School of Peace Day 3

Mr. Anwar said there were three teachers at the School of Peace, including myself.  I met the superhuman Zu on day one.  Today I met Karina.  A young Malaysian woman, she teaches the three days I’m not there.  She says the kids don’t respect her and she has to lecture them to respect their teachers.  She grows angry and they get to her.   She’s young, she doesn’t get it yet that respect must be commanded, and if that doesn’t work, earned.  She said the previous teacher used to smack the kids hands with a ruler when they misbehaved.  We both agree we don’t want to do that.  She asked how I punish them.

Luckily for me, a very generous soul on the Mr. Money Mustache forums, who goes by the user name iPep, gave me oodles of advice on teaching kids these ages.  I adopted some of her suggestions and came up with this.  I trace my hand in the corner of the white board.  When anyone breaks the rules (that we as a class came up with – mainly being quiet and not hitting), I mark a finger.  Once every finger has a mark, I say ‘wah wah wah’ in descending tones.  Then we stop the game or activity and I have them write in their notebooks.  Today it was “I will keep quiet when the teacher is speaking.” They wrote that ten times.  Ha ha.  The second time around, they began shushing each other to avoid that again.  Still, they got the five fingers and had to write.  Looking back, I’m quite impressed with the fact that they didn’t hit each other nearly as much as last week.  Huh!  I need to complement them on it.

So, I’m going to send Karina my lessons and the class rules and the technique for handling the class when rules are broken.  It seems to me that when there’s an understood course of action for rule-breaking, there’s no need to get angry or emotional.  I get to be cool-headed, matter of fact.  I think that makes for a safe learning environment for everyone.

Today I learned that the third teacher, Zu, is paid.  Thank goodness – she’s here everyday, she clearly knows what she’s doing, and she does it all with a ten month old baby on her hip.  Wow.

In many ways the children at the School of Peace are very similar to my son.  In others, they couldn’t be more different.

Despite my best intentions, I feel I’ve failed to instill a love of learning in my son.  When it’s time to do homework, Khan Academy, Latin or music, he complains.  He regards thes activities as chores.  Not so with the students in the School of Peace.

As I write on the board, the children copy down the words before I have a chance to tell them to copy it down.  My son would NEVER take that initiative.

Even during the five finger ‘punishment’, the class writes with little prodding.  No complaints.  No dragging the exercise out.  When done, they call to me excitedly, “teacher – teacher!”  They expect me to evaluate their work using a colorful pen.  “Well done!”  or “Super Effort!”  They love it!  ( And this is punishment!?!?)  My son couldn’t care less what I wrote on his work.

The kids are super competitive.  We played a word game pitting four teams against each other.

Driving home today it occurred to me that my son is likely reflecting my projections.

In this early retirement, I’m not pursuing my own love of learning and writing to the level I expect of myself.  With all of this ‘free’ time, I should have no problem writing for six hours a day, right?  Yeah, right.

To be honest, some days I don’t write at all.  The dark playground distracts me and holds me hostage.  I look at my son and see he’s not doing the kind of work he needs to be doing.* In his down time he doesn’t read or study volcanoes, he watches Dan TDM videos on youtube.  I feel like an old curmudgeon thinking, “you’ll rot your brain!” You look at successful people – they pursued interests in their formative years that blossomed into life long careers: Bill Gates, Einstein, Abraham Lincoln.  They’rotted their brains’ on state of the art computer architectures, physics problems, or the book

    Pilgrim’s Pride

.  I just don’t think passively watching Dan TDM enter into minecraft rooms is going to deliver my son to a place of satisfaction and meaning.

But I digress.

In any case, I’m not convinced the refugee children are motivated by an innate love of learning.  I’m not sure what drives them.  They’ve clearly had teachers in the past who instilled in them a discipline for doing the work they’re told to do.  I’m not entirely convinced they understand what they copy down.  But we’re working with what we’ve got.

At home – I think we need to agree on a schedule.  We’ve had family meetings and discussed it, but we’re not where we need to be.

As for the Rohingya kids – tomorrow – I just realized I need to compliment them.  Even if I punished them today – it was all for being too noisy.  It wasn’t for hitting.  That’s a great improvement!  I need to remember to congratulate them for that solid effort tomorrow.

