The Problem with Questions


Josephine and Philimine (Senior 2B)

Like many teachers I know, one of the biggest challenges I face in the classroom is getting the kids to ask questions when they don’t understand the material. This is especially important here since English is their third or fourth language and I have to admit that they probably don’t understand a lot of what I say! I have explained to my students that I am not blessed with the ability to read minds so it is therefore impossible for me to know their questions unless they use their words but they still seem to assume I possess certain magical qualities that enable me to teach them without knowing what they understand about the lessons. It makes my life difficult. I have done my best to encourage the students by creating a “question-friendly” atmosphere but this can be difficult to enforce since the typical classroom culture here involves laughing at others when they make mistakes and sometimes when they ask questions. Along with this critical environment I think there is also some hesitancy to ask questions because of a language barrier between Kinyarwanda and English.

The problem with questions in Kinyarwanda is that to ask a question you must also admit that you have a problem. The phrase “mfite ikibazo” translates to both “I have a question” and “I have a problem.” It is frustrating to me that a language that has words to distinguish between “my paternal aunt” and “your paternal aunt” has only one word for both problem and question!  Despite my best efforts to explain that question and problem are very different words in the English language I think that some of their silence derives from a sense of pride. They don’t want to admit that they have a problem understanding but I need them to tell me what they need clarified to help them learn the material. In moments of desperation I have almost resorted to pleading and begging for them to just open their mouths and start asking questions, but instead I have started researching alternative methods to soliciting/encouraging questions. Here is the list I have compiled so far:

• Instead of asking, “Do you have questions?”  I have started to ask, “What are your questions?”

• I spend a decent amount of time reassuring them that it is a trait of a serious student (a high compliment here) to ask questions

• Sometimes I will randomly give a small reward (usually in the form of candy or maybe a new pen) to a student who asks a good question when the rest of the class is busy acting like they are studying for their final exams to be mimes

• Asking students to write questions on small pieces of paper that I can read after class- the anonymity seems to lend a sense of freedom to some of the quieter students

• Asking students to write questions together in groups in an effort to take the pressure off of one single student

• One of my last options is to congratulate them on having no questions and offer them a quiz since they have clearly mastered all of the material- with this suggestion their once blank faces become animated with looks of utter desperation and they suddenly have questions about everything. I feel bad using this method but sometimes it is the only way to actually have them tell me what parts of the lesson they didn’t understand.

If any teachers reading this entry have suggestions I would welcome them with sincere gratitude. Despite the realization that teaching is not my true passion in life I really do want my students to succeed and it is frustrating to see them fail because they refuse to ask questions and I don’t have enough time to repeat every lesson to enhance clarity.

One of the local teachers recently confided in me that she is very disenchanted with teaching lately because the students just don’t seem to care. It is a complicated situation, especially because I teach at a day school where the students have to go home and work after school so they don’t have a lot of extra time for studying. In some ways I completely understand why they never complete homework and fail all of their subjects (seriously- they are almost all failing at least half of their subjects) but in some ways it seems ridiculous to me that they go to all of the trouble to attend school and then just sit in class and don’t pay attention or do the work. Some of these kids walk an hour (one way) to get to school and I know it is a struggle for many of them to find enough money for school fees and materials so I have to ask myself, “If it is such a burden and financial sacrifice to attend school then why do they even come if they don’t really want to learn?” I know that here is not a single answer to this dilemma. I am sure for some their parents force them to come and for others maybe they really did want to learn but the harsh realities of life and obligations outside of school have started to exist in a way that is not compatible with their responsibilities as a student.

Thanks to discussions with other teachers I am starting to realize that the motivation level of students is a problem for most teachers- not just Peace Corps volunteers in Rwanda. In some ways my kids really do have unique challenges relating to poverty and the changing school system (there was a very abrupt change from using French and Kinyarwanda as the teaching languages to using English) but in some ways I think I need to remember that I am teaching teenagers. It would seem to be that a teenager is a teenager regardless of their circumstances. There are common characteristics that all teenagers share no matter where they live so when my kids act up I do my best to remind myself that I was also once an awkward adolescent overwhelmed with angst and drama. This reminder usually helps me to cope with the bad days and sometimes I just need to spend some time visiting friends, holding babies, and eating chocolate. The best remedy for a bad day involves all three of these activities but chocolate is hard to find and expensive so I usually just rely on babies because they are everywhere and have mamas who are willing to hand them over to strangers- thank goodness for that! 🙂

Well this entry seems to have wandered away from the original topic. If this were a paper for school I would revise and edit to make sure that everything was coherent and related to the same topic but luckily this is just a blog so I can write whatever I want! I hope everyone back home is doing well and please continue to update me with what you are up to so that I don’t feel like I am missing out on too much!

Rachel and Seraphine (Senior 2B)


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