Off To Madrid

Having lived with gloomy and rainy skies for months, I decided to head to sunnier places–namely Spain. Lucky for me, I happen to know three Spanish ETAs (all of Spain’s ETAs are based in Madrid), and they agreed to let me stay with them and show me around the city when they weren’t teaching.

Having studied Spanish in high school, I was excited to see how well I would manage in Madrid. I rapidly realized that my comprehension and reading is still pretty good (especially considering that I haven’t used Spanish for about five years), but that my speaking ability has deteriorated considerably. Thankfully this wasn’t too much of a problem since I spent about half of my time with my near fluent ETA friends.

Once I arrived, I met my friend Sara and we were off. Our first stop was Puerta del Sol, one of Madrid’s most bustling plazas. Although it’s certainly a pretty plaza, there isn’t too much of note here. The big landmarks are a statue of King Carlos III, the zero kilometer marker, and El Oso y El Madroño (The Bear and the Strawberry Tree–the symbol of Madrid).

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From there it was just a short walk to another plaza, Plaza Mayor. Personally I preferred Plaza Mayor to Puerta del Sol. It’s a bit more closed off than Puerta del Sol and also tends to have fewer people wandering around. It also has a fairly colorful history that includes things like bullfights and executions. I would argue that the most notable thing in the square is not the statue of King Felipe III, but the frescos on the 17th-century Real Casa de la Panadería (Royal Bakery). While the building is quite old, the frescoes themselves are relatively young. They were painted in 1992 by Carlos Franco and helped boost Madrid’s 1992 title as the European Capital of Culture.

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After that we stopped by the popular Mercado de San Miguel and grabbed some frozen yogurt before continuing down Calle de Toledo to the Rio Manzanares, the river that runs through Madrid. The area by the river has been made into a beautiful park, and there were plenty of people there walking, exercising, playing, and picnicking. Something that surprised me were the number of couples canoodling around the grounds–I suppose in Norway it’s generally too cold for people to really want to show signs of affection outdoors.

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We continued walking until we hit Matadero, a slaughterhouse that has been converted into a contemporary arts center. There were two big art exhibitions that we managed to see there. The first was one by the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist art collective started in the 1980’s that is well known for wearing gorilla masks and for using statistics to push back against women’s position in the art world. I was actually pretty shocked to read some of the statistics and to realize how few female artists are shown in the world’s major museums.

The second display was by Eugenio Ampudia. He had a great display where a shallow pool of water was built beneath a burned out construction, giving you the illusion of vast depth. When I first saw it I was convinced that there was a gaping hole in the floor. Unfortunately my picture doesn’t quite do the art justice, but it was pretty incredible to see at first glance. Another interesting thing about the piece was that you were able to call a telephone number that would trigger one of several small fountains, causing the reflection to ripple and destroy the illusion.

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After that we went for some lovely tapas near Sara’s place and called it a night.

One Last Norwegian Adventure

I have been incredibly lucky to have traveled up and down Norway (see the Map page for more details), and even luckier to have a great set of Fulbright friends who have been willing to host me and show me around. So it was with a touch of sadness that I boarded a plane for my last Norwegian adventure this year. The destination? Stavanger.

Now there aren’t any Fulbrighters based in Stavanger, but Fulbright was still very much a part of my trip. My travel buddy for this trip was none other than Abby, the Bergen ETA, and one of the fabulous Roving Scholars, Heather, even gifted us some of her Thon Hotel points so that we could spend a night in one of the local hotels.

Both Heather and Lud couldn’t speak highly enough of Stavanger, so Abby and I were pretty excited to start our adventure. The two of us met at the airport and then went to go pick up our rental car. Because we would have a car for the duration of our trip, Abby and I had decided to stay at an AirBnb located in a small town just outside of Stavanger called Sandnes.* Although the town was tiny, it quickly put our driving knowledge to the test. Neither Abby nor I have driven a car in over a year, and we both happen to be from cities that don’t have roundabouts. Sandnes, on the other hand, has a roundabout just about every other block. Luckily we didn’t run into too many cars whenever we were crossing the roundabouts, so our roundabout etiquette was never truly tested.

Because we arrived late on a Friday afternoon, not too much was open. That being said, we walked around the street or two that Sandnes had to offer before stopping by the local supermarket.

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Now one random Norwegian tradition that we decided to take advantage of was Taco Friday. Why and how Taco Friday became a thing is a mystery to me, but all it really means is that the “Mexican” food brands are discounted on Friday, thus causing many people to eat tacos on Friday. Because Abby and I would have access to a kitchen for the majority of our trip, and because we had a car that could transport all of our groceries, we had fun stocking up on road trip snacks and on the appropriate ingredients for breakfast, tacos, and quesadillas. Unfortunately, our AirBnb host had just moved into his apartment, meaning that there was an odd assortment of IKEA kitchenware and no dining room table. While this certainly made cooking and eating its own special adventure, we eventually were able to rustle up some tacos before eating them picnic style on the floor. Once we finished eating and had debated the difference between salsa and taco sauce (we didn’t think there was a significant one), we fiddled with the one heater in the apartment before calling it a night.

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*The dorky knitter inside of me wondered if this was the origin of Sandnes Garn, the yarn that I’ve been using for my knitting projects. Unfortunately I was never able to resolve this question, although I’m inclined to think that it is.

The N-Word

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that students will always surprise you.

