A Year in the Kampung

As my time in Malaysia comes to a close, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the year as a whole. It is hard to believe that my ten-month grant is nearly over. I still remember my initial journey from the United States like it happened yesterday. I guess this is what happens when you take full advantage of opportunities that are presented to you. If you do it right, time seems to speed by.

Fulbright was the first time I had spent a significant amount of time abroad. Prior to January, the longest I had been out of the country was two weeks. While I had participated in an off-campus study program at Coe, Chicago and Bachok couldn’t be further apart. I knew right from the start that this was going to be an experience unlike anything that had come before it.


Prior to my Form 4 UO students’ first round of exams, I gave each one of them a good luck note. (March, 2015)

This is a unique time to be living in Malaysia. When I first arrived, Kelantan had just been hit with the worst flooding in recorded history a month earlier. Many of my students were impacted by this natural disaster despite the fact that floodwaters did not rise substantially in Bachok itself. This past year has also seen the rise of a horrific Islamic extremist group in Iraq, Syria and other pasts of the Middle East. These terrorists use a radical interpretation of the Qur’an to validate their killing and devastation. Many of my colleagues have expressed frustration that this group is spoiling the world’s view on Islam and those who practice peacefully. In addition, a political scandal involving a substantial amount of money and high-ranking government officials has led to demonstrations and calls for change. And finally, the region as a whole has become the flashpoint for a multinational air quality debate. This has been my background music.

Given these circumstances as well as my day-to-day teaching and living realities, I believe that Fulbright has changed me as a person.

While I have grown as an educator, the majority of my growth this year has been on a personal level. As an educator, I have learned to refine my language and slow my rate of speech. I also learned how to readjust my expectations of what it means to be a “teacher.” I love communicating. I feel happiest when I am engaged in conversation or writing. This is one of my greatest gifts as an educator as well: I am able to effectively communicate with my students, regardless of their age.


Working on paragraph structure with my Form 4 UA students. (April, 2015)

Teaching in Malaysia has helped me to improve my communication skills. While my vocabulary has shrunk, I have gained invaluable knowledge of how to convey directions, expectations, comments and praise to English language learners. It is one thing to work with primary students whose first language is English; it is another thing entirely to work with secondary students who may view English as their second or third language. I learned that, often times, I needed to provide multiple versions of my instructions and expectations to account for my students’ weaker academic English skills. Synonyms and antonyms became my go-to parts of speech and the thesaurus became my favorite teaching tool.

The most important development I made this year as an educator came as I redefined my role as my students’ “teacher.” Having only really worked with primary students up until Fulbright, my pedagogical approach was catered towards a much younger audience. Whenever I work with primary students, I tend to give more than I ever expect to receive. Younger students really struggle expressing themselves emotionally and so oftentimes their gratitude comes from their parents. Secondary students are completely different. Although it took me a very long time to establish strong connections with most of my students, once I did, they opened themselves up to me in ways that no other group of kids ever has (and probably ever will). Teaching at SMK Badak has provided me with a new perspective on teaching. I can understand why teachers love working with middle school and high school students: they confide in you.

What I learned this year about myself as an educator is how much to open myself up to my students. I value my personal space. I always have and I always will. However, I realized somewhat late in the year that all my students needed to see from me was a bit of personal investment and they were all in. I wrote a blog post mid year describing how my relationships completely transformed once I handed out my hand phone number and encouraged students to message me. After revealing the human side of myself to my students, they were eager to learn more and compare their own stories with mine.

Escaping the heat to take a few selfies in the Library with From 2 UO. (May, 2105)

Escaping the heat to take a few selfies in the Library with From 2 UO. (May, 2105)

As an individual, I have made tremendous strides this year. I have proven to myself that I can not only survive a year abroad, but I can thrive. There is no greater evidence of this than my two-year teaching contract with Newton College in Lima, Peru. If I had never lived in Malaysia, I would have never had the opportunity to continue my career abroad. As much as the day-to-day grind can be tiring and disheartening at times, the overall experience has been the best of my life. If I can make it in Bachok, I can make it anywhere!

