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.

Newspaper Struggles

I would say that I do a pretty good job of keeping up with the news. In any given day I’m guaranteed to receive at least five different emails on things ranging from current events to news on the latest in the technology industry. But here’s the catch: it’s all US news. And while it’s great to be keep up with the day to day events in my home country, it can occasionally prove a bit frustrating to not have a better idea of what exactly is going on in Norway. Norway does have English language news, but from what I’ve seen most of it is quite limited or fails to really capture the nuances that are conveyed in Norwegian news. Despite all of this, I have come across two Norwegian events that I thought would be interesting to blog about.

The first was a strike! Yes, it was my second strike of the year, the first being the teacher’s strike in August. I was surprised last week when I went to school and was told by my co-teacher that there was going to be a strike that day. From what I could understand from both this English language article and my fellow teachers, the strike was over changes that the national government is proposing. Some of the main complaints are: the removal of full time positions in favor of temporary positions, increased hours, and work on Sunday. Now I realize that I probably haven’t emphasized this enough, but Sunday is a big deal in Norway. Pretty much everything shuts down on Sunday, and stores that are open are more expensive than normal and have very limited hours. Sunday in particular is seen as a day when people can relax with their families and go hiking. In fact, I was recently talking to a Norwegian who told me that she found the American work system quite sad because “everyone deserves at least one day off together.” Sunday seems so embedded in Norwegian culture that I was surprised the current government even dared to try and change things. So although I was slightly exasperated by what appeared to my non-Norwegian-news-reading self as a last minute strike, I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear that people were upset enough over these proposals to strike. It seems like quite a few unions were participating in the strike, but the most notable ones for me were one of the teacher’s unions and the transportation unions. Pretty much all forms of transportation were shut down from 2-4 pm last Wednesday. So buses, trains, and planes around the country were more or less inoperable during this time period. Because Kirsti was participating in the strike and is far-sighted she decided to let our class out early so that they could catch buses back home before the system shut down completely.

The other thing that I wanted to talk a bit about was reactions to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I was recently talking to a cousin living in Germany when he told me of a group called PEGIDA. In German the name is Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes which translates to Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. That last sentence was more or less taken from Wikipedia so I apologize if there are translation/spelling errors. Unfortunately my German consists of a lot of useful tourist nouns and phrases (zoo, castle, mountain, bathroom, etc.) and thus is pretty reliant on said German cousin and Google Translate. But moving beyond language, it’s pretty easy to understand what the group is advocating for just based on the name. The group was founded in Dresden before the Charlie Hebdo shooting but has only really gotten popular in the aftermath of the shooting. It has sparked quite a few protests and counter-protests and the numbers are not insignificant on either side. Most of the rallies seem to draw tens of thousands, demonstrating that this is an issue worthy of some thought. When I talked to my cousin a bit more about PEGIDA he postulated that one reason for its popularity is that Germany is defined as a Christian state, thus it has a bit of a negative reaction towards Islam. When I asked about other non-Christian religions he dismissed them by saying that they don’t really have a large presence in Germany.

Now I just assumed that this was a German specific group, so I was initially surprised when one of my co-teachers told me that PEGIDA is also in Norway. Now I wouldn’t say that immigration is really a topic that Norwegians are fond of. My first semester teaching International English was spent examining multiculturalism and immigration, and while the course aims to teach tolerance, I did have a few students happily state that they are xenophobic. Norwegians have not always had a welcoming approach towards immigrants, and I think a number of Fulbrighters have come to Norway over the years to study attitudes towards immigration. While I might not be painting the most friendly picture, to give the Norwegians due credit, according to this article the anti-PEGIDA demonstrations in Oslo have far outnumbered the PEGIDA demonstrations.

While PEGIDA Norway is certainly something noteworthy, if only for its existence, it isn’t the thing that intrigues me the most. It’s actually Norwegian reactions to its leader, Max Hermansen. Hermansen is a teacher who was working for two different Norwegian schools. One of the schools has since fired Hermansen for his views and this has sparked a debate. Questions range from: Should he be allowed to teach students, some of whom are immigrants, if he has anti-immigration views? Should he be allowed freedom of speech? Are teachers in a special position where their freedom of speech is restricted due to their important role as educators? Can teachers teach and still keep their personal views separate?

As an educator I think it’s important to try and keep my personal views separate from what I teach. That being said, it can sometimes be a tough line to walk, and when pressed I’ll give my opinion. I’m not sure where I fall on whether or not Hermansen should have been fired, though I think that I as well as some of the other Norwegian teachers seem to lean towards supporting the school that fired him. I do believe that freedom of speech is important, as are non-traditional viewpoints, but I grow a bit concerned when I think of Hermansen teaching young students, some of whom are probably Muslim. In this interconnected age, I can’t imagine how students would not find out about Hermansen’s involvement in PEGIDA and how that might affect their classroom experience. While I don’t support PEGIDA I think the movement has caused some interesting questions to arise. I think Norway (as well as most countries, including the United States) will have to re-examine the way that it treats immigrants and continue to grapple with the double-edged sword that is freedom of speech. As my class transitions into examining global issues I hope that both of these topics are things that we’ll be able to discuss.

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”.

Visit From a Rover

Now it would be utterly remiss of me not to mention that one of the Roving Scholars, Heather, recently came to Trondheim. The Roving Scholars program is probably the coolest thing that the Fulbright Commission offers in Norway. The Rovers travel from school to school and have a series of workshops that they teach throughout Norway for the duration of the school year. If you’re interested in learning more, information can be found here. Anyways, the Roving Scholars are all amazing and well established teachers and I was really excited to see Heather and to see one of her workshops.

Heather dropped by my International English class early on Friday morning and really managed to engage with my students. The topic of her workshop was the makeup of the United States and American universities. Before this workshop, I got the impression that my students tended to view the United States as one united country. They seemed a bit surprised to learn that there are some pretty significant regional differences across the United States and that these differences range from things like accents to personality traits.

One of my favorite parts of the workshop was when Heather showed my students the infographic below. Having already given my students some background information on different areas in the United States, Heather asked them to look at the infographic and tell her what area of the country they would go to if they had a free plane ticket.

US Personality Map YouGov-01

Considering the adjectives, it came as no surprise that no one wanted to go to the East Coast. Sorry New York. A few students wanted to go to the South, more wanted to go to the Midwest, and the majority wanted to go to the West Coast. As a Californian, I am proud to say that even Norwegians know that the West Coast really is the best coast.

I also enjoyed watching my students learn more about American universities. I think the thing that they found most shocking was the cost of higher education. In Norway, higher education is free, so the price tag for an American university seems like pure insanity. We calculated out the price in NOK for attending a four year $40,000/year institution and the students were a bit stunned to learn that a bachelors degree costs some Americans around 1.2 million NOK. We did put in a good word for financial aid, but that didn’t stop my students from being taken aback at the initial price.

Overall, I think that my students learned a lot and had a good time. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing Heather again later in the school year, and I hope that I’ll get the chance to see more of the other Rovers in the spring.

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.

Final Presentations

I’ve been told that my last few posts make it seem like everything is all play and no work, but don’t worry! I’ve still been teaching–I’ve just assumed that you’d rather hear more about the fun parts of my week. So, for this post I decided that I should reassure you that I do in fact have a job here in Norway.

Things at NTNU have slowly been coming to a close. November 21 is the last day of classes at the university and many of my students’ weekly writing samples tend to detail their various panic levels as they approach the end of the semester. In my smaller NTNU class, Academic Writing, Nancy has established a tradition of inviting all of our students over to her house for dinner and presentations. Many of the students in the class are international, in fact we only have one Norwegian student, so the presentations are meant to help us understand their experiences in Norway and learn more about about how Norway compares to their home countries. But, first things first, we dined.

Nancy happens to be a fabulous cook and made a mixture of Norwegian and American dishes for the class. My meager contribution to this part of the evening was setting the table, chopping lettuce, and generally trying to be a good sous chef. Basically my role at family gatherings since the dawn of time (though for any family members reading this rest be assured I am not complaining).

After we feasted and managed to roll ourselves away from the table we started up the projector and after a few technical difficulties began the presentations. I learned a good deal from these presentations, but the thing that actually surprised me the most was how funny my students are. This particular class is notable for how quiet they are so I was surprised to see so many of them crack jokes. So, here are some of the highlights from these presentations:

  • Our first German student decided to present on Turkish street food in Germany, particularly doner kebab. The student gave us some of the history of the industry as well as some stats (just about everyone was prepared to move to Berlin when he said that doner costs about 1 euro). My favorite part of his presentation though was his concluding slide, which had the picture below and the caption:Angie knows…doner makes beautiful
  • We then had three French students do a fairly comprehensive comparison between France and Norway. I think that their biggest complaint centered around the food. Their biggest concern was Norwegian cheese. In Norway, cheese is made by boiling whey and the most highly prized Norwegian cheese is brown cheese. Needless to say, my French students do not think that this qualifies as cheese. All three students practically waxed poetic when talking about the sheer amount of hard cheese available in France (one girl said that the number was over 350 cheeses).
  • I think the thing that made everyone laugh the most was a presentation by our Spanish student. She said that she was shocked by thermometers in Norway since it was the first time she’d seen a thermometer that measured temperatures below 0 Celsius.
  • One of the stranger things I learned about that night was about sports in Finland. Finland apparently hosts world championships in wife carrying, boot throwing, air guitar playing, swamp soccer, and sitting on ant’s nests. I kid you not these are real things. There are even stamps depicting these sports in Finland.

After the presentations, we all dug into dessert and continued to talk. Some interesting moments from this conversation include:

  • Talking about Christmas foods and having our Chinese student explain that Christmas is not celebrated in China. Many of my students struggled to wrap their heads around the idea of no Christmas.
  • Having our German students explain that they pay state taxes to the church, though apparently you can go to court and get yourself banished from the church, thus avoiding those taxes.
  • Germans still pay taxes that support East Germany, a hangover from World War II.
  • Apparently Germans used to build a lot of churches because they could use them as an excuse to celebrate and drink. They would celebrate the day each church was started, the day it was opened, etc. In essence, Germans tried to created a year round party centered around church building; at least until the kaiser put his foot down and declared that there would only be one celebratory day.
  • I also had fun realizing how small some of my student’s hometowns are. One student in particular described his birthplace as containing “approximately two hundred souls. About a hundred human and a hundred cow.”

All in all, it was a fun and educational night and I like to think that everyone walked home with a little bit more knowledge and a full tummy.

British Parliament

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

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

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

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

What is the House of Commons?

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

What is the House of Lords?

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

How are laws made?

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on the House of Lords?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Snowden

In case you missed the announcement today, the Nobel Peace Prize was just awarded to India’s Kailash Satyarthi and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai for their advocacy of children’s rights and education. If you’d like to learn more about them, The Guardian gives a brief overview of both of the winners here.

Because the Nobel Peace Prize is the only Nobel prize awarded in Norway it is a topic that tends to pop up in conversation here. Before the announcement of this year’s winners, I was actually pretty surprised to learn that Norwegians were actively campaigning to have Edward Snowden win the prize. In fact, my visit to the Nobel Institute’s Democracy Center even had a small exhibit showcasing Snowden. Because of all the hype surrounding Snowden, I thought it would be interesting to teach a lesson on him in one of my classes.

In practice, teaching about Snowden actually ended up being much difficult than I had anticipated. Not only did I have to come up with simple ways to define a few more technical terms, I also had to give some background on the US Justice system in order to properly explain the Fisa Court and the laws that allow surveillance in the US.

So, here’s what I ended up talking about:

A (Heavily Condensed) Timeline of Snowden Revelations

Jun 6: The Guardian reports on Verizon
Jun 7: The PRISM program is revealed
Jun 21: The Tempura program is revealed
Jun 29: Der Spiegel reports that EU offices and UN headquarters were bugged
Jul 31: XKeyscore is revealed (which was notable since this information did not come from Snowden, thus giving legitimacy to fears that Snowden would inspire other whistleblowers)
Aug 16: The Washington Post reports that the NSA has been breaking privacy rules (2,776 violations between March 2011 – March 2012 alone)
Sep 5: The NSA is reportedly able to get around most encryption methods by using backdoors in technology or by putting pressure on companies to use weak encryption techniques
Jan 14: The NSA can access computers that aren’t online
Jul 1: “Warrant for the world:” the NSA is given the legal go ahead to collect information on all countries except for the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand
Aug 13: MonsterMind is revealed
Sep 5: The NSA considered spying for US companies to give them a competitive edge

Legal Basis for Surveillance

There are three main laws that allow for such widespread surveillance: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, Executive Order 12333, and the Patriot Act of 2011. All of these have been amended, with the latest amendments occurring in 2004 and 2008.

