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Finding a Place for Poetry in the Language Learning Classroom

Poetry’s work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving.

– Jane Hirshfield, Academy of American Poets Chancellor

I know I am, as we say in America, “chomping at the bit,” when it comes to acknowledging National Poetry Month. March has yet to come to an end and yet I appear to be frantically crawling over the final few days eagerly anticipating the arrival of April.

It is hard to believe that I have not yet posted about my fondness of incorporating poetry into my classroom. In my opinion, poetry is a relatively unknown and less traveled avenue for students to wander and discover a whole new side of themselves as writers and learners. As Jane Hirshfield drew our attention to earlier, poetry is not merely a record of our selves, it is a complete shift in the way we view and perceive the world around us. In ways that five paragraph essay or non-fiction writing cannot, poetry calls upon our abilities to recognize our inner and outer selves as they appear naturally. Poetry is the unedited version of our owned experiences as human beings.

Although some of my primary students stateside have initially hesitated (and even resented) my injection of poetry into the language arts curriculum, their opinions often change after a week or so of exposure to the genre. For whatever reason, poetry is one of those subjects that learners absolutely love, or that they absolutely detest. There is no middle ground. I wonder why this is the case? I can acknowledge my love for poetry has only grown since I began my studies in education and I have fond memories of working with poetry during my early educational upbringing. However, there were undoubtedly peers of mine in school and even some of my colleagues during my undergraduate studies harbored strong negative feelings towards poetry.

So why poetry in the language learning classroom? How will language learners, who are already unfamiliar with the English language, hesitant to engage in authentic casual conversation let alone academic discussion, and who may lack any confidence at all in their writing, feel about exposure to poetry? Is it even worth the language learning teacher’s time? Absolutely. Without question.

A recent article published in Edutopia outlined five reasons why poetry cannot be ignored in language learning environments:

  1. Poetry broadens reading choices, as there are numerous excellent poetic picture books and poetry collections.
  2. This distilled form of writing naturally focuses on sentence-level skills with its purposeful selection of adjectives, adverbs, powerful verbs, specific nouns, etc.
  3. This makes poetry a perfect writing form to study immediately after holiday breaks when students typically show regression in the quality of written and spoken communication.
  4. Being such a small amount of writing, poetry is less intimidating for writers new to English. Along with storytelling, it has given my English as an additional language (EAL) students their first opportunity to write English and orally share their writing.
  5. Poetry can be written about any subject, imaginary or factual; about personal experiences or concepts; about emotions or facts.

Needless to say, I believe all of these points are spot on. Beyond what I have to say, there are many educators in the TEFL field who agree with me and, ultimately, with what this article’s main points. Poetry is more accessible to language learners than some might think. Below you will find a small collection of some of my favorite poems to use in classroom settings. As you will see, they vary greatly in style and approach. However, every single one of them brings something uniquely beneficial to the classroom, specifically the language learning classroom.

Poem Number One: THE FOURTH (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein)

Oh
CRASH!
my
BASH!
it’s
BANG
the
ZANG!
Fourth
WHOOSH!
of
BAROOM!
July
WHEW!

Sometimes you do not need a lot of words to write a powerful poem. For English language learners, the fear of writing can be immense. Students who are learning a new language are often hesitant to write in that language because their mistakes are viewed as permanent. An English language learner may make many mistakes while speaking aloud to peers or an adult. However, these miscues are often lost in the larger conversation and the speaker’s underlying meaning can be uncovered. This is not the case with writing. Language learners who unknowingly make mistakes while writing cannot change them as easily as if they were speaking.

It is for all of these reasons that I enjoy utilizing this poem in my classroom. Simple yet powerful poems like The Fourth showcase that excellent poems can be short and sweet. Almost anybody can a fourteen-word sentence let alone a poem with fourteen one-word lines! Simple poetry can be powerful poetry.

This poem also highlights the importance of word selection. In other words, even though this poem does not have many words, each word was intentionally selected to pack as powerful of a punch as possible. This can be reassuring for language learners in that this exemplifies that poets spend a lot of time carefully perfecting on their work. As young poets themselves, they are inclined to this same privilege.

Poem Number Two: My Bed is Like a Sailing Ship (Bruce Lansky)

My bed is like a sailing ship
when I'm tucked in, I take a trip. 
I leave behind my busy day 
and sail to places far away. 

