I don’t much want to talk about Indonesia at the moment. Everything is going well enough. I have few complaints but my brain needs a break from the onslaught; six days in a row of school is tougher than I thought it would be, and extracurricular activities haven’t even started (once they start it’s two more hours of teaching per day for me). It’s Sunday today, so I’m going to sit around, watch movies, and eat delicious food until later this afternoon, when I’ve got a date with my tiny friends and then a trip to Bu Heri’s to write lesson plans.
Now I’m sitting here thinking about what I’d like to write about and all I can think of is interesting stuff about Indonesia that I should share with you.
Ramadan is starting soon. Here’s what the Indonesian PC staff wrote about the fasting month in our latest newsletter:
“Observant Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from sun-up to sun-down. It is not compulsory for non-Muslim Indonesians to fast, but it is considered respectful to not eat or drink in front of fasting friends or colleagues. Sexual contact, being angry, gossiping, cursing (in any language!), and smoking is also forbidden/frowned upon during the day. Why [do Muslims fast during Ramadan]? The act of fasting is said to redirect the heart away from worldly activities, its purpose being to cleanse the inner soul and free it from harm. It also allows Muslims to practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate; thus encouraging actions of generosity and charity. Fasting is meant to teach the Muslim patience, modesty and spirituality. During Ramadan, Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds.”
Ramadan starts on August 10 and lasts through September 9, and then it’s week-long Idul Fitri, the biggest celebration during the Islamic year. I’m very excited to learn more about Ramadan and Idul Fitri and see what it’s like in my town during this special time of year, though I’m not much looking forward to teaching. We’ll be having shortened school days and the kids, from what I’ve heard, will be nearly non-functional because they’ll be so tired and hungry—they’ll be fasting and waking up before sunrise to eat and pray and staying up late into the night to eat and celebrate. Still, they’re required to go to school, and teachers have said we should plan low-energy, easy activities. I’ll probably be tired, as well, since I’m going to try to fast, too. I’m anticipating that my sleep and eating schedule will be dramatically altered by the fasting month even if I don’t participate, so there’s no sense in eating during the day only to be too full to eat during the special evening and early morning mealtimes. I’ll definitely drink water in private, though, since I’m all foreign and hot and such.
7.26 The Cool Goddess
My life here is certainly interesting, educational, and thought-provoking but less Exciting than I’d imagined. I’ve got a job; the adventure’s going to be a slow burn and will probably materialize in less tangible ways than I’ve anticipated thus far. Maybe when I get out of our three months of PC house arrest, I’ll have some more palpably exciting times. Subtlety is great and I’m all for the adventure of relationships, language learning, developing as a teacher, and living in and learning about a culture that’s foreign to me, but the tantalizing dreams of traveling the world and big fantasies about what sorts of eye-widening escapades could accompany moving to another country—one that’s on the other side of the world—that overtook my mind and spirit before leaving the US have only been partially realized, making me simultaneously still as excited as before to begin The Adventures and slightly disappointed at my current inability to flit about. I suppose I’m scared of the doldrums of (once again) having a full-time teaching job—while exciting and rewarding in big ways, teaching is definitely a grind and a challenge, probably no matter where you’re teaching. Plus, I’ve got a schedule that’s blocked out six days a week from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon and I’m beginning to get a sense of Routine after two months at site, and you can imagine how I feel about that. I’m a slave to the wanderlust living in a spectacular part of the world and I’m all but forbidden to travel though my few spare dollars could afford some assumedly mind-blowing trips; alas, I’m not allowed to sleep outside of my homestay until early September.* Seems to me that the Peace Corps isn’t about anything but teaching Americans how to be as patient as normal humans. Am I being short-sighted in valuing travel for travel’s sake so highly? I’m not missing the point of being in a volunteer, mind you, I’m just commenting on the personal stuff…the perks, I guess?
These new feelings of anxiety and semi-stagnancy in the physical sense could be the result of settling down from all the upheaval of the past five months. After all, I did travel to Indonesia after popping into Japan and spending the night in Thailand, not to mention the fun couple of days I spent in California and my strange and fantastic reunions in Michigan. I had an electrifying reality check by allowing myself tremendous success in the realization of the first stages of doing something that has, for some reason, always been one of The Goals. It could also be that I’m freaking out about what’s to come next. I’m always looking forward, for better or for worse, and I don’t exactly know what the other Goals are. This is slightly unnerving. Whatever the case, the regression to an almost childlike state of wide-eyed wonder and glee I experienced during the first few months of this thing is wearing down. I think PC folks like to say “the honeymoon’s over.”
