Friday, November 23, 2012

Heroes (Part 2)

Last Tuesday (Nov 20, 2012), I attended the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission - Hearing on Palestine. According to its programme book, KLWCC is "an investigation body empowered with jurisdiction to receive and investigate complaints from victims of wars and armed conflicts in relation to crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other like offences as recognised under International Law".

The hearing got off to a slow start. Maybe I was too influenced by the numerous courtroom dramas I had followed over the years... but the proceedings weren't as dramatic as I had imagined it to be.

There were no smooth-talking, immaculately-dressed lawyers a la Will Gardner or Harvey Specter, charming the audience with brilliant and witty arguments. In fact, most of the time, the prosecutor just went through the statutory declarations made by the witnesses.

The language barrier compounded the struggle I had in trying to stay focused. The use of interpreter disrupted the flow of exchanges and caused some things to be lost in translation.

There were 4 witnesses that day and they told the commission horrific tales of:
  • massacre
  • unlawful imprisonment & the ensuing (physical & psychological) torture
  • injury from prohibited weapons
  • illegal land appropriation
  • impossible living conditions (water cuts, checkpoints that severely restrict movements, etc)

These are the things we've all read before but hearing them first-hand had a deeper impact on me. The witnesses also underlined an important point; that as outrageous as the recent escalation is, this conflict and their sufferings have been going on for decades, not days.

The Israeli government has very systematically made their lives so unbearable that many commentators have described Gaza as an open-air prison.

And because the Palestinian land has been encroached upon, year by year, a witness candidly remarked that Palestine is no longer a viable country as it now closely resembles isolated ghettos instead.

There are 2 quotes that I particular remember from the hearing. The first came from Mr. Nabeel Al-Issawi who was wounded by a Dum-dum bullet (a bullet that expands upon impact, causing more severe wounds). Nabeel had to undergo multiple surgeries and his recovery took months. The prosecutor asked Nabeel whether he knew that the use of Dum-dum bullets is prohibited in international warfare.

He replied matter-of-factly, "Probably everything they [the Israeli forces] use is illegal. But they are above the law".

The other quote came from Mr. Jawwad Issa Musleh. He's my favourite witness for several reasons. Firstly, he didn't use an interpreter, so his replies were instantaneous and he articulated himself very well. Secondly, the story he related was nothing short of incredible and inspiring.

Mr. Jawwad had been imprisoned by the Israeli forces on 8 different occasions. The first occasion was when he was only 15 years old and that detention lasted for 20 months. He was just a regular teenager then, uninvolved in any political or resistance movement. But he was taken away from his family all the same.

A few other boys from the area were taken too. He suspected that young boys were targeted precisely because of their non-involvement. It was a tactic to scare them off the resistance movement for good.

But incredibly, the OPPOSITE happened. In prison, he met older Palestinians who taught him a lot about the history of the country, about its struggles, about the occupation, the resistance, etc. He likened his prison cells to a university because he learnt a lot there.

In his statutory declaration, he said, "The Israelis think that they can kill our souls and patriotism when they send us to jails. But they didn't succeed".


The commission will submit its report in 3 months' time and a charge may be filed.

But will it achieve anything? The atrocities committed against the Palestinians are already well-documented but the Israeli government has gotten away with their crimes time and time again.

But despite the improbable odds, every witness and attendee of the hearing fervently hopes that something will come out of it; that justice will finally be served.


I didn't go for Day 2 of the hearing. You can read snippets of it here.

I originally intended to write more about the Heroes Conference in this entry, hence the title (Part 2). But the witnesses made such an impact on me that I felt the need to put it down in writing.

You cannot help but admire the witnesses because even though they have gone through so much, they don't come across as hapless victims. On the contrary, they embody the words strong-willed, brave and resilient.

Mahmoud Al-Sammouni, for instance, spoke with such confidence that belied his young age. Testifying about the massacre of his family in front of hundreds of strangers in a foreign land must have been an unnerving experience but the 15-year-old carried himself most admirably.

Thus, I couldn't agree more with the sentiment expressed below:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Heroes (Part 1)

We crave heroes. Thus the proliferation of superhero movies on the big screen in recent years.

I guess the idea of a person or people with extraordinary abilities that fight for justice appeals to us. These heroes are able to set the world right with their superpowers -- something that we mere mortals cannot do.

