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.

Vitamin D, Where Did You Go?

My family likes to give me suggestions for things to write about, and I was reminded repeatedly that I have not talked about the weather since I wrote Winter is Coming back in October. So here’s a bit more information on what winter in Trondheim is like.

We’ve actually had a fairly mild winter. Temperatures haven’t been that bad and tend to range between -4 and 4°C (24.8 – 39.2°F). So far the lowest temperature that we’ve gotten was -16.7°C (1.94°F) on Christmas. Lucky for me, I spent Christmas in the relatively tropical Vienna.

I would also say that winter has come in stages. We started out with a lot of frost and then transitioned into ice. We only got our first snowfall in late November just before Thanksgiving. The little snow that we have gotten hasn’t stayed around for very long, which means that the Norwegians are particularly sad since it limits their ability to cross country ski. Personally, I’ve never been the biggest fan of snow unless I’m alpine skiing, but I’ve come to embrace it more in Norway. This is for one reason: ice.

Ice is everywhere on the streets. Having lived in Boston for four years I’m accustomed to seeing people salting the roads as soon as snow is forecasted. In Norway, they more or less refuse to salt the roads. I’ve mainly been told that this is for environmental reasons. The Norwegian solution (if you live outside of Oslo and don’t have heated streets)? Gravel. Gravel is almost completely ineffective. The one use case where I’ve noticed gravel working is when there is so much gravel on the ice that there is essentially a new road on top of the ice. But that rarely happens since they do not gravel the streets regularly. To make matters worse, when it gets colder the gravel freezes and becomes trapped in a new layer of ice, thus becoming more useless (you can kind of see this in the picture between the two shoe pictures). To give you an idea of how icy it is, some areas have become ice skating rinks, not because they were actually planned, but simply because there is enough space and enough ice to make it work.

The only real relief happens when it snows. The snow at least gives you some traction on the ice and makes it much less slippery to get around. But you’re probably wondering what the solution is when there isn’t any snow. Well if you’re Norwegian the solution is to do nothing. I kid you not I see people running on the street (and when I say street I should really say poorly done ice skating rink that resembles a street) with regular footwear. Me, the other international students, and the elderly rely on walking incredibly slowly and on traction cleats. These cleats tend to have spikes on them to help your shoes grip the ice more firmly. They aren’t the best solution, but they are definitely better than nothing.

I realize that some of the pictures below may seem pretty, but the white stuff on the roads is almost entirely ice. In some places it’s as thick as about 20 cm (8 in).

IMG_1945  IMG_1949  IMG_1950IMG_2304  IMG_1954  IMG_2305IMG_2615  IMG_2322  IMG_2617Although adjusting to the ice has been difficult, I would actually say that the most difficult aspect of Norwegian winters is the lack of sunshine. Our shortest day of the year was December 22. Sunrise was at 10:02 am and sunset was at 2:32 pm. That means on some days I would go to school to teach an 8 am class and leave school before sunrise. It’s a little disorienting to finish work before the sun is even up. But as with most things, the lack of daylight has a silver lining. I have seen some gorgeous sunrises and have really come to appreciate the sun. Not to mention, I could be farther North. At least I have the sun.

These days the daylight is coming back at a rate of about 6 minutes per day, so it won’t be long before things fully transition from polar night to midnight sun. But until then, I shall continue to pop vitamin D pills and to wear my traction cleats.

New Year’s Eve

So I didn’t bother writing about the 30th since we spent the day going back home to the UK from Salzburg. How did we do that you might ask. By train. I’m currently very happy not to be taking a train anytime in the near future. Though to be somewhat fair this time it took less than 26 hours.

Anyways, on to New Year’s Eve. As much as I enjoy traveling with my Dad and spending time with him, I decided that I would rather spend NYE with friends. It just so happens that I know a few Italian Fulbrighters and we all agreed to meet up in Rome.

So I dutifully packed up my things on NYE and took an afternoon flight out to Rome. When I landed I encountered my first surprise: people in Italy eat late. After I landed I managed to send a message to my friends letting them know that I was 1) alive 2) awaiting transport from the airport into the city. It was then that I was told that we would be eating at 9pm. Now I’m the sort of person who normally starts eating any time between 5 to 6 pm. Even 7 pm on an adventurous day, though I make notable exceptions when visiting the Taylor family (love you guys). So to me a 9 pm dinner seemed like madness. Then again I wasn’t actually due to get into the city until around 8 pm so I figured I’d just roll with it.

As for getting into Rome, I had initially planned on taking the train; however, the man at the ticket office convinced me to take a shuttle since he claimed it would be faster. So I paid the extra euro and hopped onto the shuttle with around seven other people.

Now having heard terrible things about the taxis in Rome, my attitude towards cars in Rome was more or less the same as my attitude towards New York City taxis, which is: pay, buckle up, and pray. Turns out my logic wasn’t totally off. After about 15 minutes of driving, we heard a loud bang and a continuous grinding sound. Our driver appeared completely unconcerned with the state of things. My fellow passengers and I were not in the same mind frame. Once it became clear that our driver had no intention of pulling over, one of the other passengers finally pointed out that we had probably blown a tire. I’m not sure if this speculation  just didn’t phase our driver or if he simply didn’t understand what we were trying to say, but he continued to drive until a few more concerned murmurs got him to pull over at a rest stop. To give him credit, we had not blown a tire, and from the quick way our driver hopped back into the car he didn’t see anything that troubled him. But as soon as the car got going the grinding sound continued. Eventually whatever was causing the noise fell off the car, and I suppose it will simply remain an unsolved mystery. Anyways we made it to Termini Station without any more problems and I made it to my hostel safe and sound.

