SUNGAI PETANI: English was once an alien language in the Malay-majority kampung of Pinang Tunggal in Kuala Kedah.
Three years ago, when 18 students in SMK Pinang Tunggal started speaking English out of the classroom and in their day-to-day lives, they were stared at and made fun of.
The agent of change came in the form of Cheryl Ann Fernando, 31, an “import” teacher from Kuala Lumpur.
She arrived at SMK Pinang Tunggal in 2013.
She had signed a two-year contract with Teach for Malaysia, an education-interest group that sourced, trained and placed teachers in schools most in need of help.
In just two years, Fernando ushered the obscure school into the big league and shaped the students into the district’s best.
She assembled about 40 students in Forms One to Five to take part in a choral speaking competition in 2014. They came in fifth among the students of 25 schools in the district.
How did she do it?
As easy as ABC
For starters, Fernando said, she got rid of tiresome grammar exercises and essays.
“Most of the students were already very weak in English, so I thought, let’s be realistic and give them something they can relate to,” she said.
She used popular culture to get her lessons across. Music, television and movies served as teaching aids.
She made the students sing along to “Superheroes” and “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved” by her favourite band, The Script, using the lyrics to encourage proper pronunciation and expand the students’ vocabulary.
“We also performed dikir barat (traditional Malay performance) shows in English.
“The dikir barat was ‘All About The Waves’, adapted from Meghan Trainor’s hit ‘All About That Bass’, and some Taylor Swift parodies.
“I made them write diaries to improve their writing. I checked the entries every week to ensure they improved.
“I still keep their diaries for old times’ sake!” Fernando told FMT in an interview at a pizza restaurant here.
Fernando also declared her classroom an “All-English Zone” and fined those who spoke in other languages within that space.
“Other students teased the class for speaking in English all the time, but when the class won the state level championship, all of them were silenced.”
The story of the class of 5 Sesebania has inspired the movie “Adiwira Ku” (Malay for “My Superhero”) which will be shown in cinemas nationwide on March 9.
Fernando does not appear in the movie, but her 20-odd students do.
Not surprisingly, Fernando is adored by her charges, who have nicknamed her “Amma” (mother in Tamil).
‘Do you speak Christian?’
Fernando arrived in Pinang Tunggal, a rural town in Kuala Muda on the western coast of Kedah, to teach English under the Teach For Malaysia programme in 2013.
Recalling her first day at SMK Pinang Tunggal, Fernando said many were amazed to see her as they had never met a person of Indian descent in the flesh.
“They asked what race I was and I said, ‘I am an Indian who is a Christian’.
“The students then innocently asked me, ‘Can you speak Christian?’”
A teacher is born
Before Fernando became a teacher, she was a public relations executive.
She had left her job to try something “more challenging”.
“I first taught underprivileged Indian students part-time in a kampung in Puchong, Selangor. That was when I realised that I was cut out for teaching.
“I wanted to do something important for my country, so I quit my job to teach full-time.
“I taught in an international school for a year before moving on to a rural posting on Teach For Malaysia,” said Fernando, who never imagined that her life would take a big turn and land her in the backwoods of Kedah.
Learning on the job
“The first three to four months was a challenge.
“Everyone ate rice in the morning; I was not used to it. People everywhere else ate bread!
“But I got used to it soon enough. Today I say that Kedah Malay food is the best!”
Fernando left SMK Pinang Tunggal in 2015 to pursue a PhD in Curriculum Design at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Her former students still keep in touch with her through Facebook and WhatsApp.
Some of them showed up during the interview. They hugged their old teacher, whom they were clearly glad to see.
Fernando bought them pizza and refreshments at the pizza parlour, where they used to gather for choral speaking practice.
She will return afterwards to her job as head of education and learning with EduNation, a platform providing free online tuition.
Meanwhile, there are old times to talk about and memories to relive.