So we extend our search for heroes far and wide. We search for them everywhere; on football fields, in reality shows, on the concert stage, in war-torn countries, etc.

But the thing with contemporary, living heroes is we don't know how their stories will end.

Take Greg Mortensen for example. He was once celebrated for building schools for girls in remote areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Girls that hitherto had no access to education. But in 2011, an expose by Jon Krakauer revealed that he may have misappropriated funds from his organisation, the Central Asia Institute and fabricated stories in his two best-selling books.

It's not wrong for us to look for heroes amongst contemporary figures but as Myriam Francois-Cerrah puts it, we must be careful not to let our idealisation lead to idolisation. "We want to be inspired but we must be discerning".

Last Tuesday (Nov 13, 2012), I was reacquainted with heroes of the highest pedigree. Heroes whose deeds and achievements continued to be a source of inspiration, hundreds of years later:

  • These people experienced unimaginable hardships; They went without food until they had to tie rocks on their bellies to alleviate the pangs of hunger.
  • They protected the Prophet (pbuh) until they were covered in dozens of wounds from swords, spears and arrows.
  • They lived a simple life. Some wore tattered clothes even when they held positions of power.
  • They truly strove for the deen with their wealth and their lives.
  • They personified the phrase sami'na wa atho'na (we hear and we obey).

MashaAllah, they were not ordinary human beings. Their unwavering faith made them extraordinary -- worthy heroes that we should strive to emulate.

To quote the line from the conference's leaflet:
"In a world where we are inspired by everything else, the time has come that we be inspired by those Allah SWT chose. The Muslim Heroes."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


I once wrote 'convoluted!!' on a student's essay. Several weeks later, on another test, the student produced a much better piece of writing. I commended him on the improvement.

"So my writing's no longer convoluted Teacher?" he asked.
I laughed, "I can't believe you still remember that word!"
"Of course I remember it. It's a very hurtful word Teacher!" he replied.


The whole thing reminded me of Taylor Mali's poem:

"I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor and an A- feel like a slap in the face"

How true.

Students from the end classes (who are used to getting Fs) feel so proud when they (barely) pass while students from the front classes look so indignant when they receive anything less than an A.

But different people react differently to the proverbial slap in the face. Some are motivated to do better and ask how they can improve while some look so cross and feel that they are hard done by.


Just before the school holidays, I experienced the latter reaction.

I didn't handle it well; I wasn't able to reason things out and as a result, both parties felt utterly miserable.

I was sad. Incredibly sad for 2-3 days. It seemed like such a small matter; and really, I should have thicker skin... but I felt sad and a bit affronted that my professional judgement was questioned.

It seemed like, to them, it didn't matter that I had a college education, that I've been teaching for 4 years, that I've marked hundreds of essays --- I was wrong and they were right.

So after mulling over it for days, I came to the conclusion that we all need to have more humility.

For my part, I have to admit that I'm not 100% consistent and impartial (though I try to be). So there's a possibility that I was being overly harsh on them.

Further, maybe I didn't put across my feedback/criticism as diplomatically as I could have. Maybe the criticisms were more destructive than constructive. Maybe my feedback should be more like Paula Abdul's and less like Simon Cowell's.

And though I've taught for some years and have marked countless essays, I still have much to learn. It was arrogant of me to assume: "I know better".

For the students' part, I want them to know that high expectations lead to high performance.

Yes, they're good but not that good. They can do BETTER.

Moreover, they shouldn't compare themselves with those of lower proficiency. In this increasingly borderless and more competitive world, their standards should be higher.


So, the next time we are slapped in the face (figuratively of course!), let us take a step back and assess the situation with some HUMILITY.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

3I & 3H

Years ago, a sister of mine often talked about her favourite lecturer, Mr. K.

Mr. K had such a strong command of his subject that he would only bring one marker pen to his lectures. He didn't need to refer to any books to aid him in explaining theories, answering students' queries, solving tricky questions, etc. Now, that's what I call mastery of content knowledge.

In contrast, I remember my first year of teaching, where I would go to classes armed with textbooks, grammar workbooks, the dictionary, handouts of filler activities, etc.

I felt that I needed to equip myself with all kinds of materials to cope with any possibilities that might arise.

