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Expatriate in Kuala Lumpur – a woman's walkabout – Elizabeth Goodhue

When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. – Sandra Cisneros

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education

When the reader becomes the book


Finding Loke Yew

It is my third weekend teaching at the Myanmar Refugee School. Every time I go there the Uber driver and I bond in our collaborative search for the place.

The one other volunteer and I decided that the reason no one shows up to volunteer at the Loke Yew School is that it is impossible to find. My new Uber friend and I confirmed that the address that I have for the place doesn’t exist. However, he gave me a famous KL land mark – the Hung Kee Noodle Shop.  Between that discovery and the confirmation that the address is wrong, I should find the place next week. Besides, the other volunteer and I found a nearby LRT (Light Rapid Transit) station.

Anything you want

When I arrived at the school – late – the students were sitting at benches, not on them, waiting for me. It was as if my arrival was a signal for them to go wild.

Myanmar Refugee School
Waiting for me?

What are they doing? I ask the woman in charge.

Waiting for you.

Oh. What should they work on?

Anything you want. Then she disappeared.

HMMM. Well, there were pictures of clothing on the board, so why not sing a song about clothes? I rounded them into a circle. A simple task if I didn’t have to pry them apart and keep them from slugging each other. We sat down, and I started to sing the What are you Wearing song faster and faster as I started losing their attention. If you are wearing a blue dress, stand up if you’re wearing a blue dress, stand up. Everyone, except for the two girls wearing blue dresses, stood up, and it was downhill from there. Children spilled everywhere. But I think they liked my voice.

Teaching strength

Teaching little kids is different than teaching teenagers, especially when there are so many of them.  It’s hard to tell if they are unruly or if they don’t know enough English to follow my directions. The perk to teaching little ones is that you can pick them up when the chips are down. This particular bunch likes to punch each other – hard. Sometimes I hear a loud crack or look up to see a kid pressed to the floor in a head lock. It takes all of my strength to pry them apart.

Can you tell them?

Then the woman in charge, the only one who speaks Burmese and English, drifted back into the room. Please, can you tell them to sit down and get out their notebooks? I begged. She told them. For the first time in the lesson, they all knew what to do. Then I realized that they didn’t have anything to write with, so I added before the Burmese speaker disappeared, can you tell them they need pencils?

The children sat for a moment, and since one boy had a hat, I went with that. Who is wearing a hat? He smiled. Another kid wrestled him for it, and all hell broke loose again. So, I grabbed all five of the dry erase markers, mere nubs of markers, and said, who wants a marker? There was a mad rush at me. No, I shook my head, down, down, as if I was staving off a pack of puppies. They finally realized that they had to sit to get something from me.

Where is the Cat in the Hat?
Boy at Myanmar Refugee school
Boy at Myanmar Refugee school

After much gesticulating, one boy understood that I wanted them to write hat. H-A-T. Hat. Then another student followed suit, and I poured a gallon of attention over them practically doing cartwheels. I patted their heads and smiled and jumped for joy, thus inspiring a few others to write the magic three letter. Where is the Cat in the Hat when you need him? Finally, we had all the three-letter A-T words I could think of on the board. Most of the kids busied themselves with coloring and hitting each other, but I got a few to write, and some to draw cats and hats. I held off the others from an all-out dry erase marker assault as the privileged five pressed the remaining ink out of them and onto recycled paper. By the end of the lesson, I had some of them writing words horizontally to make sentences: That fat cat. That cat sat.

They were done. They drifted. They wallowed. They wrestled and punched each other some more. It was mayhem.Boy at Myanmar refugee school

Finding books

I made my way through the other volunteer’s room to find a stash of books. The other volunteer had as much control over his students as I did, but they were older. I left the most unruly boy from my classroom with him, just for a reprieve, and scooted back to the wrestling match/coloring fest in my room.

Who wants a book? There was another mad rush. These kids know what they want. They are wanters. There was a clamor for the books. There were more than enough to go around.

