Friday, July 10, 2009

When cliches attack

Education in Kenya is largely based on rote memorization. Memorize facts, spit them back. Memorize facts, spit them back. And I have to admit, these kid’s ability to cram information in their heads is phenomenal. But this does not teach them to THINK. Often it doesn’t even teach them to understand.

Not even writing is exempt from this rote memorization. They literally have big books of expressions and proverbs that they memorize and are required to jam into every composition they write. The more clichés, the better. It KILLS me, because I can’t even tell them NOT to do this, because if they don’t have them for their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exams (the big exams that determine what kind of secondary school they qualify – HUGE pressure, high stakes exams at the end of primary school), they will be penalized greatly.

And so they memorize, memorize, memorize, and their compositions are hopelessly flowery and often are humourous and rather befuddling because they’ve stuck some proverb in there that has nothing whatsoever to do with what they’re talking about. Here are a few examples of what results when memorization is present without understanding:

The headmaster was as tall as a flagpole and as fat as a pig.

I was so sad because my mother kicked the bucket.

I ran out the door at a speed that would make a snail a champion.

I stood rooted to the ground as if defying gravity.


And, regardless of what the composition is about, it very often begins with waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, washing, a journey, and then one quick paragraph of whatever the event is actually supposed to be. And it’s almost ALWAYS “the day I will remember for the rest of my life.” Even when the story takes place over a week.

Let's see... It was Monday morning when I woke up early, because the early bird catches the worm. It was when the birds were twittering and flying hither and thither from tree to tree. The radiant light of the sun penetrated via my bedroom window and I got out of bed and went off to the frog’s kingdom, because as Englishman says, cleanliness is next to godliness. My mother asked me to help her make breakfast, so without saying a word I went fast and cooked. Time and tide wait for no king. Wow! We had a special breakfast, and I was as happy as a sandboy…

Do you get the picture? (And what on EARTH is a sand boy???) When I had my first batch of exams to mark, at first I thought they were so clever, till I saw whole sentences repeated over and over and over in each composition. My particular favourite is this: “I was as happy as an old woman who just got her dental program renewed before a big feast.”


Here’s a full composition. At least this one was a little bit original – not about finding out that you’re the first person in your class or about getting beaten by the headmaster. This one was cute and made me laugh! The first bit is the story starter that they then had to finish. I kept the grammar and wording, but just corrected the spelling (it’s really hard to purposely type words incorrectly!) What’s your favourite cliché?

All eyes turned towards me as I entered the classroom. Even before I could sit down, someone whispered loudly that…

I heard some words. So I made myself innocent and went and sat on my large brown desk. Then I tried to investigate what was wrong but I could not find anything wrong. But the way I saw it was something funny about me.
So, immediately without wasting time because as Englishman say time and tide waits for no king I looked around. Then I also looked the way I dressed and didn’t trust the sight that greeted my eyes. I was shocked when I saw that I had wore two different socks and shoes which are blue and red. So, I rubbed my eyes to make sure that it was not.
Then I just ignored and sat comfortably. But the pupils didn’t stopped looking at me. So, I thought and even tried to find where to go and dress well but it was late. That time my heart was beating like a West African drum.
Suddenly a bright idea came into my big cylindrical head. I went to some of my friends to help me. So they told me to go to the teacher to ask for permission to go home and dress well. So, I walked in front of the class as I was thin that when I walked it seemed like a walking advertisement for the benefits of unhealthy eating.
My friends and I went to our class teacher who was as old as Bethsheba. So, she told me to go home faster and be back to school after some minutes. So I ran as fast as deer, leaving a dust floating in the air. I reached home faster.
Then my mother went out of our house. She looked at me and was surprised on the way I dressed. Without saying a word I ran into our house and changed my clothes. Then my father who was at tall as a flag post and had teeth as yellow as chocolate and his hair resemble my grandmother’s yard broom went out of the house and told me to go to school faster.
So I returned to school and I was as happy as an old woman who just got her denture program renewed before a big feast to be dressed well again. But I just felt ashame even after dressing well. So, that was when I knew that I was a careless pupil but till that day I became careful and neat. So, that is the day I would never forget in the rest of my life.

If I can help them to see that their writing can be much more creative and interesting withOUT using all these beloved expressions, I’ll be as happy as a king.


Anonymous said...

HAHAHA!!! Hair resembles grandmother's yard broom?? Happy as an old woman who just got her denture program approved!
This is so funny, because it reminds me of how we teach writing to 4th graders, and how they apply what we teach. We teach them to "narrate, not summarize" and zoom in on the most important part of the story instead of telling a "bedtime to bedtime" tale of the day. And they ALWAYS want to add lots of similes or idioms because they're so new!
I love this essay. May copy it and use it next year to teach! Too cute!
Amy P

Magical Mystical Teacher said...

"But, but, but," sputtered the teacher who tries in vain to get his kids to write, "at least these kids are writing. It may be formulaic, and it may be unoriginal, but at least they are writing."

To me, that counts for a lot. I'd be thrilled (why, I'd even be "happy as a king") if my students wrote as much as this student did.

nachtwache said...

Precious! :D