The School Band playing ukulele & singing 'Just The Way You Are'
I finally had the opportunity to visit and spend two days at Mechai Pattana School, also known as Bamboo School, in Buriram, a province in the northeast of Thailand. Listed by UNFPA as one of the world's most innovative schools, Bamboo School is a boarding school that educates, houses, and incubates about 150 'young social entrepreneurs' from Grade 7 to Grade 12. These students are from many parts of Thailand, including Buriram, Nakhon Ratchasima, Suphanburi, and Nan. Compared to most schools in Thailand (including those in Bangkok), Bamboo School is a lot more inclusive and diverse with an impressive number of its students from minority groups, such as Karen and Hmong, and one new student from Laos, the school's very first international student! Other than ethnic diversity, the school takes pride in its gender equality principle. The students' roles are not gender-specific. Because everyone is a Bamboo student, everyone is equally involved. Whether the job is doing laundry, serving food, or carrying a big long pipe, all students are expected to be able to complete it because this community is theirs take care of.
The first thing that makes Bamboo School so unique is how the students don't have to pay their tuition fees. Instead of providing the school with financial compensation, each student delivers social and environmental value by completing 400 hours of good deeds and planting 400 trees. To complete these two missions, they are encouraged to tag along their parents and people living in surrounding communities. Upon my arrival, The Student Council consisting of 33 carefully selected students greeted me with such big smiles and took me around the school. My first impression? I was so impressed...not only with the school's lovely bamboo architecture and the beautiful greenery of its landscape, but also with the students' sheer enthusiasm, great eloquence, unparalleled maturity, and unwavering confidence. They talked about the school, their learning experiences, and their unique backgrounds with so much joy and pride.
Another thing that sets Bamboo School apart from other schools is its strong focus on social entrepreneurship. When the students are not in the classroom, they are out in the fields preparing, planting, growing, nurturing, and harvesting their own crops ranging from lime, melon, morning glory, coconut, and beansprout to something more complex like tissue culture. When they are not in the fields, they are designing and running their own entrepreneurial ventures. Bamboo students have the freedom to pursue any business they enjoy or believe in. Some of the business ventures I came across were selling ice cream (the flavors available were, for instance, strawberry, coconut, lychee), fashion items, painted mugs, and huge handmade old-school Thai tubs. In addition, they have the freedom to set the price and even take their products out to sell in local communities nearby. The money they receive from their business pursuits are theirs to manage. Some money is reinvested back into the businesses or kept in their pockets as a reward, while the rest of the money may be repaid to the school for its initial loans.
Ultimately, I believe Bamboo School really gets it right when it comes to cultivating empathy and kindness. The students are taught, through everything they do at Bamboo School, to always pay it forward. Pay it forward not just in the form of money. When visitors come, they become proud school representatives and kind hosts (e.g. they gave me a big basket of fresh eggs, another student-run business venture). They share their swimming pool with and teach younger or less fortunate students to swim. They go out to help out senior citizens and run 'workshops' to teach them about health. There are also other 'unusual' methods involved to make students empathetic toward others. For example, students are occasionally blindfolded or sit in wheelchairs to understand what it feels like for people with impaired vision or physical limitations. Even their crops are wheelchair accessible not just in terms of width, but also in terms of height so that even people with disabilities can still grow their own crops when they visit the school. Because I visited the school on a Saturday, I also got to witness how students skipped dinner, a Saturday tradition that helps these young people understand hunger and its many implications. I also learned that Saturday is the only day each week that the students can use their smartphones. Smartphone use is limited at Bamboo School (an 'extreme' policy for teenagers in the digital age!) not only to keep the students physically 'present' and active, but also to implicitly teach them the value of waiting patiently for something, time management, and real experiences that they cannot get by simply scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram news feeds!
I found that Bamboo students are so mature. They are so smart, responsible, and self-controlled, especially in relation to their age. The school has various committees with different responsibilities. For example, they have their Audit Committee to cross-check and prevent corruption of their Purchasing Committee, the group of students responsible for purchasing school equipment and business supplies. They also have a Discipline Committee to ensure that dorm rooms, classrooms, and common areas (including the iconic Bamboo Geodesic Dome, the largest in the world!) are always clean and tidy and that students are well-behaved. The students' commitment and contribution to the school are so admirable. In addition to being in charge of their own free time (mostly dedicated to doing homework together, 'gardening,' cleaning, and running their businesses), the students are in charge of recruiting new teachers and students. They get to interview new teachers and students, thereby defining and building their own network and community. All these leadership roles and opportunities significantly contribute to the students' strong leadership and confidence to take the initiative, two of the many great things that really stand out to me about Bamboo School.
While the students possess strong leadership qualities, they are incredibly kind to each other and constantly giving back to the school. Even alumni who have long graduated from the school constantly come back to lead activities and help out. Alumni in their third year at university are still referred to as Grade 15 students because, to the school, they are never really gone. They are still 'part of us' and familiar faces that keep coming back to their home. When I asked an alum about her love for the school, she told me that her frequent trips back to the school are completely voluntary. Although she lives in Bangkok now, Bamboo School still feels like home. Her 'roon nong' (younger students) are like her siblings and she truly feels that the friendships and bonds built at Bamboo School, where students live and learn together 24/7 and where collaboration and co-creation are prioritized over individual success, are unparalleled and invaluable. The alum I talked to is one of the 5 (out of 8) Bamboo students attending Rungsit University, who really excelled and surprised their interviewers during entrance interviews and who are now on their way to achieving first-class honors! Graduates from Bamboo School are not only confident and comfortable at their universities, but they also feel a lot more prepared and familiar with teamwork and project-based learning than do most of their university peers.
My trip to Bamboo School this weekend left my heart so full and refreshed! It was truly an amazing experience to be surrounded by such kindhearted, sweet, and energetic students. They were eager to share their stories and answer questions. At the same time, they were intellectually curious and not afraid to learn new things from new people. Their positive energy was contagious! Schools like Bamboo School prove to us that talent and willpower to learn and live meaningfully can be created. Students don't need to live in Bangkok, attend a top school, or achieve the highest grades to be successful students. Success in education really comes down to the outcome. Are students happy? Do they have 3Ps: Passion, Purpose, and Performance?
I'm beyond excited to make my second trip to the school and possibly even partner with their students in the near future!
Me engaging with some of the students & exchanging ideas before breakfast
Smiley students ready to show off their tidy dorm rooms. Their beds and common room furniture are sponsored by IKEA, one of the school's key partners
Me in a wheelchair, a good way to learn to gain empathy for others
A cute gift from the Fashion Club!