Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Speech Choir

"Wait… What exactly is a speech choir?"  I must have asked this same question at least three different ways when I was first told that I would be in charge of one.

Various people went to a lot of trouble to explain.  The head English teacher, Madam Azimah, showed me video clips, competition rules, and a sample script or two, and the students who had been in previous years' speech choirs were called over to answer my questions.

Everyone seemed very confused by how confused I was, and I didn't really get less confused the more they talked.  However, the competition was only two months away, and since I at least know how to run auditions, run them I did.  I spent almost six hours sitting and listening to student after student reading the same short passage aloud and singing the Peace Round for me.

I whittled the list down to the 34 students with the best ability to project their voices and stay in key, posted the results, and almost immediately started holding practices.  To my dismay, none of the other teachers had the time to help out, beyond giving advice when I needed it.

For the first week of practice, I was more or less flying blind by the seat of my pants.  Some of the students had had experience with small speech choir shows and choral speaking (a similar concept), but this would be the first year that our school entered a full-fledged inter-school speech choir competition.

I had no idea where our performance script was supposed to come from, so we didn't have anything to practice on.  Instead, I practiced looking like I knew what I was doing.  We chose a name for the group (the Bright Stars), and we chose a conductor from among the students, as per competition rules.  We sang the Peace Round in four parts; we practiced reading book passages aloud in unison; we discussed how to arrange the choir on a stage.

When eventually Azimah told me that I was expected to write the script myself, I got some practice in panicking.  I can write essays, research papers, poetry, and even some slightly decent prose, but speech choir was a genre I was totally unfamiliar with.  Thirty-four students and a supervising teacher were relying on me now to produce eight minutes of cohesive, inspiring, and informative performance material!

I finally broke down and stopped acting like I knew what I was doing.  I came to practice that night empty-handed and simply admitted to my choir that I just didn't know how a speech choir script should go.  Could they help me?

Indeed they could!  That night, we decided on a topic - globalization - and spent the whole hour brainstorming ideas for it.  I agreed to write a short and simple essay - at last, something I knew how to write! - provided that a small group of the students could help me turn it into a real script. 

Over the next few weeks, the students worked with me to transform the content of the essay into something fun and engaging, with choreographed movements, song excerpts, solos, and mock conversations between different parts of the choir.   [In the picture: the evolution of our Globalization script]

And for almost two months, the Bright Stars met for a solid hour of practice every day.  We practiced while the script was still evolving, while attendance was decimated by conflicting activities, while the rain poured and the sun beat down, and while our practice space was invaded by bugs, cats, martial arts, and mass medical procedures.  We practiced even when the conductor was not available, and I came to learn the rudiments of conducting myself.  We practiced yet more as the competition approached.

A little over two weeks before the competition date, we were told that our script - which we had fully refined and memorized at that point - was breaking some of the new rules for performance. We had to totally rewrite parts of it, make up new words to three popular songs that we had included, and have the entire choir re-memorize it.  And still we soldiered on.

At last, the morning of the competition arrived - Monday, April 25.  Our school was hosting the event, so the Hall was packed with chairs and decked out to the gills with fancy skirting.  Bus after bus slid through the gates, unloading the uniformed choirs of ten other Elite and Premiere schools, from all around three districts of Terengganu.

I was happy to see a couple of the ETAs with their schools: Kelley Whitson and Lynn Elharake!

The Hall was filled, the judges were seated, and the welcome and introduction were read out.  First place would be awarded RM1500, second place RM1200, and third place RM1000; and two of the top three choirs would be eligible to perform at the state level - in front of the Sultan of Terengganu!

The Bright Stars were slated to perform fifth out of eleven.  We watched nervously as each of the first three choirs displayed increasingly impressive performances.  We then ran outside for some last-minute, knee-shaking preparation, and finally we heard the call to the stage.  I hurried to the back of the Hall to stand with a crowd of supportive Lembah Bidong students, and we watched our choir file serenely onto the risers.

The Bright Stars outshone themselves.  They smiled wide; they spoke with enthusiasm; they moved in unison.  They projected their voices with clarity and confidence, and they sang more in tune than I had ever heard them sing.  After each song, the crowd of students around me erupted in applause.  I could have burst with happiness and pride.

I ran and met them coming off the back of the stage, and we celebrated with relieved hugs, cheers, and high-fives.  We then settled down again hopefully to watch the rest of the choirs do their piece.  There were some incredible performances (Lynn's school did great, and Kelley's school was amazing!), but I didn't spend time worrying about our chances - I knew that my team had done their own absolute best.

