Dear Journal (and Mr. Max)…

It’s 11 pm on a Thursday night and I’m asleep.

My bedside table begins vibrating. The unmistakable sound of an incoming call. I try to ignore it but I cannot. I reach for my phone, my face still buried in the pillow.

“Hello,” I manage to mumble.


“Hello? Who is this?”

It’s one of my students: “Sir, I just want to ask you a question. Am I disturbing you?”

I let out a deep yet silent exhale to clear the cobwebs from my mind, “No. No. Of course not! How can I help you?”

“Sir, I just want to know about the journal. Did we get a new prompt yet? I was not in class on Wednesday.”

I introduced English Journals to my students in February after the Chinese New Year holiday. Ever since then, our routine has stayed the same: During the first class of the week, generally on Mondays, I inform my student of the week’s prompt. They write the prompt in their journals and we review any confusing vocabulary and brainstorm possible responses together. They then have one week to write a minimum of one full-page addressing the prompt. After the week has passed, I collect the journals, read and respond to them. I hand them back to the students at the beginning of class the following Monday. Then we repeat the entire process all over again.

This is how it has been since February. For nearly 20 prompts. And yet here I am, seven months into my teaching placement, answering this completely straightforward question instead of sleeping. And I couldn’t be happier.


Sometimes all students’ need is a space they feel safe truly expressing themselves. Once they feel safe, they open themselves up to you in ways you could never imagine.

“No, (student’s name). You will find out the next prompt on Monday. Just like every week!”

“Okay sir, I just want to make sure. I do not want to forget the prompt.” 

This type of conversation would have never happened six months ago. When I first introduced the idea of an English Journal to my Form 4 students, they were confused. The idea of submitting work that would not be marked for grammatical or spelling mistakes was almost as foreign as their new American English teacher. I knew there would be an initial adjustment period, as there is with any radically new enterprise, but I was confident that once they passed over the initial hump, they would open their hearts and minds to me.

However, what I did not anticipate was just how long the initial adjustment period would take. The first few journal entries were all the same. And by that I mean they were literally all the same. In the United States we call this copying. In Malaysia its photostatting. Regardless of what one may refer to it as, I was not a fan. My immediate emotional response was an angry one: “What laziness! How can you not come up with one page on your own?” 

Needless to say, this initial response was not appropriate and thankfully I was at home when it happened. As I began to further process everything, I realized that I was foolish for losing my cool. Sometimes I find myself forgetting that my students are non-native English speakers. Generally speaking, English language learners take longer to develop confidence with their written skills than their speaking skills. This is because any errors or miscues in writing are “permanent” and “glaring,” where as spoken mistakes can be glossed over as the individual continues speaking. This lack of self-confidence was only magnified in my classroom. My students had been told throughout the entirely of their English language study that mistakes were unacceptable. 

It is not too surprising then that my students were more willing to copy the “smartest” kid in the class word for word than they were risking humiliation by creating a piece on their own.  

How could I break through this thick and deeply engrained mental barrier? I wanted my students to know that the entire purpose of the journal was to make mistakes. I wanted them to know that everybody makes mistakes, even native English speakers like myself. (Especially native English speakers like myself.) I love making mistakes. Mistakes, if you can call them that, lead to learning. However, as recent Atlantic article written by Jessica Lahey points out, the classroom culture of risk taking has all but become a thing of the past. The final product trumps the learning process every time. Growth mindsets are becoming increasingly fixed. Mistakes are seen as moments of failure, not as opportunities for growth. And as this article emphasizes, that is not doing society any favors. 

In an attempt to help ease my students anxiety, I modified my prompts to include sketches. While I still asked that each student answer the prompt in writing, my prompts also included a drawing aspect. For example, instead of asking my students to “describe their dream home,” I encouraged them to “sketch, label and describe their dream home.” As I had done with all of the prompts before this, I reviewed the vocabulary and my overall expectations for their work. I pleaded with them to try their best to do their own work and reminded them that I would be proud of their effort regardless of if there were grammatical or spelling mistakes. 


Who knew the way to break the self-confidence barrier was through pictures?

Whether it was the infusion of sketching or the broken record pleading, my students responded. Every single student turned in a distinctive sketch along with their writing. While there were still some instances of photostatting, the vast majority of the journals were unique. I had found a way in!