I don’t, however, think this is all bad. I’m feeling more like myself, in my head space. I don’t like the giddiness and emotionality of the little girl in me, that hectic maniac that was starting to get the best of me. She’s too much sunshine, I think, for people to handle, at least for me, anyways. It’s embarrassing. I like having a childish side and I appreciate the romanticism of my heart though I sometimes feel self-conscious about my excitability and exuberance; I realize that all these negative feelings should be broken down and cast off, but there are always cobwebs in the corners, no matter how clean the room. Right? Anyways, I think that crazy little child has worn herself out and is ready for a nap, one that will hopefully last until the next big adventure. I like the (perceived) temperance and rationality of my ego and appreciate the appearance of the wild child every now and then, but it’s been a while now since this thing started and the “I” that I currently am needs a break.
With the return of the rationality comes a beautiful restraint that allows me to appreciate those fleeting run-ins with the sublime, undoubtedly preferable to constant head-on collisions. Sweet things are sweeter, I’m less exhausted, and I’ve stopped worrying about whether my entire system for interacting with and seeing the world should be reconstructed. Let’s here it for 23 more months of steadying seas and settling leaves.
*The homestay house arrest is a good thing because people like me would be off in a jiff to adventure around Java, potentially disrupting my integration into this community and my relationship building with my host family. I’d never intentionally do anything to harm my integration here, but I could see myself using the privilege to travel as an escape from problems at site that should be faced instead of run from. So, I’m required to do what my conscience would convince me to do if I weren’t required to do it, but I don’t have to worry about the morality crisis since the decision has already been made for me. Somehow, I feel the phrase “win-win situation” is appropriate, but I’ve talked my reason into a circle, so I can’t explain any further.
7.27 “Your Assignment”
This whole deal is damn complicated. I’m supposed to teach English, teach teachers how to speak English, and help teachers develop participatory learning practices. I’m supposed to use the communicative method and increase students’ and teachers’ ability to communicate and express themselves using English, in whatever form that may be, and thereby try to convince people—some of whom are Indonesian English teachers who have been teaching more than ten years and can’t understand anything that I say but are more familiar with the rules of English grammar than I could ever hope to be—that most grammar problems really aren’t that critical in the grand scheme of interpersonal communication. In other words, “Hi. All you’ve learned in college and what you’ve been teaching day in and day out since I was in middle school isn’t really that important to your students.” The unfortunate thing is that this is probably a truer statement than “It’s a good thing your students know the difference between the past and future progressive tenses,” at least in my case because I am not a trained TEFL teacher and Indiana only requires eight weeks of introductory grammar to become licensed in language arts education (a completely different field from foreign language education), so I’m not really even capable or certified to teach much more than the communicative (hippie?) hey-all-we-have-to-do-is-talk-dude method. Considering the nature of the English curriculum in this country, however, I seem to be perfectly qualified to teach here (I’ll explain later).
The duties from the Indonesian government focus, as far as I can tell, on the “participatory learning practices” part of the job description. In the eyes of the Peace Corps (and in my opinion, too, I think), the communicative method is best practice. It’s the latest trend in language education and seems to have lots of merits, especially since our students—who are, for better or worse, global community members plugged into global culture and communications—want tangible, useful results. The teachers in the bigger cities in Indonesia are doing lots of participatory learning stuff and bringing innovative practices into their classrooms, to the pleasure of the higher ups in the political departments of education and religion, who oversee public and private (Islamic) schools, respectively. The kids are happy because they can make friends around the world and join the global community by using the Internet and their English language skills. The government and the Peace Corps realizes that the participatory learning techniques that are helping the big-city kids haven’t yet disseminated into smaller, more isolated areas. Enter Peace Corps.
