Wednesday, November 23, 2011


A few quotes from The Brothers Karamazov, which I finished re-reading last night.


"Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds.  That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things.  God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through it sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies.  Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it.  So I think."

- Zosima (320)


"Tell me, Karamazov, am I very ridiculous now?"
    "But don't think about it, don't think about it at all!" Alyosha exclaimed.  "And what does it mean--ridiculous?  What does it matter how many times a man is or seems to be ridiculous?  Besides, nowadays almost all capable people are terribly afraid of being ridiculous, and are miserable because of it.  I'm only surprised that you've begun to feel it so early, though, by the way, I've been noticing it for a long time, and not in you alone.  Nowadays even children almost are already beginning to suffer from it.  It's almost a madness.  The devil has incarnated himself in this vanity and crept into a whole generation--precisely the devil," Alyosha added, not smiling at all, as Kolya, who was looking at him intently, thought for a moment.  "you are like everyone else," Alyosha concluded, "that is, like a great many others, only you ought not to be like everyone else, that's what."
    "Even if everyone is like that?"
    "Yes, even if everyone is like that.  You be the only one who is not like that."

-Alyosha and Kolya (557)


"These educated parents subjected the poor five-year old girl to every possible torture.  They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises; finally they attained the height of finesse: in the freezing cold, they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn't ask to get up and go in the middle of the night (as if a five-year-old child sleeping its sound angelic sleep could have learned to ask by that age)--for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her!  And this mother could sleep while her poor little child was moaning all night in that vile place!  Can you understand that a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and the cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for 'dear God' to protect her--can you understand such nonsense, my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created?  Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil.  Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price?  The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to 'dear God.'  I'm not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!

- Ivan Fyodorovich (242)


"No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: 'Better that you enslave us, but feed us.' They will finally understand that freedom and earthly bread in plenty for everyone are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share among themselves." 

- Ivan Fyodorovich, through the Grand Inquisitor (253)


"There is no more ceaseless and tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible.  But man seeks to bow down before that which is indisputable, so indisputable that all men at once would agree to the universal worship of it.  For the care of these pitiful creatures is not just to find something before which I or some other man can bow down, but to find something that everyone else will also believe in and bow down to, for it must needs be all together.  And this need for communality of worship is the chief torment of ages.  In the cause of universal worship, they have destroyed each other with the sword." 



"We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air.  Alas, do not believe in such a union of people.  Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs, they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits, and the most absurd fancies in themselves...I knew one 'fighter for an idea' who told me himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his 'idea,' just so that they would give him some tobacco.  And such a man says: 'I am going to fight for mankind.'  Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for?  Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long...and therefore the idea of serving mankind, of the brotherhood and oneness of people, is fading more and more in the world, and indeed the idea now even meets with mockery, for how can one drop one's habits, where will this slave go now that he is so accustomed to satisfying the innumerable needs he himself has invented?  He is isolated, and what does he care about the whole?  They have succeeded in amassing more and more things, but have less and less joy. 

- Zosima (314)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Being a Teacher

Is it possible to start a composition with an aside?

[Aside: **In a posting back in April or May, soon after I’d arrived in Indonesia, I said I would try only to write about specific topics, because capturing my “experience” in Indonesia in broad terms would not be possible.  I stuck to that model for some months.  Recently, however, my posts have become more about…me…and less about Indonesia.  That’s odd, because as far as I can tell, the other PCV bloggers have gone in reverse—that is, they started out talking about themselves and now are talking about Indonesia. 

I just don’t feel the same urge to transmit cultural insights that I felt before.  Perhaps this is because, for me, the exercise of writing is a tool to organize and process new information.  Seven months in, there’s not as much "foreignness" to deal with.  The primary challenge is no longer personal adjustment to this once-alien culture, but carrying out professional responsibilities.  That, of course, entails its own series of headaches and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moments, but it’s more focused, less all-embracing, than the original challenge. 