I often second-guessed myself too. I couldn't stick to one lesson plan. Whenever I came up with one, I would poke holes into it:

"It's not interesting enough!"
"It's not challenging enough!"
"You're going to bore your students to death!"

So in the end, I often stood in front of the class, armed with STUFF, but having absolutely no clue of what to do.

I think, in this respect, teachers are like homemakers; teachers worry themselves sick about lesson plans as homemakers do about what they should cook for dinner.

Homemakers do not only want to put dinner on the table, they want the food to be delicious, nutritious, special and prepared with lots of love.

Similarly, teacher do not just want to enter the classroom and say "turn to page so-and-so and do the exercises". They want the lesson to be interesting, challenging, inspiring and pitched at the right level.

Sadly, our efforts went unnoticed and unappreciated most of the time. Kids are glued to their computers when they're called to dinner and not all students would do the work assigned to them in class.


In 2012, I achieved a breakthrough of sorts. I was beginning to figure out and be comfortable with my teaching style. Of course it needed further refinement but the foundation was set and I was gaining confidence day by day. I even noticed that I had begun to march to class with a little bit of swagger. Haha.

[So for struggling beginning teachers out there; take heart. You'll get there eventually!]

However, at the end of March, when I was assigned 5N, some of that confidence dissipated away. Remember what I said about not having a clean slate?

Well, when I first entered 5N, I felt like I was transported back in time when I was still that hapless teacher. My swagger was crippled and whenever I was heading to Block E, I would break out in cold sweat instead.

But things worked out in the end. I just had to learn to trust my abilities and believe that I have valuable things to impart.

I love the quotation below taken from the book See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden (which I strongly recommend to all fellow teachers):

"On a bad day, I remind myself that when I look back on my own experience as a student, I don't remember specific lesson plans. In the end, we remember teachers, but the individual days  fade into the background. Forgive yourself for those rough days and bad lessons, and keep trying - because that's what the kids will remember"

I planned to talk about my Form 3 classes in this entry but ended up writing the above paragraphs instead. 

So, let me start over:
The Form 3 students that I taught this year are quite weak in English (with a few exceptions). Marking their essays was a torturous experience and it was a struggle to get them to do any work in class.

3 Intelek was the noisiest class I had this year. They were also the funniest. The naughtiest boys in that class also happened to be the friendliest ones when I met them outside.

They would smile and greet me enthusiastically whenever we crossed paths, oblivious to the fact that they drove me nuts in class!

3 Harmoni boys were roughly the same. So to preserve my sanity, I just concentrated on the conscientious learners (read: the girls) in class. 

An incident that involved 3H that I'll never forget was when they had to fill in a form evaluating me. I wasn't supposed to administer the evaluation myself but the teacher-in-charge was facing a looming dateline, so he told me to get 5 students from the class to assess me.

Let's disregard the invalidity of the exercise for a moment.

When I read the criteria they were supposed to assess me on, my heart sank. The criteria were:

  1. Menepati masa (Punctuality)
  2. Berpakaian kemas dan sesuai (Appropriately-dressed)
  3. Mengajar dengan suara yang jelas (Has a clear voice)
  4. Menggunakan bahasa yang mudah difahami (Uses comprehensible language)
  5. Sentiasa membimbing murid memahami pelajaran (Guides the students to understand the lesson)
  6. Ada menggunakan alat bantu mengajar (Uses teaching aids)
  7. Menyemak dan mengembalikan buku latihan murid (Checks & returns the students' work)
  8. Mengawasi disiplin murid dalam kelas dengan baik (Has good classroom management)
  9. Mengambil berat tentang kehadiran murid di dalam bilik darjah (Is particular about attendance)
  10. Sentiasa memberi peluang kepada murid untuk bertanya (Gives students the opportunity to ask questions)
  11. Mementingkan keceriaan bilik darjah (Emphasises classroom cleanliness)

Half of the criteria listed weren't really my strong points. If they had included things such as: 'Has good rapport with students' or 'Exhibits empathy', I might stand a chance of scoring better.

But surprisingly, when I collected the forms, all of them gave me mostly threes or fours (the instrument uses a 4-point Likert scale).

I knew that I didn't deserve the marks given but was deeply touched that the students liked me enough to overlook my faults. :')

I'm reminded of this quote: "Your students will not remember what you taught them... but they will remember forever the way you made them feel.”

So, teach your students and love them!