Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lessons where you least expect them

Invited to lead workshops on presentations skills at a university in Jember, East Java, in December 2010, I learned some important lessons, first and foremost on the value of patience when dealing within a cultural milieu different from one's own.

Here's a clear example. On the Saturday before the university workshops, I was invited by my university host, an English teacher/program director with whom I'd worked on several projects earlier, including a lecture tour at universities in the same Indonesian provinces the previous September, to go east to the neighboring province to visit his wife's kampong. On Sunday the plan was to stop by a nearby national park famous for its pristine beach.

The four-hour car journey from Jember to Banyuwangi was very enjoyable. We drove through the forested Gumitir mountain region, stopped at a cafe selling locally-grown coffee and then wound our way into the flat plain opening to the Strait of Bali. Expecting to simply ride in my friend's car for four or five hours, I wore shorts and a T-shirt, my usual style in the tropical heat. I had even asked my friend if these clothes were appropriate, and he'd given me the thumbs up. I started to doubt this though when he asked me if I would mind "dropping in" at the Islamic school where his wife teaches; I pointed out that I was dressed very informally. He said it didn't matter, that we would just be stopping in for a short while.

Around noon we arrived at the school, where I could see that the Saturday morning session had just ended. The street in front of the school was filled with the motorbikes of parents come to pick up their kids; the inner courtyard was filled with male students in uniform slacks and dress shirts and girls in long baju and head scarves gathering their bags in a scurry out of the classrooms.

Our car was met by the very well spoken head English teacher, and my host and I were led  into the principal's office. There on a low-set wooden table fresh cut fruits and colorful rice cakes had been set out, in anticipation of our visit. This should have been my first clue that something more formal in nature was planned. I didn't have to wait long for the missing information. After chatting with the school principal, vice principal and head teacher for 15 minutes, I was asked if I wanted to see the classroom where I'd be teaching the lesson.

The lesson? Teaching? I would be teaching?

This was news to me, and with a tone that must have seemed slightly incredulous, I asked what I would be teaching. The head teacher explained that it was simple: just give a lecture to motivate the students for their English study. And by the way, he added, many of the teachers had wondered if they could attend "the lesson" and observe as well. Hopefully that was acceptable, he said. I tried my best to suppress the shock.

How long should I lecture? I then asked. "An hour will be good" was the nonchalant answer.

Over the years I have traveled quite a bit, I've taught in myriad situations, and I've learned to expected the unexpected. I have to admit though, in this case even the well seasoned itinerant teacher in me was caught off-guard. Ok---an hour lesson, my mind raced. Won't this be an experience.

Arriving at the appointed classroom, I did a double take: the room was filled with 35 or 40 students, age 15 or so, and at least a dozen teachers. There were also all shapes and sizes of brown faces looking in the slatted windows beside the open door. I suddenly felt like a zoo animal on display.  A few "hellos" to students and teachers and I discovered that many members of my prospective class spoke little to no English. I had a job to do though with no time to worry about language skills.

Surveying the big wooden desk on the raised dais at the front of the class and the neat rows of chairs and desks crowding the classroom space, I made a quick decision: the environment needed to be crafted to my liking. In short, I needed to take some control. Without hesitating, I gesticulated to the group, signaling that I wanted the desks moved out of rows and into groups of four, with pairs facing each other, perpendicular to the front of the class. Then I wrote in broad strokes on the whiteboard:

0 = Zero English   1= Some English
2= Good English  3= Great English.

"If you have no English, 0, move to the front corner of the classroom, by the door," I said, asking my host to interpret. " A bit of English, move to that back corner. Good English, back in the opposite corner. And if you have great English, move up here," I said, pointing to the corner opposite the door.

My idea was simple. I would first divide the mass into groups, initially by English level, then into small foursomes, with at least one decent English speaker (including my host and the head teacher!) in every combo. That strategy worked better than expected, with everyone cheerfully self selecting a spot in one of the room's four corners. I was relieved to see that the entire group was almost evenly divided between those who saw themselves as having some English and those who felt they had none. I then assigned each person to a group of four desks, trying my best to mix in participants of different skill levels,  and at the same time, the school teachers -- most of whom felt they had no English -- with their own students. The groups squawked with excitement when they realized they were being mixed!

Next, I wrote a selection of key introductory phrases on the whiteboard. From there the lesson proceeded into a sequence of my modeling stock phrases and then asking some member of each foursome to repeat the phrase: "My name is Batu Hitam (Blackstone). What's your name?"

"My name is Asep."

"Oh, his name is Asep. Hi, Asep. Now say this: My name is Asep. What's your name?"

"My name is Asep. What's your name."

"My name is Batu Hitam. Pleased to meet you."

And off we went, into a fast hour of English conversation. Each class group willingly followed the lead of the silly old (and sweating) American teacher dancing at the front of the classroom, with each person learning all their group member's names in simple introductions as well as practicing possessive pronouns "my, your, his, her," reporting information collected, and spouting the answers to these follow up questions: "What's your hobby? What's her hobby? What's his hobby?"

"My hobby is fishing. Her hobby is reading. His hobby is football. What's your hobby?"

The students and teachers of the junior high school must have been amused by the process. By the end of the hour they were shouting with excitement, revealing English skills most of them didn't realize they had and exhibiting social interaction that undoubtedly was very rare between pupils and teachers within the confines of the typical Islamic institution in East Java.

"High five!" I offered to happy kids who did their part to make the lesson rewarding.

"High ten!" I shouted, slapping hands in tandem with the teacher in the white scarf who had spoken English for maybe the first time in her life.

And what was my take away point from all of this? I'd like to let you decide the answer to that question!