Lessons Learned from Teaching

Guest article by Josh Frank
Trinity College 

One of my first goals in becoming an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) was to understand the needs of my community. At state orientation for Terengganu, the east coast state where I now live, I had the opportunity to ask my mentor questions about where students needed the most help. She informed me that students at our school were strong writers, but struggled with public speaking. As former student body president at my college, I could completely understand the anxieties students had in speaking in front of others, especially speaking a non-native language.

 Public speaking is considered one of the primary learning objectives in the Malaysian curriculum and so this reticence to public speaking is not only emblematic of the students’ shyness, but also has the potential to negatively affect academic success. I theorized that building a strong personal relationship with my students would allow them to trust me and be open about their insecurities speaking.  If I could build relationships in which my students felt comfortable talking with me, maybe I could transfer some of that confidence into their public speaking requirements.
Students excitedly show cards they created to for their mothers and teachers for Women’s History Month

Throughout several of my lessons, I asked my students to tell me about their lives at home. This was a way to attempt building comfort and trust with them. At the time, my theory was that environmental circumstances beyond the students control had a significant effect on their performance inside the class. Growing up, I saw firsthand that poverty can have a direct impact on students’ achievement in school. The low graduation rates in the areas I lived were largely attributed to poverty and other environmental factors. A myriad of serious problems, such as poor living conditions or economic problems, can significantly limit the ability of students to perform in the classroom.

I was shocked to see the early success of giving students a space to talk about their communities. In one activity, I asked students to describe something sad that happened to them. One of our Form 4 girls stood and shared with the class that her grandparent had just passed away. She had soldiered throughout the school day without mentioning this to anyone. I admired her confidence and thanked her for her sharing her story with everyone in class. It made me think back to a time of personal tragedy. In 2014, just as I was becoming a sophomore in college my grandfather passed away from cancer. I hardly spoke to my peers and others about the ordeal. I preferred to keep my pain private but I remember the impact this experience had on both my academic performance and social interactions that year. 

One of the ways that I tried to push students to challenge themselves is through positive encouragement. I discovered that there were layers to my students’ nervousness. One of reasons for their nervousness is a constant fear of making mistakes. This was evident from our “Speaker’s Corner” activity, an exercise where students were asked to speak about a topic of their choice in front of their peers at the canteen. Even the highest performing students were fearful about this exercise, and conferred their concerns with me separately. I continually reminded the students that they were entirely capable of completing the exercise, that the fear they felt was a reaction that could be overcome. I told them that building comfort in front of people was something they would have to continue to work at as an ongoing process. I told them that people in the United States, including excellent orators, often also have a fear of speaking. When the students spoke, I purposely stood close to them to provide support when they would pause from fear or laugh from a mistake. This continued process of patience and encouragement has allowed us to work with several classes successfully throughout the year.
Josh helps students and a teacher at this school set up signs encouraging the use of English idioms

The school community and I brainstormed ways in which we could encourage the students to build a community and express their voices. During the second half of the grant year, the school proposed a bold move and suggested that rather than running the traditional camp, with the ETAs leading the show, we would hand the reigns over to students who participated in the “Superteens” camp the previous year. The “Superteens” camp was a three day, state wide camp held in Terengganu.  My mentors and I noticed that our Form 1 and 2 students seemed unusually challenged this year in class performance, especially with English. We decided that we could build the strengths of our younger students by having the Superteens engage with them. In July, we held a “Shooting Stars” English camp.
Josh snaps a pictures with class 2C as they enjoy time together after school

Some of the students were understandably concerned about problems that would arise from their activities. With our assistance, the “Superteens” and Form 4 students prepared four English exercises that lasted half an hour each, as well as an hour-long journaling activity. We expected public speaking in all exercises, and hoped to create a space for our younger students to challenge themselves. At one of our sessions, a panicked student leader asked me if she could stop working with students for one speaking station. The station, named “SMK Pelagat’s Got Talent,” was perhaps the hardest for the Form 1 and 2 students. Students were tasked to perform a skit twice in front of their peers. The speaking exercise was intended to put emphasis on voice and emotion.  Some students struggled to both speak loud enough and provide sufficient emotion to their lines. I tried to use continued positive reinforcement with the student who complained to me. I told her that working with students who struggled was the objective of the camp, and one way that it could make a meaningful difference. I supervised their station as they continued with the exercise. The student who complained to me pushed forward, encouraging and talking to the students just as I did with Speaker’s Corner. As the exercise reached its end, she smiled with eyes full of both relief and accomplishment at sticking through such as challenging exercise. In a debrief session, we discussed how this was a moment of growth for both the leaders in charge and the students who struggled with the exercise.

We had a community and speaking activity in our last camp exercise. All 50 students who were present at our camp were asked to complete a journal documenting their family and hopes for the future. At the end of making journals, many students raced to the front to share their journals with everyone. We also encouraged students who may have otherwise been shy to talk about themselves. This was a wonderful way to have productive interactions between older students and our younger forms. I think an enormous success of this camp was making a community of learners around activities that were enjoyable but central to our speaking objectives.  
I consider myself extremely lucky to witness the growth of my students over the past eight months, and I know that there will be many more opportunities for them to grow as speakers. I look forward to seeing the ways in which students will continue to learn from each other and strive towards building community.  

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