Once I had broken through this initial barrier, the momentum picked up. I made sure to increase the amount of written comments I wrote to each student, praising their efforts regardless of the amount of mistakes or length of the entry. I also identified at least two linkages between what my students wrote, and my own personal experiences. While I had always responded to and complemented their work, I must admit it was difficult to come up with new statements for each of the 27 identical entries. Exclusive journal entries meant exclusive written responses. Thanks in large part to the fact that my students had become increasingly familiar with me and my unusual teaching style, I was able to write all of these complements and connections in red, a color normally reserved for marking mistakes. (If I was going to crush their preconceived notions of making mistakes, I was going to go all in!)

Even though my students were progressing “academically,” their real growth could be seen in their self-confidence levels. Part of my job as an English teacher here in Malaysia is to deliver lessons aligned with the Malaysian curriculum. I am contractually obligated to make sure my students are showing progress in their English language studies. However, I am also responsible for their social and emotional development. While this may not be explicitly written within the terms of my contract, it is something that I value as an educator. 

Social Emotional Learning (SLE), in my opinion and that of many researches, is just as important as learning academic content. Finding opportunities to develop students’ self-awareness, responsible decision-making skills and self-confidence is paramount to their success both in an out of the classroom. If I want my students to positively contribute to today’s global society, I need to make sure they know how to navigate and not just know how to locate the verb in a sentence. Yes, both are important, but one should not be ignored at the expense of the other. In responding and connecting to my students’ journal entries I am not only validating their efforts academically, I am also encouraging and bolstering their confidence as individuals. 


“My experience doing the dancing the cha-cha slide was the most beautiful and most happy for me. It was the most meaningful experience for me because my class was chosen to dance with Mr. Max on stage to greet teacher’s day.” – Form 4 Student

Although it took much longer than I had initially anticipated, our class finally reached a point where all of my students were crafting individual pieces week after week. As time passed and students grew more comfortable with my journal project, their level of dedication increased. I started receiving messages asking for next week’s prompt days in advance. Other students would ask me if I had finished reading and responding to their work, the day after they had handed them in. When I do pass the journals back to the class, I make sure to give them a few minutes to read through my comments and look at their classmates’ work as well. The energy level shoots up as they run across the room to show their friends what Mr. Max wrote this week. 

My time here in Malaysia has been anything but easy. My pedagogical approaches have been adapted in countless ways and my professional goals have changed more times than I care to remember. I have left school some days wondering why I even came in the first place, and sometimes I would sit in my kampung house and wish I was back in America. But the reality of the situation is that my experiences are no different from that of new teachers all across the world. Sure, the circumstances may be dissimilar, but the struggle is not. My teaching career and life as a whole would be entirely different if I was not in Malaysia, and that is a terrifying thought to process. Even though I have not been able to accomplish as much as I initially planned to at SMK Badak, I have impacted my students’ lives in ways I would have never imagined before arriving in January. 


One of the highlights of my time thus far at SMK Badak was being recognized by multiple students as their “idol.” I spend a lot of time reflecting on the ways in which I can bolster my students’ confidence levels so journal entires like these make me feel as if I am helping their development.

Whenever I collect a new batch of journals, I always take the time to sit down and read through a couple from cover to cover. It is truly inspirational to flip though any student’s journal and see their growth unfold page after page. While I have seen unimaginable levels of growth in my students’ self-confidence, a lot of their progress is unmeasurable. When I first entered into my class, some of my female students would literally shake in fear. Today, these same girls go out of their way to speak to me on a daily basis, even if we do not have a scheduled class that day. My male students used to disassociate themselves entirely from any in-class activity. They would either stand in the back corner of the room or stay in their seats. Today, some of those boys actually jump at any opportunity to try something new. For nearly one month, my students refused to produce individual journal entries. Today, as I flip through the pages, I can see their growth unfold before my eyes. And that social emotional progress cannot be marked on an exam.

“Thank you for double checking with me, (student’s name)! I am happy you look forward to our journals every week.”

“Of course sir! Okay. That’s all. Goodnight! See you tomorrow!”

“Goodnight, (student’s name). See you soon! Thank you for calling.” 