In addition I believe I have become for confident and assertive as an individual. Working with my colleagues and community members has been challenging. When I first arrived at SMK Badak I was eager to please and so I agreed to participate in and lead activities I may have not wholeheartedly believed in. After months and months of remaining passive, I began to assert myself and began to reap the benefits of my newfound confidence. I learned that it is not always best to agree with others. Sometimes voicing your opinion and sparking conflict ultimately leads to better outcomes.


A special day in Form 1 UO: my students asked if we could take a selfie. (September, 2015)

When I accepted my Fulbright grant I had hoped that the experience would be life changing and it certainly has been. While I didn’t necessarily accomplish all of the goals I set out for myself professionally, I made progress elsewhere and discovered parts of me I never knew existed. As is the case with all good things, I do not think I will be able to fully appreciate my time in Bachok and at SMK Badak for a long time, and that is okay.

The hardest reality I am wrestling with now is the fact that I will never really know how much of an impact I had on my students. My time at SMK Badak is finite. I knew that coming into this year, and I’ll know that when I leave. Even though I knew that I would develop meaningful relationships with my students, I did not fully realize just how much I have learned to care for my kids are learners and individuals. I want all of them to live happy lives and I expect them to be incredibly successful in whatever they do. But the reality of the situation is that I will never really know. I will leave and lose touch with a lot of my kids. While some will stay in touch, I will never have the same relationships with my kids ever again. And as hard as that will be to accept, it is part of the tragic beauty of teaching.


Celebrating Hari Raya Aidilfitri with my Form 4 UA students. (July, 2015)


(Re)Discovering Our Confidence in the Jungle

I never really know what to expect when it comes to English Camps. There are so many factors to account for. My head is filled with questions:

  • How will the students act outside of the classroom? 
  • Is the venue I selected appropriate for my camp? 
  • Are all of the facilities well maintained and safe to be used by my students? 
  • Will my kids fully commit themselves to the camp activities? 
  • Did I successfully establish a safe and welcoming camp community where my students feel comfortable taking risks?
  • Are the activities I planned interesting and relevant to the students? 

In my time in Malaysia, I have hosted two English camps and been to nearly ten hosted by other ETAs. In my experience, a camp can go one of two ways. Either all of the questions above are fulfilled and the camp is an enormous success, or none of them are and the camp can be equated to a train wreck.

I believe that part of the reason for this extreme success or failure scale is that camps are contingent upon the students. While this may seem like common sense, secondary school students can be all over the place. After all, serious developments in their social and emotional lives occur during these years.

However, a camp can be planned and implemented in such a way that encourages wholehearted participation. Activities must be relevant to both the camp’s theme and to the students’ lives. The selected activities must also balance familiarity with the unknown. In other words, camp activities should be new and exciting to grab students’ attention, but they also should build upon familiar concepts used in class to encourage full participation. In addition to a camp’s activities, the level of success of a camp also hinges upon the level of enthusiasm of the teachers involved. If spirits are high and the teachers fully commit themselves to participating in the activities, the students will follow suit. If teachers are skeptical or hesitant to take risks out of fear of embarrassment, the students will notice and may not fully immerse themselves.

The most successful English camps address both of these aspects.


Setting goals for English camp.

My second and final English wrapped up a few weekends ago. The camp was held at Putera Valley Resort and Training Centre (PVTC), a beautiful facility located just over an hour south of SMK Badak. All sixty of my students, forty from Form 4 and twenty from Form 6, slept in the facility’s recently renovated quarters and all meals were provided by the camp staff of the on-site canteen. As part of their camp package, PVTC sponsored and carried out three activities: an obstacle course, a water confidence course and a water crossing challenge.

As I mentioned earlier, an English camp’s success is dependent upon the activities and the teachers’ enthusiasm level. For my camp, half of this formula for success was out of my hands. I was not responsible for planning the obstacle course, water confidence course or the water-crossing course. Each of the three activities was an hour-long and the entire day was structured around them.

