A Case of Hit and Miss

Today at Gaza Camp, I got a shot to my hopes when a student of mine asked me “Miss ,do we write people with the “p” letter that has the stick on top or ‘b” letter that has the stick on the bottom”. I tried to keep my cool, once I heard that question, especially when it was being asked to me after three months of classes with this same particular group of girls.
I said “How do you pronounce it dear, do you say people or beoble” the girl said “beoble” with her thick accent, making me realize then that we have to go over the difference between “p” and “b” . I thought we had passed that phase in the learning curve but apparently we didn’t.
Her stunning question made us waste 15 minutes of class going over the difference between “p” and “b”, only for me to realize that many other girls had the same dilemma. Trying to maintain a joking attitude , we laughed and joked about the issue a bit, but inside I was boiling with anger
Soon after that point, I was hit with another shock when I realized that my students don’t know the difference between “went” and “want”, so we wasted another 25 minutes in class going over the two words , what they mean . and how they work in sentences.
The issue isn’t really about someone not knowing something. On a more positive note the fact that a student is comfortable enough to ask a question, is good news for me. It is the first step to moving forward, especially since I remember a time when they used to all nod their heads saying they understood what I was saying, even when they didn’t.
I think, the problem lies in our educational system, where students are conditioned to memorize lessons, to the point where they can answer any question in the book without really understanding it.
I say this from experience, if I ask any of my girls a question related to the book, the story they are reading, or a lesson we wrote on the board, they would answer it. If I deviate slightly from the lesson, they would look at me blankly before trying to guess the answer, and I stress on the word “guess”. They could answer me perfectly well when I ask them “What did you do yesterday?” but yet some of these girls would stare at me with an expression of total loss on their faces if I ask them “What did you last Friday” even if I am asking them the question on a Saturday so that it means exactly the same thing.
One thing I don’t do in any of my classes, is give my students something to read at home or answer questions about it at home. The only type of homework I ever give them is to look up something, and even then they demonstrate a stunning ability to memorize a paragraph word for word as if their only goal in life is to impress the teacher.

I find this goal very alarming especially in an English class like the one I give where there are no marks, there is no extra credit, and nothing they do with me will really count towards a certificate. What shocks me even more is the fact that they all come to class, at their own free will. No one forces them to come, but yet they manage to memorize, not understand, and cheat by copying homework assignments off a friend.
Right now, we are reading Tom Sawyer, I figured it is a fun story that is easy enough for them, or so I thought before I was hit with the remark of the day, when one of my students says, “Tom doesn’t have a brother”.
Hearing those words I replied “Sweetie, who is Sid, the guy we have been reading about for a month”, she said “The thing is, I don’t remember him having a brother in the cartoon we used to watch when we were kids”
It then hit me that this woman, who i am guessing is in her thirties since she saw the Tom Sawyer cartoon, is not even making the effort to read the book, instead she is jogging her memory trying to remember a dubbed cartoon that she , and many other people growing up in the 80’s in Jordan had seen. Incidentally the people dubbing the cartoon couldn’t even get the boy’s name right since he was named ‘Tom Iswer” so no wonder they forgot about his brother Sid.
I personally remember the cartoon vividly since I spent a good portion of my childhood and early teens watching both it and the many other dubbed cartoons of the era .
A few months ago, a fellow volunteer who works as a full time teacher , tried to explain this fact to me by saying that he could make any student pass the Tawjihi English exam without the need for him/her to know English. He said ” Tawjihi is a system, and any good teacher just needs to figure out the system. The exam writers are not going to reinvent new questions every year, it is just a cycle where they repeat questions in a pattern, so most teachers know that and they just teach their students to memorize”
He said those words with full confidence, but I am pretty sure he was embellishing a bit.
I do however see a grain of truth in what he is saying, how else would you explain someone scoring an average of 99.9? Probably that person get his/her name wrong on the paper since it wasn’t on the syllabus.
If all teachers are teaching with this mentality, then it is no wonder that students memorize lessons only to repeat them blindly. They don’t know any better so they would do the same even in a voluntary class they signed up for themselves. I guess that in a school or college classroom where they have to take exams to pass they will even memorize where the comas and full stops are in the book as well.
So, today, I kind of feel disappointed, not because my students are asking questions but because it hit me that they need to be brainwashed from all the awful study habits they have picked up over the years.
I decided not to give any students books they can take home with them. I also decided to never say what the lesson is beforehand, but what is really bothering me is the fact that next month we celebrate two years working on this project, and yet although we have come along way, we are still making trial and error experiments on what works and what doesn’t.
I just hope that next week will be a better one.

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