I sail past beaches, gleaming white, 
with palm trees swaying in the night. 
I watch the waves break on the shore, 
and then I see my bedroom floor! 

I blink my eyes, I scratch my head
my ship is home, I'm back in bed. 
My ships goes sailing every night 
and sails home in the morning light 

Ah, imagery. English language learners may struggle with reading expository pieces because they cannot imagine themselves in the author’s shoes. When asked to write an informative essay, students may struggle to comprehend the task at hand. Or lack the expansive vocabulary needed to complete their task. English language learners may find reading and writing poetry desirable for the exact opposite reason: they can place themselves in the author’s shoes. This is the beauty of poems that utilize imagery.

Whether you are a native English speaker or a first year English language learner, everybody has the same five senses: smell, sound, sight, touch, taste. One of the first activities I do with my students when I am teaching poetry is to have them simply focus their attention on their senses. I ask them to sit quietly and just observe their surroundings: “What do you see? Touch? Taste? Smell? Hear?

After a few minutes of silent observation, I ask them record their thoughts. They can write whole sentences, bullet points, or single words. I ask them to create a free verse sense poem describing what they just observed. I generally do not provide any further instructions. The goal is for students to create unique pieces of writing without a lot of teacher guidance. I do not want to spoil my students initial poetic experiences with rules or guidelines. This activity can be challenging, as students often look to me for guidance and further explanation.

Poem Number Three: Jabberwocky (Lewis Carroll)

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son 
   The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
   The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand; 
   Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree, 
   And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood, 
   The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, 
   And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through 
   The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head 
   He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? 
   Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” 
   He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

Every now-and-again I like to kick it old school.

Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky qualifies as an old school kind of poem. But do not let the age fool you, this is a fun read aloud. While some English language learners may incorrectly assume that reading older texts means working with dry and or boring material, this poem shatters those assumptions.

When it comes down to it, all students want to have fun while they are learning. This is true of English language learners as well. Learning a second or additional language can be highly stressful. Students often focus so much of their time and energy on grammatical structures that they do not have a chance to experience a diversified collection of authentic materials. It is always fun to read this poem aloud to my classes. No matter how many times I try, I still stumble over and mispronounce at least three words per reading. But what is learning without making and responding to your mistakes?

Poem Number Four: Nonsense Alphabet (Edward Lear)

A

A was an ant
Who seldom stood still,
And who made a nice house
In the side of a hill.

a
Nice little ant!

B

B was a book
With a binding of blue,
And pictures and stories
For me and for you.

b
Nice little book!

C

C was a cat
Who ran after a rat;
But his courage did fail
When she seized on his tail.

c
Crafty old cat!

D

D was a duck
With spots on his back,
Who lived in the water,
And always said “Quack!”

d
Dear little duck!

E

E was an elephant,
Stately and wise:
He had tusks and a trunk,
And two queer little eyes.

e
Oh, what funny small eyes!

F

F was a fish
Who was caught in a net;
But he got out again,
And is quite alive yet.

f
Lively young fish!

G

G was a goat
Who was spotted with brown:
When he did not lie still
He walked up and down.

g
Good little goat!

H

H was a hat
Which was all on one side;
Its crown was too high,
And its brim was too wide.

h
Oh, what a hat!

I

I was some ice
So white and so nice,
But which nobody tasted;
And so it was wasted.

i
All that good ice!

J

J was a jackdaw
Who hopped up and down
In the principal street
Of a neighboring town.

j
All through the town!

K

K was a kite
Which flew out of sight,
Above houses so high,
Quite into the sky.

k
Fly away, kite!

L

L was a light
Which burned all the night,
And lighted the gloom
Of a very dark room.

l
Useful nice light!

M

M was a mill
Which stood on a hill,
And turned round and round
With a loud hummy sound.

m
Useful old mill!

N

N was a net
Which was thrown in the sea
To catch fish for dinner
For you and for me.

n
Nice little net!

O

O was an orange
So yellow and round:
When it fell off the tree,
It fell down to the ground.

o
Down to the ground!

P

P was a pig,
Who was not very big;
But his tail was too curly,
And that made him surly.

p
Cross little pig!

Q

Q was a quail
With a very short tail;
And he fed upon corn
In the evening and morn.

q
Quaint little quail!

