About Me

My photo
Hello, Ciao,안녕하세요, Hallo, Hola, Selamat tengahari! My name is Rachael and I am a travel enthusiast. Ever since I can remember, my parents have taken my brother, sister and I on good ol' American road trips. It's safe to say that was where my interest in new places, people and experiences was ignited. As my parents always encouraged my siblings and I to explore and ask questions, I developed a sincere curiosity for new adventures. In addition to seeing much of the United States with my favorite travel companions (my family), I had the opportunity to spend a semester in Rome, Italy, as well as a semester in Seoul, South Korea during my college career. Now, I am honored to be taking part in a Fulbright ETA Scholarship to Malaysia for a year! My family's favorite motto is "Life is all about the journey, not the destination." I invite you to join along in my journey of cultural exchange and mutual understanding in Malaysia! After all, the more, the merrier.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Step 1: Becoming Cikgu Rachael

My desk at school in the female teachers' room! I try to make
it inviting and fun for the students.
The Fulbrighters brought to Malaysia come with a mission to facilitate oral English communication. Most students that ETAs teach know English grammar and have been learning English from a young age but are merely uncertain and nervous to speak the language. Therefore, native English speakers are brought in to teach and encourage them to use English for communication. The benefits of students in Malaysia knowing English is that it allows them to attend universities in Malaysia, as well as abroad and allows them to broaden their spectrum of future career opportunities. With that, it requires Fulbrighters to develop ways to engage the students in English through games, projects and virtually anything that will capture and harness their motivation to use English, as it is seen as crucial. 

Homemade cards and letters from my students! I have
also received two beautiful baju karungs from my students!
Initially, I was surprised to see how little English my students at my school actually knew. Therefore, it is much more challenging than I had ever expected. However, with that, there is such a large span of growth my students can experience during my nine months teaching them. During my first two weeks, I tried to develop and engage my students in activities that would allow me to assess their current level of English knowledge in measurable terms, so at the end of the year, I can do a final assessment and determine how effective I was in teaching them English.

Secondary schools are measured in terms of “bands” from 1 to 7. Band 1 are the most elite and prestigious schools for students who consistently score well on assessment exams, and Band 7 being the schools with students who generally scored lower on educational exams since a younger age. However, there are also other factors that influence the "bands" as well. Within each school, there are “forms,” similar to how the American system using “freshmen, sophomore, junior, senior.” The forms are as follows:

Form 1: 13 year old students
Form 2: 14 year old students
Form 3: 15 year old students
Form 4: 16 year old students
Form 5: 17 year old students
Form 6: 18 year old students ( not all schools have Form 6)

Form 3 and Form 5 are referred to as “exam forms” or “exam years.” When a student is based in Form 3 and Form 5, they take state and federal level education exams. They must score well on these to determine their future educational courses. A school also is assessed based on these exams. Therefore, these years are reserved for “teaching for the exams” and the curriculum is centered on the exams year-round when a student is in Form 3 or Form 5. In addition, some schools offer Form 6, which is for students who wish to go to university, but either did not score well enough on their Form 5 exams or do not have the money yet to attend university. Therefore, these students perform another year of study and retake some exams. My school does not have Form 6.

Within each “form,” students are divided into separate classes based on past educational performance. Every school divides students differently, and has different names for classes. However, at my school students are divided into classes A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Class A is reserved for the students who typically perform well, behave well and score well. Class G is reserved for the students who typically do not perform well and often have issues in regards to their behavior. For example, in Form 1, there is:

Form 1 A, Form 1 B, Form 1 C, Form 1 D, Form 1 E, Form 1 F, Form 1 G

With that background information, you may now be wondering about my school and my day-to-day life...

I am teaching at a Band 5 secondary school with about 1,100 students. The school is situated very near to the coast of the South China Sea and about a 20 minute motorbike ride from my school. It was built only about ten years ago. My school has Forms 1-5, divided into classes A-G. I teach English to Forms 1, 2 and 4 and classes A through D. Some of my classes are forty minutes, while other classes are eighty minutes. Outside of my school day, I offer optional English classes to Form 3 and Form 5 students two-days a week in order to assist them in preparing for their exams.

