Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mid-Year Evaluation

Disclaimer: my blog is not representative of the US Department of State, Fulbright, or anybody else but me.

February already, more than halfway through the nine months. Time to take stock. Some clips from my project proposal:

"My goal is to encourage conversational English not only by memorizing phrases, but by understanding culture."

" get students to perpetuate their own learning through a genuine interest."

"...make idiomatic English phrases a presence in my classroom."

"...bring music into the classroom."

"Outside the classroom, my main focus will be absorbing Indonesian language and culture."

My progress, as could be expected, has been mixed. My primary goal, the motivating idea behind my project proposal, has proven elusive. Other smaller, easier goals are definitely being met.
That primary goal - teaching English through understanding culture, and getting students to motivate their own learning through a genuine interest - is difficult. Among the many surprises here is the feast-or-famine quality of the classrooms and the students themselves. Students and entire classrooms are wholly engaged or disengaged. My English class is not exactly the centerpoint of these students' lives. I'm only seeing the classes once per week, and they only meet for English twice a week. Systemic limitations - schedules overloaded with too many subjects, language classes not meeting often enough, students staying in the same classroom all day while teachers move from room to room, etc. - frustrate serious learning, especially language study.
Initiating student motivation and self-interest in the subject is not a simple matter, either. I have tried some of what I thought might work in my proposal - "bring[ing] American culture into the classroom in such variety that every student will find something interesting or funny to connect with" - but there are only so many things you can bring into the classroom when you're bound by time and the misguided national curriculum. I'm well-liked by students, but it's hard to translate that into an interest in English.
Even though English is clearly a way to get ahead here, high school almost feels too late. The students that are already good at English get it and have long since motivated their own learning; nearly everyone polished that I talk to cites music or movies for their language success. The students that are mediocre or bad at English, it seems, have long since decided that it will not play an important role in their life path. That sentiment is extremely difficult to overcome, or, in the case of those whose English is woefully bad, to even argue with.
I have made idiomatic phrases a real presence in my classroom. I've probably presented too many; I'm not sure if they even stick. Rarely students show a special interest in these - generally only one student, and with only one idiom. I have one student, for example, who fell in love with "monday morning quarterback" because of his fascination with American football. But "don't look the gift horse in the mouth" and "the barking dog never bites" haven't exactly entered his working English vocabulary.
I've found that bringing music into the English classroom proper needs to be carefully done to have any usefulness. At best it seems such an exercise might inspire a student to start paying more attention to words and meanings in the ubiquitous English songs. Songs often have too much nuance, too much figurative writing, to be in reach of students for in-class study.
The a cappella group I started is getting a serious education in the Western vocal music tradition. These ten or so students, at least, are learning through experience what goes into group singing. But it's unclear how linked these skills are to English learning. It's certainly a link to American culture, but I'm not sure it has any direct impact on their language ability whatsoever.
As for my outside-the-classroom goal, it's hard not to succeed. The culture of course is everywhere, as long as you don't bottle yourself up in your room. I learn so much about culture when I travel - language, too. I haven't book-studied the language like I thought I might, but it is coming nonetheless and I use it every day.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yourney to Yogyakarta

At last, the long-awaited trip to Yogya! Yogyakarta, pronounced Jogjakarta, is Java Island's cultural center. It is still the seat of a traditional sultanate, and maintains an ancient Javanese culture alongside the steady modernization that homogenizes Indonesian cities. Alison and I took a 7-hour "eksekutif" overnight train from Jakarta. The executive AC made the train so cold that sleeping was virtually impossible. Shaking off drowsiness, I got a real pick-me-up seeing a young Indonesian man wearing what can only be described as high heels:

The most-visited tourist attraction in Indonesia is a large Buddhist temple outside Yogya called Borobodur. Built around 800-900, it is considered one of the world's great cultural accomplishments. We had a becak (bicycle taxi) to take us to the temple:

...Wait a second! I guess this is a smaller side feature. The big show:

My favorite thing about Borobodur was the relief carvings, which depict various scenes from the ancient Javan society that created this temple. I felt transported to a romantic storybook jungle kingdom:

There are hundreds and hundreds of these carvings depicting elephants, large boats at sea, bows and arrows, grovelling peasants and decorated dignitaries, etc. etc.

The highest level has a bunch of bell-shaped things called stupas, and an incredible view of the valley and Gunung Merapi:

Here's the temple in all its massive glory:

Later that night we went to see the famed Ramayana Ballet, an old story of Rama and Cinta with familiar elements of a classic: gaudy costuming, massive eye makeup, badass villians, likeable minor characters, victory in serious doubt, and a white monkey who scaled buildings and did flips like Jackie Chan. All to the nonstop tunes of a nasty gamelan (Javan traditional-instrument orchestra).

Here's Rama's brother, one of the likable minor characters:

Lady in distress Cinta, trapped in a spell:

The white monkey was all movement and fury:

The show was first-rate entertainment in an outdoor venue. We even got pics with the stars after the show:

I mentioned the becak (pronounced BAY CHOCK) before. The bicycle taxi "driver" sits behind the passengers, who sit in an open little carriage with an open view of the road ahead. Here's the view from a becak driving through Yogya. As you can imagine, it's a little exhilarating sharing the road with real cars when you're in one of these things:

On the way to the Ramayana ballet the night before, we befriended our driver, a man named Dodot (short for Widodot and pronounced WEE-DOE-DOE). He took us everywhere in Yogya the next day, showing us all the sights and waiting for us to check them out. We never had to find or bargain another ride, and he had constant business for the day. It's tourist dry season in Yogya, so I guess it was good timing for us. And he was a really nice guy, knowledgeable, born in Yogya.

