Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Syrian Proverb

Syrian proverb:  على قدر بساطك مد رجليك

English translation:   Stretch your legs as far as your rug allows.

What do you think this proverb means? 

(a)  The proverb is about the importance of experience as a way to understand the world.  Instead of getting an education only through books, it says we should experience life for ourselves.  

(b)  The proverb is about setting ourselves high goals, and pushing (i.e. stretching) ourselves to achieve them.  It says that anything in life is possible if we work hard enough.  

(c)  The proverb is about knowing your limits.  The rug represents a person's place in life, and says that we shouldn't try to be something we are not.  

Although most people from Western cultures would choose (b) as the best interpretation, the answer is (c).  According to  The Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning, social classes are very defined and dictate your future in Syrian society.   Social classes in Syria have different lifestyles, and mobility between classes is low.  This proverb represents values that are the opposite from typical Western values which encourage children to set high goals and 'reach for the stars.'  A similar proverb in Egypt, 'stretch your legs as far as the edge allows' is similar, but carries an additional meaning of fiscal responsibility: i.e. only buy what you can afford.  

Thanks to my student Omar for sharing this proverb, and my colleague Afraim for helping in the editing process.

Friday, 19 April 2013

A Spanish school arranges Mercadillo Solidario

Today at the elementary school we didn't have English class.  Instead, the school was holding a special event:  A mercadillo solidario (literally: caring market). 

The market works as follows:  Each child brings in two items from home:  (1)  A non-perishable food item, and (2)  something for the market (typical garage sale fare such as books, clothes, toys, and DVDs).  The food is put in a grocery cart, and the market goods are spread out on tables around the room.  

The food is then donated to the Ayuntamiento (local council offices/town hall) who distribute it to the local food banks and give each participating child a bookmark.  Each child then chooses an item from the market.  

All the children in the school, including the 2 year olds (pictured above) came to see the market, and once they were all assembled, there was singing.  Even the 2 year olds joined in (with the hand movements if not the actual singing!)

The children loved giving away the market goods, and tried to persuade me that I needed a Spanish language (cartoon) version of La Pequeña Dorrit and an abridged English version of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  I managed to resist their high pressure sales tactics (look!  It's English!  Perfect for you!) and instead, chose a cute little picture book called Las Fantasmas Buscan Casa. This choice was a source of great hilarity!

The teachers kindly allowed me to take these pictures, and explained to me how the market worked, and the motivation behind it.  Spain is experiencing an economic crisis, they explained, and, as one of the teachers put it, 'it's so important that they learn, at this young age, to do things like this.'  De acuerdo.    

Getting a straight answer

10 characteristics of good question answerers:

I’ve been writing a letter of reference for a former colleague (I’ll call him ‘Robert.’)  One of the things I wanted to try to explain was that ‘he’s good at answering questions.’  This sounded vague, but it is a difficult concept to clarify.  So I started to think about what it means, exactly, to be a good question answerer. 

train station, Santander
I’ve had quite a bit of experience with asking questions recently; it comes with the territory when living abroad.  Moving to a different country is like starting a new job or a new school –– you need to learn 'how things work around here.'  So, you find yourself with an endless list of questions, and one of the first things you need to establish is who to ask.  You don’t always have a choice; for example, you're pretty much stuck with whoever is at the train ticket window when your number comes up.  Either you get the information you need, or you become frustrated, give up, and call Corin.  (He has an app for that).  

Of course, working in a second or additional language adds another layer of difficulty, but it doesn’t change the basic premise:  Some people are better than others at answering questions. 

I was reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago with a friend (I’ll call her ‘Hilary.’) She had just started a new career as a teacher at a school for special needs children, and she said that whenever support staff had a procedural question, they came to her, even though she is the most junior and least experienced of all the faculty.  She couldn’t understand this; my immediate conclusion, however, was that people instinctively recognize in her the quality of being good at answering questions. 

I pointed out to Hilary that in any job I’ve had, there was usually no correlation between how long a colleague had been doing the job and how likely I was to ask that person a question about the job.  Instead, I’ve tried to sense, or discover by trial and error, who is most likely to answer in a thinking, sensible, way.   

So in an effort to further elucidate this quality, I’ve come up with the following ten characteristics of good question answerers:

1.  They listen carefully and ask relevant follow up questions if needed.   

2.  They know when an answer requires further elaboration.  For example, if the question is about where to get supplies, and if getting supplies first requires a form to be filled out and signed by the boss, they will tell you that, even though you didn't ask about a form.  
However ....

3.  They don’t use the question as a springboard to show off what they know.  In most situations, when a person asks a question, they are looking for a specific piece of information, not a story.  

Rainy day and out of gas on Mull!
4.  They understand why the question is being asked and provide you with the information you need, which may not necessarily be the answer to your question.   For example: On the Isle of Mull, at 5 p.m. on a Sunday, my friend and I ran out of petrol.  We asked a local man where the closest petrol station was.  Instead of giving us the answer, which would have been useless, he said ‘they’re all closed.’ This man, then, was a good question answerer because he didn’t answer the question!  He knew it was the wrong question.  Instead, he gave us what we needed (a gallon of petrol to get back to our campsite!)

