Combatting a Rote Legacy

You know it’s a rough day to be a teacher when you have to reprimand a nun for lying to you about doing an assignment. In front of a class. With other nuns. Who also lied about leaving their assignment at home and promised to bring it after lunch… or finish it on their lap during group discussions. Which makes you crazy because you definitely talked about this exact thing in the last class. But there you are, going all dark-eyed at a middle-aged lady in a starched wimple.

At the end of a difficult class, I looked out at my audience. After eight hours of talking over 47 second-year English students and the eleven a.m. hurricane, and metaphorically dragging all of them through a reading that they didn’t do despite a week of no school, I was spent. I had already cut the lesson in half, a lesson that in its planning stages felt a little stretched for content and overly simple. Why was I doing this? I was I pushing them so hard, when it was clear that the vast majority weren’t connecting or caring? I don’t want to admit it to myself, but the feeling of failure was starting to overwhelm at the end of this particular lesson. For jobs like this, no one hands you a guide to “How to Make Your Students See the Value of Every Task That You Give Them (That You Are Certain Has Value, But Then Again, You Are An Outsider From America).” I would trade all the hot water in my house, along with my Honda Civic, which I miss more than words can express, for that little guide.

Teachers all know this: you will encounter classes that seem impervious to your efforts. You can even spend the class pulling students through a lesson about critical thinking and education as something to claim, not receive. You can harp on and on about challenging yourself and taking responsibility for your actions, just to go postal on a nun who clearly didn’t get the memo.

So far, I haven’t had any Freedom Writer moments at this university. My homework assignments have not been turned in with handwritten notes about how reading Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” changed his/her life. Somehow, my recent lecture about Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains, complete with interactive exercises that brilliantly incorporated the homework text and required extensive amounts of meaningful student interaction (do I get my A now?) were not met with applause or tears of joy, as I expected. Most days, it’s not so different from teaching slightly spoiled international students in the States. No one wants to do homework, vocabulary assignments become copy-paste exercises, reading is that irritating drudgery, and classes, each a week long, are hours to pass as painlessly as possible.

Teaching, at my current post, is very hard, and I realized today for the first time why. It’s not hard for the reasons that I call the usual suspects: overcrowded classrooms, no materials, and linguistic and cultural barriers (though the usual suspects are alive and well here). It’s hard because of how much I have to teach. My current students are non-traditional, back in the classroom after years away, though they are mostly primary and secondary school teachers themselves. They are accustomed to rote learning: they copy down every word I write or present, their listening skills suspended as they scribble each word—even those that I explicitly tell them not to write. Copying is a comfort: they feel confident in this; after all, it is the system that they use their classes. All of these words, many that they do not understand and will not remember, are dutifully write on the paper. My directions to discuss questions are met with scribbles (as they copy down the questions) and then silence.

These are not Rwanda’s top students; those who scored the highest on secondary school exams received places at the University of Rwanda. My students are at a private institution where they must pay tuition; they attend classes in the evenings, on the weekends, and during holidays. For many, they need the diploma to move further in their careers in secondary and primary education. As with education in so many environments, it is the paper with its university crest and all-important stamp, not the educational content itself, that is the goal, or so it often appears. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t experience education as something transformative, something that buried rote learning in favor of individualized self-improvement, with critical thinking and application as its foundation.

To get there, and away from rote, They need practice in the basics of university functionality: reading and annotating texts, looking for meaning, critical analysis, even the basics of holding a group discussion. I used to take for granted that these skills are inherent to college students—perhaps among the brightest they come automatically, or perhaps I’ve become so entrenched in what I know that I expect it of others without remembering that their experiences are vastly different from my own. Here, I don’t facilitate. Here, I teach basics. I teach and I attempt to model and then I explain again (in other words) and sometimes I ask for a student to translate and I feel frustrated when it takes all of that for the students to understand.

Yes, a good part is the problem of low language skills. But today, I shifted the blame to rote. I’ve worked with rote veterans before, but enough moments in class have taught me that Rwandan rote is a hyper-breed, slammed hard into these older learners. But I forget that they have this background, and I start to question myself. Am I such a bad teacher that they don’t get it the first time I lay it out for them? Why are we still having these problems with discussion groups? Why does everyone write the exact same answer, copied from each other, even when it doesn’t fit the question? I sometimes stare across their heads, wondering if I am, in fact, crazy.

You cannot focus on content until there is an agreed-upon method for delivery, receptive and productive skills being key here. Students must understand the basics of what you ask them to do- you cannot do a task unless you understand the directions. Often, it seems, the tasks that feel basic to me, such as writing a sentence that uses a vocabulary word without copying a sample from the dictionary, requires extensive explanation. An assignment to choose a text and create an activity for the class is met with confusion. “You want us to summarize it?” I remind them to look at my over-the-top assignment sheet, which does not have the word “summarize” anywhere to be found. This is the legacy of rote learning: they find it difficult to understand an assignment that does not ask them to do what they have been taught is an assignment, or looks for creativity. The Rote World has no use for creativity as it rewards those who can parrot back information (not knowledge, not understanding) the most accurately. When I asked them to read—just read—two articles for the evening’s homework, it took three exchanges with the Head Student to explain that no, I really did just want them to read and think, with no requirement automated output.

Now, I see that the problem isn’t that my students didn’t *care* about Adrienne Rich. They are so conditioned to respond to classrooms, assignments, and teachers in an automatic way that they struggle, almost against their nature, to stretch themselves to see the content I try to deliver. And maybe realizing that I would have to spend so much time and energy on instilling basics, not digging deep into critical content as my teaching style often dictates, broke my heart a little bit. But maybe, if I keep up this campaign of pushing them out of their comfort zone, asking them to give their opinion and their reaction—and not just copy a summary from a neighbor—they will begin to see the transformative power that education can offer. Maybe they will be able to find their own voices, to apply their values and experiences and look for commonality. Maybe I need to keep pushing, keep explaining, keep demonstrating, and keep reaching out and learning from them myself, so at some point, they can learn from me. So maybe I need to remember my tagline and breathe a little: this is a familiar exercise in humility.


Image found here.


One thought on “Combatting a Rote Legacy

  1. I literally laughed out loud at “starched wimple” and “go postal on a nun” … literally. Seriously not PC how hard I laughed … could have something to do with my state of delirium … I managed to complete my first week of both schools … 5 hours of teaching per day with the drive in between. Getting 3-4 hours of sleep per night (N has decided that NOW is the time to stop sleeping through the night …), mustering enough strength to try and make pronouns fun, then not understanding when a student continually asks questions that have absolutely NOTHING to do with the topic at hand (it’s at that point that I say “it’s not a language issue that you have, dude … it’s an intelligence issue”) … well … delirium has set in … along with a serious lack of patience. I can’t even imagine planning 8 hours of lessons just to have to throw half of it away. Rote learning is going to be a tough one to replace, but if anyone can do it, LC can!


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