Anyway, I think all of that accounts for both my reduced writing output and the shift in tone over the last couple months. **]


General Information

Some people have asked me what it’s actually like teaching in the school.  Kind of weird, I haven’t really written much about it, even though I’ve been teaching at my school for some four months.  Here are some facts about my situation:

·      I teach at a madrasah, which is an Islamic state school.  In Indonesia, there are non-religious state schools, overseen by the Ministry of National Education, and there are madrasahs, which are overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  Usually around 10:00, there is a 20-minute break for solat (prayer).  There is another solat around lunchtime after 12:00.  And Monday through Wednesday, there is a third solat after school ends.  It’s very funny to watch the kids and teachers doing ablutions (ritual washing) before prayer, because their clothing gets drenched.  The boys always horse around splash each other with water.

·      Appearance is extremely important in the culture here.  All the women must wear headscarves (jilbab), and all students/teachers wear uniforms. That is, except for me some days.  Three days per week I wear my own preference, and three days I dress like the other teachers.  People here aren’t as crazy about footwear though.  It’s pretty amusing to see kids and teachers wearing ties and full-length pants and skirts, but no shoes.  They like to kick them off when they sit down in class.

·      Those of you clever in arithmetic will have deduced that the school week is six days.  Sunday is the only day off, but Friday and Saturday are shorter than Monday-Thursday.  And Thursday is shorter than Monday-Wednesday.

·      In Indo, high school lasts from 10th until 12th grade.  I teach four classes of 11th grade and one class of 10th grade.  When I say “class”, I mean group of students.  Indonesian high school is organized rather like American elementary school.  Like class 10-A has its own classroom where they have all their lessons, and the teachers move around.  After tenth grade, kids are differentiated by “tracks”, of which there are four in Indonesia. 

·      There are more than 900 kids in my school.  That’s not the most for any PCV in Indonesia, but I think it’s top five or top three.  Because it’s such a large school, it actually has all four tracks: IPA (science), IPS (social), Bahasa (language), and Agama (religion).  All four tracks study certain core subjects, and there are also subjects specific to certain tracks.  For example, all students must study English and Indonesian, but only Bahasa and Agama students have to study Arabic, and only Bahasa students have to study Japanese (at least in my school).  All students have to study history, but only IPS has to study sociology.  And so on.  I hope you get the picture.

·      Outside of the track system, there are no electives.  In my school, students study eighteen subjects per semester.  No, this does not make any sense or have defensible logical underpinnings, so don’t bother trying to figure it out.

·      For 12th graders, the entire year is dedicated to preparation for the national exam.  Whether a student passes is determined by an average of the kid’s grades in school and scores on the national exam.  As a rule, schools inflate grades to offset poor scores on the national exam, which is very difficult, so that all or almost all of the kids graduate.  Schools here are businesses, and it’s bad for business if “clients” (students) fail.  

This is what the schedule looks like at my school.  I spent two or three days studying it before the semester began just so I could understand how it worked.  The time investment paid off, because I got to skip several months of chaos and confusion.


Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  What are your class sizes?

Two of my classes (IPA) have 32 students, two (Bahasa) have 26-27, and one has 15.  The class with fifteen is 10th grade Acceleration.  It’s a new program in my school.  Those kids are supposed to graduate in two years, rather than three.  I feel grateful that my two most challenging classes are relatively small, at 26 students apiece.  My heart goes out to the PCVs trying to teach 40 rowdy, unmotivated kids per class.

Q.  What are the students like?

They’re mostly wonderful, and at times they make you want to bang your head against the wall.  Social harmony and respect for elders or “superiors” is much more deeply ingrained in people here, so it’s very rare for me to feel personally disrespected.  I wouldn’t label any of my ~130 kids as a troublemaker.  Unlike American teenagers, they are not “too cool” for school.  It’s very easy to get them excited if you know the right buttons to push, and they become very spirited in class games.  They love to sing.  As far as I can see, they do not form cliques like American kids.  They love to cheer and clap and make noise as a group.  This is a collectivist culture.

