Midterms

I’ve already covered cheating, but I promised I would elaborate on midterms. I helped proctor 10 last week. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve had at site, but I’m glad I did it.

THE TESTS

…took place over 9 days, 2 a day, each lasting 90 minutes with a 30-minute break in between.

THE STUDENTS

…in each classroom were mixed; half came from one grade, half from another, either 10th, 11th or 12th. Each student had to sit next to someone from the other grade. When I first realized this, I thought it might help discourage cheating. I was mistaken to the point that I still have to laugh when I think about it.

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THE PROCTORS

…were teachers, student-teachers and myself. In general there were two proctors to a classroom. A few minutes before the test was scheduled to begin, one of the two went to pick up a sort of portfolio, which contained attendance sheets, answer sheets and top-secret question sheets, the last of which were in sealed envelopes. As soon as the students were settled, my colleagues generally declared mission accomplished and decided that the testing sessions were a great opportunity to catch up on other work, social media or even sleep. One co-proctor even thought the listening portion of the English test was the perfect time to have a chat with me. It took a lot of desperate whispering and then silence on my part to convince him otherwise. We simply ended up having our chat during the next test, which did not include a listening section. Standing just outside the classroom door, we talked about everything except the rampant cheating I imagined was going on a few feet away.

THE DISTRACTIONS

…were many. After students had already been handed their question and answer sheets, the attendance sheets were passed around to be initialed: the perfect opportunity to turn around and talk to your classmate behind you. To be fair, testing had only just begun, so desperation still hadn’t reached its peak. Students weren’t sure yet, which questions they wanted their friends to answer for them. The real distractions were still to come.

The ringing of a teacher’s cell phone and the ensuing conversation; visits by teachers who checked that each room did in fact have its assigned proctors—each day, I initialed a sort of attendance sheet, just like the students; visits by other teachers who wanted who knows what; screaming and singing, coming from the elementary school next door; English language listening assignments that might not be for your grade (different grade levels were naturally taking different tests, sometimes even for different subjects—interestingly, that didn’t stop them from helping each other).

The list goes on, and I should add myself. Most of the students, whose exams I was proctoring, had never had me as a teacher, so I was still relatively new to them. Some students couldn’t stop staring, no matter how hard they pretended to try.

With 20 minutes to go, the first students began to hand in their finished tests. This was probably the very best time to get help from a friend. The teachers were occupied with keeping all the papers organized and no longer concerned with students walking around or talking. All in all, one of the best examples of going through the motions I have ever witnessed.

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Step right up, folks

I took my one-man, 24/7 traveling circus on the road the other day for a long walk. All the usual spectators came to watch: adults who can’t imagine why I would walk anywhere, let alone their street, and kids, who are so shocked, so adrenalized by my presence, that they don’t know what to do with themselves. Some take a few apprehensive steps back from the road, while others look ready to explode with excitement.

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Two in particular took the initiative to hop on a bike and follow me for a bit. At some point, to get a better look, they passed me, wide-eyed and mouths gaping. I laughed out loud, which made them laugh, too. When I caught up with them, I asked them what they were doing, where they were going (like you do in Indonesia), but they seemed to have forgotten how to talk. I filled in the blank. “Are you tailing the bule?” – “No, no! [silence, then…] Where are you from?”

Eventually, they did remember how to talk. We happened to stop in front of a lumber yard, and the workers there decided to chime in: “Where are you going? Are you alone?” – “Not anymore,” I said. Indonesians hardly do anything alone. Even my students—both girls and guys—leave class to go to the bathroom in twos. After a few more questions, the kids went back the way they had come. I kept going.

img_1966About twenty minutes later, I turned onto a very pretty road that passed between two sugarcane fields. How quiet and green, I thought to myself. The notion had barely jumped its last synapse when I heard distant yells coming from behind me. I smiled to myself; I had an idea of what was coming. I didn’t turn around though. I thought I’d let myself be surprised. Finally, the yelling caught up with me. It was the boys from before, and they had brought along six of their friends. The interview started all over again.

FAIZAN: [in English!] What is your name?

ME: My name is Mr. Liam.

FAIZAN: My name is Faizan. [Then pointing to his friend.] My name is Bagus.

ME: His name is Bagus.

FAIZAN: Ya, his name is Bagus.

And so on, though the rest of the conversation took place in Indonesian and Javanese.

BAGUS: It’s going to rain, Mister. How about running?

I had to think about that for a few seconds. Contrary to popular belief, subjects are not essential parts of a sentence.

ME: You mean I should run?

[Vigorous nodding all around.]

A few kids got on even fewer bicycles, and the rest of us ran alongside them. By the time we got to their street, it had started drizzling. I said goodbye and made my way toward the main road, which would take me home.

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What’s the answer?

