“Statue of Liberty!” she answers confidently. Ma’am Isnaini smiles and hands her a coveted Tootsie Roll, candy all the way from A – Mer – I – Ca. I add “Statue of Liberty” to the timeline on the whiteboard.
“Very good! Now, in bahasa Indonesia, what does ‘statue’ mean?” I ask.
“Patung!” a boy in the back shouts before brains have a chance to process the question.
“Raise your hand!” Ma’am Isnaini chides him. He looks sheepish and raises his hand. I indicate for him to answer.
“Patung,” he says more quietly this time. I write patung above the word “statue” on the board. He smiles when he gets his Tootsie Roll.
“Next question: where is the Statue of Liberty today?” Another dozen hands wave in the air. I call on a girl in the front this time.
“Neeew Yooork Ciiity!” she says with a flair. Ma’am Isnaini comes to front and puts a Tootsie Roll in her waiting palm. I add “New York City” to the board.
“And the Statue of Liberty is a gift from which country?” I continue. The class looks uncertain. I pause for a moment, waiting for understanding. No one volunteers, so I backtrack and write the word “gift” on the board. “In bahasa Indonesia, what is a gift?” I ask. “Kado!” “Hadiah!” “Pemberian!” the class choruses. I write these words on the board.
“So the Statue of Liberty is a gift TO America FROM… which country? From who?” I rephrase the question. The students check their notes. A girl in the back who hasn’t spoken yet is the only one to raise her hand.
“Yes?” I prompt.
“The people of France,” she answers matter-of-factly.
“Very good!” I am impressed by her articulate answer. Ma’am Isnaini hands over a Tootsie Roll. “Now, who can show me: where is France?” I hold up a blow-up globe I bought at Dollar Tree (best dollar I’ve ever spent) that accompanies me to most classes. A few students raise their hands but one boy calls out, “Miss! I want to try!” I walk over to him and hand him the ball. He orients himself on it and turns it around so he is looking at Africa and Europe. He looks closer and a couple seconds later points to the purple shape that is France on the globe. I smile.
“Yes!” he exclaims, triumphant over his acquisition of a Tootsie Roll.
And so class continued.
Back in January I attended a mid-year conference with all of the other ETAs in Indonesia. Our co-teachers — Ma’am Isnaini is mine — came with us, and together we had different workshops about teaching. In one of the workshops, an English Language Fellow (ELF)* closed her workshop with some Real Talk about pushing yourself and your students to learn English to talk about things that matter. In other words, don’t just rely on having your students write simple sentences like “Sally went to the Park” or “The dog chased the ball.” While these can be useful for helping explain grammar, they are hardly inspiring.
Instead, teach your students the English they need to talk about things that matter to them. Is flooding a constant problem in their area? Teach them how to talk about the flood. Is school cancelled because of smog created by jungles being burned to make way for palm oil plantations? Teach them how to talk about the smoke and how it affects them. Do your students have big dreams to go to university and be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and ambassador? Teach them the words they need to talk about their ambitions.
We were also encouraged to bring in content from American and other English-speaking cultures, an idea that seems obvious now but I overlooked in the first semester. As long as we are teaching the content that the students will be tested on during national exams, we can develop our own materials and do not have to rely on the textbooks. Ma’am Isnaini took to this idea and together we have been working to bring in more creative content and activities to the classroom. So when she told me that one topic we had to teach this semester was “Recount Text: Talking About Historical Events” I saw the perfect opportunity to focus on events in American history. Thus, the U.S. History Poster Project was born.
The project started with some vocabulary exercises to help the students understand the events we would learn about. Words like “government” and “independence” and “citizen” and “explorer” were added to my students’ vocabulary. Next they formed groups of 6-8 students and together chose an event from the list I made.** The Statue of Liberty was always the first event to be picked. Other popular choices were the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the world wars, the atomic bombs, and the first airplane.
Then they assigned roles to each group member. The roles included writing about:
– What happened
– Where it happened
– When it happened
– Who was involved
They were also responsible for:
– Writing three objective questions that could be answered by reading the poster
– Making a useful vocabulary list from words used in the poster
– Drawing or printing pictures from the event
I made a poster about the election of Barack Obama to model the finished product. Then I bought them the supplies: posters, scissors, glue, paper, markers and gave them class time to work on their posters. Some groups collaborated together very well, with everyone fulfilling their role. It was beautiful to see. They were allowed to use their smart phones to learn about their events and most groups stayed on task; I only had to confiscate a couple phones.
