Should I Stay or Should I Go? – Week 18

The song title and lyrics by the Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” was right in tune with a series of events happening on campus in Croatia, but it took me awhile to process and piece it together. I am going to preface this blog post with an overwhelming thumbs up for teaching in Croatia. It has truly been a positive experience overall. But sometimes, if one negative interaction occurs, a dark cloud can temporarily hang over an experience before perspective takes hold and you can look back and say, “Ok, I see things clearly now.” In this case it caused me to reflect on my teaching techniques and focus on a framework that includes differences and similarities in our approaches in working with students.

I mentioned this particular colleague (not by name of course) earlier and my instincts were spot on, but I ignored the warning signs. Instead, I often try to go along in order to get along. I subscribe to Sally Field’s Oscar winning speech for her role in the movie, “Places of the Heart,” when she proclaimed on stage to an audience of her fellow actors in 1985, “You like me, you really like me!” However, I should have known from the first day that this relationship would be strained. The first time I met her she handed me a printed copy of an e-mail she had written in response to a handful of e-mails I had previously sent her, asking questions about the curriculum, requesting a copy of the course syllabus, and confirming times and locations of her classes she wanted me to teach (I use the term “wanted” loosely).

She abruptly told me she had tried to send me an e-mail, but it didn’t work. “Here. Read it,” she commanded:

Dear Danica,

Unfortunately, the syllabus containing the topics for the course Contemporary English Language has already been set and posted to the website of our university. Since the lectures have already begun, the syllabus should not be changed at this point. I have organized my entire semester and suggest we stick to the original syllabus.

Also, my plan did not include you since I was not informed you would be visiting our department. I am not sure if there was a misunderstanding, but you can alternate between my class and others. My plan was not for you to grade essays or teach academic writing throughout the semester, mainly due to format. My idea is for you to teach a little bit of everything like newspaper articles and formal register. As for your suggestions, we can iron out the details, but it appears it won’t work well. Students will be quite confused with you and everything is new to them, so I will be observing you and it is best we discuss the finer details of the course in person after my lecture.

Wow, what a surprising greeting to extend to a faculty visitor. At the time, I was trying to absorb her e-mail while also being whisked to class to observe her (she would not allow me to teach her classes during the first week). But now, several weeks later, I have a better understanding of some of the reasons why this type of negative interaction may have happened. Part of it stems from our differences in how we view education (and one of the many reasons US Fulbright Scholars engage in a variety of activities related to their work as visiting faculty members). 

Do as I Say and Don’t Ask Questions

I quickly became aware that the predominant teaching methods in Croatian schools are the teacher is an expert who conveys knowledge to the students who are rewarded for obedience to authority, and the focus is on facts and getting the right answer. This faculty member was no exception, as she ran her classroom like a drill sergeant, complete with worksheets and texts associated with rote learning, fill in the blanks and a reliance on passivity.

The first assignment she gave in the 90-minute lecture was a series of idiom worksheets. Idiom categorization can be tricky, even for native speakers of English.  She called on each student to read a series of fill in the blank expressions: kick the bucket, blow off steam, ace the test, sick as a dog, carry a torch and beat around the bush.

The role of context in idiom comprehension can rely upon a myriad of factors. Students’ understanding of idiomatic word strings will make use of contextual information in different ways. Context within a paragraph, chapter or article can help determine meaning via connections and cues within the text. In the absence of context, it can be difficult to associate conventional meaning.

Idioms are, fair to say, not at the beginning of my to-do list in language immersion. At the same time, teaching students to read and speak figuratively can help to strengthen language use. I consider it an advanced way of expression, but not in the “formal register” which is what this teacher insisted I teach. My background is in rhetoric and composition, not exclusively in teaching English Language Learners, so perhaps I was missing something? Does ELL follow a different general process of learning words and phrases in a foreign language? Are idioms a sort of “starter pack” in recognizing the nature of conceptual metaphors that can be universal and shared across different languages? Am I missing a kind of communicative competence in language instruction?  Are there different strategies employed to know how idioms are acquired in writing to help students discern the most effective way to use them?

As I thought about exploring answers to these questions, I was surprised by the skill and drill method of developing mastery through repetitive learning of fixed responses, or patterns of responses, to specific situations and conditions.

My teaching philosophy is the direct opposite of skill and drill, especially with the platform of my US Fulbright Scholar application which focused on Service Learning projects, community service and discussion boards. How would my teaching style fit into her classroom? And she made it very clear it was her classroom. She owned it and I was an interloper.