That collectivism can make you want to break stuff at times, because collective cheating is so widespread here.  I’m very strict about cheating, and I feel confident saying that it doesn't happen too much in my classes during assessments.  I’m always on the lookout.  Most students have a fear of being different (is this really so different from American kids?).  They are usually petrified if they have to speak in English with any degree of spontaneity or creativity.  It’s also pretty common to laugh at mistakes here, so I had to make clear to my classes that it is forbidden to make fun of people who mess up. 

Anyway, the kids love to smile and laugh, and they always say hello when they see me.  Because they so readily accept authority and have (in my opinion) very low standards for teachers, it takes a lot of pressure off of me.  For some of my classes, I can always count on the kids to be bright and cheerful, and that really lifts my mood.   I usually leave a class feeling better than I did when I entered.

Q.  How are the students in English?

Skill levels within classes vary wildly, but the general level of English is very low.  I’d estimate that about 15% of my students would be able to converse comfortably in English about their daily activities.  Perhaps 5% could do it with grammatical accuracy.  At the other extreme, I have kids who have scored 0% on vocabulary quizzes, failing to produce the English words “take, go, say, make” etc.  Mind you, those kids have been taking English classes for at least five years.

Q.  How are the teachers in English?

There are six English teachers at my school plus me.  Their levels vary.  Three of them have what I would call very good English.  One of them is pretty good.  One is not so good.  One could hardly be said to speak English.

Last week we instituted a new policy: English teachers MUST always speak English with the other English teachers.  Every violation means a 1,000 rupiah fine.  The teachers love it, and we’ve all had to pony up.  So far the jar has over 10,000 rupiah.  They love policing one another—I never have to insist that they follow the rule.  The money is used to buy teaching supplies.

Q.  What kind of resources do you have?

Most classrooms are quite large, but drab.  There is a whiteboard and a desk for the teacher.  Some classes have painted slogans or pictures on the walls to beautify the room, but the rooms are horribly underutilized.  Students usually sit in pairs at big, clunky wooden desks.  The school has two printers, which are old and crappy and don’t do color very well at all.  There is no photocopy machine, but paper is available to buy at the cooperative store.  There are a couple digital projectors, but these are hardly ever used.  There are no transparency projectors, as far as I can tell.  There is wireless internet in the school (my most important resource).  There is a language lab, but I haven’t used it yet, and I’m not sure if it’s really functional. One cool resource is the mosque, which is really big at my school and much cooler than the classrooms.

Doing an activity in the mosque on 11/11/11

There are no English textbooks at my school.  The kids all have these cheap paper workbooks called LKS books.  The LKS books are awful--they are riddled with mistakes, they are illogically organized, and they assume the students have a level of English comparable to native speakers.  They're so awful, in fact, that my counterparts and I are not using any book at all.  We are creating all our own materials.  Obviously this makes planning more taxing, but we are teaching material that is realistic for the students.  The kids were raised on the LKS books, and their English is terrible.  For me, that’s enough justification to throw the books out if at all possible.

There is no store of English teaching materials that have been put to good use.  Some of my counterparts have books about teaching English filled with ideas for activities and worksheets and such, but those are very rarely opened.  There are no posters or realia or maps.  All in all, though, there are enough resources for a creative teacher to deliver high-quality lessons.  But it requires imagination, which is sorely lacking here.

Q.  What’s good about teaching?

When things are humming in the classroom, it’s a great feeling.  When kids are actually speaking in English while engaged in some silly contest, it’s awesome.  I suppose the best part is, as I said before, going into a classroom feeling low-energy and coming out of it feeling pumped. 

One of the most interesting things is getting to know the students’ individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as to measure how they progress.  It’s interesting to grade a quiz and be pleasantly surprised that a kid is doing much better than before, or conversely to be perplexed as to why a good student did poorly.  And it’s delightful when the kids catch you off guard with their creativity.  I’ve gotten a couple writing assignments that really just lit me up.