5.  They don’t make you feel inferior for your lack of knowledge.  Good question answerers understand that different people know different things; everyone has ‘pockets of knowledge.’   I’ve found that people who imply that your question is foolish are often trying to deflect attention away from the fact that they don’t know the answer. 

6.  They consider their audience and answer at the appropriate level.  They take into account what the asker already knows about the topic, what they need to know, and how much information would be too much.  For example, how was the Grand Canyon  formed?  Imagine how you might explain this differently for (a) an 8 year old, (b) an adult, or (c) a student in a geology class.   

7.  When they don’t know the answer, they say so; they don’t prevaricate.  There’s nothing worse than asking a direct question and getting a reply that goes on and on but never answers the question.   A good question answerer will say 'I don't know, but here's how we can find out.'  

8.  They don’t patronize.  When students ask a question related to course content or procedures, teachers often ask ‘leading’ questions to enable the students to think through the problem and find the solution themselves.  But this is a teaching strategy, useful for building confidence and independent thinking in students.  Used outside of a teaching context, it is patronizing. 

Gina at the International College of Seville
9.  They are friendly and helpful.  They smile at you, giving the impression that they are happy you asked the question.  They embrace the role of helper, rather than just answerer.  For example, if there is a series of steps to follow, they explain them.  If there are potential pitfalls or 'knock-on effects', they point them out.  If the answer is ‘no’, they suggest alternatives.  

10.  They understand the difference between real questions and rhetorical questions, or requests disguised as questions.  This is particularly difficult in a second or additional language because the subtle cues that signal ‘real’ versus ‘rhetorical’ don’t necessarily translate.  They can even be different between cultures that use the same language, something I was reminded of a few years ago on a British Airways flight from Orlando to London.  A flight attendant asked me with a big smile ‘would you like to close your window shade for take off?’  The expression on her face when I said ‘no, thanks’ was priceless.  I’d been away from England so long I'd forgotten the classic rule of British politeness:  Always word requests to make it appear you are giving the other person an option.  Unfortunately, if the other person doesn’t know the rules and thinks they really do have an option, you are a bit stuck!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Haitian proverb

Haitian proverb:  Wòch la nan dlo a pa konnen doulè a ​​nan wòch la nan solèy la

French version:  Le rocher dans l'eau ne connaît pas la douleur de la roche au soleil

English translation:  The rock in the water doesn't know the pain of the rock in the sun

This proverb has a similar meaning to two of the other proverbs on this blog.  It is about empathy; the importance of making an effort to understand the point of view of others. The Puerto Rican proverb, 'nobody knows what's in the pot but the one who's stirring it', and the Turkish proverb, 'fire burns where it falls' address the same theme.  Like those, this proverb implies that you can never really know what another person feels.  In eight years of learning about proverbs from around the world, I have found this to be one of the most common international themes.  

When I first heard this particular proverb I was confused because I assumed that the student must have it backwards.  Surely a rock in the sun would be better off than a rock in the water, not the other way round?  Then I realized that I hadn't taken into account where the proverb was from:  Not England -- my point of reference for proverb interpretation -- but Haiti!  Oops!  Major perspective adjustment needed!  Illustrates the point of the proverb perfectly.....

Thanks to my student Guirlene for sharing this proverb.  

Chinese Proverb

English translation:  Water not only floats a boat; it also sinks it.


Meaning:  This is a proverb about 'yin' and 'yang',  a central idea in Chinese philosophy.  Many things in life have opposite properties; for example, we need water to live, but we can also drown in water.  To get through life we need to form relationships with other people; however, relationships can also hurt us.  The sun gives us light, vitamin D,  and .... skin cancer.   Although bacteria make us sick and can even kill us, there are  'good' bacteria that our bodies need to be healthy.   Finally, in the words of another proverb:  Fire is a good servant but a bad master.  

For further reading about 'yin' and 'yang', see the links below:

The philosophy and theory of yin and yang

Yin yang, two symbols

Thanks to my student Qian Gao for sharing this proverb

Colombian proverb

Colombian proverb:  El pez muere por la cabeza.

English translation:  The fish dies from the head.

What do you think this proverb means?

(a)  This proverb is a warning about over-confidence.  It's similar to the English proverb 'Pride comes before a fall.'
(b)  This proverb is a warning about being impulsive.  Don't be too quick to grab an opportunity you are offered.  Instead, be cautious; find out more details before you act.  

(c)  This proverb is a warning about talking too much.  Sometimes it's better to stay quiet and keep what we know to ourselves.  

The correct answer is (c).  This proverb is a warning that opening your mouth may get you in trouble.  Another proverb with a similar meaning from the Spanish-speaking world is:  In a closed mouth, no flies enter.  

Thanks to my student Sonia for sharing this proverb.

