Survival (teaching the infinitive)

Deserted Island

Survival on a deserted island

I absolutely love this lesson because it is a great way to get students working together and having fun while getting the hang of an important grammar point. The infinitive form of verbs.

to + verb
to cut, to start, to help, to protect etc.

I also like this lesson because it’s easily adaptable to levels and you only have to change the expected outcomes between beginner and advanced students.

Materials: One worksheet (which I will upload in a couple of days)
Time: Approximately 80 minutes

I start this lesson by doing a simple brainstorming activity to get the students thinking about the types of items they would want with them to survive on a deserted island. How you do the warmer is up to you but I like to be a bit direct and to the point with this as other parts of the lesson will take up more time. (students will undoubtedly mention things like, tent, knife, flashlight, blanket and other items they associate with camping)
Continue reading

ESL Activity: Superlative Olympics

This is a great activity to get the students engaged through interaction and competition. Let’s face it, there is very little interesting about grammar so I’m always trying to figure out a way to get them to understand the topic with out realizing they are learning. It’s called the Superlative Olympics but you can also use the comparative to compare students with each other. The students will compete in several events to win gold, silver and bronze medals based on their performance. I’ll explain in more detail in a moment.

Superlative Olympics
Set up
After just a brief introduction to comparative and superlative adjectives it’s time to set up the activity. Divide the class into groups of about 3-4 students. Let them choose a country they are going to represent in the Olympics. Try not to be offended if no one chooses your native country. Next, hand out a prepared work sheet that should include a table with four columns. First column will have the events and the other three will be for the names of the gold, silver and bronze winners in each category. For each event each team will elect one student to participate and they will come to the front of the class and either sit or stand depending on what the event calls for.
Continue reading

A look back on 2011 and ahead to 2012

The last couple of years have been some of the best of my life so far. 2010 saw the completion of my BA from University, my 30th birthday and the breaking free of a job I didn’t like but kept at for the entire decade. I managed to complete my degree in the amount of time I planned once I decided to go back in 2007.

2011 was even better but for different reasons. I set off in January around the world on an adventurous trip through the Horn of Africa and a Middle East journey that fell short due to the Arab revolutions early in the year. I got my TEFL certification in Thailand and did some volunteer work before settling down in Sumatra. I wrote a post back in 2010 trying to predict where I’d end up living this year and Medan, Indonesia wasn’t even a place I knew anything about other than it was a port city in Sumatra. Now here I am finishing my first full year abroad and just getting going!

Here is a look back at some of the things I’ve accomplished and planned to accomplish but fell short as well as an outlook for 2012. Enjoy!

Things I set out to do in 2011…and did

Learn to iron
Learn to tie a tie
Learn another language (in progress)
Learn to play the guitar (in progress)
Live abroad
Drive a motorbike
Get TEFL certified
Become a teacher
Travel to Somalia (Somaliland)
Travel to the Middle East (Lebanon)

Things I didn’t specifically set out to do but happy I did
Live somewhere that I can see mountains from my house
Have an article written about me by ABC News
Volunteer in a small village
Cut back immensely on drinking alcohol
Lost 35 lbs (15 kg)
Have a proper party week in Thailand with old friends
Motorbike road trip through Northern Sumatra

Things I wanted to do but didn’t do
Learn to cook
Live completely alone

Goals for 2012
Have a close friend or family member visit me
Learn to cook
Return to the U.S. at the end of 2012
Survive the end of the world
Get to see one of my best friends get married
Travel to a nearby country
Visit Java, Komodo or Flores

Some of my favorite photos of 2011


Banda Aceh

Grand Mosque at Banda Aceh

Bukit Lawang

Orangutan in Bukit Lawang

Samosir Island

Batak children on Samosir in Lake Toba


TEFL Course

Getting into it during teacher practice at TEFL International

Royal Temple Bangkok

Royal Temple, Bangkok





Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur





Tank leftover from the Somalian civil war


Camels grazing on the beach along the Gulf of Aden



Hand and mouth feeding of hyenas outside of Harar

ESL Game: Scattergories

This is one of my favorite games from back home. If it is fun for 20 and 30 somethings to do on a Friday night it’s sure to hold the interest of ESL students. I’m still trying to find ways to make a variant of the game myself but the version I play in the classroom is pretty much the same as the Milton Bradly game of the same name.

