Teaching, Learning, Growing: The ELF Workshop

One of the new initiatives for the ETA program this year is a required Teaching Workshop, preferably in collaboration with an English Language Fellow (ELF).  In Indonesia, ELFs are associated with the Regional English Language Office (RELO), and their primary job is to teach in various tertiary educational institutions (most of the ELFs in Indonesia are in universities, but there are also those in Police Academies and the like).  But while most of their time is spent at their host institution, schools and such can also request a workshop held by an ELF in their Region.


Listening as my kepala sekolah (headmaster) gives an opening speech.

There is no ELF in Gorontalo, but there is one in Manado: Jeremy, who has been in and out of Indonesia for years now, has taught in all sorts of contexts, and is all-around the kind of awesome I can only dream of being.  Jeremy was also at our Mid-Year Enrichment Conference (MYEC) during my first grant, so I already had some idea as to how great he is, and it was a pleasure to work with him again.

I’ve assisted in the implementation of various conferences before, but I’ve never been anywhere close to heading one, and so as my two sitemates and I planned the conference together, there were certainly quite a few learning curves.  But I think we all gained a lot from the experience, and the workshop ended up being really helpful for all the teachers who attended.


Teachers listen as Jeremy describes a speaking activity.

Because my school is most centrally located, we held the workshop there.  My teachers helped to plan much of the details, including when the workshop should be held, food (you simply cannot have an event in Indonesia without food), and inviting teachers from other schools to attend the workshop.  My sitemates and I chose incorporating speaking into the classroom as the subject of the workshop, and communicated with Jeremy to plan what we wanted out of sessions.  Our workshop, cleverly entitled “Teaching Dynamic Effective Speaking” (courtesy of Jeremy), was well on the road to fruition.

There were plenty of bumps along the way: many of elements we thought had been planned well ahead had actually been forgotten on the wayside by various parties and ended up being completed last minute (to an extent, this happens when planning any kind of event, but I do feel jam karet was somewhat to blame[1]), and only about two-thirds of the teachers whom we had been told were coming actually came to the event.



Jeremy looks on as teachers try one of the activities he had explained.

Nevertheless, through some heroic efforts of everyone involved, everything managed to jalan dengan lacar (this literally means “walk with fluency,” and means “to go well”; it’s one of my favorite phrases in Indoensian). We had twenty-six teachers at the workshop, from fifteen different schools. Jeremy’s sessions—which, while they also talked about some of the more theoretical reasons as to why speaking should be incorporated into the language classrooms and what a speaking objective looks like, mostly focused on practical ways to incorporate speaking into the classroom (and having the teachers actually try the activities, a hands-on approach that is certainly effective)—were an absolute hit.  While I cannot speak for all the teachers who attended, I can certainly say that my own teachers were very excited to change various things that we do in class in order to further encourage speaking.

All in all, the Teachers Workshop was probably one of the coolest things I’ve been part of since becoming an ETA.  As hard as we strive to do so, times when I truly feel I’ve been able to benefit those I am working with are rare indeed.  This workshop was one of those moments.

[1] Jam karet means “rubber time,” and it the idea that time is flexible.  Sometimes I can find jam karet somewhat positive, as it means people here are much more forgiving if a person is, say, caught in traffic and might be late for a meeting, than the average American might be.  But most of the time, jam karet  means that pretty much nothing starts on time, and makes planning anything an exercise in patience.

To Market, To Market

When I first came to Indonesia, I was terrified of the pasar (market).  It was loud, crowded, hot, and full of entirely unfamiliar and not always pleasant smells.  And in Indonesia, unless you are at the rare stall that uses harga pas (fixed price), you are expected to menawar (bargain), and I am terrible at haggling: I’m never aggressive enough, and always end up either stubbornly walking away on the principle that I should not be grossly overcharged just because I am a foreigner (therefore empty handed), or submitting to being charged harga bule (the foreigner’s price) (therefore with damaged pride).


Approaching the market, surrounded by bentors, as it always is.

