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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.

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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.)

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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.

RUDE, MR. MAX! RUDE!

Of course.

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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?”

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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 cliché English sayings. 

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

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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. 

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

Video

Windy City Nights (Vimeo)

Arguably the most photogenic city in the United States. Flashbacks to my time in the Gold Coast and at Andrew Jackson Language Academy. Congratulations to my former Third graders as they welcome the summer months. Bring on Fifth Grade!

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Finally Getting to Know My Students. Thanks, WhatsApp.

Teaching takes patience.

Being patient takes a lot of practice.

When I was in University, my professor told me that, “It takes a special kind of person to teach.” I think she could have easily also said, “It takes a special kind of person to be willing to be so patient all the time.” To become a teacher, I had to practice being patient. 

It is often reported that new teachers stumble through the first three to five years of their careers as they hone their craft. They struggle to juggle national standards, school expectations, student learning profiles, and standardized assessments. Juggling requires practice. Watching the clumsily thrown balls crash to the floor without becoming enraged required patience. A good, student-centered pedagogical technique is to infuse considerable “wait time” into your teaching practice. This wait time allows students to process information conveyed to them and to craft appropriate responses. There is nothing more agonizing that watching your students wrestle with questions you could easily articulate to them and move on. However, this wait time is an essential component that helps to implant new knowledge. A lack of patience would compromise the authenticity of the content. The teaching profession is filled with scenarios like these, scenarios that all require patience.

However, there is usually one thing I can count on attaining fairly quickly within any given school year: my students’ trust. Naturally, the first few weeks of school are saturated with anxious students, parents, and teachers. (Sometimes, I cannot help but laugh out loud when, after telling my students that I am just as nervous as they are, they respond with furrowed brows and frustrated head shakes. I laugh because when I imagine their conversations, I envision themselves really laboring to accept this idea, “No, no, no! There is no way that Mr. Max is as nervous as I am! Teachers are never nervous!“) Yes, even teachers are nervous.

But after the first month has come and gone, and the students have engaged with me enough, those nerves tend to subside and students begin to situate themselves to take academic risks. And after a few weeks of hesitant risk taking, students realize that my entire purpose in their class is to make them feel welcome and to allow them to grow as an individual and a learner. Once they come to this realization, they dive headfirst into the rest of the year. This deliberate restraint on my part is well worth the wait. 

This is how things usually work themselves out.

Usually.

But as I have been learning firsthand this year, things are different in Malaysia. And developing trust is not exception. In fact, Malaysian student shyness levels are on an entirely never level when compared to my previous experiences. I’ve come to find that Malaysian students, particularly secondary students, can be categorized into three general groups: extremely hesitant, immensely shy, or paralyzed by fear.

I would venture to guess that 95% of my student at SMK Badak fell under the latter option when I first arrived in January. 3% could have been categorized as ‘immensely shy.’ And the remaining 2% could not be accounted for as they never could find it within themselves to even look in my direction for more than a second or two. It was like my student put up an impenetrable barrier and left me to solve the greatest riddle of them all: how do I get these kids to tear down their walls?

I tried everything. I sang, I danced, I delivered impassioned speeches, I wandered the school grounds, I participated in extracurricular activities and I made sure to smile. I always smile. In order to provide a academic platform for my Form 4 students to communicate with me, I developed weekly writing prompts for them to process and reflect on. I made it clear that the journals were not for marks, they were a way for me to get to know them as writers and learners. While a few of the initial journal entries were very well written, a handful of students simply copied one student’s essay and turned it in as their own. They were still not ready to take risks, even in their writing. 

It seemed like nothing was happening. I was making little to no progress. I recall one moment of reflection where I convinced myself that, by singing the same song over and over again with the hopes of giving students an entertaining avenue to engage with me, I had actually terrified them even more than before. My months at SMK Badak were a living reminder of just how hard it can be to master one of life’s greatest gifts: patience.

I was patient. I did not falter. I smiled. And I waited patiently.

After months and months of smiling, my student finally began removing their walls. They began consistently engaging in academic conversations with me in class. They would ask clarification questions and for me to repeat myself if my instructions were unclear. One Form 4 student even told me a hard truth about my teaching, “Sir, sometimes you too excited and we cannot understand what you say. You talk too fast.” That is a life skill right there: to let me down easy like that while maintaining a professional tone? Bravo! (And duly noted!)