First we went to the kraton, or the sultan's inner compound. It houses stages for wayang kulit (puppet shows) like the one below, little museums, and servant's compounds for the thousands of families who have worked for the sultanate for generations. The wayang kulit has gamelan accompaniment like the Ramayana ballet had, and they use hundreds of puppets in each show:

Each of those puppets is painstakingly crafted in a 3,500 year old tradition from water buffalo skin. The man below gave a wonderful explanation of the whole process. It starts from the absurdly durable (a puppet normally lasts for 100 years of performances) dried skin:

Then the first artist makes a drawing, an outline of the puppet figure. Then the sketch is realized by breaking the skin hammer-wedge style. A huge variety of these pencil-like metal tools give the artist the ability for big-picture and detail work:

After the skin is crafted (and if a mistake is made, they start over from the beginning - the puppets must be perfect), another artist paints the puppet. The paints are all-natural for lasting color and as they were traditionally made. In fact, the man who described the process claimed he was the 10th generation of his family to work for the sultanate making the puppets. He made a point of emphasizing the long history of Javan puppetmaking, which predates both Hinduism and Islam in Java. The colors of the paints have an animist-based lore about them. Red is energy, blue and green connect with nature, gold is honesty, etc. Here's a detail shot:

The puppets are extremely tough. You can bend them and twist them and move them about - very functional. Here's a puppet from the sea:

With backlighting, you can see the intricate pattern made by the first artist in the skin. This is what you would see in the wayang kulit show:

We also got to see some batik paintings. Batik is a process of dying cloth layer by layer using wax to save a desired negative pattern from the dye. The paintings are presentations of the cloth in a frame, beautiful and durable (and really cheap here):

I was offered 280,000rp ($30) for the painting below:

After the kraton we visited Yogya's famous "bird market," which was as wild as you might imagine an Indonesian animal market to be. Large containers held the food for various lizards, birds, small mammals, and others:

Here are some of the wild creatures:

These guys were like little alligator-lizard hybrids:

They had cats and even dogs:

This was one of the wilder reptilian/amphibian sections:

Alison and Dodot, who joined us walking around the market:

...I think I can count the number of owls I have seen on one hand. This guy was sleepy:

Next up was the water castle, the sultan's personal pool-party playground. Here he entertains himself and his 35 wives (150 children...):

We got to see a backroom of Yogya's famous silvercrafting:

The becak!

Another must-see feature near Yogya is an ancient Hindu structure, the Prambenan Temple. This five-towered structure was beautiful, eye-popping like Borobodur. But the reliefs weren't as cool:

All in all, a wonderful trip and a special city. I was thoroughly charmed by Javanese culture, especially at Borobodur, the Ramayana ballet, in the puppetmaking, batik painting, and the gamelans.

Alison's Arrival, Makassar, Dwi Warna

Alison finally arrived in early January...welcome to Indonesia! Must have been quite the change from wintry New England.

On the following weekend we went to Makassar in Sulawesi, one of Indonesia's large islands a couple hours away from Jakarta. The occasion was the AMINEF midyear conference, a time to take stock and share our experiences among the 32 ETAs. We planned the upcoming WORDS competition, an open-ended essay/performance/art contest on the theme "The Changing World Outside My Window: Where Am I From? Where Am I Going?" I proposed several other themes, like "Window Into My World" and "Evolution Outside My Window" but they didn't take hold.

Here's the acclaimed Makassar sunset. Unfortunately, Makassar is a very rainy place in rainy season, so we couldn't really see anything:

Alison, Christine, and Nicole (Chris and Nicole are my West Java co-ETAs). We're all walking to the Fathony's after a fun weekend in Makassar:

Hanging out in Pejompongan house:

Later that Sunday night, Alison joined me for the long public bus-train-angkot-angkot ride to Dwiwarna for a two-day visit. Here we are hanging out at the De We Cafe:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

New Year's in Jakarta

Chris Boveroux, a Hamilton '08 classmate and an ETA last year in Indonesia, arrived for a short visit on December 28th. We hung out in the house in Pejompongan, playing guitar and chess. We were looking forward to New Year's at the family villa in Puncak Pass, the mountains a couple hours south of Jakarta. To my delight Ab, Kalada, Christine, and Sarah (all current ETAs) came. Here are the four bearded bules in sarongs, off the back porch of the villa:

from left to right: me, Kalada, Chris, and Ab

Enjoying the last beautiful morning of 2009:


The villa is owned by the magnanimous and lovely Eyang Rein, Nina's aunt:

We played music as the sun came down:

The gazebo in the backyard became our late night haunt:

A few of us managed to stay up until morning light:

Comparing Lumix cameras in the morning:

The ETAs, one past and five present:

Most of the New Year's crew at the front door:

When we got back to Pejompongan on January 2nd, it was Ilma's 7th birthday:

On the last Sunday of my break, I went to see another former ETA, John Colombo, get married. Here is a shot of the dowry - yeah, those are greenbacks: