Back to School! July in Review

July was busy. We had a neighborhood parade; we had a school camp; we had a Peace Corps conference. We’re two weeks into classes now. Allow me to give you the rundown.

Halal Bihalal

The first week of July, my neighborhod hosted Halal Bihalal. Usually, Halal Bihalal is a celebration centered around asking for forgiveness. You typically shake a lot of hands and share a meal together, and it takes place at or after Idul Fitri, the celebration that concludes Ramadan. But my neighborhood finally got around to hosting Halal bihalal in July, about a month late. Ever heard of jam karet? It means “rubber time,” or flexi time. Compare it to hora latina in Latin America. Things happen late here, and it’s okay. Oh yea, and our Halal Bihalal was actually a full-on parade, complete with dancers. The event organizers went all out.

Halal bihalal in Indonesia
Dancers prepare for the parade the evening before. They will perform a traditional dance from Malang, another city in East Java.
Street vendors before parade
A parade is an opportunity for street vendors to set up shop and make some extra cash. On our street, there was plenty of nasi pecel, nasi campur, and bakso to go around.
Halal bihalal 3
These costumes are a modern riff on the kabaya, the traditional dress from Java. The headdress and shoulder adornments are a must-have for parades like this one. I’m told they’re quite heavy.

Plenty of effort was made by some men in my town to get me into one of these costumes. They came to my house on three separate occasions to try to convince my host family to persuade me to participate in the parade. I kept saying no, and my host family backed me up. But in Javanese culture, no means yes. People will say no to be polite, so you have to keep offering them things until they say yes, which is what they really mean (in most circumstances). For example:

A: Would you like some tea?

B: Oh, no thank you. Please don’t bother.

A: Are you sure? Have some tea.

B: I’m okay. I already had tea today.

A: Here, drink this tea.

B: Oh ok. I’d love some. Thank you.

Except when I say no, I literally mean NoOoOoOoOoOoOo. So it took a while to convince these dudes that I was absolutely. not. participating. in their parade. But I was happy to watch just like everyone else .

Dressing up is where things get tricky. I’m not one to willingly take center stage, although I already stand out here as it is. But also…. we’re walking a thin line here as a white woman re: cultural appropriation. My host family in Kediri would try to wrangle me into a jilbab, or hijab, for special occasions. If I have to cover my head to enter a holy building, that’s one thing. But a white woman in traditional dress like this? Yikes. I don’t know. I try to avoid playing Barbie whenever possible. For clarification: I am the Barbie. And people are eager to dress me up for play. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to avoid it these past nine months.


The parade ran right in front of our house, so we had front-row seats. Bu Emi, the matriarch and business-minded lady in our family, partnered up with a bakso vendor. She allowed him to park his bicycle cart in front of her house if he’d help her sell iced tea. So while he served lunch, people could camp out on her porch to enjoy meatballs and Bu Emi’s sweet tea. We’ve got several freezers in our house, so ice is a big money-maker—especially on a hot day like this one.

Halal bihalal 4

After the parade, we enjoyed some crepes. Crepes here are crispy—paper-thin, actually—and usually filled with sprinkles or peanuts. It was a hot day, and the parade lasted until about 10:30 am, the neighborhood’s usual nap time.

Halal bihalal 5
These are a few of my favorite humans here: Amanda and her family. A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Danny, introduced me to them before he completed his service, and I am SO grateful. Thanks, Danny!

English Camp

The week before school started (the second week of July), my school hosted its very first three-day English Camp. It was for rising 11th grade students—all 210 of them.

English camp 10
Here’s our team of volunteer teachers! They helped lead all of the small-group activities.

On day one, students made posters about how they use English, and what they want to learn (Needs Assessment 101). Then we held a session about cross-cultural understanding, and how to be polite in the U.S. And they’ve really picked up on a few things! Now, students ask me, “Can I go to the bathroom” instead of “Miss, I have to pee.” And they collectively say “bless you” when someone sneezes in English class. It’s pretty cute.