Moreover, I teach one KHAS class a week, which is a Malaysian Special Education class. With the KHAS class, I teach about 20 students with a variety of different disabilities including autism, down syndrome and various physically disabilities. I decided I wanted to work with these students while I was on a tour of my school and was introduced to these wonderful students. I immediately fell in love with them, and although I have never consistently worked with special education students before, I wanted them to have an opportunity to work with me just as the other students at the school are. To be honest, I was not even expecting my school to have a separate special education department, as unlike America, many countries, especially in Southeast Asia are not advanced or so-called up-to-date with providing education for students with special needs. So, once a week, I teach English songs to about 15 KHAS students. They literally make my week, and I am not lying when I say that most weeks, I leave with a tear or two in my eye from the sheer happiness I get from spending time with them. Thus far, I have taught them the Hokey Pokey, I'm a Little Teapot, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and This Little Light of Mine. However, Hokey Pokey is definitely there favorite and every class they shout, "Hokey Pokey!" So, we end every single class with Hokey Pokey. The 5 to 6 fellow KHAS teachers always are in the class with me and help translate as I teach them the words and assist them in making the complimentary movements. I love these students. Plain and simple.
My introduction PowerPoint!

Beyond KHAS, for my first week of class with my other forms, I focused on introducing myself to my students and where I come from. I was fortunate enough to have access to a Language Lab that has a projector that I was able to use to show a PowerPoint with pictures of my home and my life. They really enjoyed it, although I am not sure how much they understood. However, what they did understand was when I introduced my mom, my dad, my brother and sister. I told them how my brother loves to drive a Jeep on cliffs called “off-roading.” I showed them a picture of my brother next to the Jeep. Now, whenever I refer to anything to do with cars, all the students shout “JEEP!” For example, I had my young kids do an activity that involved thinking of nouns A through Z. For J, almost every student put “JEEP!” It definitely made me smile, and I knew Zach would be proud! ( I saved them for you Zach!)

As for Hannah, my students think she looks “cool.” They remember her name better than anyone else’s, because (fortunately yet unfortunately) they immediately said, “Hannah? Hannah Montana!” So, good news… they love Hannah and remember her name, but they remember it because of “Hannah Montana.” (Sorry sister!) I believe my students are so fascinated with Hannah, because she is an American around their age. Consequently, they ask me so many questions about Hannah's life. I think I just need them all to write letters to Hannah, so they can ask her themselves. But, everyday my students ask, “How Hannah?” I say, “She is good!” with my thumbs up! Needless to say, they are in love with Hannah and do not even know her yet.
English Quote of the Week! I pick a new one for every
week! On the right are my family pictures that
attract a lot of attention!

As for my parents, they think my parents are “too young.” I have pictures of my family hanging at my desk, and they always point at my parents and say, “Who?” And, I say “mom and dad.” Their mouths drop open and say, “No!” By the way, these comments come not only from students, but also from the fellow teachers. The teachers and students are also always curious about the location of our family photos. I have a picture of my family at my graduation from Saint Mary’s College, a picture of us bundled up skiing in snow and a picture of us in front of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It is always so fulfilling to try to explain snow to them and the things we can do in the snow. None of my students have ever seen actual snow, so to make that come alive for them is always a treat.

In addition to my family and life at home, they are fascinated by my size and by my eyes. The people I work with and teach on a daily basis have never seen hazel eyes, and actually most of the time, my eyes are green here from the sun. At first, everyone thought I wore contacts, even though I swore to them I did not. So, one day in class, I took my sanitized fingers and gave my eye a swipe to prove I did not. “Wooo!” all the students yelled. By the end of the day, I had a herd of students surrounding my desk wanting to see my eyes to see if the news around school was indeed true.

Fellow teachers and I after a district-wide ping pong

The teachers are also fascinated by my size. One the fellow male English teachers exclaimed one day, “When we hear an American come here, we thought American would be tall and big. But you, so small. So short. You like us.” So there we have it, I am indeed more like them than they ever expected.

My students also think that I have a boyfriend back in America that I simply will not tell them about. At first, my students thought I was married because of my college ring that I wear on my right ring finger. When I conveyed the news that I was not married, they were mesmerized.

My Form 2A students who think I have a secret boyfriend!
 “No husband Teacher Rachael? Oh no! Then, you have boyfriend?”
 “No, no boyfriend,” I commented back.
 “You lie Teacher Rachael,” the young girl in 2A remarked.
 “No, I tell the truth,” I explained.

It is very common in Malaysian culture for someone to ask whether or not you are married. If you are not, it is common for them to ask about your relationship status. It is not viewed as intrusive, but rather as a means to conversation when they first meet someone.

Some of my female students and I at a school barbeque!
The 2A student and many students still do not believe me to this day. Consequently, many people think I have a “secret boyfriend” that I do not want them to know about. It gives me quite a chuckle sometimes to say the least. Some of the Form 5 students who are more advanced with English become quite hilarious and like to joke with me, "So Miss Rachael, when does your boyfriend come here?" they say. I just shake my head and laugh.

