Wednesday, 12 December 2007

The road to Ithaca

The intercultural dialogue ensuing the project award vote has been a real eye-opener to me, once again, about the many nuances that we often unconsciously bring into our communication in intercultural settings. The communication channels were first opened by one of our bicultural members diplomatically voicing some problems that many of us were surely grappling with, and by ending her mail with “Perhaps, it would be nice to hear from other participants as well.” I then joined in as the rather matter-of-fact Finn, with my convictions about fair play and democracy. A colleague from Poland was brave enough to admit the following: “We can't be happy seeing our project in final of competition since we placed it there ourselves by voting... any congratulations can be sent to us I am afraid…” and came up with a practical suggestion of rescuing the unfortunate situation by using the already cast votes to give out a fun internaut prize to the winner, while the actual project awards would be based on a more qualitative evaluation done by a panel of judges. Finally, a colleague from Greece suggested postponing the award decisions till next year’s conference, and aptly ended in a philosophical classical quote from a Greek poet about the road to Ithaca. And all through this exchange of ideas, our inscrutable Asian colleagues remained totally silent.

(Picture from HSCB bank publicity campaign at Charles de Gaulle airport,
May 2007).

What a lot we all have to learn about global collaborations Apart from our personal, individual traits, we are all, to a large extent, also products of our respective cultures, and circumstances. It is only when we properly venture into working together towards joint goals and settling shared action plans that our ‘more hidden cultures’ emerge. Yet, at the same time, it’s all these different approaches that make project work so fascinating. So next time my students exclaim: Are they (ie. students in another country) stupid – why can’t they be more like us?! I can reassure them that, although it is irritating many times that others don’t share our values, beliefs and behavioural patterns, it’s precisely these differences that turn this learning experience into such an invaluable process.

To quote some ideas from the Greek poem:

"When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean."

Constantine P. Kavafy, ITHACA

PS. Interestingly, we are not the only ones having trouble with online voting processes. Today I happened to come across this post from Chris about the Edublogs award vote. In both cases, the problem seems to be to prove whether popularity comes through merit or the quantity of mustered up votes alone.

Monday, 10 December 2007

What did YOU learn this weekend??

It's early Monday morning and I have spent a good part of my weekend marking never-ending piles of exams, but also catching up on blog reading and, through that, reflecting on a variety of topics about school and education and learning. How refreshing it was once again to read the posts of so many enthusiastic educators from around the world! One post, in particular, from Chris's Betchablog really struck a chord with me. He explains how further training, studying and blogging, for example, have all opened up new vistas in his working life. Ditto! Unfortunately, I am not much luckier when it comes to sharing all this with my colleagues. So, the following scenario from Chris's post would most probably await me if I really told anyone at work about my weekend activities.
It was this exposure to ideas that flipped switches in my head and caused me to rethink a few things about school and learning. And it made me realise that many teachers never do this sort of thing at all. Try going to work on Monday and when your colleagues ask what you did on the weekend, tell then you went to an education conference (in your own time!) or read a book about learning theory, or chatted with other teachers about how to make learning more relevant, and see the sorts of odd looks you get, or the sarcastic “gee that must have been fun!” comments.

But how lucky we are in this new millennium to have this collectively learning and sharing blogosphere to support, enlighten and inspire us!

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The notorious project awards again

Finally we have managed to mobilize some other people about the issues concerning the rather unfortunate project awards I ranted about a few days ago. Quite a few protesting voices have now joined the mailing list discussion, as members around Europe and Asia feel confused, disappointed, and frustrated. I wonder whether our administrators could see this coming, or whether they were simply too busy to consider all the possible repercussions in advance. The more I think about, the more it smacks of an ad hoc plan, made up in haste to solve the dilemma of this year’s awards. But, of course, this is just me second-guessing… Yet, it's all rather fishy, and they seem to be making the rules up as they go along, depending on what issues are brought up by the members. For example, only now are we told that the online voting will count for only 60% of the final assessment, and there will still be a panel of judges to account for the remaining 40%. Really? How interesting! Surely this should have been made clear right at the very beginning? Sounds like this is a new improvised twist introduced as a last resort in a desperate attempt to silence us.

But leaving all that palaver aside, one member's comment really caught my attention. She complained: "It seems to me a somewhat strange procedure to count votes like that as it favours those projects whose leaders take the extra time and effort to rally for votes". It was direct criticism against me personally, too, as I am one of the coordinators, and yes, I have done a little bit of rallying. Now, why do I suddenly get these negative vibes from this? True, when I first read the ridiculous change of rules in an email, my gut reaction was literally to throw in the towel and announce that I would withdraw my projects out of the 'race'. However, on second thoughts, after sleeping on it, I came to the conclusion that I shouldn't, because it would be tantamount to letting my whole project team down! Like the captain abandoning the sinking ship kind of ideology - so I decided to follow my sense of coordinator’s duty and do what I could to collect at least some votes, to show willing - or to show what actually?? I don't really know any more…

I can't help feeling that the person blaming me and other coordinators for taking the extra time and effort is getting it wrong. What else can we do? I have voiced my doubts and concerns to the administrators, but to no avail. All I got was a cordial ‘thank you’ for my commitment and suggestions. I somehow feel being pushed between a rock and a hard place. I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Or, here I am like good old Don Quijote fighting against the giant windmills!

In this age of all the magnificent communication technologies, the sensible approach would have been to open this dialogue to all the stakeholders well before any new measures were adopted. By so doing, a lot of this unhappiness and regret might have been avoided, and everybody could have felt that they were heard and were given the chance to contribute to the final decision. Undoubtedly, that decision would have required many compromises, but c’est la vie. There is power in such networking today – our collective intelligence should be tapped into more often, particularly as we now have the tools to do so, even globally. I am thinking now whether this type of negotiation procedure is a western ideal – maybe some of our Asian colleagues would not feel comfortable with it? Hmm, I am stereotyping again perhaps, although I do often feel that deep-rooted unspoken cultural values cause many critical incidents in intercultural communication. A good book to read in this connection would be Guba and Lincoln's 'Fourth Generation Evaluation' (1989), which presents a constructivist model that, in my opinion, could have been applied here. To me, a westerner as I am, the upshot of all this is that it rather makes a travesty of democracy and open dialogue. As it is, whoever will receive these cursed awards now won't be able to enjoy the well-deserved good feeling of accomplishment, while others will forever suspect them of dubious means.

Scrap the cash awards! Give all participants who manage to complete the year’s project and meet the rubric criteria – some better, some more modestly – a diploma and a badge to upload on their website. That would do me nicely. And then full-steam ahead with this year’s new project challenges!

Saturday, 8 December 2007

It's all about 'nukumori'

It is amazing to go down memory lane to track the rapid development of global school projects. I have been teaching for 20 odd years, and still remember my early years in the mid-80s when I used to arrange traditional pen-pals for my students. Some of them would be fortunate enough to meet like-minded souls in other countries and keep the correspondence going, while poor others never received one single letter. But common to all these exchanges were the dawdling gaps in writing, sometimes waiting for months for the next long-awaited letter to arrive. Nevertheless, there was something endearing in the hand-written sheets, sometimes beautifully decorated with drawings, the exotic stamps on the envelopes or, best of all, enclosed photographs!

Incidentally, I have just learned a Japanese idea called ‘nukumori’ from my dear Japanese friend and colleague. He described how he feels ‘nukumori’ when reading his mother’s handwriting, for example. He translated it as something like ‘warmth in humanity expressed through your personality’. Once again I feel quite lost in translation with this concept, but it sounds fascinating to me. I have been wondering if we tend to lose some of it when we switch into fast-paced online communication. It would appear so, at least in the case of my daughter, who is spending this whole school year as an exchange student in Belgium. We keep in touch mainly through modern technology – Skype, a joint blog diary, photos in Flickr etc. Interestingly, though, she seems to long for old-fashioned hand-written letters. Similarly, I too revel in every carefully drawn line and curve of her writing and sniff the subtle scents of the letters she has written to us. Must be the importance of ‘nukumori’, mustn’t it? Hand-written letters magically bring her much closer to me than the more impersonal typed writing on the net.

Anyway, back to international projects. The next phase for me was the introduction of email into project work. Suddenly letters and messages could be sent and received around the world almost instantaneously. For me, this started in 1996, when I worked as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the States, and acquired my first ever email account there. What a revolution! In the beginning, though, I can remember how people were so overwhelmed by this new medium that they created trivial ‘anybody out there?’ sort of projects with instructions that read something like: “My teacher wants me to get as many emails from as many countries as possible. So just reply to this email, but no need to say anything more than what country you are from!” I used to get irritated by those messages, but in hindsight, they were probably quite understandable first steps in the excitement of such novel connectivity.

Soon enough, though, even the email exchanges between students started to falter. Particularly, as many of our foreign partners insisted on the old format of pen-pals, only replacing letters by emails. Every student was to have their own individual e-pal to write to, which caused many problems to do with not identical group sizes, or some students simply not bothering. As a teacher, I felt I lost my face every time a disappointed student complained about not receiving any replies. I soon realized that this wasn’t really leading to any true collaboration between students. I even remember one time when I had found a partner class and all was set for an exciting email project after several negotiations between us teachers. But for some reason, the others never replied to my students’ emails. We waited and waited and I contacted the teacher several times, but he never replied to give any explanation. Needless to say, that was one of the all time lows in my project career. At the time I was embarrassed to let my keen students down, even though, of course, it wasn’t my fault as such. Yet, it’s still a mystery to me what actually happened, and whether my students’ messages are still hauntingly roaming the virtual space somewhere. This experience especially has made me even more careful in choosing partners, and expecting teacher collaboration before launching any project to students.

Next in line, the limitations of email projects created the need for online working platforms to better accommodate student collaboration and to enable forums where students could discuss in groups rather than individually, and so be more likely to receive replies. I got introduced to some platforms by colleagues from Singapore, who produced quality projects and won awards with the help of these tools. The only problem for me was that there was no way our state school system could afford the platforms the affluent private schools in Singapore had. But luckily, back in 2005, our school managed to get access to the open-source Moodle platform, and suddenly a whole new era began for our projects. Thanks to Moodle, at last, project management became much easier, and we were able to provide our international partners with a fairly user-friendly and competitive platform. But still, something was missing. At the end of each project, how to present the results online, since the Moodle platform was a closed, password-only site? I have written about this problem in an earlier post, so no need to repeat it here.

Finally, only last summer, I decided to start blogging and learning about web2.0 tools – which was the next huge step and revelation for me. There seems to be no limit to what can be done globally now! Blogs, wikis, and social networks facilitate smooth and motivating online collaboration and instant publishing, but also provide safety measures and privacy for those who are concerned about open online student presences. And how about podcasts and videos then? Wouldn’t they add some more ‘nukumori’ into typed messages, although actually my Japanese friend says that even some of my email messages have brought him ‘lovely melodies between the lines’.

In the end, it’s all about personal relationships, isn’t it, how you take a personal interest in other people? Whatever the medium these days, I feel we need to remember, and remind our students that we are, first and foremost, dealing with living, breathing, feeling people in our projects. The machines, tools or technology, not even the most advanced and academic topics and themes of our projects are as important as Stefano, Priyanka, Noriko or Julio, at the other end of our shared virtual reality.

Friday, 7 December 2007

GO Students 2.0!

Came across this fascinating new project in several blogs today. I look forward to seeing it unfold after the launch and will definitely read what the students have to say, and contribute with my comments. I will also do my best to make it known in my school and all my networks.

Check out this post by Clay Burell to spread the word!

Good luck to everyone involved!


In the last few weeks I have felt hopelessly frustrated with our Asia-Europe classroom awards for last year’s projects. Previously, each year 5 projects were shortlisted for the award using a fairly good rubric to decide which projects were the most outstanding. The coordinators of the 5 shortlisted projects were then invited to present their project in the annual AEC conference, after which a panel of judges selected the 3 award-winners.

However, this year no conference could be organized, so the AEC headquarters came up with a new procedure. An online vote was launched between all the network members to determine the 5 shortlisted projects. All well and good, until one week before the end of the voting, they suddenly saw fit to open the vote to anyone, on the pretence of enhancing the visibility of the network. Out of the window with the rubric – or knowing anything at all about the projects (eg. some eligible projects didn’t even have a website to show what their work had involved!). We coordinators were just expected to rally for as many votes for our projects as possible in one week – from anyone in the world!

Now, why do I feel hard done by, even though I am a strong advocate of online social networks? Wouldn’t my networks serve me in good stead in collecting votes from around the world? I wouldn’t mind if we had been told this well in advance. But suddenly changing the rules, as it were, was highly suspect and against all my beliefs in fair play. What's more, I have some difficulty in applying the TV reality show format in education – ie. use any means to get anyone to vote for your project, or else you will be eliminated from the race! It shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but a fair assessment of the quality and merits of each project. To cut the long story short, in the end, the final number of votes weren’t even published, but we were told ambiguously ‘After consolidating the results, the six AEC projects that have excelled and eligible for Phase II of the online votes are…’ How about some transparency in the procedure, or maybe some impartial supervisors to monitor the voting??

And as if this wasn’t enough, we are now told to go through the same voting rumba yet again, to then finally determine the 3 award-winners, each of which will receive €2.000 in cash. As it turns out, to win that money, not only do we have to work ever so hard all through the previous year to produce a quality project, but we are also made to mobilize all possible people we know to vote for us – twice round! What abuse of teachers’ valuable time! Especially now that most of us are about to start our well-earned holiday breaks, during which we should be able to rest and recharge our batteries rather than worry about rallying for votes! Don’t I just love international project work?!

Naturally, I will have to abide by these ridiculous rules, since I still believe our projects are worthy of the award, but I may have jeopardized our chances of ever being among the 3 winners by voicing these concerns out loud to all the network members and administrators. Yet, my integrity wouldn’t allow me to remain silent. After all, the real reason for me to do project work is to provide my students with meaningful learning experiences. Honestly, I am not being hypocritical here! (Although, there is no denying, if money is to be had, too, it would be a nice little bonus!)