R

R was a rabbit,
Who had a bad habit
Of eating the flowers
In gardens and bowers.

r
Naughty fat rabbit!

S

S was the sugar-tongs,
sippity-see,
To take up the sugar
To put in our tea.

s
sippity-see!

T

T was a tortoise,
All yellow and black:
He walked slowly away,
And he never came back.

t
Torty never came back!

U

U was an urn
All polished and bright,
And full of hot water
At noon and at night.

u
Useful old urn!

V

V was a villa
Which stood on a hill,
By the side of a river,
And close to a mill.

v
Nice little villa!

W

W was a whale
With a very long tail,
Whose movements were frantic
Across the Atlantic.

w
Monstrous old whale!

X

X was King Xerxes,
Who, more than all Turks, is
Renowned for his fashion
Of fury and passion.

x
Angry old Xerxes!

Y

Y was a yew,
Which flourished and grew
By a quiet abode
Near the side of a road.

y
Dark little yew!

*

Z

Z was some zinc,
So shiny and bright,
Which caused you to wink
In the sun’s merry light.

z
Beautiful zinc!

Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary. Without a strong word base to build upon, a student’s chance to master a new language suffers mightily. It takes an English language learner approximately five to seven years to learn enough essential vocabulary to excel in academic settings. A student who possesses an academic vocabulary of less than five hundred words may remain silent in a classroom setting. In order to move from this silent and receptive stage of language acquisition, a student needs to progress through three more developmental stages before being considered an advanced language learner. As I mentioned before, this entire process can take years to occur. Therefore, the more authentic vocabulary development taught in school, the quicker a student can progress.

An excellent way to authentically work vocabulary development into a poetry lesson is to use alphabet poems similar to this one by Edward Lear. This poem reads like an interesting dictionary. A teacher could spend many classes breaking down each stanza for new or impactful vocabulary words.

Even though this poem is chock full of new and challenging vocabulary, the way in which it is presented is not overly intimidating. Students do not need to dig through long sentences to tease out new words. An English language learner may read a long sentence and become lost before they even reach the new vocabulary. By contrast, a language learning student will have a better chance of noticing a new or challenging vocabulary word when it is one of the three or four words on the line. In this alphabet poem, the new vocabulary word are presented in a very mater of fact and user-friendly way.

Poem Number Five: LISTEN TO THE MUSTN’TS (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein)

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WON’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then lost close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

Regardless of what the naysayers may think, poetry is a genre worth reading. Even as an adult, I still enjoy reading new poems or revisiting old classics I enjoyed as a child. To add to the beauty of the genre, every once-in-a-while I stumble across a poem that absolutely floors me. As I read and reread these poems, I cannot help but make endless connections to my students’ daily lives as well as my own. Poetry has a way of tugging on our heartstrings and illustrate collective human experiences.

Shel Silverstein will always occupy a special corner of my heart. For so many students like myself, it was Shel Silverstein’s who exposed me to the genre. His work showcased how poetry can be fun, interesting, and silly (As the class clown, this was an essential criteria for me as a learner).

When it comes to my students at SMK Badak in Bachok, Kelantan, Listen to the Mustn’ts accurately and wholeheartedly summarizes my stance on their current and future lives. I tell them every chance I get: never mind what you have been told, you hold the keys to your future. While some of my students come from poor fishing villages and live in a state where English is not necessarily given any special attention, I want them to know that they still have a chance to be different. While I know that these are only words, I hope that they resonate with them. Even if I can inspire one student, that will be a tremendous accomplishment. “Anything can happen, child, ANYTHING can be.

How a Handphone and Some Patience Helped to Transform Life at SMK Badak

I have had an atypical initial two months at SMK Badak. For the first three weeks of my time at the school, I was not allowed to enter any classroom unless my Malaysian colleagues explicitly invited me. So I sat in the canteen or at my desk and hoped for a chance to meet my students. When that day finally came, I took full advantage. I was a man on a mission. Knowing I had lost precious weeks of instructional time, I glazed over personal introductions and jumped right into teaching.

My teaching style is already distinctly different from that of my Malaysian colleagues: I believe in student-run classrooms where groups of students engage with one another to discuss possible solutions to problems. The fact that I was accelerating my teaching approach probably did more harm than good, but I felt as if I had no choice. After a few sessions of pleading students to engage with each other, and myself, I finally had a breakthrough in my 2UO class.