Finally, it came time to share the posters. After Ma’am Isnaini and I checked their objective questions to ensure that they were possible to answer by reading the poster, we sent the students outside to tape their posters to the classroom windows. They then had time to look at each poster and answer the questions on their own piece of paper. I cracked down on cheating, taking papers that students “borrowed” from their classmates and encouraging them to try it on their own (or at least not blatantly copy other students’ answers in front of me). They then did group presentations about their posters to the class, after which I asked the class questions like in the scene above.
Overall, I feel that this project was a success. It falls in line with achieving some teaching-related goals I had for the second semester. Namely, that I wanted classes to have some continuity between them (because first semester was all over the place) and that I wanted to use more authentic materials and do more meaningful activities. This project fits all of those criteria.
And of course I hope the students enjoyed it at least half as much as I did. I even learned new things about my country, like that the Statue of Liberty has 7 points in her crown to represent the 7 continents and that the Declaration of Independence caused a riot when it reached New York city on July 6, 1776.
Happily, I know for sure that some of the students definitely learned new information. A few of these learning moments will stand out very clearly in my memory. Two examples: the first moon landing and 9/11.
For the first: students were busy looking at the posters, moving in groups from event to event. This particular class had chosen to make posters about World War I, World War II, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Statue of Liberty, and the first moon landing. When one group got to the first moon landing, they called me over.
“Miss! Is it true?” asked one of the students, pointing at the poster. I was a little disconcerted. “What do you mean? Maksudnya?” I asked. “Did this happen? Is it true?” they pieced together in English and bahasa. The fact that humans have been on the moon was new information for them.
I searched in my brain to give some context to this event so that I could explain in simple English (and some words in bahasa Indonesia) what had happened: basically the US and Russia didn’t like each other so they had a competition to go to the moon. The Russians were the first to send a satellite into space and later they sent a dog (“Miss! Did the dog live?” “No, I don’t think so students.”) after which the U.S. sent a monkey (“Did the monkey live, Miss?” “Uhh… I don’t know. I don’t think so.” They looked crestfallen.) and then people. They were intensely curious about how people could be on the moon. Is there wind on the moon? Can people breathe? Can they walk? Can people live there? Have a lot of people been on the moon? I showed them the man walking on the moon video on my phone. They seemed to like the space rover. One of mankind’s greatest achievements, and we learned about it in none other than English class. (This said, almost all of the students already know about the moon landing. This incident was an extremely isolated one.)
The second: 9/11. One brave group in all of class ten chose this event. When it was their turn to present their poster, one of their classmates asked me if he could ask them a question afterward. I was delighted; no one had asked any questions except for me. I told him of course he could.
The students did their presentations and I asked the usual series of comprehension questions. All of which the students could answer as this event was not news to them, although most of my students were only 1 or 2 years old when this happened. After I finished asking questions and the group started to head back to their desks, this student raised his hand: “Miss! My question!” I motioned for the group to stay in the front and for him to continue.
“I want to know, why did the terrorists attack WTC?” (WTC, pronounced way tay say, is the Indonesian abbreviation for the World Trade Center.) The group looked confused. The student with the best English in the group was pushed to the front to respond. He conferred with his groupmates and they referred to their poster. Their response was something to the effect that the terrorists don’t like Americans, so they attacked. This answer did not satisfy the inquisitive student.
“No!” he shook his head. “I want to know, why did the terrorists attack WTC? Why not the White House or the Statue of Liberty or…” Understanding dawned on the faces of all the class. The group looked again at their poster, searching for the answer in the text they took from Wikipedia. After a minute of frustrated searching, I intervened with a marker in hand. I explained that on 9/11, there were four planes hijacked. 2 hit the World Trade Center, 1 hit the Pentagon (I briefly explained the Pentagon by saying that it is very important and full of secrets), and 1 was supposed to hit the White House but the passengers fought back and it crashed on a farm instead.
I found it difficult to explain further; remaining unemotional in not a strong trait of mine. So I summarized by saying that the terrorists did want to attack other American symbols but that the World Trade Center attack was the only one that was “100% successful.” Secretly, I am happy that his question was not about American perceptions of Muslims. This is a difficult topic to talk about with my students, who I love and who are almost all Muslim, and I fear not doing this topic justice in class. Perhaps it will come up in the month and a half that remains, and I can only hope that I can be as informative, accurate, and honest as possible for these kids who mean so much to me. (In the meantime, I direct everyone reading this to also read this article called “Dear American Friend.”)
I didn’t have time to fully read every group’s poster in class, so I took them to the teacher’s office with me after the presentations to give comments (Good Job/Needs Improvement) and USA-themed stickers to all of the groups. I am hoping that the stickers start appearing on students’ notebooks and phones in the coming weeks. And the five most correct/neatly designed posters I will hang in the new English wall (I requested special permission to make the wall just for displaying this project) outside the teacher’s room.
