Learning English in Indonesia: A Story of a Teacher

Yitzha SarwonoLearning English in Indonesia: A Story of a Teacher

by Yitzha Sarwono


English, or what we call “bahasa inggris” in bahasa Indonesia, is something quite natural if not demanding in my life now, because I have been teaching in English for the past 18 years. At the moment I teach kindergarten students, and I use English to do so.

My first experience of learning the English language was interesting, challenging, demanding, and satisfying. My education in English began at home with my late grandfathers. One of them was a columnist in a women’s magazine, where he wrote articles based on stories around the world. To do that, he had many books in English. He was the first person who taught me to read at the age of four, because I demanded that (in a cute kind of way). He would bring Donald Duck comic books written in English and I would make sense of the story before I was able to read it. We both liked to do roleplays. I was really keen on becoming a news anchor back then, so reading was on my list of things to do because I wanted to be able to imitate those TVRI channel news anchors with their white papers and glasses. My other late grandfather spoke Japanese, Dutch, and English very well because he worked at a government hospital. He used to teach me songs in those languages.

My late Papa was also responsible for my education. He used to collect cassettes with foreign music and I listened to songs from The Osmond’s, Queen, Sting, and many more. I loved reading the lyrics on the back of the cover while listening to the songs. My Papa sometimes would cover the lower part of our black-and-white TV during shows like “Little house on the prairies” or “Daktari” with white paper so I would focus on the story and listen to the actors rather than spend time reading the subtitles. Sometimes that was tough, but I got used to it in the end. Therefore, the three men in my early life were responsible for imparting the education of the English language to me. I consider it as a blessing to have been born and raised in that environment.

My first experience of learning English at school

After going through a very lovely childhood, my first steps in learning English at school started at the age of 12 when I entered junior high school. I remember the first day of lessons quite well. My teacher then, Ibu Euis, entered the room and said, “Point to the board!” Most kids were confused but I knew what I had to do. I stood up and held out my finger to point to the board. Pretty soon other kids followed me when Ibu Euis said that I was correct. She then asked us to stand somewhere, take something, and ask each other to do something. Since then, English became one of my favourite subjects, along with history and biology. As a junior high school student, I was taken to a new level in learning English. I remember writing short simple texts, such as stories and poems. I wasn’t always good at grammar but I did quite well in speaking and writing. In high school, I remember constantly getting 6 or 7 points out of 10 during grammar tests. Still, being an English teacher wasn’t one of my plans, even though I did tutor a few of my friends on the subject.

The difficulty of learning English rules

There are many differences between bahasa Indonesia and English that made the learning quite difficult for me.

  • Grammar holds the key! Most of the tests at school were about grammar. The English grammar was treated like physics or maths and you had to memorize the pattern: for example, Simple Present = Subject + Verb 1, or Present Continuous = Subject + be + Verb-ing, etc. Sometimes it was a bit frustrating because instead of writing or answering questions, the test would be about writing the grammar pattern! In this way, instead of understanding the principles, we were forced to learn only the formula. I know many of my friends hated English because of it.
  • Alphabet and phonics. In bahasa Indonesia, there is no phonetic way to read letters. Letters will sound the same when you spell them and say them. In English, as we know, it isn’t the case. Letter “C” is read as /s/ in the alphabet but as /k/ in phonics. Besides, there are many rules that can give letters different sounds (such as digraph, long vowel, short vowel, consonant cluster, and so on). For Indonesians, it’s confusing to learn that you read “cup” as \ˈkəp\ but “put” as \ˈpu̇t\ – when they both look almost the same in writing… I didn’t have proper English spelling lessons back then so we were taught to memorize how something is written instead of understanding the sounds and ways of spelling them out. It was not until around year 2000 that phonics was introduced in curricula and studied to help students learn to read. So back then, reading for me was all about how I felt it should sound rather than spelling it phonetically.
  • The shapeshifting verb! In bahasa Indonesia, verbs stay the same no matter what time you are referring to. In English there are three verb forms, there are regular verbs and irregular verbs. It can all be a bit confusing sometimes. I remember having many tests back in high school that focused entirely on writing Verb 2 and Verb 3. Again, it requires memorization and it’s not always easy.
  • Gender in the subject. There is no “he” and “she” in bahasa Indonesia, so I often make a lot of mistakes when it comes to subject pronouns, especially when they are used directly in conversation. I’m getting better but still, mistakes are occasionally made.

At a later stage, I began learning the fundamental concepts and rules of English grammar. I gained a fairly good understanding of the points I mentioned above. As I moved up to university, I learnt how to use interesting expressions to write short stories and poems persuasively. Apart from this, I was also exposed to learning more advanced rules of grammar. I must mention that my English reading and writing skills were tested during this time as I started to have pen pals whom I could practice English with. This helped me to see my confidence grow as I replied to questions in English.

Books, conversations, and films for learning English

My parents instilled in me the habit of reading. When I was 13, my late grandfather gave me the hardcover version of “The Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens, because I had just seen Oliver Twist TV series and told him I wanted to know more about Charles Dickens. As a result of reading a lot of books, I was able to increase my vocabulary and develop writing skills. In addition, one of the most important English learning activities for me has always been conversation. I started speaking English with my sister, my father, and a few school friends. The experience of conversing in a foreign language was precious to me as it improved my communication skills. Watching TV, particularly TV series, has also always been an enjoyable learning experience for me. I learnt many kinds of phrases, jokes, puns, and even sarcasm from watching them.

For the most part, learning the English language has been an interesting journey for me and I am still trying to achieve a certain level of proficiency in English. I can’t say it has always been easy, but I suppose the difficulties are all part of it. One thing I notice, though, is that I do behave and act differently based on the language I speak: I’m very calm and patient speaking Javanese (my second native language); I’m quite loud, goofy, and fast as a bahasa Indonesia speaker; I’m rather serious and blabbery when I use English. There is something about the language itself that drives me to act in such a way, I suppose. Nevertheless, my journey in learning English shall never stop as there is always something fascinating about it that I can find when I dig deeper.

It’s Always Sunny in Kidea

Yitzha Sarwono
Yitzha Sarwono
By Yitzha Sarwono

Whenever I tell people that I am a kindergarten teacher, they always say “Wow, you are so lucky to be playing with children every day!” Well, that’s not all wrong, but if you think that what I do all day is holding hands and singing, then you need to step in my shoes for one day (or rather socks as I wear socks in the classroom).

Let me take you through a day in one of the first few weeks of this school year of my K1 class.

It was 7:45 in the morning. I was already in my Montessori classroom with materials ready to go and felt very excited and optimistic about the day, though the last few days had not been easy. Some of my four-year-old students started coming to the classroom. One girl who had been with us since the previous level entered with a beautiful smile, said hi to me and my assistant, and washed her hands before sitting on the carpet to play while waiting for the others. Some boys came in and started playing, too.

8 a.m., time to start class. As usual, I gathered the students on the carpet and started the lesson. As we began to pray, one more student came in. She didn’t enter though, she just kept standing by the door, with her backpack on and not letting go of the door handle. My assistant tried to persuade her to join us but she wouldn’t let go of the door. The girl screamed and started to cry so my assistant stayed with her as I tried to continue the class greetings. Another girl, who was already sitting on the carpet with the rest, didn’t like the fact that I asked them to jump to the song, so she started kicking and screaming. I tried to calm her down but then she kicked me and pulled my hair. Just then the administrator came in with two new kids, who were twins. They didn’t want their mom to leave them but she had to, so they started crying. I carried one of them in but the other pulled my hand and asked to be carried along, too. So there I was, sitting on the carpet, with both of the new kids on my lap, trying to start my presentation. I laid my mat and placed my model farm animals on it. One of the boys took the horse and started playing with it, and I couldn’t move fast enough to grab it back from him because I already had two children on my lap and my assistant was still trying to calm the tantrum girl down and the one who was still by the door. The 15-minute presentation dragged for much longer and didn’t finish in the end, though I somehow managed to present the topic.

After the failed presentation, we had some individual learning time which turned out to be a little chaos of its own. One kid was throwing around all of the rice from the bowl instead of spooning it from one bowl to another; another kid tore the paper out of one of the reading books because he loved the picture in it. The chaos had many other “activities” that can only be described as “not in the lesson plan.”

