Transitions

It’s strange to think that my time here is slowly coming to a close. My mother recently reminded me that I only have about six weeks left (and that she’s counting down the days to my return). I’ve even been given my walking papers by the Fulbright Commission and asked to fill out my final report. I’ve also talked to my successor! I definitely got a sense of deja vu doing that. It seems like just yesterday that I was up early Skyping my predecessor and having her answer all of my questions.

Yet even though there are all of these tangible signs that I’m leaving Norway, I’m definitely not quite ready to go. It’s funny how at the beginning of my Fulbright I felt overwhelmed, and how now I don’t feel prepared to leave. I’m sure I’ll soon be joining the ranks of Norwegian Fulbright alumni who regularly come back to visit.

So, even though I still have a few weeks left, much of my remaining time has been spent thinking back on what I have accomplished so far. So I thought I’d leave you with something that I wrote as part of my final Fulbright report:

When I first arrived in Norway I was nervous. I had never lived in another country for more than a few months, and I had never taught high school students in a formal setting. I had a million and one questions about what would happen in the next year: How would I handle winter? How good would my students’ English be? Would I get homesick? But because I happen to be a huge fan of Google, I made sure to Google just about everything I could find on Norway, Trondheim, and on being an ETA. What people don’t really tell you is that no matter how many blogs or Norwegian guidebooks you read, there is nothing quite like just doing things. So although these resources made me feel a bit more prepared when I arrived, there was nothing quite like just setting off on my own and creating my own new experience.

Arriving in Norway was an adventure. There was definitely a bit of an initial culture shock: Where did all the people go? Is that BROWN cheese or just really weird peanut butter? Does everyone have a hand knit sweater? Why is everything so expensive? It was also strange arriving in a country where the majority of the population speaks English almost fluently. It made everything seem slightly familiar, even though it was clear that I was placed in a new landscape. But I adapted. I can even say that I like brown cheese!

Being in student housing helped me form a friend network and my predecessor even connected me to a few Americans in town. Through this, I managed to feel more at home and branch out and try new things. These new friends encouraged me to take up one of Norway’s great pastimes, hiking, and to even get involved in local community groups, such as TEDx Trondheim. These friendships, both international and Norwegian, have proved invaluable to helping me get a better sense of what it means to be Norwegian and live in Norway, and they have also given me a deeper sense of Norwegian culture.

As for teaching, the teacher’s strike made for an interesting start. Luckily both of my co-teachers were very communicative and I was able to keep on top of what was going on. Once the strike ended, I soon managed to settle into a schedule. My time was divided between working at NTNU and at Byåsen videregående skole (my inability to say videregående is always capable of making my students laugh). In the fall, I spent most of my time at NTNU helping with two classes, Academic Writing and Communication for Engineers. Here I helped hone the writing skills of my students by helping them work on things like structure, topic sentences, and annotated bibliographies. Because the students were supposed to send me weekly writing samples, I could really see how my students improved over the course of the semester.

Although I spent less time at the upper secondary school in the fall, I was able to make up for lost time in the spring. I primarily help with two International English classes and a Social Studies class. In International English, we look at multiculturalism, working and studying abroad, and global issues. It was here that I was largely able to talk about about immigration and race relations in the United States, something that I think my students found enlightening.

With the Social Studies class, I have helped teach both British and American history. Race has also been a huge conversation topic in this class, and I’m happy to say that my students did a great job of delving into To Kill A Mockingbird and looking at the various ways that America has grappled with race. I have also enjoyed teaching them about the American political system and explaining difficult questions such as: Why does the second amendment exist? Why do states have so much power? It’s been a joy to explain these things to my students, and to help them see both the good and the problematic sides of America.

When I’m not in one of those three classes, I have also enjoyed going into a variety of vocational English classes and teaching there. Things are taught at a much slower pace, and the focus is more on getting students to feel comfortable speaking English. Because of this, I have often had more everyday conversations with my students and gotten to learn more about the life of the average Norwegian teenager.

Overall, it’s hard to believe that this year is already drawing to a close, but I couldn’t be more happy with the way that this year has turned out. It has taught me a lot about both Norway and myself and, although I’ll be sad to go, I can’t wait to bring some of the best aspects of Norwegian culture with me.