Another area where I have recently come across this idea of ‘quantity over quality’ is finding out about Facebook. Yes, I did get an account – with the good aim of knowing one of the vastly expanding social networks my students are increasingly involved in. I must admit, I didn’t get hooked, and am still in two minds about the purpose of me having my face there. At least I don’t see much point in sending anyone virtual dougnuts, not to mention all the time required to keep writing sticky notes or wall posts etc. Just goes to show that I must really be the boring, spoil-sport Finn my British husband says I am! (On second thoughts, planting a glorious flower in a friend’s virtual garden does sound half tempting, so perhaps I’m not a lost case yet, after all…)

Or maybe I am just naïve. You see, many ardent bloggers seem to be convinced we teachers now have to enhance our qualifications and polish our CVs by showing how many friends we have acquired on Facebook, for example. According to them, this would send potential employers the message that, if they hired us, they would not only gain a highly qualified expert, but also get the benefit of our wide social network to serve their school. In addition, they claim that there is quite a lot of money to be made by effective networking.

I hope I am not oversimplifying matters by suggesting that there must be some cultural differences in our attitudes toward the role of social networking. In Finland, business and education have mostly been kept strictly separate. Hence, it sounds rather alien to me that I should now start acting as a private entrepreneur advertising my impressive list of online contacts to earn a few extra euros. I have one year’s experience teaching in the American public school system (NB. this was 10 years ago when America was probably very different from today!), and I can well understand how this ideology would spread like wildfire over there. I can still recall how strange I found it when my American colleagues used to drop evidence of their excellent work in their principal’s locker at regular intervals. I would squirm at such competitive spirit among colleagues. But good luck to all of you, my overseas colleagues, who are much more business-oriented than us, products of the Scandinavian welfare states. When it comes down to global competitiveness, you are way ahead of us.

And yet, how sad that people’s worth seems to be measured by the number of names they are able to collect in their contact lists! I refuse to be reduced to just a name that someone needs for their own benefit! Aren’t we somehow losing track of the human element in all this frenzy to appear popular and important by numbers only? Indeed, I approached some of my online ‘friends’ through another network I joined, to share some ideas about project work – only to realize that they were probably too busy finding more new ‘friends’ to add to their list, and consequently unable (or uninterested?) in sharing thoughts with me...

I can’t help feeling a gnawing unease about encouraging this kind of competition in our schools. I keep wondering what I should be teaching my students about social networking. That it doesn’t matter who they are, for as long as they have as many ‘friends’ as possible! Quantity over quality at all cost, eh? This scares me! In fact, just last week I received an alarming email from a colleague in Japan, who described incidents in his school where students are suffering enormous anxiety and stress, and even staying away from school for weeks, because they don’t have enough online friends to constantly chat with on their mobile phones. He says it’s quite common among his students to count the number of their emails or other online messages to prove how popular they are. To quote his words: “More than anything else, losing friends is the most scary event and has to be avoided as their first priority. Their human network is totally trapped in the cell phone world. They are keen on their friendship and try to drop a line for fear of being isolated from their friends.”

Which brings me back to the beginning of this post, and me as a project coordinator desperately fishing for votes… Anyone out there in the blogosphere reading my blog – why don’t you cast your vote as well at

Hopefully you will have the time to check the websites of each project to make your choice! But if you are busy, I can fully recommend my project ‘Mastering Media – the Sequel’ or my Malaysian friend's ‘Cultural Kaleidoscope 07’ :)

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Now, blow me!

This test has been going round the blogosphere for some time, and finally I had a go at it, too. Must say, I'm rather surprised at the result - particularly as I am a foreign English speaker/writer/user. It is possible, though, that just because of that I am more inclined to keep rewriting my posts to be taken seriously by native speakers, whose level I will never even come close to - much as I'd love to pass as a pseudo-native. I would imagine some native speakers are tempted to write more colloquially, perhaps? Anyway, I am quite dubious about the credibility or actual worth of tests like these, but still, they are fun, aren't they?

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Monday, 26 November 2007


“You’re so sadly neglected
And often ignored
A poor second to Belgium
When going abroad.”

What an ingenious summary of the Finnish feeling of national insecurity in Monty Python’s hilarious, although tragicomic, song all those years ago!

Following the devastating school shooting news, there has been quite an uproar among Finns about the Roger Boyes’ article in the Times. The Times website has been inundated with hundreds of comments (over 400, which is amazing in a country with only 5 million people, but how many readers?!) from angry Finns who feel that Mr Boyes has no idea about our wonderful ‘pine and lake paradise’ in the north. True, Mr Boyes doesn’t give a flattering picture of our nation, which, according to him, is plagued with ‘clinical depression’ and ‘at this time of year is sunk in almost permanent half-light’. But hey, Finns, there’s a lot of truth in what he says, isn’t there? I, for one, am trying to get into grips with my annually worsening winter depression by regular dips into a hole in the icy sea!

I couldn’t help looking into some of the comments, only to confirm my suspicions that, as usual, these Finns take outsiders questioning anything to do with our country as a serious personal insult. I feel this reflects a national inferiority complex – quite typical of small, young nations, I have heard. We crave attention and recognition from abroad, but only if it’s unconditional praise, thank you very much. Finland is absolutely perfect, the best in the world – just look at Kimi Räikkönen, he’s a Finn and number one in the world! I am actually astounded how often suggestions for improvement in Finland are simply dismissed with the excuse of ‘oh, but at least it’s not as bad as in X country’ or ‘well, at least in Y country things are even worse’! Why should we smugly rest on our laurels, because we are not the worst country in the world? Denial of any limitations in our society - the typical ostrich syndrome - may give Finns the reassurance that all is well, but it also effectively stalls any progress and prevents our country from moving forward. Indeed, on the morning after November 7th, some of my colleagues insisted that they didn’t want to say a word about the previous day’s tragedy to our students. This, I would say, just shows the gap between the generations teaching and being taught; in effect like denying the youngsters’ shared trauma (after all, it happened at the same type of school as ours). Their false sense of security, and their pride and faith in their pristine country must have suffered an unbearable blow. Better to pretend that nothing had happened, hide their heads deeper in the sand and carry on as normal, stiff upper lip and all that.

