TESOL | Another 5 things

Just a little update on the activity 5 things. The first few weeks of school I’ve used it to elicit vocabulary for subsequent teaching topics. When students were required to talk about their lives and introduce their friends and family, I had them come up with five words for family members.

In another class, the students were supposed to make suggestions, so I had them come up with five activities they’d like to do with their friends. They still acted like they didn’t have any ideas for their suggestions, but their excuses were weakened by the fact that I made each of them come up with five, not to mention the list I had collected on the board. Not knowing what to write is something my students often claim, but more often than not, I’ve given them the tools they need.


Two steps closer

Continued from One step closer

I got to Jakarta relatively late, but that proved to be an advantage. I was able to avoid the traffic that the city is so well known for. In general, I found the city to be much more manageable and much less chaotic than I had heard, but I only saw a tiny bit of it.

IMG_3463The day of the GRE, I walked from the hostel to the testing center. Much of the walk was down small, tree-lined, residential streets. The trees were much appreciated; Jakarta is hot. Every time I leave my site, I’m thankful that I was placed in Malang, which even Jakartans know for being ‘cold’.

The GRE went well enough. I got to the testing center early and was allowed to begin right away. I skipped the breaks, so I finished much earlier than I expected to. Before I left, I chatted with one of the test coordinators, about Spain of all things. He wants to continue his education in Madrid, so I told him about my semester there (11 years ago).

IMG_3469The day after the GRE was Indonesia’s Independence Day. I went to the National Monument, lovingly referred to as Monas, with a German traveler I met at the hostel. There were lots of people around, but the crowds weren’t overwhelming. Umut had just arrived in Indonesia, so he had a few questions I was happy to answer. I asked him if he had been in any photos with Indonesians yet. He hadn’t, so I told him he most likely would be today. Within about a minute, my prediction came true. I told him that lots of volunteers avoid photos, to which his response was, it’s not that bad. I just smiled, because I knew we’d be in for a few more. After about the fifth photo request in ten minutes, he changed his mind and said he imagined it could get to be a bit much.

I generally don’t mind the pictures. I still prefer to be asked, and I prefer to be asked nicely, but even surreptitious shots don’t bother me as much as they used to.

IMG_3479The next day, Umut and I took the train to Bandung, my second train in Indonesia and my first trip to West Java. The train was very cold, and I didn’t have my sweatshirt, so I dug out my sarong and wrapped it around my shoulders. Of course some of the other passengers thought this was too good not to photograph, but I pretended not to notice. I understand the motivation. How often do you see a foreigner wearing a Javanese sarong around his shoulders?

I ended up getting off just before Bandung to go to a friend’s site, a volunteer I hadn’t seen since training. Zach picked me up at the station and brought me to his house. Later that afternoon, we went into the big city. It’s always interesting to see new places in a country I’m still just getting to know.

The next day, we went to his school for English club. It wasn’t 100% clear when it would start. We were under the impression that it had been pushed back two hours, but then we got a visitor who asked us why we weren’t at school. We set off right away, and several students were in fact waiting when we got there. We played a few games until Zach’s counterpart came. Then, the students explained a Sundanese game to the two foreign English teachers. This is how I understood boi-boian.

IMG_3498Two teams stand around a tower of shoes (or rocks). The teams take turns trying to knock over the tower with another shoe (or rock). As soon as one team knocks over the tower, the other team scatters. They must avoid getting hit by a paper ball (not a shoe or a rock!!) while trying to rebuild the tower. Zach and I weren’t the only ones unfamiliar with the game, so the first attempt was a bit chaotic, but we got the hang of it in the end.

That afternoon, the two of us went for a hike. This particular route had a few traditions associated with it, one of which is that you’re supposed to hike barefoot. We accepted the challenge. It rained a little bit, but the ground stayed more or less dry.

IMG_3510At the top of the hill, we had a beautiful view of the city and the mountains all around us. We were alone, but you’re never really alone on the island of Java. We heard construction in the valley below us and possibly a wedding in the distance. Finally, after our eyes had had their fill, we carefully made our way back down and went home clean up and eat.