Then we headed off to the gym for some obstacle course time. Even though most kids wouldn’t do as we had shown them, some actually tried to perform the whole routine. After that we had snack time planned. I called my students in two by two to wash their hands, took their bags and eating mats, and set their tables to eat. We prayed before the meal and I showed them how to eat properly. Surprisingly, though they were very active and noisy during lesson, they were all behaving very well during snack time, even the crying, kicking, and sulking ones.

After snacks we had a Mandarin Chinese lesson, where my job was to help our teacher of Mandarin to maintain order in the classroom. But then it meant most kids would try to sit on my lap or at least close to me.

Finally, it’s time to go home. We said our pray, sang our goodbye song, and marched to be dismissed. My students were all smiling and some even hugged me and told me that they loved me. My hair was a mess, the two air-conditioners in the classroom couldn’t stop me from sweating because of all the chasing around, my T-shirt had food stains on it and was wet from tears, and I didn’t feel that I looked decent at all and was happy to catch a breath.

But guess what? I’d do it all over again the next day! Because the kids bring sunshine to my life and that’s why I know I’m lucky to be their teacher.


Embracing CLIL as a teacher trainer


Yitzha Sarwono
Yitzha Sarwono

By Yitzha Sarwono

First time is fresh, first time gives new flesh. Experience makes you rich and experience sets you free. As an adventurer, I’ve always loved to be given a chance to embrace something new. I must say I was getting rusty because I didn’t do anything challenging for quite a while.

The opportunity came along in the form of teacher training. I should say that training teachers wasn’t something entirely new for me since I’d done it a few times before, though on a smaller scale and only for teachers in my school. But this was something I considered out of my league: not only did I get the chance to train teachers from a different school, but I also had to train Maths and Science teachers!

Let me start from the beginning. Last February I was offered a chance to provide training for ENET (English for Non English Teachers). I was in a team of 7 trainers who came from different backgrounds and teaching fields. Our client was one of the most popular private schools in Indonesia and the program involved 80 hours of training. The goal was for the Maths and Science teachers to feel confident in teaching their subjects using full English in the classroom.

Before we could jump into training, we had to be trained, too, because none of us actually knew much about Maths or Science curriculum. We had to embrace CLIL (content language integrated learning) and start by learning the school’s material. We had to learn about things like phylum cordata, vertebrate, decimal system, 2 digits subtraction pattern, and many others. Learning this material was fun but trying to build a lesson in such a way that the teachers would be able to teach students using simple and comprehensible language was something else. Aside from learning the subjects, we were also trained on how to organize the program. As it was 80-hour training, we divided it into blocks of 3 sessions each day, 2 hours per session. In practice that meant that every time we got to the classroom we were set to teach for 6 hours, which was really intense! The length of the course could be demotivating for the participants and there was so much content to cover, so the preparation had to be thorough and handled well. Thankfully, we had an awesome team who would go extra miles in preparing the material for all the trainers. As our schedule consisted of long sessions, we had to make sure that we would provide engaging activities for all the trainees to stay motivated and actively participating throughout the program.

Every trainer was also taking part in designing lesson plans and the teacher’s guide. We spent a lot of time doing it, and since some of us lived in other cities, there were a lot of late nights, whatsapp sessions, dozens of emails, and revision here and there. We used all the tools we could to provide the healthy environment for all teachers to grow. From Power Point and flashcards to online learning sessions – we did it all.

I was very nervous before I started my first session because not only some of the teachers were more experienced than me in teaching, but I was also afraid that I wouldn’t answer their questions or fulfill their needs. Another concern I had was how I’d get through 6 hours of training time without anyone yawning in my class! Luckily, everyone in my team was very supportive (and the head of trainers reminded me to always speak slowly and look a bit more mature).