Also, as a native speaker of English and a person not shy to take charge in group situations, I get a ton of respect from the other teachers.  My ideas are taken seriously, and when I ask for help with things, I can usually count on someone wanting to help me.  And there’s really no pressure from the other teachers.  I could literally just take a vacation for a week, whenever, and nobody would say a word.  Basically all of the stress I feel is self-generated. 

And it’s fantastic to see other teachers adopt improved practices.  It makes me really happy when my counterpart wants to enter grades into our weighted spreadsheet on her own because it's "fun".

Q.  What sucks about teaching?

It sucks to feel like you’re constantly swimming against the current.  The flip side of being the native speaker/leader-type is that I am under all the pressure to be creative.  It can be tough to stay motivated when other people have lower standards and try to avoid responsibility for creative work (i.e. sitting down and designing interesting, logical lessons).  Trying to inspire others to a higher standard of professionalism can be tiring, and staying level when things don’t progress as quickly as I’d like requires patience.

Additionally, the culture surrounding education here is (in this American’s perspective) seriously flawed.  Certain crucial components are missing:

·      Accountability (at all levels)
·      Punctuality
·      Commitment to a predictable learning environment
·      Fostering of critical thinking/originality/creativity
·      Pragmatism (i.e. the goals of the curriculum considering the resources actually available)

Compared to the US, there is a much greater emphasis on developing “character”, which I suppose they do a pretty good job with, because 99% of the kids seem to be good kids.  But as a product of an education system that places performance above character, it just sucks seeing how inefficient education is here.


Other Observations

In all five of my classes, the girls do significantly better than the boys.  Average difference in test scores range as high as 20%.  I think the trend is the same in American schools, but it seems more pronounced here.  Boys goof around more. Interestingly, however, the “smart” kids are not ostracized or jeered—they are actually more or less the top dogs in my classes. Boys and girls never sit together here, and one-on-one interaction is extremely rare, though group interaction is common enough.  I’ve learned not to try to pair boys and girls, because they become painfully awkward, even sullen. 

The only time I’ve felt actually angry over “insubordination” was when a boy turned sour over being asked to work with a girl.  He nodded his head as if he understood, but didn’t move and tried to pretend that he was looking through a book, despite being told repeatedly.  To avoid a standoff, we had him work in a trio of boys and the girl in a trio of girls, but it really got to me.  At first I was irritated with the boy, but I cooled off by reminding myself that it’s not his fault he’s so uncomfortable with the prospect.  Just the way he was socialized.  I shouldn’t expect him to react like an American kid would.

Dating is prohibited in my school.  Kids who are known to have girlfriends or boyfriends are subject to expulsion.  This kind of freaks me out.  It’s normal for people here to get married in their very early twenties (especially girls), or even their late teens.  But by that point, they still have never really had much opposite-sex interaction outside of their own family.  People get married with terribly limited knowledge about the other sex.  The thought of locking oneself into a lifelong partnership with someone without really understanding the commitment or without having explored other options is just…chilling.

I haven’t had any real disciplinary problems.  During tests and quizzes I police the kids quite strictly to discourage cheating, but other than that they’re all good.  At times they can be screechy, annoying sixteen-year-olds, but with the proper management they don’t become too unruly.

Last week I carved pumpkins with my English club, and it was awesome!  One of counterparts gave his 12th graders a break from class so they could come look at what we were doing.  Not bad for kids who had never done it before.  The one second from the left was declared best pumpkin.  It had eyebrows and ears!

For a solid five minutes, I had most of the kids and the other English teacher scared that there was actually a ghost in the room.  I showed them a photograph of the jack o' lanterns with a white streak in front.  They were relieved when I said it was just a trail from a boy who was moving across the frame.
I’ve already said many times that appearances are more important in this culture than in American culture.  One consequence, or corollary, is that it’s also a more visual culture.  Students put so much more effort into making simple papers and projects look nice.  I had teachers back in America who told me, “I don’t care if you write your essay in pen, crayon, or blood, as long as I can read it and you’ve done good work.”  Here it’s the opposite.  The quality of content can be absolutely horrendous, but you can rest assured that the presentation will be attractive.  During Ramadan I asked some kids to write about the fasting month, and they turned in some things that I’d never seen before.  One pair of girls glued their paper to a triangular piece of wood.  Another made a multi-colored folding heart (see pictures).  One wrote their thing on a neon-colored cutout of Donald Duck’s face.  Several groups glued small fuzzy butterfly dolls to their paper.  