The House was Quiet

Then all of them settled. A calm settled over the room. There was an occasional tug at a book, or a nudge to find a comfortable spot, a competition to have more books. ALL of them were engaged.

They came to me and showed me fish, and babies, and boys, and hair, lions, tigers, bears, and Buzz Lightyear. They asked me to sit in Burmese, and I taught them to say sit in English. They said grrr, and I said lion. They devoured the books. They fought over them too, and we learned how to share.

Sharing at Myanmar Refugee School
Sharing at Myanmar Refugee School KL Malaysia

The unruly boy, the one I had stuck in the other classroom earlier, wandered back to join us. He was the most aggressive and disengaged student there. I scooped him up and hugged him into my lap with all the loving I could muster. We read book after book, and he couldn’t get enough, even when his friends tried to fight him, even when the little girl on my other knee roared when she saw the witch in Rapunzel. When he pointed to the scary shark in Finding Nemo, we roared, and we tickled, and we laughed.

Engaged in books at the Myanmar Refugee School KL Malaysia
. . . and the world was calm
. . . and the world was calm*

Every once in a while, I felt a little head pressing against my back or leaning on my shoulder, or playing with my hair. They couldn’t get enough of me, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

Books at the Myanmar Refugee School in KLThe House was Quiet and the World was Calm,

by Wallace Stevens

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

 

 

 

 

The Essential Question


Why are we doing this?

Students are practical beings. Their essential question is why are we doing this, or what are we doing today. The teacher should ask herself over and over again why is what I teach the most essential thing my students needs to know?

Think of all of the students who sit in straight rows day after day listening to a teacher teach the same thing that they could read out of a book. How is that valuable? How can anyone believe it is valuable?charlie-brown-teacher Charles Schultz coined this with the teacher in all of his comic strips. Blah, blah, blah. As I write, two teachers sit opposite me writing an e-learning module that is not worth the fifteen minutes that they have been talking about it.

But wait!!!

There is value in it. Teachers spend hours figuring out how to teach their meaningless lesson. They bring in someone else to consult so that they can flex their intellectual muscles by lifting elementary math problems. Others will join, scratch their heads with looks of consternation. They speak too loudly so that other people can see how hard they work. How intellectually impressive they are.They bring out their calculators to prove their prowess in technology.

Then they return to their cubicles forgetting everything that they just talked about because it is so meaningless. But they have spent so much time talking about it that they don’t want to flush that time away. Still, they inflict their wasted time on a captive audience of unfortunate students day after day.

Another chance

Don’t get me wrong. I am guilty. I started having lazy days when I lost sight of the essential question. When those days started getting closer, I left. I took a break from teaching two years ago. Now, I want to go back because I have a chance to work in an essential school that puts a student’s essential question at the forefront — where learning is essential for students and teachers.

What happened?

When I was teaching, I wanted my students to learn so badly. I wanted them own what they learned. I wanted to experience the thrill that comes with learning how to solve a problem. When I had the freedom to run a critical skills classroom, I could do that. At the end of the class, we would talk about what happened, what we learned, and what we were going to do with it.

Then my classes kept getting bigger. The wall that used to open between my classroom and the next was plastered shut. My co-teacher started teaching AP English by himself. Then the textbooks crept in: first ninth grade, then tenth. I stayed ahead of them by teaching 11th and 12th.

Pre-packaging

When the superintendent sentenced us to textbooks, my colleague asked, what about passion? Does this mean that we teach literature in snippets of cropped fiction, that students will learn that all poetry has notes in its margins? That all writing fits into a series of nice neat little drafts of 500 words — no more no less? The response was yes. The prospect of pre-packaged teaching frightened me, so I ran away.

One more chance

Now I have one more chance. A tiny glimmer of hope that all is not lost. I applied for a job at an essential school that I found tucked away on Indeed (the world’s number one job post site). I went through two interviews. Now, if I prove my passion and my commitment to essential learning in a one-hour Skype session, there is a chance that could embark on a new and essential journey at an essential school.

How will I answer the essential question?