During training, we were warned by veteran volunteers that cheating might be an issue at our schools. Until this past week, the only sort of cheating I had come across personally was copied homework assignments. Over the last few days, I saw students openly share and compare answers during each and every midterm exam that I helped proctor [more on midterms to come].

Having been forewarned, I wasn’t shocked to see the students cheat during their exams, but I was quite surprised how obvious they were about it. I saw students turn around to chat with their neighbors and mouth answers to friends across the room, sometimes not even bothering to whisper. What did I do about it? Truthfully, not a whole lot.

My co-proctors didn’t seem especially concerned, so I took their lead, but I decided for myself that I couldn’t make it as easy as all that on the students or their consciences. When I caught them collaborating, I gave them looks ranging from disappointed to downright dirty. I stood next to their desks and blocked their co-conspirators from view. I needn’t have bothered. The moment I turned my attention elsewhere, they were right back at it.

My withering looks and human wall strategy may not have been particularly effective deterrents, but I see them as a prelude to the conversation I want to have with my students and my fellow teachers throughout the rest of my service.

Version 2

The fact is, I don’t blame the students. They are part of a school system that is in flux, a system that is subject to influences outside its control. In Indonesia, like in many countries, including the United States, public education is too often politicized. Legislators and other officials zealously latch on to trends in pedagogy, and they are quick to blame or reject anything they regard as a hurdle in the way of their pet projects. Trends are tricky though. Learning is nothing new, so old should not be confused with ineffective, when it comes to methodology, and change should not be mistaken for progress.

Confronted with evolving (and sometimes confusing) curricula, overburdened teachers, who often shoulder administrative or other responsibilities in addition to their course load, and an Indonesian penchant for prioritizing the unscheduled over the planned, viz. actual class time, it’s no wonder that some students lack both the conceptual tools and the confidence to complete an exam or other assignment on their own.

I will continue to actively discourage students from cheating, but I feel uncomfortable punishing them without first working to better equip them for their academic journey. Together with my teaching counterparts, I aim to at least try to cultivate a more structured environment and a level of consistency in the classroom that I hope will lead to a higher degree of self-reliance on the students’ part.

My students certainly know they’re not supposed to share answers with one another—I had to stifle a few laughs, when I saw their embarrassed and/or frustrated faces upon being caught—but I believe it’s more complicated than wanting a shortcut. Indonesian society is communal by nature, and I have already benefited—on multiple occasions—from the unreserved and ungrudging willingness of my Indonesian friends and neighbors to help in a pinch. Here, school is just one more manifestation of community, and students are the friends and neighbors. In the end, it’s the teachers’ job to train students, both to appreciate knowledge, and to help themselves, so they aren’t compelled to rely on their classmates or forced to withhold the helping hand they would otherwise offer so readily.

Rain

Rain is nothing new, but the phenomenon doesn’t cease to amaze me, in particular because my relationship with precipitation has been different in each place I’ve lived. I was used to getting wet before I came to Indonesia. In Germany, rainy, splashy bike rides were normal. I was accustomed to flooding and puddles, but I was not used to motorcycles and cars plowing through the water as if they were jet skis and speedboats, while my bicycle turned paddleboat and I try to avoid getting washed away.

Weather patterns at my site, while not exactly the same day in and day out, are fairly predictable. During rainy season, when that daytime temperature peaks at around noon, you can assume rain is imminent. Sometimes the dark gray skies don’t deliver what they promise, but more likely than not, the heavens will open and earth and sky will be connected by long, silver streams of water.

Showers can last all day, but they generally don’t. I’ve been warned that this will change as the season progresses, but at this point, waiting out the rain on a given afternoon or evening is often a realistic option. When I’m not itching to be somewhere else, I usually wait a bit. There’s always someone to talk to, assuming you can make yourself heard over the pounding rain. When I’d rather be on my way, I put on my impermeables, slip on some sandals and surrender myself to the wet.

By the time I was sitting on my bike on Monday, ready to go home, the rain had pretty much stopped. I left my rain gear on though, and I’m glad I did. My school clothes were happy, too (they told me so later). Within minutes of leaving, I got splashed by the wannabe watercraft tearing past me in both directions.

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On Tuesday, it seemed safe to skip the rain gear, but halfway home, it started spitting. As I rode on, the almost imperceptible drops turned to drizzle and finally, to steady rain. Had I been farther from home, I might have stopped to put on my rain jacket and pants, as I’ve done many times before, but my clothes were already wet, and I had almost reached my destination anyway.

Rainy season doesn’t just complicate travel and transportation; it also disrupts doing laundry, that is to say, drying laundry. I rely on the sun for that, and if the sun only shines for half the day (or less), it really puts a damper on things. I try to have my clothes washed and hung before the sun hits the clothes line, even if that means doing laundry at 5:00 am.

Today it’s been consistently “cool” (77°F, 25°C) and cloudy, and as I type this last sentence, I can hear the first drops of inexorable rain.