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!


Rohan Rajiv said...

Nice one Brad. Best lessons are indeed unexpected. :)

edwinK said...

This is such a coincidence! I was in Jember at the roughly the same time as you last year, though not helping in a university, as you did. Had been visiting Jember for mission trips for the past two years. Somehow, I feel that I can relate to your experience there. Can almost imagine the scene that you painted with the kids on motorcycles, impromptu activities (this happened to my team when we were at Jember too)(many times),the language barrier, and enjoyable interactions with the Indonesians! Hope the volcanic ashes had not bothered you as much as it had irritated my eyes!

Eunice Chew said...

High ten to you Brad, seriously!!! You did an awesome job given the situation you were in. Despite the the fact that the task came so unexpectedly to you; you made the best of the opportunity given. The lesson I take away is to use every challenge we face as an opportunity to impact others(: In Latin, they say "Carpe Diem". It was a joy to read(:

Luqman said...

It definitely seemed like you have enjoyed yourself and I am sure that the people in the classroom that day benefited a lot from you. Given the situation you were in; unprepared, and not properly clad to teach, I think most people would reject the offer to teach the class. I think you have won the hearts of the students and teachers in the classroom that day, and most importantly, they have learnt something at the end of the day.

Well, base on what I have read, I am guessing that your take away point from this experience is that it is important to share your expertise or knowledge and to reach out to as many people as possible, regardless of the place, time or situation you are in because this newly-acquired knowledge might just change someone's life. (:

ivo said...

Hey Brad, great improvisation skills!
As in blues and jazz, we know that such skills are the well-earned fruit of years of practice. In my experience, it's the same with teaching: you gotta know your stuff, and then you can extemporize with it as required by the circumstances.

Or, perhaps, the take-away point is just to remind ourselves of the now half-forgotten East-West cultural divide, which from time to time reveals itself in curious ways

Mark said...

Omg! Brad, what are you doing teaching professional communication? You are better off as a non-fiction writer. You write better (clearer) and more vividly than the best writers of that genre and even others in the world. I could literally feel I was there experiencing the same sequences of events you did. I was being taken for a ride and I know it when a written work is so good it fires my senses because I have experienced it before.

I think if you travelled Java enough, you would have all the first-hand material you can compile to fashion a best-seller everybody would scurry to buy. At least I know I would scurry.

Get another distinguished-teacher job in Indonesia and book your next flight back soon!

Now I know why you wanted me to read your blog! You probably knew the type of writing I can reasonate with!


.:michelle:. said...

From what i have heard and read from this particular experience, I believe you have gained as much as they have gained from you. To be able to think on your feet was amazing. I salute you for that.

Paula said...

That was really quick thinking on your part Brad. I really liked the idea of how you mixed them up based on their English language ability because this would allow those who spoke good English to help those who were weaker in the language and at the same time brush up on their knowledge in English. Speaking in a language that is foreign to you takes great guts because you have to be open to making mistakes and taking criticisms from others when they correct you. So kudos to you Brad, for letting them enjoy learning English in such a fun and stress-free manner.

my sanveta's space said...

Hi Brad. That was fabulous...
What I am concerning right now is that how the first language will much influence the second language..

Sonata 2011 said...

a good lesson for all..nice article beb! =)

Unknown said...

It was really nice to read. As one of the commentators already said: You should definitely consider pusuing a writer career :)
I think, the lesson that I take away is that, even if I am confronted to an unexpected situation, I should be a quick-thinker and try to make the best of it because life is just full of unexpected surprises. Good and bad ones. We just have to adapt to each new situation and rely on our capabilities and previous experience to deal with it.

Nesrine said...

By the way, it s Nesrine;)

Zoey said...

I think the idea to separate the teachers and students by their English level into groups are brilliant!The lecture you gave must be the most interesting one they've ever been.
Lots of unexpected things happen in our daily life,and that is what make life interesting.
I realized I like the stories about your teaching experience very much.It nearly changes my opinion that being a teacher is very boring.

Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments! Much appreciated!

Anonymous said...

Great flexibility and thinking on your feet!!
I will be waiting to buy the book....
Hurry up!!!