“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”: Teaching, Learning and the Immigrant Experience, Part II

Jacques Fleury
Spare Change News

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” –Paulo Freire

In my previous article, I compared my experiences as a student at a Catholic school for boys in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to the teaching ideology critiqued in Paulo Freire’s groundbreaking book: Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In that book, Freire criticizes the traditional model of schooling in which the teacher treats the student as a submissive, unintelligible mind in which to “deposit” knowledge, and in which the student receives information without question.

One of the methods in which I was taught in Haiti was through the use of dictation; the teacher would read from a textbook in a sonorous voice while using unnecessary verbosity. The students were resigned to cognitive submission, merely bowing their heads and recording the teacher’s lesson without question.

Freire refers to this educational model as “the banking system of education,” a system in which the teacher is the “depositor” and the student the “depository.” Another method used was bleak memorization of ample amounts of text to be stored in the student’s memory bank for later use. During testing, the student recalls the knowledge that has been “deposited” in his memory bank, and parrots back the information upon request.

Upon arriving in the United States, my academic skills, or should I say my “memorizing” skills, were so advanced that I was allowed to spend only a half-year in the eighth grade. In high school, I was able to excel once again, winning all types of academic awards. However, there was only one problem with all my achievement as a learner: I understood practically nothing; all I did was “memorize” all that was taught to me, just as I did back in Haiti. I found myself asking: how did all of this fit into my immediate reality? I did not see a purpose for what I was learning; I just knew that I had to learn it since that was what was expected of me.

At the same time, I was confronting the challenges of the immigrant dilemma, the culture shock of being in America and attempting to assimilate to an intimidating, and at times unsympathetic, reality, in part resulting from not being able to speak English. One of the first things that brightened the shades of my anxiety as a new arrival to this country was discovering there were no punitive consequences for not learning or not learning quickly enough. It was such a welcomed relief that it brought my thirst for knowledge to a new level. Having eliminated the fear and anxiety of possible failure and the violent repercussions that would come after, learning became an exciting panorama. However, I still did not understand how to learn without conjuring up old habits of deliberate memorization.

The Haitian kids referred to me not by my birth name, but by the way I learned. My new nickname was “par Coeur,” or “by heart” in English. When the teacher would ask a question, naturally, I would have my hand up, and all the kids would roll their eyes and sigh in anticipation of my protracted recitation of meaningless text. The teachers never took me aside and explained to me that complete memorization was not always necessary, and that sometimes understanding the relevance of the material was more important. I did not understand this concept, until one of the more practical students explained to me the inherent impracticality of absolute memorization without having an understanding of reason and purpose. Mind you, this was a student who received mostly C’s to my consistent A’s; when he would ask me a question regarding the “meaning” of the text that I had just memorized, I could not answer him other than to recite the text over again like a programmed automaton. Although I vaguely understood the student’s earnest explanation of conceptual understanding rather than literal memorization, I was not yet ready to accept this new way of learning and understanding.

In my senior year at Boston English High School, after I had been transferred from the bilingual program to a mainstream education program, I began to learn the academically enlightening practice of “critical thinking.” It was then that I was taught to use my analytical muscle to deconstruct meaning from classic works of literature such as William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” It was then that I finally began to feel mentally awake as a student.

The new challenge for me then was adapting to a new pedagogical model, while ridding myself of my old academic habits of simply recording and memorizing information without question.

It wasn’t until I attended college for nursing that I began to understand the “proper” use of memorization and the constitutional meanings of learning materials. I went from passively consuming to actively participating in the learning process. What made this transition easier was that I knew that I had to apply what I had learned shortly after class in the nursing lab! And once I had learned it in lab, the teacher would eagerly appeal to students to ask questions, to open the gates of knowledge in a non-intimidating fashion. The next day, we would all attend the clinical rotation area, where we would work with actual patients and implement classroom teachings in real-life situations. In the clinical setting in nursing school, I opted to apply old and new learning methods by combining memorization with practical dexterity with grace and confidence, and that made all the difference.

To Be Continued…

JACQUES FLEURY’s book: “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe & available at www.lulu.com. His CD “A Lighter Shade of Blue” with the folk group “Sweet Wednesday” to benefit Haiti charity St. Boniface is available on iTunes. Contact Jacques at: haitianfirefly@gmail.com and visit him at: www.facebook.com/thehaitianfirefly.





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