As I live a bicultural existence with lots of connections outside Finland, I feel I’m pushed to the fringes of Finnish society by my fellow nationals. My ideas are frequently disregarded as too unorthodox for mainstream Finnish thinking. A case in point is saying anything even slightly critical about our educational system. In an interview with a Finnish journalist after the flood of comments to his article, Mr Boyes challenges:

“You have a brilliant educational machine. But are children measured on the basis of academic achievement alone, and not on the basis of human development?”
This strikes a chord with me. Despite Finnish authorities, and most ordinary Finns constantly blowing their horn about our brilliant results in the OECD PISA studies, I feel quite sceptical of the limited picture these studies give of school systems. In fact, do they prove much more than Finnish kids are well coached to take exams? While attending international conferences I have felt rather embarrassed by so many foreign colleagues’ questions about ‘the Finnish secret of school success’. There is no secret! I have visited many schools in the world, even taught a year in America, and done a short teacher exchange in South Korea, and I must say that we could learn a lot from all those countries. I have realised that Finnish kids may have a lot of facts in their heads, but they don’t easily volunteer to express their ideas, especially in foreign languages. When we had a year’s sojourn in the States our 6-year-old daughter was encouraged to do so-called ‘show and tells’ almost weekly, which encouraged kids to express themselves from a young age, not just passively know things. On return to Finland, it only took her a couple of months in a Finnish elementary school before her enthusiasm was squashed and she was told to silently learn the facts.

Each school system has its pros and cons. It’s an eternal challenge for educators to strive for a better and happier school for all. But dare to utter this aloud in Finland, especially among peers, and you are immediately in the doghouse! Our system is among the elite of the world, don’t you know! We don’t need to think about any improvements, just keep repeating the same old routine year after year.

There is something frightening in such strong ethnocentrism in today’s world. No country can close itself into a self-satisfied state of superiority from the rest of the world any more. Particularly as I am a foreign language teacher, I feel the pressing need to educate my students to grow beyond their mother tongue and cultural identity to be active and confident global actors in the future.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Anti-Internet feelings in Finland

Following the tragic shooting in a Finnish school on November 7, a lot of our discussions have focused on a desperate search for possible reasons. Both parents and teachers have been accused of their lack of sufficient awareness of and attention to young people’s problems. Similarly, the Internet has been branded as the root of all evil by many, after the 18-year-old killer’s net presence and activity was disclosed. Indeed, quite predictably, the very next day after the tragedy, some students revealed that their parents wanted to block their use of the Internet altogether.

In face of such negative sentiments, I have reflected on my reasons for using new technology and the Internet in my classes. I feel, more than ever, that it is our role, every teacher’s duty in fact, to strive to guide our students to be responsible Internet users. Young people will carry on spending time on the net, irrespective of adults’ warnings or downright attempts to ban their use. Consequently, we need to get to know our students’ virtual worlds to be better equipped to help them benefit from all the educational opportunities, while enlightening them about the dangers always present there. We also need to instil in them the sense of constant vigilance over anything in the least suspicious in their online networks. From now on, one of my messages to my students will be that responsible net-users don’t make jokes with online threats of any kind, nor do they hesitate taking action – even unnecessarily – rather than shrugging disturbing messages as mere teenage pranks. Better late than never, although how sad that these valuable lessons aren’t taken seriously enough before disasters like this hit us!

Many Finns are worried about technology making young people anti-social. In my experience, they are actually much more sociable than ever, thanks to the Internet. I don’t believe most young people replace face2face contact and communication by exclusively online relationships. At least I would rather see my daughter actively communicate with her friends online than have her passively watching TV for hours every night. It is the lonely, marginalised youngsters like the Finnish killer, who isolate themselves inside their own twisted worlds and violent virtual realities, that we need to worry about and try to identify in time. In our Finnish culture of silent consensus and not ever wanting to rock the boat, we need bravery to bring up any such concerns. We adults, parents and teachers, need to engage more closely in the lives of young people, our children and students.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Wednesday, bloody Wednesday

Arriving at school yesterday morning I just couldn't hold back the tears when I saw the line of flags half-mast in the sad and dreary November drizzle. How could anything like this have happened in our country? 'Man kills eight in Finnish school' scream even the international headlines. Disbelief, shock, millions of questions fill my mind. I will need some time to reflect on all this. At this moment my thoughts go to the families and friends of all the victims of this tragedy. I don't have any words right now.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

The world into my classroom

Checking my blog feeds today I came across Julie Lindsay's post ending with this question:

How are you bringing the world into your classroom?

Thank you for throwing the question in the air, Julie! This is exactly what I have been pondering about for a long time. Planning the Singapore-Finland wiki will be one of my first steps into this direction. I have done a couple of short online projects with my English groups before, but they have just been random experiments without any long-term pedogogical development. Any of the bigger projects I have been involved in through the years have been accomplished with our special 'international group' students who have chosen international project work as an optional extra course. This time, however, I feel quite enthusiastic about working on these ideas further - with the attempt of making them an integral part of my regular English classes from now on. As the tools are there, I want to try and harness them to invigorate the conventional classroom routines that often send both the students and the teacher to sleep - especially on the darker and darker autumn-winter mornings ;) More importantly, though, I want to introduce more students (ie. especially the reluctant and rather sullen Finnish boys!) to real English use and communication.

Unfortunately, there is no escaping the eternal problem of the Finnish language teachers' over-dependence on course books. They more or less dictate our curriculum, you see. It is so hard to break out of this tradition from fear of not preparing the students well enough for the dreaded and awe-inspiring national final exams.

So whenever the opportunity arises, as it has now (presenting your own country in English actually being one unit in our course book), I will jump at the chance of opening my classroom - and my students' minds - to the world.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Asia-Europe communication

What a lazy blogger I have been since the beginning of this school year. Once back to the rat race of a Finnish high school year it seems that I get totally gulped by the never-ending exams, retakes, meetings and daily routines. Why can’t I seem to break out of it – even after 20 years’ experience?? Possibly because I never want to repeat, year after year, the same old stuff I have done before. I always want to try something new.

This school year I want to experiment with putting part of my classroom work online. I feel my students desperately need a genuine audience for their English work. Enough of the boring old essays only written to me for course credit! Luckily, we will have the unique chance to host a group of students and teachers from Singapore next March. I have set up a site on Wikispaces to share the planning of the visit. I thought this would be ideal as we are actually sharing the hosting with another Finnish school in another town. Important bits of information easily get lost if so many people keep emailing to and fro. To get my students involved, too, I am planning to have a group of students work on interesting and relevant background information about Finland, our school and our town for the wiki during one of my English courses. Finally a real project task with a purpose, a definite deadline and a chance to make use of the new technology in creative and imaginative ways. I hope! Can’t wait to see how students will react to this plan!

