that I will teach P3 as well as P1 and P2 next week and just P4, P5 and P6 this week. Since all of my P5 classes are on Wednesday and Monday, it looks like I won’t teach them at all.

Thus, I would only have two P6-level classes that day. For the first one, only one student showed up for about two minutes. He was there long enough to say “Hello” and then type his name and class number in the chat box, recording his attendance. The rest of the time, like the Monday class, I just talked to dead air.

I had one more lesson scheduled for Thursday afternoon. It was to be during the final period of the day. About 30 minutes before it was due to begin, dozens of teachers began filing into the library which is my designated work area. By just before the time my lesson was to begin, the space was packed with nearly 30 Thai teachers. There was no hope of social distancing. While I was fearful of the potential of virus spread, I still thought that I could somehow get through my class while they were holding their meeting. I had my headphones and felt reasonably sure the kids would be able to hear me (the microphones are really good on my new computer). The meeting began and the person in charge began to use a microphone connected to a loudspeaker. Yikes! She was really loud!

My students began joining the video call a few minutes early. I thought this was going to be my first productive lesson of the week. I tested the noise-cancelling on the mics and the students could hear me clearly. I could hear them through my headphones. I thought, “I can do this!” But then one of the Thai teachers ran over, said “Excuse me, Teacher,” and proceeded to type a message in Thai in the chat-box to inform the students that class was cancelled! Well, I tried. I THINK I am still getting paid for being here, whether or not I actually interact with my students online.

Friday! Oh, Friday. While the weather had been iffy all week, the monsoon really attacked with a vengeance and stuck around all day. I covered my big computer in a jumbo-sized garbage liner and secured it with a backpack rain cover. That worked a charm for the ride to school. The box blocked the rain completely so I did not get wet at all. With all the cancellations, I only had two P4-level classes scheduled. They were back-to-back lessons and since they were both the same topic I didn’t have to fiddle with having a lot of things open on my desktop. Both lessons went very well. I had already taught these students in the classroom once way back on the second of July and had deemed them my favorites at that time.

Only eight students joined the first lesson and I think there were six or seven at the peak point in the second lesson but they all responded to my questions and there was quite a bit of interaction. I think one of the parents came on-mic early in the first lesson as I was playing a song. She said that they couldn’t hear the audio so I rewound the video and just went through the words with the children repeating each line. I think it went better than if I had just played the song for them without any interaction.

Although I didn’t end up teaching much this past week, it was just enough for me to begin to feel comfortable with the actual process. It is a lot different than being in the classroom and I would rather do the latter. But I now know that I can do it with only a few minor hurdles to surpass. I believe I have plenty of materials for the upcoming week’s lessons since I was ready for those before they were cancelled. Next week, on the light days, I will put together my flashcards and scripts for the following week.

I really didn’t do much today other than add some music onto my new computer. It was pouring rain all day so I finally decided I would order my dinner online. I didn’t really want pizza but the main delivery app recently added Sizzler so I thought that sounded good. However, it turned out Sizzler was closed because it is in one of the shopping malls ordered closed. Oh, well. Then I noticed that Burger King’s “out of area” notice had been removed. Could I really order from them? I could and I did. Due to the heavy storms, it took nearly two hours to arrive (the driver called multiple times and I assured him to take his time and drive safely). I ordered way too much food and am completely full now (plus, it was a little on the cold side when the order got here but that is totally understandable). I was very happy with my Whopper, tater tots and apple pie. The buy one-get one chicken and fish sandwiches, half-price onion rings and tempura nuggets were just too much but I was still very pleased. It is nice to have an option other than Pizza Company or KFC or Thai food.

I finished reading six books in July as seen in my Read More apps “resolution” page shown above. Half were novels, the others were history books. While they were all good, I believe my favorite was Daisy Jones & The Six, an oral history of a fictional mid-1970s rock band. It’s very well done and even includes lyrics for the made-up songs. Apparently, the book is in development as a television series so I will have to check that out when it begins airing. Even if it is half as good as Almost Famous, it should be well worth watching.

I really have no idea how much music I listened to in July. When my hard drive crashed, I was well on my way to having a record month. I believe it was somewhere north of 500 at that time (10th or 11th of July). The first song played on my new computer was by Adele at 4:30 in the morning on 19 July (“Crazy For You” live version recorded at KCRW-FM Studios in Santa Monica, California on 21 March 2008). Since then, I listened to 787 total tracks from 62 different albums (total duration was 2 days, 12 hours and 55 minutes of music). Ironically, the final song for July was also by Adele, played at 11:50 pm on 31 July (a live version of “Don’t You Remember” recorded at The Roundhouse in London on 7 July 2011. Other artists played on the new Acer over the past 12 days included Eric Clapton, Page/Plant, Prince, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Grand Funk Railroad, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Dee Gees/Foo Fighters, Rod Stewart, Huey Lewis and the News, Barenaked Ladies, Berlin, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Jeff Healey Band, PJ Harvey, U2, Joni Mitchell, Fiona Apple, Hole, a 99-track “Essentials of Jazz Rock” compilation, Van Morrison, Mazzy Star, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, Air, Björk, and ABBA. Talk about variety!

Going into August, I guess I do feel a bit better than this time last week (when I was still creating videos and wondering if we would ever begin earning money once again). My fever is gone. My throat is still scratchy but I think that is mostly from using it so much lately. My belly is full. And I have a nice new computer that works well when I want it to. With this first blog entry in nearly three weeks, I am starting to feel like writing again. I have not done much with stamps since then either but maybe I will in the near future. Let’s hope the outside world starts to feel a bit less scary. Time will tell….

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