I had the privilege to teach three groups in three locations of our training, but I spent most of the training with one group in North Jakarta Area. There were 22 teachers in my group and everyone was very keen on learning. They embraced all the activities joyfully! Even the simplest activity, such as interviewing your friends, could turn out to be full of laughter. We did a lot of one-on-one Q&A sessions to work on their spelling ability and created engaging and fun role play cards with famous characters like Captain America, Thor and Indonesian famous comedians. We played with emotions, talking to each other in angry or laughing voices. One example of a role play we had was a bunny and sloth interview that I came up with, where one teacher would be the bunny and ask questions really quickly and the other would act as the sloth and mimic the slow characteristic of the animal. My group had a blast and the 6 hours of training went by like a breeze, leaving everyone happy and excited!

The CLIL session became my favorite, even if I was terrified of it at first. I soon found out that nobody in the classroom would judge me for not being a master of Maths and Science. These teachers were already full of ideas on how to teach their students. All they needed was some confidence and language means to use in their class to teach what they already knew so well. And that’s what we provided to them. After a couple of sessions, both the teachers in my group and I grew more confident as we had built trust towards each other.

When the 80 hours came to an end, it was a bitter-sweet moment for me. I was probably more happy than my trainees, because I completed all sessions and also gained a lot from the experience itself. Besides, it meant no more working at night, cutting papers, making slides, and doing assessment. But I was also sad that I had to say goodbye to my groups who I considered to be more than just participants in my class but rather my colleagues.

This experience has taught me a lot and I do hope that in the future I’ll get another chance like this. For that I must and I am willing to work harder. New experience? I will have my arms wide open for you!

To Open Doors

Ichaby Yitzha Sarwono Bryant

Teachers are people who dare to open doors and make ways for the students to find themselves . But sometimes, even the teachers need someone to open the door for them too. And that happened to me.

Around 2010 I started working for Montessori school. I was literally lost when I began learning about the Montessori method. I felt like everything I knew about teaching was suddenly of no use to me. That’s when I met Ms Helennor Otaza Lasco, the head of curriculum in my school. She was tough. She expected nothing but the best out of me. She would position me as a student whenever she showed me a Montessori technique, and whenever I asked her a question, she would help guide me so that, in the end, I would try to figure out an answer for myself. She always tried to spark my curiosity, and I realised that was the way I wanted to make my students feel as well. With Ms. Lasco’s help, I’ve come to realise that Montessori is based on 2 things : Learning by using all your five senses, and that all children should be provided with the freedom (within limits) to study at their own pace, so no one is left behind and no one is prevented from trying to strive for something even higher. It’s a truly student centred environment.

But Ms. Helennor Lasco not only opened my eyes to Montessori, she also encouraged me to try finding more doors to open. And as they say: Fortune favours the bold, so I searched out more ways to improve my teaching. As I was trying to find resources and opportunity to learn more, I joined Twitter and there I found #ELTchat. I wasn’t sure if I belonged at first because I felt like I was the only one in that community who was teaching children. But the topics discussed were useful for me (and all teachers, really) things like how to handle assessment in the classroom or Methods for teaching writing. At first, I was petrified to join in the conversation. But after getting a few responses to my first tweets, I became more involved. I even wrote up several of the official #ELTchat summaries.

It was in #ELTchat that I met James Taylor. After a discussion on #ELTchat about Dogme teaching, I posted on how I thought that it was a bit similar to Montessori. Dogme is a communicative approach to language teaching that encourages teaching without published textbooks and focuses instead on conversational communication among learners and the teacher. In Montessori, the focus is on one-on-one lessons without textbooks as well. So I was interested in using the communicative techniques in Dogme in a Montessori environment. I felt it would be a good match as both recognise the centrality of the learners’ voice. To my surprise, James contacted me to support the idea of me trying to combine Dogme teaching and Montessori in my class. Not only that , he also gave me 3 slots on his blog for me to write up my experience about it! I wasn’t sure at first since I wasn’t a regular blogger. And to write on his blog felt like a little bit too much for me. But he convinced me to try. He let me write a draft for him and then he took the time to proofread it so I had the confidence to continue writing. I’m thankful that James, just like Ms Helen, never said that what I thought or wrote was not good enough. Instead of negative criticism, he gave me more space, the space I needed so I could get my ideas out and organised in words. James taught me that ideas belong to everyone, and every idea matters.