Featured picture credit

In case you were wondering


IMG_0408Getting out of the elevator is still my favorite time of day – stepping into the waft of refrigerator cold air, relishing for the few moments it takes to turn the corner and get a greeting of a hand across the heart from the doorman before the heat sucks me out the door.

On late days, I cut across the street. When I see a flood of motorbikes in the distance, I find my space and dart to the median, switch my purse to the other side of my chest, and dart the final distance to the never-ending construction site on the other side. I walk along with the traffic until I get to the newly completed construction project. Since I have been here they have constructed the buildings that I cut through to get to the five pristine avenues where I work.

On the unusual morning that I have 15 minutes to get to work, I take the skywalk. I walk past the unopened shops while the workers Zamboni the shiny white floors for the first time that day. Leftover wine bottles and cigarettes rest on the tables of bars that closed before the clients left the night before. Baristas bustle behind locked café doors. The faces that I pass all seem the same, but they aren’t. People come and go in this city, nothing stays. Buildings continue to rise, stores close and new ones open. Workers finish their contracts, head home, or move on to another one.

By the time I swipe in at work, I have worked up a sweat. I say good morning to the guard, who is a constant and trudge up the three flights of stairs to my office. Most people take the elevator, but I have to earn the milk and sugar in my tea. On the third floor, I park my shoes with all of the others and check them to see who has arrived before me. After the computer responds to my second card swipe – verified – I complete my trek with another waft of cold air. The office has 10 columns of cubicles. You may think that I would be the last person you would find in a cubicle, but I like it; it fits. I am in the last row by the windows, and I can scan the whole room when I want to give my eyes a break from the computer. I sit with all of the members of the English team, the graphic designers on one side and the subject matter experts on the other. We work well together. Our Instructional Designer, advisor, and the person who knits the loose ends of a module together sits a cubicle-row away within hearing range.IMG_0371

From 8:30 to 10:30 I create modules (lessons) for English language learners. I am learning that e-learning is not a matter of transferring your classroom lessons to a storyboard PowerPoint. I am still learning this detail. . . slowly. I realize how verbose we classroom teachers are. Take away our voices and we tend to flounder. I always claimed that my teaching was not teacher-centered, but the very act of explaining things to students is enough to disengage them. I have had to learn to use graphics, repetition, and other visuals to give direction and to engage the student. It is a challenge that I enjoy.

At around 10:00 in the morning, the tea girls bring in the milk tea and coffee. The tea is meant to be enjoyed at our desks as we work, and usually, it is unless my friend Dito and I get to talking, but we never cross the 15 minutes marked for tea-time. The tea is delightfully sweet and lukewarm. I try not to drink gallons of it, but it is hard to resist.

When we do return to our desks, we either continue with what we were creating, or review it with Jennifer and, in my case,  do some major revisions. Sometimes I get a call to the sixth floor to do the voiceover for Maths. I am Jesse, the young girl who narrates about square roots, and triangles, pi, and all of the most nightmarish math terms you can think of. Sometimes the English team does VO’s together, which is a bit livelier. Doing the voiceover on the sixth floor also gives me a chance to visit with my programming buddies.

My one o’clock lunch hour varies from day to day. I love to sneak back to the pool at my apartment and read. I am reading everything that I can about what I need to do to become an on-line writer (copywriter, blogger, SME, ghost writer). When I don’t isolate myself, where I go depends on who I am going with. Lim likes the cheapest possible Malaysian food he can find. I have learned to ask him where he is going before we leave. We all love to have our 8 ringett (2 USD) lunch at the outdoor Indian/Malay restaurant, where I always get roti and dahl. Otherwise, I find someone to get a Sizzling Hog burger, or some other attempt at western food.

The rest of the day is the same. A module for an SME can take three days to create, maybe more. In my case, more is usual, but I am improving module by module. Currently, my modules have been for English Language Learners at about 14 years old. I created a short story unit, poetry unit, writing process unit, letters and emails, and an essay unit. Once the GD’s do their magic, the presentation is impressive.