Individual versus Group Classroom Activities

I started teaching her classes, with her keen eyes of observation upon me. I clung to the idea that I am here to assist students in acquiring new ways to approach the department’s course objectives by hopefully enriching already acquired skills and introducing different ways to approach the writing process.

During the next class I developed a group activity on idioms related to Katy Perry’s song lyrics. I played some of her songs, asked students to extract the idioms and we began the discussion. At some points they were even laughing and singing along while learning the material. Needless to say, the teacher of record did not like this approach. She briskly came up to me after my 90-minute class and said, “Enough fun and games. You will be using the idiom worksheets. Do not treat the worksheets like an extra task. Have students fill in the blanks like I do and create some sort of discussion out of that.” Uh oh. The key phrase here was “like I do.”

Another few weeks fly by. I do use her worksheets, but also construct my own group activities to supplement the materials and introduce students to my classroom methodology incorporating group activities. I believe group work can an effective method to motivate students, encourage active learning, and develop key critical-thinking, communication, and decision-making skills. But, without careful planning and facilitation, group work can frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time.

Good news — I plan interactive activities to determine what I want to achieve through the small group activity, both academically and socially. The activity is related closely to the course objectives and class content and is designed to help students learn, not simply to occupy their time. Particularly at University of Zadar, I ask myself if there is a reason why the assignment should be collaborative – I am cognizant and respectful that I am a visiting faculty member and strive for a smooth transition for students. In order to engage students’ interest in group work and encourage their progress, I attempt to make activities as challenging as possible, while also seeking students’ responses, opinions and personal responsibility for the material, thinking about success of their fellow classmates. Knowing that peers are relying on you is a powerful motivator for group work.

I distribute materials to students ahead of time and during class randomly select one person to record responses for the group and assign different roles to group members so they were all involved in the process (i.e. summarizer, timekeeper, recorder, liason to other groups).

Despite my best efforts, the instructor could not appreciate the pedagogical purpose of group activity. She did not mince words in her criticism of my teaching style, “We need to get through material for the final exam.” After a few weeks she “forbade” me to break students into groups and after every class would pick apart items I mentioned, as she referred to a list she made in her notebook, “You need to focus more on formal register. They need to write in academic voice. That is why they are here. You are wrong to talk about efficient use of word choice. Stop talking about synonyms. I am covering compound-complex sentences to direct students that their sentence construction should include at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. You need to do this too. This will help them with complicated thoughts with more parts for their 5-paragraph essay. This is the most sophisticated type of sentence you can use.”

She was so preoccupied with teaching to the test that my classroom instruction became a fictional barrier to her students’ progress. I was snared in a teacher trap. At the same time, students were participating in my lectures in a non-threatening way. Were they more attracted to the material in the way I presented it?

Sorry, Not Sorry

This weekly form of criticism persisted until now. After this week’s lectures she approached me and stated, “You seem overwhelmed. I am going to give you a break. You no longer need to teach my classes.” There was a long pause and I asked myself, “Is she ‘firing’ me?” And she continued, “No, wait, I have a short story for students to read about Native Americans. And you’re a Native American. I mean, well, you’re an American. So you can do your last lecture related to that since you’re from America.”

I quickly responded that I would of course like to engage in that topic since our family volunteered recently with the Re-Member Organization, a non-profit outreach in South Dakota. It was a unique and meaningful trip addressing social, labor and cultural projects, seeking to improve the lives of tribal members who live on the reservation and I could share our experience with students at University of Zadar through anecdotal evidence, literature, pictures and song. Before I could continue, she cut me off and responded, “Yes, that’s fine. That will be your last lecture with my class as a Native American. . . I mean American. I will try to bring speakers for the computer you want to use, but I think it won’t be necessary.”

The Bigger Picture

Assessing the quality of Croatia’s education system is difficult because Croatia has not participated in international learning assessments. In other words, it’s difficult to know how Croatia’s students perform in relation to students in other countries. Because there is a limited picture of Croatia’s education system, it is difficult to make any conclusions to determine whether the Croatian education system is producing graduates with skills necessary for the current economy.

With tens of thousands of young graduates leaving Croatia to seek employment in other countries, in the future I think Croatia will need to focus on becoming a knowledge economy, with skills and competencies needed for knowledge workers like the development of STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math), internship opportunities and Service Learning curriculum.