Long story short, the opportunity James gave me has opened up a lot of doors for me. James, along with Vicky Loras, helped me to get a piece on my Dogme/Montessori teaching experiences into the ETAS Journal, I’ve presented in 3 difference conferences ( 1 online and 2 in indonesia), and even more important, what James helped me do has made me believe in myself. Now I know that even this little teacher who teaches Kindergarten could leave a footprint in the ELT world and be accepted.

Since that #ELTchat back in 2012, my approach on teaching has changed. And how I see my students has changed, too. I realise that learning doesn’t always need to follow a plan. The other day we were supposed to have a picnic in our school’s yard and do a drama play on “Family”. But the rain fell, and kept falling, so we couldn’t go outside. Instead of giving in to a feeling of disappointment, my students and I had a tea party in the classroom and I read them a story and we had fun as the rain fell. Now, when my class doesn’t manage to complete an assignment, or I don’t meet the weekly goals I’ve set for myself, I realise that goals are not what’s important. Learning is what matters. And instead of making my students stay late after school, I remember that there is always the next day to take the next step.

In 2013 I met two important friends, Ika and Indrie. They had come to their first iTDi event in Jakarta that year. I surprised myself by how keen I was to interact with them. I could see a reflection of myself in them. They were so eager to know more, to learn more, and to reach for more. Their desire was a reminder of those first positive influences I had gotten from Ms. Lasco and James. But Ika and Indrie were not only taking in a similar positive influence, they were also eagerly working to find ways to spread it out further. One thing I’ve learned about myself since I’ve come to know Ms. Helen and James, I’m no longer afraid. I now believe that, when it comes to studying and teaching, everyone should have the same chance. And that’s what I’m trying to do, to give that same chance to all the students in my class and to find ways to pass on those chances to my fellow teachers. Because there are a lot of doors out there in the world, and we need to have as many hands as possible that are ready to swing them wide open.

Professional Goals for 2013 – Yitzha


I believe everybody has their own passion. For me, teaching has been something that I love doing and hope to be doing for the rest of my life. That’s my passion. I actually am not very good at making New Year’s resolutions, but given the fact that last year was such an amazing year for me, this coming year I want to do more even more than what I’ve done profesionally up till now.

One of the things that is becoming my goal is to attend more webinars. I meanl I would love to be able to join more conferences, but to be able to travel to do so is a bit hard with my condition at work —  but I have found the solution in webinars. There will be a lot of great webinar to attend too. iTDi will host some of them.

For someone who lives in Asia where traveling to conferences isn’t always possible, the internet can be a teaching aid and webinars one way to keep up with current developments. Another way is to take an online course. I’ve taken some last year and they helped me make my teaching better. So that too becomes one of the things that is on my list for better professional development (PD).

As someone who’s experienced first hand the power of online community and its role in helping my professional development,  I plan on encouraging as many Indonesian teachers as possible to do the same. To do that, I’ll add being a mentor as well as a mentee as another of my  goals for 2013. I know I still have to learn a lot, but at the same time I want to share my experience —  as someone who sort of knows her way around the online community — with others who’d love to give it a shot. That is why I’m so thrilled to participate in the upcoming Global Teacher Development Workshop on February 4th in Jakarta and February 6th in Bandung, Indonesia as well as in the International English Workshop on February 2nd in Semerang. I hope I could get more teachers in Indonesia to see that self development can come in many ways. When  you use the internet effectively — like by joining iTDi for example —  you can find more ways to reflect on your teaching and achieve more.

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And for my class, my resolution this year is to try more things with them. I’m planning to implement some of the ideas I’ve got from the conferences and webinars I’ve attended,  too. I’ll definitely try Wordle for my phonic lessons as well as  Voki and Vocaroo. I’m not sure how many to try right away as I’ll also prepare  for the annual championship (quiz bee, math, spelling and drama) in May and a musical concert along with their graduation in June — but we will sure try them all.

Of course, this will all require  very good time management, but hey, when it comes to making resolutions, I may as well go big for it.  I’ve got the drive to do  it all.

Welcome 2013! Aza aza Achieving!

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