Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Odyssey

Only Anwar seemed interested in the saga of Odysseus. He was at full attention learning about Ithaca, Penelope and Telemachus, the abduction of Helen from Menelaus, and Odysseus’s journey to war, building trojan horses, and being captured by Polyphemus, the Cyclops. I drew a one eyed monster, turned around, and everyone was all of a sudden interested in the story.  They stayed with me all the way to Odysseus’s return to Ithaca where, after slaying the wretched, squatting, vile suitors to Penelope, enjoyed a fine feast with his wife and son. I gave each student a sesame seed bar from Greece, so they could feast as Odysseus would have. They demanded to know if it was halal. A quick check with another teacher, and they were satisfied. I should have started with the honey bars, … or the Cyclops.

The kids came back from break complaining of the heat. As the girls sat down, they tugged at their hijabs to let air in. One pulled hers off just to cool down. The others followed. After a minute, they began to put their hijabs back on. I said that in my class, hijab was optional. They left them off for the lesson.

After reviewing the weekly spelling words, then quizzing them on English fraction words such as half, third, fourth (quarter) … tenths, I gave them free time. One girl put her hijab back on and worked on a USA puzzle with the boys. The other two girls walked to the floor fan and delighted in letting the wind blow through their loose hair. They’d turn toward me, bent forward and let their hair fall over their faces. Then they’d pop up and say, “ahhh!” They said they were hantu. Ghosts.

Arfat led the puzzle builders, but he was talking in Rohingya. I demanded, “English only!” Arfat then barked orders at his team of puzzle piece wranglers, “I need Nebraska! Please may I have Nebraska?”

Meanwhile, the hantu girls sang a tune I recognized: the Spongebob Squarepants theme song. Knowing the lyrics by heart (who doesn’t???), I wrote them out on the board and explained the words they didn’t know; absorbent, porous, nautical, nonsense. We sang Spongebob as they flipped their wild hair in the fan and hissed like hantu.

Rattan Punishment Cane

Apparently, in Malaysia, it’s common for teachers to employ a rattan stick as an implement of discipline. In fact, a google image search leads me to an apparently thriving trade on ebay. Eek.


I don’t care where you are on earth, or what culture you hail from, hitting children is always wrong. While it may bring short term compliance, in the long term hitting kids can result in low self-esteem, alienation, anxiety, rebellion, or distrust. Besides, what’s the lesson here? That hitting is a valid recourse for disagreements or non-cooperation?  Come on, as adults we should hold ourselves to a higher standard, and do the hard work of coming up with alternatives that respect everyone involved: ourselves as teachers, and our students, as good-hearted human beings in need of gentle guidance.

It was upsetting to learn that a teacher at the school sometimes uses the rattan. It’s a flexible hitting stick, similar to a riding crop a jockey might use on a horse’s hindquarters. He said he uses the rattan to discipline the children. For example, he smacks the table to bring the children to attention. Only when they’re really bad does he hit their hands. He assured me that he never hits them very hard. I tried to maintain a neutral face, for I wanted him to share openly and honestly. That’s tough to do when someone is judging you. Even so, inside my soul, I was appalled.

When asked, he listed a few situations where he might use the rattan: when the kids won’t stop talking, when they steal from each other, when they don’t listen. I could relate. All of those situation crop up for me too, and they can be unbearably aggravating. However, as I told him, in my experience, there are alternatives to the rattan. I asked if he’d be willing to learn about some of the alternatives that seemed to work for me and try them out. Incredibly, he said okay.

We talked about what the ultimate goal was: to teach the children self-discipline. This means that the regulation of their behavior must come from within. It’s up to us to teach them how to do this. The rattan may bring short term compliance, but it’s an external control mechanism. It’s not teaching them anything except to be fearful.

Misguided goals, such as revenge, feeling inferior, or vying for power, can manifest in problematic behavior. I gave my colleague a paper that listed such goals and ideas for dealing with them.

We talked about alternatives to the rattan – giving information, asking for help in brainstorming a solution, giving a choice, allowing natural consequences to play out, engage in surprising and odd behavior yourself (like talking to the wall to say, “no one else seems to be listening to me so I thought I’d talk to you Mr. wall.”), or rather than yelling, talking in a very soft voice so they have to lean forward and listen to hear you. He was laughing at these options.

I gave him a 12 year old copy of a book I used long ago with my daughters: How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so kids will Talk. I explained that, after my husband and I read that book, it transformed our household. We all became collaborators in coming to solutions, rather than adversaries fighting to get our own way. He seemed genuinely interested, and is taking the book home to read.

