Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dead Crows or Inspiration?

Nurjehan's story in last week's Sunday Times about the introduction of literature into the English syllabus for Malaysian schools was interesting (well certainly for me, with my teacher-training cap on).

The literature component was first introduced in 2001 at lower secondary level. The feedback to it in the article is extremely positive. I was particularly interested to learn that one of Universiti Malaya Professor Lim Chee Seng's postgraduate students, who is doing a study on the teaching of literature in the English language syllabus for the national curriculum:
... found that about 70 per cent of students across Malaysia love the literature component that has been inserted into the English language syllabus.

That statistic interests me, and I'd love to take a look at the methodology used to arrive at that figure.

In my previous reincarnation I was preparing my students to work with those texts in the classroom. So many of the pieces chosen for the syllabus were gloomy and too far from the kids' own experience to really be accessible without a lot of help. Just to give one or two examples:

A Samad Said's The Dead Crow might be a much better poem in the Malay original, but it's very limp in its English translation. Haven't stronger poems been written on the theme of pollution?

While Macbeth's Life's Brief Candle soliloquy is great stuff, will young adolescents be able to take on board the utter despair of it, and what more when it is taken completely out of context? (Who is this bloke Macbeth anyway?)

Don't get me wrong, I do whole heartedly believe that Shakespeare should be taught in schools, but the only brush with the bard at Upper Secondary levels is Sonnet 18. I've sat at the back of innumerable classrooms watching sweating kids kids under ceiling fans struggle with the concept of finding a hot, sunny day desirable (when, of course, they long for cool overcast ones).

I've watched students struggle with a particularly gloomy choice of text Emily Dickinson's There's Been a Death in the Opposite House, not so much because the description of the funeral is so foreign to our Malaysian kids, but because it necessarily opens up some painful discussion in the classroom ("Tell me about a funeral you recently attended") which needs to be handled sensitively.

I'm not arguing that young people should not be exposed to texts that are difficult or outside their own experience - literature should stretch us all, should take us to places we've never been before. But if for most kids the component is going to be their only brush with literature - why shouldn't the texts be enjoyable and accessible and directly relevant?

As it happens the component is currently being reviewed. I was asked to go and take part in the selection of texts, but got waylaid by other things I'd promised to do. I'm very proud to see that the team includes one of my former teacher-training students, and I'm sure they will do a good job.

Methodology - how the subject is taught - is another issue, of course.

While I was goggling around I came across this piece by Amir Muhammad which originally appeared in the New Straits Times in 1999 about the literature component (and it gives a complete list of texts used at different levels at the end). Amir raises one of the most important questions - teaching literature in the classroom effectively demands a move to greater democracy in the classroom, a move away from the teacher as font of all knowledge. Personal response and personal opinion, matter far more.

But how far is this possible when students are examined on their knowledge of the texts? Most of the questions (as I remember) are multiple choice. I've also heard (from a chief examiner) that in the open questions brighter students who give imaginative answers run the risk of losing marks because they don't give the examiner what they expect! Just regurgitate what your teacher told you and you will do fine.

Having thusly ranted, I must say that I am still glad that literature is on the syllabus and I'd like to see teachers making even more use of literary texts in their classes - for fun, for enjoyment, to touch the students' hearts. Because no one (apart from parents) can build the initial love of books as teachers can.

I'd particularly love to hear from some of the younger readers of this blog who have studied the literature component in school - how did you find it? Would you consider yourself in that 70% that love it? Why? Why not?

Parents, teachers ... anyone, your views are very welcome too.


irene said...

We had a literature component in school? Darn, I was born too soon!

Chet said...

Hasn't English Lit always been available to students in the Arts stream in our schools?

bibliobibuli said...

as an option yes

but here i'm talking about it as a component of the english paper compulsory for all students

Chet said...

As a subject by itself.

bibliobibuli said...

no - as part of the english paper, a compulsory component? you didn't know about it?

Kenny Mah said...

Ditto what Irene said: I wish we were born earlier or later --- we missed out on literature in school though there were a couple of teachers who tried to sneak some Shakespeare in, haha.

Which, in turn, may be a good thing for some of us, as we were free to explore any forms of literature, not just what would have been prescribed by the school syllabus.