My workday ends at six. I return to the Capri happy that I do not own a car. If I was driving home, it would take an hour. Walking it takes 10 minutes. I am at the gym looking down on the traffic within a half an hour. There, I practice yoga and balance before I return home, read by the pool, and go to bed.

It is a solitary life, which I love. On the weekends I hike with the Happy Hikers, who are as intense about hiking as I am, if not more.  I will have to lay low in Malaysia until I get a new passport, which is too full for me to insert my work visa. Then I will travel to Nepal to travel to base camp with the Happy Hikers.

The night before the blast


Time journey

 

 

IMG_3155
Flying into dawn from Boston to Istanbul

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every time I turn the time on my Walmart watch from Mexico the winder falls out. Nevertheless, I always adjust the time forward or back the minute I get on the plane. I try to trick my body into thinking that it hasn’t lost a day during the journey from Boston to Kuala Lumpur.

Breaking Fast

IMG_3218
Breaking Fast

When I arrived in Istanbul after the first leg of my 24-hour flight, I was ready to use my 10-hour layover for a small adventure into the city. In cases such as these, my strategy is to latch onto someone who looks like she or he knows where she is going. My first two attempts ran into language barriers and Turkish brusqueness. Then I scored! The woman was German. The man was Turkish, turned German at an early age. They took me to the Blue Mosque on the tram. I arrived an hour before the breaking of fast on the first day of Ramadan. There were miles of people crammed at plastic tables in the square waiting for the sun to sink behind the mosque, and the call to prayer to bellow across the city.

But it is not Monsoon Season.

IMG_3197
Istanbul

The next morning, unbeknownst to all of us on that peaceful sunlit evening, a Kurdish Militant Group bombed an area just a few tram stops away. When I posted my near miss on Facebook, a concerned friend asked if my quest was necessary. Absolutely. I answer that without hesitation. Perhaps I put myself at risk by living in northern Mexico, venturing into Istanbul, traveling the world alone, or living in a country on the other side of the world, but I have managed to skirt the ugliness of the world, the civil unrest, the warring factions, people desperate enough to believe that a suicide bomb will solve their problems. The militant group that bombed Istanbul, explicitly told foreigners to stay away, because they are at war. Does that mean that we stay away? Last night a woman warned me to beware of the monsoon winds when I travelled by boat to Pulau Perhentian Kecil. But it is not monsoon season. Do we let ourselves be governed by fear, or do we govern it?IMG_3188

Belting out Shakespeare

In all of my years as a teacher, the students who succeeded in class were the ones who took risks. They are the ones, who despite their 25 other classmates, belted out a line of Shakespeare; they were the ones who dared to write a letter to a school board member whom they did not know. They dared to do something uncomfortable, to push the envelope. They were not the ones who snarled resentfully at a challenge, or stared idly out the window wishing they were somewhere else. They took a bite knowing that they could fail. And no matter the result, they gained knowledge about themselves and the world. IMG_3159

The voice of fear

My curiosity feeds me; it tells me to go forward. Every once in a while my fear-voice tells me that I am doing this all wrong, that I need to be in my house in Peterborough, making enough money to pay for its leaks and creaks. This voice tells me that I don’t have a plan for when I am too old to take care of myself. This is the voice that tells me to worry about a future I cannot control.

Do you have a plan?

The 11 people who died in Istanbul had no idea what would hit them the next day after they broke the Ramadan fast. Perhaps I brushed by one of them as I nosed about their beautiful city. Did they have a plan? While I am healthy, while I have the ability to move my body up a mountain, swim to Hancock from the Nelson landing on Lake Nubinuset, and the wherewithal to reach out to someone who will help me in a foreign city, I am going for it.

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There is no dew on the grass here


In three weeks I go home to sell my house. A breaking point in my journey. Job offers are beginning to come in, which makes me thoughtful and a tiny bit flattered. To all of them, I want to say yes.  A job helping teachers teach in Columbia, another job helping American teachers problem solve on-line, another on-line job teaching English at a Vietnamese university. How can I do them all and not leave my job here behind? My ultimate goal is to juggle all of these jobs remotely, which means scaling back on the one I have, which I am not ready to do yet. There is so much to learn. I want to learn how to be an instructional designer, but all of these opportunities would support that as well. Once I opened the door and left ConVal, the world opened up and it is hard not to grab it all up at once.

