Friday, April 16, 2010

Sumatra Conferences: Medan

My island is Sumatra, which is physically one of Indonesia’s larger islands (and the world’s sixth largest), but definitely not the most populated. We have four ETAs: Raj and me in Palembang and John and Vidhi in Medan.

ELFs are English Language Fellows; they have master’s degrees, teach at universities, and are older than most of us, the English Teaching Assistants. Both the ELF and ETA programs are run by AMINEF, the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation. Most ETAs (and ELFs) are concentrated on the island of Java, which has Jakarta, Yogyakarta, etc. Our region’s ELF is Adam, who lives at the southern tip of the island in Bandar Lampung.

Adam told us about his idea to do two collaborative workshops, one in Medan and one in Palembang, at the mid-year conference. Unfortunately, Raj had school during the first week of April, but I was off for the week because my students were taking their mid-terms. The workshop also happened to be over Easter weekend, which was nice, because it’s always more fun to be around other people who are at least familiar with the same holidays, even if they don’t celebrate it.

Here’s what I learned about conferences in Indonesia: it’s nearly impossible to disappoint Indonesian teachers. At first, I was reluctant to present myself as some sort of education expert, but, honestly, we Americans bring some new ideas to the table (the desk?).

In Indonesian schools, English is separated into four different subjects: writing, speaking, listening, and reading. It’s incredibly confusing. Whereas Americans tend to view languages as a whole, Indonesians try to segregate individual skills. In “listening” and “writing” classes, students never speak. The teacher usually writes some vocabulary words on the board and explains them. Then he or she writes some sentences the students have to complete on paper, or teachers play a tape where students have to listen and write down what they hear. But wait, you say, isn’t that writing and listening at the same time? Yeahhhh. And don’t you technically have to listen to be able to speak? Again, yeahhhh. It’s kind of a hot topic here, actually. For the most part, younger teachers want to teach all skills at once under the larger umbrella of English in general, whereas older teachers want to keep it the same.

I remember my Spanish language classes in high school. We were constantly singing, playing games, working in partners, cooking Spanish and Mexican foods, watching movies in Spanish, and even making piñatas. (Mine was a flamingo.) It's not like that at all here.

I know the education system in the United States is far from perfect, but there are a few problems here that seem particularly aggravating. The requirement to segregate skills is one; another is that the classes are huge. I’m lucky—my school is very wealthy, and my classes usually have between 25-30 students. Some schools here, though, put up to 60 or 70 students in one class.

I understand the attractiveness of standardized testing, I really do. And to a certain point, I’m in favor of them. But here, teachers really just teach the test. My seniors, for example, took the ujian nacional (national test) back in April, and now they’re done going to school while the rest of the high school continues. Because the national test is completely writing, reading, and listening, students are never evaluated on their speaking skills, which the government says is the most important. As a result, many schools produce students extremely capable of writing and reading in English who can hardly speak an actual word.

So the goal of our workshop was to show high school teachers some new methods for motivating students and teaching the required lessons in a way that doesn’t make the students want to stab themselves in the eye. You can teach English and still have fun.

Vidhi, John, me, and Adam
with a group of teachers from Vidhi's school

English has always been my favorite subject. I know it’s different when you’re learning it as a secondary language. After all, foreign languages are not my cup of tea. Or my taza de té. Or my mangkok the. Hah! Don’t tell me I don’t retain. Anyway, my favorite part was that English wasn’t like math—there’s not always a right and wrong. English is about communicating, and that’s why they teach it here. But somehow, English has become like mathematics in Indonesia. Students are truly paralyzed with the fear of making a mistake. They emotionally or intellectually check out, do the minimum to get the answers right on a test, and most are never really able to develop a passion for the language.

In the conference, Adam presented on “Large Classroom Management Techniques” and some cultural issues. Vidhi tackled “Practical Classroom Management Strategies.” John and I combined “Using English Inside and Outside of the Classroom” and “Making English Fun.”

I’m not sure how much the teachers retained, but I suppose it’s a positive thing any time they at least sit and think about other ways teaching. I hesitate to say better… but ok, better ways. This is my blog, right?

We actually held two separate workshops; the first was at Vidhi’s school for about 40 teachers. The second, however, somehow spiraled out of control, and we wound up with 250 college students studying to become English teachers. It was incredibly hard to involve and engage 250 teachers, especially when most of them were just there to meet four Americans. Instead of having everyone play the games we taught, we had to use a group of students to be an example. I think they would have had trouble staying focused through 3.5 hours of any presentation, let alone one that wasn’t in their native language.

Bostodoff... close enough.

We were expecting a break, but we didn’t get one, and we wound up with about an hour’s worth of extra time. Luckily, Adam saved the day by teaching them to sing “Row, Row, Row your Boat” in rounds and explaining the lyrics to the Cops theme song “Bad Boys.”

Afterwards, they gave each of us an ulos, which was really sweet and generous. Then we took about a million pictures each. I’m not exaggerating. Each of us stood and smiled for pictures for 45 minutes after the presentation.

With our new ulos-ulos

While I was in Medan, I also got to visit Indonesia’s second largest alligator farm. Yikes. You could pay $3 to feed a live duck to one of the gators. While I secretly hoped someone else would want to do it, I decided to draw the line between watching someone else commit a violent act toward a duck and actually stepping up to do it myself. Especially since it was Easter, and I couldn’t help but think of those cute furry little yellow chicks.

I hope someone fed him a duck earlier.

The sign saying you can buy a duck for about $3
and watch while an alligator eats it.

I also visited John’s school, which is a Catholic private school. While my students have a huge range of abilities (and we separate by 1-5 for ability), almost all of his students come from villages and struggle a lot more with the language. But my God, those kids loved to sing. In one class alone, I think I was serenaded by 7 different groups. They begged for us to sing, and I have such a hard time saying no to a group of shouting, eager students, even if I know my voice hardly resembles that of the Americans they see on television. John and I wowed them with what I’m sure was an inspiring duet rendition of “Hotel California.” One of his students even kissed me on the cheek, which is pretty shocking in Indonesia. The class screamed for about 10 minutes before calming down. The boy said he’ll never wash his lips again, and I felt guilty about not showering that morning.

One other note: at John’s Catholic school, the student uniforms consist of pants for the boys, knee-length skirts for the girls, and button-up t-shirts for everyone. My poor students have to cover every inch of skin from their ankles to their wrists, and they have to wear a wool vest and a tie on top of that.

The Sumatra Conferences, Palembang version is May 7. My teachers are excited already, mostly to meet new “bules.” As dear little Sry says, “I am girl for who be flirty is a must!”


  1. "Bostodoff" sounds like a celebratory blessing you would yell at a Jewish wedding.

  2. Did you say, "See you later, alligator!"?

  3. You sound more and more like a teacher with every blog....... It is in your blood girl! Dad

  4. Teachers are one of the hardest groups of people to teach - I know. Been there, done that (on both ends). So, props to you for improvising and making it work. I always say flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to teaching. :-)

    Now, I'm really sad you did NOT pay to see a live duck being fed to an alligator. Those little things have to eat too. I will send you some money to go back and have massive duck slaughter. I'll pay for 15 ducks to be released at once. LOL. Take your flip cam so you can get it on film!!! I'm going to YouTube search for that right now. Who's gay? Not me! Kill DUCKS!!! LOL.

    Guess what - MORE LOVE TO YOU!!!