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HCMCity school teaches life lessons


Inspiring creativity: But Chi persuades people – many of whom have never drawn anything in their life – to come and learn how to draw stories.


An unconventional school in HCMCity offers classes in the arts while encouraging students to think creatively. Dinh Phuong Linh reports.


Inspired by Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window, a memoir by Japanese television personality and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi which describes the values of an unconventional education, a group of enthusiastic young people banded together to set up Toa Tau (Train Coach) School.


Located in an old barn at 632 Dien Bien Phu Street in HCM City’s Binh Thanh District, the school creates an alternate educational space where children can learn music and art as well as less tangible skills.


“We do not allow children to think that there is only one way to define success. They can try to get good grades in school, but they may also find happiness in doing what they like to do,” said co-founder and editor of ELLE Viet Nam magazine Le Vu Phuong Thuy, who goes by Phuong Huyen.


This attitude is shared by co-founders Nguyen Thu Thuy, who started ClickSpace and LEAD Consulting, and MFA student Do Huu Chi, who goes by “But Chi” (Pencil) and is currently studying at Savannah College of Art and Design.


“Learning with children is like planning the growth of a green shoot. We will never stop being surprised at their potential. All we do is create environmental conditions favourable for those green shoots,” But Chi said.


Toa Tau’s students are encouraged to learn about the world through their own interpretations of storytelling and art, enrolling in US$100 one-month courses such as Visual Storytelling and Origami. Students, who range in age from children to adults and include both foreigners and locals, typically attend classes at Toa Tau two or three times a week. They also participate in events like film screenings, exhibitions, talks and book clubs.


“The visual storytelling class ended up being very exciting. It helped me strive for a more colourful existence. Now I dare to live my life fully,” said student Khai Sang.



Hoang Mai, a child attending a Visual Storytelling for Kids class, was equally enthused: “I want to stay in this school forever!”


The classes offer both practical skills and equally important lessons in imagination. Music classes not only teach students to play musical instruments, but encourage them to think philosophically about the experience of music.


They discuss questions such as: “Music is around us but can we actually hear it? How does it affect us, our children and our parents? In addition to entertaining us, what can music do in our daily life?”


The origami class follows a similar philosophy, providing students with both basic folding skills and lessons in teamwork.


“You will learn how to fold a brown acorn and release it to the sky. If you learn how to make an origami heart just by folding paper, you will believe that the heart is more than a piece of paper. In the real world, happiness seems to be an abstract luxury, but if you know how to make the leap of empathy and love, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person, you always have a way to wake up your mind and become happier,” founder But Chi said.


Instead of emphasising facts, the storytelling class encourages students to act as narrators who stir the imagination of their audience with feelings and thoughts.


“Telling stories is a revolutionary way of changing the world. That’s what politicians, scientists, artists, TED speakers and our parents and grandparents do,” said But Chi.


For the visual storytelling class, he persuades people – many of whom have never drawn anything in their life – to come and learn how to draw stories.


“There is always a unique and creative way to tell your story. We do not need pencils and erasers. At Toa Tau, we just tell stories and experience the joy of transforming a boring world into a new, super-cute and hyper realistic work of art,” said But Chi.


One educational method used at Toa Tau is to allow children to play freely so that early in their lives, they experience the joy of learning. Toa Tau also uses art as psychological therapy to help children express their feelings, trust themselves and find solutions to daily problems.



“I am thankful to all those who teach at Toa Tau. They have very interesting topics that encourage my child to imagine rather than copy or memorise things. I admire my son’s work,” said Lam Vu Thao, father of two Toa Tau students.


The founders hope to establish more such schools in the future following the same principle.


“In the long run, I want to build a community where people are allowed to draw and tell any kind of stories they can imagine. Equally important, those stories will be read or listened to and shared,” said But Chi.


“More broadly, I want to connect with other communities such as storytelling musicians, filmmakers and poets. There are many languages waiting to be spoken. There are so many stories waiting to be told. We need storytellers now more than ever.”




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