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TEACHING LITERATURE AT SEKOLAH CITA BUANA… Dachlan Cartwright

Harlan and Dachlan with SCB MS Students.

For two years, from July 2009 to June 2011, I taught English Literature and ESL at Sekolah Cita Buana (SCB), the Subud School in South Jakarta. It’s a “Subud School” in that the Founders, Ibu Ismana and Pak Haryono, Board Members, Principal and Human Resources Manager are Subud members, and it was located for many years in Wisma Subud before moving to a purpose-built campus in South Jakarta. However, I would guess that no more than 5% of the students are from Subud families, and few of the teachers are Subud members.

The Middle School (MS) and High School (HS), where I taught, use the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) curriculum, although students are also prepared for the Indonesian National exams.

What readers are probably most interested in is “is there anything different about teaching in a Subud school?”. But first, let’s try and spotlight what is “different” in teaching in international schools in general. I had previously worked 16 years in Bandung International School, and five years at Jakarta International Prestige School. Quite simply, in Bandung, I used to think “these are the kids who will prevent World War Three.” On the whole, prejudice based on religion, race, skin colour etc was healthily absent. It was even considered the coolest to be of mixed-race heritage.  SCB very much follows this pattern.

Another positive feature of SCB is the almost total absence of bullying. Many of the students have been at SCB from kindergarten to high school, and they have this esprit de corps, which makes them proud of their school.  New students are however generally made welcome – new teachers generally undergo a waiting period. Bullshit if ye dare, teacher!

In general, parents and teachers find that children between the ages of 15-17 (Grades 9-11) are the most challenging group to handle because of what they are going through psychologically and physiologically. I was thrown in the deep end, in that my first lesson with SCB English Grade 10 was based on The Color Purple, the text having already been chosen. On the first page the thirteen-year old protagonist, Celie, describes in colorful language how she is raped and impregnated by the man she believes to be her father.

Well, we got through that one, and over the next lessons were all moved and inspired by the story of Celie’s eventual triumph in Alice Walker’s inspirational story. SCB has its share of “lost children”, children from dysfunctional families and broken homes, for whom the school is a sanctuary. So they could empathize with Celie’s suffering.

Related to this, SCB has a well-earned reputation in Indonesia for accepting kids with learning disabilities, and provides  institutionalized support, counseling and special needs departments as well as, significantly, embedding such students them in regular classes. Here SCB’s “regular” kids are great, understanding that accepting and welcoming these kids is beneficial for both groups. (And realizing that anyone can be or become “challenged” in some way.)

I was fortunate to have Subud members Ibu Diah Rajasa (“Ibu Ita”) as School Principal, Ibu Retna Setyawati as Human Resources Manager, and Pak Harlan Keele as my English teaching colleague. Harlan already had a year under his belt as English teacher at SCB, and had thoroughly refurbished the curriculum and the way it was applied. He took a chunk of vacation time to prepare me for the deep end. We worked in tandem, he taking MS Mainstream and HS ESL, and me MS ESL and HS Mainstream. We constantly pooled ideas, and complemented each other, he with his knowledge of American, and me British, literature texts. I never knew Harlan refuse a request for help. And at the end of the day, when all had gone home, we would sometimes load a latihan. And you could feel the latihan in the school, quiet, pervasive, not spectacular.

The ACT curriculum for English, firmly literature-based, is a joy to use, as it gives the teacher a refreshing amount of autonomy and flexibility in choosing texts. The teacher is provided with a list of themes from which to choose for each class for each semester, “Journeys and Quests”, for example, or “Social and Political Ills”. A list of suggested texts based on the theme is provided, but the teachers is free to add his or her own choices. Four to six texts   per semester are selected, which gives an opportunity for them to be studied in depth. Productions for assessment include literary and analytical essays, oral presentations, and creative projects where the student can choose a medium other than academic English, eg poem, drama, song cycle, painting, sculpture, computer game, to present the theme.

