Saturday, June 21

TFM Connect_ED 2014

Connect_ED 2014 by Teach For Malaysia
There is one time in a year when I feel a little less crazy for being the way I am.
There is one time in a year when I recharge my soul & spirit without having to do anything.
There is one time in a year when I feel hopeful for the future of my country.
There is one time in a year when I feel really old because of the fresh young new faces.

Many new teachers come up to me & express a desire to do what I am doing. No, they don't mean working in the jungle with low proficiency students for half a decade. All they see is the fluff. My travelling around to attend all sorts of ministry meetings, conferences, speaking & giving talks. That is what they want.
What they do not see is the process of getting from where I was, an obscure teacher working his butt off in the middle of nowhere where nobody cares, to a still obscure teacher known & appreciated by those who care.

Doing what I'm doing is a lonely road. Believing the best in my students. Doing my best to provide them with what they need to succeed. Burning fingers & stepping on toes to bulldoze my way to doing what I think is right.
For a long time, I have been working in isolation in the middle of nowhere. I dare not speak of my ideals lest I be branded a madman. During my darkest days, I wonder to myself whether I am crazy. I wonder to myself whether it is worth it. I wonder to myself whether any of this will ever make a difference in the long run.

This cycle of slaving, doubting, salving, wondering, slaving, crying, slaving, hurting, went on & on for years. Those were my darkest years where I tasted the deep dagger of betrayal & being abandoned. Amazing thing was I kept fighting & believing. Great colleagues joined me in my quest. I hung on to whatever hope I could find like my life depended on it. All in the name of doing what I thought was right & honourable.

Tuesday, June 17

The Jungle Teacher Responds to Nadilla Jamil's Open Letter

This blog post is a response to this article.
This is a long blog post in response to Nadilla Jamil's article 'An open letter to secondary school English teachers' which was published by the Malaysian Insider on 13 June 2014.

In this letter, she eloquently shares her beliefs in the teaching of the English language in Malaysian secondary schools & passionately urges English teachers to follow suit. Here are some quotes:
- stop doing word-to-word translation or even mother-tongue mirroring
- speaking English in an English language classroom provides the linguistic environment that you know they are lacking
- English is fun. Bring along your games, movies. Act out. Consider role-plays. Let our potential future leaders learn the language through music.
- I passionately believe that the trouble is that education doesn't go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are you and them as students. And if your discretion is removed, trust me, our education will stop working.
- as an English teacher, you are not a grammar nazi who will red-mark or point out every single written and verbal grammatical mistake of our potential future leaders.
- you don’t need to make sure they get the Queen’s tongue while speaking
- Don’t rob their confidence. Don’t kill the language-learning joy.  Don’t make them feel timid. Don’t sabotage their language learning by speaking in L1 in their L2 classroom.
- the more you speak and let our potential future leaders speak L1 in L2 class; the longer they will remain in miserable limbo of being unable to communicate in that language.
- we can never learn English by speaking in and listening to another language. No one ever has mastered a language this way. And no one will.
- your mission is not only to let them know how to read and write in English to pass their exams. Your mission should be that so that one day they can THINK critically when they converse and read in English.

The Malaysian Insider balanced her article by publishing these responses:
1. A reply from a secondary school English teacher – Mohd Faiez Mohd Ali
   A teacher describes how he tried to use only English to little effect and then finds success when he uses the mother tongue in his lessons. Students understood the task & proceeded to make use of the target language to complete their tasks which are essential to success in SPM.
2. Teaching English is a task for all – Daron Benjamin Loo
   A teacher trainer argues that the use of mother tongue is acceptable in the second language classroom.

I did some sleuthing because I thought that she was probably a renowned teacher trainer or researcher or master teacher whom I could learn from & what I have found will surprise you.

Tuesday, June 10

Featured in Victorious - Autumn 2014

There is a factual error here: 1 hour by boat from the closest town, Song. 3 hours by boat from the closest city, Sibu.
Still, this is an amazing amazing amazing honour!
I never imagined that I would be interesting enough to be featured in the alumni magazine, the Victorious, of my alma mater in New Zealand, Victoria University of Wellington. In this magazine, I usually read about exemplary alumni who are contributing greatly to society; i.e. researchers, scholars, business people, biologists, mathematicians, policy makers & economists.