I’ve started out with 10 very simple categories.

1. Colors
2. Fruits
3. Drinks
4. Vegetables
5. Sports/Hobbies
6. Past tense verbs
7. Adjectives
8. Countries
9. Cities
10. Subjects in school

I have students call out a page number from the text book and use the first letter on that page as the letter for each round. So for example, the first letter is T then the students have 3 minutes to fill out the list 1-10 using words that start with the letter T. The object is to score points by using a word that no other team uses. For example: The categories is countries so team 1 writes Thailand, team 2 writes Turkmenistan and team 3 writes Thailand. Team 2 gets one point for writing Turkmenistan a word no one else used while the other 2 teams get no points. (This example just happened in class and I was impressed the students knew Turkmenistan)

Scattegories as an ESL game

Made for adults but fun for students

The good thing about this game is that it encourages students to think of uncommon vocabulary rather than the easy stuff. I usually play 3 rounds with 3 different letters and then the team with the most points wins. It’s a good go to game if you need to fill time at the end of a lesson after going through the material. The first few classes I played this with really to enjoyed it. It seems to work best with the older students and they have a fun time trying to figure out the tougher ones. The best part about the game is that with one list of categories you can play many times and not have the same letter so it doesn’t get boring.

Eventually I’ll make up lists with more complicated categories and will probably steal from the board game itself. Other examples include:

Things found in the classroom
Things at a picnic
Things found at the beach
Things that use a motor
Past continuous verbs- ex: “was reading” for “R”

Even more difficult
Names of athletes
Capital cities
Bodies of water
Western musicians

Halloween activity for ESL classrooms

The Horror: Scary Movie Night
Halloween is my first major holiday as an ESL teacher. The student’s knowledge of the holiday is limited as Indonesia doesn’t celebrate it and only English language schools hold any sort of activity for the holiday. My school did a horror movie night for the students. I was quite surprised at the choice in movies. It was a Thai movie rated PG-13 and we had some students that were quite young. My more conservative, U.S. raised self kept thinking how stupid it was to show the kids this movie but then when I looked around the room at the young children closing their eyes and then bursting out in laughter when they get spooked, I thought to myself, no this is what Halloween is about… getting scared. If they watch some corny children’s Halloween movie that isn’t going to leave any lasting impression. Some my most vivid memories from childhood are from watching scary movies that were meant for people much older. The only bad part about this movie was that the subtitles were translated from Thai into Indonesian and then into English. This made for terrible grammar at the bottom of the screen. Even my students recognized how bad it was, which is a good sign that they have a pretty good grasp of grammar and the arrangement of the words to make coherent sentences.

Scary Horror Movie ESL Activity

Said scary movie. The Thai writing makes it even that much scarier.

Halloween Crossword
On to my quick ESL activity. This doesn’t have to be for Halloween but you can use a theme anytime you want. At my school there are guidelines to follow for lessons that must be completed by the end of the term. Depending on how far along I was in the class dictated whether or not I did some of the regular lesson or not. Some of my classes have very little to do by the middle of December so I was free to take up the entire class time with fun stuff. This isn’t a very complicated activity as it was my first attempt at putting something together for a holiday. For my younger students I printed out a pretty simple Halloween crossword puzzle to take up about 10 minutes of time and then we went through it together and I elicited the answers and explained some of them in more detail. They understood most of it but words like, “tombstone” and “mummy” needed more explanation.

Halloween Crossword ESL

We talked a bit about trick or treating and some of the students already knew what it was and a few were in shock as another student explained the wonder that is dressing up in a costume and going door to door collecting candy. I really feel bad telling them about Halloween and seeing how disappointed they feel when they can’t enjoy the same thing here.

Halloween Word Find Game
While the students were doing their crossword I was busy setting up the whiteboard for the Word Find game. I drew a few Halloween pictures on the board, including a jack-o-lantern. Then I wrote some of the rules to the game on the board.

