Educators young and old came were enlightened, refreshed and bubbling with new ideas and techniques at a recent international language teaching conference.
IT was way past five in the evening and the conference was officially over. All the speeches had been made and every award there was to give, had been given.
The last poem had been read, the last performance done, the last story told. And yet the audience was not satisfied.
“One more,” they clamoured in a single voice and refused to leave.
“‘Tell us one more story, just one,” they pleaded with acclaimed story teller Jan Blake who was one of the featured speakers in the conference.
And although the stage was no longer available and presentation venues were officially closed, the crowd settled comfortably on the carpeted floor outside the main hall, waiting in hushed expectancy for the master story teller to begin her tale.
And Jan didn’t disappoint them. “Once upon a time there was a fisherman,” she began, and once again the audience fell under the spell of her deep, soulful voice weaving the sad magic of yet another story. The tale of a fisherman who lost the thing he loved most in the world – his wife – because he doubted whether he was truly happy.
But story telling was not the only thing that captivated the over 1,000 participants at the International Conference on English Language Teaching (ICELT) 2015 organised by the Faculty of Educational Studies, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA) which was held from Oct 19 - 21, in Malacca.
With its theme Creative Teachers, Efficient Learners, the conference saw a wide variety of presentations, the central focus of which was on English Language teaching.
From hip-hop, rap, jazz chants, magic shows to Native American pow-wows, teachers and other conference participants discovered how the teaching and learning of English could be done in ways they may have never thought possible.
All that jazz and rap
Dynamic Nigerian hip-hop rap artist BREIS had the audience on their feet rapping along to his fusion of hip hop, jazz and African percussion.
True to his aim of “raising the aspirations of young people and helping them to believe in their own abilities through the vehicle of Hip Hop music”, BREIS’ performance was both uplifting and inspiring with lyrics that reflected positive and encouraging messages.
In the hip-hop scene where rap lyrics can be quite often foul-mouthed or violent, BREIS showed how this genre of music which many of our young adult students connect with, could be turned into something that was not only entertaining, but educational and motivating.
In fact, many of the teachers in the audience said that they could definitely include a little rap rhythm in their own language classrooms.
Inspiration for teachers who may have been feeling a little over the hill after teaching for so many years, came in the form of Carolyn Graham the inventor of Jazz Chants which is now widely used as a language teaching tool in classrooms all over the world.
There was a collective gasp from the audience when she announced that she had just turned 84. When the throaty jazz diva began her performance, there were awe-struck expressions all around.
Carolyn’s incredible story of how a simple response to a comment by a friend, when she was working in a New York Irish bar in the late 60’s – “Gee it’s good to see you. You look wonderful” led to the creation of the famous Jazz Chants.
In her power-packed presentation, British actress and storyteller Nell Phoenix became both little old English lady and punkish teenager on a London bus in a story which though hugely entertaining, left a poignant message about making hasty judgements.
Award-winning poet, author and literary arts ambassador, Shonda Buchanan begun her session with a compelling native American chant.
In her talk which highlighted the journey of her mixed African-American Indian heritage, she talked about how important it is to remember and retell the stories from our own cultural heritage which might otherwise be lost forever.
Babas and Nyonyas
The importance of preserving our cultural heritage through literature was once again reinforced by our local best-selling author Lee Su Kim who treated the audience to a delightful evening of stories of the Babas and Nyonyas.
Strains of music from the famous Malacca Melodians band enhanced the evening further as Lee shared her own personal journey as a writer between snippets of stories from the Peranakan culture.
Apart from presentations that focused on creative teaching methods, other equally important aspects of education were also highlighted through the different papers that were presented.
Topics such as motivation for language learners, testing and evaluation methods and higher order thinking skills, also gave the participants plenty to think about.
Alan Maley, a prominent name in English Language Teaching (ELT) who has been involved in the field for more than 50 years and has written more than 40 books and numerous articles on ELT took his audience through a thought-provoking journey featuring the legacy of 10 great educators.
Many in the audience were seen nodding in agreement when 19th century Austrian philosopher and educator’s quote flashed on the screen. “You will not be good teachers if you focus only on what you do and not upon who you are.”
Indeed, it was the same sentiment that was echoed in the speech of Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob during the opening of the conference.
His speech text was read by the ministry’s deputy secretary-general Datuk Rahim Abu Bakar.
The minister said that teachers needed to vary the use of materials in teaching to make learners more motivated and engaged within the learning-teaching environment.
“We cannot deny the role that the English language plays, so it is vital that we as a nation strive to build a conducive environment which supports the learning and use of the language.
Better and creative
“It is just not about getting teachers to be more proficient in the language. It is about being better and being creative teachers,” he said.
Many groups were behind the success of ICELT 2015 and among them were sponsors like the United States Embassy and Yayasan Palan. Special awards with generous cash prizes donated by the Palan Foundation were presented to teachers who had shown exceptional initiative, creativity and commitment.
Mohd Amin Din, a master teacher from MRSM (Mara Junior Science College), Taiping, Perak, who had won one of the Top Teachers’ awards talked about how much ICELT had helped to empower teachers.
“Through ICELT, teachers all over the region get to share new ideas, innovative techniques and methodologies.
“It is about time that we teachers developed strategies in the classroom that would engage students through fun, interactive activities so that the learning of the language will not be so daunting for some,” said Amin.
Another teacher, Veronica Koh from SMK Jalan Bukit, Kajang, who was a first-time participant of ICELT was equally enthusiastic.
“I really loved what ICELT had to offer,” said Koh of the talks, plenary sessions and performances. “Every English teacher should attend the conference at least once. I would strongly recommend it.”
What Koh said was an echo of what was felt in the hearts of many participants after the conference.
But even as they left there was a slightly disturbing thought that was going through many minds.
The chair of ICELT and the person who was chiefly responsible for its success, Prof Dr Jayakaran Mukun-dan, would be retiring in April next year.
“Dr Jayakaran, you have to chair ICELT again next year,” said some teachers in unison. They had stayed behind to bid him farewell.
To that, the man fondly known as Dr Jaya, “The Conference Maker”, merely smiled and walked away humming his favourite tune from the movie Skyfall.
This is the end, hold your breath and count to 10 ...