Speak clearly, listen carefully.

Speak clearly and listen carefully.

This breakthrough occurred when I introduced the game of “telephone” to the class. I found a roll of yellow paper that the students had discarded in the back of their room, and walked around the class pretending to make calls. I called my parents in Colorado, I called President Obama, and I called our principal, Hajjah Normah. I was really trying to sell this giant roll of yellow paper as the latest and greatest hand phone. The students then formed a circle and I outlined the expectations of the activity to the students: “Your task is to pass a secret message from one end of the circle to the next. You may only convey this secret message once so you must speak clearly and listen carefully. You may not repeat the message more than once.” After that, I used my new hand phone, shared my first secret message with the first student, and stepped back.

And then I watched.

I watched my students struggle with the instructions. I watched them sit awkwardly unsure of what to do. I watched them look at each other and then to me with the hopes of additional guidance.

So I just watched.

Then they started playing the game. They hesitantly began passing messages from one student to the next. All the while looking at me for approval or additional direction.

And I just watched.

And waited.

And stayed silent even though my mind was screaming at me to review the instructions one more time; to model another round for them. But I didn’t. I just watched.

And then it happened.

The invisible wall that had been preventing my students from being the curious, creative, and brilliant thinkers they are came crashing down. It was almost as if the students realized that they had two options: sit silently for the next hour and a half, or take control of their learning. After a few minutes of suffering through the former, they opted for the latter. It was a beautiful evolution to watch.

My students ran the show like veteran teachers.

Spotted: The latest and greatest iPhone (Center of Photograph).

For the next hour and a half my students ran my hand phone into the ground. They passed countless messages to one another, failing more than they succeeded but you would have never know in between all of the smiles and laughter. Over the course of this double period I finally saw a beautiful side of my 2UO students. I saw the side I knew existed, but was buried down deep within their minds. I saw them emerge from their rigid and pre-programmed shells and excel in a new, open learning environment.

Some of my most cherished photographs have come from this double period. While the photographs are absolutely beautiful they fail to even begin to convey the beauty I witnessed that day. When the period came to a close, I thanked the students and applauded their efforts. I told them how proud I was of them for struggling through a new experience. I left feeling like I was atop cloud nine. My swagger was undeniable. I had successfully broke into the high security

When I returned to 2UO later that week things had changed. My students had reverted back to their old ways: shy, sheltered, and unwilling to take risks. Even though this initially crushed me, I found peace in the fact that I had seen a different side of them the period before. Never mind the fact that they fell back into their old habits so quickly. That should have been expected. After years and years of sitting through lessons that methodically chipped away at their individualism and creativity, rekindling those traits undoubtedly shocked their systems.

Even if I fail every other time I attempt to engage students this way, I will always remember this success story.

It is only after taking a step back that you can truly appreciate the beauty of learning.

It is only after taking a step back that you can truly appreciate the joy of learning.

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Cracking the Pre-Programmed Code

“Good morning, Mr. Max! How are you today?”

“I am very well, thank you. How are you?”

“I fine, fine.”

This short back-and-forth happens more times than I can keep track of over the course of any given school day. It is a never-ending barrage of one liners or short interactions. While these interactions are a step above being simply ignored, they are anything but fruitful. Whenever I stop and attempt to extend a short interaction into a brief conversation, the students I’m speaking to completely shut down. They bury their head in their hands, burst into an uncontrollable laughing tantrum, or look to their friends to help them escape the unwanted situation they have unwillingly found themselves. Our conversations stop before they even get the chance to begin.

All of my students who are the product of Malaysian public primary schools have been taking English since they began their educational journey. Some of my students have as much as seven to eight years of English instruction under their belts when they approach me and ask, “How are you today?” So how can it be possible that, after seven or eight years of coursework, my students shut down when I ask them, “How is your day?” or, “Where are you going now?” The answer, I believe has to do with the Malaysian obsession with getting the “right answer.”