The prize-giving ceremony opened with the obligatory long speeches, followed by the awarding of consolation prizes to the eight schools who didn't place.  When the last of these schools was announced, and we realized that we hadn't been called yet, my choir shrieked and hugged each other: our school had made it to the top three!

Later, we gathered on the stage to hold up our bronze medals in front of the cameras, grinning from ear to ear.  We may not have gotten first place, but we rocked our performance beyond all expectation, and we represented our school with pride.  For a first-time choir coached by someone who had just recently answered the question "What exactly is a speech choir, anyway?", I'd say we did pretty darn well!

UPDATE (JULY 18, 2011):

Finally, here's the video!  Presenting the Bright Stars' performance of the original script "Globalization", at the district level competition (unfortunately, it's rather noisy):

And, in an unexpected plot twist, the speech choir's story is not over!

Further adventures in: "The Speech Choir, Part Two"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Eating With Your Hands 101

There is a lot of hand-vs-food-phobia among Americans, and although I understand why, I'm of the opinion that it is totally unfounded.  Therefore, I've decided to draw on my experiences in Kenya and Malaysia and provide this simple introductory guide to eating with one's hands.  Don't worry, guys, people do this all over the world!  They're not dead yet!

Step One: Wash your hands.  Thoroughly.

Step Two:  Sit down and look at your plate.  I have decided to serve you a fairly common Malay dish: nasi ayam, or rice with chicken.  Your meal consists of a piece of fried chicken still on the bones, a heap of yellow rice soaked with broth, a few raw vegetables, and a small pool of sambal (or spicy chili sauce).  You also happen to have a slice of melon and a glass of soy milk, but I don't think you'll be needing assistance with those.
It all looks delicious, and you can't wait to put it into your mouth!

Step Three:  Commit to the fact that you will be putting this food into your mouth with your hands.  In the process, it will get all over your fingers and your fingers will get all over it.  Please fully accept this.  There is no going back now.

Step Four:  Look around at the others eating nearby, and realize that eating with your hands does not consist of grabbing handfuls of food and cramming it into your mouth.  There is a method here, and when you're good at it, it's not messy at all.

Step Five:  Put your glass within reach of your left hand.  You will be using your right hand, and only your right hand, to touch your food.  Sorry, lefties.

Step Six:  Touch that food!  Using your thumb and fingertips, push a small amount of the broth-soaked rice to one side of the plate and shape it into a lump.  Now form your fingertips into a rough scoop shape and use your thumb to push the lump onto your fingers.  The broth should more or less hold the rice together, so that the lump is the consistency of, well, wet rice.

Step Seven:  Put the food in your mouth!  Raise the scoop to your lips and use the back of your thumb to push the lump off of your fingers and into your mouth.  It's okay to let your lips touch your fingers - you don't have to aim blindly or anything. 

Keep in mind that since this is your first time, it will probably be a little messy and some rice might fall down.  That's okay!  Keep trying!

Step Eight:  Dig into that chicken.  Pinch and tear off a small chunk of the meat from the chicken bones.  Now form your rice-and-broth lump against this chunk - you can use its shape to make the lump more stable.  Now it's the same deal again: scoop the food onto your fingers, lift to mouth, push in with thumb.

Step Nine:  Spice it up!  If you feel like using a bit of that sambal there, push some rice or a piece of vegetable into it, then mix it into your next lump.  I'd go easy on that stuff if I were you - it's probably hot enough to burn your esophagus off.

Step Ten:  Keep going till you're done.  Use your left hand to drink from your cup, use your right hand to touch your mouth and anything on your plate, and use all that food to fill up your belly.  Don't be shy with that chicken, by the way - chances are it's not a drumstick, and there's usually plenty of meat hidden between the bones.

There you go!  You have now successfully eaten a meal in Malaysia, using 100% less the number of utensils than usual!

A few extra points:

-  Cooked vegetables accompany most meals.  These and any sauces can be mixed in with your rice lumps to help them hold their shape.

-  If you ever find yourself eating a meal that involves some sort of flat, flexible bread, like chapatti or naan, you can use this bread as a utensil.  Tear off pieces of it - with only your right hand! - and use them to soak up sauce and pinch/scoop up whatever else is on your plate.

-  You may find yourself eating a whole or half fish at some point. 

There are some places in America where this is not really big news, but there are a lot of people in other places who would never even consider eating something that still has its scales, fins, head, tail, and bones.  These are the people that I would ask to take a quick look at what science has to say on the matter:
To eat your whole or half fish, be careful when pinching the meat off - try gently scraping and lifting it off from the center outward, so that it comes free without taking a lot of bones with it.  Make a small pile of the bones that do come off on the edge of the plate.  When you're finished with one side, remember to flip it over and get the other half.