I hang up the phone and fall back asleep with a smile on my face.


The best part about my students’ journals is I never know what universal truths they will uncover on their own. All they need is a stage. “I should push myself because no one else is going to do it for me. That’s all for now.”

Group 5

Being Dramatic

“The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.” — Alan Alda

I cannot teach creativity. I cannot teach my English language learners how to become creative individuals. Creativity comes from within.

I cannot teach creativity. And while sometimes I wish I could simply stand in front of my class and bestow whatever creative capacities they desire, I do not have that power. Teaching, no matter how inspirational, does have its limitations. 

Although I may not be able to directly teach creativity, I can increase the likelihood that my students unearth their buried potential. I can build a safe learning environment to ensure that my language learners feel comfortable enough to reveal extraordinary sides of themselves. I can model my own creative processes for them so that they can see what different forms of creative expression look, sound and feel like. I can intentionally design and implement instructional approaches that provide opportunities for creative inspiration. As Alan Alda said, I can help them to discover themselves. While all of these efforts provide no guarantees, they do increase the likelihood of success.

“A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.”  — Charles Brower

When working with young learners, it is of the utmost importance that the classroom environment is one that makes them feel safe and where they feel their opinions are valued. Without the establishment of a safe learning environment, authentic learning opportunities will struggle to take root. 

The need for this safe space is especially true when working with learners whose first language is not English. Authentic learning takes places when new information is presented just beyond an individual’s knowledge base, requiring them to take a risk in order to attain new knowledge. The famous Educational Psychologist Lev Vygotsky refers to this as a student’s Zone of Proximal Development, or ZPD. Every student has a different ZPD based on their background knowledge, previous experiences with teaching and learning and other outside factors such as family attitudes about education. 

However, in order to access the information placed at the cusp of their understanding, students must take a risk. This risk may be academic or social. For example, in order to begin processing long division, a student must first stumble through a few problems. Each miscue resonates within the individual until they have enough practice to master the skill. It is only after this foundational skill has been solidified that the learner can construct new knowledge upon it. A shaky foundational understanding often leads to weak and unsustainable constructions of new knowledge. Social risk taking can also be thought of using the ZPD model. 

During the final week of Ramadan, the holy fasting month observed by Muslim communities across the world, I presented a new instructional strategy that had brought me incredible success in my American classrooms: drama. While there had been other opportunities to utilize this approach earlier in the year, I did not feel that my students were comfortable enough to take the social risks necessary to solidify their understanding and bolster our relationship. 

When I first arrived at SMK Badak, I hoped my students would jump at the idea of conversing with a friendly native English speaker. It was only after I was in class for a few days that I realized the acclamation process would take much longer than any other class I had worked with in the past. After allowing my students ample time to familiarize themselves with me and my teaching style, I felt they were comfortable enough to begin opening up to me. 

Drama is an excellent instructional approach in the language learning classroom because it values student interpretation and creativity. In addition, drama caters to students with different intelligences. As Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences helps us recognize, not every student learns in the same way. Some individuals, myself included, possess a strong linguistic intelligence. In the classroom, we excel in learning tasks that require them to speak, write or generate opinions. Drama provides an opportunity to cater to those students who are bodily kinesthetic learners. These students enjoy demonstrating their learning through physical movement. 

Group 4

New learning opportunities can bring out the best in students.

As I thought about implementing drama in my own classroom, I wanted to make sure that my students were familiar with the genre before being expected to actively engage with it. I distributed a few example pieces and encouraged my students to examine them on their own for a few minutes. (I had used similar scripts in my primary classroom in the past so I felt the text itself would not be too far beyond my students’ abilities.)

I guided their thinking by asking them to compare the script in front of them with other texts they had come into contact with over the past year. I then asked them to share their thoughts with a partner, emphasizing that their conversations should center around the similarities and differences of the drama with other forms of text they had experienced. 

After the students had a chance to share their thoughts in partnerships and small groups, I brought the class back together. As a whole class, we walked through the script and I encouraged groups to share their observations. I recorded the students’ comments on the board. 