I also get asked about my wedding less frequently, now that we’ve held this cross-cultural session. My first semester, students would ask if they could come to my wedding. I’m like, who am I marrying? And when? And where? Wedding fever here is real. But now students seem to understand that in my culture, it’s kind of rude to ask someone their age, and whether or not they’re married, and if they’re not married, assuming that marriage is a moral achievement that an unmarried person is perpetually pursuing. (Yes, I mostly included the “Are you married” lesson for my own benefit.)

Another major difference is calling someone fat. It’s not quite an insult in Indonesia. In fact, sometimes it’s said lovingly, like when Spanish-speakers call a child gordo or gorda. But since we held this session, my fellow teachers seem to mention it less. Even if you didn’t think you were fat, come to Indonesia. People will tell you you’re fat, I promise.

English camp 3

English camp 4
Another volunteer insisted on teaching the students the Moose song. Understandably, students didn’t know what a moose was, and we didn’t know how to explain it in Indonesian. Without internet connection, Microsoft Paint came in handy.

Later that day, we watched Tarzan (with English subtitles), the animated 1999 film. It might seem like a random choice, but it was released before the 11th graders were born, so only three of them had seen it before. It’s also about a man who learns English, and the language level of the script is pretty low. Not to mention, the music is AmAzInG. I figured our students could use some Phil Collins in their lives. Oh, and when Tarzan and Jane finally kiss? The crowd went wild. Don’t tell them it was animated. We followed up the movie with Tarzan trivia, where students answered questions about the film. The last question was: How many times did Tarzan and Jane kiss? Twice. They kissed two times. They got every question right.

English camp 5

On day two, we broke into smaller groups and played treasure hunt and Jeopardy. Then the groups each practiced a Disney song, which they would perform the next day. We used songs from The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, The Lion King, Aladdin, Toy Story, and Tarzan. (Disney was the unofficial theme of the camp.)

English camp 2
A few of the teachers for English camp. This is a common pose for photos in Indonesia: crossing your index finger and thumb. It’s supposed to look like a teeny tiny heart ❤

On day three, we played adjective BINGO and then performed the Disney songs. It’s amazing what students can pull together with just one day’s practice.

English camp 8
Students perform “Let it Go” from Frozen
English camp 1
Here’s a blurry photo of the whole crew.
English camp 9
I have no idea where this guitar came from.

Student Friendly Schools Conference

Just before classes started, my counterpart, Bu Lestari, and I took off for Surabaya. (You might remember her from this post. She and her family have made me feel so welcomed.) We attended a three-day conference hosted by Peace Corps Indonesia’s Gender Equity Committee. The Student Friendly Schools conference covered a wide range of topics: Convention of the Rights of the Child, code of conduct, consent, inclusive facilities, bullying, inclusive learning, positive discipline, small grants, and project planning. The big idea: to create school environments where students are excited to come to school; they feel supported, welcomed, and safe.

The conference stretched into the weekend. I owe Bu Lestari big time for tagging along. I learned a lot from her and other Indonesian teachers about the underlying problems at school, that usually go unnoticed by me. And we got to talk through possible solutions.

We’ve started planning a teacher training about inclusive learning—related to learning styles, learning difficulties, and adjustments we can make to our classroom practices to make materials more accessible to every student, whether or not they have learning disabilities.

SFS Conference
Busy making project planning look fun. Aren’t we cute?

Classes begin!

Classes began the last two weeks of July. We kicked off the school year with upacara (the ubiquitous flag ceremony). This semester I’m trying to hang out in the back of the teacher crowd with the hope that no one makes me give another impromptu speech. It doesn’t matter what language I’m using—I still have major stage fright.

Back to school

This semester, my counterparts and I are working toward two lesson planning goals: incorporating more visuals and more opportunities for speaking practice.

Last week, 10th grade students worked in pairs to write a survey using yes/no questions. Then they moved around the class to survey each student and collect data using tallies and calculating percentages. We focused on question structures using “Are you…” and “Do you…” to reinforce what they may have learned in middle school. The first two weeks have been a lot of review and getting to know each other. This semester, I’m teaching with three counterparts in classes 10, 11, and 12—all of them. It’s going to be busy!

