The other morning I went for a long run. I had set out to retrace an old route, but I decided pretty quickly to try something new. Where I normally would have turned right, I went straight ahead, down a steep hill, across a bridge and up a steeper hill on the other side. When I made it to the top, I was breathless for two reasons, the second being the absolutely beautiful panorama before me: rice paddies, lush and green; palm trees all around them; ahead of me a majestic volcano. The sun had barely risen, so everything was bathed in a very gentle half-light.


I rarely have an opportunity to forget that I live in a very densely populated part of an already densely populated island, but tucked between the sprawling towns and villages are many of these vast swathes of tranquil green, and if you go there at the right time of day, there are hardly any people. On this run, my imagination turned the few humming motorcycles into buzzing insects. I stopped for a moment and soaked up the scenery. When I set out again, I felt that those moments of peace and quiet had given me an extra 10 minutes of patience for the day.

I didn’t know where I was, so…I just kept going. Eventually, I left all signs of habitation behind, running down another hill and across another bridge. Then I made a turn I won’t call right or wrong. I followed a track that ran parallel to the river I had just crossed. The track got narrower and narrower, but it didn’t disappear…for a good while. At one point though, the road did vanish into the river. Signs that people still passed this way continued though: crops that were obviously being tended, the odd piece of clothing. I decided to keep going.

Signs that I might not be alone or that there might be a way out ahead spurred me on. My run had turned into obstacle course, which I navigated carefully. Finally, I saw a man ahead inspecting his crops. Hopeful, I asked him what lay ahead. Would I find a way out if I continued? He pointed to a sheer cliff behind him and said I could climb that. Otherwise I’d have to turn back. I took the latter piece of advice.

When I finally reached the bridge and the fork in the road from before, I chose the path I had previously ignored and soon ended up on a well-traveled road. The sun was climbing higher, and there were more people out and about—people that had never seen me before. The calls of bule! and tourist! began to increase in frequency. I felt my stock of patience running out.

IMG_2509When I finally made it back to familiar territory, I thought I’d be safe from unwanted attention. These people knew me after all. Unfortunately, I was wrong. People pointed me out the way I might draw attention to a kangaroo that had escaped from its zoo. My patience was nearly depleted, and I was disappointed that people I thought I knew would objectify me that way, but I had one more trick up my sleeve. I turned on to my old street* where I was sure I’d only be greeted with familiar hellos. It worked.

I’ll try this new run again sometime, and maybe I’ll even try it as a walk, so I can slow down and explain that I’m not an escaped kangaroo.

*I’ve moved! More to come soon.

TESOL | What has been done?

Time to practice passive present perfect (or passive simple past if you’re feeling AE).

Divide the class into two groups. While one group waits outside, the other group looks around the room, trying to remember as many details as possible. After a minute or two, the groups switch places. The students who had been waiting outside enter the classroom and proceed to change 10 things. (To ensure that only 10 things are changed and to help keep track of what was changed, assign smaller groups of students to each change a specific number of things about the room.)

After the changes of been made, the waiting group comes back in and tries to figure out what has been done to the room, e.g. the board has been cleaned; a chair has been moved; a window has been opened/closed, etc.

I’ve had students write their guesses on the board before discussing each one.

TESOL | 5 by 5

This activity is meant to practice vocabulary and spelling. I prefer a simple version of the game, but it can easily be made more difficult.

I have noticed that students at every level have trouble remembering the names of letters in English despite the fact that (or because?) they learn the alphabet so early. As a little refresher, I find it helpful to practice the alphabet immediately prior to this activity, e.g. by saying it together as a class or having each student say one letter.


To set up the game, the teacher draws a 5 x 5 grid on the board or on a piece of paper. (If the teacher uses the the board, the students can follow along more easily.) Each student then draws their own grid on a piece of paper.


To begin the game, the teacher says one letter of the alphabet and writes it in one square (any square). Students write the same letter in any one square of their grids. Then, students take turns each saying one letter, which each student adds to their grid. The goal is to write words of two to five letters. To keep things simple, I prefer to count only words going left to right or top to bottom. Generally, I allow letters to be repeated any number of times, but limits can be set by the teacher to add a challenge.


Each word is worth a certain amount of points. 5-letter words are worth 10 points. Words with 4, 3 or 2 letters are worth the number of letters in that word. Points are tallied at the end to determine the winner. Don’t forget to explain the point system before beginning the game.


