I Love the Smell of English in the Morning

Guest Article by Owen Cortner
New Mexico State University
 
“Ewww, smelly.” These were the first words uttered by Adam, a Standard 4 student from SK Cherok Paloh (SKCP), upon entering the gates of the farm of Dato’ Sri’ Muhammad Safian bin Ismail in Kampung Cherok Paloh. Located 30 kilometers south of Kuantan, Pahang, the kampung and the farm are my home during my time as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Malaysia under the United States Fulbright program.
As a primary school teacher, I get the chance to work with impressive students who are learning three languages simultaneously, Bahasa Malaysia, English and Arabic. One of my favorite tools to get the students excited about learning and practicing English is English camp. Since I grew up on farms in the United States and currently live on one in Malaysia, it seemed natural to hold a farm-themed camp. However, the only possible dates for this camp fell during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when Muslims around the world fast during the daytime hours. Since all of the students in my school are Malay Muslims and the Standard 4 students are old enough to fast, this challenge would have to be addressed.
The goat pen at ETA Owen Cortner’s farmhouse in Malaysia
I decided to structure the camp as a half-day session starting early on a Saturday. The cool of the morning and the body’s natural energy during the first part of the day were my intended allies. At 7:45am on July 28, 21 Standard 4 students, eight ETAs from Pahang and Johor and two English teachers/mentors from SKCP gathered in front of the school. I had encouraged the students to take sahur, food and water before first prayer, to help them stay alert and lively. Most of them had done so, and they were smiling and talking with the ETAs as we sorted them into teams with names like “Cheerful Chickens,” “Cool Cows,” and “Brave Buffaloes.”
We started off with a walk from the school to the nearby beach. The students were unaware that I had sent three of the ETAs off earlier that morning to hide along our intended path. After a few minutes of walking, ETA Mark Pan (Johor) sprang from his hiding place, panting and looking around wildly. He gathered the students to him and in a perfectly-acted agitated state immersed them in the story of “The Three Little Goats.” He told the first part of this well-loved tale of three youngsters who build their houses out of straw, wood and bricks, the animal characters changed to be culturally appropriate.
 
ETA Mark Pan tells the story of “The Three Little Goats”
Two more ETAs shared their parts of the story before the students at last arrived at the beach. Here they separated into their teams and competed to spell the most English words correctly in the sand using back-scratchers shaped like hands.
Standard 4 student, Helmi bin nor Adnan, spells “pond” on Cherok Paloh’s beach
From the beach, the group made their way to the farm, singing “Dato’ Sri’ Had a Farm” to the tune of “Old MacDonald.” Once on the farm, students rotated with their teams to visit the goat barn, the fish ponds, the chicken coop and the deer enclosure. Each of these stations included a short explanation of the animals that corresponded to questions on a worksheet carried by each team. In addition, the students participated in a related activity at each station, like feeding the fish, learning the newly invented dance “the chicken shuffle,” and singing “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”
Mentor and English teacher Azuan bin Jantan gives a presentation on goats
 
ETA Peter Culviner shows students how to feed catfish
Each team also painted a picture of their team’s animal on a large sheet of mahjung paper with a hole cut in it. Students painted their pictures so that the hole was where the animal’s face would be.
 
 
Before the prize-giving ceremony, all of the teams gathered together on the deck of my kampong-style house for one last activity, a game called “Farmer in the Dell.” Students sang the verses of the song which instruct the participants to build a whole farm setting, from the farmer to his wife, a child, a nurse, a cow, and so on down to a wheel of cheese. Each student who was last picked to be one of the characters gets to choose the next character. The game ends with a full cast of farm characters in the middle of a circle of students, who then all rush back to the circle with the exception of the cheese, who stands alone as the circle contracts to “eat” the cheese.
Having had sufficient time to tally points during “Farmer in the Dell,” first and second place team prizes and universal individual prizes were distributed. The “Cheerful Chickens” ruled the day, and their first place prize packet included a certificate redeemable for afternoon tea at the house of Mr. Owen after Ramadan. The students went home, tired but happy, more confident in their ability to describe the farms and beaches of their countryside in English, and just a little bit smellier than when they started the day.
Student Salmiah binti Amran poses as a goat

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