In the weeks leading up to my camp, I had used these three activities as bargaining chips to help convince hesitant students to sign up for my camp. Therefore, I needed these three activities to blow my students away or my camp would almost certainly be the biggest train wreck to date.

Even if the obstacle course was a let down, I determined that I could still salvage the camp by boosting my enthusiasm level afterwards. Walking towards the obstacle course I tried my best to push these thoughts to the back of my mind. Unfortunately, they all came rushing back to the forefront of my conscience the moment I saw the barbed wire fence, the mud and the fire hose. What had I done? I had just convinced my students that English camp would be the best two days of their young lives and I had used these three activities as evidence to support my claim. Goosebumps crawled up my spine as my eyes shifted from the obstacle course, to my students blank faces, to my teachers’ horrified faces. What had I done?

I watched with building eyes as my boys fought for the opportunity to be the first under the barbed wire. I watched with my mouth wide open as my girls, without hesitation, screamed and dove headfirst into the mud. I could not believe the scene that was playing out in front of me. What I had done was provide my students with an opportunity to forget about any perceived social boundaries and fully express themselves like never before.

The joy that I witnessed during that hour was unparalleled. I had never seen a group of reserved young people act so confidently. They challenged and encouraged one another and even chased me around the field with muddy hands trying to get me dirty. (Full disclosure: I did not participate in the obstacle course because I was holding my girls’ gold bracelets and my boys’ watches. I was not avoiding the situation because I did not want to get muddy!)


I don’t need your help, Mr. Max. Just hold my bracelet and get out of my way!

If I had attempted an activity like this earlier in the year, the experience would have been entirely different. My students’ were able to get the most out of the activity because they were used to challenging themselves around me. While my classes and lessons draw from the textbook, I never have my students sit passively and work through problem sets. They read texts aloud, they analyze characters, they link themes and they present their findings to the class. In other words, I expect them to challenge themselves whenever they are in my class. In the moments leading up to the start of the obstacle course, I think most of them realized that what was laid out in front of them was nothing new. Although the activity may have been physically challenging, the mental barriers that may have existed were far from insurmountable.

After the obstacle course was over and we had all laughed with one another, my students set their sights on the water confidence portion of the day. As a lifelong swimmer, I was looking forward to the chance to get into the water and avoid the suffocating heat and humidity. For all but a handful of my students, this activity could not have been more challenging. Despite the fact that they all wore life jackets, nearly every single one of my students did not know how to swim. In fact, most of them had never set foot in the ocean let alone submerging themselves in a lake. Again, I feared for the worst.

In the same way they shocked me during the obstacle course, my students rose to the challenge again. I watched as groups of three stepped onto the floating platform and performed a “trust fall” into the water, falling backwards into the lake. I can honestly say that if I had not grown up in the pool, I would have not participated in this activity. But this is why my students are better people at their age than I was as a secondary student and why I am so inspired by their actions.

As I watched them fall backwards into the water, some of them fighting off tears as they visibly motivated themselves to push past their fear, I was fighting back tears of my own. My students’ transformations this year have been the greatest I have ever witnessed in my teaching career. When I first arrived at SMK Badak in January, my female students used to shake uncontrollably when I would kneel next to them during class and my male students would sit in silence and refuse to make eye contact with me. While some of their growth can be attributed to my persistence and skills as an educator, most of the credit needs to go to each one of them as individuals. Without their conscious buy-in, this growth would not have happened. Period.


All smiles before everybody realized they would “trust fall” into the murky lake water.

Floating in the water alongside my students, I was able to meet them when they were most vulnerable. The interactions I shared with my male students were truly special. Although most of them were terrified, my presence made them relax and slowly enjoy the feel of the water around them. They laughed and we shared many a “first bump.” By the end of the activity, they were splashing one another and refusing to get out of the lake!

Swimming over to my girls, it was clear that they were struggling more than my boys with acclimating to the water. I will never forget swimming alongside one of my shyest girls to encourage her and ask how she was doing. Before I realized what was happening, she had reached out and clinched my hand. Her eyes were wide and tears were fall down her face. I was taken aback. Touching members of the opposite sex is usually not okay under normal circumstances. At the end of every class, I shake my male students’ hands and give my girl students each an “air high five.” And now my student was gripping my hand. Clearly, this was not a normal circumstance. I spent the next few minutes calmly reassuring her that she was safe and teaching her the proper way to float in the water. Slowly her grip loosened and she eventually let go completely.

