Cicak on the Wall: WORDS Competition 2017

Each year, one of the best parts of my ETA grant was the WORDS Competition, and it was definitely something I was looking forward to as part of my current position.  While working towards WORDS from behind the scenes was certainly different, and I very much missed working one-on-one with my students while they prepared for the competition, I was still very excited for the national competition in Jakarta, especially as this year marked the tenth anniversary of the WORDS Competition.

A quick review for those who might not have been following my blog for two years, and therefore did not experience my joy in Malang and Gorontalo, as well as at the national competitions in Jakarta in 2015 and 2016:  WORDS is a speech and talent competition, developed by ETAs in the 2006-07 cohort, with performances centered on a given theme.  This year’s theme was “Cicak[1] on the Wall,” and students were asked to respond to the question, “If you could be a cicak on the wall of any room in the past, present, or future, where would you choose to be, and why?”


One of the participants performing traditional dance.

Each of the students was amazing.  Students chose to be cicaks in castles and museums, Kartini’s room of confinement and Nikola Tesla’s lab.  Some speeches were comedic, others inspiring, and still others made the audience cry.   For their talents, students danced, sang, performed traditional martial arts, and more.   The audience was captivated, and the judges—who included two past WORDS winners—certainly had a tough job in selecting the winning participants from such talent.

The night after the competition, there was a group activity planned for the students.  I had not initially planned to join, as the activity is usually exclusively for ETAs and their students, but a few ETAs were sick, and an additional chaperone was needed.  The original plan to go to laser tag fell through because of traffic, but we all took the students to see movies, and it was a grand time anyway.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the WORDS Competition, an additional event was added to the experience: English Fun Day.  I won’t deny that I was not exactly thrilled at finding the planning I had to do for WORDS doubled in comparison to previous years, but we managed it, and the end of the day the envent went fairly well.  English Fun Day was held at @America and in addition to the WORDS Participants and their ETAs, also included participants from two Jakarta-based organizations that serve disadvantaged children: Ticket to Life and Sahabat Anak.  Several groups of ETAs developed storytelling, song, and game activities in which everyone could participate, for an afternoon of fun and English language learning.  All of the students, the WORDS participants and our guests, were enthusiastic and adorable, and though managing such events means that you rarely are able to stay in one place for too long, I loved what I was able to see.


Everyone at the DCM’s house.

During their time in Jakarta, WORDS Participants were also able to explore the capital city with a visit to MONAS, while the ETAs had a meeting about their last weeks at site.   And following the English Fun Day, all students and their ETAs were also kindly invited to a farewell dinner at the residence of Deputy Chief of Mission Brian McFeeters. Though I know shamefully little of the DCM’s work and policies, I will say that he has a wonderful way with young people, and the WORDS students adored him.

The few days dedicated to WORDS were, of course, hectic and stressful.  This job always is.  But unlike most other things in my current position, WORDS involved the young people I love so dearly, and feel most passionate about working with.  WORDS, for me, was a breath of fresh air, and way for me to group myself in the reminder that when this grant is over, I will return to work more directly in education, where I truly belong.  I loved every minute, and I still cannot quite believe that I was able to enjoy a third WORDS Competition, something very few people have the opportunity to do.  Whatever insanity led up to the competition, I feel so blessed to have been there, and I wish all of the participants the best of luck for the future.


All of the WORDS participants, their ETAs, and the judges.

[1] A cicak is a small lizard.  ETAs changed originally chose the theme “Fly on the Wall,” and then changed the Fly to Cicak in order to make the theme more Indonesia-centered.


Hoping All Their Wishes Come True: National WORDS Competition 2016

April 10th-14th was the National WORDS Competition, an annual English Speech and Talent Competition held by the Indonesia ETA Program.  WORDS was one of the highlights of my experience last year, and it was again this year.


Noni performing her speech.

All of the performances were fantastic.  The topic was “Three Wishes,” and the range of speeches that came out of that idea were inspiring.  Students spoke about personal wishes, and global wishes, and everything in between.  Their talents were just as incredible as their speeches.  Students sang, danced, performed screen printing on stage… I don’t think I ever smile so broadly as I do when I am at WORDS.  Part of me hopes that if I am ever in Indonesia outside of the Fulbright Program that I will be asked to be a judge, so that I can have the privilege of witnessing such talent, and hope that I never end up being assigned to that task, because I have no idea how the judges are able to select on winner from so many fabulous students.