Once every student had a chance to share, I introduced the day’s project. In small groups of five, I asked my students to create their own unique drama. My co-teacher helped me separate the students into new groups, pairing both boys and girls together. Once the students were in their respective groups, I scaffolded their learning by providing three themes for them to base their drama on: (All three themes are central concepts in the Malaysian curriculum for Form 4)

  1. Helping the elderly or disabled
  2. Protecting our environment
  3. Meeting a famous celebrity

To truly spark my students’ creative minds, I provided a brief “trailer” of what a drama centered on each of the three themes could look like. This modeling, although it was somewhat uncomfortable and led to quite a few slip ups on my part, was essential in showing my students that I was equally as committed to these dramas as they were. 

Group 2

Ouch! One member of this group was clearly tired of asking politely and opted for a more physical approach to convey her point.

In addition to the establishment of a safe and welcoming classroom environment, I have found that modeling desired behavior is an effective motivator. In the language learning classroom, encouraging students to work in their second or third language is incredibly intimidating. One way to establish a strong rapport with students is to show them how dedicated you are to their learning. 

As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” This is especially true when your words are often lost in translation.  

A few rules I have learned to live by when it comes to modeling desired behaviors and outcomes in the language learning classroom. First and foremost, check your dignity at the door. If you want students to take risks in English, you need to take risks yourself. Do not be afraid to make mistakes and embarrass yourself in front of your class. These moments of initial embarrassment are beneficial to you and your students. A mistake is an excellent opportunity to highlight the learning process. Authentic learning is the rest of learning from mistakes. 

More importantly however, making mistakes shows you are far from perfect. Many of my students at SMK Badak possess the necessary English language skills to participate in class, yet they are terrified of making a mistake and losing face. As their teacher, I take every opportunity to try new teaching strategies knowing that I will, in all likelihood, make a mistake somewhere along the line. In the same way that seeing your students outside of school provides a powerful moment of realization, so too does witnessing their teacher mess up, become embarrassed and then turn that mistake into something positive. 

Once I finished acting out my four “trailers,” I set the students free to work on their scripts. 

This type of student-led instruction was new to my classroom of learners at the beginning of the year. Up until I entered their class, they had learned English though language drills and grammatical lessons from a textbook. When I work with my language learners, I encourage them to take control of their learning: I ask them open-ended questions, I encourage them to work with partners or in small groups, I let them struggle with new tasks and refuse to simply give them the correct answer. This approach to teaching and learning is intentional and is used to encourage student creativity. 

Group 3

Chivalry is not dead in Mr. Max’s class.

“Creative teaching requires moving from a focus on imparting knowledge to knowledge acquisition, providing opportunities for the learner to engage in deep thought and productive action.” — Susan Keller-Mathers

As Susan Keller-Mathers expresses, creative teaching is not fact recall. It is not teacher-centered. Creative teaching places the power in the hands of the students. It encourages them to guide their own thinking, make their own mistakes and generate their own responses. It is dependent upon the students. However, creative teaching is also relies heavily on the classroom teacher’s willingness to no longer be the “sage on the stage” and become their students’ “guide on the side.”

While my students were working on their own scripts, I was busy working the room. I made sure to check in with every group multiple times over the course of the period to answer any questions they had regarding my expectations of them and to articulate my appreciation of their collective efforts. 

As the period came to a close, I reconvened the whole group and asked them to reflect on the day’s activities. “What were their greatest challenges today? Had they created a drama they were proud of? How did they find the experience of drafting a script?” We shared our collective opinions before dismissing for the day. Before I left, I told my students that I hoped to have them begin presenting the following period. 

Walking into our class the following day, I was admittedly nervous. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had asked too much of my students especially considering their lack of experience with script-writing and drama in general. 

I should know by now to never underestimate my students.

Group 1

At first, I wasn’t sure if I had indirectly contributed to my student getting slapped in the face! After further review, thankfully they are both very convincing actors!

Their performances were spectacular. I was immediately taken aback by their creativity. Despite the fact that much of their day-to-day educational experiences are textbook examples of direct instruction, their dramas were phenomenal. Each group created an entirely unique script even though a few chose the same theme to focus on. Additionally, I was encouraged by their grasp of both conversational and academic English. All of the groups were able to successfully act out their drama and some were even able to infuse moments of humor. 