I’m glad I got a chance to see a little bit of West Java. It’s always fun to see other volunteers’ sites and schools, and meeting their students and counterparts is a pleasure. Perhaps I’ll have another opportunity to visit the ‘wild west’.


One step closer

We had our weeklong Mid-Service Conference(s) (MSC) this month: first West Java volunteers, then East. I took the train from Malang to Surabaya, my first train ride in Indonesia. I thought I’d be alone, but two other volunteers happened to get on the same train. We found it a bit difficult to sit together, because we hadn’t reserved seats together, but we only had to move a few times. The ride was quick and comfortable, and the train station in Surabaya was within walking distance of our hotel.

IMG_3453The conference was fun. At times it felt repetitive, but it was good see old topics from a new perspective. It was especially nice to see other volunteers as well as their teaching counterparts, who joined us for a few days at the end. There was lots to talk about now that we’re more than halfway into our service. We discussed our work and our feelings, our successes and less than successes. Some volunteers gave presentations about projects they’ve done at their sites with some tips for those of us thinking about doing similar projects of our own. We also talked a little bit about what awaits us after Peace Corps.

After the conference, with my own eyes on the future, I flew to Jakarta to take the GRE. The morning of the flight, I got an e-mail saying my flight time had been pushed forward 5 hours, but there were enough other flights that I was able to simply cancel and rebook. My new flight ended up being delayed, but that didn’t come as a surprise to me. I passed the extra time in reflection. I quietly strummed my out of tune ukulele, harmonizing with the children shrieking at the top of their lungs all around me. I smiled to myself; not too long ago, this situation might have driven me nuts. During MSC, we discussed our continuing challenges in Indonesia, but we also dug deep and asked ourselves why some things bother us. It’s a strategy I’ve tried to use since I got to Indonesia. If a dozen screeching kids doesn’t bug anyone else here, why should it bother me?

To be continued…

TESOL | 🎲 Roll and Tell

Since the new school year began this week, I thought I’d post an ice breaker for new groups, large and small.

First, students write down 6 facts about themselves. If they know enough English already, they can choose what they’d like to share. Alternatively, the teacher can give them questions to answer or sentences to complete. With my high school students, I like to include a sentence that I always hope proves enlightening: I think English is [easy / hard].

Dice are a great classroom tool!

The reason for 6 is that students will roll a die to determine how many facts they must share with the class. The teacher can demonstrate the process, once students have finished writing.

The chance factor adds a little excitement to the activity, and if students roll a 6, it’s not the teacher’s fault! This may put some shy students at ease. On the other hand, if an especially confident student wants to share all of their facts, a low number shouldn’t stop them.

See what your students come up with when they roll and tell.

Fits and starts

IMG_3368The new school year started with a pop yesterday. Lined up at attention on the basketball court, the new 10th graders were welcomed with an opening ceremony. By my count, only one student fainted and needed to be carried off to recover.

fullsizeoutput_3aa4After a speech by the principal, a big bunch of balloons was sent skyward. Amusingly, the balloons got caught on one of the tall trees in the courtyard, and proceeded to pop in succession during the group prayer. I just pretended it was an artillery salute.

Of course we didn’t want to leave out the veteran students. Their ceremony took place a little later in the morning and was followed by halalbihalal, a ritual during which participants line up, shake hands and, in the spirit of Ramadan, ask for forgiveness for any misdeeds or sins they may have committed.

During the faculty and family halalbihalal a week ago, the most important people in the room—the principal and his guests—lined up first. Everyone else formed a separate line, which moved and passed by the principal. As each person reached the end of the principal’s line, they joined it themselves. This continued until every single person had greeted every other person in the room.

Yesterday’s teacher / student halalbihalal differed in several ways. First, to save time, female teachers only greeted female students and male teachers only greeted male students. I say greeted, because ‘shook hands’ wouldn’t be quite accurate.

A quick aside

Students are typically expected to salim teachers (and anyone older than them). Young people take their elder’s hand and raise it to their own face, typically either the nose, cheek or forehead. I usually avoid saliming my students, instead going for a fist bump, but I didn’t want to confuse anyone or break the rhythm, so this time, I played along.

The salim is something that has grown on me over time. When I meet new children for the first time, I let them salim me. Parents encourage it essentially from day one. Adults even go through the motion with infants. As soon as older babies understand the word, even before they can really speak, they’re expected to do it when prompted. They don’t stop saliming when they turn 18 either. They continue to salim their parents and other older family members, and potentially even family friends and former teachers. I’ve even seen a 50-year-old salim an 80-year-old.

Back to school

While this was going on, several male students and teachers sang an Islamic verse in Arabic. When everyone had finished, upperclassmen went back to leading the orientation for the 10th graders and teachers went about their business.

Today was much quieter. For the 10th and 12th graders, it involved marching practice. The 11th graders stayed home, but it’s their turn tomorrow. Classes are scheduled to begin on Thursday, and I’m looking forward to finally meeting the new students and implementing a few new ideas with my colleagues. By then, I should have gotten feedback from all of them about my schedule. Fits and starts, but starts all the same.


I recently took a trip to Bali and Flores with my dad. We had a nice two weeks, a good mix of being active and relaxing. We saw a ton and met many interesting people. For me it was particularly fascinating to see new parts of Indonesia. I won’t write about the whole trip here, but I’ve posted a selection of photos to the album below. Enjoy!

liburan juni 2017


Many motivational quotes focus on regret. They threaten with lifelong disappointment if you don’t do… whatever it is you’re thinking about doing. Those maxims are based on the idea that regret is inescapable and enduring, but I disagree with that premise.


In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.

Yes, regret is a part of life—there will always be missed opportunities—but I see no reason to dwell on them. At some point, time spent regretting is time that might be better spent moving on.

Life is filled with options, and one isn’t always better than the other. It doesn’t have to be fulfillment vs. emptiness. Any number of choices can be equally rewarding if we decide for ourselves that they are. If I can enjoy this, why should I dwell on not having chosen that?

When it comes to taking action, there’s something to be said for pushing oneself and letting oneself be pushed to try new things and leave one’s comfort zone, but not under the assumption that the alternative is inherently worse. Over the course of a lifetime, we can do a lot—perhaps we can even do more as a rule—but we can’t do everything, and that’s fine. Non-participation is not necessarily the same as missing out. Choosing not to take part in an ostensibly fun activity does not automatically condemn me to boredom.

I don’t appreciate so-called motivational posters that come with seeds of doubt or threats of regret. I believe true motivation sparks confidence that we’re doing it right; it inspires us to be happy with our choices and gives us the courage to deal with our mistakes. Words like shoulda, coulda and woulda have their place—we can learn from them—but they are not words to live by, and they are definitely not the coal in my furnace wind in my turbine.

My life is not a checklist with ticked and unticked boxes. That’s not to say I don’t have goals. If we absolutely need a metaphor, my life is a canvas covered in splotches of paint, and it has been from day one. I wasn’t born to fill emptiness; I was born to add layers.

TESOL | Numbers

I find that numbers are always something worth reviewing and practicing, and they can be practiced alongside many other topics. This post will include several very different activities.


Javanese numerals

Meaningful Numbers

This activity can be used as an icebreaker, but it also works with groups that are already well acquainted. Students choose three numbers that are significant to them (e.g. age, height, birthdate, number of siblings, number of pets, etc.). In small groups, they take turns trying to guess the meaning behind each number by asking, “Is it your height? Is it how many siblings you have?” etc. Once the groups are finished guessing, the teacher can ask for volunteers to challenge the whole class with their meaningful numbers.

My students get very creative, both with their questions and their answers. They also get a little sassy, making guesses that are obviously wrong, but usually very funny. This activity is about a lot more than numbers, because the students are thinking about all kinds of vocabulary the whole time.

Counting Together

This exercise does practice numbers, but it’s probably more useful as a gauge of the group dynamic. Students try to count to a certain number (or as high as they can), which may sound easy enough, but believe me, it’s not.