We’ve all played the Word Find game at some point in our childhood but this is my variation. You write a word on the board like, “FRANKENSTEIN.” The students then have 2 minutes to write as many words as they can make out of that word. The students get a point for each word with 3 or more letters. If they find a word that is 5 letters or more long then they get 2 points. 2 letter words are not worth any points. This works best in groups of 2-3 students. I have each team get out one sheet of paper and pen and have them share the list and add to it as they go along. I then go around and check the lists for points and leave a check mark next to the ones worth 2 points. I leave it up to the honor system for students to keep track of their points from round to round and report after each round how many points they’ve earned.

After about 2 rounds I then add an extra element to the game called, Joe’s Secret Word. I pick out a word that is at least 4-5 letters long that if they find it they get bonus points ranging from 5-10 points. This is a good way to even up the scores if one team is way ahead. It’s up to you if you want to be an honest teacher and think of the secret word before and not change it or pretend a word on the losing team’s sheet is the secret word. This works OK for the younger students as it keeps things close if one team is too dominant. The older students may catch on to your scheme. You don’t want to get caught cheating!

These are some of the words I used for the game.

DRACULA (very difficult, only about 2 easy words: card, card)
MONSTER MASH! (secret word: MOTHER)
WITCH’S BREW (secret word: PINE)

ESL Introduction Activity for New Teachers

This is an activity I found online and just tweaked it for my own liking. It’s generally called “10 Things.” On your first day of classes when you are the new teacher or you have new students coming in who don’t know you yet this is a good way to start things off.

10 Things About Me
Depending on the age of the students I may have a little fun drawing a silly stick figure version of me. The younger students really get a laugh when I draw my stick figure and then do the same pose myself. I think it’s important for the students to know it’s OK to have a laugh in class and that their teacher isn’t going to bore them. In a few of my classes I drew the stick figure, introduced the stick figure as their real teacher and pretended to walk out of class. It lightens the mood right from the beginning and gets rid of a lot of the anxiety the new students or the teacher may feel.

New Teacher

Good morning students, this is your teacher.

Then I write 10 things about myself that are answers to a question that I want the students to ask me. I usally start with drawing the American flag and then a few easy ones like pizza, blue, and 31. Where are you from? What is your favorite food and color? And, how old are you? Then I try to throw in a few tricky ones like my last name which gives me a chance to explain to the students how Americans say “last name” but “surname” and “family name” are also acceptable. I write a few cryptic ones like just the words “No” and “Not yet!” Do you have a girlfriend? (No!) Are you married? (Not yet) The students here get a kick out of it when I write “ayam bakar.” What is your favorite food in Indonesia?

This is a great way to start out the class because it’s a way to introduce yourself without standing there in front of them doing a monologue about your life.

When they ask you a question and you answer just cross it off. When you’re finished the activity can either end there or you can give the students a turn. What I did was ask each student to take a sheet of paper out and write 5 things about themselves in the same fashion. I ask them to do a few simple ones and maybe 1-2 tricky answers. Then I randomly pick a few out and write their words on the board. Now I get the students to start asking each other.

It’s a lot of fun but make sure you give students other ideas for things they can put down. They get bored with asking their classmates what their favorite color is so really put an emphasis on a few tricky ones to get the class involved in trying to figure it out.

If it’s a large class I just do a few but if it’s 5 or less I’ll try and get through all of them. So far all the classes seemed to like it and by the end they got to know me. When I saw one of my classes for the second time and walked in a few of the students yelled “AYAM BAKAR!!!”

Day 1 of Teaching is Over

So, my first full day of teaching English as a foreign language is over. It was an interesting start. The morning class is for the staff here at the clinic. Ive already been hanging out here a lot and chatting with them so I knew who my students were going to be. The only new addition was the doctor who I hadn’t met yet. Things went smoothly but at the end of the lesson when I was asking them what they liked and didn’t like about previous lessons before I got there, they all seemed to enjoy just conversing. So going forward I’m going to just come up with topics to talk about and find ways to get everyone in the group talking.


Classroom at the clinic

In the afternoons I will be going to a school a few kilometers away where I’ll have a different group of students each day. Monday will be 9-11 yr olds, Tuesday will be 8-9 yr olds, Wednesday will be 11+ and then 8-9 yr olds on Thursday again. This will be my biggest challenge as the classes are mixed with different levels of English. I’ll have to find creative ways to get everyone involved. The native teacher did comment afterwards that the smallest girl never usually speaks but she spoke for me and was surprised about that. There was a really bright girl who I immediately knew would be my go-to student when I need language modeled for the other kids. I’m also going to have to just face the fact and get used to questions about Justin Bieber in every class I have.