I brought the guitar in today and played as we all sang “I’d like to teach the world to sing.”  I think by the end of the day, the kids were totally over the song, but a few boys seemed interested in learning how to play.

For math, I taught powers of 2, 3 and 10.  It was gratifying to see the lights come on when they realized how powers worked.  I taught them ‘thousands’ ‘millions’ ‘billions’ and ‘trillions’.  Hey, if the dollar keeps strengthening those units may come in handy!

One of the girls slipped me a note.  It said, “We love you teacher Laura, we love you very much.”

What sweethearts.

After arriving at home, I took my son to Tesco to buy clay for his Egyptian artifact homework.  As we walked he asked about class.  I explained the math portion and he asked how fast the kids were.  “Well, Arfat maybe solved the power of twos to 11 in three minutes.”

“I can do that!” my son said.  For the next 3 minutes and 45 seconds, he multiplied twos, and felt proud that he’d been as fast as the quickest kid in class.

Okay, maybe my son does have some interest in learning – but for some reason, the interest comes from competitiveness, not curiosity.  Oh well, maybe one will develop from the other.  And, maybe he and the students in my class aren’t so different.

*he’s not doing the work I think he needs to be doing.


School of Peace Day 2

This morning I set off for the Sekolah Demai, the ‘School of Peace’, on my bike.   As a moderate disciple of mustachianism, I figured there was no time like the present to be badass and bike to ‘work’.   It was still dark, so DH made sure I was well lit up with a helmet light and backpack light.  He loves me.  50 minutes later, I arrived.  Not a bad commute!

About ten kids oohed and ahhed at my bike and asked me where I’d biked from.

“Tanjung Bungah!”

“Oh that’s far!”

“No – not that far!” I said.  We live on an island that’s 80km around.  It’s ruled by scooters.  Just as in the US – bikers bike for recreation – not for getting to work or to run errands.  So we bike commuters are a novelty.

Upstairs, I donated a fresh soap and roll of toilet paper to the restroom.  Then I locked the door and showered off.  The shower head sprayed the entire room. Here in Malaysia, hosing down the entire bathroom is common practice, so no one was going to care.  Even so, the shower head was super leaky.  After a few minutes I realized my backpack had been drenched in the path of one particularly strong and errant stream of water.  Oops.  Luckily, the toilet paper narrowly escaped a soaking.

Note to self: in addition to buying white-board markers and erasers for the school, I think I’ll bring in a new shower head so I can shower without soaking all four walls all the way up to the ceiling.

As I got dressed and then waited for Zu to arrive, I thought about yesterday.  One of the more precocious kids had interrogated me during a break.  “Are you Islam?” he asked.

“No,” I answered.

“Are you Christian?” he asked.

“No,” I answered.

“Ahh,” he shook his head and laughed, as if I was pulling his leg.  I wasn’t.

Later, talking with Mr. Anwar over lunch, I recalled this exchange.  He shook his head in disappointment.  I assured him the questions didn’t bother me. “No,” he said, “the questions are okay, but I don’t think it should matter.  Christian, Muslim, any religion, we are all brothers and sisters and human.  We are one people.  We don’t need to call out our religions.  We should all be for peace.”

I wonder if Mr. Anwar named the school.

Zu arrived around 8:30am.   She started her class downstairs.  Thirty or forty kids followed her instruction as she balanced a ten month old baby on her hip.  What is this woman’s story?  Why is she here? She’s amazing!

I took my ten ‘advanced’ class students upstairs.  After writing all of their names on the white board, we started with English.  I opened English for the Thoughtful Child, a book I brought from home.  I’d previously used this book to teach my son.  I like it because it engages thinking, versus rote parroting.

We started with a lesson where we look at a picture and the kids answer questions.  Like yesterday, it quickly became clear that some know only a few words of English.  Others know much more.

“What are the children looking at?”  I pointed to the children in the picture, and pantomimed ‘looking’ by holding up my hands like binoculars to my eyes.  Then I shrugged as if asking ‘What?’.

“A rabbit!” one of the better English speakers exclaimed.

“Yes! A rabbit!”  I wiggled my nose and stuck out buck teeth like a rabbit, then drew a very lame picture of a rabbit on the board.  The girls in the back of the class giggled.

This class, just like yesterday’s, divided themselves into a boy’s table and a girl’s table.  Sigh.  As a westerner, I don’t like it.  But I’ll let it go for now.

We carried on with questions and answers like that until ten o’clock, when it was time for our mid-morning break.  I holed myself into an empty room and vegetated on my iPhone as I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  I needed a time-out.  The precocious kid from yesterday’s class peeked in.  “Teacher?  Hello!” he announced.  He looked over my English book and beamed a big smile.  What a cutie.  “Okay, now go away kid, I need a break,” I thought. He seemed to read my thoughts and ran downstairs to play with his friends.

With fifteen minutes left in the break I headed back to the classroom.  I encountered Sally, a British woman I’d met the other day in Mr. Anwar’s office.  She runs a home for illegal immigrant maids who’ve escaped abusive situations at their host family homes.  Ugh.  The whole situation with Filipino maids here is tragic.  They’ve very few rights and their dire economic situations are exploited full-tilt.  Malaysian law is stacked against them, and it’s one of the main reasons Malaysia is considered a ‘tier 3’ country by the US State Department for human trafficking.  This rating means that the national government is doing very little to comply with international standards for countering human trafficking.  It’s a shame, because what I know of Malaysians – Indian Malay, Chinese Malay and Malay Malay alike – is that they’re warm and generous and friendly.  They could totally dial in an anti-human-trafficking effort and make it to Tier-1 lickety-split.  In the meantime, foreign workers suffer.  I’ve met women who live-in with their host families as maids for 51 weeks out of the year, and fly home to the Philipines for only a week to see their children and families. They make *maybe* $1.50 an hour, and send much of it back to their families.  They are almost like prisoners here.  And those are the lucky people.  Others come here and get sold like chattel.

In retrospect, I should have just said ‘hello,’ to Sally.  For some reason I asked what she was doing at the School of Peace today.  “Well,” she replied, “a woman showed up this morning with a dead baby and I’m helping to sort out what to do.”

Oh my God.  “Uh, okay, I’ll let you get back to that.” I said and returned to class.  She didn’t need my chit-chat.

Back in the classroom, I found the kids communicating by slapping each other.  Ugh.  At 10:30, I went to the board and wrote at the top, “Class Rules.”  I asked the 15 year old kid who speaks fairly well to translate ‘Rules’ into Rohingya.  Then I asked the kids to list the rules they thought we should abide by.   They came up with 1-5:

1. One person talks only.
2. English only.
3. No noisy in class.
4. No playing in class.
5. We learning in class.
6. Make teacher happy! (my contribution)
7. Keep hands to yourselves / no hitting / use your words not your hands (again – my contribution).

In my experience, buy-in is much easier to achieve when people make up their own rules.  So, five of the class rules are the kids.  Hopefully they’ll follow them next week!. Next time I teach this crew, I’m going to recruit the two boys who speak fairly well to be my teaching assistants.  Maybe we can break into groups and play games to demonstrate the language.

The kids wanted to continue with English lessons, but I said, “let’s do a little math!”  After all, even when I’m teaching math I’m talking in English, so it is somewhat an English/Math class.

I posed the same question as yesterday:

1+2+3+4+5+…+48+49+50+51+52+…+96+97+98+99+100= ???

The kids scribbled in their notebooks.  They started guessing.  “9500?”  “2000”?  I said, “don’t guess, tell me the right answer. ”  It quickly turned into a competition between the girl’s and the boy’s tables.  It was hard for me to not go up to the board and lead them into a quick grouping answer.  Instead, I gave them a time limit. “You have five minutes,” I said.

A boy said something to the girls and their eyes widened.  I believe he translated ‘five minutes’.

After time was up, I announced, “Time! You should be done by now.”  One of the girls looked up and pleaded, “Five minutes?” Well look at that, she learned some English during math class!

“Okay,” I said.

I waited a five minutes more.  In all, they’d been working on the problem for fifteen minutes – first guessing, then by employing brute force methods.  I was about to call time when the eldest girl motioned me over and pointed to her paper.   They had added all of the numbers by hand – in very orderly penmanship – and there was the answer: 5050.

“DING DING DING!” I shouted.  “That’s right!”

Just then a boy called me over.  They had the answer too: 5050.  “DING DING DING!” I said.  “Of course, the girls won!”

The girls were thrilled.  But the boys were happy too.  Then I spent some time explaining how they could do math the brute force hard way, or take a step back, and come up with a way to solve a problem that’s the easy way.  I asked a couple students to come up to the board and explain the grouping technique.  They were a little sketchy.  So we went over it again, and everyone seemed to get it.   I’m thinking that next time, I’ll give them the same problem but to 1000.  There’s no doing the brute force math on that equation, right?

Just like yesterday, I was happy when 1pm rolled around.  I was tuckered out – mentally and physically.  The girls called me over.  One girl held a notepad to her chest so that no one could see what she’d written.  Then she let me peek at it.  A couple boys tried to see, but I asked them to continue tidying up, and they did.  I peeked at the paper and this is what I read,

Teacher Laura, we no speak English. We love you.  Is ok?

Is okay.



School of Peace

Sekolah Demai is a school for stateless Rohingya refugee children on Penang Island, in Malaysia.  About 60 children, ages five to fifteen, attend the school Monday through Friday, 8am to 1pm.

I’m exhausted and it’s only 3pm on a Monday.  I spent the day teaching ten ‘intermediate’ students in a small room at the Sekolah Demai – with nothing more than a white board and a dry-erase marker.  Last year at this time, I was working for a Silicon Valley semiconductor company, marketing software tools used to develop ARM processor sub-systems embedded in FPGAs.  Today, I taught a group of non-English speakers how to sing “I’d like to buy the world a coke…”

So how’d I get here?  After leaving my job in the summer, I frittered about, luxuriating in my newfound freedom.  Then, after a few months, ennui set in.  No schedule and no responsibilities became tiresome.  While riding my bike or hanging up laundry, I found myself obsessing on world problems – especially those to do with refugee crises.  Not enough was being done for Syrian refugees, Italians were overwhelmed with Libyians fleeing a war-zone, and Thai officials outright exploited stateless Rohingya as they escaped Myanmar.  Yes, with all of this extra time I read a lot – I’d become a bit of a news junkie.

In time, I found myself daydreaming about what I could do.  I ruminated on a recurring idea – what if we adopted a Syrian refugee family and let them stay with us to get out of the horrid conditions in the border camps?  I thought through how’d we’d set up the room downstairs for them and considered how big a family we could put up.  I imagined taking them to the local mosque and connecting them to the community, etc. I mean – seriously – I dreamed up whole conversations with the Imas, dealing with the government to get the visas in order, etc.   I told my husband about it.  He looked at me as if I’d applied for the upcoming Mars mission.

“Why don’t you, er, uh, just volunteer somewhere locally?”  He suggested. 

Great idea!  So, I applied on the UNHCR site.  Last week UNHCR contacted me with an English-teaching gig and I submitted all the forms.

On Thursday I met with the school administrator, Mr. Anwar.  I told him I have practically no experience teaching children, speak zero Rohingya and speak very little Bahasa Malay.  He asked if I could start Monday, five days a week 8am to 1pm.   Uh, I guess they’re desperate? Even so, I said, “Monday, yes, but I can work two days a week maximum, and I was thinking more like three hours a day – but okay, I’ll give 8-1pm a try.”

“Great – see you Monday.” he said.  As I stood up to leave, he added, “I’d rather they learn English than anything else.”

So today was my first day.  I showed up at 7:50am.  About twenty kids puttered about the yard and classroom, but no adults were present.  8:10.  I let the kids know I was to teach today, and asked a few of them to write their names in my notebook.  Dear lord, everyone has four names!  One fifteen year old boy spoke some English and agreed to be my translator.  He had everyone underline the name I should call them.  Thankfully the kids underlined just one name each.

8:20.  Still only me but now with thirty kids.  “Okay, kids, I guess we’ll start English class!” I announced.

Pointing to the clock, I asked, “what’s this?”

“Jam” one kid said.  (Jam is Bahasa Malay for hour and for clock). 

“Yes, this is ‘jam’ in Bahasa Malay, and in English, it is a ‘clock’.  Then I said ‘clock’, motioned to them, and they all said clock.  I pointed to my watch, and repeated the drill.  Pen, book, etc.

At 8:30 another teacher appeared.  Zu directed me upstairs to teach ten intermediate students, ages 9-14. Thank God!  Forty kids were too much!  It was small room with open windows and two rows of foot-high desks.   The boys sat on the floor in the front row and the girls in the back.  Too many girls squeezed behind too few desks, so I invited two to come up to the free spaces in the front.  They looked at me as if I’d asked them to apply for the Mars mission.  One girl scrambled out of the room and brought in another desk. Gender divisions are clear here.

Zu brought me their workbooks.  Thumbing through I discovered they had a solid running start in English – yeah!  So I taught them ‘beautiful’ and ‘clock’ and ‘watch’ and other nouns mostly. We passed around the clock and everyone said, “I have a clock.”  It seemed they knew quite a lot.

We moved onto math.  Their books revealed multi-digit addition and fractions of shapes.  I wrote this on the board:

100+99+98+97+ … + 50 + … + 3+2+1 = _______. 

A 14 year old boy rose up after about a minute and wrote 450. 

“YES!” I answered, “But… these dots mean all of the numbers in between.”  I pointed toward the the number chart on the wall that listed one through one hundred and said, ‘add all of these numbers’. 

A few kids started adding by brute force – one number at a time.  I hoped someone would take a step back and figure out the quick way to solve this by grouping into combinations of a hundred.   The kids spent about twenty minutes on the problem before I nudged them toward the answer.  At last, a 13 year old boy got up and wrote ‘5050’.  Yes!  I said, then showed the entire class how the grouping trick works. 

Maybe that was kind of an ass-hole move on my part, posing this math question, but I wanted to see where they were and see how they think.  We moved onto shapes and fractions of shapes and then it was break time.

My God I don’t know how I’m going to do this.  I’m just making shit up – well – loosely following some guidelines I read about over the weekend.  Mostly, I’m trying to see where they are – what they know and then build incrementally from there – both for math and English.  At the break I learned that, despite writing everything in her book perfectly, one girl knows almost no English.  She looked down when I asked her a question, then she said, “no English.”  Doh.  And there I’d been chattering away for a few hours and she had no clue what I’d said.  So there’s a range of proficiency here.

Over the next hour she and I spent extra time on our own doing repeat-after-me exercises.  She lit up.  That was sweet.

Then I got stuck – what next?  Music!  “Let’s learn a song!” I said.   I wrote the Coca-cola song on the board.  They copied it in their books, as I sang it to them.   

The coca-cola song:
I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company

By this time I discovered they’re motivated by getting check marks in their booklets.  So as each kid finished writing out the lyrics, I walked around and check-marked each line.  For very clearly written work, I wrote ‘beautiful’ at the top.  The kids who received ‘beautiful’ preened and showed off their pages to the others.

Then I became aware of an underlying agitation, and realized the cause:  they hit each other a lot!  They raise hands to each other as if it’s a form of communication.  Over time it really grated on me.  It built up – the way constant traffic honking might get to me after living in an area where honking is rare and socially unacceptable.  I asked them to use words rather than hands.   They nodded, but I don’t think they understood what I was saying – but I’ll work on ’em.   

Some of the girls set about drawing pictures and gave them to me.  One boy wrote “I love Teacher” in a heart in my notebook when I wasn’t looking.  (IDK if that was sincere or a joke – me-thinks a joke).

They are bright-eyed lovely children.   When I’d grown weary of teaching, and felt like I was losing them, we took a break. I taught one boy a hand clap pattycake activity.  Everyone wanted in on it.  For twenty minutes we did freaking patty-cake!  I even taught some the advanced version where you snap and slap your butt.  They didn’t like the butt slap so we did a thigh slap.  That was acceptable.  With twenty minutes left, we reviewed the previous lessons from the day and that was it.  1pm.  I nearly collapsed from exhaustion.

Downstairs, a 14 year old student shook my hand, held it for about thirty seconds and said ‘thank you’.  I urged him to work the math problem again at home.  He can do it.

Mr. Anwar treated me to nasi kandar after school.  Over lunch I asked about the school’s funding.  Rent is RM2000 a month and is paid by a local university professor.  There is no budget for supplies or uniforms.   I asked how many teachers they have.  He said, “three.”

“So with, me, you have four?”

“No, with you we have three.”

Oh no.