Immersed in English

Puan Royhana with Form Four Arts
HIJ Convent Johor Baru
For three days, I was among 265 English Language Teachers (ELT) from schools and colleges throughout Johor at the 4th Johor State English Language Conference.  The keynote address by Dato’ Syed Nadzri Syed Harun, NST Group Editor, was very inspiring and when he said, “Students will remember how involved you are with them,” I privately agreed. 

He cited the example of the 1967 movie, “To Sir With Love,” and my thoughts raced back to how my brother used to sing the theme song by the same title!

When Dato’ Syed Nazri asked if anyone remembers this movie, I had a flashback of how our aunts used to make my brother, then aged 3, sing the theme song so often that he grew up being teased by it.  He could stretch his boyish vocal chords to reach the right pitch and render this song with a bit of attitude.  My thoughts also wandered to scenes of Sidney Poitier, in the lead role as a teacher in a white high school in London’s East End slums with Lulu’s voice, not my brother’s, singing the theme song in the background!

It was interesting that I had many flashbacks while attending the plenary and workshop sessions led by a distinguished group of experts in various areas of specialization.  In the “Using Music in Classroom” workshop, facilitator Maureen Parker introduced “Octopus’s Garden” a catchy tune with lyrics and a rhythm that can be easily used to teach English.  She asked if the participants were familiar with the tune and I did not see or hear any response in the affirmative so I modestly kept silent.

Amy Wong [Right] is an icon of Convent Johor Baru
Not only did I recognize this song from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album that was hugely popular in 1969, I also know some of its lyrics!  Back in the days when we used to have house parties (no discos yet) we played this album, figuratively to death while the boys tried to strum their guitars like the Fab Four to serenade us.  As the participants took part in the workshop activity, I couldn’t help reminiscing about my favourite songs from this album like, “Something,” “Come Together,” “Oh! Darling” and “Here Comes the Sun.”

In Dr Shanti C. Sandaran’s workshop “Being Creative in the Classroom,” the ELT were asked to discuss how their own teachers impacted them – whether good or bad – why they are remembered to this day and for them to examine themselves to see what kind of teachers they are.  This triggered off sad memories of my experiences with horror teachers because I had my fair share of them from Primary into Secondary school and nick-names like Bulldog Lee, Dragon Lady and Snakeman’s Mother-in-law quickly came to mind.  But there is a silver lining in this dark cloud because I also fondly remembered Puan Royhana, our Form Four teacher, who gave us a healthy boost of self-esteem. 

Amy Wong receiving her Jelta award
Sixteen-year old students just want to be treated with respect and Puan Royhana did just that.  Another workshop facilitator, Terry Yap Chee Keong, said that students enjoy learning when they are happy and this is so true because I attribute my pleasure in studying, even Bahasa Melayu Literature, to her.  However, our time with Puan Royhana was short-lived as she had to leave to further her studies and I remember reading the letters that she sent, over and over again and missing her dearly.

I found it very refreshing to hear from Vincent Chow, Advisor to the Malaysia Nature Society Johor Baru branch, in a special session where he encouraged the ELT to use Nature to make English lessons more exciting.  He said after all, children love animals and they can relate to things that are tangible.  To illustrate this, he gave examples of similes, metaphors, idioms and proverbs as well as rhymes and poems that have picturesque English words from Nature.

I had a warm reunion with Prof Khairi Izwan Abdullah
Plenary presenter, Lucille Dass asked, “You got do your homework or not?” to illustrate how many teachers often used Manglish or Mangled English with their students and she made the ELT laugh at themselves.  She said while there is a prevailing sense of “happy boldness in making conversation in broken English,” she reminded the ELT not to perpetrate Manglish.  However, ELT could instead use snippets of PCK, a popular local comedy series, as a teaching resource because learning is embedded in a fun activity. 

The presentation of the Johor Baru English Language Teaching (JELTA) awards to 5 exemplary teachers, recognized for their contribution to English language teaching, was one of the conference highlights.  I had the pleasure to meet with Ms Amy Wong again, an award recipient who was one of the pioneers with the Malayan Teachers’ Training College in Kirkby, England, in 1951.  She is truly a HIJ Convent Johor Baru icon because she completed her education in Convent JB and had an entire teaching career with her alma mater until her retirement in 1984!

Award-winning teachers with special guests
Soaked in an English-rich environment, I had an intellectually stimulating experience at the conference but I wonder what happens after this? 

Will the ELT rise to the challenge to develop their own potential and set out to transform the teaching-learning experience in classrooms?  Or will they suffer the “Frog under the glass” syndrome – able to see what’s happening outside but choose to remain dormant?

At the Forum on the final day, plenary presenter and member of the panel, Khairi Izwan Abdullah, Assoc Prof at the Language Academy in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), reiterated his point that language development requires time and patience and reminded the ELT to move from being “the sage on the stage” to becoming “the guide on the side.”  So it’s now over to the ELT to create a positive and painless English learning environment for their students.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 26 June 2012

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