The night class is the real interesting one. It starts at 8pm and will be held every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday night. It’s open to anyone from the village but they’ve been averaging just a few girls each night. They call it the adult class but the age range for my class today was 14-18. Word must have gotten out that there is a new male teacher in town because the turn out for my class was the highest it has been at 7 girls. They were giggly and outgoing from the beginning and I once again had to answer for Justin Bieber. My reply when asked if I like Justin Bieber is “Baby, baby, baby ohhhh” and that seems to get their respect. These night classes are gonna be a lot of fun. It will be a mixture between doing lesson plans and just chatting. I can tell that too much structure will bore them but not enough structure will get the lessons off track. I’m up for the challenge. I tried to see if they’d let me change the schedule and do the 4th class on Thursday instead of Friday so I could have 3 days off in a row but they were pretty set on the current schedule. I do need to head into Medan one weekend so I’ll either switch that week to Thursday or cancel the Friday class. We’ll see, it’s up to me, I’m the teacher now! I can make the rules!

It was a successful day overall. I can’t say enough about the commute to the afternoon class. It’s a beautiful drive where I get to stare off at distant rain forest mountains. The colors here are fantastic. The greens are bright green and the sky is really blue. I think I’m going to enjoy the commute!

Back in the Muslim World

This is another refreshing feeling. I have no words to explain it but I find myself gravitating towards the Muslim world for some reason. Not because I am doing any sort of spiritual transformation into Islam, but instead there is an attraction to it that I can’t fully explain. My experience with Islam and traveling to countries dominated by the religion is exactly what got me this volunteer job. During the interview I was told that is what set me apart from the other candidates as well as already having been to Bukit Lawang. What I like about the version of Islam in Indonesia is that it isn’t incredibly conservative so it’s a nice mixture of western, eastern and Islamic tradition. It’s interesting hearing the call to prayer against a jungle back drop as opposed to the more traditional Arabian landscapes of desert and dry plains.

Islam but not too conservative

It’s certainly an interesting time to be here given the recent developments in the “war on terror.” I don’t shy away from political conservations when I travel even though it’s often suggested to avoid them. I find if I keep an open mind and listen to what others say, I can gain a lot of knowledge and perspective I might not otherwise have had. Indonesia gets a bad wrap as being a country where a majority of the population disagree with western values and are hostile towards Americans. I can say with confidence that I haven’t met anyone that came even close to anti-American sentiment. Obviously, I could eventually come across the occasional hatred but that can happen anywhere. There are small factions within Indonesia that want to overthrow the moderate government that is currently in place. Sharia law is already practice in the province north of here, Aceh, which gained national attention during the 2006 Indian Ocean Tsunami where 60,000 Indonesians lost their lives. Indonesia is one of those places that being American seems to be an asset and adds to my experience. As opposed to the British or Dutch who they see far more of, Americans offer them a conversation that they don’t normally get to have. It doesn’t hurt having Obama as president since he lived in Indonesia for 4 years and many Indonesians think very highly of him. “Where are you from?” … “America.” “Ooooh-BAHM-ah!!!”

After my contract is over I’m probably going to spend a few weeks traveling through the parts of Sumatra I haven’t seen yet. Including Banda Aceh at the very northern tip where I can see for myself a beautiful city with friendly people that the state department says is a no-go area for Americans.