It took me months to get used to eating with my hands when I first started, but now I actually prefer it.  You have a chance to get to know your food before it goes in your mouth, and you can really customize the makeup of each mouthful.  It could be that I've simply come to associate this eating method with some really darn good food over the past couple of years, but I like to think that the method itself is about as basic, natural, and intuitive as it gets.

Let me know how it goes when you try it!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

That Was Today

Okay, I promised myself I wasn't going to let another two weeks go by without posting.  This one's gonna be a quickie though.  [Okay, I lied.  I guess I couldn't resist writing until way past my bedtime.]

I accomplished three things today, with a great deal of trial-and-error:  a) teaching two classes, b) supervising speech choir practice, c) pulling off a massive Treasure Hunt.  Oh yes, it deserves the capital letters.
Class is usually the easy part: I knock together an activity plan that I think both me and the students can have fun with, and then it's showtime.  I blow in there, we do some tongue-twisters, we do some games, we do something creative and wordy, we sing some songs, and I (hopefully) leave them with a week's worth of laughter and enthusiasm for the art of English.

This time, I got confused and blew in there a full hour and a half early, and it took the students ten whole minutes to tell me that I wasn't supposed to be teaching my class then.  I don't really know who was more embarrassed, me after ten minutes of nonplussed reactions from the students, or the students who had to explain their teacher's mistake to her in a foreign language.  There's a cultural difference there, Allen - in America, I don't think any high school student would take ten minutes to tell a teacher that they're supposed to have a free period right then!

Anyway, the second thing I accomplished today - kind of - was speech choir practice.  It was a frustrating practice because of all the setbacks we've had lately.  After more or less perfecting the script, and having the students memorize it, and really starting to unpack the details of our performance, we suddenly found out about the new rules for the competition.  And oh, that our script was breaking or bending a good several of them.

Basically, we had to rewrite three or four key parts of our performance, and change lots of little details in ways that a group of 34 students is likely to forget when they're rehearsing something that they've done a hundred times already.  Frustration and foot-dragging was the resounding mood of practice today.

Also, I brought cookies for them as a special treat, but apparently I didn't get enough for everyone.  :-(

Okay, well, that was sad.  But moving on!  The biggest thing that I accomplished today - today's centerpiece, if you will - was not sad at all.  It was sheer madness.

I've been in treasure hunts before, and I always associated them with gaggles of excited little girls digging up paper clues that lead to more paper clues, that eventually lead to the birthday girl's pile of presents.  It turns out, when treasure hunts are organized on a large and competitive scale for teenagers, the excitement involved is a bit less endearing and a bit more terrifying.

I spent most of this last week putting together an English-grammar-themed treasure hunt, and had fifty students sign up in teams of five.  It would be a 90-minute race to find a series of quiz questions on English grammar, hidden throughout the school, and answer them correctly and in order.  Each team got a different order to follow.  Setting this whole thing up involved a lot of planning with numbers and internet searches, and a lot of pretty artwork with markers and envelopes.  Also, I guess I can write a mean rhyming clue under time pressure.

This afternoon, in the sweltering heat of a tropical sun, the contestants gathered.  The rules were explained.  The enthusiasm pumped up.  The first clues handed out.  When I finally shouted that magic word, "Go!", the students burst from their starting positions like miniature SWAT teams.

It was rather heartwarming to watch, actually.  People were playing my game!  A game that I made, and they liked it!  Yay!

Then the teams started coming back to get their first English questions checked.  Four very helpful student minions and I were responsible for checking teams' answers and giving them their next clues, and until that moment, I don't think I properly realized how very, very into it these competitors were.  Even with each check-er only handling two teams, we were almost literally mobbed.  These people were frantic for their next clues.

Things took a turn for the worse when allegations of sabatoge started cropping up - teams saying that their quiz questions had been re-hidden by other teams, or taken away entirely.  Luckily, we only had to handle a few incidents like this (in the middle of being mobbed, though!), and the game steamrolled on.

With fifteen clues for each team, I was worried that maybe nobody would finish in time, but I clearly underestimated the students' dedication.  An hour and a half later, broiling in their own sweat and fervor, five out of the ten teams had finished before the bell went off.  The winning three are set to be announced at the end of Language Month, which this game/rampage was held in honor of.