Throughout my first grant, I rarely had any need for the pasar, as I ate all of my meals at school and wasn’t overly fond of berbelanja (shopping), generally speaking.  Every so often, I stopped by the fruit stalls that were near the entrance of a market I would pass on my way home from school, and bought batik fabric (the one thing, other than books, I do enjoy shopping for) from the market a handful of times, but for the most part, I avoided them.

This year, I live right in the middle of two of the main markets in town.  Pasar Selasa (the Tuesday Market) is perhaps a ten minute walk from my house, and Pasar Rabu (the Wednesday Market), is a mere five.  And both semesters, my class schedule has allowed me a free morning on at least one of these days.  Since I am on my own for meals this year, and wanted to do some of my own cooking—instead of just eating at the warung near my house—without paying ridiculous grocery store prices, I decided I would need to brave the market.


The tarps give everything in the market a warm orange glow.

For the first few months, market day was my least favorite day of the week.  I would wake up early, knowing it would take me at least a half hour of hovering in my front room to work up the courage to actually walk out the door and head to the market.  Market day was a day of dripping with sweat under the make-shift tents, no matter how close to opening I arrived.  Market day was trying to get fair price for the vegetables on my list without having to go to too many sellers.  Market day was trying to weave through the crowd amidst the cacophony of shouting (in Indonesian mostly, but the occasional English, too)—“Ayam! Ayam! (Chicken! Chicken!) Miss! Cantik! (Beautiful!) Ikan!  Ikan! (Fish Fish!) Mister! You like fish?”—as I tried to find the one tempe and tahu (tofu) seller that I had been promised was at the back of the market[1].

Some people are good at this kind of chaos.  I am not one of them.

Still, I kept going, every week, week after week, month after month.  I told myself the fresh vegetables were worth it (and they absolutely are), and refused to give up and only eat out.  And slowly, market day became a bit less intimidating.


My tempe/tahu lady on the right, and Mr. Kopi on the right.  They’re always teasing one another, and I ended up capturing it when I tried to take a picture of them.

By this point, I am well-known at Pasar Selasa (Pasar Rabu is no longer as convenient because of my new school schedule).  I have my favourite sellers from which to buy various delicious, fresh vegetables and fruits, and they are always telling me what is in season and how the weather is affecting various crops (it has been particularly dry this year, and the manner in which they lament this fact takes me back to my own farming community in New York).  The man I buy eggs from asks me about my classes.  The fish sellers know by now that I do not buy fish, and have ceased to try to tempt me with their fresh, still-flopping wares, except occasionally in jest.  There is a man who sells coffee next to the only stall that sells tempe/tahu, and it has become a running joke for him to try to convince me to buy coffee from him, even though I always tell him that I only drink tea.  I didn’t make it to the market at all in January (except for the occasional quick trip to get eggs for breakfast), because I had gotten busy, and when I finally went for a full-fledged shopping trip in early February, my tempe/tahu lady actually asked me if I was okay: after not seeing me for so many weeks, she thought maybe I was ill; I smiled warmly at her kindness, and noted to myself that I wouldn’t have this element of community if I had given up on the market  experience entirely.

Though I feel I have gotten much better at the ins and outs of market life in Indonesia, I have yet to master it, and I look forward to my relaxed, quiet farmers’ markets at home.  But nonetheless, the pasar has become a key part of my life here, and I have come to find joy in the chaos.

[1] While I am not a vegetarian, I find that cooking meat for one person is far more work than it is worth, especially with only a single burner in which to cook anything, so I tend to only eat meat when I go to a warung.

Visiting the Big City: Makassar

ETAs are placed in three cities on Sulawesi this year: Gorontalo, Manado, and Makassar.  The only site I hadn’t yet visited was Makassar, and since I had to pass through it to get to Tana Toraja, I decided to plan my flights to allow me two separate days in Makassar, to have a least a little time to explore this massive city (the largest on Sulawesi).

While in Makassar, I was able to go to two different benteng (forts), Rotterdam, and Somba Opu.  Fort Rotterdam, while not particularly impressive in and of itself (it’s not very big, and most of it has been restored, which means not much of anything original remains.  However, there was a museum tucked off to the side that even included English translations of the signs (fairly high-quality translations, too), which gave wonderful insight into the various cultures found in southern Sulawesi.


Various views of Fort Rotterdam.

The other fort, Somba Opu, has, for the most part, not been restored.  In some ways, this makes it more beautiful, but in other ways it makes it just a little more sad.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the fort was the grave of an ancient king, which local people still brings offerings of food to every Friday night.  Throughout the site there are also various traditional houses, examples of the architectural styles found all throughout South Sulawesi.  These are very cool to drive by, but sadly tourists can no longer go inside them, because families have moved in, and are apparently living there for free, essentially squatting, according to the person who showed me around.


Right, the hut where the ancient kind supposedly rests; left, one of the many traditional houses we couldn’t enter.

Makassar, like Gorontalo, and much of Indonesia, is majority Muslim, and as such I also saw a number of masjid (mosques) while in Makassar.  Masjid Al-Markaz Al-Islami is the largest mosque in Makassar, and is possibly the most beautiful shade of green I’ve seen.  Masjid Raya is the second largest mosque, and it also houses one of the largest Qur’ans in Indonesia.  My favorite, though, was Masjid Amirul Mukminin, which sits out on a pier, inspired by a similar mosque in Saudi Arabia.

Typically, I don’t enter mosques in Indonesia, because I am never sure whether not I would offend someone by doing so.  But my new friend Fera, the daughter of one of my friend’s co-teachers, who is Muslim, told me it is absolutely fine to do so, so long as I am respectful, and check with whomever is in charge as to whether or not I need to cover my hair (for the two mosques we entered, I did not).  While I still don’t think I will go waltzing into mosques unaccompanied any time soon, it was reassuring to know that I could.


From left to right: Masjid Raya. Masjid Amirul Mukminin, and Masjid Al-Markaz Al-Islami

Near the pier in Makassar, there is an area called Pantai Losari.  Though its name implies it is a beach, it is more of a boardwalk, which is apparently full of various penjual (sellers) at night, and is a popular hang-out place. Since it was mid-day, it was fairly quiet, but we were still able to wander from statue to statue, all of which represent different aspects of the four main cultures in South Sulawesi: Makassar, Bugis, Mandar, and Toraja.  Each culture has its own of the pier, something I thought was actually quite cool.  There was even a small art gallery, which I, of course, also enjoyed.

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The entrance to Pantai Losari.

The folks from my program placed in Makassar always say that while there are certainly a few interesting parts of the city, the best part of Makassar is the food.  So I was sure to try a few kinds while I was there.  On my way to Toraja, I had Sop Ubi, a soup similar to bakso, but with cassava in it.  On my way home, Fera took me to eat Mie Titi, a seafood and noodle dish with crispy noodles, rather than the soft noodle more commonly found in Indonesian dishes; and later we had Pisang Ijo, a desert dish that is composed of banana, mung bean, sweetened milk, and ice (I was a little confused as to how it was from Makasssar, because I am fairly certain “ijo” is the word for green in Javanese, but either way it was amazing: I think I found my new favorite desert).  My friends weren’t lying: all of the food was enak sekali.

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Mie Titi, before and after it was mixed, and Pisang Ijo.

Makassar is a large, fairly overwhelming city, and so I’m glad I had friends there to help me find my way around.  Gorontalo, while technically a city, is essentially an overgrown town, and this small-town farm girl would not have been able to take on the Big Mak, as we call it, alone.  Still, it is the center of everything in South Sulawesi, a perfect place for me to learn about this unfamiliar corner of Indonesia, and a city I wouldn’t mind visiting again.

The Magic of Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja is the sort of place you read about in National Geographic, the sort of place that fascinates and inspires, but which you never think you’ll get to see.  But I am lucky enough to live on the same island as this cultural treasure, and so when I had a week off from school because of testing, I decided to take a few days to head south and explore.

The most popular way to get to Tana Toraja is to take a bus from Makassar, and so after spending a day in the capital of South Sulawesi, I hopped on a night bus to Tana Toraja.  (The nicer buses to Rantepau, the town I used as a base for my exploring, are rather nice, so I decided to splurge on a night bus rather than paying for an extra night in a hotel.)

I arrived in Rantepau just as the sun was rising, and already I was in awe of the tong-konan, or traditional houses, that dominate the landscape.  These houses are built and meticulously cared for by the families they belong to, and apparently can never be sold.  At the entrance of each house is a tower of buffalo horns, reflecting the status of the family that resides within—the more buffalo horns, the higher the status.  The roofs curve upwards at either end, jutting out against the blue sky and challenging anyone who sees them to not stand in awe.  On the older houses these roofs are thatched, but tin roofs—some painted a brick red, others a shiny aluminum color that reflects the sky—are more popular for the newer houses.  It didn’t matter how many houses I passed, either on foot or on motorbike, I was dumbstruck by their beauty and detail every time.


Various houses I came across in my travels.  The oldest houses I found are pictured on the far right.

In Tana Toraja, life revolves around the dead, and it is the complex funeral ceremonies that attract so many tourists to the area.  Though I was not in Tana Toraja during the peak funeral season (which happens in July and August, and which is also the peak tourist season), and though I chose to go without a guide (I joined a group of other fabulous backpackers who were going about on motorbike instead), I did catch the end of one funeral.  Dozens of pigs and water buffalo, bought by the family and brought by friends, are sacrificed during the funeral (it is believed the dead can take this food with them to the next life), and family and guests arrive in the beautiful traditional beading and weaving that makes up the traditional dress of the area.  These funeral ceremonies go back centuries, reminiscent of a time when the Torajan people worshiped the god of their ancestors.  Though Christianity has since been (quite forcibly) brought to the area, and is now the dominant religion in the area, some traditions have survived.


In the far left picture, family members, wearing a mix of modern clothes and traditional fabric and beads, are being received into the house; the center photo shows many pigs waiting to be slaughtered, and in the far right picture, the coffin is displayed for all to see, with a mix of Christian and traditional Torajan iconography

The animals sacrificed at these funerals, though sometimes bought directly from the families that raise them, are more often purchased at Pasar Bolu, the main market in Rantepau.  Though this market runs every day, it only runs at full capacity every six days.  I was lucky enough that my second day in Toraja was one of those days, and I was able to wander through the many rows of stalls selling everything from souvenirs to toothbrushes, as well as the area where the water buffalo were sold.

It was a sea of kerbau (buffalo)—far more animals in one place than I have ever seen before in Indonesia—and some of the farmers were more than happy to chat with me (thank heavens for my rudimentary Indonesian skills) about the various prices most animals go for.  Even a young animal, not yet a year old, can easily be sold for 800 U.S. dollars, while adults are sold for well over a thousand, and the rare, very sought-after albino buffalo can go for about the same cost as a used car.


Our first glimpse of Pasar Bolu is in the far left photo; in the middle photo a rare albino water buffalo waits to be sold; and in the far right a few buffalo get a bath.

Perhaps even more impressive than the funerals are the graves themselves, which are carved out of solid rock, and then enclosed with elaborate wooden doors.  Photographs and other objects are found outside every grave, and the graves themselves can be found almost anywhere there is stone.


The far left photo shows one of the largest grave sites in Tana Toraja; in the center is one of the decorated doors found on every grave; and the far left is a road-side grave site much like so many others we passed while on our motorbikes.

Perhaps one of my favorite sites was what is apparently the oldest grave site in Tana Toraja.  Tucked back in a bit of jungle, many of the doors of the graves are rotting away and falling, which means the forest floor below is littered with wooden remains, along with a few skulls that are displayed at bottom of the ravine (which we were able to reach with the help of a particularly graceful Ibu).  Though the grave site is certainly less glamourous than it probably was in its prime, there is something about it that seems to epitomize the endurance of the Torajan culture, and that is beautiful.


The oldest grave site in Tana Toraja, pictured from above on the far right; the middle photo shows a few bones found at the base of the site; and in the far right is the woman who showed us how to slide our way down to the bottom of the ravine.

I am a bit of a fabric geek, and I am especially fond of the various fabrics found around Indonesia.  In Toraja, it is weaving that creates the traditional fabric.  While in a weaving village (which I have a funny suspicion has been created solely for the benefit of tourists, but was still lovely), I talked to one of the women making fabric there, and she explained the various iconography that is often seen in Torajan fabrics.  Water buffalo and people are especially common, and to a lesser degree the sort of fresh-water eels that are found in the rice paddies, but the most important symbol is the eye.  While it sometimes is very recognizably an eye, often this symbol is merely a diamond incorporated into the pattern somewhere.  According to the woman I spoke with, the eye must be included in any piece created in Toraja, and the idea is that when Torajan people meet somewhere outside of Toraja, they will, with the help of the eye, be able to see and recognize someone of their own people, and know that they are of one family.


A couple of pictures from the weaving village.

Beyond the magical qualities of the culture that prevails, the area itself is simply magnificent.  From the back of a motorbike, weaving in and out of the jungle and the rice fields, it is easy to fall in love with Tana Toraja.  I was only there for a little over thirty-six hours, and I know I did.


Various shots I took from the back of a motorbike.  I hope that someday I can go back to beautiful Tana Toraja.

When Educational Worlds Collide: An American Classroom and Teacher in an Indonesian School

There are many things that I absolutely adore about teaching in Indonesia.

I love the energy of my students, which sometimes does need some reigning in, but honestly is the reason I show up to work every day.  In the States, one of the biggest challenges of teaching high school, in my experience, was creating excitement and enthusiasm.  That is already there every time I walk into any classroom here.


Taking class outside, because, well, why not?

I love the way the outside world begins where the classroom ends, and we just have to walk out the door if we want to take class outside.  There is no trekking down the hallway, there is no making sure alarms won’t go off if we go into the courtyard, as there is in so many northern U.S. schools.  We just step out of the classroom, and… there we are.

I love how quickly my students help one another, how they support students who struggle with English to keep up, as best they can, with the rest of the class[1].  I love how easy this makes incorporating group work into the classroom.

I love how the relationship between students and teachers is much more informal than it is in the States: teachers seem more like parents than the distant professionals various regulations have forced U.S. teachers to be[2].  I love the way all of my students take pride in the class they come from, the way their class becomes a sort of family.  I love the way the whole school feels like a family, like a home.

But there is no denying that teaching in Indonesia is also a considerable challenge.


One of my classes didn’t have a white board for a while, so we used the floor instead.

I laugh now at how much of my own training to become a teacher focused on the use of technology in the classroom, as I now work in classrooms with one whiteboard, no markers unless I bring them myself, and a few shared projectors that can’t be used half the time because of mati lampu.

The classrooms are hot, and often packed with far more students than I would ever recommend in one class[3].  Sometimes, there are not enough chairs for all of the students.

The students take too many classes.  My students take anywhere from fourteen to seventeen classes during their six day school week, and this leaves a mere hour and a half each week for English.  I remember being in college and taking seven or eight classes in a semester, rather than the recommended six, and finding that I was never able to find as much time as I wanted to dedicate to each subject; I can’t imagine how my students survive.

Teachers show up late to class, or not at all, and there doesn’t seem to be any real accountability for them.  And there is no system of substitute teachers in Indonesia, which means the students are left alone for that period.  Students come late to class and skip class too, generally coming to school but hanging out in the canteen when they don’t feel like going to class.  The teachers reprimand them, but in some ways I can’t blame them, what with the examples they see every day.

Every day, I navigate the ups and downs of these joys and frustrations.  Perhaps the most difficult part of this is differentiating when something is particular wonderful or vexing because it simply is, or because it is so different from the American context in which I am accustomed to learning and working.  I do my best to consider everything as objectively as possible—which makes me pretty confident in my critiques of classroom size, but less so in regards to just how advantageous collectivism in the classroom is—but the truth is I will never really be sure.

One of hardest things about teaching in Indonesia, for me, is not having a consistent space in which to teach.  In Indonesia, the students do not come to the teacher; the teacher goes to the students.  This means that I need to be able to carry all of my supplies for a lesson with me, and they need to work in ten different classrooms with ten different set-ups[4].  This means my students sit in the same classroom all day.  This means I cannot leave permanent learning spaces in the classroom.  It is maddening.