Friday, 12 April 2013

University of Cantabria: The exchange experience

It's midterm exam time at the University of Cantabria; a good time to look at the exchange experience and report on Corin's findings so far.

This blog post will focus on assessment, university life, and advice for future exchange students.  A separate post discusses text books.   (Plus I've thrown in a couple of pictures for good measure).  

Right:  The port, Santander.


One of the first things Corin noticed is that grading in Spain is different.  This includes the grading scale, the grading calculations, and the final exam schedule.

Grading scale:  The percentage or letter grade system is not used in Spain.  The chart below shows how the grading scale is different between the USA, England (where I went to university), and Spain.  

Number scale
Letter scale

Up to 100
A:  90-100
B:  80-89
C: 70-79
 D/F: <70

Up to 100
< 50

Up to 10
 < 5

Final grade calculation:  In Spain, the most important grade is the final exam.  Although in most classes there are other tests, the grades are not counted if the final exam grade is higher.  If a student fails the final exam, he/she can re-take it (the exam, not the class) the following semester.  The chart below shows how the grade is calculated for Corin's four classes:

Grade calculation

10% lab, 40% tests, 50% final.  The final exam grade over-rides any lower test grade. 
Partial differential equations
45% midterm, 55% final.  If you fail the midterm, the final counts for 100%.
40% midterm, 40% final, 10% participation, 10% homework.  
Final exam grade over-rides lower midterm grade.
Spanish for engineers
This class is pass/fail or students can choose to take the final exam and get a grade.  

I think I like this system.  It could represent the best of both worlds.  In my field, language teaching, it makes sense to assess students based on their proficiency at the end of the semester rather than using the 'averaging' system.  What does it matter if they struggled in the beginning as long as they have arrived where they need to be by the end?  Of course, I also appreciate the argument for continuous asssessment: that basing a semester grade on one exam is stressful for students and having 'a bad day' can unfairly penalize an otherwise strong student.  That's why I like the Spanish system, where the final exam grade is the class grade if it's as good as, or better than, the cumulative grade.  Otherwise, the cumulative grade counts.

Left:  A windy day in the Bay of Santander. 

Revision and final exam schedule:  The spring semester classes at UC end on May 31 and then the exams start on June 3 and continue until June 22.  This is a much longer exam period than in the USA or England.  In England there is a 'revision week'  following the end of classes for students to study for the exams, then the following week is 'exam week.'  In Spain, the exam period lasts three weeks, with revision time included.

Below is a chart showing the difference in the scheduling of revision time and and final exams in the USA, England, and Spain.

Revision period
Exam period
None:  Final exam week follows final week of classes
One week
1 week between final week of classes and final exam week
1-2 weeks
Included in exam period
Three weeks

There is one more difference related to assessment; it's the way professors give students their test grades.  There is no expectation of, nor option for, privacy.  The results are announced in class and posted on the door, together with the students' names.  Nobody minds, that's just how it's done here.

University Life:

Studying:  There are no group study rooms in the library; it is a place for independent, silent study, and this is enforced.  Instead, students go to one of the many cafés on campus when they want to work together.  Some Americans aren't going to like this, but, just like everywhere else in Spain, there is alcohol available in the campus cafés.  The legal drinking age in Spain is between 16 and 18, depending on the region.  All types of alcohol are available, but most students drink beer, coke, or water.  It's cheap; for 2 euros (less than 3 dollars) you can buy a beer and a snack. The cafés are part of the university; not run by a for-profit company.

Student ID:  The university has an agreement with Banco Santander to provide students with a student ID that is also a debit card.  With this high-tech, multipurpose card they can  access university computers and print documents (there's a chip terminal on the computer keyboards so they don't need to enter a username and password, just a four-digit PIN).  They use the same card to make purchases in and out of the university, and as a bus pass for the city of Santander urban transportation system.  One card, many uses!  The picture shows the #4 bus, which goes from the barrio pesquero (where we live) to the university.  

Some advice for future students:

No matter how well you have prepared, you will need to be able to tolerate a level of uncertainty when you first arrive.  Pre-departure orientations tend to focus on 'being a good tourist', warning you about pickpockets, educating you about cultural differences.  That's fine as far as it goes, but what you really need to know when you get here is how to register for classes before they are full, where the classes are, what buildings to go to, and how to communicate with the school about schedule changes. Don't expect everything to run smoothly, there will be mixups, schedule conflicts, and schedule changes.  These are things you cannot foresee or prevent, and there are things you cannot fix until you arrive because you need information that you can only get once you are here.  So just be patient and stay in touch with your advisor at your home university.  Classes here start in February, so schedule changes happen too late to meet the home university add/drop deadline.  This means that your home advisor will need to do some over-rides for you.  Also, because classes here finish in June, your home university will not be able to report that you have successfully completed your classes by the end of the spring semester in the USA.  This will throw a spanner into the works of financial aid and scholarships, and, again, will require over-rides.  Knowing that these things will happen, and that there is a system in place to correct them, is important for your peace of mind.