A few weeks ago I was spending most of my time conducting oral exams for my russ students. Because oral exams are easier to double team, my co-teacher Maria and I had a nice system set up where I would lead the students in discussions, while Maria took notes on their performance. My task was simple: students had to choose cards from a stack and then discuss whatever prompt was written on the back of the card. My job was to keep the discussion going and to try and make sure the students were showcasing what they’d learned during the course of the year (this was harder for some hungover russ students than others). While some of the students gave pretty standard answers to the discussion prompts, some really went above and beyond. The prompt that generated the most original thinking? This one:

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the word “nigger” is used repeatedly. What connotation (meaning, association) does it have in the novel?

Today, has the meaning of “nigger” changed? How do you feel about the n-word? Is this a word you use? When do you use it?

Should blacks be able to use the word nigger in ways forbidden to others? Why or why not?

Now I’ve struggled a bit with the n-word and other derogatory words, such as faggot, this year. For many non-Americans, these words don’t necessarily seem problematic. However, when they are used around me, I find it hard not to flinch.

For those of you who are less familiar with the n-word, or “nigger,” I thought I’d give you a short history of the word. The word comes from the Latin word “niger,” meaning black. It acquired its notoriety in the 17th century beginning with the Atlantic Slave Trade. Since then, it has generally been used in America as a demeaning word; one that is laced with hatred. It has been used in a number of ways and has appeared in many different forms, some more controversial than others. It’s common for American high school students to struggle through Mark Twain’s famous 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and to skirt, stutter, and attempt to avoid the novel’s many references to Jim, a saintly and kind slave, as a “nigger.” More recently, the rapper Nas tried to name his 2008 album “Nigger” but changed the title to “Untitled” due to pressure from leaders in the African American community. The National Football League (NFL) even tried to ban the word in 2014.

While my students were all correctly able to explain the n-word’s dark past, they struggled a bit more with the question of whether the meaning has changed and who should be allowed to use the word. Many of them talked about the word “nigga,” a derivative of the n-word that is usually interpreted to mean something like “bro” or “dude.” Most of my students argued that the usage of either “nigga” or “nigger” by African Americans was a way of taking ownership of the word, or limiting the power of the word to hurt, something that linguists call semantic inversion (other examples of this would include the gay community’s usage of words like “queer” and “dyke”). If you want a more thorough overview of either word I’d recommend this article on The Washington Post.

Where my students tended to differ was on who could use either version of the n-word. For some context was key, while for others the context didn’t matter. For some race also played a role, while for others it was irrelevant. To this day, the answer is far from clear in the US, and it is one that is argued about both inside and outside of the African American community. But I have to say that I was impressed with how critically my students were thinking about the word–something that is not always the case, as I’ve found out from living in international student housing.

And while discussing the history of the n-word and its usage was enjoyable, the part of the exam prompt that I enjoyed the most was having my students examine the use of the n-word in To Kill a Mockingbird (the rest of this is full of spoilers and will probably make more sense if you’ve read the book)All of my students were able to correctly tell me that the word is almost universally hurled as an insult by the book’s white population. The word comes up repeatedly and is even discussed within the context of the book. Atticus, the father of the protagonist, is the first person to tell the heroine, Scout, not to use the word, and makes it clear that it’s a “trashy” insult. From then on both Scout and her older brother Jem begin to take issue with the word, specifically when it comes to their father being critiqued for defending a “nigger” and being a “nigger-lover.”

What really made me proud however was when a few students were able to go a bit more in-depth and examine how the word is used by the African Americans in the book.* The only times that it is directly used is when Jem and Scout are brought to the local black church and during Tom Robinson’s trial. Both times the word is used to draw a distinction between the town’s black population and the town’s white population, and it is only used in a self deprecating way. It’s most powerful usage is probably when Tom Robinson explains why he ran away from a white woman trying to kiss him: “if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.” It’s the color of Tom Robinson’s skin that makes these advances troubling for the town’s population, what makes it impossible for the town’s jury to fully believe Robinson’s story, and ultimately what leads to his death. Robinson’s conscious decision to use a racial slur in his explanation perfectly captures how he is put in a life threatening situation purely based on the color of his skin. Having my students come to that conclusion on their own, and to even have one say “I never thought of it that way” was one of my teaching highlights for the year.

The n-word and other slurs have been something that has repeatedly popped up in my year here. I’ve heard many people use these words without thinking anything of it, and I’m sad to say that part of this definitely comes from the mass consumption of American media. They hear these words in American music and on American TV shows, and oftentimes it seems as though few stop to think about the history behind these words, the power of these words to wound, or to even care about these things. In fact, I’ve even had people argue that because they aren’t American or because English is their second language, that their usage of derogatory words is different and allowable, simply because it is placed outside of an American or native English speaking context. It’s something that I disagree with and something that I’ve struggled to explain this year. And although this topic generally has had me feeling a bit melancholy, I was incredibly proud of my students for taking the time to think critically about at least the n-word. I definitely left my class with a smile on my face.

*It also just made me happy since it showed that they had actually read the book.

Testing and an Open Internet

Norway does not have the same test taking culture that we have in the United States. Going through the US education system I remember being regularly tested. Up through middle school, I remember taking at least one form of standardized test each year, and in high school I took the SAT in addition to several AP tests each year. On top of that, you also have your standard classroom tests.

In Norway, things are very different. Students are not assessed as regularly or as often as students in the United States. Homework is rarely assigned or handed in, and major assignments and tests are few and far between. The one glaring exception to this is the end of year mock exams and national exams.

