National Writing Project

Post-Tsunami Storytelling in Indonesia

By: Katherine Schultz
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 11, No. 2
Date: 2006

Summary: Schultz was invited to Indonesia to mentor new teachers hired to replace those who perished in the tsunami-devastated province of Aceh. The Indonesian teachers left with new visions of child-centered teaching and learning.


On the 26th of December 2004, a tsunami struck the coast of Aceh, Indonesia, killing thousands of people and leaving many more homeless. There were 40,000 students and 2,500 teachers and educational personnel reported dead or missing. Almost 150,000 students did not have classrooms or schools after the disaster. In response to the tsunami, thousands of new teachers—estimates are about 5,500—were hired to replace those who perished. Out of the devastation arose an opportunity to build on the child-centered teaching methods that had been introduced in the national curriculum without adequate mentoring or professional development.

People in the Water
Amiruddin's illustration of the tsunami's havoc

A group of four teacher educators (Lisa Smulyan, Nancy Lee Bergey, Angie Barr Feltman, and myself) and two graduate students (Anita Chikkatur and Joy Lesnick) from the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College were invited to Banda Aceh, the capital of the Aceh province in Indonesia, by the International Relief Committee (IRC) to work with teachers as part of the University of Pennsylvania's response to the large-scale disaster in South Asia. Our team of six people taught four classes—literacy, science, mathematics, and pedagogy—to a group of 100 teachers from across the province of Aceh for two weeks in July 2005. The goal was for these experienced teachers to return to their districts after our work together to mentor the new teachers.

We modeled our work with teachers after the National Writing Project summer institute. In each class teachers were learners—writing stories, playing math games, planting bean seeds—as they reflected on their own practices as teachers and discussed ways to adapt these methods to their local settings. We wanted to demonstrate to the teachers that they brought talent and knowledge to their teaching. In addition, we hoped to convince them of the importance of building on the interests, passions, and knowledge of their students. We sought to convince these educators that as teachers they would be the best ones to teach the newly hired teachers in their schools.

The class I taught focused on literacy. Many, if not most of the teachers taught in schools with few or no books or printed materials. Some were teaching in temporary buildings or tents with scant resources. Drawing on my writing project work, I wanted these teachers to learn writing by working on authentic projects such as writing children's books to bring back to their schools, where they might introduce the same kind of activity to their own students.

On the first day of our work together, I asked the teachers to tell the stories of their names as a way of getting to know them and of emphasizing how many stories they knew that could be used for writing. We had known that storytelling was a part of daily life in Aceh and wanted to use this oral tradition as a bridge to writing, which we knew was less familiar or comfortable for most of the teachers. Further, we wanted them to notice these possibilities for their students.

From the start, these stories were as unfamiliar to me as they were familiar to the teachers. Many teachers had short names connected to their families or the Koran. Some names held meanings that indicated the future paths their parents hoped they would follow. More than one person said that they no longer had the name they had as a child because of an event or tragedy—often an illness—that they had overcome. The new name signaled a new beginning. The stories introduced our goals of teaching reading and writing through texts that had meaning to the teachers' lives and those of their students.

I explained that the end result of our work together was going to be a bound book they would write for the children in their classrooms. The idea was for them to learn bookmaking so that as their students wrote, they could publish their writing and possibly teach parents or members of the community how to make books for the schools. Most importantly, I used bookmaking as a way to introduce the ideas of teaching reading and writing through literature and to demonstrate a way of teaching—rather than merely assigning—writing. I explained my belief that the best teachers of writing are writers, and the best teachers of reading are readers.

As the week wore on, the teachers continued telling stories. At the beginning, several performed their stories, narrating the story without reading the words they had written. One woman ended her story with a beautiful song introducing the practice of singing to our classroom. After that, the teachers frequently broke into song when phrases I read or they wrote reminded them of Achenese songs they all seemed to know.

A story typical of an Achenese tale told to children follows. Its author was Amiruddin, a principal of a local school who was one of the most enthusiastic participants of our classes.

Two brothers lived in a village. The younger brother was named Ratan, the older one Apalantas. The two got along well. One day the brothers ventured into the forest to gather some fruits. They looked around until one hour past noon, at which time they began to feel hunger and thirst. They had brought several pieces of bread from home, but it turned out that all but one piece were eaten by ants. They would have to break and share the bread. Apalantas, the older brother, said, "Let me split the bread." When he gave one half to his younger brother, however, Ratan declined it for it was too small a piece. Apalantas insisted on keeping the larger piece, while his brother insisted on not taking the smaller one. Suddenly, in the midst of the commotion, a monkey appeared from the forest. The monkey asked, "Why are you two quarreling?" So the brothers told the monkey. "My older brother split a piece of bread into two, gave me the smaller piece, and kept the larger one," said Ratan. The monkey looked at the two halves, and indeed, the younger brother's was smaller and the older brother's was larger. "Well, in that case," said the monkey, "let me take a piece of the larger half to make it even," and in went a piece of bread into the monkey's mouth. Apalantas then saw that his piece was now smaller than his younger brother's and refused to take it. The monkey said, "you are right . . . now, your younger brother's is larger," broke a little off of the larger piece and ate it, such that now Ratan's piece was once again the smaller of the two. And so on it went until the monkey ate all of the bread. The two then realized that being selfish and stubborn served no one well, and that they both would have been better off had they cooperated. As you see, children, if we do not learn to accept what we have, we would all end up hungry. Such is justice by the monkey or monkey justice.