Due to class cancellations and other distractions, this project took a longer than I planned. I began making preparations in February and it occupied most of our time in English class (and outside of class for me as I prepared materials for the students) during the month of March. Even so, I think it was very worthwhile and I would do it again. It brought a bit of the USA to the classroom, and it provided the opportunity for students who have never shared in class before to speak up when they were able to answer my history and geography-based lessons. I learned a lot about my students’ strengths I feel immensely proud of them, a fact that I have told them in person and when I uploaded all of their pictures on my Indonesian Facebook, and I hope that they recognize that they have a lot to be proud of too.
* The English Language Fellows (ELFs or EL Fellows) are experienced professionals who become Fellows with the Regional English Language Office (RELO) that is affiliated with the U.S. Department of State. There are 14 ELFs in Indonesia (if I’m not mistaken) and we were fortunate enough to have one, Alicia Brill, visit us a few weeks ago to help with a workshop for English teachers.
** As I was making the list of events in U.S. history, I had the shocking realization that in the events I chose to include I was perpetuating the Great White History of Great White Men. I was disgusted with myself and desperately wanted to try to shift that paradigm, even if the shift was only something as simple as the events my Indonesian students learned about American history. But what other events to include? I appealed to my history professors from university and talked about this at length with Caitlin, my sitemate. My final list of events is still pretty White but I tried to include some different, more interesting events too. The final list is below.
Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas: In 1492, the European explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. This started the colonial era in the Americas.
Mayflower Voyage: The first ship (called the Mayflower) of English settlers, known as the Pilgrims, arrived in the northeastern United States in 1620.
Boston Tea Party: When the United States was a British colony, American colonists in Boston protested a British tax on tea by throwing tea from Britain into Boston Harbor on December 17, 1773.
Declaration of Independence: On July 4, 1776 the United States colonists formally declared themselves independent from Great Britain. Today, Americans celebrate the Fourth of July as Independence Day in the United States.
Revolutionary War: Between 1775 and 1783, the United States colonists fought in a revolution against Great Britain to become an independent country.
U.S. Constitution: After the United States became independent from Great Britain, the new American government created the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788.
Lewis and Clark Expedition: In 1803 two explorers–Meriwether Lewis and William Clark–became the first Americans to cross the continent. They were helped by Sacajawea, a Native American woman.
The Underground Railroad: In the 1800s, black slaves used a network of roads and safe houses to escape from slavery and become free. This network of roads and safe houses is called the Underground Railroad.
California Gold Rush: In 1849 some explorers discovered gold in California. After that, many people went to California to look for gold and become rich.
American Civil War: From 1861 to 1865, the Northern states fought the Southern states to free black slaves.
Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: The sixteenth (16th) president Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865.
Statue of Liberty: America received the Statue of Liberty as a gift from France in 1886.
The First Airplane: The Wright brothers flew the first airplane on December 17, 1903
World War I: The United States fought with the Allies (France and the United Kingdom) against the Austro-Hungarian empire (Germany) during World War I.
Gangsters and Prohibition: In 1920, the United States government forbade the sale of alcohol in the U.S. After that, gangsters like Al Capone became rich by selling alcohol illegally.
Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution: The U.S. government changed the Constitution to give women the right to vote on August 18, 1920.
The Great Depression: In the 1930s, the United States and the rest of the world experienced a major economic depression.
World War II: The United States fought with other Allied Powers against Adolf Hitler and the Axis Powers in World War II.
Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: On August 6 and 9, 1945, the United States used atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan to end World War II. The bombs killed many Japanese citizens.
Independence of the Philippines: The Philippines gained independence from the United States on July 4, 1946 after it was a colony of the United States for 48 years.
Civil Rights Movement: From the 1950s to the 1970s, minority groups (African-Americans, Native Americans, etc.) in the United States started the Civil Rights Movement to get equal rights in U.S. law.
Vietnam War: The United States fought in the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975. The U.S. wanted to prevent the Communist party from controlling the Vietnamese government.
Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech: On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Junior gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. It is one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.
Assassination of John F. Kennedy: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth (35th) president of the United States, was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963.
The First Moon Landing: On July 20, 1969 Americans Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to walk on the moon.
Woodstock Music Festival: In August 1969, one of the biggest music festivals in U.S. history was held in New York state.
Hubble Space Telescope: NASA (the U.S. National Aeronautics Space Administration) launched the Hubble Telescope to photograph other planets, stars, and galaxies on April 24, 1990.
9/11: Terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001.
Election of Barack Obama: In November 2008, Americans voted for Barack Obama to be the first African-American president.