Now that's some serious creativity. 

That’s as much as I’m going to write about this in one sitting, so I hope it was informative!  If any of you future Indonesia PCVs are reading, good on you for getting informed ahead of time!  We look forward to meeting you and hazing you ruthlessly. 

Just kidding.


Friday, November 4, 2011


The trouble with not updating for several weeks is that it becomes hard to write anything at all.  There’s a backup of information, and the task of sifting through the sand for bits of gold is daunting.  And of course, all my PCV buddies have more or less beaten me to the punch in terms of blogging about recent highlights, and seeing as I read all their blogs, it’s a bit tough to say anything original.


October 17th to 28th was In-Service Training in Surabaya.  The 26 remaining PCVs from my group were shacked up together in a hotel for two weeks, where we attended approximately six thousand sessions on teaching, safety & security, and a sprinkling of other topics (medical, our feelings, cultural, language).  One teaching counterpart of each Volunteer was invited to attend the last three days of the Training, which were basically dedicated to improving teamwork and communication.  Ambitious boy that I am, I co-facilitated two sessions (one for PCVs only, one for PCVs + Counterparts).  Days would last from about 8am to 5pm, with a one-hour break for lunch.  The nights were free.

The 2nd Annual PC Indonesia Badminton Tournament, won by Nicole and Pak Winarto, was held in a stifling sauna that someone must have confused for a gymnasium.  Yours truly teamed with Megan from Peace Corps staff and appeared in the very first match of the tourney.  Under the glare of a thousand eyes, we handily dispatched our loathsome foes, Betsy and Cody.  Confidence running high, we were eviscerated in the second round by the eventual runners-up, Heru and Brianna.

The PC Indo Halloween Party and Costume Contest was held in my hotel room.  I will leave you with some links to the pictures, which are great.  I’m not gonna say I was shafted in the costume contest, because I think the best man won, but I think my cloud/pillow/sheet/flying squirrel/ghost/pious Muslim woman/toga/chameleon costume was worth an honorable mention.  Most embarrassing moment: Accidentally hitting PCV Whitney in the face in the middle of a party game when my face was covered.  

For pics of the Party and Badminton Tournament, take a peek at Dan's Post, Elle's Post, and Nicole's Post

Some thoughts, in whatever order they come to me

Surabaya might as well be a different planet from Kandangan (where I live).  The malls are tall enough to house Saturn V rockets.  You can buy alcohol, and even more shocking you can see people drinking it.  Some women wear clothing that doesn't cover their knees.  There are coffee shops and restaurants with “ethnic” food.  People don’t really stare at you for being foreign.  You can go out at night, and there are still shops open.  It’s a completely different side of Indonesia.  I can’t even imagine what it’s like in Jakarta.

In Surabaya, you can just feel the hunger to become Western.  But out here in the countryside, where I live, the mentality is utterly different and the culture is solidly traditional.  I wonder, as relative European and American power wane over the next few decades, will Indonesia (and the rest of the developing world) find some other model to emulate?  What would a world that wasn’t Westernizing even look like, and how would I feel about it?  As it is, watching people trade in misguided tradition for misguided modernity evokes ambivalence.  All I wonder when I walk through a nine-floor shopping mall is: This is progress?

Then I come back to the countryside and think how desperately this place needs to move forward, how a few “Western” lessons could solve so many problems the people face.  And then I remember how Westerners don’t seem any happier to me than Indonesians.  And then I think that maybe the happiness here is superficial.  And then I think what’s the difference?  And I just end up feeling confused, at least as far as society is concerned.  Being in this country has reduced the scope of my ambition.  I don’t even know what would be healthy for humanity, how can I hope to “save” it in any meaningful way?

