Amurica

Since coming to Byåsen, I have only worked with three classes: an International English class, an English class in the health vocational track, and a Social Studies class. So I was excited when a teacher contacted me about a month ago asking if I could stop by her English class in the restaurant vocational track. She sent me a follow up email earlier in the week asking if I could talk about life and work in the US and that she had “also picked up that [the students] find the litigation culture interesting  (specifically, “why people say they will sue people so often”).” To be frank, my initial reaction to the comment on litigiousness was “I wish I knew.”

Anyways, I duly set about planning for my lesson. Because the topic was so broad I wasn’t quite sure how to structure things, but in the end I decided to talk about:

  1. Demographics: What the Population of America Looks Like
  2. Religion and Politics
  3. Work and Family Life
  4. The Restaurant Industry
  5. Particular Quirks of the Restaurant Industry in America

Now I wouldn’t say that the lesson was a complete disaster, but it was definitely a bit of a reality check.

My International English and Social Studies classes are in what is called the “college prep” section of the school. College prep more or less covers core subjects, similar to what you would learn in an American high school, with the goal of helping students go to university. The students that I’ve encountered in college prep all tend to have very good English.

Vocational tracks on the other hand are geared towards helping students enter their vocation of choice. The impression that I got from my Fulbright education orientation and comments made by teachers at Byåsen is that vocational students are generally not the best at core subjects like English. While I occasionally work with a health vocational class, the English level required has never extended much farther than “Who is your favorite singer?” (in most cases Justin Bieber) or “If you were stranded on a desert island what are three things you would bring with you and why?”

Having been spoiled by the high English fluency of my college prep students and the pretty good English of my health class, I completely overestimated the English ability of those in the restaurant class that I was visiting.

Now there were definitely some vocab words that I knew I shouldn’t have used. When trying to explain the Supreme Court I used “unconstitutional” and immediately realized I should have said something like “illegal” or “against the law” instead. I also knew I would probably have to go back and explain what a census was. So when my co-teacher asked if we could review the slides and some of the vocab I had used, I was more than happy to oblige. I think I fully realized how much I had overshot my audience when we had to check if the students knew the meaning of “government.”

Even though most of my lesson was a bit too complex for my students, it still proved to be an instructive and hilarious class. I think the parts of the lesson that amused me most were when:

  1. We were reviewing political parties and I was asked what the turtle and the camel were for. Democrats and Republicans take note: your political animals could be drawn better. After I got over my fit of laughter, I didn’t even bother using the terms Democrats and Republicans, realizing that things would go over better if I called them the donkey-people and the elephant-people. In the end, I told them not to worry about the elephant-people since their equivalent doesn’t even exist in Norway. To be fair, they thought that the donkey-people were pretty weird too.
  2. Answering why there is no Church of America. In Norway, most people belong to the Church of Norway and so my students were a bit confused as to why America doesn’t have a state church. I then explained how many of the people who first came to America were coming to escape religious persecution (I then totally blanked on a simple way to explain the word persecution, resorting to a poor definition along the lines of “people actively didn’t like them”) and how that made our founding fathers value religious freedom. After the lesson, I speculated on what a Church of America might look like and settled on thanking our founding fathers for not allowing that to happen.
  3. Tipping. First things first, apparently the word tipping means betting in Norwegian. So my students initially thought I was describing some weird betting system that exists in US restaurants. Once I managed to clarify, my students were still at a bit of a loss as to why you would just give people extra money. When I explained that the federal minimum wage is just above 2 USD/hour for certain restaurant professions, they began to freak out. Needless to say, they began to understand why Americans have this weird habit of giving away money as tips.

While my lesson was not the smashing success I had hoped it would be, it was definitely still a fun experience and a learning experience. I’ve learned that in a vocation track it’s important to review my lesson slide by slide and to be more diligent in consulting with my co-teacher about the level of English that I’m working with.

Education Culture Shock

Today the Rovers, Abby, and I had to get up early for an education seminar that we were going to in Halden. Because the train trip took over an hour it was a great time to talk to everyone about their experiences in American education. Topics ranged from the structure of Kipp charter schools to the state of sex education in the US and I had a really good time learning about the different places where people have taught.

The other great part of our commute was getting to use a maxi taxi, which was pretty much code for party bus. The taxi was even playing old Madonna hits.

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Our day was jam-packed with useful information, and it was great to talk with more people about what they thought of the ongoing teachers’ strike. I’ve divided up what I’ve learned into more manageable sections so feel free to skip over the parts that don’t particularly appeal to you.

Teachers’ Strike

The overall feeling that I got from people at the Norwegian Center was that they believed the teachers had valid grievances, but were worried that if the strike continued for much longer that it would hurt the teachers’ cause. In 2013, Denmark had a teacher lockout after negotiations between the Danish Union of Teachers and the local government collapsed. The month long lockout ended when the government forced an emergency bill through Parliament that unilaterally sided with employers (Education International). People at the Norwegian Center, as well as others, seem worried that if the teacher’s strike continues for too long that the same thing will occur here. The strike continuing is a very real possibility and it is rumored that the unions have enough funds to last for two months. Crossed fingers that I will make it school before the month ends!

Foreign Languages 

There are materials available for 38+ foreign languages at the Halden Center, but not all languages are offered in schools, and schools have some independence in deciding what languages they will have available. Learning foreign languages can start as early as kindergarten and preschool, but English doesn’t become a mandatory subject until the first grade. English is taught throughout high school, but in 8th grade students are given the option of either:

  1. Going in depth into Norwegian
  2. Going in depth into English
  3. Starting a second foreign language

The last option is emphasized the most and in order to qualify for university you must know a second foreign language. Being fluent in a second foreign language is also seen as a positive because it can be used to help foster a good working relationship with Europe. The fact that I only started to learn my first foreign language, Spanish, in high school was a bit humbling.

Research done at the Center also shows that when more languages are offered, the more students take foreign languages. There is the same curriculum taught in all foreign languages and an exam can be taken to determine fluency. Immigrants* are also encouraged to learn their home language so that they can take exams to become accredited. Perhaps because of the wide range of languages that are offered in Norway, weekend language schools such as Chinese school and Korean school aren’t very common in Norway.

*In Norway immigrants are not only people who move to Norway from another country, but also include the children of immigrants. In other words, even if you are born in Norway you are still considered an immigrant if your parents are immigrants.

Teacher Education

Teacher education is a four year masters course in Norway, and learning often continues even after teachers achieve their masters. The government has developed centers for teaching excellence where educators can go to to learn new teaching techniques, and teachers can also enroll in education classes and receive funding for this by national authorities. Teachers are also encouraged to get their PhDs to increase their competence in subject knowledge.

The government has also embarked on a recruiting campaign for teachers. Recently there has been a fall in respect for Norway’s teachers (one of the grievances of those on strike). One hypothesis that we were given for this decline in respect was that because education used to center around teaching the elite it was seen as a more “special” profession. Now that education is accessible to almost everyone, the respect for teaching has also declined and fewer people are becoming teachers. Not only is the government trying to recruit teachers generally, they are also trying to recruit more male teachers, specifically those who want to teach primary school children. The hope is that by incorporating more men into the education system schools can give children more male role models.

Primary & Lower Secondary Education

Yes, Norway uses the same education naming system as British so the above roughly translates to grades 1-9. Primary school has students until around age 7 and lower secondary school encompasses ages 6-15. Municipalities are responsible for primary and lower secondary schools, counties are responsible for upper secondary education and training, and the state is in charge of universities and university colleges.

The biggest difference from the American system that I was told about was that there are no grades are given from grades 1-7, though informal evaluations are given. The professor that I work with at NTNU said that the reasoning behind this is that educators don’t want to encourage competitiveness amongst children. Children also can’t fail a class and retake it. Students are graded on competence, so instead of being given a failing grade, a student is simply marked as at the lowest degree of competency.

Another difference is that teachers do not have their own classrooms, the students have their own classroom. The teachers are the ones responsible for changing classrooms when they switch lessons.

Lastly, there isn’t the same concept in Norway as there is in America of separation of church and state. Religion is a mandatory subject here and while it used to only focus on Christianity, it has become more diverse over the years. It used to be that you could apply for an exemption from the class, but now that coverage is more diverse you can’t do that anymore. As for what’s actually offered, the religious classes available are Christianity, Ethics/Humanism, and Other Religions.

Upper Secondary School and Vocational Training

Upper secondary school and vocational programs round out the last few years of what we would call high school. If students participate in upper secondary school they normally do two years, but if they are in a vocational track they can either do:

  1. Two years of upper secondary school and two years of apprenticeship
  2. Three years of upper secondary school then one year of apprenticeship

Vocational tracks include things like

  • Building and construction
  • Design, arts and crafts
  • Electricity and electronics
  • Healthcare, childhood and youth development
  • Media and communication
  • Agriculture, fishing and forestry

and much more. Vocational students still have to take theoretical core subjects (things like English, Math, Social Sciences, etc.) and students have reportedly found it difficult to work with these subjects and see them as relevant. The FYR project has tried to change things by making core subjects more vocationally oriented. For example, an English class would focus more on how to write cover letters, CVs, and professional writing than a standard upper secondary school English class would.

One thing that Norwegians are concerned about is the dropout rate, especially in vocational programs, and especially amongst boys. In fact, almost 45% of vocational students achieved no competence in their studies, or failed to finish. A few factors that Norwegian authorities have looked into:

  • Parental education (parents who have a good education or an interest in education have children who more likely to complete school)
  • The grades people received in lower secondary school
  • Ethnicity
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Rural people moving into urban areas

The last two bullet points have caused schools to call dropouts “push outs,” because they see it as a more accurate term. Additionally, when students apply for vocational studies they rank their top three tracks as part of their application. Most students get their top choice, but those who don’t usually end up dropping out. Moreover, some students select a vocational track not because they are particularly interested in a vocation but because they hate general studies. Students who do this oftentimes still struggle in vocational tracks.

Higher Education 

Norway has eight universities and there are several ways to qualify for them. Typically students need to have three years of completed and passed upper secondary education, but for those over 25 university access is based on several forms of competence. In order to apply for university, you simply fill in a national application that states your basic information, your grades, and your ranked preferences for universities. There are no personal statements, references, lists of extracurricular activities, or work experience. This was probably the thing that I found most shocking since it offered such a large contrast to the US application system. The other thing to note about the application process is that students are only admitted to one school. Mind blown.

Universities in Norway also take part in the Bologna Process, something that establishes standards for higher education throughout Europe. There are 46 out of 47 European countries participating in the Bologna Process (Belarus is the odd one out), and in theory the Bologna Process means that degrees are recognized between countries and that classes should be fairly equal throughout Europe since classes are using common reference frames.

As for funding, financial support is originally given as a full loan, but about 40% of that loan changes into a grant after certain modules are passed at university.

Because higher education is so accessible here, there is a feeling that people have too many masters degrees when what Norway really needs are people in the professions, such as plumbers. The question being asked is whether or not people have become too academic, especially when there is a dearth of skilled craftsmen. Similarly there has also been a loss of respect for the humanities in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) because STEM is seen as being much more practical and helpful in terms of boosting the economy. As a humanities major myself, it’s sad to see that the loss of respect for the humanities appears to be a globalized trend.

Our orientation was full of useful information and I was thankful to have a much better understanding of the Norwegian school system by the end of the day. Once our lectures on education finished both Abby and I returned to Oslo to catch our late night flights back to our new home cities.