On the second day I taught the students a simple way of folding paper to make small books as described by Regie Routman (1994). The teachers each folded a single piece of paper with only one small cut into an eight-page book and took it back to their dormitories to compose a book. Many borrowed crayons. They returned with beautifully illustrated books of legends and of the tsunami. In class, they read their stories to each other.

After they finished reading I announced, "Now you are authors." There was a brief silence and then they all clapped loudly for themselves. I continued, "And this is how you can set up your classrooms, so that your students feel like authors. It's very different to write for tests or for the piece to be graded than to write because you feel as though you are an author and have the ability to tell a story to others."

Many of the stories told individually and in groups were about the tsunami. It seemed important for many of the teachers to tell and retell this story. I emphasized the various ways to tell the stories, through stories of animals, friendship, and survival; personal narrative; and journalistic accounts, among others.

During a session with an Achenese poet, Amiruddin wrote a poem about the earthquake that followed the tsunami. The poem captures the scale of the devastation, reminding us that the inhabitants of the west coast of Aceh relived the horror of the tsunami every day.

My town, my sorrow
As the thrust shook the center of the earth
The universe trembled
Nias, Simeuleu and Aceh Singkil
In Chaos is the heart of catastrophe.

Tuesday night, the twenty-eighth of last March
Mayhem in the darkness
Screaming, waiting, crawling toward the main street

An ominous ambience, imagined in mind
The waves of Tsunami to come crashing down
On the sides of the roads and at the ends of bridges
Strewn were corpses, shrouded by sorrow
Pushed, pulled, and shoved to the side
Such that others could pass by

Residents' homes, government's buildings, and multistory
Transformed at that very moments
Shattered into pieces, leveled with the ground.

My town, six years into its becoming a regency
My town, powdered, reflected in the mirror and
Your yard is now flooded
Your shores swallowed by water

For a final project, the teachers each composed a story with detailed illustrations and bound it into a book to take back to their schools and communities. Once again Amiruddin wrote about the tsunami that destroyed his village and home.

The sad Sunday in the last of December 2004

On a shimmering Sunday, with morning sunshine cheerfully dotting the ground, daughters and sons went outside. Birds chattered and the heavenly sounds and sights of nature welcomed and proclaimed the day.

That day was December 26, 2004. Nobody ever wondered what was going to happen. That morning at 08.00 pm, the earth opened and it felt like the end of the day. Fifteen minutes afterwards, big waves and seawater covered the ground. People screamed hysterically for help and ran.

Deep voices came from the sea and the shaking of the earth never ended. The fortunes and houses of people living near the beach were suddenly gone, taken away by the tsunami's wave.

It was 15 minutes. Afterwards the world felt so terribly hot. Children were scattered and couldn't be counted. Only debris was left where there were once houses. All were silent. The only communication between humans was tears.

A lot of people searched for their families looking to see whether they still survived. All they could find was mass burial.

Those who survived the tsunami's angry storm were evacuated into emergency tents. Day by day and month by month, they faced a future they never thought would come.

Living in barracks, they educated their surviving children.

There were some who left and built a hut near the beach to begin to make a new living.

Both the government and foreigners now are helping the tsunami's victims by building houses for the Achenese on their land. Now they are ready to begin a new life.

This story captured the sadness and the hope embodied in the stories teachers told and wrote. Each one contributed to our understanding of the devastation caused by the tsunami that was at once removed from our experiences, yet connected to us through shared humanity and stories.

On the final day, we celebrated the accomplishments of the teachers as they all read their books in small groups and to the whole class. Most of the teachers had come to our workshops as storytellers with stories to tell of their childhood, fables, songs, and accounts of the tsunami that had touched everyone's lives. All left as authors with new visions of what teaching and learning might look like if children and their stories where placed at the center of teaching. I left with an acute sense of all I have learned from my work with the National Writing Project, including how to begin building bridges across cultures and languages through storytelling and writing.

Routman, R. 1994. Invitations: Changing as Teachers and Learners K–12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

About the Author Kathy Schultz is director, with Vanessa Brown, of the Philadelphia Writing Project. She is an associate professor, director of teacher education, and director of the Center for Collaborative Research and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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