Amir said...

Finally, a sensible Malaysian political party, Pundak. (in Malay)

Azwan Ismail said...

Years back I discovered Muhammad Haji Salleh's amazing poetry works in English, "Time & Its People" published by Heinemann in 1978. It still remains one of my favourite local English poetry works. Go here for an introduction by Edwin Thumboo:'s/doc/11.html . I really feel that this kind of work is suitable for students here as it uses not-that-hard language (at least in comparison to Shakespear!) & among others concerns subject matter that deep in local culture & social background. The work also shows that Muhammad Haji Salleh is really one of the great Malaysian bilingual poetry heroes of our time!

jawakistani said...

Ammar has an aunty who is a retired English teacher who loved teaching. I think you'll like her. Until now, in her 60s, she still goes on and on about how she taught literature before. I think she enjoyed it as much as her students.

Sometimes when her students are a bit rude...she'll go "rudeness personified!!!"

Just thought I'd share the thought of her with you. She'll definitely love the idea of having literature introduced as a component of the English subject. But I bet she'll be as worried about the quality and method of teaching just like you mentioned in your post.

jawakistani said...

* Oh noooo...I got my tenses wrong. I meant to say...Sometimes when her students were a bit rude...


Debbie Shiamay said...

It's fun! At least now we know a little about classic literature. Porbably because i like reading that's why i found it fun...

But the Malay Komponen sastera is so boring i usually read the sinopsis and pretend i've read the whole thing... I know it's bad but just can't help it T.T

irene said...

Talking about choosing texts which are enjoyable and accessible and directly relevant reminds me of The Freedom Writers Diary -- the story of teacher Erin Gruwell, who got her students interested in reading and writing by choosing texts which they could relate to. It changed their lives. Very inspiring book.

Read Story Books, Dont Read SchoolBooks Movement said...

in one of the schools that i went to, they had compulsory literature (english and malay) as subjects on their own for forms 1-3. and this was in the early 80s.

bibliobibuli said...

kenny - yes, provided that there is someone there who can slip a little literature into your life

amir - that's a really fun site. i wish i was allowed to vote. this party makes sense!! (and i want the t-shirt!)

azwan - thanks so much for the recommendation and link. when i was teaching on the B.ed programme the students did some of haji mohd. salleh's poetry and really loved it. and i remember that he was kind enough to come and talk to the students. hmmm ... maybe we should get you to be a guest blogger on our puisi-poesy blog?

jawakistani - i think i'd get on well with your aunt!

debbie - great - so you're in the 70%

irene - v. good example

read story books - i remember that when i taught in mckk we taught literature to all the students as part of our english lessons even at form 4 and form 5 level. it was assumed that the kids were so good they would breeze through spm so there was time for such luxuries on the timetable. it really did benefit the kids.

Irman said...

A. Saman Said?

You mean, Samad?

bibliobibuli said...

yeah ... sorry *sheepish grin*

bex said...

Well, to be honest I did not enjoy studying the Literature component in school. Like you said, examiners don't appreciate individual responses and the existence of reference books with "model answers" encourages most students to memorise answers and then regurgitate them in their paper. A lot of them don't even bother reading the texts because the questions are more like comprehension questions rather than Literature questions, and they are told that they only need to memorise the "facts" in the reference books to do well.

I understand that the questions cannot be too subjective as the component is not meant to be an in-depth study of Literature, but surely it wouldn't be too much to have questions that are a little more challenging than "What does it refer to?" Questions like that give students the idea that the only approach to interpreting Literature is to be literal, and this makes them view the component only as an additional burden rather than an enjoyment.

I clearly remember my teacher telling us how to "score" for the paper, and she told us that in order to gain a certain amount of marks, we must write "at least two pages". In other words, examiners and teachers value quantity over quality when it comes to essay-writing or the expression of ideas.

Having read Amir Muhammad's article, I agree that it seems strange to be interpreting certain Malay poems/stories/etc and then studying them as Literature in English. Surely they could have found a way to insert them in the Literature component for Bahasa Malaysia? I think I would have appreciated them more then. And I am also sure that there MUST be one or two Malaysian poems written in English that would be deemed patriotic enough if it was absolutely necessary to include one or two local pieces.

