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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Trials, tribulations and textbooks: Govt, DC-Cam review KR teaching

Trials, tribulations and textbooks: Govt, DC-Cam review KR teaching

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After a long and at times contentious review by a government committee, a guidebook   combined with a training program will advise teachers on controversial instruction methods.

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Youk Chhang and other members of DC-Cam's staff hand out the new textbooks on the Khmer Rouge period in Takeo province.

In schools, a longing for information

Touch Thouda, a teacher at the Phnom Penh Regional Teacher Training Centre, said she never tells her high school students about the Khmer Rouge years, adding that she would welcome guidance on how to treat the period. Hok Phally, a 10th-grade student in Phnom Penh, said most of what she knows about the Khmer Rouge she learned from her parents. Chum On, 18, a 12th-grader in Battambang province, lamented that she does not know more about the period.  "I was told that during this regime many people died," she said. Ï do not understand why.  We should have it taught in the classrooms because the new generation can take it as an example not to follow."  

THE Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) plans next week to publish a guide for high school teachers, advising them on the best ways to present A History of Democratic Kampuchea, a textbook detailing the history of the Khmer Rouge.

Monday's release of the 79-page guidebook, a draft of which has been obtained by the Post, will mark the end of a review process that saw members of a Ministry of Education review committee occasionally clash with DC-Cam staff over how the history should be taught.

Its distribution is to coincide with an expanded printing of the textbook itself, which was approved by the government as a supplementary text more than two years ago but so far has not been widely used in classrooms, said DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang.

Youk Chhang said the nationwide distribution of both books, combined with a teacher training program designed to familiarise 3,000 high school teachers with their contents, will standardise and improve the information students receive about the Khmer Rouge years. The information teachers currently provide too often takes the form of incomplete accounts based primarily on their own experiences and those of their relatives, he said, in part because their resources are limited: The government-issued social studies textbook devotes only eight or nine pages to the period.  

The textbook, written by DC-Cam researcher Khamboly Dy, skirts some of the more contentious aspects of the period - for instance, whether Vietnam's defeat of the Khmer Rouge amounted to liberation or an invasion - so clashes over the content of the guidebook centred more on methods than message.  

Painstaking review

The review committee was concerned about some interactive activities outlined in the guidebook. In one, described in the draft teachers' guide, students are instructed to illustrate and write a one-page news report about the scene in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived on April 17, 1975.

Youk Chhang said the committee objected to this because of concerns that students' imaginations would lead them to illustrate scenes "that go beyond the truth". He said Sunday that DC-Cam and the committee were still hashing out a compromise.

The committee responded favorably, however, to other interactive tasks. One lesson calls for students to be divided into two groups, one of which is given interviews with victims and the other interviews with former Khmer Rouge guards. Students are to read the interviews and then deliver presentations on them.

Though the committee approved it, not every reviewer was convinced it could be executed successfully. Cheng Hong, a lecturer at the National Institute of Education and a member of the review committee, said classes in some schools contain more than 60 students, making this type of managed role-play untenable.

He also said such activities might anger students unnecessarily.

Sambo Manara, a professor of history at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and a member of DC-Cam's review team, said he would like to do away with interactive tasks altogether, arguing that they had been rendered unnecessary by the proliferation of books and news reports in a range of media on the Khmer Rouge.

Other objections had to do with logistics. Cheng Hong questioned whether schools lacking in modern infrastructure would be able to screen films such as S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which the guidebook recommends.

These disagreements aside, Youk Chhang said DC-Cam's relationship with the government reviewers was largely productive.

"They gave us a lot of good suggestions," he said, "and we think most of them are appropriate."

First print, then train

Since its approval, enough copies of A History of Democratic Kampuchea have been distributed for each of Cambodia's more than 1,300 high schools to carry four copies in their libraries.

"They disappear from the bookshelves, so we keep sending more copies when we can," Youk Chhang said.

With this year's expanded printing, funded by the German embassy, roughly 200,000 copies are to be made available to high school students.

The distribution of the books is to be followed by a training program set to unfold in three stages. In May, 24 people from the government review committee are to attend a workshop to become national trainers. In June, this group of 24 is to train 185 provincial trainers, who in turn will train 3,000 high school teachers across the country by September.

Youk Chhang said the 3,000 teachers would be split evenly along gender lines to ensure that different aspects of the period's history receive equal emphasis in classrooms.

"All male teachers want to talk about prison and torture," he said. "All females want to talk about food and starvation issues, and forced marriage."

There will also be an even split between teachers who survived the regime, who tend to focus on their personal experiences and neglect peer-reviewed academic material, and younger teachers, who might lack a personal connection to the events and thus be less engaging, Youk Chhang said.

DC-Cam and the Ministry of Education will observe how the guidebook is implemented over the next few years.

Youk Chhang said he expects some changes will be necessary.

"We anticipate some problems because this material is very new," he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THET SAMBATH

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