Students at SMK Selising are divided by test scores, with the top scorers going to “A” classes, and lower scorers going to “B,” “C,” and “D” classes.  I teach the A, B, C, and D classes for forms 1 and 2, or the equivalent of 8th and 9th grade.

That means I teach the youngest and lowest scoring students in the school, the 1D class. Most of the students in “Satu-D” are not literate in their mother-tongue, Bahasa Melayu.

Most of their parents are truck drivers, soldiers, or sell food at the night market. This is their seventh year taking BM class, and at least their third or fourth year taking English, but they still cannot read or write proficiently in either language. The combination of poverty, an exceptionally hierarchical culture, and teacher shortages means that these students have had little to no resources and guidance throughout their education.

They sit in a dirty, bare, cement classroom with a couple of anemic fans. They wear ratty shoes and their notebooks are falling apart. Their lack of nutrition, health care, and education makes them come across as much younger than thirteen. They look about 9 or 10.

For the first few weeks it was nearly impossible to get them to speak at all. They couldn’t respond to “How are you?” or “What is your name?” They would cover their faces in their hands, turn away in embarrassment, laugh uncontrollably, or just stare like a statue. This is understandable because even if they knew some English, they would be too shy to use it with me because I’m the first foreigner they’ve ever met.

How was I supposed to teach this class? I didn’t speak BM and they didn’t speak English, and even when I wrote on the board they couldn’t sound out the letters.

We started from the very beginning. I decided to focus on spoken English and useful basics, rather than try to teach them a topic from the Form 1 national curriculum that would be over their heads and irrelevant.

I have a small whiteboard eraser that I started tossing to students when it was their turn to talk. The physicality of throwing the “duster” and the silliness of missed throws and catches broke the ice. After a few weeks they could say “Hello, my name is___. I am from Malaysia. I live in Kampong____. I am thirteen-years-old.”

I realized that they did not know the days of the week or months of the year, so we worked on that next. I started every class having them tell me the day, date, and year.

Every class we worked on a simple sentence structure they could memorize, because they could not read the words I wrote on the whiteboard. Then they would use the vocabulary they had learned to practice in sentences like “My favorite____is_____” and “Do you have a___?” They learned colors, animals, fruits, vegetables, classroom objects, emotions, etc.

I have a policy that speaking English should never be used as a punishment because students will then associate it with punishment and won’t want to speak voluntarily. That’s why I give students a few chances to skip their turn until they are ready and have heard other students answer successfully. When the students realized they’d get more attention and reinforcement from volunteering, they started clamoring to raise their hands first.

At assembly every week I present an English word to the school. I give students imported Tootsie Rolls for being brave enough to come on stage to spell the words and use them in a sentence. Then I start every class by asking students how they feel that day, and they have to use one of the many words of the week they’ve accumulated. After a couple months, the 1D students could be heard saying “Miss Christy, today I feel phenomenal,” “morose,” “euphoric,” “zany,” “invincible” and “jubilant.”

I keep the Tootsie Rolls in my office to lure the students in. To get candy (gula), they have to make a sentence using the word of the week. Groups of students come in all the time, speak some English, and are pleased to have tricked Miss Christy into giving them gula.

Now that I’ve arrived at the end of the year, I’ve noticed remarkable progress in this group of students, much more so than the higher-scoring classes I teach. The students who would not speak at the beginning of the year are now regulars at my office hours. They come whenever their teachers miss class. They pick up the English books I have sitting on my desk and read aloud every word they know.

Now when I start class they fluently blurt out “Today is Monday, twenty-four October, two-thousand-sixteen.” I can throw the duster around out-of-the-blue and ask “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” “What is your ambition?” “What is your favorite animal?” “What is your favorite fruit?” “What is __ color called?” “What is __ number called?” “Say the days of the week backwards.” They can give me directions to go right, left, ahead, behind, etc. I can name a person, object, time, or place and they can tell me if its best to use “Who,” “What,” “When,” or “Where.” They can use past, present, and future tense.

Now when a group of 1D students walks by, they confidently say “How are you today, Miss Christy?” When I ask them the same, they proclaim “I feel invincible today.”