Dedicated to a Cause Greater than Themselves

The article below is taken from "Starting Where the Learners Are" edited by Ricardo Nolasco, Francisco Datar and Arnold Azurin  (2010), available at the Dept of Linguistics, UP, Diliman.  It is a narrative about the experiences of  teachers at Lubuagan, Kalinga who began implementing MTBMLE many years before MTBMLE was institutionalized by DepEd....I am sure the new MTBMLE teachers today can fully relate to the initial struggles these Kalinga teachers had in teaching a language that they knew only in oral form...


For the past two years, my graduate class in Socio-Cultural Foundations of Education would travel for 15 hours to Lubuagan, Kalinga to visit the classes that use Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE). I was able to observe the activities of the MTBMLE teachers and listen to their stories and musings about their unique experiences.

Productive Noise
The three elementary schools that house the MTBMLE program are found in Mabilong, Agama, and at the poblacion or the town center. Mabilong is situated in the middle of a hill which requires a 20-minute hike from the town proper. Agama Elementary School can be reached after an hour and a half ride on a rough bumpy mountain trail and an additional 30-minute hike. Lubuagan Central Elementary School is found at a knoll at the end of a narrow cemented pathway that connects to the town proper. The schools are old wooden structures. Some portions like the walls and the walkways are cemented. Inside the classrooms are old wooden desks.

A typical MTBMLE classroom would have a handwritten poster of the Lilubuagen alphabet consisting of 21 characters including “By,” “Ch” and the bar Y or “Yy.” This “Yy” sound is found only in a few Philippine languages and this is what makes the language stand out from English and Filipino. Small posters with Filipino or English words are mostly translated in the Lilubuagen language. The cultural calendar contains the name of months in the local language—Kiyang, Malabya, Lechew, Ekey, Achawoy, Kitkiti, Wayu, Bisbis, Sechang, Ayachog, Upok, Kililing. Every month has a corresponding national event, weather condition, agricultural activity, fruits in season, and school activities. An MTBMLE teacher would develop themes that would correspond to the cultural calendar. Stories and learning activities would be rooted on the themes for the given month. Using the cultural calendar ensures that lessons emanate from the daily lived experience of the learners. One drawing of a farmer used by an MTBMLE teacher has the context of an upland farm. This practice is aligned with an MTBMLE principle that materials should “reflect the culture and lifestyle of the students and encourage comprehension development and reflection on the content by including familiar situations and increased contextual clues.” In contrast, when the grade two standardized textbooks used by non-MTBMLE classes were examined, I found photos of a flyover, a cookie jar, traffic lights—things that are culturally alien.

One particular room we visited was a grade three class with about 30 students. Posted on the board were some photos and words. The teacher, Lea Lombos, was in her early 30’s. When we entered the classroom, Lea was in the middle of reading a storybook in Lilubuagen. Every now and then, she would pause to make a comment. After she finished reading, she asked the class what they thought of the story. The class quickly sprung to life, with many pupils raising their hands, shouting “Mam! Mam!”, begging the teacher to call them and share their ideas. Later the discussion extended into practical concerns like finding ways to avoid dengue-carrying mosquitoes. Throughout the whole process, the students were actively involved. The exchanges were often punctuated with instantaneous laughter.

Former DepEd Secretary, Edilberto de Jesus, once went to observe an MTBMLE class in Lubuagan. His succinct description of the pupils was “they knew what was going on and they were clearly engaged in the learning process. ” Lea Lombos is proud that her pupils can express their ideas well and that they are enjoying her class. She explains that MTBMLE allows everybody, not just the smart ones to participate. Since they are familiar with the language, the students are able to give more examples. Another teacher relates that MTBMLE easily eliminates inhibition and fear in many pupils, especially the younger ones. She adds that fear and inhibition is the main reason why many grade one pupils drop out of school.

One of my students observed that in an MTBMLE class it is not only the students that are animated and energized, but the teachers as well. It is easy to get the impression that MTBMLE is burdensome with many teaching devices to prepare. Lea believes that after sometime, MTBMLE makes her work easier. She admits that she is not so adept in using Filipino or English. With the use of the mother tongue, she can easily explain the lessons at hand. MTBMLE eventually requires less preparation of visual aids since the students are already familiar with the concepts. It is unlike an English-only class where visual aids are needed to unlock an unfamiliar English word. Since there is less unlocking of unfamiliar concepts, the teacher utilizes most of the class time for more intelligent discussion.

Teachers Read and Write Like First Graders
Most MTBMLE teachers would say that the hardest part was learning to read and write in their mother tongue. Before, their mother tongue was just a spoken language. The first time they read texts in their mother tongue, they would read them aloud slowly and haltingly like first graders. It took one to two years before they went beyond the “stumbling period” and became comfortable in teaching through the mother tongue. They especially had trouble reading and writing using the bar Y (Yy) since it was not a known letter in the Filipino or English alphabet.