Back to school 2

Back to school 3
Our school is about 70% boys and 30% girls, due to its military program

Visiting Bu Dewi’s New School

Last Tuesday, I joined Bu Dewi, one of my former counterparts, at her new school. I finished teaching my classes by mid-day, so I made a little escape. The education system is managed regionally; teachers at public schools can be transferred from one town to the next with a moment’s notice. (In my counterpart’s case, she received a letter on a Thursday and had to report to work at a completely different school, 45 minutes away, on Monday morning.) Now, Bu Dewi teaches at a vocational high school. As is custom in Indonesia, students aim to please, saying whatever they think the teacher wants to hear, which is “YES.” So it’s a lot of teacher tries to ask a question (What day is it today?) and students just nod their heads and shout YES. Breaking this habit is only step one.

Bu Dewi's school 3

Educators here are dealt a tough hand. They have little to no control over where they work. I heard about one vocational high school teacher who taught hair dressing (he was literally a barber), and was transferred to teach elementary school, for which he had no background education. He’s been teaching elementary school subjects for the past 14 years now. What’s more, teachers have to follow a national curriculum using regionally printed textbooks that are full of errors: material plagiarized from Google and written by nonnative English speakers. Oh, and the books include absolutely no pictures. It’s like teaching Spanish with a Latin literature textbook, if such a thing exists.

But Bu Dewi is up to the challenge. It’s so inspiring to see her bring her energy and 16 years of experience to this new school. She’s one of the most creative people I’ve worked with here in Indonesia, and I’m so glad she invited me to visit. Bu Dewi loves to incorporate games in her classroom, and I have no doubt her students will benefit from her class this year.

One of the biggest differences between her old school and new school is projectors. Her new school doesn’t have any. A projector changes everything. It’s not just that you can use Power Point presentations. But you can also play jeopardy, watch videos, sing along to karaoke, show pictures to teach vocabulary, project worksheets in case the print and copy center isn’t working…. the list goes on. No projector means a teacher has to get even more creative in lesson planning.

Bu Dewis school
This is another teacher’s class at Bu Dewi’s new school. Like Bu Dewi, Pak Ajar was also transferred to this school from Madiun, just this year. He is also trying to go with the flow! Peace Corps Volunteers aren’t the only ones who have to adjust to new work environments. Sorry for the bad quality photo—There was a lot of light in this classroom.

This is a vocational school. So while students of any gender can choose their track, it tends to be separated by gender. Boys typically elect the automotive track, while girls will gravitate toward tailoring or culinary. Understandably, many teachers prefer to teach the girls. They’re a lot easier to manage, if we’re being honest.

Bu Dewi's school 2

When I visit another school, there’s not much I can do regarding English language instruction in a single class period. I’m not really there to teach English for a day, but rather, to encourage students to interact with a foreigner and ask questions. I like to model a couple classroom management techniques from the beginning, so I can sort of control the usual mayhem that ensues in a class of 30-some teenage boys.

And then we do some trivia. They guess how many states are in the United States. We talk about continents and countries and capitals and seasons, to get them thinking about the world outside of Java. We talk about Indonesia, and the fact that there are 17,000 islands here (not 100, as was the most popular guess), and about the dozens of native languages in their own country. Because in Indonesia, students don’t even need to go abroad to learn about another culture—they could visit a different island in the archipelago and still experience culture shock. Next step: Getting their classroom a map.

I loved visiting—hope to be back again soon! 🙂 As for now, a nap doesn’t sound like a bad idea.

CATS IN LOVE the only pda thats allowed
This is hands-down the most PDA I’ve witnessed in Indonesia. I nearly had to cover my eyes. What will the neighbors say?!?!?

July was beyond busy. My host family, coworkers, and fellow volunteers were organizing events, lesson planning, and managing the usual craze of the start of a school year. And there’s more coming in August, including Independence Day and Idul Adha. I’ll share some holiday photos next month! Sending culturally-appropriate half-hugs back home. Love you all lots.

One thought on “Back to School! July in Review

  1. I really enjoyed this latest blog – your writing is fantastic – and really informative. Jay has offered a title for your book – “Barbie in Indonesia.” We love you and am looking forward to seeing you again. The time seems to be flying. Love, Nana

    Liked by 1 person

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