Mock exams are designed to emulate the national exams and thus help students prepare for their exams. The name is a bit deceiving however because these exams still count towards a student’s grade. They are effectively final exams. Students have mock exams in all of their classes, but they will not have a national exam in all of their classes. When students first begin upper secondary school they are unlikely to take national exams, but as they continue to move up the education ladder they are tested more and more. Here’s how things break down for the college prep track:

  • First year in upper secondary school (Vg1) – Maybe 1 exam. Approximately 20% of students will be given an exam.
  • Second year in upper secondary school (Vg2) – 1 exam (Two thirds of students will take a written exam and the remaining students will take an oral exam)
  • Third year in upper secondary school (Vg3) – 4 exams (3 written and 1 oral) are necessary in order to graduate. It is required that one of the written exams is in Norwegian.

Rarely is a student given both a written and an oral exam in the same subject. Students aren’t told what subjects they’ll be tested on until a few weeks before their national exams.

Although students should be prepared to take an exam in any subject, I’ve been told that things hardly appear to be completely random. For example, it is rare for those in the sciences to ever be tested in the humanities. In essence, students are tested in their strengths. While there is some value to that, one of the downsides is that it’s easy for students to dismiss subjects that they don’t think that they will be tested in. For example, it is not uncommon for mechanics students to be blasé in their English classes, secure in the knowledge that they probably won’t be tested in the subject at a national level.

I’ve been told that national exams are good for schools because they give the school a good idea of how well the students and teachers are doing. As for the students, I’ve been told that although the national exams do not factor into their grades, their scores are looked at during the university admissions process and might even hold more weight than a student’s transcript.

One interesting development that has taken place in the last few years is the introduction of the Internet to the national exams. My school is participating in a pilot program that has the students to take their exams online and allows them open access to the Internet. Although this is technically a pilot program, everyone I’ve talked to agrees that the pilot program is not to determine whether or not students should have access to the Internet, rather it is to work out any kinks before rolling the system out across the entire country. So far there are no restrictions as to what websites students can access during the exams, meaning that in theory the students could spend their entire time on Facebook instead of on the exam. Maybe it’s just my suspicious American mind, but it seems to me that this leaves a very clear opportunity for students to plagiarize, cheat, and collaborate during an exam. The Norwegians on the other hand seem fairly unconcerned with this possibility. I suppose that’s what happens when you live in a largely law abiding society.

Beyond the possibility for cheating, I generally think open access to the Internet is a bad idea. First, from the teaching perspective, it makes it very difficult to know what to actually teach your kids. Because the Internet gives students access to so much information, the scope of the exam increases, making it more difficult to try and guess what will be on the exam. This forces teachers to focus more on breadth instead of depth, making them feel as though they have to cover more material in the same amount of time.

Second, I think that it makes it more difficult to encourage critical thinking. Because students are covering so much information in such a short span of time, it means that students don’t have as much time to really engage with texts. I think that the biggest thing education can offer students is how to think on their own. Because teachers aren’t able to cover topics in depth, this can prevent students from learning the nuances of a topic and allowing them to create their own informed opinions. It’s much easier to read an opinion piece on the Internet and regurgitate it on a test than it is to critically engage with the facts and come up with your own answers.

But so far it seems like only me and a few of my co-teachers have that opinion. I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens and hope for the best.

Introverts and the Norwegian Classroom

Not too long ago a friend of mine recommended that I read a book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. As someone who has generally considered myself somewhere in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum, or an ambivert, I figured I’d give it a read and see what I thought.

The book is written much like an academic thesis, filled with facts, studies, and scholars, yet it is also clearly written to be understandable by the layperson. At times I think this means that the book sacrifices academia for readability, but overall I enjoyed it. In fact, to my surprise, according to Cain’s definition, I’m much more introverted than I thought. You can take a quiz adapted from the book here, but signs that you might be an introvert include:

  • You prefer one-on-one conversations to groups
  • You prefer to express yourself in writing, as opposed to say face-to-face
  • You are happy being alone or independent
  • You are often told you are a good listener
  • You’re generally not a risk taker

And the list goes on. Much of Cain’s book deals with how to appreciate being an introvert in the United States, a society that largely celebrates extroverts. Her book also looks at ways of celebrating introversion instead of critiquing it, and how to maximize your strengths as an introvert. While the book is mostly geared towards introverts, it does provide information on extroverts, and even spends time discussing how the two can best work together. But what particularly struck me about Cain’s book was its implications for education.

So, I thought we’d make a pitstop at the Norwegian education system. Now Norway is notorious for having low levels of in class participation, and I feel confident saying this having discussed this with a number of Norwegians teachers and the Roving Scholars. Students simply don’t want to participate or volunteer. Even getting students to answer straightforward or obvious questions is a struggle. It’s also not uncommon for students to ask to give a presentation in front of just the teacher, instead of in front of the whole class.

Several of my co-teachers said this lack of participation could be traced back to Junteloven, a feature of Scandinavian culture that can be summed up by saying “You shouldn’t think you’re better than anyone else.” According to Wikipedia, Junteloven breaks down into the following ten laws:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as anyone.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than anyone.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than anyone.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than anyone.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than anyone.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at anyone.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about anyone.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach anyone anything.

If that doesn’t crush the idea of the individual, I don’t know what does.