I'm just an English teacher working in the middle of nowhere with children who do not come from rich or influential backgrounds. I'm not doing anything world or nation changing like many others who have been featured in the magazine. I'm just doing what is within my circle of influence to make a difference in a rural community like many thousands of teachers are currently doing & countless others have done.

I am not a hero. Nor am I a lone ranger doing everything myself. Every day, I work with top-notch colleagues without whom I will be unable to carry out 100% of my programmes. I also work with the kindest students who are the most eager to learn in Malaysia. I want to highlight their faceless contributions of sweat & blood to my achievements. They are the heroes.

This is an unbelievable encouragement to me & it motivates me to work harder to enlarge my circle of influence until one day it reaches a tipping point where I can make a real difference for the betterment of my country. Thank you so much to the people who have believed in me & helped me along in my journey.

Thank you, Dr Jonathan Newton, Kristina Keogh & the Victorious team for believing that I'm worthy of this honour. I am speechless & totally grateful!

Tuesday, June 3

I Took the TOEFL iBT Test

This was where I signed up for my test.
A few weeks ago, I took the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). I took the TOEFL test because it is a prerequisite for a graduate study grant I'm applying for.
I'm not going to explain what TOEFL is. There are plenty of websites about it. I'm going to share my experience registering for the test & sitting for it so that you have some idea of what to expect should you choose to do the same.


First, find out the location of the tests & the dates here. Tests are usually on Saturdays & Sundays. There are test centres in KL, PJ, Johore, Penang & Kedah. Different centres will have different dates. TIP #1: Make sure that you choose the right centre & date. This is especially important if, like me, you are travelling from far away.
You can change it later but it'll cost you US$60 to reschedule. If you cancel, you will only get a refund of half the fee (US$90).

Once you have decided on a place & date, sign up for TOEFL online at this website. First, you will have to create an ETS user account. This is where you register for a test, check your test score & have it sent to a 3rd party. The TOEFL test costs US$180 in Malaysia. TIP #2: Make sure you check your passport & register with the same name as your passport. They are very particular about names so make sure you are careful. US$180 & lost time is a big price to pay for a typo.

The Mock Test

I purchased the mock test (US$27) but I did not take it. What a waste. I cannot tell you what it is like or if it actually reflects the actual test.
TIP #3: I recommend that you purchase it & take the mock test to get a feel of the test.

Pre-Test Phone Call

I signed up for the testing centre in KL. One thing I really appreciate from them is they gave me a phone call during the week to remind me of my test. Without this phone call, I would have made a really big blunder & would not be able to take my test. I don't know if this is the SOP for all testing centres but I really appreciate this from the centre & they have my gratitude. TIP #4: LISTEN to what this person has to say lest you be DENIED from taking your test.

Test Day

TIP #5: BRING YOUR PASSPORT!!!! I saw a person come without his passport & he had to leave. Fortunately, he managed to get back in time. The TOEFL test requires identification with a photo, name & signature. Only our Malaysian passport has all three. Our IC is not accepted.
I was in KL for a meeting when I found out about this. I would be taking the test that Sunday & my passport was in Kuching. Fortunately, I received the pre-test phone call on Tuesday & was able to get my passport couriered to me at my hotel.

TIP #6: You want to be early. I arrived at 7.00 am & was #5. You get called in for your test in the order you arrive. You don't want to be doing the Reading test when those who came before you start babbling away loudly for their Speaking test. Imagine if you were #10. You'd have 9 different people yapping away in that confined room while you are trying to read a challenging article.

Before you take the test, you will have to put everything into a locker. EVERYTHING. Watches, pens, wallet, etc. Pockets must be empty. They will scan you with a metal detector before they let you in. You will only bring in your passport & locker key. Pencils & scratch paper are provided next to your computer. The test room resembles a computer lab at a school with cubicles to separate candidates.