The activity can be done as a class or in smaller groups. It is up to the teacher to decide what kinds of words should count. I prefer not to include acronyms like CEO, but having such words count can be useful. Limits or bonuses can also be set for parts of speech or other word categories, e.g. only verbs will be counted or color words count double.



Language is, of course, more than vocab, grammar and pronunciation, but in Indonesia, I’ve been stumbling over one aspect of language that has rarely tripped me up before, namely tone.

Indonesian is not a tone language like Chinese, where individual words change meaning depending on their pitch, but it is tonal insofar as every language is a little bit tonal. In English, pitch might not influence the definition of a word, but it can change the intended meaning or feeling of a word or of an entire sentence. Take the word please. We use it firstly for polite requests and agreement, but we can use it to express doubt or annoyance as well.

“English is a tonal language? Oh, please!”

Sarcastic, critical, patronizing, skeptical, sympathetic, imploring, aggressive, etc. We can be all of those things just by changing our tone of voice. The please example illustrates what I mean by tone, but it is also idiomatic; it’s a usage of please that has to be learned separately. The difficulty I’ve had with tone in Indonesia is not idiomatic, but idiosyncratic.

The intention behind a particular tone is not universal across languages. What I might interpret as a critical or mocking slight to my intelligence, might not be meant that way at all. In fact, in Indonesia, I can be relatively sure it isn’t. To make things (subjectively) worse, however, questions I get asked are often, though not always, phrased negatively.

Don’t you know about the meeting? Why aren’t you drinking coffee? Don’t you want some snacks? You’re not going out today? Why aren’t you riding your bike?

By themselves, each of those questions is innocent enough, but I rarely hear just one. It’s hard for me not to feel annoyed, when I’m bombarded with negativity like that, particularly when I hear a list of expectations I have “failed” to meet. In reality though, commenting on changes and differences is a classic Indonesian method of troubleshooting, albeit a nosy one. Straying from the norm in Indonesia can be seen as the first indication of a problem, so when my ibu as good as freaks out because I don’t drink coffee one morning, she doesn’t intend to criticize my habits; she’s worried she bought me the wrong coffee. I still can’t completely ignore my first impressions of a tone of voice, but I’m getting better at reinterpreting tone or simply accepting it.

The incongruence between what I hear and what I understand is a product of my own cultural sensibilities. The fact that, in Java, an invitation to have some food is expressed the same way I might warn someone that their shoes are on fire is simply an aspect of Javanese culture I have to get used to.

TESOL | What was happening?

This activity is geared toward past progressive (continuous).

Two students come to the front of the class. One faces the class (Student A), while the other stands behind him/her and performs an action (Student B). Student A then asks three other students what Student B was doing. Two of the three are allowed to lie. One must tell the truth. Student A must guess which answer is correct.

Assign which students may lie and which may tell the truth by giving each a slip of paper with their role written on it.

For large classes:

After the whole class has seen the activity done once or twice, the teacher may divide the class into small groups. Students in each group will take turns performing each role.

To add a degree of difficulty, additional roles can be assigned. For example, Students B and C perform two different actions at the same time. Answers will follow the structure: Student B was Xing while Student C was Ying. Optionally, one student can only lie about Student B while the other can only lie about Student C.

All work and no play…

One of my favorite things about teaching foreign languages is trying out new activities with my students. I hesitate to call them games (even thought that’s often exactly what they are), because my Indonesian colleagues don’t always appreciate the merit of learning through playing. Luckily, the students are more receptive. Games are more than playing, more than winning and losing. They encourage students to use language actively, and though the situations might not be 100% authentic, the context can be realistic enough for concepts to sink in.

img_2359I will be starting a new series of blog posts profiling my favorite language activities (including games). In each post, I will include notes about classroom management, grammar and vocabulary, perhaps even a photo or two. All of these posts will be accessible under the TESOL menu. If you’re interested in a specific kind of activity or perhaps a grammatical concept, try the tag cloud.

If you’ve used an activity before, I’d be interested to hear how it worked for you. Feel free to comment with your own adaptations or other feedback.


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.


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


…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.



…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.


…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.

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.


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.


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 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.


On Tuesday, it seemed to 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.