It was not until much later that I was able to unpack and process those moments. What I did not realize at the time was that, even though my student’s reaction was subconscious and a survival instinct, she still knew that I was a male. And yet, she did not hesitate nor did she seem to care. This interaction is the greatest evidence I have to prove that I have made a difference in the lives of my students. My student trusted me with her life in that moment. Even though she was wearing a life jacket she was still visibly terrified of the water pushing in around her. And yet she felt comfortable enough with me to take my hand. She trusted me. That is progress on an unprecedented scale.


From pure joy to “get me the heck out of here.,” my girls’ faces say it all.

The rest of my English camp was an enormous success, my students continued to build upon the momentum provided by the obstacle course and water confidence activity. They fully committed themselves to every activity and, as a result, I was able to challenge them academically and socially. While they all gained new knowledge, most of them walked away from camp with invaluable confidence boosts.

If I had not received a grant from the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to support the financial costs of the camp, my school could not have afforded to stay at PVTC. My students’ would have never had the opportunity to participate in the obstacle course or water confidence activity and I would have never bonded with my students the way I did during those two hours. In other words, if it weren’t for the U.S. Embassy’s grant, my students’ academic and social growth would have stagnated. Studies have shown that an individual’s academic successes are often linked with their confidence levels. If an individual is not confident, they will not take the necessary risks to excel in the classroom. However, when a student possesses that confidence, they can make enormous gains academically.

Over the course of the two-day camp, I was able to express my hopes and dreams for my students as individuals and they were able to prove to themselves that they were worthy of that praise. Although I have encouraged them all year, working with them in a non-traditional academic setting was powerful. I believe that this English camp was the boost that they needed to catapult themselves into the upper echelons of academic and social success. I hope they will look back on their lives in the future and remember the time they crawled in the mud overcame their fear of the water and started down the path towards lifelong success.


A special group of students!


Validating Students’ Artistic Passions While Upholding Local Culture

These past couple of weeks have been an absolute blur. I accepted a primary teaching position at Newton College in Lima, Peru, I helped prepare my students for their Malaysian Merdeka Day drama, I finalized a two-day jungle English camp for 60 of my students and I took 10 of my students to a state-wide arts camp at the local university.

While more posts are coming with respect to my Newton appointment and my own overnight English camp, I want to discuss the most recent event: the arts camp. Below is a piece I wrote for local news outlets to help get the word out and inform the local Kelantanese of our project. While this is a different approach from the one I normally take, I think it is important to provide the story behind this collaborative project.


“During late 2014, the state of Kelantan experienced the worst flooding in recent recorded history. According to some accounts, sixty-eight days worth of rain fell in just two days time. Just over a month after this terrible natural disaster struck, ten Americans (Matt Berman, Rashmi Singh, Becca Rundquist, Kyle Campbell, Addie Schafer, Meg VanDeusen, Keala Pacheco, Hope Jackson, Amanda Baldiga and myself) stepped off the plane in Kota Bharu ready to begin our ten-month English Teaching Assistantship.

The English Teaching Assistantship, or “ETA program” for short, is a collaborative program through the Malaysian and American Governments. For the 2015 school year, there are a total of one hundred English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) in Malaysia. Ten of these ETAs were selected to teach at schools across Kelantan. The selected schools, (SMK SRI NIPAH, SMK BADAK, SMK PAK BADOL, SMK PADANG PAK AMAT, SMK TOK JANGGUT, SMK SELISING, SMK SRI MAHARAJA, SMK PANJI, SMK SERING and SMK KEDAI BULOH), were eagerly awaiting their ETA’s arrival.