I don’t know. I feel like maybe I came on too strong with all of these suggestions. However, I couldn’t just say, “Don’t use the rattan!”  If I ask someone to stop doing something that they think works for them, the least I can do is offer alternatives to consider.

Maybe his agreement with me was lip service. But down deep, I get the sense that he too feels the rattan isn’t getting the results he desires. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll read the book and find a few suggestions that will work for him. I’m really hoping. The kids need loving guidance, not swats to the hand.

Zu will stay for now :)

I wired the first supplemental salary payment to Zu on March 15. I will continue every month for the next 6 months. It’s tracked in The Books.

Our goal was to raise $1500 by March 15, and we raised $1000 as of March 20.  You know what – that totally works out. Why? Because Zu agreed to stay for now, but for less $ than I offered. Her reasoning: so we would use the extra $ to pay for a new teacher for the kindergarteners. She feels strongly that they need a full time teacher. I couldn’t agree more. Zu’s pretty awesome.

Everyone Loves Learning About the Solar Eclipse

Photo credit: Heather Lang, she was smart enough to get her camera when she saw the eclipse.

Just before dropping my son at school Wednesday morning, he spotted the partial eclipse from our car. So cool!  As soon as I pulled up to the curb, he ran off to see if he could see more from the roof. I drove off to the Peace Learning Centre to teach.

Naturally, once I got to the classroom I made the lesson all about solar eclipses. Three of the kids had observed it that morning too, and were excited to learn what what going on.

The lesson was great for building English skills because the kids had to master prepositions like between, and in front of. We talked about shadows, and orbits, and line of sight.

They asked about Mercury, Venus and Mars. Just like last week, they asked if people lived on those planets. And again, I explained, uh, no. Nur wanted to know why not. I kept it simple: Mars is too cold and Venus and Mercury are too hot. Earth is just right. Oh, but there’s so much more to tell. For example: Hubble Spies Most Distant, Oldest Galaxy, Ever.


Zu Might leave … Noooooo!!!!

Zu is the main teacher who holds the school together. She teaches about 30 kids every day. She’s paid approximately 1/3 of what an average teacher in the area should make.

While my goal is to fund the school long-term, we need to raise money to supplement Zu’s salary. If we can raise $1500 USD, we can promise her a $250 raise per month for the next six months. Hopefully by then, we’ll have our 501c3 status and can raise more money.

We’ve raised $190 so far, will you help us get to $1500?

Paypal and Credit Card donations here.

Everyone Loves Learning about the Solar System

Today, the Rohingya refugee kids paid attention like never before. They couldn’t get enough about the sizes and distances between planets. Rukiyah took pride in calculating the diameters of each planet, given their radii.


They marveled at the fact that Jupiter is over ten times bigger,in diameter, than Earth, and the sun is ten times bigger than Jupiter.

They oohed and ahhed as I walked all the way to the back white board to show how far out Uranus, Pluto and Neptune were.

But the thing that blew their minds was learning about galaxies and the universe. I asked them guess how many stars (suns) were in the Milky Way galaxy. Incredibly, Arfat guessed 400 billion. The right answer is that we don’t know, but scientists estimate there are between 100 billion and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. Arfat was pretty pleased with himself.

At the end of the discussion, Nur was so excited, he asked me to take a bunch of pictures.

I think today was the most fun I’ve had since I began teaching English here last May.

A Laptop is no Substitute for School

After class, I drove to Sumayyah’s apartment to renew the broadband access on the laptop I loaned to her. The laptop is for doing Khan Academy lessons while she’s away from school. She’s 12 years old, and has stayed at home for the past six or so months to look after her baby brother while her mom goes to work.

She says she won’t be back to school anytime soon because she has to look after her brother. :(. Double bummer: I couldn’t get the internet connection to work, so I took the laptop home with me. I’m working on it now. Once I get it up and running I’ll take it back over.

Now I’m wondering, how do I get this girl, with so much potential, back in school? Think think think. I’ve got some ideas, but am not sure if they’re workable.

Well, for now, I’ll get the laptop back to Summayah so she can do her daily Khan Academy. I think I’ll sit down with her and show her the other subjects from Renaissance art to astronomy. She’ll need to work more than 20 minutes a day on math to keep up her learning.

Sumayyah and Khan

Sumayyah is a bright student, but she hasn’t been to school in weeks. Turns out, her mom recently had a baby, so Sumayyah has stayed home to help out. But that means she’s missing school :(. Today, Karina and I dropped in to Sumayyah’s apartment. I loaned her a laptop I’d set up with Khan academy and a with Wifi dongle so she connect anytime. She seemed happy about it. She got busy with a lesson straight away.


The video lessons associated with each exercise are useful – not only for math, but English too. This one (pictured) explained what a trapezoid was. She nailed the question after finishing the video.