Rediscovering their Mother Tongue
The process of writing original stories during the MTBMLE training sessions made them realize that they have forgotten and lost many of the words that they grew up with. They discovered that many of the words they spoke daily were actually Ilocano, not original Lilubuagen words. Ilocano has been their trade language, widely used in Tabuk, the capital of Kalinga. In some situations when they could not find the right words that approximate certain ideas, they had to go and consult with the elderly members of the community. If they found several words to describe a particular idea, they would adopt the simplest form. In the whole process, the teachers did not only rediscover the lost Lilubuagen words but also came to nurture a deeper sense of valuing for their own language. Madam Norma Duguiang said, “I am sad that the young people today do not know original Lilubuagen words like how we call the anahaw leaf which is alaaw. They have also forgotten the names of some indigenous kitchen utensils since they have come to prefer those plastic wares.”

There is an ongoing debate on what type of language should be used in an MTBMLE program. Some would use existing popularly spoken words which might include borrowed words from other languages. Others would look for the original words used by their ethnic group. The Lubuagan teachers believe that borrowed words like Ilocano do not sound like their own. They feel that part of their task in MTBMLE is to save their own language. This requires them to constantly rebuild the vocabulary in their own language. The whole process of re-learning their language also brought about a revitalization of their culture. MTBMLE schools always have a ready group of students to perform the native music and dance before school visitors. During our interviews, teachers and other Lubuagan residents would express pride over their various types of dances, their indigenous peacekeeping process (bodong), their handicrafts like bead making and weaving, their high standards for cleanliness, and their hospitality to strangers.

Reframing teaching and learning
One strong message in MTBMLE training sessions is not to resort to rote learning. When asked why they resort to such methods, teachers would usually point to the language of learning as the culprit. Because they and their learners are not adept in the prescribed languages of instruction, real dialogue with the pupils could not take place. Pupils then develop the habit of mechanically copying notes from the board and memorizing them even if they do not comprehend what they really mean. Participants in MTBMLE training would sometimes reflect on their own schooling experience and would express sadness and anger over being deprived of their voices as learners.

Now with the use of the mother tongue, pupils as early as grade one are able to write their own ideas and form them into a simple story or a song. Narcisa said that even low performing grade one pupils can manage to write at least two sentences. Seeing grade one pupils write their own stories is something that I found exceptional. Lea noticed that her pupils, having gone through MTBMLE in the previous grades, would correct her when she would misspell a certain Lilubuagen word.

Pupils from MTBMLE classes seem to have greater appreciation for reading. During recess time, they would go to the book shelves to open and read the books. Younger pupils would pretend to read by pointing at the words with their index finger from left to right. They would also go to the library to borrow books written in Lilubuagen. Narcisa describes it in Ilocano—“Marunot iti libro kaniada” (With them, books would soon be tattered from too much use).

Teachers know how hard it was to learn through an alien language. They would go back to the time in the 1960s when the vernacular was supposed to be the medium of instruction. However since their teachers were Ilocano, they were forced to learn to read and write in their teachers’ language. That time nobody from Lubuagan was qualified to be a professional teacher. It was most difficult when the bilingual policy was imposed in 1974. Norma Duguiang was in the middle of her social studies class when her supervisor came. She was asked to immediately switch from English to Tagalog. An official document was placed on her lap detailing the new language of instruction policy. At that time Tagalog was still unknown in her area. Teaching became burdensome and unnatural because she had to consult a Tagalog-English dictionary so often. She said that the pupils now are more fortunate because Tagalog is learned through radio and television. Norma related how troubled she was when she learned in the 1990s that Lubuagan was among the poor performing schools. Realizing that the language of instruction was a major cause, she and her husband volunteered for the MTBMLE program that was introduced by the Dekker couple from SIL. Norma along with other MTBMLE teachers had to endure the criticisms from their fellow teachers and parents. The parents complained that the reason they sent their children to school was to learn Filipino and English, and not their own language. The parents who eventually came to support MTBMLE were those who saw that their children can read better compared to their older siblings who were educated in the traditional bilingual education curriculum.

Through MLE, Lubuagan has become the top performer in the whole division of Kalinga. In a feature story on TV by Howie Severino, it was found that Lubuagan pupils even outperformed the pupils of Caloocan City, Metro Manila. When the teachers in Mabilong read for the first time a copy of the Department of Education Order No. 74 Institutionalizing Mother Tongue-Based Multilingual Education, they became jubilant upon discovering that the Lubuagan MTBMLE experience was mentioned in the first page of the said document. They said that they are happy that finally the government recognizes what they do. Now they have something to show to non-believers of the program. Indeed the road to MTBMLE has not been an easy path for teachers. Edilberto de Jesus described the teachers’ initiatives as a form of “dedication to a cause greater than themselves for the sake of national welfare of the country.”
Ched Arzadon is the board secretary of 170+ Talaytayan MLE Inc. and is a fulltime faculty member at the UP College of Education in Diliman.

To cite:
Arzadon, C. (2010). Dedicated to a Cause Greater than Themselves. Book chapter in Starting where the Children are: A Collection of Essays on Mother Tongue- Based Multilingual Education and Language Issues in the Philippines. Nolasco, R., Datar, F. & Azurin, A. (eds). 170+Talaytayan MLE Inc, 2010