The new PC presence in Indonesia could be construed as an effort to force progress ahead of its natural course. Alternatively, if the program is sustained and developed into the future and efforts are continued and supported by the Indonesian and US governments/people, the seemingly artificial progress has a chance at longevity, meaning it can take hold and will appear to have happened naturally…after a length of time, it won’t matter how things were changed, only that they were; the continuance of the program until schools can operate independently in the fashion the government wishes them to seems to be key. Who knows how long that will take, especially considering the fickle nature of governments, presidents, and ministers of education/religion (if not the people themselves, at least the transiency of finite terms of office). I won’t even mention the horrible corruption that I keep hearing permeates every official office from the president’s to the teacher’s.
The Indonesian English curriculum is another beast to battle. The curriculum seems to be modeled after a bahasa Indonesia course rather than a foreign language course; students are taught English by reading literature; the three large units this semester are narrative, analytical exposition, and report. Meaning, for example, that we teach material relating to narratives and short stories (exposition, climax, resolution, etc.) as opposed to how to talk about the weather, give someone directions, or how to describe your family. Supposedly, they’ve covered all this stuff in previous years; they’ve been taking English class since third grade and if the majority of them had absorbed most of the material since then, I could see teaching what’s in the curriculum. The reality of the situation is that the students can barely introduce themselves let alone how to tell me to get from their house to school or how many siblings they have. More of them than can speak can write about that stuff; I have met only a small handful of students across East Java who are capable of holding a conversation. Most of the students at my school can greet me (though not always with the time-appropriate salutation) and can answer “How are you?” (always with the generic, obviously rote-memorized “I’m fine, and you?”), however, not have a chat about the weather or what they ate for breakfast. Why is this a problem and not a cause for celebration in that I seem to have my work cut out for me? Because of the curriculum and the communicative method after which my instruction is required to be modeled. I can’t afford the time it would take to teach them basic conversation skills (that they should have already learned) because of the rigidity of the curriculum, though my PC goal is to help students improve their interpersonal communication skills. These will not be substantially improved if a student learns the parts of a narrative in English, not to mention the fact that they’re going to have to study the language and the content, which is grade-level. It would be like trying to take a high school English language arts course in German when you can’t speak German (with textbooks in German exclusively and a teacher only minimally proficient in German), only more difficult because those languages are at least in the same family. Maybe it’d be like taking a high school English language arts course in Indonesian.
The standards in the curriculum must be met. The teachers and governing bodies are very demanding, bureaucratic, and rigid on this issue. Plus, the students have already paid for their curriculum-based textbooks, so I can’t, in good conscience, not use them, even though they’re probably 15-20% incorrect in usage and grammar (native speakers were not involved in the writing or editing of my school’s English textbooks of choice. Here’s an example of why this is less than ideal: on the back of our textbook is a list of “Tips to be a Rigid Person,” including these gems: “Implement the useful thinking strategy and do what you can do for better wish and feel optimistic for the future,” and “A happy and rigid person have not to face to problems alone, but he tends to ask help.” All fine and good, in my opinion, because I get the jist of what is trying to be said, but this is an English textbook).
This difficult situation isn’t helped by the teachers’ attitude towards their students’ education. It appears to me that the teachers are in practice more concerned with the less important things, like uniforms and keeping up appearances, bureaucracy and documentation, meetings and school-related appointments with non-student people. In theory, the students’ education is the most important thing—I’m hoping that’s the case, anyways. In practice, not so much. I’ve twice taught English classes I thought I’d be observing because the teacher didn’t show up. Teachers leave class if any little thing comes up and “give students duties” to do in their absence. There is no substitute teacher system if a teacher is absent or ill. There is no penalty for lateness or unexcused absence on the part of a teacher. Yesterday, the last two periods of the day were cancelled and the kids sent home so that the teachers could have a meeting about today’s visit from some Surabaya education officials. Today, all of the teachers were pulled out of class in the middle of a lesson to greet the officials and have a half-an-hour long meeting wherein the officials said “We don’t want to keep you from the kids, but…” numerous times but proceeded to give lame, probably bogus information about their job as school accreditors and what their duties entailed. Plus, my counterpart told me that most of the teachers didn’t teach today because they were preparing for the accreditation meetings. It is a very big possibility that I may have been the only one teaching. More than a little frustrating for the obvious reasons and less obviously because teachers’ nonchalance must do little in the way of promoting students’ investment in their own education. We could chalk this all up to cultural differences but I can’t ignore hundreds of kids being half-assedly instructed and whole-heartedly pushed along to the next grade when kids in places like Malang are more proficient at probably every subject than the students here and students in Surabaya and Jakarta are probably startlingly more advanced than those in Malang. Less technology, fewer resources, and older facilities shouldn’t make this much of a difference and it’s clear that these attitudes and practices aren’t necessarily solely cultural (somewhat, I’m sure, but we can certainly do better than we’re doing now).