IMG_2954

Expatriate living pulls people like me together. People who do not quite fit into the routine world of one culture. The sensitivity that we have to the logic of the world turns us into introverts in the rat race careers that we hold until we realize this.  During my walkabout, I have deep connections with people who, like me, feel as they do not belong in this world. I have always struggled to wrap my mind around what people do and the decisions that they make especially in education.

I do not understand why educators pile students into little slots like pigs for the slaughter and lie to them about their future. School is incomparable to anything they will ever experience when they leave it.

We tell them that they need school, when what they really need to do is hold onto their curiosity and wonder.
IMG_2540I once taught at a school that everyone considered was a dump. It was in a small factory town where everyone knew everyone else, where some parents did not have teeth, and some did, some students had no parents and were living with friends, some students came from hard-working middle-class families. In my first year, four of my students were pregnant, one probably by a family member. This was a town where the nation had decided to dump its nuclear waste. This was a town with that kind of reputation.

But this was a magical place to teach. This was a place where brainstorming sessions were simple: what do you mean you have nothing to write, one student would say, remember that time your father lost his finger in the logging accident or the time you tried to shoot the deer that hopped over you with a bow, or when your father left you in the woods alone all day to turn you into a man? And the girls had more tender stories to tell about boys, about sneaking out of the house, running away, school, being homeless, under the surface girl stories.

vietnam biking girlsFotor
Girls in Hue, Vietnam traffic

This was a school that solved the chronic scheduling problem that schools have. The reason why so many students sit in classes that they did not sign up for: scheduling. Early in the morning, each teacher would set up a table in the gym with one list for each course that she taught and on it twenty slots for the number of students who could sign up for the class. At 7:35 on the Monday of arena scheduling, the gym doors would open and the seniors would stream in to sign up for an essential course, or a favorite teacher. Students got what they wanted, teachers got students who wanted to be there and all was harmonious. Don’t get me wrong, I had my fair share of classes where six out of the twelve students dropped out the minute they were 16, but if students made it to their senior year, this system worked. The beauty of it was that the students chose who they wanted to teach them and what they wanted to learn.

Ten years later, after four years of being a full-time mother, I taught in a school with a good reputation. It was not a community; it was a farm. Small communities were set up in classes, which dissolved after 18 weeks, never to be formed again. Students were from rich, middle class, poor or no families at all. They were separated economically under the guise of intelligence. Students with disabilities were in one room, emotionally disturbed in another, the middle class took the mediocre classes and the rich took the honors classes. The teachers were segregated by departments. Great teachers and a great principal taught in their own bubbles that rarely touched.IMG_2906

So I gave up because I just couldn’t accept working in isolation. My passion for teaching students to take responsibility for their own critical thinking was too strong. My intolerance for mediocrity was too strong. I was too strong. People wanted to sail, but to me, they were setting off on the Titanic. I got off the boat as it sank — perpetually.

 

IMG_2926
Ferry boat woman in Hue, Vietnam

 

I hung in there for 24 years while the ship kept its bow above the water. And then I set sail for Mexico and then to Malaysia. And it as if the world has opened itself up to me. I can keep my ideas to myself; I can support e-learning, which I think is the answer to education. I can live in the world community and embrace what it gives to me every day.

In the House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, the three witches tell the protagonist, life’s a circle, you understand. You have to leave in order to come back. The protagonist had to leave the world in which she was stuck, the world in which her cousin’s Cadillac couldn’t escape because the streets were so narrow. Sometimes you need to step out of the cycle to understand it. I am coming to the understanding that my physical journey will take me back to the states, but spiritually, emotionally, maybe my place is just right here with me. Maybe I can be my place. My place, my bliss.

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