Actually, I think the main reason why most students find the Literature component boring and unstimulating is because the teachers themselves are neither interested in it, or care too much about it. I went to a school which is considered one of the best schools in Malaysia and apparently we have a reputation for the standard of our English, but my teacher used to say things like "childrens", and they made her the English teacher of the first class. The pieces would be read as if we were being forced at gun point to do so, partly because the teachers offered no explanation to what was being read, [I later had the shock of my life when I did A Level Literature and discovered how different things are, but I love it so much that I am going to major in Literature] or tried to make us view it from a different perspective, or tried to bring in anything interesting that might help the students understand the texts or even WANT to try to enjoy the texts. Most of what we did for Literature was, of course, the obligatory comprehension exercises and endless hours of copying "notes" [themes, moral values, etc] from reference books.

Like you, I, too, am interested in finding out how they arrived at that statistic because I don't even know a single person who enjoyed the Literature component! [I sort of did because I like reading, but sometimes my teacher made me dislike English because she was just SO boring!]

dreamer idiot said...

I think Bex pinpointed the heart, or rather the soul of the problem:

1) most teachers aren't really interested (I suspect many are perhaps TESOL students who only see language in a functional aspect, and are much less readers themselves)

2) Reduction of literature as an something alive into a dead, fixed and epistemologically regurgitable facts. (Probably, the adoption of such teaching methodology for other subjects may be the cause for the stifling of creativity)

fizah said...

i share bex's sentiments as well.

i think our culture focuses too much on "critical" subjects like math and science and we consider literature to be of a lesser value. and it's so ingrained in society that most ppl just accept it to be true.

i remember being excited when the literature component was introduced and i remember too that a lot of my friends complained about it. but i'm lucky enough to have two amazing english teachers who never limited our interpretations to what the examiners wanted.

my form 4 english teacher would always have an open discussion session and we could throw any ideas that we have and talk about it.

however, our education system have always been exam oriented and i've had friends studying literature or sastera just by reading the workbook (we had the "baby steps" for english) and scoring just by memorizing answers and stuff.

when i came to the states, i was amazed by the exposure that my peers had. they were familiar with greek tragedies, shakesperean plays etc and there are times i felt like the literature component we had in school was completely useless. but like bex, i love literature and trying to major in comparative lit.

anyway, i do agree with azwan that muhammad haji salleh's works would be great for students. si tenggang's homecoming was one of my favorites. i had a chance to meet him personally when he had a reading here in Ann Arbor (he was a graduate student here) and he read his poems both in malay and english and i just found myself enthralled with the way he intertwines the simple words with the depth of the poetry. i was amazed too in the way both in english and malay, the poems manage to convey what it was supposed too. we had dinner with him after the reading and it was just great talking to him. he told us how his neighbors' kids would come up to him to get answers for their lit questions.

i'd love to see some contemporary works for the literature component. students could probably relate more to contemporary issues.

bibliobibuli said...

wow - thanks so much bex and fizah for taking the time to write so much about your experiences. it makes me very glad that i asked the question!

the ministry is in a sense caught in a bind. should there be a literature component for all but students? yes, it IS a mighty good thing.

what happens if we don't examine students on those texts? teachers won't cover them. students won't think the component important enough to pay attention to.

i don't think there is a way round that.

as dreamer idiot says, everything really hangs on the quality of the teachers and their commitment.

when the component was first introduced, many teachers were at something of a loss as to know how to work with the (sometimes difficult) texts and they were thrown in at the deep end and expected to swim.

my own teacher training students on a B.Ed twinning programme got quite a lot more help and i think felt more confident about engaging with the students in discussion the texts. we had tried to build a love of literature in them on the course, which i hope was in turn transmitted to the students in their classes.

michaelwoo said...

hello people,

I was one of the 'guinea pigs' when the english literature component was just introduced back in 2001. I must say that I enjoyed it but it could have been more comprehensive as I believe it is a better way of improving English as compared to only writing long english essays.

