Speaking Up

Guest Article written by Annika Reno
Barnard College

The students of form 1 speaking workshop know how to paint and use their voices!

The responsibilities of an English Teaching Assistant are vast. Our path to “success” here is winding and the signs along the trail are minimal. When there are signs, the paint is fading and you can’t quite make out if the arrow is pointing north—or is that northwest? Or, wait a minute, maybe it’s actually pointing south? Does anyone have a compass?

Distilled down to a single phrase one could say our underlying purpose as instructors in the classroom is to instill confidence in our students’ English speaking abilities. To achieve this, we must work to build up students’ confidence across multiple dimensions—not only in their perceived mastery of a foreign language.

Activities during recess are one attempt at breaking down barriers and building confidence

During my first few months at school here in Sibu, Sarawak, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with my students’ general shyness and apprehension to speak. When they did speak up in the classroom to offer an opinion or insight that was surely “correct” and worthy of being heard, it would be delivered in murmured whispers with one hand or handkerchief covering an embarrassed grin. I would ask the student to say it a bit louder—“I’m sorry, I just couldn’t hear. One more time, please?” I would move physically closer, wishing in that moment that I possessed the highly underrated and often overlooked superpower of enhanced hearing. Then, after one or two (or sometimes even more) minutes of verbal prodding from me, and what I could only hope was positive encouragement and helpful nudging from their surrounding peers, the student would either duck out completely from the position of volunteering an answer, or would, to my utter relief and endless praise, repeat their answer loudly enough for me to make it out.

This kind of back and forth is tiring—for both my students and me. Relationship building outside the classroom, I noticed, helps to ease some of the trepidation inside the classroom. And—to no one’s surprise—with the extra practice speaking in more casual settings, my students gradually became more confident in speaking up when prompted in the classroom.

Being silly (and maybe playing badminton?) after school, have to get a quick nap in first though

Speaking workshops are designed specifically with this understanding in mind. Required only to hold them, ETAs are given nearly total agency in deciding their theme and content. I noticed early on that one of my workshop groups were particularly artistic, becoming especially animated if the activity for the day involved comic book making, collage crafting, or even singing and lyric writing.

To return for a moment to my first point—of an ETA’s responsibilities being vast—one thing many ETAs become that they may not at first expect is a mural painter! All of the schools I have visited in Malaysia are notably colorful, and mural painting –as I would soon find out – provides a casual, collaborative and creative environment for students to practice their English and build confidence. The activity also simply lends itself to lots of love and laughter and goodness, and these are things you want. The part about collaboration and creativity sounds nice, though.

Recognizing my speaking workshop’s artistic disposition and noticing a wall in need of painting, I drafted up mural plans for our principal’s approval. My students contributed to our collective plan by requesting that there be nature, with lots of flowers and bright colors. As for what kind of message we wanted to project, we were all a bit stumped.

As time went on and more class periods passed, I began to develop somewhat of a catchphrase, which involved me calling out in equal parts exasperation and desperation (and to the passing observer, pure foolishness), “no malu malu kucings (translates to shy, shy cats)! Only brave, brave lions! We are all brave lions! Let me hear you roar!” Enough of these moments and you, too, will want to do nothing else but paint in big permanent letters, “speak up, speak out, speak loudly, speak proudly.” And so my speaking workshop and I started our mural.

The beginning stages… everyone chips in to chip away at the old, peeling paint

After sketching the image onto our wall in pencil on our first day of work, a teacher approached me to ask the difference between speaking up and speaking out. He liked our flowers a lot and he got the idea of speaking loudly and proudly, but what does it look like to speak up? And to speak out? More teachers asked about the difference between these two in the coming days. After some personal reflection, I came to the conclusion that perhaps my teachers were right—the two idioms are so similar in meaning, to give each a prominent spot in the mural may be redundant. But redundant for good reason!

Whatever direction in which you choose to speak, be it up or out, you speak because you believe in your own power to make a difference for what is right. You speak up—at a volume for everyone to hear—without hesitation because you believe in what you’re about to say and have the confidence to defend that belief. Speak out against K-pop and you bet my students will speak up for their beloved idol (Lisa from Blackpink, anyone?). More seriously, my students speak up for each other when cruel remarks are made in the classroom or in the canteen during recess. As much as both idioms are about confidence, they’re about justice. By speaking up, you use your voice to elevate an issue that matters. In speaking out, you refuse to cave to pressures of silence. To speak up or speak out is a call for all of us to notice everyday injustices and then to do something about it—even if that just means naming what we see as wrong or unfair, and talking about it with the people around us.

Regardless of some overlap evident between the two phrases’ meanings, everyone in the teachers’ room could agree that the message for students to speak louder alone was worthy of being written on the wall.

A student adds a “petal” to the second flower, the message to “speak up” is beginning to bloom

Walls are bigger than they appear and painting them takes a while. It soon became apparent that we’d need more than just our scheduled speaking workshop time to complete the mural. For a few hours every day after school, a group of dedicated students and I brought life to the wall. Lured in by the students’ own carefully curated playlist of today’s top hits blaring from my speaker, others began to flock to our little oasis of art and music. 

When the music gets a little too loud and a teacher comes out of the second floor classroom to see what’s going on—and then snaps a picture

One particularly committed student showed up every day to paint and would stay till the bitter end, sacrificing his previously pristine school uniform to the erratic flinging of paint. Despite a limited English vocabulary, Fareed knows every single lyric to every Billie Eilish song—you name it. After six months of teaching in his classroom—six months of me begging for him and his classmates to speak up like the brave lions they are—I found myself an audience member to his full-blown rendition of Billie Eilish’s “Bellyache”. With the paintbrush as his microphone and his classmates on back up, he performed. And all this to the backdrop of four handprint flowers with the words, “speak up, speak out, speak loudly, speak proudly” scrawled in their centers.

The next day when we were painting, Fareed asked me, “Miss? What is, ‘speak up’?” I first felt immense embarrassment at myself for not raising this conversation with everyone who was spending countless hours contributing to the mural I assumed needed no explanation. I then thought about how to explain. “You know how you were singing yesterday? That’s what it means to speak up.” Fareed smiled. We might not be organizing for social change just yet, but we believe in ourselves enough to sing out loud and proud. We might not have well-marked trail signs, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.

Fareed, Nur Nadiahtul, and Haflin with their masterpiece