PAWCATUCK — Before he heard whether he’d won a four-month grant to do research in Vietnam, Pawcatuck Middle School teacher Tim Flanagan had already decided he wanted to take a year’s leave of absence to travel and learn.
Flanagan, 53, of Westerly, applied for a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching fellowship in the fall of 2015 and found out his project was accepted in April 2016.
“In between the application and the acceptance, I thought I’d like to take the whole year off and asked for permission for a leave of absence,” he said Tuesday surrounded by maps and photos in his classroom at PMS, where he has taught for 22 years. Currently, he teaches social studies and language arts to sixth- and seventh-graders.
Through the Fulbright grant, Flanagan lived from September 2016 through January 2017 in Hanoi, where he focused on Vietnamese poetry, culture and language while working with five classes of students from seventh grade through university level on a weekly basis.
“I wanted to teach these students how to write autobiographical poems in English,” he said.
With 45 students per class with varying levels of proficiency in English, Flanagan said his goal was challenging on many levels.
“When students study poetry in Vietnam, they analyze it, they learn the history of it, they memorize, but they are never, ever asked to write it,” he said. “Being creative is a skill that’s not really valued in the schools and society there. Asking them to come up with their own words for their poem and to think of ideas of what they wanted to write was just a whole new experience for them.”
The culmination of the project was to create a poetry-sharing website where students in Vietnam could publish their poems online and receive feedback from students at other schools. Flanagan’s goal also comprised growing the site so that other schools could contribute poems and students around the world could learn about each other through poetry.
About 100 of the students’ poems were published on the website, which now has more than 200 poems from many countries.
“I was very proud that [the students] took the risks, put their poems out there for others to see, and when they saw there were people in other countries reading them and leaving comments, they were so thrilled. It was unbelievable to watch their reactions,” he said.
He also said the culture of education in Vietnam was very different from the United States.
“When you walk into a classroom in Vietnam, all the students stand up and they greet you and they do not sit down until you give them permission to sit down,” he said. “When you ask a question, the student stands up and says their answer and they do not sit down until you say they may sit down.”
Teachers are thought of as the “holders of knowledge” and are highly respected in Vietnamese culture. The downside is students are also taught not to question teachers, Flanagan said.
“It’s a culture of respect but it’s also a culture of conformity. You don’t question authority at all,” he said. “In Vietnam, I never once had a student ask to leave the room, never once had a student ask to see the nurse, never had a student not listen when I was speaking. It’s just what’s done there.”
Another of Flanagan’s goals during his year abroad was to study photography, which led to a workshop with street photographer Eric Kim.
“Eric focuses on overcoming your fear of street photography,” Flanagan said. “I learned I was afraid to go up and take a picture of people. It was fear of rejection or fear of just meeting a stranger, so we practiced a lot.”
Flanagan said he learned why he likes to take pictures of people.
“I think photography is a way for me to meet people and get to know them and build those memories and make connections,” he said. “The most satisfying times are when I have an interaction with the person and we smile and laugh and get to know each other a little. That’s the part that I enjoy.”
In his journey, Flanagan also volunteered in Cambodia and the Philippines, which heightened his awareness of the needs of others and how much people have in common.
“The thing you learn the most from traveling is people are just like you. People are peaceful and they want their children to be happy, they want to belong to a community, they want to be able to earn an income, live a decent life, achieve their goals and dreams,” he said. “There were conversations I had with people who didn’t speak a word of English, and I didn’t speak a word of their language, but through the gestures and the smiles and the hugs you could just tell you were bonding with people and understanding each other.”
This summer, Flanagan will be back on the road.
Through the Fund for Teachers, an organization that gives educators up to $5,000 to design their own professional development program, he’ll go to Cuba for a one-week photography tour. He said he planned to use the experience to start a photography club at the school.
“Since next year will be the last year of Pawcatuck Middle School, I’d like to do a project to document our last year,” he said. “Other teachers are planning similar things and we’re going to work together.”
Also, on a grant from the Transatlantic Outreach Program, he’s going to Germany for two weeks with other teachers to focus on topics related to social studies.
“They’ll teach us about modern Germany so that we can develop some lessons to teach about the country when we get back,” he said.
In the future, Flanagan said he’ll combine education and travel when and where opportunities arise.
“I definitely want to keep on going,” he said. “I want to keep traveling, learning and teaching.”
Flanagan will give a talk and slide show entitled, “Lessons Learned from a Year Abroad: Teaching, Traveling and Learning in Southeast Asia,” on May 3 at 6 p.m. at Westerly Library and Wilcox Park.