At the beginning of the second semester, my school moved the entire tenth grade to a new building, leaving the old tenth grade classrooms empty.  We had just used the required content of diary entries to compare and contrast American and Indonesian schools.  I saw an opportunity.  I took it.

In one of the classrooms left empty by the tenth grade move, my teachers and I have created an American Classroom.  It started as an experiment, as a one-week trip to give them a taste of what they had read about and we had discussed.  But the students and my co-teachers loved it so much that English Class is now held in the American Classroom every week, and I use the space for all of the after-school English activities I run as well.

Students flock to the world map in the back of the room when they arrive, pestering me with questions about different countries on the map (ever so thankful for my high school geography class now).  On the way out they take selfies with the American Flag while making jokes about how they are in the U.S.A.  And they tease me for refusing to take down the Indonesian Flags on the ceiling: “This is the American Class, Miss!,” while I insist on the beauty of campur (mix).  When they are assigned to present on a hero of their choice, a handful of students in each class pick the American social justice leaders whose inspirational quotes are displayed by the door.


Students using the Irregular Verb Word Wall for a poetry exercise.

But it’s not just about the decorations.  It’s about creating a permanent space to learn in.  When it was time to incorporate biographies into the tenth grade curriculum, I was able to create an interactive gallery walk about famous Black American heroes, something that, had I needed to move it to each of my ten classes, would have taken too much class time to set up to really be feasible; those same biographies now line one of the classroom walls, and some of the eleventh graders, visiting the American Classroom after school, recently read through and asked me questions, thereby extending the Black History Month lesson well beyond only the classes I teach.  I have created Word Walls of all the new vocabulary they were exposed to last semester, and of the irregular verbs they have been working with so intensively this semester; not only does this act as a great resource for students while they are doing their work (no more leafing through the notebook for those words they cannot remember), those students who tend to finish work a bit more quickly go to these Word Walls when their assignment is finished, extending their vocabulary.  Upon the request of my co-teachers, I will be adding more quotes and reading materials for some of the other walls, to provide more extended practice for high-achieving students.  Students are currently working on their own poems, and I plan to display that poetry on one of the walls which, for now, is intentionally blank.  There may only be three months left in or grant, but I already have so many ideas as to how to use this new space for future lessons.


The kind of lesson that just wouldn’t really be feasible without the American Classroom.

I don’t think I’d be exaggerating when I say that every aspiring teacher dreams for the day when they have a classroom of their own.  I ended up with my first classroom in a fairly untraditional fashion, in a borrowed, faded, unused classroom, devoid of desks and chairs and with broken windows and a whiteboard that had to be re-nailed to the wall.  But as I sweep the classroom floor before school, and students start to file in early (usually stealing the broom from me in the process—it is considered disrespectful if they let their teacher do the classroom cleaning), firing questions off right from the beginning about whatever it is I have added to the wall or written on the board that week, satisfaction settles in around my smile.  What I have is a classroom that is a blend of American and Indonesian traditions, with both an American and an Indonesian teacher, with some of the loveliest students any teacher in the world could ask for.  Who needs desks?


Waiting for students to arrive.

[1] This probably comes from the culture of collectivism that prevails in Indonesia.  Collectivism is complicated, with plenty of positives and negatives alike, and I don’t fully understand it yet, but I do so love this one element.

[2] Most of the teachers I have worked with are not actually all that distant.  But there is no denying that any time a student would give me a hug there was bound to be someone telling me to be careful about physical contact with students, and I could really only get away with it at all because I am a woman.  This is not the case in Indonesia.  Students and teachers touch all the time (though gender does play a role, still).

[3] This year, my largest class has thirty-six students, which is pretty close to the average class size in Indonesia.  Last year, I had more than one class with forty students in it, and fellow ETAs have taught in classes pushing fifty students.  In comparison, the average U.S. High School Classroom, according to data from 2012, is 26.8.

[4] Objectively, I know this experience will make me a much stronger teacher in the future, especially if, instead of becoming a more traditional classroom English teacher, I go into ESL education and work in a variety of classroom alongside other subject teachers.  Nonetheless, I am an American teacher trained with the expectation of someday having a classroom space of my own, and the lack thereof wears on me.