The Malaysian American Commission on Educational Exchange (MACEE) is one of the organizations that my English Teaching Assistant grant is facilitated by. Recently, the ETAs were informed that MACEE is interested in publishing a book about the ETA program. The book will basically be a mosaic of ETA experiences, struggles, and most memorable moments from our year teaching in Malaysia. I submitted a proposal for a chapter, and luckily was accepted! My chapter discusses the grandiose plans and goals I had for my year of teaching, and how those goals have been modified. I’ve found that it is really important for me to recognize the small successes I have inside and outside of the classroom everyday, even if my plans did not go accordingly. In a recent meeting with the new U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur Public Affairs Officer Frank Whitaker, he told me that the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program is one of best programs that our government uses funding for. I may be a little biased, but I couldn’t agree more!
The rest of this post will feature the chapter that I submitted for the MACEE book. Enjoy reading it while I work on my post about my travels through Indonesia!
Picture this: It’s Monday morning, and you are prematurely awoken by your neighbor’s pack of roughly 11 dogs of various shapes, size, and bark pitches. You roll off your spring mattress and begin your day with a frigid, low-pressure shower (which, after sweating throughout the night, is more pleasant than it sounds). After slipping into a bedazzled baju kurung, which are basically fancy Malaysian pajamas, you get into your car hoping that the engine will decide you are worthy of driving it this morning. If all goes well, the car will start and you will be on your way to school, ready to educate young minds and engage in cross-cultural learning. Or will you?
In the life of an English Teaching Assistant (ETA), plans rarely go accordingly. Whether these plans revolve around a lesson, an English camp, a club, or even a working vehicle, my undertaking as an ETA has proved to be one that is always in flux. Can this variability and uncertainty be overwhelming and stressful? Absolutely. Do I sometimes feel like if things don’t go according to plan that I’m not accomplishing my goals? Of course. These are feelings that I am sure the majority of ETA’s have encountered during their 10 months in Malaysia. But at the end of the day, it is vital to recognize the unexpected lessons, small changes, and planted seeds we have fostered in the minds of our students, teachers, and even ourselves.
The following are a few anecdotes from my time spent at SMK Semerah Padi in Kuching, Malaysia. These stories are just a few examples of how I know that my presence at this school has not only benefitted that community, but has also helped me to learn more about myself.
One of my goals this year was to broaden my student’s horizons in the environmental studies field. Following this goal, I organized an Eco-Camp to be held at the famous Bako National Park for about 60 of my students. After months of planning, and with significant help from my school administration and state environmental groups, I was ecstatic that this camp was going to take place in one of the most diverse areas in Sarawak. I felt so lucky to be able to expose my students, many of which had never been to the park before, to this environment while having the opportunity to get to know them on a more personal level.
In order to make this camp a huge success and to help my students get the most they could out of it, I did what I thought I had to do: I made an informational packet! “This packet will be the key to my success in educating my students about the importance of our delicate ecosystems and instilling in them a sense of curiosity and respect for the natural world around them!” I thought to myself. Well, it turns out that ensuring the completion of a 6 page packet is not ideal when you are jungle trekking with 60 teenagers. I believe approximately 7 students even made an attempt to learn something from my information. During and after the trek, I was visibly frustrated that my plan had not gone successfully. I was irritated that I had spent hours putting those packets together, used hundreds of sheets of paper in the process, and that my students didn’t follow my directions.
After the walk, our group decided to check out the nearby mangrove forest while we waited for lunch to be served. A student ran up to be with a juvenile shrimp in his hand and said, “Miss! Is this a lobster?” I explained to him what it was and that it lives among the mangrove roots for protection from predators. Walking through the mudflat around the trees, several students asked, “Miss, why is this mud so dark in color?” I explained that the sediment surrounding mangroves is rich in organic matter and undergoes anaerobic decomposition, giving the mud the very dark color and earthy smell. Students continued to ask me about this clam shell (“Is it alive?!”), or that hermit crab (“Was it born with that shell?”), or the perfect balls of sand piled around the hundreds of holes that punctured the coast (“How did these get here?”). I was thrilled by their perception and curiosity. It was clear to me that, just like myself, many of my students had to get their hands dirty in order to truly understand and learn about a topic. Packet or no packet, I was incredibly happy with how my eco-camp played out.
The Kardashian Dilemma
I conducted a lesson for Women’s History Month for several of my older classes. In this lesson, students read short biographies about incredible women who helped shape our history and our mindsets. These women included Maya Angelou, Jane Goodall, Rosa Parks, Sacagawea, Marie Curie, and Frida Kahlo. After reading about and discussing each one of these women, I asked my students to write a short paragraph about a woman that they admire and respect. Of course, many of my students wrote about their mothers. Others wrote about grandmothers, their best friends, and sisters.
