I have had an atypical initial two months at SMK Badak. For the first three weeks of my time at the school, I was not allowed to enter any classroom unless my Malaysian colleagues explicitly invited me. So I sat in the canteen or at my desk and hoped for a chance to meet my students. When that day finally came, I took full advantage. I was a man on a mission. Knowing I had lost precious weeks of instructional time, I glazed over personal introductions and jumped right into teaching.
My teaching style is already distinctly different from that of my Malaysian colleagues: I believe in student-run classrooms where groups of students engage with one another to discuss possible solutions to problems. The fact that I was accelerating my teaching approach probably did more harm than good, but I felt as if I had no choice. After a few sessions of pleading students to engage with each other, and myself, I finally had a breakthrough in my 2UO class.
This breakthrough occurred when I introduced the game of “telephone” to the class. I found a roll of yellow paper that the students had discarded in the back of their room, and walked around the class pretending to make calls. I called my parents in Colorado, I called President Obama, and I called our principal, Hajjah Normah. I was really trying to sell this giant roll of yellow paper as the latest and greatest hand phone. The students then formed a circle and I outlined the expectations of the activity to the students: “Your task is to pass a secret message from one end of the circle to the next. You may only convey this secret message once so you must speak clearly and listen carefully. You may not repeat the message more than once.” After that, I used my new hand phone, shared my first secret message with the first student, and stepped back.
And then I watched.
I watched my students struggle with the instructions. I watched them sit awkwardly unsure of what to do. I watched them look at each other and then to me with the hopes of additional guidance.
So I just watched.
Then they started playing the game. They hesitantly began passing messages from one student to the next. All the while looking at me for approval or additional direction.
And I just watched.
And stayed silent even though my mind was screaming at me to review the instructions one more time; to model another round for them. But I didn’t. I just watched.
And then it happened.
The invisible wall that had been preventing my students from being the curious, creative, and brilliant thinkers they are came crashing down. It was almost as if the students realized that they had two options: sit silently for the next hour and a half, or take control of their learning. After a few minutes of suffering through the former, they opted for the latter. It was a beautiful evolution to watch.
For the next hour and a half my students ran my hand phone into the ground. They passed countless messages to one another, failing more than they succeeded but you would have never know in between all of the smiles and laughter. Over the course of this double period I finally saw a beautiful side of my 2UO students. I saw the side I knew existed, but was buried down deep within their minds. I saw them emerge from their rigid and pre-programmed shells and excel in a new, open learning environment.
Some of my most cherished photographs have come from this double period. While the photographs are absolutely beautiful they fail to even begin to convey the beauty I witnessed that day. When the period came to a close, I thanked the students and applauded their efforts. I told them how proud I was of them for struggling through a new experience. I left feeling like I was atop cloud nine. My swagger was undeniable. I had successfully broke into the high security
When I returned to 2UO later that week things had changed. My students had reverted back to their old ways: shy, sheltered, and unwilling to take risks. Even though this initially crushed me, I found peace in the fact that I had seen a different side of them the period before. Never mind the fact that they fell back into their old habits so quickly. That should have been expected. After years and years of sitting through lessons that methodically chipped away at their individualism and creativity, rekindling those traits undoubtedly shocked their systems.
Even if I fail every other time I attempt to engage students this way, I will always remember this success story.