Not All Heroes Wear Capes

05 April 2017

We talk to Cheryl Ann Fernando, the school teacher who brought choral speaking glory to an underperforming rural school that inspired the film, Adiwiraku.

Ancient Greek theatre invented the art of choral speaking thousands of years ago, and in Malaysia, choral speaking has been a common feature in our local school co-curricular system for decades; some would even consider it an integral part of their school’s legacy. Bukit Bintang Girls’ School (BBGS, now SMK Seri Bintang Utara since its relocation in 2000) has not only cemented their status as a fierce contender on the national level but they are also the ones who first brought choral speaking into the country. Thanks to the school’s longest serving headmistress, the late Elena Cooke, choral speaking has become a part of BBGS’s hallowed tradition since 1958, which later spread to other schools.

Cheryl Ann Fernando, known as “Teacher Cheryl” by her students.

Today,  the Malaysian Education Ministry organises inter-school competitions annually to promote English language proficiency among primary and secondary school students. To the uninitiated, choral speaking is an ensemble speaking performance of students, led by a conductor. It entails interpreting poetry or short prose, using various voices of the students. To win, teams are expected to vocalise English prose with confidence and fluency.

This was a challenge that Cheryl Ann Fernando strived to overcome when she first arrived at SMK Pinang Tunggal, a low performance school in Sungai Petani, Kedah, back in 2013. Two years later, she led the school’s choral speaking team to win the top five spot against 20 other schools in the Kuala Muda/Yan district.

Before she became “Teacher Cheryl” to her students, Cheryl had a lucrative but unfulfilling corporate job as a PR consultant in Mont Kiara. After finding herself more interested in teaching, Cheryl joined Teach for Malaysia (TFM), a non-profit organisation that recruits professionals to pursue a career in teaching.

Cheryl’s focus has always been about bringing change into the classroom. One of her goals as a teacher was to improve the English usage among her students ­­– most of whom were in the bottom class where students couldn’t speak English at all. Driven and ambitious, Cheryl aimed to imbue the same values through fun activities and class competitions. She, along with two other teachers, even made a music video parody of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space, in which both teachers and students sing about themselves.

“In my classroom, from day one, I would set the culture,” explains Cheryl about pushing her students to get out of their comfort zones. “We have a game every day.”

For Cheryl, encouraging a competitive attitude is the best way to motivate the students to strive for more.

“I’ve always liked to compete because I always think that there’s a lot of values you can gain when you enter competitions. There’s a lot of things that you learn when you prepare for competitions. That’s why I always try to make my students enter things, do performances. Because all of these skills, you can’t teach in the classroom.”

Teacher Cheryl as portrayed by actress Sangeetha Krishnasamy in Adiwiraku.

Hence, when the choral speaking competition for the Kuala Muda/Yan district beckoned, Cheryl took up the challenge. Although SMK Pinang Tunggal  entered and lost the competition in 2013, Cheryl was determined to show a better performance in 2015. In the beginning, this proved to be a challenging task when she had to deal with low turnouts, disciplinary issues and poor speaking skills among her students. These students were also teased for speaking in English by other schoolmates in the predominantly Malay school.

“I try to make my classroom a ‘safe space’ where it’s okay to speak English,” says Cheryl. “I used to punish them if they speak Malay in the classroom.”

Consistently finding ways to empower her students, Cheryl turned to Irish pop rock band The Script for inspiration, the result of which ended up as the winning choral speaking script.

“I like the song Superheroes by The Script,” says Cheryl. “So, we wrote the [choral speaking] script in the sense that we have a lot of problems in this world, so who can solve it? In the script, the kids will say ‘maybe Batman, maybe Cicakman, maybe Spiderman!’ They will go through all the superheroes and then finally, they will realise that actually we don’t have to wait for superheroes because we can do it ourselves. We can save ourselves.”
Adiwiraku executive producer Jason Chong.

It’s this empowering message that piqued Adiwiraku executive producer Jason Chong’s interest when he first heard about SMK Pinang Tunggal’s uplifting story. Jason, himself hailing from a small kampung in Perak, understands the challenges that youths from rural areas have to face. “My [Malay] is so good because I mixed with all the Malay kids but at 16 years old, my mum decided to move to KL. That’s where I got in trouble because I [couldn’t] speak English,” shares Jason.  

It was only fitting then, that the first film by SOL Pictures Sdn Bhd – Jason’s new production house – would be about how a team of students from an underperforming rural school beat the odds to win fifth place in a choral speaking competition. Directed by Eric Ong, Adiwiraku follows Cheryl (played by actress Sangeeta Krishnasamy) and the students of SMK Pinang Tunggal (most of whom were played by the actual students) on their choral speaking journey. The film premiered on 9 March in Malaysian cinemas.

A scene from Adiwiraku.

“The overall message [of the film] is that if you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything actually,” says Jason. “If these kids from Pinang Tunggal with all these odds stacked against them can do it, why can’t we?”

Cheryl has since left SMK Pinang Tunggal in 2016 to pursue her PhD in Curriculum Design at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and is currently working at EduNation, a platform providing free tuition online, as the director of education and learning. However, her efforts have definitely left a lasting impression on the school and its students. Aside from a feature film putting the school on the map, its current choral speaking team is already preparing to enter this year’s competition.

By Nor Atikah Abdul Wahid
Adiwiraku images courtesy of SOL Pictures Sdn Bhd


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