Politics and Social Science

I was invited early on in the week to guest teach in a Politics and Social Science class. While I readily agreed to teach the class, I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive considering the small disaster my last guest lecture was. This time, I consulted with my main co-teacher at Byåsen and was told that the students I would be working with would have a pretty good grasp of English. Still, just to be safe, I made sure my lecture was on the simpler side, which I think helped make the lesson a success.

I was asked to teach about voting in the United States and started out by covering some very basic voting qualifications:

  • Be a US citizen (in Norway if you are allowed to vote in regional elections, municipal elections, and stand as a municipal candidate as long as you have been a legal resident for at least three years)
  • At least 18 years of age on election day (the same policy applies in Norway)
  • A resident of the state in which you register (not applicable)
  • Not currently serving a prison term (felons are allowed to vote in Norway)
  • Not currently on parole or other post-release supervision (felons are allowed to vote in Norway)

After covering these basics, I explained that in the United States you need to register to vote–something that is not required in Norway.

Then I went on to explain the political parties. Again, my students thought that the Republicans were a bit strange and had a much easier time understanding the Democrats.

From there I talked a bit about what Americans vote on in elections. I didn’t get too involved when explaining presidential voting since I was pretty sure explaining the electoral college would get too confusing for the students. Next, I talked a bit about what sorts of issues Americans vote on. In order to engage my students a bit more I showed them a commercial for this November’s midterm elections. Most of the students that I’ve worked with are very very quiet so I was hoping that showing these students a celebrity studded commercial might make them a bit more talkative:

Thankfully my strategy worked! They liked watching Lil Jon transform his hit song “Turn Down for What” into a song about voting, and they had fun identifying some of the other people that appeared in the video. The video also gave them a really good idea of ballot issues. The commercial is almost overwhelming in the number of topics that it raises, and from a teaching perspective it meant that none of my students had a problem raising their hands to answer my question “What are some of the things Americans vote on?”

After that I talked a bit about how despite star laden commercials and encouragement to “Rock the Vote,” the United States experienced its lowest voter turnout in 72 years this past midterm election. The number is pretty grim at 36.6%. Because I didn’t want to leave my students with the idea that most Americans are wholly indifferent to politics, I spent some time explaining some theories on why voting rates in the United States are low. Some of the most popular theories are:

  • Voter Registration. The United States is one of the few democracies that requires voter registration in order to vote.
  • Tuesday Voting. Voting on Tuesday made a lot more sense when America was a predominantly agricultural society. Because people lived so far apart most voters would travel into town from long distances. This meant that having voting on Tuesday allowed eligible voters to spend Monday traveling into town before voting on Tuesday. Weekend voting wasn’t a practical option at the time because citizens were going to church on Sunday. Clearly the  Tuesday voting system doesn’t make much sense in a modern day context, but we have yet to catch up with the times.
  • Felon Voting. Again, the United States is one of the few democracies that does not allow current (and in some cases former) prisoners to vote, disenfranchising a significant number of the population.

If you look at the first two reasons you can see that they have a lot to do with convenience. In fact, studies on this last midterm election show that states that allow for mail in voting or early voting have high voter participation rates. But making voting easier won’t necessarily solve America’s participation problem. In fact, even though some states have made it more convenient for their residents to vote, no state had a voter participation rate higher than 60% in this year’s midterms.

After this I talked very briefly about how the United States has implemented different types of voting restrictions over time. I decided to show them part of another video, this time one showing current Harvard students taking and failing Louisiana’s 1964 literacy test. Literacy tests were designed to disenfranchise different groups of people because they were almost impossible to pass:

If you want to learn a bit more about the test you can go to the YouTube page and read more under the video’s description.

I then wrapped up by talking about modern day voting restrictions. Currently many people in the United States are talking about photo identification laws. These laws require photo ID in order to vote in certain states, and they currently disenfranchise an estimated 23 million voting aged Americans (approximately 11% of Americans).

After that I was done lecturing and it was time for an activity. I provided my students with a list of potential 2016 presidential candidates and groups of two were supposed to report on a candidate to the rest of the class. Unsurprisingly, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were the first candidates that my students wanted to present on. I did however stop them from only reporting on Democratic candidates and made some of them look up Republicans. While not all of the students were enthused about their candidates (none of them liked the Republicans) it was fun walking around and helping them understand what these candidates believed in and explaining political terms such as “polling” and “pro-choice”.