However, the highlight of the day was entirely impromptu. If you live in Malaysia, what do you do when Justin Bieber comes to your school? You take a selfie of course! During their performance, one of the actors casually exited the stage, walked to the back of the room, retrieved the dustpan, returned to the stage, gathered J-Biebs and his crazy fans from SMK Badak and snapped a selfie using the dustpan as a selfie stick. What creativity! What cinematic gold!

Sitting in the back of the class, I was inspired by my students willingness to commit so wholeheartedly to a new learning task. This experience highlights the importance of providing students with diverse learning opportunities that showcase their passions and talents. It is easy to underestimate or label language learners because of their hesitancy to participate or take risks in class. However, this lesson also proves that with enough time and encouragement, they can tackle any challenge. 

Keeping all of this in mind, I believe the following strategies are essential in establishing a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students, including language learners:

  1. Start from day one –  Inside the classroom, respect is earned not given. It is of the utmost importance that, as a classroom teacher, you clearly articulate your expectations and goals from the very beginning. While students should be involved in aspects of this process, such as establishing classroom rules, teachers must take the lead in embodying the approach they want their students to take. In my language learning classroom, I made sure to articulate the importance of risk taking and growing from mistakes. As I teach new concepts, I make sure to intentionally make mistakes and “think aloud” as I process and grow from the experience. For my students, seeing me make mistakes and noticing that I won’t punish them for grammatical or spelling mistakes was an incredibly powerful realization. Their learning has taken off as a result.
  2. Praise effort, not the outcome – There is so much research out there right now discussing “growth” verses “fixed” mindsets. In a recent article published in The Atlantic, researchers have successfully linked students who are told they are “smart” with an unwillingness to make mistakes or attempt challenging tasks. Praising the end result is a disservice to the learning process. Teachers should recognize their students’ work, but they should focus their praise on the effort and mistakes they made to get there. As Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading mindset researchers says, a “growth mindset” within each student is the ultimate accomplishment for the classroom teacher. For my language learners, I implemented a weekly journal program to help bolster their confidence levels and willingness to make mistakes. Every week, my students receive a new prompt to process for one week. These prompts vary greatly and are meant to encourage extended writing and student creativity. I do not mark the journals for mistakes, but I do respond to every journal entry. This activity has transformed my classroom and I will publish a post dedicated to the impact of these journals in the near future. Stay tuned!
  3. Take the time to get to know your students in and out of the classroom – This does not necessarily mean hanging out with your students outside of class, although that may be appropriate depending on the age of your students. This process can occur within the classroom as well. Encouraging students to conduct interest surveys at the beginning of the year is a safe, easy and enlightening way to get to know your students likes and dislikes in school and beyond.
  4. Take risks, but only when your class is ready  This was the hardest concept for me to grasp. Sometimes, my energetic personality carries over into my teaching. Even now-and-again I find myself speaking too fast because I have let my excitement overtake my mind. When I arrived at SMK Badak, I thought I would be able to win my students over simply by being energetic and asking them to participate in new activities. I tricked myself into thinking that, solely because I was a Western teacher, my students would blindly follow my every wish. Reflecting back on my first few months in Malaysia, my energetic approach probably hindered my progress. I had forgotten that a positive rapport is earned over time and not simply awarded to an individual. As I mentioned earlier, I had planned on implementing drama much earlier in the year and I am thankful that I did not follow though my initial plan. My students were not ready for such a task. They were not comfortable enough with me nor with my student-centered teaching approach to truly benefit from the experience. I learned from my initial mistake and my students excelled as a result of my new-found patience. 

After leaving for the day and while reflecting on the activity as a whole, I began to receive WhatsApp messages from co-teacher. She was in the room throughout the activity taking photos and recording video of the students as they presented. Flipping through her photos, it was impossible not to smile. I was immediately back in the classroom with my students, reliving the day’s successes. However, after flipping through four or five of her photos I had to stop and sit down.

Looking down at my iPhone screen I saw something that I had never seen before: one of my student’s smiles. I sat in my living room and started at the photo in silence, fighting back the tears that were nearly inevitable. This is why I teach. Moments of joy like this.

Sometimes the teaching profession can break one’s spirit. All of the meticulous planning, personalization and dedication can feel as if it has gone unnoticed. This feeling may be short-lived or it may seem to drag on forever. But when the moment finally does come to an end, and is replaced with truly inspirational experiences, the relief somehow makes all the pain and suffering inconsequential.