I "accidentally" overheard a conversation on the LRT recently where a recent SPM graduate managed to get an A for his english essay because they essay he MEMORISED came out in the paper. I was speechless....yeah, i do memorise certain facts that i thought may come out in the papers but MEMORISING the whole essay is just plain dumbfounding.

My friends and I have been watching the standard of English of our secondary schools eroding with each passing year. Sigh...

YTSL said...

Re chet's query of "Hasn't English Lit always been available to students in the Arts stream in our schools?

It wasn't in my school -- and this was one of the Convent schools (with an Irish nun as its headmistress) at that.

Also, the thing that I found really sad about the Malaysian school system is how the Arts stream was considered the stream for dumb(er) pupils.

A personal story: In Form 4, I was put in the (top) Science stream. Not at all being into maths, physics and chemistry (though I did care for biology), I got my parents to formally request that I be transfer into the arts stream (whose subjects included art, history and Malay -- even if not English -- literature).

At a meeting in her office, my headmistress told my mother in plain terms that I was too bright for the arts stream. Also, she asked, what good careers were there for arts stream students?

When I suggested law (and that history, in particular, was good training subject for it), she immediately countered that the commerce stream also offered history as one of its subjects and offered up the compromise of my going into this middle stream.

To prevent an already long story from getting even longer: The upshot was that she would sanction a compromise transfer to the commerce stream but not "all the way down" into the arts stream for me.

So I ended up going into the commerce stream where I had to take accounting (which I hated and still hate) and something called "Human and Social Biology" in lieu of Art and Malay Literature.

On a happier note: Fast forward to two years later when I went off to boarding school in England and got to choose as my "A" level subjects English Literature, History and Political Science with something called "General Studies" (which included sections devoted to Philosophy, Music History and Art History along with such as Numeracy) to round up my education.

And further forward to my years at a liberal arts college in the U.S.A. where I ended up double majoring in anthropology and art history (plus minoring in museum studies). All of them subjects which I feel have served me well in life, even if not always professionally! As has my life long interest in English literature or just book reading in general.

acid burn said...

Like michaelwoo I was another one of those guinea pigs..
I can't say I remember much of how it was taught, but I do remember the funeral, Tenggang's homecoming, my English teacher telling us about interesting bits they censored from The Return (our novel for the component), and my friends having fun spoofing the Bard. I guess some of my peers were already having problems with the language and it may not have been easy to find the extra work enjoyable.. which is really a pity.
The lit component could expose students to the beauty of the language and perhaps encourage them to master the language better. The method of teaching is another matter altogether I guess...

Nuri said...

I started secondary school in 2002, so I am one of the many 'fortunate' students who had to sit through the literature component. Frankly, I didn't think it was that bad at the time. The only problems I had were in the first two forms, when my teacher wasn't able to convey the meaning of the texts properly, as many of the students in my class ended up even more confused after the explanation (self excluded).

I just wish that the novels we had to read -- PotO and Jekyll/Hyde -- weren't so abridged. Maybe the education ministry thinks that a simpler text will help the students understand it better but if it's too simple, nobody will really *feel* the emotions or comprehend the meaning intended by the author. Studying good literature is about those things and it's supposed to make students think critically; some kids don't understand that it's not just something they should read and memorize. Some teachers don't get it either.

While I'm talking about literature, I may as well say how boring The Return was for fifth formers. Not many of them finished the book, even the ones who love to read.

bibliobibuli said...

michealwoo - yes, memorisation is not at all what learning literature is about, but students wanting to score in exams will always be tempted to resort to it. you do just hope though, that the kids got something out of the text for themselves ...

ystl - yes, this science stream for best students, arts stream for the weakest is extremely sad. actually i've heard many of the kids who take literature SPM do it as an additional subject with a private tutor. agree with you that we need more literature.

acid burn - it's good to hear how you benefited from the component (even if your friends didn't so much)

nuri - i've not read "the return" and in fact got warned off it by another lecturer, a mad keen booklover who said simply "don't bother" and found it terribly hard going herself. but i want to make my own mind up so it remains a text i must make an effort to get back to.

agree with you that it is a shame that the novels are abridged - i think there are plenty of shorter novels which would work well. i guess for some students reading anything of length in english is a big challenge.