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978

  • Established the Fisa Court which was created due to events in the 1970s. At the time, it was reported that the government had been spying on political and activist groups. The Court was created to ensure government oversight over surveillance practices.
    • There are a total of 10 federal judges on the Fisa Court, none of whom have to be experts in privacy or surveillance law. Only one judge is needed in order to approve a warrant
    • The Court only sees the government’s viewpoint; it does not hear testimony from those who are about to be surveilled
    • The rulings of the Court are classified, rendering an appeals process impossible
    • Up until 2004, the court has only struck down five surveillance requests and approved 18,761 requests
  • Originally if the government wanted to spy on an individual it would need to have the Fisa court approve that individual warrant. Now a warrant is only needed if the target is a US citizen or if a call takes place entirely within the US.

Executive Order 12333

  • Allows for the collection of data needed for “national defense” as long as such data collection is not prohibited by existing laws

Patriot Act of 2001

  • Allows information to be collected as long as it is related to an investigation. In other words, information collection does not have to be directly related to a target, just related to an investigation

While these laws establish the legality behind surveillance, there is still a process the government has to go through in order to actually collect the desired information. There are two main ways that the government gets this legal mandate: a national security letter or a Fisa court order.

National Security Letter

  • Allows the FBI to compel companies to reveal subscriber and billing information
  • The content of these letters as well as their existence cannot be revealed
  • These letters are what the government has generally used with companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo

Fisa court order

  • A warrant that is approved by the Fisa Court that allows for legal surveillance

Consequences: Or Has Anything Changed Since Snowden?

Since Snowden’s revelations, something that has being asked is whether or not Snowden has actually inspired change. Overall I would say that while many of these changes are still ongoing, Snowden has made an impact. Since Snowden we have witnessed:

  • Calls for FISA court reform
  • NSA documents becoming declassified
  • Companies becoming more transparent
  • Companies fighting back
    • Microsoft recently announced that it was taking the government to court over demands to reveal email information stored on servers abroad
    • Apple’s new encryption techniques will prevent them from handing over data to the government

Reactions

After teaching my students, I had them divide up into groups so that they could debate whether or not Snowden did the right thing. I was actually pretty surprised to find that the groups arguing against Edward Snowden were floundering. Both groups were having difficulty coming up with reasons why Snowden did the wrong thing, or should be considered a traitor. Considering the number of negative reactions I’ve seen surrounding Snowden in the US, I was pretty surprised to find these groups struggling. In the end, I decided to give these groups a few arguments that they could use (Snowden’s revelations would encourage more whistleblowers to disclose national secrets, it hurts US credibility abroad, it hurts US companies abroad, etc.) but it was pretty clear that both groups found these arguments less than compelling.

Overall I would say that there were three aspects of my lecture that got people riled up:

  1. The structure and intent behind the Fisa Court. Many of my students struggled to understand both the reasoning behind the Court and why the Court is structured in the way that it is.
  2. Internal abuses by the NSA. They were particularly outraged by LOVEINT, or the practice of some employees of spying on love interests. My students were also outraged that the NSA had even entertained the idea of spying on foreign companies in order to pass along information to domestic companies.
  3. The lack of success when it came to actually stopping terrorist attacks. When PRISM and other programs were originally unveiled, Director Keith Alexander said that the NSA had stopped 54 attacks, but that number was later revised to “at most one.”

At the end of the debate, I had my groups tell me their actual feelings on Snowden, and the vast majority of them approved of Snowden’s actions. However, when I asked if they would award him the Nobel, only three people out of my group of twelve raised their hands.

While I don’t think this was my most popular lesson, it was fun to do and presented a nice challenge. At the end of the day, I also felt like it did a good job of getting my students to talk and think critically.

If you have any interest in learning more about Snowden (I apologize for my overwhelming lack of references) I’d highly recommend this recent piece done by The Guardiaas well as this Wired interview with Snowden. For more general information, I’d suggest looking at: