Site Visit

Last week I decided to visit a volunteer friend, Sally, whose site is relatively close to mine. I hopped on a bus with two half-empty seats. The occupied halves were taken up by sleeping passengers. I squeezed one butt cheek on to the roomier looking half and jammed one kneecap into the seat in front of me. My tailbone I gently balanced on the skeleton of the seat. I was ready to go.


At a predetermined stop, I extricated myself from the seat/clamp and hopped off. Sally was already waiting for me. We walked a good distance to her village, admiring the views of the hillscape along the way. I dropped off the few things I had brought with me at her house, and then we proceeded to her school. It’s always interesting to see other volunteers’ schools. The kids had already gone home, but I introduced myself to the remaining teachers and had surprisingly few pictures taken with them.

We went back to Sally’s house and had a few snacks. I held the baby of the house, Kai, and was praised for my baby talk skills. I was encouraged to speak English to the not quite 6-month-old.

While the weather was still nice, Sally and I went for a bit of a hike. We walked to a big hill in the woods, which my phone told me had 4G service. (Sally’s house has no G service). As the path grew narrower and the plant growth denser, we battled our way through spider webs, all the while enjoying the lack of other people and the abundance of green.

IMG_4198We got back home just as it started drizzling. My plan had been to go home that same day, but the increasingly heavy rain washed that idea away. Sally’s host family was more than happy to have me stay the night. That evening, friends and neighbors came over for a prayer meeting for the wellbeing of baby Kai. I helped Sally’s bapak roll out the carpets everyone would sit on, and as the guests came, I helped tell everyone to eat the mountains of snacks. I smiled to myself when someone pulled the Muslim prayer books out of a Harry Potter tote bag. While everyone else chanted in Arabic, I meditated in my own way.

Early the next morning I was lucky to have a ride home. A friend of Sally’s had to drive his son to school, and he told me it was no trouble to bring me to my house afterward.

Seeing how my volunteer friends live is always interesting, and I can’t help but think about how my service would be different, if I had been placed somewhere else. These aren’t thoughts of regret or envy though, just thoughts. Time is running out, but I hope to visit a few more friends before we all leave.



How do I get to…?

The other day (or week) my counterpart taught a lesson on making reservations, be it for the movies, dinner or travel. As a follow-up, I pulled out some Australian bus schedules and travel brochures to practice asking for travel information.


I set up bus and train stations around the room and assigned pairs of students to each. I gave them a schedule for a particular line or set of lines and told them to help the travelers that would be stopping by their stations to ask for information.

The rest of the students also worked together in pairs, and I gave each a starting point, a destination and a time by which they needed to be there. The times I gave them didn’t usually match perfectly with the schedule, so I told them, when in doubt, arrive early. For example, though a bus might get in at 11:01 am, if their assigned arrival time is 11:00 am, they have to take the earlier bus, even if it gets in at 10:30 am. Quite a foreign concept for my students.

Assuming some students would be done earlier than others, I set up a reading table with brochures and pamphlets about Western Australia. I told everyone who got done early to browse the material and write down a sentence or two about whatever looked interesting to them.

The process and the materials both being quite new, it took a little while for everyone to get the hang of the activity, but once they did, they actively participated and all made it to their destinations.


Today started out very gray. I hopped on my bike and hoped I would stay dry till I got to school. I almost did, but I was met with a fine drizzle just before I pulled into the school parking lot. It never really stopped raining after that.

Students and teachers ducked and ran from class to class, sometimes magicking a cardboard box out of nowhere to cover their heads. As the school day wound down, we all weighed our options. “Can’t go home; it’s raining!” was a sentiment I heard a few times from several teachers.

fullsizeoutput_3bf3When I told my counterpart that I wanted to go home anyway, he implored me to consider my health. In Indonesia, going out in the rain is said to make you sick. I told him what they say in Germany, that rain is good for your skin. He just looked at me incredulously. “Can you prove it?” he asked. I didn’t mention that it’s said mostly as a joke, to put a positive spin on uncomfortable weather. Instead I told him I was more worried about crazy drivers than rain-borne illnesses.

That’s when it started raining harder than ever; I put thoughts of sickness, crazy drivers and beautiful skin out of my mind for another few minutes. Finally though, I decided it wasn’t going to get any better any time soon. It was so dark, the sun was just another distant star. The paths of least resistance, a.k.a. roads, had already become rivers and lakes. I might as well just go. And so I went.

20 Questions

This classic game is a great way to practice questions. Is it … ? Does it … ? Can it … ? Can you … it? It requires the full width and breadth of the students’ vocabularies, and it also requires a certain way of thinking, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

img_3810I recently played with my students, none of whom had ever played before. I explained the rules and gave them a few example lines of questioning. Then, when I let them start asking questions themselves, they immediately starting guessing: Is it a computer? Is it a pineapple? I called a time out and explained the premise again: start big and get more specific from there. Before you ask if it’s a pineapple, ask if it’s a fruit, or better yet, ask if it’s food. We played a few rounds together. Some students grasped it very quickly, others less quickly, but it was great practice for everyone. After the class got the hang of it, I divided them into small groups and let them play again. I also made them keep track of their lines of questioning, so they could visualize them, and so we could discuss them later.

