As a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in West Papua, Indonesia, my success in the classroom depends on an authentic exchange more than my students’ intellect and dedication to conjugating perfectly in all tenses. Teaching language sets the classroom course into the domain of real time communication – the creation of new words and thoughts – one that requires a space to meet and make meaningful exchanges. The ability to form words and comprehend their meaning is not enough. We all need to talk about something meaningful as well as ears to listen. For my students and me, music is that common ground.
Songs have been the foundation of my classroom curriculum. I never had to teach my students to sing. It is something we already shared. In my experience, Indonesian people love to sing and music is a very open, noncompetitive part of community life. As a teacher and a cultural ambassador, I listen to and learn the songs and stories of my neighbors and colleagues. I incorporate songs I know and love into English class, teaching students lyrics, asking them to write or verbalize their opinions of popular American music or to think critically and respond to the lyrics of songs they play off their cell phones.
I worked very closely with two Indonesian co-teachers who are talented, articulate English speakers and who are required to teach for a national exam that does not encourage functional literacy. My methods seemed strange: clapping games, singing pop songs, writing reflections on the lyrics, playing board games, acting out mini dramas. Why is our bule gila (crazy foreign) teacher making us play a clapping game in English class? To teach my crazy Indonesian students how to follow directions in English! These activities were my way of sharing ideas on how to teach English with my co-teachers. We developed our lesson plans together: they had knowledge of the Indonesian curriculum and fluency in the host culture, and I brought a different perspective on second language acquisition in the forms of games, songs and activities that promote functional literacy.
After school on Wednesdays, I worked with the student band program. I had an instant connection with many of those students because whatever their level of English, and despite my limited proficiency in Indonesian, we could pick up instruments and understand each other. Everyone knew how to play “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N’ Roses and “All the Small Things” by Blink-182. Actually, everyone but me! Before going to Indonesia, I had never played either of those songs. My students had an “Aha” moment when they found out I didn’t know most of their favorite American rock songs. What a strange moment and true cultural exchange when Indonesian students half my age taught me “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” an American song from before my time.
What I learned through all of this is that in order to make language happen, there must be something to talk about. Without a relationship built on common ground, there is no real reason to keep listening and nothing much to say. This is the power of language – it is a gateway to knowing other people. Authentic cultural exchange happens in little ways. Music helps my students make the leap from learning the rules of a language to finding meaning in it. The lessons from my Fulbright experience, the power of language and the value of common ground in my work as a teacher and in making friendships, have inextricably changed the way I look at life. The world feels smaller and at the same time, no less amazing and intricate.
Photo: Rebecca Miller (center), 2008-2009, Indonesia ETA with some of her students.