So I got settled in and then headed out to meet friends for our now 9:30 pm dinner. I’m not going to lie I was pretty hungry at this point. Luckily food was forthcoming and I tried Rome’s specialty, carbonara. So it was over pasta and a bottle of wine that I got to catch up with friends, Gargi, Matt, and Naji, and meet new ones, Dan and Iman. With the exception of Matt, all of them are Italian Fulbrighters, so I had fun learning more about what it’s like to be living in different parts of Italy.

I particularly enjoyed talking to Gargi since she has my same ETA job in Sicily. I found out that our students are pretty different and, from I could tell, this largely seems to be a product of the different cultures that we work in. Here are some of the biggest differences that we talked about:

  1. Italian students apparently chatter all the time. From my very brief experience in Rome, Italians seem to be both social and loud people. In Norway, I often face very silent classrooms and Norwegians (at least from an American perspective) are practically antisocial. I have never had a real problem with my students interrupting me or talking when I’m lecturing, a fact that I am now more grateful for.
  2. Gargi also mentioned that her students don’t always do the best job when it comes to paying attention (see point 1). Most of the time my students at least appear like they are paying attention. Plus I occasionally have them play games based on my lectures, which of course requires them to listen to what I’m saying. Now like most teachers, I am fully aware that my students spend a good portion of their time on Facebook (and don’t think I know), but I prefer this to them talking when I’m lecturing.
  3. Language abilities also seem different. From what Gargi told me it looks like Italian students have a lower level of English than my Norwegian students, or at least the ones that I teach in the college track. Turns out starting a language in preschool and kindergarten really pays off.
  4. Lastly our students also have different vocational tracks. I had a good time talking to Gargi about a tourism track that she works with (obviously reflecting the fact that tourism is one of Italy’s biggest industries). In contrast to this, I’ve worked much more with engineers, people going into alternative energy, and the shipping industry. To be fair, being based at the science and technology university significantly skews my viewpoint.

But back to NYE. In classic European style it took us about two hours before we managed to leave our restaurant. So it wasn’t until around 11:3o pm that we finally managed to extricate ourselves and walk towards the Roman Forum. It was here that I learned my second major Italian lesson: in Italy rules are really just suggestions. Both low and high grade fireworks were being set off sporadically, and many them were clearly being set off by amateurs in the middle of the street. There were even a few times that we were concerned for the surrounding trees since they were being peppered by fireworks. Despite the madness around us, we managed to buy a bottle of champagne and get a good fireworks watching position by the Colosseum. This means we managed to ring in the New Year in some sort of style, though unfortunately we did not manage to find glasses for our bottle of champagne. Oh and of course the fireworks went off late. But hey, as one of my new friends succinctly said “It’s Italy…what did you expect?”

From there we wandered to one of Rome’s many piazzas where we bar hopped into the wee hours of the morning.

IMG_2180  IMG_2182  IMG_2186

Ethiopian Food and ETA Musings

One of my favorite parts of our Bergen trip was catching up with some of the other Fulbrighters in town. We managed to meet up with both Kyle and Abby at an excellent Ethiopian restaurant called Selam. If you happen to be searching for spicy food in Norway this is definitely a good option.

Abby is my ETA counterpart in Bergen so I was really excited to see her and compare ETA notes. The first thing I asked her was whether her students were also really quiet. Lud and I had talked about this when I was in Oslo and we’ve both found it difficult to get students to participate. Abby confirmed that she’s experienced the same thing and said that it was really different for her in comparison to her last school. Abby was based at a KIPP school when she was working with Teach for America (TFA), and she said that in KIPP schools students either raise their hands or are punished. In short, she went from a school system where there was no shortage of hands in the air to one where generally only the know-it-alls and Hermione Grangers of the world raise their hands.

We also had to laugh when we realized how similar our schools’ curriculums were. We must both be in an International English class because our students cover the exact same materials, even down to the same movies.

Abby also had a one observation that I found particularly striking. Through her grading experiences at the university and upper secondary school, Abby doesn’t necessarily think that upper secondary schools adequately prepare their students to pass university classes. Even though Abby is working at the second best school in the city, Abby was telling me that the grading system is very flexible and thus it doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the university’s harsher standards. I’ve done grading for NTNU but have yet to do much for Byåsen. Additionally, the majority of my students are international students so it’s hard for me to accurately say if things are similar in Trondheim.

Like Abby pointed out, I have also noticed that grades seem to be pretty flexible, and there is not always a clear rubric that dictates what sort of grades students should receive. At a university level, all of the assignments that I’ve had to grade have only given me three real grading options (pass, fail, fail pending improvement). This can make it a bit more difficult to grade since the bar for a pass is much lower in a pass/fail system. In my opinion this isn’t a good thing because it doesn’t give students a good idea of how well they did or how much they still have left to improve.

Overall, Abby and I have found the grading and feedback system in Norway to be very different from the one in the United States. In the United States, high school students are constantly given assignments and feedback. In contrast to this, I think that my International English students have only had two major assignments this past semester. Also, from what I can tell, homework is never work that is turned in and graded.

American university students also tend to be given more feedback than ones in Norway. In Norway, it’s not uncommon to have a grade be almost completely based on the one final exam.

But, both of us have really enjoyed our time teaching. It’s been interesting working in the Norwegian school system and I can’t wait to see what the spring will bring.

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”.