The idea behind all of this is to preserve harmony within a community. In short, if everyone is equal, nobody stands out or can rock the boat.

If you apply those ten rules to the classroom, it becomes easy to see why a student might not want to raise their hand, or appear to think that they know best in front of their classmates. Luckily, my co-teachers have said that Juteloven hasn’t been emphasized as much with younger generations. This might be why children are starting to participate a bit more in class, though nobody would say that class participation is high by any means.

Now all of this brings me back to Susan Cain. Before this book, I had never thought to think of my students as being introverted, and while I’m not saying that a lack of student participation can be traced to introversion, I suspect that introversion does play a significant role in Norwegian classrooms. Luckily, a significant part of Cain’s book looks at how to interact with introverted children, and it specifically touches on teaching techniques. Here are the ones that I thought were most useful, most of them direct from the book:

  • Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured. If help is needed with social skills, teach them or recommend training outside class (similar to if a student needs help with any other skill, such as reading or math).
  • One third to one half of people are introverts. Extroverts like movement, stimulation, and collaborative work, while introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects. Mix it up fairly.
  • Some collaborative work is fine for introverts, even beneficial. But it should take place in small groups–pairs or threesomes–and be carefully structured so that each child knows his or her role.

Using the points above, here is how I plan on using some of Cain’s suggestions in the classroom:

  • Remembering that it’s okay for my students to be introverted. I think it’s useful to remember that extroverted behavior should not necessarily be the pinnacle of the education model.
  • Mixing up different types of work. I often lecture my students and then follow up with an activity. So far I’ve noticed that they really like games (what student doesn’t?) but I’ve also had them collaborate in large groups. I’m now planning on having them do a few more independent projects.
  • When assigning group work having that work be structured so that each student has a specific role.

I obviously don’t know how successful this will be, or even if my guess about introversion in Norwegian classrooms is correct; however, there is nothing to lose and potentially much to gain. So here’s to trying new things.

Russ

Russ is here! It’s the time of year, when to quote Buzzfeed, “Norwegian teenagers lose their fucking minds, wreak havoc across the country and EVERYONE IS TOTALLY FINE WITH IT.” If you want a colorful overview of russ definitely check out this Buzzfeed article, otherwise I’m going to go ahead and explain it, but without all of the GIFs and Instagram pictures.

Now because russ is not well documented in English, most of my knowledge comes from my co-teachers, English language blogs, and Wikipedia, so apologies if any of this is incorrect.

When is russ?

Russefeiring, more commonly known as russ, is a tradition that started in 1905. Students who are in their last year of upper secondary school participate in what is essentially a month long graduation celebration. The start date for this celebration seems to depend on where you’re located and the school that you attend, but I’ve been told that it can start as early as the end of Easter break (around April 6). For my students, they have decided to start on the official russ day, May 1. But regardless of what day russ starts, it always ends May 17, Constitution Day, the Norwegian national day.

To make matters more interesting, students have their national exams in the weeks right after russ ends. Now you might wonder why on earth you would ever have russ before your national exams instead of after them. According to one of my co-teachers, things used to be organized this way, but the timeline was changed in the hopes that it would make things less crazy. From what I’ve heard, I don’t think that this has been a successful strategy and there is talk of moving russ to after the national exams.

How can you tell if someone is participating in russ?

Students are traditionally supposed to wear special russ overalls, or russebukse, which cost around 599 NOK (78 USD). The color of your russebukse depends on what you are studying:

  • Red for higher education (the most common color)
  • Blue for business (also higher education in economics and management)
  • White for medical and social studies
  • Black for engineering (such as mechanics or electrics)
  • Green for agriculture

and these overalls are worn for the entire duration of russ (at least two weeks straight).

There are also russ hats, russelue, that are given to each student. The idea behind them is similar to the idea of a graduation cap, they are a symbol of completion. The hats also have a nickname written on their brim which is suppose to characterize either the student’s normal behavior or their russ behavior.

What happens during russ?

Now you’re probably wondering what these students actually do during russ. Well one element of russ comprises of students trying to earn russ knots for their caps, or russeknuter. These pranks usually have to be witnessed by either members of the Russeboard, or videotaped (Yes, there is a governing student body to this month long celebration). When a prank or dare has been verified, the student earns a knot in their cap. Out of curiosity, I went on this year’s russ website (Yes, there is even a website) and looked at a few of this year’s challenges. According to Google Translate, some choice dares are:

  • Buy a pack of condoms using only body language
  • Go through a whole lesson wearing only underwear
  • Pretend you are an animal for an entire school day
  • Act as a tour guide on public transportation for at least five stops
  • Drink a bottle of wine in 20 minutes, minimum 75cl.
  • Go through an entire school day with your arms and legs tied or taped to another russ
  • Have safe sex with a statue
  • Have sex with two people with the same first name on the same evening.

To my relief, there is a range in how risqué the dares are. Here are a few of the nicer ones:

  • Visit a retirement home and make the residents’ day brighter
  • Give a hug to a police officer. Remember to ask nicely
  • Take a picture with the Russeboard and post on Instagram
  • Be at school every day during school (for smart individuals)

Additionally, many students participate in different parties and even fundraise for these parties. My students put on a play that I was invited to (they assured me that it would be PG-13), but I was unable to attend. The ticket proceeds went to an afterparty.