She’s on there nearly everyday – I can tell because I’m her coach on line. Can’t wait to have her back in class.

World War Lesson

Every lesson kicks off with the students placing backpacks near the door, finding two books, then sitting quietly reading. Then, everyone pays two compliments to other people in the room. After that, we read a Berenstain Bears book. Then I deviated from routine, and gave the Rohyingya kids a history lesson on World War II. We had no map of the world so I drew an atrocious map of Europe, Russia, the world.


The kids are 11-15 years old. I started by asking what they knew about WWII. Blank stares. “What countries made up the allied powers?” No idea. “Who was the leader of Germany?” No idea. “Who did Germany team up with?” No idea. “The holocaust?” no idea. “Jewish people?” They’d never heard of Jewish people.


So in the course of an hour, I covered the effects of WW 1 on Germany, the conditions that led to Hitler’s rise, appeasement policy by Neville Chamberlain, hegemony of Japan, Japan occupation of China all the way on down to Singapore (including Malaysia and Myanmar), the death toll, bombing of Pearl Harbor, concentration camps, murder of 6 million Jews, murder of Gypsies, homosexuals, how the Allied powers worked together to fight Germany from all sides, Hitler’s eventual suicide and the nuclear bombs dropped by the USA on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the bombers Enola Gay and Box’s Car.

These kids are from Myanmar, so I attempted to make the story less USA-centric, and added details such as this: Of all Russian males born in 1923, only 15% survived World War 2. Yes, that’s a fact (thanks Reddit TILs). The war caused 73,000,000 deaths. Also, Penang Island, where we live currently, was occupied by the Japanese during the war. I told them that if they could find a Malaysian who is 80 years old or older, that person would be able to tell them about the occupation.

I explained that the war made refugees of millions of people. I told them about the Jewish refugees after WWII and the creation of Israel. They’d never heard of it. And today, a war in Syria was making even more refugees. A few of the kids sat up at that thought. They aren’t alone. There are lots of refugees in the world.

Bless his heart, Nur, a fifteen year old student, wrote down much of what I wrote on the board. He was intensely interested in learning about this major war he’d never heard of. I have a feeling he may flag down an old Malaysian and ask about their experiences.

Nur got a funny look on his face. He then asked, “how many countries are there in the world?” Their guesses ranged from 100 to 10 million. Ha ha. Luckily this was one I knew: ~205. They seemed wowed by that.

I hope it wasn’t TMI. As their teacher, I just feel they should know a few facts about World War II.

In a month I teach them sex education. I’m wondering if they know as little about how babies are made as they knew about WWII. We’ll see.

RREF is a Thing!

It’s official – the Rohingya Refugee Education Fund (RREF) is an actual US organization, complete with federal EIN number and WA state UIB number.  But it can’t accept donations quite yet…

Next steps:

  • ‘equivalency determination’ for local School of Peace NGO
  • gain 501c3 status with IRS
  • Open a US based bank account under the RREF org

Thanks mom for being the Vice President of US operations!  You’ll be opening the bank account :).

This needs to happen soon. I love the kids in my class. I do. I mean, look at the cards three girls presented me with this morning:


See?  They’re pretty darned lovable.   The truth is, the sooner we can hire more REAL teachers, the better.  I’m just not cut out for this. After trying oodles of techniques, the boys just keep talking!  They won’t shut the heck up!  Perhaps they’re lost – maybe I’m not keeping my words basic enough.  Could be.  But half the time, I think they simply aren’t aware that their mouths are running.  It’s really bizarre. Are they bored? Maybe.

I try to make the material interesting. Today’s lesson was on salmon and rivers.  It was engaging for most of them, but they still struggled to zip their mouths.  Then I totally lost them with math word problems.

  • “I can walk 1 km per hour.  How far have I walked after 1 hour?”
    -> Responses: 6!  10! Finally: 1km. Nods.  Okay, they get it.
  • “I walk 10km per hour.  How far have I walked after 1/2 hour?”  Responses: 100! 1!  TOTALLY BAFFLED.  Really?

Surely they would understand these math word problems in their native tongue.  Some of them are whip smart with arithmetic.  I’m probably pushing topics that are too advanced given their English proficiency.

So tomorrow, I’m backing off.  I’ll come at them with an attempt at edu-tainment.  We’ll discuss seats, posts, wheels, spokes, pedals.  Then I’ll let them hop on a couple of unicycles and see how they like that.  Will they remember class rule #3: ‘English only’?  Probably not.

Sigh.  Yeah – I need to get this charitable org formation done and start raising money to hire a real teacher to take my place.  Then perhaps I could volunteer for after-school activities. We could start with unicycling.