The mission of the ETA Program in Malaysia is to promote English language usage with the ultimate goal of improving students’ proficiency levels. However, the program is also meant to expose otherwise isolated Malaysian communities to American culture. In the same way we learned about The Red Warriors, driving on the left-hand side of the road, and “budu,” our Malaysian counterparts learned about “American Football,” apple pie and pop-music.


The ten students from SMK Badak and their two teachers.

Despite our purest of intentions and desire to succeed immediately, our first few months in Kelantan were not easy. Not only were we ourselves wrestling with homesickness and adjusting to day-to-day life in our communities, we were also working with students who were incredibly shy and had just lived through a terrible flood. There was a lot of work to be done if we wanted to positively impact our communities and accomplish our goals. But we would not have chosen to teach for Fulbright in Malaysia if we were up for such a challenge.

Over the course of the next seven months, we tried everything we could to connect with we students. Introductions were made, songs were sung, games were played, dramas were performed, English camps took place and a lot of selfies were taken. All in the name of progress. Even though most of the students we encountered were unbelievably shy, they did possess the necessary language skills needed to communicate. In this case it wasn’t necessarily a lack of English language content knowledge but a lack of opportunity to use the English language in authentic situations. While it was initially difficult to get our students to open up, after a few months, the once shy and reserved students became strong, confident and capable individuals.

As the months went by, we continued to develop our relationships with our students. One of the most revealing characteristics of Kelantanese students is their artistic talent. While this may come as no surprise to most Kelantanese, we were amazed to find their students willing to dance in front of their classmates or recite a poem during Sunday formal assembly. Most of us had never heard a traditional Kelantanese poem before and we were incredibly inspired by our students’ confidence levels. As we came to find out, one of the distinctive elements of teaching at a secondary school in Kelantan is the infusion of traditional Kelatanese art forms into the school week. Dikir Barat, Wayang Kulit, Malay poetry and Silat have all been showcased at ETA schools across the state. There was no doubt that our students are proud of their distinctive Kelantanese heritage!


Handmade paper flowers are a traditional Kelantanese handicraft. When you attend a wedding, the newly married couple will present every guest with one of these flowers before they leave. Although there was no wedding ceremony this day, I did still manage to score one!

What was even more inspiring for us as ETAs was the fact that our students’ shone brightest while engaging in Kelantanese art forms Those students who may have been unwilling to engage in an English discussion in class were suddenly transformed into confident individuals while performing Dikir Barat. As a result of these observations, we came to a powerful realization: Traditional Kelantanese art forms could help us expose our struggling students to success beyond the classroom. The “culture of testing” that has become increasingly prevalent in American schools has begun to do the same here in Malaysia. While our students must sit for their exams multiple times over the course of the academic year, they must also know that there is more to life than a single exam mark.

For many of our students, academic success is not guaranteed. In fact, a number of our students will struggle when they sit for their PT3 (PENTAKSIRAN TINGKATAN 3) or SPM (SIJIL PELAJARAN MALAYSIA) exams. Those students who may possess immense artistic talent should not extinguish their flame in favor of scoring a high mark on their exam. We cannot afford to let this happen. Life is all about finding a balance between work and play. Between what you must do, and what you love to do. We want our students to continue or reignite their love for traditional art forms with the ultimate goal of preserving the Kelantanese culture for future generations.

As a result of this realization, we began to brainstorm possible ways to reward and validate our students who truly excel as visual and performing artists. How could we showcase their work and give them the positive reinforcement they need to succeed this year and for many years to come? Thankfully for us, we had established strong connections with Dr. Simon Cooke. Dr. Simon is the Scholarship Coordinator for MAIK (MAJLIS AGAMA ISLAM DAN ADAT ISTIADAT MELAYU KELANTAN) and worked with closely with us when we first arrived in Kelantan. One of Dr. Simon’s initiatives is to promote English language usage within the state. After peaking with him on multiple occasions about our collective teaching experiences in Kelantan, it became clear that he had noticed some of the same things we had, primarily that Kelantanese students knew how to speak English but were too nervous to do so. After many months of discussion and brainstorming, Dr. Simon provided an extremely ambitious yet completely possible idea: a camp focused on promoting Traditional Kelantanese art forms.