My mind keeps going back to Voltaire’s maxim: Tend your own garden.  In a way, this service is making me more individualistic than I already was.  Where it concerns myself, I’m pretty certain what kind of change is good or bad, so I can endeavor to effect it with conviction.  For the rest of the universe and everything in it, I’m not so sure what’s best or how to get there.  At this moment, my best wisdom is just to take care of my own garden and hope the neighbors feel inspired when they look at it.

The last day in Surabaya and the few days after getting back to Kandangan were rough, mentally speaking.  My head was so incredibly full of information and thoughts and emotions, it was terribly difficult to concentrate.  I started feeling better after writing a long, meandering entry in my paper journal. 

Some of my personal highlights/random notes from Surabaya:

·      As I wrote, I co-facilitated a couple of the sessions for IST.  The first was with PCV Luke, the second with PCV Sarah and my counterpart, Ms. Ani.  It was an absolute delight to work with Americans again.  Even though planning for our sessions meant that I couldn’t socialize for a couple of nights, it was a great feeling to prepare and deliver presentations for the benefit of my friends.  It was also great to speak in front of Americans.  It felt like really meaningful work.  The positive feedback I got from some of my peers, especially for the second presentation, made me feel better than all the combined compliments I’ve received from locals for the last seven months.

·      I stood on a scale in Surabaya and found that I’ve lost between 10 and 15 pounds since coming to Indonesia, depending on water weight.  That is not insignificant, since there wasn’t so much of me to begin with.  Still, my weight loss has not been the most extreme among the group.  I don’t really see how I can gain that weight back on the local diet, but I hope that my weight has stabilized, because I don’t want to go south of 140.

·      I absolutely love spending time with other PCVs.  The more I get to know them, the more I like them and the more I appreciate the fabulous diversity of their personalities.  Just being able to float from one small group of Volunteers to the next and feel attached to all them was an amazing feeling.  It was also a pleasure to get better acquainted with the visiting ID-4s (that is, the PCVs from the group that arrived a year before I did [I am an ID-5]).  Specific shout outs to Luke, Sam, Sarah, and Noel—who is in Hawaii, the b----.

·      I got to eat food that wasn’t rice or noodles. 

·      Oh man, I almost forgot.  I was rooming with Cody, and we had to move to a different room after a week because there were bed bugs.  He had a bunch of itchy red bite-mark things on his ankles and arms. I had a bunch of red dots on my hands  and creeping up my arms (and even a few on my face), but mine didn’t itch and looked more like sea lice than bites.  Either there was a different kind of bug in my sheets or I just have a convenient resistance to the bites of bedbugs.  We took the minifridge with us when we moved to our new, smaller room.  The hotel did all our laundry for free, but it took them two days, so for a day and a half Cody and I looked like ruffians in the sessions.

·      I wore a sarong to the training sessions for a couple days because I didn’t have any clean pants.  I expected to be chastised, but people seemed rather impressed.

·      Repeat: I got to eat food that wasn’t rice or noodles.

·      Really, a ton of other stuff happened, but I cannot list it all and I seriously doubt whether you, dear reader, want to continue wading through the muck of my recollections, which are not pertinent to anything going on in your own life.


End of an Era

I bought a camera on my last day in Surabaya.  I figured with all the money I’ve been saving up by living like a skinflint at site, I could afford to drop a bit on a camera.  This is actually the first camera I’ve ever bought—and so a new chapter begins.  The plan is to use it at site to take pictures of people and help me integrate better.  There are a handful of teachers whose faces I recognize but whose names I cannot remember.  A secondary consequence might be that Thought Porridge might turn into Thought + Picture Porridge, but don’t get your hopes up.  Though I might throw in some photos once in a while, I am not a photographer.  I hate carrying around a camera and feeling the pressure to “capture” moments, lest they disappear forever.

Okay, I think that about does it.