If you take a look at the Buzzfeed article above, you’ll even see that some students manage to buy buses that they transform into russ party buses. They essentially drive around the country going to different parties, or simply set up shop in a parking lot and drink there. When I asked my students if they had a bus their response was “…No. That’s for the rich kids in Oslo. Why would you even want to party in a parking lot?” Clearly there are some regional russ differences.

Reactions to russ

In short, russ involves a lot of drinking, partying, and (unprotected) sex. My students had to go to an assembly where they talked to a police officer and the school nurse. When I asked them what they learned, they said they learned about safe sex (this was paired with an eye roll), “how to not get raped,” and where to get tested for STDs. When I asked if they learned about safe drinking, their answer was confused silence. After waiting for about a minute, someone ventured to say, “They told us to drink water?” I tried very hard not to cringe this entire time.

I’ve had a number of people ask me what Norwegians generally think about this tradition, and the answer is that many of them don’t mind it. Many older people look back fondly on this time, while younger kids think that it is something to look forward to. One thing that gets children really excited about russ is russ business cards, a fake business card that each students makes. The typical card has a silly picture paired with an inappropriate phrase, and children go around and try and collect as many of these russ cards as they can. This is also why one of this year’s russ challenges is to run through an elementary school during recess without giving away a single card.

As for me, as a teaching assistant I’m in an ideal spot to watch all of this. I’m not responsible for how well students do on their national exams, nor am I really in a position to discipline any of my students. I’m interested to see how the next few weeks play out, and rest assured I will report if I notice anything russ related happening in class.

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.

Discussion Groups and Gender

One of my favorite things to do in the classroom is to have small discussions with students. Norwegian students tend to be reserved, so these smaller discussions allow for them to talk to me in a safer setting and also make it easier for me to evaluate their language skills.

This semester I’ve added another International English class to my schedule, my second one. So far it’s been fun to work with the two different classes and to see how each teacher runs the class differently. The most obvious difference is how they cover the subject material. Both teachers work from the same textbook, but each has prioritized different chapters. In my newer International English class they have been working more with the “Living and Studying Abroad” chapter. Because I’ve done both of these things, I’m a fairly obvious resource, and that’s what initially got me invited to regularly follow the class.

The first time I visited, I more or less held a question and answer session with each discussion group. I’ve often found that Norwegian students don’t usually ask me much beyond a few generic questions:

  • How do you like Norway? (It’s great although the weather could be better. You have the most beautiful scenery that I’ve ever seen)
  • What’s Los Angeles like? (Warm, sunny, with lots of cars and people. I really miss good Mexican food)
  • Why did you want to come here? (I wanted to work with students who have a high proficiency in English. For a longer answer see this old post)
  • How long are you here for? (For a year)
  • Have you visited places in Norway other than Trondheim? (They are usually impressed to know that I have been to Longyearbyen, Tromsø, the Lofoten Islands, Røros, Halden, Lillehammer, Bergen, and Oslo)

but before long their questions peter out, and it’s my turn to take the lead and ask a few questions:

  • Have you ever been to the US? (Most students answer yes)
  • Would you like to go there and where would you like to go? (Standard answers generally include New York, Los Angeles, and Florida. Texas occasionally makes an appearance)
  • What are some American stereotypes that you have? (Americans all own guns, are racist, and fat)
  • What are some Norwegian stereotypes? (Norwegians are quiet, rude, and everyone skis)

Of course I did my best to try and break down some of these stereotypes, both Norwegian and American, and I like to think that by the end both I and the students had learned a bit more about each other.

While I really enjoyed these discussions, my second visit to this International English class actually proved to be more interesting. Part of this same chapter has a passage on gender roles. The students were asked to read a fictional story written by an Indian woman detailing her struggles with her family. The woman primarily writes about how she finds it difficult to get her family to support her career, something that she cherishes. Unfortunately, her family thinks that her career is unworthy of attention and wants her to get married as quickly as possible. Frustrated that her goals are being pushed aside and her accomplishments ignored, the author goes on to talk about how she considers her situation to be even more unfair because her younger brother is doted on, even though he has yet to accomplish anything.

The passage is clearly written to spark a dialogue on gender, so off I went to the corner of the classroom to talk to my students. My discussion groups naturally divided up into three different types of groups:

  • All boy groups
  • All girl groups
  • Mixed groups

To get things started I’d begin with the following questions:

  • What did you think about the passage?
  • What did you think about the way gender is portrayed in the passage?
  • Do you think things are the same in Norway?
  • Do you think that there is gender inequality in Norway?

Now the last question was by far the most interesting. Somewhat predictably, the answers I got depended on the group composition. All boy groups tended to say that there was no gender inequality, or very little. All girl groups would state that gender inequality exists in Norway, although not to the same extent as in the passage. Mixed groups would either 1) have the boys try and claim that there was no gender inequality, and rapidly get shut down by the girls or 2) the boys would wait for the girls to speak up and then support their statements.

The biggest cited gender inequality amongst my Norwegian students? The pay gap. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows the current Norwegian pay gap at 7.01%, certainly better than the United State’s 17.91% (OECD). The other big inequality? A lack of female executives. While a few countries have talked about installing a mandatory gender quota in business, this is something that has existed for quite a long time in Norway. In 2003, Norway required that business boards be at least 40% female or else be shut down. And while this seems like it might solve gender discrepancies at an executive level, this doesn’t turn out to be the case. In 2014, none of Norway’s 32 largest companies had a female CEO, and more broadly speaking, less than 6% of general managers were female (WSJ). Gender disparity also extends beyond the realm of business. Academia proves to be another excellent example where gender quotas might earn women a seat at the table, but might not translate to high ranking positions.