British Parliament

I was back at Byåsen this week and helping with my favorite British social studies class. I talked to my co-teacher Maria earlier this week and she enthusiastically told me that our students were learning more about British Parliament and how the political system works. She asked me if I’d be willing to pull small groups of students out during class and talk to them about Britain’s Parliament. This sounded like a good idea to me…until I got to some of the discussion questions she had proposed. While some of the questions were on the easier side (What is a coalition government? What are the pros and cons of Norway’s system of proportional representation? What do students think about a two party system?) some of the others stumped me (Compare and contrast the House of Commons and the House of Lords. How are laws passed?). I began to feel a bit embarrassed for a number of reasons:

  1. I’m British on my dad’s side so I should in fact know how the British government works
  2. I did my undergrad on British history

In my defense, I never actually learned very much about the structure of the British political system when doing my undergraduate degree. I’m much more competent when it comes to talking about the rise and fall of political parties or certain noteworthy prime ministers than I am at actually talking about how these people and political parties passed laws.

Anyways, it was clear that I need to bulk up on my knowledge of British politics and clear away some of my ignorance. I duly set to work and played “God Save the Queen” in the background to make me feel slightly better about myself (this also means that I now know some of the lyrics beyond “God save the Queen”). So, here are the more important bits of what I learned:

What is the House of Commons?

The House of Commons is the lower house of Parliament and consists of 650 elected members, or Members of Parliament (MPs). Each constituency in the UK is allowed to have one MP and each MP wins their election by having the most votes, not by having the majority of the vote. So an MP could win with say 25% of the vote as long as the MP still had more votes than any other candidate. This voting system is known as first past the post.

What is the House of Lords?

The House of Lords currently has 760 members and is composed of hereditary members, archbishops and bishops, and life peers. The House of Lords Act 1999 ended the right of most hereditary members to sit in the House of Lords and there are currently only 92 hereditary members. Archbishops and bishops are senior members of the Church of England, and then there are life peers. Life peers represent the majority of the House of Lords at around 700 members. Life peers are, as the title implies, people who are elected to the House of Lords for life. They are nominated to the House of Lords and are oftentimes experts in their fields. The reason why so many of the current members are experts is so that its members can contribute relevant information on the topics being debated and discussed. The modern day concept of the House of Lords is that it should act as an independent advisory body of government. The composition of the House of Lords is also supposed to keep it less political. There are a significant number of peers who do not support a political party.

How are laws made?

If you prefer the written version of the video essentially what happens is this:

  1. A proposal for a law, or a green paper, is published.
  2. The green paper is open for discussion and consultation from interested parties and groups.
  3. A white paper is published which puts together the feedback that the green paper has received and gives a better outline of a proposed law or policy.
  4. Cabinet ministers vote on whether or not the proposal should continue.
  5. The bill is presented to one of the Houses of Parliament.
  6. If the bill is looked upon favorably, a committee of knowledgeable members is formed to read through the bill line by line and edit the bill. It then goes through several stages of debate and editing.
  7. Once the bill is approved it goes to the other House of Parliament where the same process is repeated (introduced, discussed and debated, looked at in detail, potentially amended, voted upon).
  8. The bill goes back and forth between the two Houses until both Houses agree upon the final language of the bill.
  9. If the Houses are unable to come to an agreement, the House of Commons can still pass the bill without the House of Lords. Usually both Houses come to an agreement.
  10. The monarch gives royal assent and the bill officially becomes a law.

So, having beefed up my knowledge with the help of Parliament’s website, YouTube, and Google I strode into class on Thursday confident that I would be able to actually have an intelligent discussion about Britain’s political system.

I spent about half of my time asking my students if they could explain how Britain’s Parliament worked, and then had a more informal discussion after that. Here are the questions I asked my groups and their most common responses:

What are your thoughts on the House of Lords?

Most of my students were not huge fans of the House of Lords. They preferred the House of Commons because its members were democratically elected. Even for the students that did like the modern idea of the House of Lords, those students still disliked the hereditary peers and peers from the Church of England.

What political party would you be a member of/vote for?

Most of my students said that they would be Liberal Democrats, thinking that it offered the best of the Conservatives and the Labour Party. I did have one brave student who said that he would probably be a member of the Pirate Party, so kudos to him. Yes, the Pirate Party is a real thing.

Most of my students dislike the fact that there are only three major political parties in the UK. In Norway, the number of sizable political parties is closer to eight, thus many different parties have seats in Parliament.

Would you prefer to vote for a political party or for an individual?