New friends.

In the evenings, there were planned activities for the students and the ETAs.  The first night was Laser Tag and Glow-in-the-Dark Mini Golf.  It was even my first time playing laser tag, and I’m fairly certain everyone involved had a blast.  The second night’s activity was ice skating, but due to traffic only about half of the students were able to get to the rink before it closed for hockey practice.  Sadly, the girls from Gorontalo were among those who weren’t able to make it in time, but they headed off to supper with their new friends, and seemed to have a grand time nonetheless. To me, the time the students spend with one another reflects what is really so magical about WORDS: that it is an opportunity for students from all across this diverse archipelago to meet and exchange their own unique cultures, and develop friendships with people they might never have had the chance to meet otherwise.


The MAN Model girls.

My student from MAN Model, Noni, was extremely nervous about speaking in front of such a large crowd, and meeting so many new people, but she performed her speech bravely and beautifully, and warmed up to students who would become new friends rather quickly.  I was very proud of her, and I’m so glad she got to have this experience.

I may have mixed feelings about coming back to live in Jakarta next year, but there is one part of returning with this program that I know will be 100% amazing, and that is WORDS. No words can adequately express the privilege it has been to attend not one, but two WORDS competitions, and I look forward to the undeserved honor of being present for a third.


The whole crew of ETAs and Students.  So much talent.  So much love.

(Note: The only photo that is mine is that of myself and Noni together.  Thank you to AMINEF for the rest of them!)


My Wish for You: MAN Model WORDS Competition 2016

Each year, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) hold English Speech Competition called WORDS at their respective schools, and the winner from that competition goes to Jakarta to compete nationally and participate in a number of activities with other WORDS winners from all over Indonesia.  Many ETAs refer to WORDS as one of their favorite parts of their grant year, myself among them.  After learning so much from my first WORDS competition last year, I couldn’t wait for WORDS to come around this year.

Due to the testing schedule for this year, and judge availability, and a slew of other factors that needed to somehow be juggled (typical ETA life, that), the WORDS Competition for this year had to be scheduled much earlier in the semester than it did last year, giving my students less time to prepare.  This only added to students’ nervousness, and so I decided to do away with the memorization requirement for this year, and spent far more time leading up to the completion simply telling students that mistakes were okay and that they shouldn’t be takut (scared), than I did actually helping students to write and practice their speeches.


This is the photo that was taken for the WORDS banner.  There are only fifteen students pictured here, and to be honest, I anticipated that even fewer would show up to the actual competition.  But my students perseverance surprised even me, and eighteen arrived on the day of the competition.


Each year, there is a different theme for the speeches, and this year’s was “Three Wishes.”  Students were asked to think about the question, “If you were given three wishes to change something about the world, Indonesia, or yourself, what would you wish for?” and structure their speech around that idea.  The students who participated in our competition wished for everything from the end of corruption in Indonesia, to becoming the best scout member at MAN Model, to ending war in the world, to being able to talk again with their parents who had passed away.

There were a number of students who were able to memorize their speeches even with the short time available to them, while others read their speeches from notebooks.  Some students demonstrated a talent, while for others simply giving the speech was all they had time to plan.  All of them were nervous, but all of them bravely took the stage.  Speaking on stage in a language that is not your own is no small feat, and I was proud of every one of my students.

Choosing the winner for the competition was no easy task for my judges, one of my site mates and my closest Indonesian friend, who was actually the WORDS winner from MAN Model two years ago.  I’m glad the final decision was out of my hands, because if I had my way I would be taking a whole group of students to Jakarta.


All of the students recognized with various awards, and the adults privileged to watch them perform.  From left to right: Ibu Tuti (English Teacher), Ibu Ike (English Teacher), me, Sidrah (Judge ), Indah (Third place), Ayu (Second place), Noni (First Place), Fani (Best Personality), Naafi (Best Talent), Akbar (Most Creative), Clare (Judge), Bu Cici (English Teacher), and Pak Mustain (English Teacher).