There’s a little calming voice in my head that reminds me to keep perspective. The thing is, I’m a high school language teacher. I keep thinking back on my times in high school French class and what studying French in high school did for me. I don’t want to demean my educational experiences or those of my peers or diminish the importance of my French teachers’ jobs, but studying a foreign language in high school is not the end of the world. But neither is it insignificant! Undoubtedly, the kids will learn lots of English while I’m here. They will not be fluent in two years at three hours a week; realistically speaking, high school foreign language courses do not produce fluent speakers. Does this mean that what I can teach my students is any less important or significant to their real lives? No. In Indonesia, a high school graduate with even beginning English competency has many more job opportunities than a non-English speaking graduate. That’s enough motivation for me. Kids can’t graduate or go to college if they don’t pass the National English exam (cheating culture in Indonesia is another mind-boggling topic, to be saved for another time…ditto for the National Exam). If I can help someone gain enough competency to enter a collegiate program to become an English teacher or English language specialist, that’s great, too. Just as in the States, I’m preparing kids for their futures. I’d drive myself crazy if I tried to make everybody fluent; I’m hoping to give them the skills they need to continue their educations after I leave. I keep thinking…how much French did I learn in two years? I took three years of French, spent a little time getting some real-world experience (my three weeks in Europe during which I spoke mostly French to communicate with my host families did more to solidify my French language skills than anything I did as a student in the classroom), and have watched lots of movies and read a couple of books in French during and since high school, and I can confidently say that I probably wouldn’t perish if you dropped me into Paris or Lille without a dictionary. I could find a room to rent with no trouble. I may even be able to get a job, probably a working-class job, certainly not a teaching job. That’s about it, and I would say I’m good at foreign languages. Now, that assessment is based on three years of formal education, a semester of college French, real-world experience, and some independent study and review—way more interaction with the language than my students will have over the next two years. It’s just true. I have big expectations but I have to be realistic. I’m so honored to be teaching these kids and they are so eager to learn English. I’m thrilled to be working with such polite, excited, funny, interesting students. For some of them, interacting with me may change their lives, maybe not because I’m me but because I’m a foreigner and an English speaker. Teaching here will certainly change my life. I’m happy to remind myself that I don’t have the responsibility of making them fluent—if they can improve and feel confident to use the skills they have and will hopefully gain over the next two years, it will be a success for me. I don’t have low expectations but I’m not going to set myself or my kids up for failure. We’ll do what we can with the time we’ve been given, and it will probably be great, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of their English language learning experience. Those who really want to become fluent will continue studying after high school, and those who don’t may use intermediate/advanced English in their lives or jobs; some will become farmers like their parents and work the fields and not need English, and some will forget their dozen or so years of English language education, like their parents, regardless of their jobs and careers. And not every student will be motivated enough to become fluent. Most of the kids are already too far behind to catch up to the curriculum without individual, intensive language training that their families cannot afford and that I can’t be responsible for. Certainly every student could benefit from even minimal English proficiency, which is why they’re required to take it. Certainly, discovering a knack for language could open the door to higher education and job opportunities. Certainly, all students express a desire to learn and speak English…but the ones who aren’t sufficiently intrinsically motivated will not become fluent. Is this a grim outlook? Is it grim to be realistic? Is it more than just more attractive to be an idealist? Am I simply incorrect? I am talking fluency here, after all (which seems to be the goal of the curriculum here in Indonesia considering that all schools seem to work for is “International Standard” recognition, meaning all subjects are taught and studied in English). I don’t mean to say there aren’t students who won’t become intermediate or advanced…I’m a firm, firm believer in the power of intrinsic motivation. Nobody but yourself can motivate you enough to do something you’re not intrinsically motivated to do, which is good, right? Art, music, poetry? Heart-stuff doesn’t come from someone else’s heart. There can be influencing factors but in the end it’s your heart (and language is an art form, in many ways manifest but in undeniably universal). High school students need more extrinsic motivation because they’re still young, but at the same time their intrinsic motivation to follow their own will and whimsy is stronger than ever. I’m generally a highly motivated person but I haven’t been making as much of an effort to study bahasa Indonesia over the past two months as I should be…even though there’s plenty of extrinsic motivation. What does it all mean? I don’t know!