I realize that this may seem like a silly question, but in Norway people vote for a political party as opposed to a particular politician. Many of my students prefer this system, thinking that the party has better knowledge as to who would make the best MPs. They also thought that systems in which you vote for a particular individual are more likely to allow for that individual to abuse their power or break their campaign promises.

Why do you think more people vote in Norway as opposed to places like the UK and the US?

I got a variety of answers to this question but there were four answers that I got repeatedly

  1. Norway is a small country; therefore, people feel as though their vote matters much more.
  2. Norway is a small country; therefore, people are more likely to actually know or be acquainted with their MP and are thus more invested in politics and voting.
  3. Norway’s system of proportional representation encourages voting. Essentially, the number of votes each party gets determines the number of seats each party has in Parliament, thus people feel as though their vote actually matters.
  4. There are more political parties to choose from; therefore, it is easier to find a political party that you agree or identify with

I personally had a lot of fun on Thursday and really enjoyed the lesson and getting to learn a bit more about both British and Norwegian politics. Looking forward to the next class!

Strikes, Education, and More

The school year has officially started! As an exchange student at NTNU I have the right to take classes here (I even had to fill out a proposed schedule of coursework when I applied). As of right now, it’s looking like I’ll be taking a Norwegian class and a class on gender and Norwegian culture. Neither class starts until next week so I was able to enjoy lazy days and the bliss of sleeping in for most of the week. While my days started later than normal I was able to accomplish a few major things this week:

The Residence Permit

Everyone that I have ever talked to about the residence permit has hated the process. While the process itself is simple enough, it can be time consuming. Once you arrive in your designated city you are told to register at the police station within 7 days (at Trondheim they told me that they could care less about this step and that I should go home). You also have to book an appointment at the police station. Usually these appointments are only available four or more weeks after your arrival, which is less than ideal since I need my residence permit in order to get paid. Luckily NTNU schedules massive blocks of time at the police department for students which means that I was able to get to an appointment this week. I don’t have the physical residence card yet, but it is on its way! If things go well I should be able to open a bank account in about two weeks.

Byåsen

I finally got to meet my contact at Byåsen, the upper secondary school that I’m assigned to. Kirsti (pronounced Shisti) was able to take me on a tour of the campus and tell me a bit more about my role at the school. I’ll primarily be helping her with a class called International English although I may help her with some other classes and will have the chance to work with other teachers at the school, particularly one who is teaching American history.

Another highlight of this meeting was getting the chance to ask about the ongoing teacher’s strike. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I thought that the primary reason for striking was related to teaching schedules. Kirsti quickly shot down that notion and explained that while teaching hours are what is drawing the most media attention, the reality is that it is just one issue out of a series of issues that teachers are protesting. Some of the other things that teachers are upset about are:

  • The increased use of testing
  • Teachers already don’t get paid for overtime and the government also wants to stop teachers from getting paid when they act as substitutes for other classes
  • Currently when teachers reach the age of 55 they are given fewer classes to teach. Now, the government wants to stop this practice, but give new teachers fewer classes to teach. Teachers like the idea of giving new teachers fewer classes, but they also want to keep this same policy for people who are 55+

When this week started I was told that if things remained unaddressed that teachers would go on strike starting on Thursday. Today is Saturday and the strike is still ongoing. When I talked to Kirsti about the strike on Friday she said that it was quite possibly the biggest and most important teachers strike in Norway’s history, making it more unfortunate that I can’t actually read any Norwegian newspapers.

Scheduling & Teaching

I also got the chance to sit down with both Nancy and Kirsti to figure out my schedule for the semester. Unfortunately a lot of Nancy and Kirsti’s classes overlapped so it looks like I’ll be spending the majority of my time this semester on NTNU’s campus and every other Friday at Byåsen with Kirsti. I went with Nancy this Friday to help with our first class, Communication for Engineers. We weren’t able to cover too much in class since it was just the first one, but Nancy talked a lot about how to properly read scientific articles and how we’ll be teaching students how to improve the content and structure of their essays. We also require students to free write for at least 10 minutes and send in their writing at least six times by the end of the semester. I’ve already started to get emails from students, and some of them have some pretty interesting projects that they are working on. Most of the students are working towards their masters degrees and it’s fun learning a bit more about their passions and what they are hoping to achieve by the end of the year.

Lastly, it seems like no week will be complete without some sort of hike so here are a few pictures from the Estenstaddammen and Estenstaddamman lakes.

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