The winner ended up being a girl named Noni, who not only gave a thoughtful speech about how in order to change the world it is important to first gain the support for your family and change yourself, but also wrote a song (in English!) on that same theme.  Noni is also the reason many of the other participants even took the stage, as she spent much of her time prior to the competition convincing both her classmates and students from other classes to “Just try!” because “It is a good experience!”  I’m very excited to work with Noni over the course of the next month to improve her speech and prepare her for our adventures in Jakarta.

WORDS always takes a considerable amount of planning and work, but it is worth every minute of it.  Since the competition, my phone’s inbox has been full of texts from students saying things like, “Miss, after WORDS Competition I’ll be confident and run after my dream!” We may only be able to take one student to Jakarta for the national competition, but even our local competition is a great opportunity for all of our kids.

While as an ETA I am not permitted to prepare my own speech, if I were to take on the topic of three wishes, my hopes would center very much around my students: that they continue to work hard and find success in all they strive to achieve; that they see themselves as the amazing young people I know them to be; and that they continue to learn and grow as I have seen them do while I have been fortunate enough to be their teacher.


The whole crew.  I cannot express just how proud I am of all of these students.

Ode to Afi, or, The Journey to WORDS, and Back Again

Towards the end of April, all of the ETAs and the WORDS winners from their schools gathered for the national WORDS competition in Jakarta.  Every single student there was incredible.  I actually wrote the Indoneisaful article about the 2015 competition, so if you want to read all about the amazing weekend that was WORDS, I suggest you head over there.

I don’t want to write about WORDS here.  I want to write about the journey there, and, also, about the journey that has continued, in part because of WORDS.  I want to write about Afi, and how this one student has come to shape a huge part of my time at SMAN 10.

Untitled 1Afi is a quirky, intelligent, funny girl, who loves Doctor Who, tries to read Shakespeare in her spare time, and never lacks a quick-witted response (in English, no less) whenever you talk to her.  (When I asked her what she had learned from her weekend at the National WORDS Competition, her first response was, “Thou shalt not eat four plates of breakfast. Believe me, I tried. It didn’t end very well.”)  I always enjoy runninginto her after school or in the dorm; she will always make me smile.

Afi amazed everyone at my local WORDS competition.  It was understood, even then, that she would have to improve very little in order stand a chance at winning at the national competition.  Nonetheless, she and I still had our work cut out for us in the weeks leading to Jakarta.

The challenge was not her English.  Afi actually learned English, from her parents, before she learned Indonesian, and she sounds almost exactly like a native speaker.[1]  The challenge was not her speech: it sounded like poetry, and had almost everyone, including me, was in tears even the first time she gave it.

The challenge, for Afi, was getting through the speech, emotionally.

Her speech was about a childhood friend with Autism, the son of some of her parents’ closest university friends.  Afi and this young man, grew up together almost as siblings, and she credits him as being one of the most powerful forces that shaped her into the young woman she is today.  Just a week beforeSMAN 10’s WORDS Competition, her friend passed away due to diabetes and kidney failure.  Afi, who had originally planned to take on the topic of being a young Muslim woman in a world where she accused of being a member of ISIS in online English chatrooms, almost dropped out of the WORDS Competition altogether before deciding, two days before the competition, that she wanted to try to talk about her friend in her speech.

She came to me for help in preparing her speech, and it was so clear how difficult it was for her to talk about this topic.  I worried it was too much, too soon, for her to give this speech in front of everyone.  But she wanted to try, and I was not going to stand in her way.

She made it through the local competition beautifully.  Then the real work began.

Afi’s speech was too long, and much of it needed to be cut to meet the national requirements.  Cutting a speech down is difficult for anyone, but it is even more difficult when you have to eliminate words about a close friend whom you are trying to honor.

Once we had a speech, we practiced as much as we could together—in empty classrooms, in the office after everyone had gone home (we were almost locked in by security a few times), in my room late at night (she delivering her speech quietly, in order to avoid getting caught breaking curfew)—and while often she delivered her speech perfectly, and I had almost no suggestions to give her, more than once she had to stop because it was simply too much.

I have been in Afi’s shoes.  After losing one of my closest friends in a car crash my junior year of college, I tried to use spoken word poetry as a way to keep her memory alive, and find a way to express how important a person she was.  In the end, doing so actually helped me to cope with the emptiness that had replaced her presence, but there was no denying that sometimes reciting the words I had written for her opened and deepened wounds I had thought were in the process of healing.

I would never have imagined that sharing this story would become part of my coaching for my WORDS student.  But by describing my own experience to Afi, I was able to show her that her pain did not make her weak, that her struggle to articulate how she felt did not make her a bad friend.  I told her, again and again, that the cacophony of emotions that battered her heart every time she practiced her speech—the sadness, the frustration, the cold emptiness and the fiery anger—was natural, was okay.

Afi was worried about the national competition, understandably.  At SMAN 10’s Competition, she was delivering her speech in front of people who knew her and cared about her; in Jakarta, she would be pouring her heart out  in a room full of strangers.

We were prepared.  I did not let us leave without a plan.  I was to wait near the stage, and after her speech, she would tell me what she needed.  If she was okay, we would go back to our seats.  If she needed to, we would find a place to hide and cry.

During the first round, Afi did a fantastic job of delivering her speech, “Another Set of Wings.”   She choked up a little at the end, but she powered through, and did great honor to her friend.  I met her off stage, and asked her what she needed.   “Let’s go to the bathroom,” she said to me, and we left.  It did not take her long to compose herself, strong young woman that she is, and we returned to enjoy the rest of the speeches.

When the names of the seven finalists were announced, and Afi’s name was called, I was overjoyed.  After all the emotional turmoil she had undergone to get to that point, I was glad she was able to achieve something special, in honor of her friend.  Later, when I asked her how she felt, hearing that she was a finalist, she told me:

It’s like being sucker punched…in a good way, of course. But for a split second, when my name was announced, I wanted to run away from the room and not come back. I brought up a topic that’s hard to speak about in daily life: autism and loss, and the two of them wrapped up tight in Bagus, the friend in my speech. Diabetes and kidney failure tore his body apart until there was nothing left to save. It couldn’t be helped; because he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t tell anyone that he was hurting. He could only suffer in silence until it was time for him to go, and sometimes I prefer to remember him that way, rather than picturing him crumpled in pain.  I was still mourning his loss at the day of the competition (that was why I put on black everything), and being a finalist meant I have to relive the sadness and the pain and the memories. But I realized, he’s not gone. He just found that bright place. He was alive. He burned brightly, and then he died.  But not really. Because someone like him cannot, will not, die like everyone else. He will always be here, in the offerings and the people he left behind. So I wipe away the tears. I kept in mind the reason I was on that stage: to convey a message that people with autism are people first. They do not deserve to be held in shackles, cornered, harassed, exiled. They deserve love and affection, even though they don’t always know how to return it. They are not a lost cause, and they are stronger than we think. I didn’t care about winning. I didn’t care about trophies or medals or awards. I just wanted my voice to be heard, and my message loud and clear.  

After the final round, when Afi was announced as the overall winner of the 2015 WORDS Competition, she sat in her seat, stunned, unable to believe it was really her name being called. IMG_0346

That’s one of the best parts about Afi: she is genuinely one of the most humble people I have ever met.  She never thought of herself as a winner.  She just thought of herself as a friend, as someone who had a message she wanted others to hear.  And it was heard.

Winning WORDS really changed things for Afi, in ways I don’t think either of us expected. Her dream of studying abroad seems more a reality now, and she and I have spent much of the past month discussing SATs and Financial Aid for studying abroad.  I don’t know exactly where she will end up, or what she’ll decide to study, but I know she will be amazing, wherever she goes.

She is also much more confident now.  When I asked her if I could share a video of her speech publicly, because people in my family wanted to watch it, she seemed surprised, but gave her consent.  Later, she said to me, “It’s still hard to believe that people in other countries want to see me speak.” She looked embarrassed.  Then she smiled.  “I’ve never felt so fabulous.”

“You are fabulous,” I told her, “Never forget that.”

I pray she never does.  I know I certainly won’t.

Afi’s Speech:

[1] Afi actually did not really learn Indonesian until she started school.  She once told me the story of how, when she first walked into her kindergarten class, she could not understand her classmates, because she did not know enough Indonesian.  Though she has worked hard to learn Indonesian, and even some Javanese, since that point, she still finds it difficult sometimes to express herself in what would traditionally be her first language, as a native-born Indonesian.  Often, she says, she finds it easier to speak in English.  She says she is partially glad of this, as she dreams of studying abroad, and being fluent in English will help her to do this.  But she also finds it somewhat isolating. Hers is a unique story