However, to foster some student collaboration and interaction I will still have to try to convince my Singaporean colleague that a wiki is a good idea. Actually, I am experiencing some baffling communication problems with this colleague. Anyone out there who could enlighten me why it seems that whenever I ask her any innocent enough question – she seems to totally evade answering???? I keep repeating the question – but still nothing but silence. I feel so stupid and helpless. So far I haven’t dared to touch this problem in my communication with her – I am too afraid that it will just lead to an even longer silence from her part (this has happened before with some other Asian colleagues when difficulties have arisen). I suspect this has something to do with our different communication patterns… But I am so clueless as to why this happens. What do I do wrong? How can you coordinate and plan a joint visit without asking any questions? Should I just go about it the way I see best without bothering her with my questions? I feel that the silence is an indication that there was something wrong with my question. Is it rude in Asia to ask questions? Should I somehow just guess what the answers might be and stop asking? I wish I understood… Am I generalising here, maybe this is to do with this particular teacher only and not 'Asians' in general as I am tempted to think?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

New projects

One fifth of our new school year is already over, and we are in the middle of our first hectic exam week. What's more, I have spent the beginning of the school year wrapping up last year's Asia-Europe projects, and now I can finally sigh with relief when both of them have their websites online. Pheww!
This is the phase that I don't particularly enjoy about school projects. It's been battle after battle with our ICT department to first get online platforms (eg. Moodle) that give non-ICT-expert teachers, like myself, the independence to manage a project online. But still, when it comes to publishing the results at the end, there is nobody at school to help poor me compile even a simple website. You could say that I should learn to do it myself - perhaps so, it has crossed my mind, but where to find the time???? Or others wonder why I don't make my students do it. If you don't know the Finnish school system, you can't understand how an English teacher simply can't use limited classtime for students to create webpages. And our students are too busy anyway to do anything like this in their own time - I simply haven't got the means to offer them tempting enough perks! Certainly it all boils down to money - Finnish schools don't employ anyone to be the all-round ICT person to allow teachers to do things. Instead, as someone once blurted out, many of them act like the matrons of Finnish farms 100 years ago with a big bundle of keys clinging from their belt that allowed only them access to anything valuable.
My solution to this irritating situation has been to bother ICT-skilled friends and relatives, who have been ever so helpful! Thanks to them our Mastering Media film project info is now on our school website. It's simply one front page and then the results of the project as a downloadable PowerPoint presentation. If I had the skills I would have done something different, but this will have to do. At least all our foreign partners can easily download the PowerPoint if they need to present the project anywhere.
The other AEC-NET project I coordinated last year together with my Malaysian colleague Noni, was the Peace Project. For its website I was totally left to my own devices, and then compiled the pages on Wikispaces. Hard work it was. as the wiki didn't want to perform what I thought I'd told it to perform. What frustration!!! But I persevered! Naturally, I now realize that the whole project should have been done cooperatively on Wikispaces by all the participants. Wish I'd known about Wikispaces a year ago!!
Now I'm working on Asia-Europe project ideas for this year, and will probably try a new wiki approach. Wish me luck and any good tips and ideas are more than welcome!

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Back to Blogger!

Tried with Wordpress for a while, but never really got to like their features... I don't know why exactly. It seems that I mostly like to play with the colourful widgets that Blogger allows me to add to my blog. How vain can you get??

Anyway, I also learned that while it is fairly easy to import blog postings from Blogger to Wordpress, vice versa is not possible! Hmm. So I had to copy and paste all my posts (not that impressively many - luckily, in this case) manually, losing pictures along the way and having to reupload them. Also, sadly I lost the few precious comments I had acquired while on Wordpress. Can't be helped, unfortunately. Hopefully there will be many more comments soon when I get in the swing of blogging again when it's BACK TO SCHOOL TOMORROW!! Mixed feelings today...

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Summer good-byes

Time to break this loooong silence… Last few precious days of summer holiday at hand. Where did 10 weeks disappear? Well, they didn’t disappear, in fact a lot has happened.

The last 6 weeks have been spent with our American summer exchange student, taking her around southern Finland and even a weekend in Stockholm. Celebrating 4th of July with her brought back lovely memories from 10 years ago.

Beautiful days and evenings by lake Saimaa in the east and in the western archipelago will give me strength and energy for the starting school year.

But now it’s back to school on Monday for us Scandinavians. Full of beans, hopefully. I have been practising with Wikispaces and managed to make a rough outline of one of my French courses. I am quite excited to see how it will work in practice!

Friday, 29 June 2007

Overwhelmed by NECC postings!

Oh dear, it’s been a few days that I have tried to follow some of the conversations around the NECC conference in Atlanta. In the end, I just had to take a break, since it was getting far too overwhelming for a newbie like me. I simply have to start in small doses, and not try to swallow the lot in one big gulp - as much as I’d like to. At one point I got so tangled in all the fantastic ideas I was reading that I couldn’t even go to bed at night. Needless to say, my family started throwing sarcastic comments about my net addiction… I’ve now got a hunch what Doug Johnson meant by the ‘Sociopathic Obsessive Compulsive’ in his blog! Whenever I did fall asleep for a short while, next to my dear laptop, even my dreams were full of Web2.0!

I want to thank all of the super-dynamic NECC commentators for their various contributions that have taught me so much and opened the door into this fascinating new world to me! I have been studying constructivist learning theories for some time now, but they always left this nagging doubt in my mind as to how to put them into practice in my classroom. It’s now dawning on me that the methods of ‘the old school’ were the problem. No wonder I found it difficult to fathom the constructivist approach, when I was all along using a set textbook in a rather teacher-centred context. And using ICT for me was mostly just treating the Internet as yet another reference book.

The new school should be about individual learning spaces and self-directedness. About LEARNING, not teaching. Just a few eye-opening quotes from my NECC-related reading:

Our students are living in cyberspace but too many of our teachers are not. They
are strangers in cyberspace at the same time their students are calling it home.
Teachers need to go where students are.
Alfred Thompson

This is so true, and one reason that put me on this path this summer. Also Chris Craft in his Crucial Thought blog live-blogs about the same issue:

What students do outside of the classroom for personal expression and
entertainment looks more like 21st century work than the classroom does.

I was especially happy to notice that the importance of getting our students connected globally came up in the NECC blogs and conversations several times. For example the next quote from Jeff Whipple reassured me that what I have been promoting during the last 10 years is not considered ‘old hat’ just yet. What’s more, I am sure that the Web2.0 tools will be a great booster for this.

The need for our students to connect globally. The new 21st century global community will require our youth to develop the skills to play, learn and work in a digital, global environment.

And finally a quote from John Pederson:

Sessions are for presenters. Learning happens in the conversation.
I feel this also applies to lecture-type teaching. Teaching is for teachers, but it doesn’t guarantee learning, which often occurs elsewhere and through a myriad of media. There should be more communication and collaboration amongst learners, both online and f2f.

Pheww, I will carry on digesting the information feast I have enjoyed for the past few days…

Monday, 25 June 2007

Wish I was in Atlanta!

Through my blog surfing I learned about the talk of the week (or perhaps the last few months?) among bloggers in America - NECC 2007 (National Educational Computing Conference). Seems like all the blogosphere is there sharing ideas and learning from each other face2face for a change. The next quote from Julie Lindsay’s blog brought back some fond memories from 4 years ago:
However, right now it is grass roots and it is exciting to be part
of it and
to meet up with so many colleagues who I have only seen virtually for many
months. I was thrilled to meet
Vicki Davis and it was a natural
transition from being online together to actually talking and sharing face to
It was back in 2003 when I first met my dear Japanese net colleague f2f, at an AEC conference in Bogor, Indonesia. After finding each other through EPALS in 2000, we had been working on small virtual exchanges between our EFL groups before finally having the chance to meet. My feelings were the same as described above - it was
uncanny how natural that first meeting was after a few years of online sharing and collaboration. Akira, if you ever read this, thank you for all these years of special friendship.