Group 5

Pure cinematic gold. Never underestimate your students.


Mr. Max, Why You Gotta Be So Rude?

I can never walk unnoticed around the grounds of SMK Badak. Whenever I make my way over to the canteen or depart for one of my classes, my movement tracked by students: “Hello!” or “Good morning, Mr. Max!” or “Oh! Mr. Max! Good morning, sir!” or sometimes just loud screaming noises.

Needless to say, my classes know I am coming well before I set foot in the classroom. In preparation for my arrival, as is the custom in Malaysian schools, they straighten up their desks, clear their tables, and wait. The moment I step into the classroom, before I can utter a greeting myself, the class has risen to their feet and are addressing me in union: “Good morning, sir!” the class monitor will shout. “Good morning, sir!” the rest of the class repeats.

This is how we begin our day. Everyday.

Well, almost everyday.

Recently, the shouting has decreased significantly. Suddenly, walking from my office to my classes is no longer a similar experience to that of a celebrity walking through a public space. There is just silence. It is quiet.

This sudden change is, in fact, is should not have come as a surprise to me.For the next few weeks (an entire month), my students will not consume any food or drink from sunrise until late evening. My students are fasting for the holy month of Ramadan. Although they tell me that they are not hungry or thirsty, I know that most of them are only saying this to comfort me. Regardless of the time of year, my class schedule and curricular requirements have not changed. I am still expected to enter my classes and teach.

The past couple weeks have been different.

Now, when I walk from class to class I see exhausted students sitting in their classrooms trying to stay focused. As I pass, the click of my dress shoes resonates with them and they turn their head to make sure it is me. As I see their heads turning I prepare myself for a blast of energy, but all I get is a head nod or a wave.

Everybody is tired.


Everybody benefitted from this activity. Who doesn’t like listening to music in class?

Everybody is tired yet I still need to teach. What can I do to make myself relevant? Even though I am still considered by some to be the “cool new teacher,” that title no longer carries enough weight to automatically focus everybody’s attention on my lessons. My instructional strategies have to adapt to their new reality. I have to remain relevant.

So, I decided it was time to be rude.

And I am not talking about rude as in impolite, ill-mannered, and nasty. I’m referring to Rude, the insanely popular internationally known pop song by MAGIC!, a Canadian reggae-fusion band (thanks Google). For the first four months of my teaching experience in Malaysia, I heard this song played on the radio at least four times per day. Malaysians love Rude.

There is a lot of educational writing out there today about the benefits of infusing music into the language learning classroom. In my experience in American primary classrooms, I found music to be especially helpful during transition times and to subtly control the mood and noise level of my students during learning activities.

However, I had never used music as a means to teach language skills. And while I may have been a little hesitant about utilizing such a different pedagogical approach during this time of year, I also realized this was the perfect time to take a chance.

When I initially entered my students’ class, most of them smiled and greeted me. But not all of them. So I slowly back pedaled out of the classroom, waited fifteen awkward seconds, then reentered the class. This time they were all on the same page.

I set my colleague’s portable speaker down on the desk, walked to the chalkboard and wrote: “How can we learn English?” I took a step back, and asked the class, “How can we learn English? What are the different ways that we can access, experience, the English language? Think for a minute.” I gave my students, some of whom were still trying to shake the cobwebs from their minds, one minute to reflect. After the minute was up, gave them another minute to share their thoughts with their table groups. During this group brainstorming, I walked around the room and greeted everybody. Once I had finished addressing each table group, I returned to the chalkboard and asked them for their thoughts. (I was fully prepared for and expecting complete silence.)


Brainstorming before diving into the day’s lesson: what are the ways that we can learn English?

