13 March 2019

The joy of learning and creating

by Christina Yin

“Up! Up! SK. Ng. Delok Up!”

The Nanga Delok primary school motto is etched on a plaque and posted up on the wall of the school’s office along with the school’s mission and vision. While the mission and vision are in Malay, the motto is in English. It reminds me of the exuberant children’s book Great Day for Up by Dr Seuss. That celebration of the joy of life is echoed at this boarding school for children aged 7 to 12 located in Ulu Batang Ai, on the periphery of the national park where one of Sarawak’s largest populations of orang-utans live.

Local artist Angelina Bong and I are visiting to share creative writing and art, to learn the children’s stories about orang-utans and to help them tell their stories through story-telling and writing poetry in English and creating collages. We are joining the team from the Wildlife Conservation Society that works with longhouse communities in the area near the Batang Ai National Park, where some of the villagers work as boatmen and guides to conservationists and tourists alike. Our journey has taken four hours on the road from Kuching to Lubok Antu, and then 40 minutes on a long boat from the Sarawak Energy jetty to the Batang Ai National Park’s quarters near the school.

In this remote school where forty of the forty-one children who attend the school are boarders, the students are excited to meet us and to have extra activities after their classes, even into the night. To start the story-telling with the Primary 1-3 children, I hold up the orang-utan puppet. It’s a large brown and orange plush toy and the children are eager to offer adjectives to describe it; nouns for its body parts, the forest where it lives, and food it eats; and verbs to tell us what it’s doing.

Then we start to tell the orang-utan’s story. We take in turns in a circle and one by one, each child adds a sentence to the story. It’s a story about Lucy the orang-utan who wakes up in her nest to find her mother gone, and with the help of another orang-utan, goes in search for her mother. They search the forest but can’t find Lucy’s mother so they return to her nest, and find her mother there. She had left to look for their favourite food – durians!

I’m enchanted by the simple story of a child and mother’s love, a helpful stranger and the love for the king of fruits, durians! But even more so am I enchanted by the children’s eagerness to learn new words, how to connect them, and create a story. How do I motivate and encourage the students in my Foundation classes to embrace that joy of learning – Up! Up! SK Nanga Delok Up! – and to create and write stories that resonate?

Many of the students who join us after having crossed the bridge known as the SPM exams are exhausted and jaded. They want to scoot through Foundation and get into the undergraduate programme of their choice. Satisfied with the core units that they believe will take them where they want to go, many of the students suffer through our academics and communications units and the curious unit called ‘Innovation and Change’.

Parents at Open Day or students in the first class often ask, “What is Innovation and Change?” In this unit, students learn about innovators and innovations, new and traditional organisations, and the rapid changes of the real world in the 20th and 21st century. We read about innovation behemoths like Steve Jobs and Soichiro Honda and little known but impactful innovators like Jodie Wu of Greenlight Planet and Tom Szaky of TerraCycle.

The students themselves form teams, brainstorm and innovate a product that they present to the class and write a report complete with primary and secondary sources, fully referenced. They are equipped with the skills and tools to research, present and write a report, but more than that, they learn that they can innovate and must change in positive ways to stay relevant no matter what course they’ll be studying or career they’ll be embracing after graduation.

It’s a challenge and a joy for me to meet new students every semester, entering our Foundation programmes, each with his or her own history and baggage. It may not be a 4-hour drive and 40-minute longboat ride on the Batang Ai lake, but they have their own winding paths to navigate. They come from all over the state and country and from overseas, including Bangladesh, Myanmar and Tanzania. Some are brimming with confidence, exuberant and eager while others are tired, fearful and lost.

I’m happy and privileged to help guide them on their way, and I hope to share with them the joy of learning and creating. They may not be living near a national park nor directly affected by endangered species in the borders of their homes, but they are the future of their country. They don’t need to be budding artists or writers. This is not about the arts. Creativity and innovation, critical thinking and communication; these are skills they will need no matter what career path they choose. We hope to help them to learn the new words and how to connect them, to create and make their own stories along the way.

Christina Yin is a senior lecturer from the School of Foundation Studies at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at cyin@swinburne.edu.my