Despite the fact that all of this was monumental progress, I still wanted my students to open up and reveal themselves to me. I wanted them to ask me about life. I wanted them to share with me their honest ambitions in life. I wanted them to ask me questions about how to improve their English. And while some students did, the majority of students still we not ready to expose themselves.

WhatsApp and Selfies. Two essential technological components of daily life in Malaysia.

WhatsApp and Selfies. Two essential technological components of daily life in Malaysia.

It was only after weeks of hovering in this state of limbo that I realized I needed to take a risk if I was going to expect my students to do the same.

As a professional rule of thumb, I do not believe in distributing my handphone number to anyone save for my colleagues, friends, and family members. However, I noticed that my students were constantly on their handphones outside of school. If I was eating at a food stall and I saw a secondary student, regardless of if they were from SMK Badak or not, they were on their phone. In Malaysia, WhatsApp is the main form of communication. Corporate companies and schools have their own private groups where they can efficiently communicate with their employees. The same was true for my students. They were always communicating with one another via WhatsApp.

This was the avenue I needed. The chance to forge relationships with students that would benefit them as individuals and learners. WhatsApp.

The results were not what I was initially expecting. I braced myself for hundreds of messages from students every day but they never came. I receive maybe five to ten messages per day from students asking about assignments, extracurricular activities, or just to say “Good evening Mr. Max. What you doing?”  

 However, I cannot overstate how much of a positive impact my handphone number has had on my students. It was as if I had finally given my students permission to be themselves around me. It was my stamp of approval. And once they had that stamp, they were ready to make up for months of lost time.

My days at SMK Badak are now filled with genuine conversation. Those students who used to shout, “MR. MAX!” from across the yard only to duck behind the cement wall once I turned to address them, still do the same thing with one critical new detail: instead of throwing themselves behind a literal and figurative wall, they stand tall and throw their hand in the air. They shout and wave. And so I finally get to wave back.

My classes are filled with English conversations with a little Malay sprinkled on top for good measure, not the other way around as was the case for the longest time. The room is often filled laughter. But, the laughter is the result of a joke or accidental mix up, not as a result of an awkward silence or a student’s shyness to speak to me. My students actively seek me out during morning assembly just to say “Good morning, Sir.” or “Sir, how are you this morning?” Sometimes they will even stick around for a full-blown conversation. In English.

To the surprise of all the staff members at SMK Badak, my Form 4 class purchased a cake and a ceremonial plaque to celebrate Teacher's Day. Although Teacher's Day is a national holiday in Malaysia, my school chose not to celebrate until after their exam period was completed. Tell that to these students.

To the surprise of all the staff members at SMK Badak, my Form 4 class purchased a cake and a ceremonial plaque to celebrate Teacher’s Day. Although Teacher’s Day is a national holiday in Malaysia, my school chose not to celebrate until after their exam period was completed. Tell that to these students.

My students’ journal entries are now filled with thought-provoking entires. Some of my students have revealed their personal secrets, their ambitions and their dream jobs. There is plenty of research that has been published on English language learners and their hesitancies to write in English. Written errors are not as easily concealed as oral miscues. They are glaring. They jump off the page. And so the fact that my students were willing to produce personalized writing samples without fear of judgement shows just how much progress we had made. My students are comfortable.

It is hard for me to believe that my life at SMK Badak could be so different as the result of something as simple as a handphone number. And yet, I do understand why those digits carry such weight. As I have stated before in previous posts, I am the first American my students have ever met. They have never seen someone who looks like me or speaks English the way I do unless it was on the television. I don’t think any of them could have imagined a scenario where their school, pushed up against the coast in a forgotten corner of Malaysia, would ever have an American teacher. In their minds, there is just no feasible situation where I end up at their school. 

But there I was. 

The shock waves that ran through their bodies must have been like nothing they had experienced before. An American? In our school? Wanting to speak with me? Never! I completely understand their reasons for being nervous. However, it was only after I gave them access to my handphone number, their preferred method of communication, that my presence was real to them. Now, they could communicate with me in a safer space. A digital space. With autocorrect and Emojis. Again, I believe that my handphone number was the validation they needed. To them, it was my way of saying, “I really do want to get to know you.

Five months from now, when I am sitting back in the United States preparing for the Christmas season, I will have a lot on my mind both personally and professionally. Hopefully, when I am feeling down or cold (for once), my pocket will vibrate and I’ll look down at my pocket and smile. I’ll silently sit for a moment of reflection before unlocking my phone, opening up my WhatsApp messenger application, and responding to a simple yet heart warming note: “Good evening, Mr. Max. How are you?