Everyone stands in a circle and either closes their eyes or looks at the floor. One person begins the counting with ‘one’. The tricky part is that any student can continue, but no two students may say the same number at the same time. Numbers can be called out in quick succession or with long pauses in between, but only one student may say a given number. The first time I did this activity was with 42 students (and 2 teachers), and we got as high as 16.

Perhaps not the best activity if you want to practice higher numbers, but you can alternatively have the students count in intervals, i.e. by fives, tens, etc.

Classroom Inventory

If the topic du jour is classroom vocabulary or school supplies, why not throw in some numbers as well? Have students take an inventory of objects in the classroom. They can work together in small groups or individually. Have them compare their results at the end, the perfect time to practice ‘there is / are‘. If it’s feasible, the teacher can assign different groups to different parts of the school, e.g. the library, front office or cafeteria. If you’re short on time, limit the number of objects to be inventoried; perhaps let each group choose a certain number of items from a list. If you have time to kill, let the students go wild.


Lastly, make your students do math! Whether young, old or somewhere in between, everyone can benefit from a little extra math practice, be it basic arithmetic or everyday problems using basic measurements, prices or time. For large numbers, look at populations, area measurements or numbers of language speakers. Compare different countries to one another to practice geography while you’re at it.

As always, have fun and let me know how it goes!

One year

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to acknowledge passing the one-year mark in Indonesia—just over a year in country and just under a year at site—but I’ve had trouble figuring out how. I started writing a blog post about first experiences and personal records during my service, but a list of moments—though I treasure them—somehow seemed inadequate. I’m still here, still looking forward to tomorrow, and I’ve decided that that is acknowledgment enough.


Indonesia has stretched and squeezed me, pushed and pulled me, awakened intellectual muscles in me I didn’t know I possessed. The best tribute to this description defying experience that I can think of is to continue. I have one more year to teach and learn, make and do, shrink and grow.

Every day, I feel smaller in this big world, but every day, I also grow more rooted in my community. I’ve had to relearn things I thought I knew about myself and about how the world works, but I’ve had many willing teachers. Aspects of life in East Java that I haven’t adopted, I’ve learned to tolerate; the few that I cannot tolerate, I’ve learned to handle.

I came to Indonesia with few expectations, knowing that in time, I’d be reimagining the handful of goals I did have. Over the past year, I’ve continually reflected on those original goals, scrapping some and adjusting others, aligning them with those of my colleagues and students, and I’ve made many new ones. Thinking about them now, I know I have a lot to look forward to, as well as a lot left to learn. So let my salute to Year One be an amazing Year Two.


TESOL | Five Things

This is one of my favorite warm-up activities. It’s quick, easy, versatile and usually elicits a wide variety of results. It’s good for reviewing old vocabulary as well as setting the stage for new material. Asking for ‘five things’ can also help determine what the students already know about a given topic.

The Concept:

The teacher writes a category on the board. The students must write down five words that fit the category. For example:

Five things that are GREEN

– grass
– leaf
– bamboo
– apple
– pear

Adjectives are a great conceptual link (cold / round / sweet), but verbs are just as good.

Five things that can FLY

– bird
– airplane
– helicopter
– bee
– dragonfly

If you’re about to review one of the ‘perfects’, warm up with five irregular past participles* (eaten / gone / made / seen / written). Ideally, you’ll get a lot of responses, which you can use in your lesson.

Categories can be virtually anything: plants, animals, places, even words that start with the same letter, if you’re focusing on spelling or pronunciation. They can also be individual: five things you cannot do / may not do.

When it comes to some words, I set limits. Yes, notebooks can be green, but are they typically green? Is coffee always sweet? (Actually, in East Java, it usually is; I might let that one slide, at least while I’m here.)

There is so much to choose from and play with. Try to keep track of the categories you give your students, especially if you use this activity on a regular basis. That way, your examples will stay fresh.

Give it a try!

*In Germany, my students called past participles the ‘third form’ and in Indonesia, they say ‘verb 3’. EFL dictionaries often include a table of irregular verbs, the third column of which lists past participles, e.g. go / went / gone.