While Norway has certainly taken steps to minimize gender inequality, the flip side is that this can sometimes be used to stifle debate. Instead of taking more steps to continue improving gender equality, sometimes the response can be “We’ve already implemented policies, what more do you want?”

But gender inequality works two ways. I was absolutely blown away by one male student, who in his mixed discussion group, was the first one to talk about gender inequality. To my surprise, his first comment was to talk about male inequality. His example was in education, where he’s seen firsthand that women dominate in primary and lower secondary education. He proceeded to tell me that in Norway it’s a requirement that primary schools have a teaching staff that is at least 20% male, something that most schools struggle to meet, and something that he’s heard about firsthand through his father, a kindergarten teacher. I was absolutely floored by his comments and incredibly proud of him for talking about male inequality. It definitely helped elevate the level of discussion, and I like to think that it gave the girls in his group something to think about.

Although gender inequality does exist in Norway, it’s still been wonderful to live in a much more equal society than the one that I’m used to. It’s incredible how much safer I feel in Norway, and part of that has to deal with the fact that I haven’t experienced any sort of gender related harassment. I actually feel reasonably safe walking alone at night (whether night starts at 3pm or 12am), and that’s been a welcome change.

It’s also great to see how relationships and parenting are much more equal here. I think I’ve seen as many dads out with their kids as I have moms, and it’s great to see that parenthood is something that is respected and celebrated by both genders. One Norwegian that I work with loves to talk about his son and advertise him on Facebook with a #funwithdad hashtag. It’s really wonderful to see. So while Norway still has a ways to go, I still raise my non-alcoholic (because alcohol is too expensive) glass to Norway for what they’ve done so far.

Conference Wrap Up

We took things a bit easier the next day. The morning session of the conference consisted of making an informative video for future ETAs. If you’re an incoming ETA, keep your eyes peeled for a video!

Other than that, Abby and I continued to check out more of Berlin’s well known sites. The first on our list was the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km long section of the Berlin Wall. We mostly spent our time walking around the Wall and admiring the graffiti and nearby street art. To my great surprise, none of the graffiti on the Wall is original. After the fall of the Wall, artists were commissioned to paint over the graffiti, although many of them decided to stick with various Cold War themes. One of the most well known pieces that we saw was My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, or the Fraternal Kiss. To give a bit more context to the kiss, I’ll go ahead and quote from the DDR Museum, “The Socialist ‘brother’s kiss’ was designed to show onlookers: our relationship is closer than that between capitalist countries. And it is not about who profits, it’s based on humanity, love and peace! This was just as dishonest as the rest of the talk about brotherhood. The Eastern bloc was held together by force–and everybody knew it.”

IMG_0646  IMG_0617  IMG_0644IMG_0621  IMG_0620  IMG_0623IMG_0624  IMG_0626  IMG_0625IMG_0627  IMG_0628  IMG_0629IMG_0631  IMG_0632  IMG_0636IMG_0666  IMG_0657  IMG_0654Once we were done with the East Side Gallery, we walked through Kreuzberg in order to get to Checkpoint Charlie. I have to say that Checkpoint Charlie was perhaps the most touristy place that I saw in Berlin. There wasn’t much to do there per se other than take the obligatory picture of the checkpoint and warning signs. Abby and I had been warned that the Mauermuseum, a nearby Cold War museum, was poorly organized so we decided to give it a pass.

IMG_0669  IMG_0675  IMG_0676IMG_0677  IMG_0681  IMG_0682Once we were done taking our pictures, we walked to the nearby Topographie Des Terrors, or Topography of Terror. The museum initially seems quite small. It is located on the site of the former offices of the Gestapo and Schutzstaffel (SS) central command. The original building is no longer standing, but you can still poke around some of the foundations. The museum itself only takes up about a tenth of the space that the original building did (it is nestled in the middle of the old building’s foundations).

IMG_0684                                        IMG_0688Although the building was small, it was full of information. Abby and I spent a solid two hours there and didn’t even finish everything. What we did learn was fascinating. The museum documents things starting before Hitler’s rise to power and continues until after World War II. There were a number of things in the museum that surprised me. For example, I had no idea how much social shaming there was for people who didn’t support National Socialist policies or didn’t display enough patriotism. The stats on Hitler’s government were also fascinating. It’s easy to forget how poorly Germany was doing after World War I and how much Hitler really managed to turn around the economy. In other words, Hitler gave people a lot of reasons to turn a blind eye to his more questionable policies and the concentration camps:

  • The number of salaried workers went from 11.5 million in 1932 to over 19 million in 1938.
  • The income of workers, salaried employees, and civil servants increased dramatically. In 1932, it was 26 billion Reichsmarks, and in 1937 it was 39.5 billion Reichsmarks.
  • New homes were constructed. The number of new homes went from 159,000 in 1932 to 340,000 in 1937.
  • The number of marriages increased, as did the number of marriage loans. The government paid out over half a billion Reichsmarks for 878,000 loans from 1933-1937. The number of marriages went from 500,000 in 1932 to 620,000 in 1937.
  • Child allowances were introduced and covered 2 million children in 1938. The birth rate increased and went from 970,000 births in 1932 to 1,270,000 in 1937.
  • Hitler even encouraged vacations through his “Strength through Joy” program, encouraging 22.5 million people to take a holiday.