Back from memory lane to NECC… Looking at the photos, in most everybody’s got their laptop in front of them, as if it was another limb. Funny, but a must at a computing conference, I know. (Maybe it’s just as well I’m not there fumbling away with mine…) I must say, looks like real
multitasking - taking part in intelligent discussions while all the time keeping blog readers updated about what’s being said - almost in real time. WOW!

The most interesting weekend session for me would have been Global Connections and Flat Classroom Ideals in a Web 2.0 World, definitely. International school projects is what I’ve been doing for almost 10 years now, so right up my street. I’ve been reading both Vicki’s and Julie’s blogs for some time now, and I am really interested to learn more about their Flat Classroom
. I am still going through the extensive project Wiki, and keep finding marvellous evidence of student interaction and true collaboration there. The fact that I am totally new to Wikis is giving my some trouble with navigating, but as I’m very much a hands-on, trial-and-error-type learner, I’ll work my way through it - and hopefully become a lot wiser about the use of Wikis in the process.

It was good to read the following in Vicki’s blog:
There is a lot of interest in multicultural collaboration. It was exciting to
see the vision that others have for what needs to happen. The desire is there,
the willingness is there and there are some organizations that are doing it. We
need to be looking at multicultural components as standard parts of all courses
appropriate. What opportunities we have with this one but it is going to
need to
be much wider scale than it is now. Julie and I are talking about
standards for
international projects and the group gave us
some great
feedback on this
I’ll be following the creation of the standards, as I feel something like that is imperative for the success of any inter- or multicultural project. In the course of my EU and Asian projects, I have learned that the results will be disappointing if project leaders in the participating countries follow their own preconceived agendas, without realizing the importance of negotiating and collaborating towards a joint goal all along. Naturally, these negotiations become a lot more challenging when many (if not most!) of the teacher and student partners don’t share the same language. All in all, the little I could follow this weekend convinced me more and more that Web 2.0 tools will enhance the work in my future intercultural projects. I’m getting quite excited about trying something new next year.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Moodle or weblog?

A couple of days ago I wrote about the difficulty of choosing the most appropriate tool for international school projects. Having only experience of Moodle, I’ve been wondering whether weblogs or wikis would actually be more suitable. I found some good ideas from Aaron Campbell:
In my opinion, if teachers are going to replicate the traditional classroom
model of command and control online, they should do it in a private space
with a
discussion forum or LMS, like
Blackboard. If however, teachers
want to
explore a more open, constructivist approach to online communication
learning, one that encourages self direction in the learner, then
weblogs are
more suitable.

Maybe I should keep persevering with Moodle for the international projects, spiced with an occasional wiki here and there to enchance student collaboration. The weblogs would probably be a good way to open up my English classes to the world, as they would give students an audience (hopefully?) and purpose for their writing. Normally, you see, our students’ writing is just geared towards the teacher, something they have to do for course credit, or for the other Finnish students in their group with whom conversing in English doesn’t often come naturally.
Great, this gives me a lot to think about and plan for the next school year.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Blogging fun?

I wonder if anyone else has ever got so jumbled in the themes and custom headers and the general appearance of the blog that there seems to be no end?? I keep changing mine - almost daily. I have even started 4 different blogs with different servers just to see what’s on offer. Crazy - I spend night after night trying to find the look I could finally settle with. No doubt this one will be changed again tomorrow! I found hundreds of wonderful new themes on a website, but unfortunately I don’t know how to download them. I really feel stupid and incompetent.
Then luckily, just googling ‘blogging advice’ I found a couple of sites with comforting ideas. Among others this from ‘How to blog by Tony Pierce’:
don't worry very much about the design of your blog. image is a fakeout.

So I had better get more into the content of my blog, hadn’t I? Why am I blogging anyway? I can think of 3 clear reasons that made me try this out:
1) I want to learn to use blogs myself before I even dream of introducing them to my students in class.
2) I want to at least appear to be a life-long learner and a qualified teacher even in the 21st century.
3) I would love to share and learn from others, and benefit from the collective intelligence of educators around the world.

But what exactly will my net presence consist of? What should I write about. This is what I read in Sherry’s blog:

Be honest. Write about your life. What you see, what you think, how you feel.

That sounds good to me. And wow, I have actually used some hyperlinks now! According to Vicki Davis (who writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog with a million and one tips and pieces of advice to us uninitiated beginners, and is an amazingly prolific blogger for a teacher mother of 3, BTW!) in her post ‘Ten habits of bloggers that win’, one of the sure signs of an inexperienced blogger is long paragraphs of text without even one hyperlink. Not that I am aiming at winning anything with my blog, but I suppose I should learn the basic netiquette for blogs (would this be called ‘blogiquette’, perhaps??).

Yet another article I came by today, aptly called ‘The Loneliness of the New Blogger’ tells me this:

Read at least twenty times as much as you write. E-socialize.

I think I will carry on reading and surfing now. The Finnish summer nights are so long at this time of the year - Midsummer’s Eve with all the traditional celebrations in the countryside tomorrow.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Which tool for an international school project?

We have applied for EU funding for a two-year project with a Spanish partner school. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they will show us the green light in August!

If we are lucky, the next question will be: which on-line tools to use? I have used Moodle for the last two years. It’s OK, it has many useful features, and it is a secure space. Yet, Moodle looks a bit dull and unattractive - especially as we get to use it through another school district, and we can’t customize the basic settings of the page. What’s more, when a project is finished, we need to disseminate the results, and we want to share what we’ve done on the net, which spells more work in the form of designing a webpage. This is why I am now looking into other more flexible options that would be, at least partly public, on the net all through the process.
Last year we did a mammoth project with almost 300 students in 14 different schools around Europe and Asia. Although Moodle worked fairly well for the management, it was simply too big. The discussion forums were the best learning spaces for students, I thought, but I find uploading any files or pictures on Moodle rather cumbersome. Also with so many participants and not enough communication with all the teachers, I ended up keeping the strings tightly in my hands and managed the site on my own. I was afraid of somebody else accidentally deleting something crucial or basically messing it all up somehow. I must admit I am often too controlling with teacher partners I don’t know that well and have never met f2f… We didn’t really get into any true student collaboration during that project. Work was done in each school separately and then students got together in the discussion forum to share their ideas.

Next year, as there will only be two schools, and I know the Spanish teacher well after several projects together, I would like to venture into new areas and aim at enhancing collaboration between the students. As far as I have understood, a wiki would be a good tool for this. I have looked at some school wikis, but I must say I am not yet quite sure how it is supposed to work. Eg. can all the participating students have a username for identification, how about all the security issues, how to ensure that students understand all the copyright regulations, what to do to prevent just anyone out there changing what’s been created on the wiki etc. etc. etc? I have also thought about blogs, although to me they don’t seem to be quite as flexible for collaboration as the wikis.

It is a totally new concept for me to even think about an open, public forum to manage such a project. I used to think that school projects should be as carefully protected as possible, with registration done by teachers, entering the platform with approved usernames and passwords only and so on. After some research on the net this summer I am beginning to see the value of the new interactive tools that web2.0 offers.

