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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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teacher

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?

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