My students are also huge Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber fans, so in order to engage them I always slip a reference to T. Swift and Justin in my classroom. Even more, I find myself listening to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift more than I ever have in my entire life. Seriously! I come home from school and jam out to them. Beyond that, my students are decked out with Angry Bird merchandise such as Angry Bird pencil cases, book bags, pens, pencils and stickers. Harry Potter is also quite a hit here, so I may or may not have mentioned Hogwarts in my classes.

My lessons have stemmed from brief introductions the first week, to listening activities, grammar activities, games for learning nouns and most recently, a verb game to review as well as introduce past, present and future verbs. As I try to teach them English, I always slip in little lessons as well. For instance, each day I walk into the classroom and say, "Hello, class!" 

They stand up, and say "Good morning, Teacher!" in unison. 

"How are you today?" I ask the class.

In Malaysian culture, it is most customary to always say "fine," when someone asks how you are. However, I want my students to use different, more enthusiastic words so I have been trying to teach them new words like "Great," "Awesome," "Good," "Spectacular!" while doing two thumbs up. Then, I taught them that they could say, "Alright," or "Okay," while putting there hand out and moving and turning it slightly back and forth. Some students have gotten this concept down, while others need some practice. 

A Form 5 student and I after a school Hiking Trip for the Prefect Students.
(Prefect students are the students who perform well, behave well and score high)

But, let me tell you, all around the school now students give thumbs up when something good happens or when they say hello to me! I love it and I especially love it when they do it with a bit of enthusiasm. Cikgu Rachael loves nothing better! Beyond the thumbs up, I taught students "air fives" (high fives without actually touching hands) I thought this would be a great way to end class as I walked out of the classroom, since students do not switch classes during the day and stay in the same room. 

My 4A2 male students after they learned about verbs
So, as I exit class or when I see students around school, I give students "air fives." I chose to do this, because as a female, I am not allowed to make any contact with the male students whatsoever. Therefore, since I could not "high five" male students, I thought the "air five" would be an excellent alternative. A matter of fact, I got the idea from my Freshman Year Western Civilization teacher, Mr. Gallagher who had High Five Fridays and whose hand I had to jump up high and hit at the end of every Friday Western Civ class. Thanks for the idea Mr. Gallagher!

The school in general is more chaotic than I could have imagined, and teaching is very challenging as well. But, when it is all said and done, at the end of every day, I encounter a new challenge, a fresh opportunity and walk away with a new experience to learn from as well as having learned more about myself.

The most important thing I have learned is that whether a good day, or a bad day, I need to be a reliable, consistent rock for my students. An English speaking world and having to speak English seems like a far, distant idea to most of my students. Many of them think, “Why do I need to speak English? I’ll never use it.” So, the challenge is to unveil their own potential to them, and tie the English into their own life within their own means and community. In addition, the challenge is to show them the possibility that they could very well go to university or even travel someday. For the following eight months, that is what I will be striving to do; showing them how to use English to tell their very own story within their very own community, while introducing them to their potential!

It’s not easy, but it can be done. 

My Form 2A class who wrote pen pal letters to a Western Civilization class at Lincoln-Way West High School to my freshmen year teacher's class!

Students writing letters to their Warrior pen pals at LWW! They were really nervous but excited as well!
They were very nervous to use English properly, but I am hoping this project will help inspire cross-cultural exchange while inspiring my students to improve their English. I am in the background helping a student think of what to say to his pen pal.

 Photo: Courtesy of one of my students who I allowed to use my camera.

Taking a picture with their letters to their pen pals and of course, sporting a Warrior shirt!

View of the English Hangout Room that was once a storage room!

Form 5 students after they helped me set up the school's new "English Hangout Room" that hosts pictures of America, maps of the world and flags from my hometown, state and college! The room is open to students who want to "chill," listen to music and speak English to me! 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Dance to the Life of Cikgu Rachael

“Life’s a dance you learn as you go
 Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow
 Don’t worry about what you don’t know
 Life’s a dance you learn as you go”
              -John Michael Montgomery

Throughout the last five weeks, I have been invested thoroughly and sincerely learning the moves to a new, vivid dance; the dance of my life as Cikgu (Teacher) Rachael in rural, Islamic Malaysia.

Although I have lived abroad before in both Rome and Seoul, my life has never been as different as it is now. Looking back to my time in Rome and Seoul, I realize how many little threads there were that kept me in touch and more grounded to my life in America, even while living in those cities overseas.

In Besut, Malaysia it is much more difficult to find and experience those threads. Although this creates an incredibly more challenging experience, it proposes and introduces many new opportunities for insight and growth.  Over the last six weeks, I have observed, I have been learning and I have been getting acquainted to the rhythm and movements to the new dance to my life as Cikgu Rachael, step-by-step.