Knowing that we couldn’t possibly plan, promote and implement this camp without the help of local constituencies, Dr. Simon and members of the ETA cohort began reaching out to some of the State’s most well-known organizations and academic institutions. Dr. Simon reached out to some of the most respected academic institutions in the state, namely UMK (UNIVERSITI MALAYSIA KELANTAN) and they jumped at the possibility of assisting local secondary students and promoting art. Given the enormity of our project and UMK’s renowned faculty, phenomenal facilities and enthusiasm for education, collaborating together made a lot of sense. Not only was UMK gracious enough to agree to house our arts camp, they also agreed to provide access to classrooms and some of their own renowned faculty.


My girls looking great in their handmade eco-fashion outfits.

After establishing these initial partnerships, Dr. Simon and members of MAIK turned their attention to securing arguably some the most important individuals of the camp: the artists. What would an art camp be without artists? The Kelantan Cultural Centre (Gelanggang Seni) works with some of the State’s most well-known artists. Their network of artists and desire to help our cause allowed us to ensure that our students’ would receive instruction for established artists. MAIK also helped to secure a partnership with Limkokwing Academy of Creativity and Innovation and Taylor’s University from Kuala Lumpur. Including these strong academic institutions helped to provide our students with access to as many excellent academic institutions as possible. Limkokwing is known across Malaysia as a leading graphic design institution and Taylor’s University will be sending students and instructors from their famous culinary school to teach our students how to prepare delicious Kelantanese foods.

We are fortunate to be working with such esteemed partners! Their collective efforts highlight not only the value placed on continuing education within Kelantan, but also the importance of art in the State.

After months of planning and many a meeting with our partners, the time has come to put our plan into action! On Friday the 4th of September and Saturday the 5th of September, one hundred and thirty students will descend upon UMK Bachok and experience two full days of artistic immersion. Students will have the chance to learn about Dikir Barat, modern and traditional Wayang Kulit, Wau, Batik making, Mak Yong traditional dance, Silat, eco-fashion design based in Kelantan ideals, traditional poetry, animation, and handicraft work producing wedding bouquets called Sireh Junjung during an initial session on Friday. After this initial session, each student will select two art forms to experience further. Over the course of the two-day camp, each student will produce a piece or two of visual art or learn a performing art routine. In an effort to really validate and recognize our students’ efforts, they will have the chance to display their visual art and perform their learned routine during a student showcase on Saturday. Select pieces will then be displayed at culturally significant locations over the next few months.


Silat is a traditional Kelantanese form of martial arts. Needless to say, this was extremely popular amongst the boy participants.

When we arrived in Kelantan nearly eight months ago, we did not know what to expect. Over the course of our time here, we have forged strong relationships with our students, our schools and our local kampung. As our time in Kelantan comes to an end, we want to do everything we can to impact as many students as possible. We all have the pleasure of working with incredibly talented young people on a day-to-day basis. However, we realize now that a lot of our students possess hidden artistic talents. Even though most of them are wonderful artist, poets, speakers and actors they do not have the opportunities to showcase their talents during a normal school day. This is why we are holding this two-day arts camp. We want our students, who may not have the chance to enjoy academic success to have their passions validated and their work appreciated. We are fortunate to have so many community partners joining us in supporting our cause. This camp would be impossible without their help.”


Over the course of the two-day camp, I spent as much time as I could with the students participating in the camp. Reflecting back on my own schooling, I remember field trips and overnight camps as the times that I really solidified my relationships with my friends and my teachers. Keeping those memories in mind, I did everything in my power to bond with my students: I ate with them, I joked with them, I silently watched them create magnificent pieces of art, I praised their efforts whenever I could and I said “yes” to every single impromptu photo shoot. I wanted my students to know that I recognized the courage it took them to come to a camp with 120 other secondary students. I wanted them to know how proud I was of them for taking full advantage of this unique opportunity.

For these two days I was a teacher, a coach and a friend. Watching my students’ flourish during the two-day arts camp was an experience I will not forget.


Thumbs up and smiles for an amazing weekend!


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 cliché 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.