Maybe it was because I had set the tone for the day by entering and reentering the class, or because I had greeted every table group personally, or maybe it was because my light blue dress shirt was now two shades darker and covered in sweat, but my students responded. Everybody was engaged. They were shouting out ideas with such pace that I struggled to keep up:

  • Reading
  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Writing
  • English movies
  • Novels
  • Graphic novels
  • Newspapers
  • The Internet
  • Study group
  • Exam
  • Talking to Mr. Max
  • English songs
  • The radio
  • English camps
  • Pen Pals
  • WhatsApp
  • We Chat
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • Dictionary

The list continued on and on. Although I mainly served as the class scribe during this part of the lesson, I occasionally built upon their initial thoughts to get them to extend their thinking. For example, when they said “Reading!” I responded, “What can you read? Tell me more!” These exchanges went on until everybody had the chance to share their thoughts. Together, we were able to generate a list that covered the entire chalkboard.

Once the dust had settled, I took a step back and we examined our work. I asked them to look at all of the different ways they could further their English studies. I told them that even though we sometimes think that the only way to learn English is by studying or reading a textbook, there are so many other opportunities to add to their knowledge base. Our conversation was really quite powerful, I could see that this thought had never occurred to some of them.

To ensure that the momentum we had just built up was not lost, I walked to the chalkboard and circled one response: “English music.” I then explained to the class that whenever they listen to English songs or English radio stations, they were improving their language skills. As I discussed the importance of exercising different parts of their body that they use when they learn English, i.e. their mouths and ears, I wrote the names of the English songs I had prepared for the day on the chalkboard. “Which song do you want to listen to first?” I asked without thinking.


Of course.


After listening to an entire song without the lyrics in front of them, my students were then given the opportunity to follow along and fill in the missing words.

The remainder of the class was spent listening and responding to different English songs. For each, we followed the same procedure:

  1. The first time we listened to the song, we did so without any papers or writing utensils in our hands. We simply listened, exercising our ears and bolstering our listening skills.
  2. Once the song ended, I passed out sheets of paper with the song’s lyrics on them. While most of the song’s lyrics appeared on the page, I had removed a number of words to focus my students’ attention and ensure their undivided attention throughout the lesson.
  3. After passing out the lyrical fill-in-the-blank worksheets, I gave my class one minute to fill in any of the blanks they knew or had heard after listening to the song the first time through. 
  4. As soon as the minute had passed, we listened to the song again. This time, the students followed along and filled in the blanks accordingly.
  5. The class then had an additional minute to fill in the remaining blanks. I encouraged them to work collaboratively with their table groups. It was inspiring to see them engaging with one another with such energy in light of the heat and the time of year.

After the class had collaborated with one another and filled in their lyrics, we read through the entire song together. This was an excellent opportunity for me to check the class’ understanding by ensuring that they were able to correctly fill in the blanks. However, it was also an opportunity for me to point out and discuss the different text features of the song. Music is filled with colloquial speech and figurative language. There is no better avenue to exemplify both of these critically important language features than through music.

In addition to authentically exposing students to colloquial speech and figurative language, music also benefits English language learners by:

  • Developing their listening skills
  • Providing opportunities for them to produce language output (Writing) and input (Listening)
  • Repeating tough words and phrases in an organic manner (Chorus)
  • Bolstering their vocabulary development
  • Serving as relevant connections between essential language skills and the real world
  • Broadening their understandings of what it means to practice/learn English
  • Strengthening the classroom community
  • Encouraging collaboration (Partnerships and group work)
  • Shaping new learning in an engaging and captivating way
  • Providing current and future opportunities for student input (Select and request songs)
  • Serving as an easy link with curricular-based content

After listening to and discussing a number of songs, my time was up. This particular class happens to run up until the students’ only recess break of the day so I make a special point to finish on time. As I wrapped up the lesson, I thanked the class for working so hard and exposing themselves to a new way of learning English.

But before I could turn and leave, one of the students asked me to stay and play another song. “Yes, Mr. Max! Stay and play another song!” others echoed. I explained to them that it was their recess time and I did not want to force them to stay in my class when they could go do other things. It was a moot point. Their minds were made up: they wanted to listening to more music.

“Okay,” I said, hardly able to hide my excitement, “What do you want to listen to?”


What Six Months Away from My Family Taught Me About Myself and Teaching

It had been nearly six months since I had been smothered by my mother. Stepping out of the cab, my mind sent panicked messages to my body to prepare itself for a hug half a year in the making. Thankfully I had been in this position before and my muscle memory kicked in, shifting my weight onto my back heel as my mother’s body barreled into my chest. Perfect form. She still had it.