There are different variations of this game out there, but I kept it basic. One player thinks of a word; the other players have to guess what it is by asking up to 20 yes/no questions. In each of my classes, I provided the students with the question structures that I wanted them to use. That’s it!


It’s ‘Language Month’. There will be quite a bit more on that to come. Today, however, I just want to relay a short anecdote. A little bit of background first: this coming Saturday, my school will be hosting a series of language events for middle schoolers, among them story telling, news reading and poetry reading. Some events will be in English, some in Indonesian.

This morning, the committee, which includes language-focus students and several teachers, held a meeting for jury members, myself included, and teachers from participating middle schools. The meeting was scheduled for 9:00 am. I meandered over to the biology lab from the teachers’ room a little early and chatted with a group of students on the way.

I sat down in the back corner, opened my laptop and worked on a blog post. It didn’t take long for one of the students on the planning committee to inform me that I “must” sit in the first row. Those were the “rules”. I almost laughed. Then he explained that he would be sitting in the back with the other students. I acquiesced and moved up to the third row. When I can help it, I try not to sit in the front row. I don’t want to give anyone the false impression that I’m actually important or that my job is taken seriously.

We started more or less on time. Snacks and water were handed out; prayers were said; then the committee got to the agenda. I think an e-mail may have been better suited to communicate this information, especially because some attendees came from far away, but meetings are important. They give status to an event (and the host).

I have the feeling that Language Month will give me plenty to write about. A follow-up to this post is already brewing. Stay tuned.


One Sunday at the end of August, I got up at more of a weekday time, 4:30 am. I had breakfast, got dressed, and when Ibu and I were ready, we walked around the corner to a big stage set up in the middle of the street. It was 6:00 am and music was blasting. The event hadn’t begun yet, but the music reminded everyone within a mile that it was happening. It was time for jalan sehat.

IMG_3557Neighbors from up and down the street gathered in their sportswear. Some very energetic women on the stage led everyone in a lively aerobics routine. I ended up in the middle of a gaggle of small children. After the warm-up routine was finished, everyone did an about-face and started walking toward the main road. We walked for several kilometers, partly along the main road, which had been partially blocked off for us, but mostly through beautiful rice fields. Two boys from the gaggle attached themselves to either side of me for a good stretch of the hike. When they ran off, I mingled with neighbors I had only seen and never spoken to.

After we made it back to the stage, the organizers started a raffle (we had been given tickets about halfway through the hike). As numbers were called, prizes were handed out: everything you can imagine, including books, bikes and birds. One lucky winner was handed a live rooster. At one point, I was pulled on stage to help call out numbers, which I did for a few minutes. A drink and a few chats later, I decided to go home.


Later that afternoon though, I got a second wind and decided to go for a run. My ibu asked, “Kurang capek?” Aren’t you tired enough yet? I guess I wasn’t. I didn’t have a route in mind, but I ended up combining several and running farther than I have in a long time. Eventually, I ended up somewhere completely new, a tiny village, far removed from any main roads. My sense of direction told me I couldn’t really be too far from home, but I stopped to ask if I was going in the right direction.

An older woman confirmed that I was going the right way but told me to come in for a drink of water before I left. I sat my sweaty self down on a bench in her parlor and one of her grandchildren brought me a bottle of water. We chatted for a while, mostly about me, and took a few pictures. Then as it started getting dark, I took my leave and ran home.


I decided not to edit this glorious portrait of the matriarch, her son and myself.




The unfinished blog posts are piling up. This one reaches back to the beginning of September, but I didn’t want to ignore it completely.

This past September, Muslims around the world celebrated Eid al-Adha, a feast that pays tribute to the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son. All Muslims gather in the morning to pray, and those who can afford it, sacrifice an animal. The meat is traditionally divided into three parts: one for the poor, one for friends and family and one for those who made the sacrifice. Sometimes extended families, entire villages or even communities such as schools sacrifice an animal together. My extended host family sacrificed 5 goats.


I missed the first goat’s death, but I watched the next two meet their end. I didn’t take any pictures, because there are enough out there already, but I’ll describe the process just a little. Skip ahead if you’re squeamish. Needless to say, it was a bloody affair. A deep hole had been dug in the yard to collect blood and other unwanted bits of the animals. Each goat was laid down, head over the hole, its neck resting on a banana stem. As the neck was slit, a conveniently placed banana leaf prevented blood from spraying everywhere. I obviously don’t have much experience to judge from, but it seemed to me that the third goat was dispatched much more quickly than the second. However, neither was instantaneous. After the life had slipped from each animal, it was strung up on a bamboo pole for skinning and carving. Several men took part, quickly and efficiently removing skin and innards before cutting off sections of meat. Then the meat was divided up. Some of it was turned into satay almost straightway. For the rest of that day, there was goat satay everywhere you looked.