Anyway, that was my day, in case any of you were wondering why I haven't called you recently.  I still miss you all, more than ever!

...please comment...

Oh hey, and Meg, look what I saw by my house:


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Post Quick, Before Everyone Goes Away!

Hey guys, sorry I haven't posted in so long.  I was trying to write a really epic blog post about Vietnam, and then I realized that the longer it took me to write this epic post, the less I would want to keep writing it and the less anyone would actually want to read it.  I might even go the way of Hyperbole and a Half, trying so hard to outdo myself every time that I end up posting less than once a month.

So, I'm back on the wagon - regular posting about mundane things in Malaysia!

Well, I can say a bit about Vietnam now - maybe I'll post something epic about it later - but basically, me and fellow ETA Nou used our weeklong school break to backpack from Ho Chi Minh City up to Hanoi.  It was quite the adventure.  Vietnam has very friendly people, very beautiful countryside, very good food, and very cheap goods.  I kind of wish we had planned more beforehand, though, because although we got to see some amazing historic places off the cuff, most of what I remember consists of noodles, strange toilets, and very long bus rides.

Anyway, pretty much as soon as I got back here to Malaysia, I was hit by a truck full of "Hey Guess What We Need You To Do?"'s, and I've been marathoning it ever since.  Also, my school up and changed everyone's schedule halfway through the week, mixing up a ton of classes and replacing half the ones I had, so now I'm back on icebreakers and introduction classes.  You gotta be on your toes here; the wind changes pretty fast!

Speaking of wind, it has been monsooning all over up in here for the past three weeks.  We were told the monsoon season ended in February, but no such luck: it has rained and poured and flooded practically 24/7 since I got back from Vietnam.  Actually, it was quite a sight; I'm pretty glad I got to see all those houses on stilts doing what they were designed to do.  Thankfully, it stopped just before the weekend, and we had some lovely sun for the past few days.

Last week, during all the downpour, we had five students from another school coming to visit for a sort of friendship/learning/exchange program, just for two days.  Me and the head English teacher Azimah had the responsibility of arranging their activities here - tours, sitting in on classes, and bonding sessions with the students.  This was where I came in, bringing a lot of scrabble, taboo, and telephone games.  MIF, you'll be proud - my kids have now been introduced to both Fake Scrabble and Telephone Pictionary!

The other point of the students visiting, we were told, was to foster some sort of friendly competition between their school and ours, which we had to arrange on the second morning.  But what would the competition be?  Scrabble?  Debate?  A three-legged race?  No, too standard, too predictable... Maybe... Of course!  We could hold an English Quiz Bowl!

And that is how I became a game show host on national televesion.

Nah, just kidding, it was pretty small fish - we had all of Form 4 come out and watch, and I had to rush through it because I had to run to KT literally the minute afterward and get my work visa.  Still, it was enjoyably awesome!  I wrote around 70 questions about various English topics, arranged them in Jeopardy style, and had two games, one for the boys' teams and one for the girls' teams.  Their boys won, and our girls won, so it all pretty much evened out.

By the way, my fancy two-page work visa very clearly said "male" on it - on both sides!  I got it fixed the next day, but I wish I had taken pictures when I had the chance.

This week, the big event was the AFS Alumni roadshow I've been trying to make happen for a month or so.  AFS has this scholarship, the YES program, which sends high school kids from Muslim countries to America and vice versa.  A lot of my kids are interested in applying, so I invited some YES alumni down to the school to give them a talk and some advice on applications.  I think it turned out pretty well, despite the fact that some random field trip for Form 5 had unexpectedly removed almost all of the eligible students from campus that day.  The ones who came were really interested though!

Hmm, I think that's all the main news for right now.  I'm really excited about my apartment being clean again - I spent the whole weekend on it, and it is finally glistening.  All I'm saying about that experience is: nature is not at all shy about visiting you in your home around here. 

Let's see... I'm still trying to get time to write a post about all the weekend trips the ETAs have been taking, the latest being the elephant sanctuary.  But now that post is competing for attention with the one about Vietnam, so who knows what's going to get posted next?  Either way, you should comment and make a lonely English teacher very happy.

I miss you all!

Here are some extra pictures for y'all:
Swing dance club!  I just realized I hadn't posted any pics of that yet.

Aren't they great?

Some seriously large spiders around here.  That is the chain-link fence outside the girls' dorm.  That is normal-sized chain link, btw.

A praying mantis of the most epic proportions!  I took an entire photo shoot of this guy.  It was freaky watching him turn his head around; he would startle and look towards noises like a human.

I'm pretty sure they're aliens.