But, but, but… I still have my doubts and reservations. I hope that somebody out there might read this and give me some advice. Any examples of clear modules to teach students about being responsible users of the net, for example? Anyone who’s done international school projects and used Moodle/blog/wiki and could give constructive comparisons of the three? I am also wondering how many problems would publishing pictures or videos including students create?

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The meaning of life...

We don’t listen to music to hear the final note – it is indeed the journey that matters…
Watch this great animation by the South Park guys to an Alan Watts lecture. Good stuff for a teacher’s creative summer idleness…

Monday, 11 June 2007

What I want to learn during this summer holiday

Oh, how transient the beauty of the Finnish summer…Just three days ago I took these pictures of our midsummer rosebushes in our garden…

… and look at them today!

Only a faint memory of their sweet scent lingers around now. ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, enjoy every fleeting moment – this is what the scattered petals are telling me.
Other than gardening, today I have plunged into the fascinating world of e-learning. Even though I have always considered myself to be more or less up-to-date with what’s going on in education at large, surfing the net has made me blush with shame. I am so totally ignorant of the new pedagogy that’s developing thanks to all the new technologies. Class blogs, e-portfolios, wikis, podcasting… Wow, I never realized what so many teachers around the world are doing! “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”, rings in my head. How about making teachers into doers? I want to join these enthusiastic pioneers who are shifting the paradigm from traditional frontal lecture classrooms into buzzing hives of collaboration. Or so I imagine…

I have long sensed that what is still being done in many (probably most?) classrooms doesn’t reach a lot of the young students any more. They live in a fast-paced, second by second adjustable digital communication culture, and we still make them sit in neat rows of desks in class and expect them to get excited by a textbook, pen and paper and our old, already smudged, OHP transparencies. Duh! I’ve known for some time that I will have to change my classroom practices drastically to turn the attention to student learning from what I, as a teacher, should be telling them. It was ten years ago, while working as a Fulbright grantee in the States, that I first learned about Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences’. Then it went on to Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and just today I read about ‘collective intelligence’. Definitely something to look into this summer.

Still, I’m not for technology for technology’s sake. Often teachers start with ‘emperor’s news clothes’, transforming their old transparencies into PowerPoint slides, while retaining the old lecture model. Good luck to them, I guess. You’ve got to start somewhere. It’s probably true that institutional cultures such as those of education take a long time to change.

How about the facilities and software at schools? What if I get all into these new ways of learning during this summer holiday only to find out in August that our school district policy won’t allow me to install or use the required tools? Wouldn’t be the first time… After all, I can’t even use the net on my own laptop at school. And it will be years before my school will provide teachers with their own work laptops. Oh well, I’d better let go of this pessimism and just enjoy learning all this new exciting stuff.

Most of all, I am hoping to come across blogs of like-minded and more experienced teachers from around the world to guide me in this jungle of new-fangled learning.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Student collaboration in international school projects

Whenever possible, I am all for face2face student exchanges in our international projects. From a teacher’s point of view, one of the most critical challenges during these meetings is facilitating true collaborative interaction between the students from different countries. Experience has taught me that, contrary to what might be expected of the ‘global world citizens’ of today, young people still need prompts and guidance to break the ice in a foreign language.Here is a typical example from a recent EU project meeting:

Students from Italy, France and Finland travelled to visit a school in Spain and, as you can see in this picture, mostly stuck to their own little groups speaking their own language. What a waste if the whole visit proceeds like this, isn’t it? Why do we take students to visit partner schools – only to be outside observers of buildings and monuments? If that’s the only goal, we might as well save the money and look at pictures on the net at home. In my mind, the main goal is to learn to work together with diverse people who don’t necessarily share our language or values. So, what to do to draw students away from the safety of these automatically congregating national groups?To begin with, well-organised planning and preparation in advance is paramount. This calls for open dialogue and collaboration between the teachers in all the participating schools. If we teachers can’t do it, how can we expect our students to be natural collaborators? It often takes time and effort and lots negotiation to create good working relations with teachers from different cultures. Clashes are inevitable, and good intentions easily misunderstood. But I have learned that if most of the activities during such visits are guided tours to see historical and other important sights of the place, scenes like the one above will be the norm.

One example of a different activity is to prepare a town tour where students go around in small, MIXED groups with a worksheet to find out about history, the sights or whatever is relevant. Initially it is time-consuming to prepare fun and motivating tasks for students for such a tour, but once you have invested the time, you will be able to repeat the tour with new guests.
Just look at the difference between the first picture and this one.

This was taken during one such collaborative town tour when we had EU project visitors from France and Spain. Some of the assignments involved taking pictures of different styles by certain landmarks of the town. A tour like this allows natural communication, but still gives students the reassurance of given problems to solve together. Although some students, of course, are sociable by nature and confident users of foreign languages, the many quieter ones certainly appreciate their teachers gently pushing them into situations where they can start learning how to break down language barriers.Hmmm, I can see it now. We teachers should concretely model to students in our own actions what collaboration means. Just leaving them to their own devices or telling them to go and mingle will rarely have the desired effect.

“Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with their own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with travelled bodies, but untravelled minds.” (Caleb Colton)

Wednesday, 6 June 2007


The long-awaited and well-deserved (I feel) summer holiday is finally here. Ten glorious weeks of family life, gardening and seeing friends to make up for the long hours spent in the classroom or the lonely evenings marking essays and exams at home during the school year. Not to mention the welcome creative idleness to reactivate those hibernating cells in my tired brain! We Finnish teachers are spoiled with this long break every summer, which we can spend travelling, catching up on reading, or just relaxing by the gently lapping water of one of our thousands of lakes. Heavenly! My thoughts go to my dear colleagues in Japan and Korea, for example, sweating away in extreme heat and humidity for another two months. And still, Finnish teachers often complain about their lot. Today, I have absolutely no care in the world!
For me, this summer break will also give the opportunity to reflect on the past year’s intercultural school project experiences and draw from them ideas for improvements for the future. In particular, one aspect of these projects has recently preoccupied my thoughts, and that is reciprocity.

I was contacted by somebody from an internship programme in Tokyo asking whether our school would be interested in hosting a Japanese intern for a year. Yes, of course, we would, I burst out after reading the mail! Until I realized that it also involved organizing home stay for the Japanese guest. Hmmm…. Trouble ahead! Many Finns are notoriously private when it comes to opening their homes to foreign guests. I should know this after struggling for years to find hosts for foreign students during our project meetings, even for a week. I and my family would, of course, host this person for some of the time, but even I must admit that having a foreign lodger in your house for a whole year sounds challenging. So who am I to judge others who wouldn’t entertain the idea of hosting?

But what message does this send about us outside the borders of our country? After all, we profess to be so hospitable and friendly. Come to think of it, it’s not only the hosting, but it’s also the presence of a foreign guest at school in general. Either it troubles some colleagues so much that they start spending their free time out of the staff room, or they just downright rudely ignore the poor guest. Yes, we would love to have a Japanese person at our school to tell us all about Japan, thank you very much, as long as it a) doesn’t cost our school anything and b) doesn’t mean that we should actually engage in any kind of dialogue with the guest outside the ‘hello’ every morning. I have experienced this mortifying embarrassment so many times in my school that I probably should spare any enthusiastic foreign guest from such unwelcoming treatment.