I’m glad I got to witness the sacrifices. I was vegetarian for a long time before I came to Indonesia. When I first got here, I ate whatever was given to me, including lots of meat. During the last year, though, I’ve reduced my meat intake considerably. At home I’m vegetarian, but if I’m on the road or someone else’s guest, I’ll eat whatever is provided, especially if it’s something I’ve never had before.

I won’t go into why I prefer to be a vegetarian in this blog post. Suffice it to say, I have no problem with meat consumption in general, but I believe everyone could do with a little more appreciation of where meat (or any food) comes from, particularly in countries like the US, where contact with food has become far removed from farms. Watching those goats be slaughtered was one thing, but every day, I also see people in rice and sugarcane fields, working very hard to make everyone’s lives a little starchier and sweeter.

Participating in Muslim holidays and traditions has also been interesting, but I’ll write about more of those later.

TESOL | Sentence Auction

The sentence auction is one of my all-time favorite activities for intermediate to advanced students. However, slimmed down to basic examples, this activity can also be used with beginners.*

It serves several purposes: firstly, it trains students’ language instincts, helping them recognize and/or correct mistakes, but it also lets them practice managing money and risk. The auction definitely requires a bit of preparation, but the students can help.


First, you need sentences: some right, some wrong. I recommend two ways of getting them. Personally, I like to have the students write the sentences used for this activity, usually during the session before game day. From experience, I know there will be some recurring errors in the mix. Otherwise, the teacher can come up with each sentence for more targeted, intentional practice.

Student-created sentences: If I asked my students to, “Write me five sentences,” I would get blank stares. Give your students a prompt, somewhere to begin.

Grammar: Get your students to write sentences using a particular tense: present, past, future, etc., but rather than asking them to use the tense, give them a time frame—every day, last month, next year, etc. Then, remind them which tense they’ll want to use in that time frame.  Ask them to include a question or write all questions if that’s the topic du jour.

Vocabulary: Give your students a vocab prompt. Use the words you’re currently working on. Of course, you can also use the opportunity to review. For example, ask for five nouns, five adjectives and five verbs. Tell them to write sentences using at least one of the words per sentence or at least one of each part of speech per sentence, etc.

Once you have your sentences, take some time to actually read them; survey the errors and decide how many and which sentences you want to use.

Teacher-created sentences: Decide how many sentences you want to auction off and what typical errors you want to tempt the students with. This means a little more work for you, the teacher, but this way you have more control over what the students are practicing.

Game day

Divide the class into teams. It’s up to you to find the right balance for your class. If the teams are too big, individual students might not have a chance to participate, but if there are too many teams, the activity can become difficult to manage. I find it helpful to recruit one student as a score keeper and helper. Though not necessarily concentrating on the sentences, this student will still be very much involved. He or she must keep track of which team bought which sentence for how much money—in English. This could potentially be a student whose math skills outshine his or her language skills or a student who might otherwise be disruptive.

Ask the students if they are familiar with an auction. They might not know the English word, but a brief demonstration will hopefully help them connect the dots. If you think your students are completely unfamiliar with the concept, it might be a good idea to explain it during the session before game day, perhaps with a video.

Tell the students you’ll be auctioning off (their) sentences. Some will be correct; others will have errors. Clue them in on how many of each type of sentence are for sale.

Give each team a budget. Make it enough money so the teams won’t run out too quickly, but don’t give them too much; make the students practice taking calculated risks.

Set the rules on how often you’ll repeat each sentence. This will encourage students to be quiet while you read the sentences and help spare your vocal chords. If students are writing the sentences down, you may also want to set a time limit on how long before you close bidding.

Checking answers: It’s possible to check each sentence after it’s sold, distributing points right away, but this interrupts the flow of the activity and takes away from the suspense. I find it more enjoyable to go through all of the sentences at the end.

If you have the resources, you may want to give your students a worksheet with the sentences you auctioned off and have them follow along as the appropriate corrections are made. Otherwise, if you have time, have the students write down each sentence as you go through the corrections.

Scoring: There are different ways you can keep track of the score.

PointsMost simply, give points for correct sentences and take points away for incorrect sentences. Add some nuance and a challenge to the game by giving extra points for successfully corrected errors. That way, students will bid for more sentences and give each a second thought.

MoneyAlternatively, use money to keep score. Tell students the balance of their budget will disappear after bidding has ended, but they will get some or all of their spent money back for correct and/or corrected sentences. This will encourage students to make higher bids and take risks.

I’ve used this activity a number of times, with varying degrees of success, but each time, the students have gotten very animated. If you want to try it out, I encourage you put a lot of thought into your preparation. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. Then you can tweak it to perfection. Going once; going twice; three times! And sold to you!

*For beginners: Consider auctioning off single words or phrases. You probably won’t want to confuse your students by giving them incorrect forms. Instead, auction off base forms and ask for variations: irregular plural nounsirregular verbscomparative and superlative forms of adjectives, etc.

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’.