Having mostly learned about the terrible consequences of the Nazi regime, it was interesting to see what economic benefits came with it. It made a bit more sense to see in hard numbers why so many people would have a stake in the government, and why so many would have supported it.

While the exhibit mostly focused on Germany and Berlin, the end of the exhibit did expand to talk a bit more about how Hitler’s policies affected other countries. Overall it was wonderful museum, although the content was quite heavy. It was nice to step into the sunshine after our two hours there.

Afterwards, we snagged a quick lunch before returning to the conference for the concluding project presentations. The Norwegian group was happy to cheer on one of our own in the first panel. Alyssa did a great presentation on her work at the Munch Museum and did us all proud. Overall, the presentations were really interesting and covered a topics ranging from ancient maps to Legionnaires disease.*

After the panels concluded, we were treated to some snacks and coffee. Today was the last full day of the conference and Abby’s last day in Berlin. Because we had some time before dinner, Abby and I decided to take a late afternoon stroll. We didn’t do too much, but we did wander by Bebelplatz and check out Michael Ullmann’s Empty Library. The installation is to commemorate the public book burning that happened there in 1933, and library’s empty shelves serve as a reminder of how many books were burned. From there we continued to walk past Brandenburg Gate before finally ending in Potsdamer Platz.

IMG_0690  IMG_0691  IMG_0695IMG_0696  IMG_0697  IMG_0699IMG_0700  IMG_0701  IMG_0702But just as we were planning on heading back for dinner, we were invited to meet up with a few other Fulbrighters at Pratergarten, Berlin’s oldest beer garden. Because it was the last day of the conference, it was nice to just relax and have a good conversation with some very smart people. Since most of us were from Nordic countries, we were also able to bemoan the fact that we were missing out on what was apparently the Northern Lights show of the decade. But we weren’t sad for long. Good company, cheap food, and cheap drink go a long way.

IMG_2969  IMG_2967  IMG_2972*The Legionnaires disease presentation managed to scare everyone since water heaters are apparently a good environment for the disease to grow. The moral of the story is to regularly up the heat of your water heater (to kill off the bacteria) or to be suspicious of steamy showers.

Winter Fulbright Seminar

Thursday was the big seminar day. My last few months of teaching have meant that I have become more and more adept at lecturing last minute, and I was pleased to talk to some of the other Fulbrighters and realize that I was not the only one who had decided to put together their presentation at the eleventh hour.

The Fulbright Commission had organized our talks so that we each had a maximum of 10 minutes and that each group of presentations had 10 minutes at the end for questions. We were loosely grouped by similar topic and the themes were:

  1. Science of the Arctic
  2. Brain Matter
  3. Social and Political Life
  4. University Writing
  5. Literature and Poetry: Online and in the Classroom
  6. Arts and Learning
  7. Reflections on Education in Norway

As you can see, we are quite the diverse group of scholars, researchers, and teachers. Thankfully the organizer of the seminar, Rena, decided to put the sciences at the beginning of the seminar, stating that she would be better engaged with the more complex topics earlier in the morning. I happen to completely agree with her. By the time we got through the Brain Matter topic I had completely lost the thread of the scientific conversation and simply contented myself with reflecting back on the days when I actually remembered high school biology.

But that’s not to say that the talks weren’t interesting. All of them were fascinating (though my comprehension was not at its peak for some of the science ones), and I thought I’d highlight a few of the talks that really stood out to me:

  • Drumlins: my nonscientific explanation of a drumlin is that it is an ovular hill that is formed by glaciers. Nobody fully understands how they are formed (which is the object of this Fulbrighter’s research), but they have some really interesting implications for climate change. Apparently one of the biggest causes for rising sea levels is NOT the melting of glaciers, rather it is the speed at which glaciers are falling into the ocean. Drumlins play a role in that they can act as speed bumps for glaciers and thus slow down their movement into the sea.
  • Human Brain Size: This Fulbrighter aims to learn more about why humans have such big and complex brains. Apparently prior research has only targeted single explanations (food, communities, etc.) but this Fulbrighter wants to develop an explanation that addresses multiple causes for increased brain size.
  • Race and Ethnicity: One Fulbrighter is both teaching a class on race and ethnicity at the University of Oslo, and is also looking at how the two things are viewed in Norway. Interestingly enough, she has noted that there isn’t really a dialogue around race in Norway and that the Norwegian government makes no effort to track race or ethnicity, unlike say the U.S. census.
  • Digital Media: One scholar is looking at e-literature and explained how there can be vast differences in the preservation of e-literature versus classic printed literature. One of the biggest challenges is that changes in software make certain kinds of e-literature near obsolete since the programs or software systems that they run on are no longer in use.
  • Lower Secondary School Roving: I really enjoyed listening to the roving scholar that teaches at the lower secondary school (middle school – high school) level. One thing that I really liked about her presentation was the difference between how outsiders might view the schools versus the way the communities viewed the schools. Having traveled to a variety of locations, some of which are very remote, she commented that most schools have some piece of artwork in the lobby that highlights the way that the students and teachers view the schools. Oftentimes the artwork presents the school as more bustling and friendly than it might appear to be at first glance.

I myself was in the last group with the two upper secondary school roving scholars. Our topic was quite broad so the three of us talked about a variety of things. The two rovers addressed the lack of participation in Norwegian schools, the role of teachers in the classroom, and the connection between child poverty and education.