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During my students’ morning recess time, I wander the grounds of SMK Badak and chat with groups. While the desired educational outcome is to bolster students’ conversational English skills, it is also an opportunity for them to gain some much-needed confidence. I hope to speak with every one

From their very first interactions with English in primary school, Malaysian students are presented with the tools to uncover the right answer. They are programmed to operate in black and white, only seeing problems or interactions as correct or incorrect. This is why, I can walk up to any one of the nearly one thousand students at SMK Badak and ask them, “How are you?” and they will promptly respond, “I fine.” This interaction has been drilled into their minds: This is the correct response! Anything else is seen as unnecessary outside the box thinking or unnecessary fluff and is disregarded. 

Evidence of this aforementioned drilling can be observed on a daily basis in practically every classroom at SMK Badak. My Malaysian teaching colleagues will be the first to admit that their teaching techniques are far from perfect. They do not know how to present new information to their students any other way than direct instruction. One of my closest friends told me that, “All students expect from me is information. They want me to unscrew their heads and pour the information in.” The way in which the new information is presented strongly correlates with Malaysian attitudes about perfection: Malaysian teachers lecture everyday because that is how they can easily present the “correct answers” to their students. 

This reliance on direct instruction is the polar opposite of the way I approach teaching.

I believe that every one of my students enters my classroom with unique skills, passions, and experiences that set them apart from their classmates. My goal when I teach is to provide opportunities for my students to showcase their known talents and to hopefully discover new passions. I am a strong believer in student-led discussions and activities and feel that my role is to guide my students towards greater understandings of the world; not simply to tell them which answer is right and wrong. 

These two viewpoints are polar opposite of one another and my approach is clearly a foreign import. Whenever I enter into one of my own classes and ask my students to engage in an activity that requires critical or higher order thinking, they freeze. They do not know what to do. They cannot operate under these circumstances for all of the reasons I just mentioned. They cannot navigate the task I have asked of them because they are only used to working towards a single, correct answer. 

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The students in my 4UO class had never been handed the teaching reins before. It was beautiful to watch them promote English language use, challenge one another when they didn’t, and forget they were supposed to be learning.

For example, I am working with my 4UA students on independent writing journals. I provide my twenty-nine students with an open-ended prompt at the beginning of each week and ask that they write at least one page over the course of the next seven days. When I initially outlined these requirements, my students and their Malaysian teacher seemed lost. Both parties could not fathom that I would collect these writing journals and not grade them for grammatical errors or content points. The idea of open-ended writing just doesn’t happen. 

Even now, after three weeks of journaling, I still see signs of students falling back onto their programmed habits: I receive three or four identical entries from friend groups who have copied the best student’s work because their writing is more correct. I have also received sentence-long entries in excellent English explaining that the prompt was too confusing and they could not come up with any ideas. 

This hesitancy to take even the slightest of risks is heart breaking. My students are undeniably talented. Deep down I know they possess the fundamental vocabulary and rudimentary grammar to craft a unique written response. But they are paralyzed by fear. The fear of being incorrect or making too many mistakes. 

If I could boil things down to the simplest of terms, I would say that my students know English but they do not understand English. They know how to respond when I ask them, “How is your day?” but they do not understand that their response does not need to be grammatically correct and they may not remember the “correct response” to the question. So they laugh or run away to protect themselves from further embarrassment. They can provide a short, pre-programmed response but cannot formulate an original idea from their knowledge base. 

While this pre-programmed level of English competency may be currently acceptable in Bachok, where English is not spoken nor required to navigate daily life, the situation is changing. As Malaysia attempts to promote itself as a primetime player on a global scale, the nations’ perspective on the English language is shifting. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the Malaysian educational system has had a love-hate relationship with the English language ever since it was founded in the late 1950s. Attitudes towards the importance of English have ebbed and flowed and nationwide educational policy has followed suit. Currently, the educational climate is shifting and new educational policies that demand English language instruction are being implemented. 

There is no clearer evidence of this shift than the addition of English to the list of subjects students are required to pass before graduating secondary school. Starting next year, all Form 5 students (aka high school seniors) will be required to pass English in order to receive their SPM certificates.

The Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, or SPM for short, essentially serves as the Malaysian high school exit exam. All students hoping to graduate are required to take the SPM exam and the results shape students’ immediate futures. Those students who receive extremely high scores on their SPM have access to university exchange programs both in and outside of Malaysia. For the elite, the opportunities include full ride scholarships to schools in England, Australia, and even the United States. Those who receive high marks but not elite scores have the chance to further their education at local or state-run universities. And those receive low marks will have no chance of graduating, securing an entry level job, or furthering their educational careers unless they retake the exam the next year and improve their score.