Living in Sumatra

Time to Freak Out

I considered waiting to write until after things got better because I know they will. However, It would be more interesting to go back and look at how unnecessarily worried I was. In short, this is going to be long two months in Sumatra. I’m not so concerned that it won’t be worth it because I know it will and in the end I’ll laugh when I read back at this first post. It’s just that I’m sort of miserable right now. I have no one to vent to so here it goes blog readers I’m going to pour it on. It’s hot. It’s so hot. There is no escape from the hot. I want my mommy!!!! Waah! I have a fan in my room but if I blow it directly at myself I’ll end up with a sore throat. There is absolutely nothing to do where I’m living so I know I’ll be making frequent trips into the town of Bukit Lawang as often as possible to break up the boredom at the clinic I’m living in. I live at the Bukit Lawang Trust clinic which is a non-profit health center that was built after the 2003 floods that destroyed this town. The staff has been great. Everyone has been really welcoming so no complaints there. And no complaints about the organization itself as everything has gone as expected. The realization that my living arrangements leave me with very little to do is starting to set in though and only time will tell if I can manage to keep myself busy when I’m not teaching. On top of all of this, I’m still not 100% healthy. I have a finger nail infection that just won’t go away. Finally, the sores on my ankles healed up but now I’m stuck with this nasty crusty dried out nose from my prior cold that is getting kind irritated and gross. I’m starting to realize that these last two items are what mostly have me down right now. The heat, I’ve dealt with before, albeit not for this long of a period.

My Home at th Clinic

My Home at the Clinic

But, enough of all that. I have to suck it up and get to it because classes start on Monday and I’m the new English teacher in town. I have to put my game face on and start off my new career properly. I have quite a bit of control in how things go at the clinic and the school. There are only 2-3 classes that I am teaching each day. I can set my own schedule and even add as many classes as I want but I’m mostly going with what the last teacher set. One hour in the morning for the clinic staff, an hour and a half in the afternoons to children ages 8-11 at the school, and then back to the clinic for an adult class in the evenings for an hour. The prior teacher skipped Thursday night adult classes and moved it to Friday night so I’m just going to move that back to Thursday night so I’m teaching Monday through Thursday. This gives me a full three days to escape the clinic and get my head straight before coming back on Mondays. Even some of the staff admit they need to break away and stay at one of the tourist bungalows along the river on the weekends. I may even find myself making the five hour bus journey back to Medan for an a/c, satellite TV, room service, shopping mall, cinema, Starbucks halfway-point-reward! I think getting away from the clinic on the weekends is going to be extremely important if I’m going to make it through these two months. My only regret is not stocking my I-Pod with a few more audio books and not downloading a few more episodes of some shows to watch. But, who comes all this way for an experience like this and wishes they had episodes of The Big Bang Theory to watch? Sometimes I want to slap myself after having a thought like that. I do however have the complete seven season collection of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I could always watch.

Bukit Lawang

This is where I go when I "go into town."

It’s Not All Bad Here in Northern Sumatra

And now the good stuff. It’s not all bad here in Northern Sumatra. In fact, even as I write this I can roll my eyes at the previous two paragraphs of me whining and complaining about exactly what I set out for myself. I feel better after my venting session though so thank you for reading! As for the heat, there is a refreshing river to cool off in after my finger nail infection heals. When I step out onto the balcony of the clinic I’m smacked in the face with a misty jungle canopy and the back drop of rainforest mountains. The sounds of crickets and other jungle creatures are enough white noise to keep me asleep if I can battle the heat and actually fall asleep. Bukit Lawang is still as beautiful as it was when I first came in February and the people are just as genuinely pleasant to be around. Last night I made a point to go into town and find all my old friends I made when I was here. A few of them are still around but some have left. My Indonesian teacher Ria is a tiny little ball of happiness but is no longer waitressing the restaurant I used to frequent and according to her good friend Yanti, she is living about 25 kms outside of Bukit Lawang. I have to get in touch with her because she was a lot of fun to be around and taught me almost everything I know of Bahasa Indonesian.

I’m sort of a rock star when I walk around here. That may have had something to do with why I came back. Everywhere I go I get waves from children and adults. “Hello!!!”, “Hi Mister!” Everyone wants to talk to me and I don’t mind stopping for a few minutes to chat. Eventually I’ll have to brush some people off as I can’t possibly stop for everyone but in an area that doesn’t see as many tourists as other parts of South East Asia, I’m still a novelty. It’s pretty refreshing.

All-in-all I’m keeping my head up and taking this challenge head on. I’m currently back at the clinic and found that the balcony outside of the living areas is much cooler than inside the building so I may be spending a lot of time here, reading, writing, lesson planning and listening to music. I should get plenty of blogging done, I don’t think the teaching and planning is going to take up too much of my time so look for more regular blog updates for aw