As the saying goes, “there is nothing like a mother’s love for her children.” In that moment, I experienced enough physical reinforcement to never second guess otherwise clichĂ© English sayings. 

It had been a long time since I had felt my family. 


Nothing brings the family together like time apart and Thai food.

I was fortunate enough to see my mother and my sister for a few days as they concluded their nearly 1,900 km trip from Singapore to Bangkok. Although our time together was short, less than 72 hours, it was the refresher I needed as I head into the final few months of my Fulbright teaching experience in Malaysia.

While we filled our days with excursions, sightseeing adventures, breakfast buffets, mango sticky rice and vegetable green curry (no meat for my vegan counterparts), I couldn’t help but establish connections between my brief holiday and my teaching experience. No, I was unable to leave my teaching hat back in Malaysia. These days, I never leave home or travel anywhere without it. As an educator, I am always viewing the world through a teaching perspective. For those who may not possess a teaching background, recall your time as a lifeguard or concession stand operator. Whenever you go to the pool or snag a snack at the football match, the brain subconsciously rekindles those youthful memories. Even today, years after my last life guarding job back in early secondary school, my eyes still restlessly scan the pool. 

I interact with the world around me as if it was one giant teaching resource. Is this newspaper article too difficult to utilize during a learning activity? Can this photo serve as a conversation starter? Would this song be appropriate transition music? How can I relate this experience to that of my students? This continuous cycle brings me joy. My greatest passion is embodying the teaching profession. 

Reflecting back on my time with my family, albeit brief, there was one link to the teaching profession that stood out. During my 72-hours in Bangkok, I became more aware of the role a strong support system plays in the development of an individual. Even though I have been living in an entirely different culture than that of the one I was raised in, I still approach situations like I was raised to do. Despite the fact that I am living halfway across the world, I still personify my upbringing both consciously and subconsciously. 

Subconscious actions are the result of previous experience. I subconsciously altered my body to receive my mother’s initial embrace because I had lived that experience many times before that. My interactions with my students, the growth mindset I approach each class period with, the patience I impart as I speak with them and the pride and professionalism I carry with me are the result of my upbringing. 

That upbringing came thanks to great teachers both in and out of the classroom. I come from a long line of educators. As such, a love for teaching and learning has become woven within my soul. However, this does not mean a life in the teaching profession was forced upon me. I remember my parents reiterating time and time again that I should put my effort into pursuing the things that made me happy. As a result, I experimented with different things until I realized that a life as an educator was what brought me the most joy. 

However, my parents were not the only ones who served as powerful allies in my support network. I spent much more time at school than with my parents. For their part, my classroom teachers echoed my parent’s encouragements. They served as the ultimate role models and I was willing to do anything to earn their praise. In addition, they provided me with learning opportunities to experiment and kept me on track when I would wander too far off course.

Thinking back on my time in the classroom, I am grateful that my teachers accepted and supported me. They structured their learning environments and classroom cultures in a way that encouraged me to develop both intellectually and socially. Some of the most sought-after learner centered concepts emphasized in educational pedagogy today were implemented by my teachers back in the mid 1990s: Classroom rules were co-created to encourage complete devotion to maintaining a positive classroom environment. Any deviation or blatant violation of these behavior structures were immediately addressed and corrected. Even though I did not realize it at the time, my teachers’ devotion to establishing and maintaining a positive and safe learning environment contributed to my development.

In my case, I realize that some of my students may not receive this level of encouragement from their family. They may be told that they are going to become an accountant or become their father’s apprentice and eventually run the family business. However, that does not mean that my job as their teacher should change. Just as my teachers did for me, I must structure my classroom community so that my students view me as a member of their own support systems. 

The 72 hours I spent with my mother and sister were well worth the long wait. And yet, the long wait combined with our brief reunification allowed me to appreciate the importance of strong support networks in and out of the classroom. I am fortunate to be the product of such a loving family. They taught me to chase my dreams and find my own path towards happiness. However, I am also who I am today because of the role of my teachers. Their guidance and compassion only bolstered my parent’s messages and ensured that I became a successful individual. As I continue my own teaching career, I will look to emulate those who mentored me so that my students can also thrive on their own. 


The only things grander than the Grand Palace are the people in this photo.