18 October, 2013
Enjoying English Learning: A Short Story with Ben Bradshaw
The Kuala Lumpur Tower stands prominently above the school as I walk up the concrete road towards Bukit Nanas Convent 2, an all girls school ranging from ages in kindergarten to primary 6. I see a group of smiling faces bunched together, looking out the window as I approach the front gate, all trying to get the first view as to who is teaching the special English program for the day. I turn to the guard at the gate, give him my ID, tell him my business, and he instructs me to go in.
As a former private catholic school, the architecture seems to not fit in with the rest of the city. As I enter into the hallway, I notice there are no doors into the school, just open arches and long hallways. I realize that the outside temperature is going to be the same as the inside temperature, hot and humid, and roll up my sleeves as I walk through the first hallway. A teacher greets me and directs me towards the multipurpose room. It seems awfully quiet for a school full of children and the echoing high ceilings and empty hallways leave me wondering if there are any students at the school today.
I near the end of the hallway and see a beam of natural light shining into the multipurpose room ahead of me. It is less of a room and more of a large open space with tile floors, no walls on either side, completely open to the courtyards on both ends. A group of roughly one hundred students is sitting quietly waiting for the English program to begin. My shoes tap on the floor as I pace through the hallway. The students heads whip up when they hear me approaching and they all change from a silent group into small, whispering chatter boxes. I can see that these are some of the most excited students I will ever teach.
“Students, quiet down please,” one of the teachers says into the microphone, hoping the noisy students will hear. A moment or two of waiting later, the students are dead silent. “Today we are privileged to have Mr. Ben Bradshaw here as our English teacher. Mr. Ben, I turn the time over to you.”
“Terima kasih cikgu,” I say. The students laugh as they realize that I can also speak the local language. I can sense their excitement building even more. After a small introduction of myself and where I am from, I begin: “Today I am going to help you improve your English. I have heard that many of you, although only 10 or 11 years old, are very good in English. So today we are going to focus on your spoken skills! I know that each and every one of you has learned English since you started school and some of you may speak English with your families. I am confident that your reading and writing skills are fairly good! So today I want to focus on your speaking and listening skills. Are you ready?”
“YES!” the students scream in unison. Their response was so quick and loud that I see it as a sign that they must have understood everything I just said. Their listening skills are already up to par. Now time to test their speaking skills.
“Great. So rule number one with me is only speaking English! If I hear you speaking Malay, Chinese, Tamil, or anything else, you are in big trouble! Rule number two is that you cannot be shy and cannot make fun of other students! Now everyone, pretend you have a hat on. This is your ‘shy hat’ as I call it. I want all of you to follow me.” I lift my hand to the top of my head and pretend to be taking off a hat.
“Now, take off your shy hat, and throw it out the window!” I yell as I make a throwing motion towards the window. The students laugh as they follow my lead and throw their ‘hats’ out the window. I glance around the room and try to read the students faces, hoping that they are ready for the activities I have planned.
“Let’s start out with a game! Games are fun right? Each of you is sitting in a row. That row is your team. Now stand up. The game is called ‘two truths and one lie.’ Everyone in the team will take turns telling three things about themselves. Two of them will be true and one will be a lie. I will start: My name is Ben. I have blue eyes. I love eating onions. Now guess which one is a lie!”
“The onions!” one of the students yells out from the back.
“That’s correct. OK, now your turn! Everyone take turns telling two truths and one lie with your group.”
The students seem confused a little at first but at least a couple of students per row understand what I have said. Those that understand motion to the other students to stand up and begin to explain the instructions again.
“Remember, everything is in English!” I reiterate over the microphone.
The multipurpose hall gets loud with young voices creating truths and lies about themselves. For a moment I question the effectiveness of having students create a lie, but I remember that it is simply to spur creativity and to help them think outside of what they normally would say about themselves. I walk over to one of the groups and hear one of the students telling their three points.
“My name is Amira. I like to read. and.... I like eating fish.” She says quietly but confidently. From her pronunciation, I can tell her parents try to speak English with her at home. The other students look at each other in confusion. The girl right next to Amira laughs as Amira says she likes to eat fish.
“You don’t like to eat fish!” one of the other students in the group yells out. Amira admits that was her one lie and tells the next student to go.
I walk over to the next group and see a bunch of students not talking to each other. They must have not understood what I instructed them to do. I try explaining again but they do not understand. I give them my three examples and they still sit there puzzled. I try asking a particular student to give us three things about herself, two truths and a lie. They seem to not understand what I am saying so I try explaining it to them in Malay. I see their expressions turn from confused to enthusiastic as the first student in their group begins telling their two truths and a lie. I tell them to continue and I move on to the next group. I see the next group is having success and let them continue.
I then make my way to the front of the room and quietly observe the students. I listen closely for any small mistakes in pronunciation, sentence structure, or emphasis. This way I can bring up these mistakes later and not have to embarrass the students in front of the rest of the class. I plan to have the students practice avoiding these common mistakes after I teach them. That way I can ensure that all are getting the proper instruction and improving.
“My dad is a photoGRAPHer,” I over hear one of the girls say to his group. Another student says, “Chicken rice is the bess food.” I make a mental note of their errors, wait for them to be finished, and direct their attention back to me.
I walk to the computer that is linked to the projector. I pull up Microsoft Word and type in the word, “photographer.” The students mouth the word as I type it in. I can already hear them all emphasizing the wrong syllable.
“How do we pronounce this word?” I ask them. They all say it to me with the emphasis on ‘graph’. I tell them that is incorrect. They are surprised because the Malay word for photographer is fotografer, with the emphasis more or less on the ‘graf’. I instruct them on the correct English pronunciation and direct them to create a sentence with the word photographer and write it down in their notebooks. I wait for a moment and let the students create a sentence. I tell them to then turn to their neighbor and read the sentence to them. I walk around listening to the students and tell the other teachers to walk around and listen to the students' pronunciation as well. I begin to see how quickly the students learn and how much they must trust me to so quickly change their pronunciation of this word!
I move on to the next mistake and type in the word ‘best’ onto the screen. They all read it and start saying it to each other.
“BesT! Everyone. You need to enunciate that ‘T’ on the end! BesTTTT.”
They all start over emphasizing the ‘T’ and I hear a wave of ‘Teh’ sounds fly through the room. I instruct them to write down a sentence using the words “best” and “photographer”. I ask for volunteers to come to the front of the class and read their sentence in front of the entire class.
“Mr. Ben is the besT phoTOGrapher I know,” the first student says as she reads her sentence and clearly pronounces both newly learned words. She smiles as all the students and teachers reward her with a round of applause.
I look at the head teacher in the room. She nods and smiles as I instruct the next student to come forward and read aloud their sentence. At this point, we know that the students are having a good time and actually improving.
I get lost in thought while the next student reads their sentence. I feel overwhelmed with joy as I see these students learning while having fun and feel privileged to be a part of their English education. I can see a bright future for all of the students and know that English fluency will help them in the years to come.
Later, students created group cheers and cheered simultaneously to a clapping beat.
The entire school could hear them cheering at the top of their lungs.