And yet, it’s our students who will lose a marvellous opportunity for true intercultural learning! If we get somebody to commit their time and effort to come here and share their culture with us, isn’t it glaringly obvious that we, in turn, should go out of our way to reciprocate?? Give and take, learn together, instead of thoughtlessly just thinking of our own gain and benefit.
Sounds like my family will have to start seriously thinking of hosting a young Japanese gentleman next year. But before that, let’s enjoy the company of an American summer exchange student… Pheww, seems that I don’t need to feel guilty about reciprocating after all.
I think I will spend the rest of the day sipping summer wine on our balcony humming “strawberries cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring”… Aaah!

Monday, 28 May 2007

Finland - Xylitol, hyvä, hyvä!

Last summer I was fortunate to have the unique opportunity to participate in a one-month ASEM-DUO teacher exchange in South Korea. In my eyes, there were still surprisingly few foreign-looking people there, even in the capital Seoul. Like Finland, South Korea has long been a very homogeneous, and proudly patriotic nation.

When anyone heard that I came from Finland, invariably their first excited words were: “Aah, Finland! Xylitol - hiva hiva!” - or something to that effect - accompanied by some strange hand and arm movements. Not having the foggiest idea what they were getting at I felt not only totally baffled, but also utterly stupid. I gathered that the “hiva, hiva” part would probably be the Finnish “hyvä, hyvä” (’good, good’). Somebody even asked me if I could show them the Finnish dance that went like that. ???DANCE??? I was even more clueless until it was explained to me that there had been a TV commercial advertising xylitol gum containing these lines and movements. Aah, I said, wondering what the commercial was really like.

On return home YouTube finally filled me in. Lol!
The green costume, the hopping goblin with his dance routines and the music have no relation to Finland whatsoever. But in Korea, it’s the only image of our country that many people have ever seen. Good stuff to use in English classes to introduce students to the dangers of simple stereotyping and the importance of media literacy

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Cut-and-paste plagiarism

Reading one student’s written assigments my suspicions were raised by one piece of writing that, righ from the outset, seemed to have a totally different style from the rest of her work. Indeed, it contained such vocabulary and sentence structures that I just had to google some sentences out of it. And lo and behold, it didn’t take me long to track down the two articles out of which the student had cut and pasted her work.

Luckily, or rather alarmingly, this isn’t a Finnish problem only. In her thought-provoking article in the latest TIME magazine, Julie Rawe, illustrates how students’ cheating has spawned a profit-making business assisting schools to catch the cheaters. Interestingly, a group of students in McLean high school, Virginia, are now preparing a law suit against one such company. The students claim that as the company saves all the students’ work submitted by schools for check-ups in their database for future reference, they should be paid their fair copyright share. Way to go McLean High students! I feel a real affinity for their case, as 10 years ago I lived in McLean for a year during my Fulbright teacher exchange - and even visited this High School.
Yet, whether the McLean students succeed or not, the problem of cheating still prevails. When it comes to essays written in a foreign language and plagiarism from native language sources, it is usually easy enough for a teacher to have a hunch of a possible cheat. It gets rather more complicated when students present their peers’ essays as their own. Maybe we should demand all their written work in digital form, and make our own school database of English essays for the teachers’ use. On second thoughts, though, this would probably just lead the students to get essays from their friends in another school… It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? In fact, in the words of Tim Dodd, quoted in the above-mentioned article: “We will truly lose the battle if we think we’re going to fight technology with technology. Kids will always be two generations ahead of us.” The challenge, in my opinion, is to give our students some hands-on guidance on how to use the Internet or other sources for their benefit without forgetting to write a list of references at the end of their essays.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

English as the global lingua franca

Whose English should we be teaching our EFL students? Go to Japan and Korea, and the preference is clearly American English. In Finland, though, it’s either British or American, largely depending on the teacher. The goal, in either case, is to get as close to a native speaker level as possible. Given that language is not an isolated entity that can be separated from the context where it’s been used, the task of an EFL teacher becomes rather problematic. While teaching a foreign language should we actually try to guide our students to gradually become more and more like Brits or Americans? Ie. should our morose young Finns turn into widely smiling, loud and chatty personalities to be successful in conversing in American English? (Sorry about the crude stereotyping here!) A question of constant disagreement with me and my British husband.

How about meetings where English is used as a lingua franca by people whose native language is not English? English-speakers would probably squirm and resort to the old adage of ‘the most widely spoken language in the world is POOR English’. Yet, surely the main concern is getting your message across. Just last weekend I attended a multicultural meeting and got to talk with a Russian - in English. He had been trying to learn Finnish and was explaining to me how many ‘vocals’ there are in Finnish words. My English teacher’s instinct almost automatically wanted to correct his mistake (’vowels’ in English, not ‘vocals’), but luckily I manage to silence the teacher in me and carry on with the interesting conversation. Later it dawned on me that this must be a fairly common occurrence in such conversations, and why not! I understood perfectly well what he was saying (’vowel’ in Finnish being ‘vokaali’), although had he talked to a native speaker his choice of words would probably have raised some eyebrows.

Which leads me back to my students in the classroom. What English should we teach them? I am getting more and more uneasy about the strict requirements of 100 % correct British or American usage. What is being compromised, with Finnish learners at least, is fluency and the courage to actually say something. Unfortunately, though, the language teacher’s feared red pen is still alive and doing too well in our classrooms. Another interesting consequence of these EFL requirements is a somewhat arrogant and inflexible attitude of some students. I often tell my students that, of course, it’s worthwhile aiming at learning more and more English vocabulary - even getting eloquent. Yet, you have to bear in mind who you are talking to. Reminds me of a student exchange with an Italian school a few years ago. We were spending a camp weekend in the forest and one of our Finnish girls got really annoyed with some Italian girls who woudn’t understand what a saucepan was. She came to me huffing and puffing with annoyance insisting: ‘Isn’t saucepan the right English word?’ After me confirming this she carried on moaning about the ignorance of the Italian girls. It didn’t help me suggesting alternative strategies, eg. showing the saucepan to them to help them understand. Being right and knowing the correct word overweighed being understood, sadly. As a language teacher I couldn’t help taking some of the blame for that… Another girl came back from a multicultural language course abroad, disappointed at not learning ANYTHING, since the other participants had been from southern Europe or Asia and, according to her, didn’t speak very good English. In her opinion, the only reason to speak English was to speak with native speakers to improve her English skills. I can understand her point, but nevertheless it makes me worry about intercultural understanding around the world. Are we creating an English-speaking elite, who will look down on anyone whose English they consider inferior??

All this makes me constantly ponder on the insignificance of the minute grammar points we bang on our students in class compared to the much more relevant communication skills needed in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Why is it so challenging for a language teacher to put aside some of the requirements of the national curriculum and focus more on lifeskills?