In other words, the SPM exam determines the lives students will live once they leave the confines of their secondary school. And now English proficiency has been thrown into the mix? That is a 180-degree shift in attitude and educational policy when it comes to English language instruction. If my students struggle with basic conversational English, how can they honestly be expected to excel in academic English? In the form of a single high-stakes exam? To add more pressure to the situation, the English portion of the SPM will include more open ended questions that will require students to craft original responses on the spot. This new English section won’t just be fill in the blank or multiple choice questions. 

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Will the new English requirements change the way Malaysian teachers interact with their students? Cikgu Izani serves as a role model: meeting with students outside of class to provide additional help sessions.

The new reality for my students at SMK Badak and for students across Malaysia is that they will need to value English in order to succeed in life. If my students want to receive their SPM certificates, they will need to start recalling the conversational and academic English skills they have accumulated over their educational careers. Major shifts will also need to happen amongst teachers as well. My Malaysian colleagues will need to start encouraging students to take the necessary risks to bolster their language development. This will require that they reshape their own pedagogical approaches and move away from direct instruction. 

The addition of English to the list of compulsory SPM changes everything. It changes Malaysia’s perspective English language instruction. It changes the attitudes students, teachers, and community members will need to view English instruction. And it changes the way Malaysian schools operate as a whole. As a result of this shift in educational policy, English language instruction can no longer be disregarded and labeled as unessential. It is essential for teachers whose jobs are dependent on preparing students for the realities of the real world. And it is essential for students if they want to graduate and have access to a world of knowledge and opportunity. 

When I return to SMK Badak in a decade or two and am approached by students who ask, “Good morning, sir. How are you today?” I will be able to answer and our brief interaction will blossom into a short, yet fruitful conversation.

Only time will tell. 

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First Semester Gallery Walk: Teaching at SMK Badak

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One of the many murals that adorn the walls of SMK Badak. This one greets me every morning when I park my car.

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Our daily morning assemblies literally coincide with the sunrise.

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Delivering an impassioned speech during our first English day.

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Morning ritual: breakfast in the canteen with my friends!

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From the very beginning, the teachers and students of SMK Badak have welcomed me into their school community. This photograph was from my third day on campus.

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Getting the students involved during my 1UO class.

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Partner work in 2UO.

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A student from my 2UO class writing a postcard to their friend. I even made the cut! (Refer to handsome stick figure in the lower right hand corner)

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Encouraging my students to speak English by playing charades. I love tricking my students into thinking they are not learning. That is when the most learning occurs!

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Public speaking practice in 2UO. Students delivered their “I Wonder…” statements modeled after a poem we read as a class. #IWonderWhyMrMaxForcesMeToSpeakEnglish?

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Teaching action verbs in 2UO with a little game of “Mr. Max Says…” (Pictured: Mr. Max Says…ride your motorcycle.)

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A game of English Telephone always guarantees a few burst of laughter.

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I had to take a whole-class picture after meeting my 4UO students for the first time. Things got a little weird during our “Freestyle” session.

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My ‪Form 4‬ students absolutely crushed the ‪”Conversation Cards.” I introduced the game, sat back, and watched them steal the show. (However, they do still need some work when it comes to throwing and catching a frisbee, but I can work with that!)

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I asked my students to brainstorm problems they felt passionate about solving and then had them create their own superhero to solve the issue. One of my 4UO students working on his superhero to combat terrorism in Malaysia.

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My 4UA students working on generating smaller words from the base word “Computerized.” Small group work to bolster spelling and vocabulary!

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Working in pairs, my 4UA students scoured English newspapers for comparative adjectives and superlatives. They really enjoyed the activity and I was able to catch up on current events in Malaysia. Double win!

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Making things awkward during my 4UA class photo.

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In Malaysia, we always have time for selfies.

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Shout out to my assigned student photographers for capturing this moment during my daily “Conversation Corner.” I trapped these unsuspecting Form 2 students in a courtyard and would let them leave until they spoke to me in English. Sometimes you need to use force to get results. Eventually, they caved and answered my questions, in English.

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My bulletin board was racking up the “likes” during afternoon prayer.

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During my first after school speaking workshop I had my 4UO students take my housemate Matt on a tour of our school. Again, tricking students into thinking they aren’t learning leads to more authentic forms of learning!

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Even though I am not allowed to teach any Form 5 classes this year, I still managed to sneak into 5UO and snap some pictures. We also sang the Moose Song 3 consecutive times.

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Life at SMK Badak summed up into one picture: peace, love, and undeniable happiness.

 

It is only after taking a step back that you can truly appreciate the beauty of learning.

Educational Blabberings: Teaching English in Kelantan

Before I begin, I want to clarify one essential detail: The following observations are my own. My comments should not, under any circumstances, be interpreted as anybody else’s. These observations are based on my personal experiences and informal conversations with my Malaysian colleagues. Additionally, the situation as I describe it below may not be the reality in every school in Bachok, Kelantan, or Malaysia for that matter.

Teaching English is difficult. Humanity’s “global language” is one of the hardest to master, even for those of us who consider ourselves native speakers. English grammar is difficult both in terms of its breadth and depth. There just as many exceptions to the rule as there are rules themselves. 

Teaching English is hard. But it is even harder in Kelantan. 

Admittedly, my experience teaching English in Malaysia is limited. I have taught one English camp at a school in KL, participated in another in a flood-damaged school in Kelantan, and have spent the past month and a half at one school in Bachok. But when I speak to the teachers of SMK Badak, their views are similar to the observations I have made. I trust their opinions more than my own. And I think their voices speak louder than mine in this situation. As an outsider to my community, even the slightest of differences tend to be magnified. Often times this is the direct result of cultural differences. I notice things that my colleagues do not solely because they are Kelantanese and new to me. 

So it is alarming to me when, time and time again, my colleagues speak to me of the difficulties of teaching English in Malaysia. But more specifically in Kelantan.

In order to better comprehend these conversations, observations, and collective viewpoints, I think it appropriate to provide a brief background on the teaching of English in Malaysia and how these policies relate to the state of Kelantan. When Malaysia gained their independence from Great Britain in 1956, they continued using a British-style education system. All public schools followed what people refer to today as the English-medium: All subjects were taught in English. Students spoke English the majority of the time they were in school. Naturally, this style of education led to increased proficiency with the English language. 

However, it also led to the abandonment of the native Malay tongue. This drew criticism from members of the Malay political community. In response to these outcries, the Malaysian government abandoned the English-medium in the early 1970s, gradually replacing it with a new Malay-medium. Under the Malay-medium school policy, all classes would be taught in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia. This move was meant to further bolster the native Malay population’s place in society as well as establish a strong national identity. It is only recently that the Malaysian government has begun to shift their thinking when it comes to teaching the English language.

Starting in 2012, the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE) introduced the Malaysia Education Blueprint, a 13-year educational plan that is meant to reinvigorate the practice of teaching English in Malaysian public schools. In the same way the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are meant to catapult American schools into the 21st century by introducing new, researched-backed educational policies, so too is the MOE’s Malaysia Education Blueprint. When it comes to English language instruction, the Blueprint promises to that every student will have “bilingual proficiency.” This is the reality of the education system in Malaysia today.

Refocusing the conversation with this historical perspective allows us to more accurately analyze the current situation. Let us delve into this reality now. 

As I previously mentioned, my colleagues speak to me all the time about how difficult it is to teach English in Kelantan. But why is this the case? I believe that there are three main reasons why English instruction in Kelantan is extremely difficult:

  1. The Kelantanese dialect.
  2. English language instruction inside the classroom.
  3. Family background and the use of the English language outside of school.

First, the dialect. The people of Kelantan speak with a very distinctive accent. The Kelantanese dialect is one of, if not the hardest for most Malays to speak and understand. My teaching colleagues have told me that they are hesitant to speak Bahasa Malaysia in large cities like Kuala Lumpur because they fear they will be ridiculed or ignored due to their Kelantanese accent. This hesitancy to speak any to anybody other than fellow Kelantanese is true for both teachers and students and undoubtedly rubs off inside the classroom. 

If my students feel uncomfortable speaking traditional Bahasa Malaysia to other Malays, they probably aren’t going to be overly enthused to speak English some random Orang Puteh (Literally, “White Person” in Bahasa Malaysia). Measurable evidence of the weight this hesitancy carries can be seen in the students’ exam scores. Kelantanese students score very low on their English portions of their exams, both written and spoken. However, they also score lower than most other Malaysian students when it comes to their Bahasa Malaysia portions of the exams. in other words, proficiency levels in both English and Bahasa Malaysia are low in Kelantan. 

Secondly, English language instruction in Kelantan is conducted mostly in Kelantanese. The teachers are unwilling or unprepared to force students to practice their English. They then become frustrated when students refuse to participate and so, as a result, they begin teaching in Kelantanese. The students, who are much more intelligent than they are given credit for, recognize this pattern and take advantage of the situation. And they should not be faulted for this by any means. Why would you practice speaking or writing in English, an extremely difficult and frustrating language, when they can always fall back on their BM? 

Furthermore, the Malaysian teaching style does not encourage critical or free thinking. The curriculum is heavily exam oriented. This is reflected in the day-to-day lessons. Teachers, who are frustrated with their students hesitancy or unwillingness to use English, simply present the mandated information and ask that the students copy it all down onto their paper. Everything is copy and paste; preprogrammed teaching and learning. Asking for students to generate their own thoughts is extremely difficult and the instruction often ends where it began: with dead silence.  

This is where the conflict occurs. Theory vs practice. In theory, English is a national priority. In practice, it is not that simple. In theory, all teachers who teach English have an English background. In reality, many of the teachers I know and have met do not. Even those teachers who have studied Teaching English as a Second Language, TESOL, find it difficult to teach and motivate their students. TESOL certified teachers are in high demand. This is especially true in Kelantan. However, their unique skill set is not being used as positively as it could. The idea of TESOL certified teachers is welcomed, but they are not given the freedom to implement their ideas or lessons with their students.

Finally, the importance of a strong family background cannot be ignored. This is especially true when it comes to attitudes towards and usage of the English language outside of the classroom. In most cases, English is not spoken in Kelantanese households. Many families feel that there is no need to. Many of my students parents also attended SMK Badak or another school in Bachok. People spend their entire lives in the same city. Born and raised in Bachok. This lifestyle choice rubs off on the younger generations. My students enter school knowing that they will, in all likelihood, become fishermen or farmers like their fathers. So they ask themselves a simple question: “why?” Why study? Why take the all-important risk? In their minds, there is no need to.  

As I stated earlier, it should go without saying that these are my own observations. Obviously, there are students who do not fit these molds. There are students from Kelantan who attend very prestigious universities in Kuala Lumpur, the UK, Australia, and the United States. But for the majority of Kelantanese students, the wall blocking their proficiency in English seems insurmountable at times. 

But the question now becomes: What can be done? 

How can these circumstances be improved? 

How can I, as a single person, attempt to put a dent into all of the negativity listed above? There is no point in sugar-coating it, there is not much I can do on a large-scale level. Systemic problems are systemic because they have built up so much momentum that derailing their progress requires an army of dedicated individuals. No one can singlehandedly transform the cultural norms of a state, city, or even a single school. 

However, small progress can be made. And this is the progress I will fight for. Regardless of the circumstances that my students may face, I’m going to give everything I have and hope for the best. Maybe my message and attitude about language learning will successfully resonate with a single class. Or a small group or students I work with during our after school programming. Or maybe just a single student who feels moved enough to take advantage of their opportunities.

This is what I want.   

My role as an ETA is a unique one. I have been afforded the opportunity to work in a public Malaysian school without the requirements that all other Malaysian teachers encounter. If given the teaching freedoms to do so, I can pretty much do whatever in my classes and co-curricular clubs as long as my instruction bolsters my students’ English proficiency and confidence levels. 

However, even though my outlook is optimistic, I also acknowledge that this is not the solution my teaching colleagues are hoping for. Whether it is fair or not, I have been labeled as the crusading knight, arriving to increase the language proficiency levels of my students simply with my presence and possible teaching background. Everybody is looking to me for all of the answers. 

And as we all know, I cannot simply provide the fabled answer key. 

So I return to my previous statement: all I can do is fight for small victories. Instilling an excitement towards English language instruction. Establishing a classroom culture of risk taking and celebrated miscues. Modeling an engaging teaching style that centers on student discussion, critical thinking, and intrinsic motivation. This is what I can do. Everyday. This is what I will do. 

I do not know if I will be successful, but regardless of the outcome, it will not be for lack of effort on my part. 

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Small victories matter.