I suppose the conclusion is this: I’m not as concerned with “teaching” and “the students” as I was a couple of months ago. What I’m concerned about at this moment are the teachers. They’ll be working with generations of students to come, and I hope they will let me help them. I hope they want my help. I’m a high school language teacher, sure, but primarily I’m a Peace Corps lady. I’ve got duties beyond the classroom; I’m not an employee of my school. I’m worried about the students, absolutely, but I’m also here to help the country help its teachers. The participatory learning initiative is from Jakarta (so, I don’t feel like I’m marching in and saying “Let’s do things like Americans do them!” although Americans do tend to teach with participatory learning techniques. So do the majority of successful teachers around the world). I know that the practices and structures that are in place now are longstanding and deeply rooted but hopefully I can be an instigator for change, even if it means I accomplish little but help prepare my school and my friends there to continue developing after I’m gone, alone or with another volunteer. The fact is plain that the teachers have practices that must change if they are to meet the demands from their capital and the Ministries of Education and Religion. I’m going to start by trying to get them thinking about what’s really important to them as teachers…hopefully we can come to an agreement that our number one priority is the students. Once we agree on that, we can start thinking about what it means. Hopefully somewhere along the way I’ll work with the teachers to help them develop a desire to motivate students and some strategies for doing so. I hope they’re as motivated as I am…I hope there’s at least one teacher as motivated as I am.
Basically, I’ve got my work cut out for me as long as I can become trusted and as long as my school is committed to the goals of its country and my program. The school, at this moment, is giving me the impression that they think I’m here to be a free English teacher for two years. I wouldn’t put it past them to have jumped at the opportunity to have a native speaker because of the prestige foreigners tend to receive in this country, not necessarily because of anything the Peace Corps has to offer (I’ve had to explain to my counterparts and principal, numerous times, the goal of the project, the purpose of the Peace Corps, and my job duties). I don’t fault them for this. How can I? I don’t understand it. I do understand that the teachers and principal at my school are still a somewhat unclear as to my purpose here and that developing a mutual understanding and mutual goals is critical. I hope to accomplish this by the end of this semester. I’m still coming up with strategies but I envision myself as more of a consultant and trainer than someone who’s in the trenches, teaching every lesson everyday. If I do that, where does that leave the school two years from now? The problem is that the school sees me as someone who’s going to be in the trenches. That won’t do. I’ll certainly be working my ass off for the next two years, but it won’t be your run-of-the-mill teaching job. It will be much subtler but challenging…equally so.
So, steps initial: make sure everybody’s on the same page in terms of my role, the goals of the Peace Corps, and the most important things about being a teacher. I thought I had done this but the first two weeks of school have proven that we’re not completely copacetic. I’ve also got to figure out a way to save myself from the hopelessness of the thought that I’m trying to alter (significantly?) practices and methods that have been in place for years. Steps following: help teachers develop participatory learning techniques hopefully through demonstrations and workshops, monitor teachers’ progress and focus particularly on my counterpart’s development, and continue helping my counterpart teach English, do the extracurricular stuff (hopefully with my counterpart so she can continue it all when I’m gone).
Oh, yeah, and then there’s that stuff about developing my host community through environmental programs, youth outreach, health education, and women’s programs, etc.; learning bahasa Indonesia and studying Javanese, Indonesian, and Javanese Islamic cultures and the religion of Islam; being an ambassador of my country and my culture; and teaching Americans about all of the above through informal means and the World Wise Schools program; and world peace. Free of charge. Clap your hands say yeah!
(Plus, I’ve got to watch my daily Darius from 7-7:30pm. Survey membuktikan!)
The good ones, the golden humble hearts. Happy Birthday, Om Jelek.
Oh, get me to a party. I must say CLHSY’s debut is one of the best albums of the new millennium. It’s certainly good to listen to when you’re in a strange place all alone and without much going on. A lazy evening. On the reservation, it was Laurie Anderson, Ratatat, and Beatles revelations. So far, Indonesia’s Bob Marley, Martha Scanlan (for the sleepy sad heart times), violin sonatas by Ravel, “Kids” on a loop, and CLHSY.