I decided to look more at student motivation, school structure, and homework. I was even able to talk briefly about my students’ obsession with Justin Bieber. No, I’m not kidding. One Direction is the runner up when it comes to being the heartthrob of choice amongst my Norwegian teenagers, but Justin Bieber seems to be the true ruler of their hearts.

Photo on 2-12-15 at 8.11 AMThe proof is all on my morning whiteboard.

Moving along, I think that the U.S. and Norway schools systems differ a lot in their structure due to student motivation. Disclaimer: I could only really speak about my own high school experience and would say that it’s hard to generalize my experience across the whole country.*

One huge difference that I see in U.S. students versus Norwegian students is their attitude towards university. When I went to high school everyone was incredibly motivated to do well in order to get into their school of choice and to qualify for things like scholarships. My Norwegian students on the other hand don’t really seem to worry about going to university. They are almost guaranteed a place at a university and the bigger question is which university they are going to go to. Additionally, university is free for them.

Furthermore, because U.S. universities place a great focus on having well rounded students, or Renaissance men and women, I found that there is a much greater focus on breadth instead of depth. Students are typically in class for around an hour, which allows them to take a variety of classes. Additionally, they can choose to be in more difficult classes if they wish, such as honors or AP level courses. In Norway, the shortest class period that I’ve worked with is 90 minutes and the longest is four hours. There are no options for honors or higher level courses, and it is actually illegal to have them, unless your school has a workaround with an IB program. In short, Norway has a greater focus on depth instead of breadth.

Another difference is that U.S. high schools have a variety of extracurricular activities that you can immerse yourself in. In fact, participation in these is encouraged partially because it is a huge component of the college application process. In Norway, extracurricular activities are unconnected with the school and are never asked for as a part of the university application process. Thus, students don’t seem to really be involved in any after school activities.

Lastly there is also a huge difference in homework. Now at my old high school, we were told that for a regular class we could expect 4-6 hours of homework per class per week. For honors level classes, the workload was higher at 6-8 hours of homework per class per week. From what I can tell, my Norwegian students would be having a pretty bad week if they were assigned 6 hours of homework for the whole week. One of the Fulbrighters who is a student here in Norway has even said that he knows university students who refuse to study on the weekends just out of principle. Overall I would say that homework is not assigned as regularly in Norway, the work that is assigned is short, and at the high school level there doesn’t seem to be an expectation that students will do the work. It reminds me more of university classes in the sense that teachers seem to adopt an attitude of “If you do the work you should pass and if you don’t you’ll probably fail. Either way it’s on you, the student.”

Overall, feedback systems and major projects tend to be lacking. I was talking to some of the other ETAs and we were speculating that the reason why so many Norwegian students struggle with writing at the university level is because they only write about five essays during their entire high school career.

I concluded by saying that while the U.S. might have a more rigorous curriculum, it can also be a bit more competitive. In contrast, Norway has a greater focus on depth in their education system and the students are more relaxed. Both systems have their pros and cons and hopefully we will get an education system somewhere in between the two.

During the Q&A I was asked by an embassy official whether or not I thought the more relaxed attitude of Norwegian students is related to the comprehensive welfare system that exists in Norway. Funnily enough I have talked to some of my co-teachers about this very question and I think that the answer is yes. In the United States higher education is much more closely linked with better jobs and financial security than it is in Norway, and I believe that this helps push American students to perform. In Norway, my students don’t have to worry about falling through the cracks, and even if they do, they have a good safety net to catch them. The welfare system in Norway provides for its citizens in many ways, and one of the biggest ways is that it helps alleviate the worries associated with poverty. It’s possible for my students to leave school and still do very well in Norwegian society without higher education. And while that is truly a wonderful thing, it also does seem to affect classroom performance. Many of my co-teachers have said that students are much less focused or driven than the students they’ve had in previous years, or when Norway was a poorer country.

BUT the seminar was not all that we did on Thursday. Once we were done, we made our way to the U.S. ambassador’s residence. The way was slippery and my shoes were not the best for sliding on ice (one Fulbrighter took so much pity on me that he offered me a piggyback ride), but we all made it to the residence in one piece. We had a great time mingling with the various guests, listening to the final two Fulbright presentations, and of course eating.

Currently the U.S. doesn’t have a Norwegian ambassador, but the flip side of that is that the chef was quite excited to have someone to cook for. I have to admit, he really outdid himself. The dinner was scrumptious. I did get a bit held up though when after grabbing a plate of food I was drawn into conversation with an embassy official. Luckily he noticed after a while that my hand carrying my very full plate of food was beginning to shake and let me run off and eat. I would clearly make a terrible waitress.

I do have to say though that the culinary highlight was dessert, entitled “The World’s Best Cake.” Now with a name like that you both have to eat the cake and be skeptical of it. It was in fact pretty fabulous. It was covered with meringue on the base and the top, as well as slathered with cream. In fact, I don’t know anyone who didn’t go back for seconds. I even asked someone at the embassy if they could get me the recipe.

But we couldn’t stay at the residence indefinitely. Having boozed and schmoozed for several hours, all that was left for us to do was to return back to the hotel and dream of skiing in the morning.

*Interestingly enough you can pretty much generalize across Norwegian schools. Many of the schools are very homogenous in terms of curriculum. Abby, the Bergen ETA, and I teach the same course and use the same materials even though we’re in different cities and counties.