One student, however, chose a much bolder choice: Kendall Jenner. For those of you who don’t know, Kendall Jenner is a member of the famous Kardashian clan, known for their reality TV shows and fashion lines. As a particularly ridiculous student known for being the “class clown”, I challenged his decision to write about Ms. Jenner. While I am sure she is a lovely girl, I was curious why he felt she was worthy of the title as “an amazing woman”. His response? “She is so beautiful!” Oh, silly me! Of course that makes her amazing! (Note my sarcasm) I tried discussing this matter with my student for a few more minutes. Maybe Kendall started a charity, or volunteers on the weekend, or donates a portion of her multi-million dollar fortune to worthy causes? My student also had no idea. His opinion and adoration for this woman was based solely on her physical appearance.
While I understand this is not uncommon for a 17 year old boy no matter what country you’re in, I couldn’t let this one go. I asked my student to do some research on Kendall that night, and to hand his paragraph into me the next day. Since these students are very rarely given homework, I wasn’t expecting much of anything when I went to my desk the next morning. But, lo’ and behold, a full page research paper was placed perfectly centered on my desk. My student had actually done research on Kendall Jenner, and had written a very convincing argument about why Kendall should be on my list of inspirational women. Did you know that she has volunteered with Meals on Wheels? And has a “heart of gold”? Who knew.
What was the learning lesson here? Kids will be kids, especially teenage boys. Perhaps I wasn’t able to encourage my student to read one of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies or to learn about how Rachel Carson helped to advance the global environmental movement in the 1960’s. What I did accomplish, however, was encouraging him to research and learn more about his passions, to have facts to back up his arguments, and to see Kendall Jenner for more than just her outward appearance.
Coming into the school year, I was thrilled to learn that I would be leading the Environmental Club. Before the first meeting, I had planned out an entire year’s worth of activities that my club would be able to participate in. I couldn’t wait to teach them about natural tie-dying, up-cycling, keeping a field guide, and other nerdy environmental hobbies of mine. The first meeting was dedicated to ice-breakers and discussing what we would do throughout the year; it went extremely smoothly! The next meeting…didn’t happen. I came to the classroom at the scheduled time for the club, only to find about 4 students scattered about the room looking very much “off-the-clock”. I asked where everybody was, with the only response being stares of utter confusion at my question. Turns out, the meeting was cancelled that day due to a scheduling conflict with students needing to train for a sport competition. When asking which students from the Environmental Club were participating in the sport competition, I was told none of them were. Now I was the one who was very confused.
It is still very unclear to me why certain classes and clubs are cancelled. Because of this, it has become very difficult for me to complete projects with an entire club of students who may not show up for weeks at a time. I decided to try a different approach to my club, which was to focus on the students who I felt really wanted to be there and to learn from me. As a result, three of my most dedicated students and I entered into a national environmental competition called Anugerah Hijau. We submitted a proposal to build a “Green Wall” at our school, composed of recycled water bottles that have been transformed into a vertical hanging garden. With little guidance, my students researched the topic of up-cycling, plastic production and energy consumption, recycling statistics, and environmental effects of plastic products on terrestrial and aquatic habitats.
Before even knowing if we were finalists, my students were eager to begin building our wall. The process involved collecting over 200 plastic bottles, cutting an opening into each one, painting them, poking holes into the bottoms of the bottles, screwing hooks into the ceiling of the wall, and then individually fastening each bottle to fishing line attached to the hooks (not to mention that this was done in tropical heat during the month of July and while fasting for Ramadan). These students were blowing my mind. Shortly after we began, I learned that our team had been shortlisted as number 7 out of 72 submissions in the competition from all over Malaysia. We were finalists, and one of the only secondary schools to be accepted.
Our green wall is now finished, and looks absolutely beautiful in our school’s courtyard. Although we are still waiting to hear about the final decisions for the competition, I could not be any more proud of these three students. What was even better, though, was the response that our wall elicited from other members of the Environmental Club. As we began preparing the bottles and placing them on the wall, more and more members of the club began coming by to help plant a flower, or straighten a crooked bottle. Slowly, many of them decided to be a true member of the club. I couldn’t be happier with the result of the Green Wall. Not only does it beautify our school, it serves as an example to students that life can arise from the lifeless and what we consider “trash”. It also helped to bring together the members of our Environmental Club, and inspired at least a few students to think about the ways in which we can help our environment. Although it wasn’t what I was expecting out of this year, I can only think of the Environmental Club as a success.
The following are a few short examples of other small changes I have seen in my students throughout my time at SMK Semerah Padi.
Students have finally stopped saying, “I’m fine” when I ask them how they are doing. Now they say things like, “I’m great!”, “I’m awesome!”, or my personal favorite, “I’m saucy!”
I began working in my school store in the beginning of the year. Students used to purposely avoid my window so they wouldn’t have to speak to me in English. After creating “Koperasi Cards” with helpful phrases and translations of the items they can purchase in the store, I’ve noticed more and more students not seeming terrified when they see me in the store window.
It has become rare for a student to desperately hide their papers from me in class because they are embarrassed about their writing skills. Now, for the minority of students, there is only a short debate standing between me and their papers.