Harlan and Dachlan with SCB MS Students.I could write pages on how Harlan and I endeavoured to make use of classic and modern classic literature, not just to aesthetically appreciate a cultural heritage, but also to prepare the students to “survive”. To survive what? - dysfunctional homes, the dark corners of Jakarta, the dark corners of cyberspace, “2012” real or imagined, the tachyon/timeslip universe, but there is only space for a few examples.

“Survival” was a theme for Middle School ESL. Based on Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, we had half the students as hunters, and the other half survivors, hiding in the Principal’s anteroom, blending in with another class, on the furthest edge of the campus, etc.  We studied the true stories of Shackleton, Bligh and Christian, learning that survival depends on mental attitude, and the chance of survival is increased if one has a firm religious or spiritual inspiration.  Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the class, with its message of redemption through suffering and sharing, was beloved of the gothics in the class because of its haunting imagery.

“Speculative Texts “was a theme in the HS. Building on SF classics by Wells and Verne, we also worked our way through cyberpunk  with William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

The most productive “speculative” text, however, proved to be Alan Garner’s Red Shift, in which one place, a hill in Cheshire, is the setting for three “times”, in Roman Britain (the lost Ninth Legion), the English Civil War, and the 1960s. In each era there is a young couple whose love is sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic. The characters also reflect Shakespeare’s Poor Tom and the folktale Tam Lin. The story is told in a series of dialogues, which climax in a blending of the three eras. Time can be reversed. For example, one of the “Roman” characters is triggered into manic action by blue and silver lights, which turn out to be a British Rail train leaving Crewe station.

We dramatized the story in class, and then the students were put into pairs to research the various aspects of the novel. We then extended it by examining the work of such writers as Stephen Hawking, Sean Carroll and Ken Webster. For one creative project, for example, one student wrote an eerie message from a being in a kind of related suspended space/time continuum. From conversations I used to have with Harlinah Longcroft, it seems that “time travel” involves/will involve/has involved an expansion of consciousness so that we actually experience the past (and future?) without the need for physical travel. So it seemed very valuable to explore these with the students, who are more at home playing at tachyon cowboys than their immediate ancestors.

Other highlights included this same student giving an oral presentation on “suicide” for the theme “social and political ills”. She emphasized that it doesn’t work anyway (“what dreams may come”) and as you can’t get off, you may as well “enjoy the ride”. The great thing is that the kids could discuss these problems and search for solutions in a frank, open and mature manner. The whole dismal spectrum of social and political ills is on their actual and cyberspace doorsteps.

On a lighter note, in the MS we dramatized James Elroy Flecker’s “Golden Journey to Samarkand” from Hassan. I believe Flecker was related to our irrepressible German helper Richard Engels, and I hope they both enjoyed the performance. I can also confirm that teenage girls still do fall in love with the love poetry of Robert Browning and Lord Byron. Thank God.

All of this does not mean that all is sweetness and light at SCB. I am not privy to this, but obviously finance and funding have to be precarious. There is heavy competition in Jakarta for students for national plus and international schools, some of which are funded by extremely wealthy land and banking conglomerates.

Some years ago a consultant was brought in, probably at some expense, to survey national plus and international chools in Jakarta. In article in the Jakarta Post she mentioned, critically, that one school in South Jakarta operated out of a private house. Obviously SCB (but what a private house, love!). This was countered by a reader’s letter who pointed out that you could have a school in a cave in the mountains or a tent in the desert, and it would still be a good school. Why? Because of the teachers.

I believe that Barak explained that a Subud teacher should be on the same inner wavelength as her or his student and so could customize the learning accordingly. Well, there’s a long way to go yet, but one day there will surely be more Subud schools and universities where this approach will be recognized and applied.

So, thanks to Ibu Ismana, Pak Haryono, Ibu Ita, the Board, faculty and administration of Sekolah Cita Buana, and especially the incomparable students of “Ciboon’” for giving me two of the most rewarding years of my life.

 

Dachlan Cartwright, February 2012