Test #1: Reading

The reading test was challenging. NOT a walk in the park. Esp if compared to the Cambridge Placement Test which all teachers in Malaysia were required to take recently. If you have not been reading academic writing regularly, you might want to practise before the test.

It's mostly National Geographic stuff related to cultures & animals. However, I didn't need to study for it. All that I need to know to answer the questions were in the passage. The sentences were challenging because they were written in academic vocabulary & the sentences were long & complex. It was a real test of whether you could survive tertiary reading.

There were multiple choice questions asking for meanings of words/phrases but most were questions which require higher order thinking skills. I was also required to choose the correct sentences to place into a summary of the passage.
4 Passages: 1 hour. I could review my answers. I paced myself & was able to double check all my answers.

Test #2: Listening

Listening test was not that hard. I had 6 listening passages. 3 discussions between a student & a lecturer/student. 3 lectures/talks. The discussions were not difficult because they used simple communicative language + a little bit of topic discussion. Lectures were not challenging too. They mostly spoke about National Geographic stuff too. You might want to practise listening & taking notes from American news channels or the National Geographic channel.

TIP #7: TAKE NOTES while listening!!!! The questions can sometimes be the about the most mundane things so try to take note of as much as you can. The speed will be quite fast because it's natural talking. It was an excellent test of whether you will be able to understand lectures & discussions with peers.
6 Passages: 10 mins each. Timer only starts when you're answering questions. I was not able to review my answers. I was able to answer all the questions before time so you can take your time.

There will be a short 10 minutes break after the listening test where you can go to the loo or get some air.

Test #3: Speaking

Speaking was tough. Being nervous didn't help. If you can, don't be nervous. lol! The point is to be clear & coherent. You might want to do some speaking practice with a trusted friend before the test.

The first 2 questions were short recordings of my speech about everyday things. I remember I had to compare & contrast.
The next 2 questions involved reading a short passage & listening to a talk on the topic. Remember to take notes while reading & listening!!! My task was to list the key points. No need to add my own ideas.
The final 2 questions involved listening to talks & then listing the key points.

For every speaking task, I was given a short period of time to prepare before recording began. I can't remember exactly how much. I used the preparation time to calm myself & list down the main points in my head. Make sure you describe all the key points before your time runs out!!

Test #4: Writing

Writing was easy. However, the time limit was tight. I managed to finish my essays right on the dot! The timer only began when I had to write.

For the first task, I read a short passage & listened to a talk related to the passage. Remember to take notes for the talk. No need to take notes for the passage because you can see it later as you write. All I had to do was list the key points from the passage & compare it to the points from the talk.
For the last task, I was given a question & was told to state my opinion. There was a minimum word length. I think it was 150 words.

Typing during the TOEFL test was not the same as typing in Microsoft Windows. Some shortcut keys were disabled; i.e. 'Ctrl' & 'Shift'. This made it time consuming to proofread & make corrections. You could only use 'Backspace' to delete 1 character at a time instead of an entire word with 'Ctrl+Backspace'. Also, you could not use the arrow keys to move the cursor vertically. The cursor could only move horizontally so be sure to use the mouse esp when selecting large bodies of text for deletion.
Because the timing is so tight, I recommend you practice writing with a keyboard before the test.

***NOTE: Follow this link to read about the different sections in more detail.***


After taking the test, I can say right away that the TOEFL test actually tests what it is supposed to test. It will most definitely show whether a person has the English language proficiency to survive tertiary education in the US.
How did I do? Well, I need to wait 14 days for my results. They're not out yet.
What are my expectations? Well, I'll do well. But, I'm not sure how well. I didn't adequately prepare for the test so I don't expect to score.

Don't be like me. Now that you've read this, prepare before you take your test.
All the best!!!

***Added 15:00 6 June 2014***
My score: 119/120
I thank God for this!!! If I didn't do well, I might actually lose my job!
Want to do as well as I did? Well, read my tips above!!!

***Update July 14, 2017***
I've started doing live videos of me attempting TOEFL Independent Writing essays. If you'd like to score 30/30 in TOEFL writing, you can access the videos for free. More info here.

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