In the Croatian education system management is centralized and government involvement is often heavy handed. Although the official policy is decentralization and deregulation, the path is not clearly marked and attitudes are sometimes ambivalent. The system remains centralized and as long as each school has to interact directly with the Ministry of Education on all financial and management issues, real decentralization is difficult.

The Route from High School to College

Elementary education is compulsory in Croatia. The entry into higher education is based on one result: the final comprehensive exam called Matura – literally translated as “mature diploma,” implemented in 2010. It must be passed after high school in order to apply to a university or other institutions of higher education. My students at University of Zadar refer to Matura as the “Croatian ACT.” They describe it as an “awful” 2-week process where essays are timed and handwritten. They told me teachers prepared them to compose an essay relying on a “for or against” (with a recognizable pattern of organization in argumentation) model. Students told me that some of their classmates’ parents also hired private tutors in math and would meet with the tutors for hours in order to increase their scores.

High Schools in Croatia have four available educational tracks:

  • Prirodoslovno-matematička (specializing in math, informatics and science)
  • Jezična (focus on foreign languages)
  • Klasična (curriculum centered around Latin and Ancient Greek)
  • Opća gimnazija (covers a general education)

The process of getting into a high school in Croatia is rather difficult. A student chooses five schools which they want to go to, in order of choice. The first school on the list is the school that the student wants to go to the most. The maximum number of points while signing up is 80 (points are gathered from primary school grades and any extra criteria). The point threshold is a certain number of points below which a student can’t sign up for the school. For an example, if a certain school has the point threshold of 65, nobody with 64 or less points can sign up. Schools usually have quotas of how many students can enroll in that particular year.

Students can enroll into two basic kinds of higher education:

  • Polytechnic schools (veleučilište), higher level education
  • Universities (sveučilište), highest level education

The distinction between the programs taught at universities and polytechnics used to be the length of studies and the final classification of the students – but this line is being blurred by the implementation of the Bologna process.

The Bologna Process is a series of meetings and agreements between European countries to ensure comparability in the standards and quality of higher-education qualifications. The implementation has resulted in a number of positive and negative consequences. On the positive side are equal opportunities for all participants in Bologna reform, openness to the outside, and a larger percentage of higher education. Some negative consequences of the Bologna process include an increase in administrative obligations and incompatibility of curricula.

In addition to 4 universities and 16 polytechnics, higher professional schools and non-university higher education studies were introduced in 1998. This has increased the flexibility of the system to meet demand. Again, the universities are not sufficiently in tune with the needs of employers although the universities are more influenced by the needs of the market than other parts of the education system. And as in primary and secondary education, there are no effective university standards relating to educational processes and learning outcomes.

School for Life

Professor Ivan Kikic’s opinion about the Croatian school system is, “When we start going to school, our talents are huge, but when we finish, they are small.” Croatia’s education system is slowly making the transition from the socialist system that favored memorization of facts, discipline, and lecturing to a system that fits the needs of a democracy with a globally integrated free-market that needs problem-solving skills, creativity, communication skills, and flexibility.

By contrast, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Hungary have implemented wide-ranging reforms. I have read about the need for reform in Croatian schools, with more flexibility including choice of electives and a greater connection to the needs of a modern economy. In connection with curriculum reform, a pilot designed and led by the Ministry of Education is called “School for Life.” This initiative for elementary schools includes the following global skills:

  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Creativity and Critical Thinking
  • Intercultural Competence and Citizenship
  • Emotional Self-regulation and Well-being
  • Digital Literacies

The goal is to operate and thrive in an international context. One way is to introduce and equip schools with tablets and smart books. Currently there is little digital literacy that exists in schools. In fact, all of my university students compose their assignments by hand, usually with pencil and paper. There are no computer labs and they do not bring laptops to class. In contrast, I teach every one of my classes with technology at College of DuPage. I believe it is essential in modern education to link technology to instruction while motivating learning.

I talked with one of my colleagues about School For Life. Her son is in elementary school and was provided a smartbook last year, but the “gadget” was taken away after the school year to give to the next class. This resulted in a disruption to a potential trajectory of integrating technology. Plus, she told me, the teachers did not have complete or systematic training regarding the technology, so she would often have to use YouTube or Google to help her son and his friends in troubleshooting and using the tablet to be most effective in class.

Conducting the School for Life pilot to create a basis for a comprehensive long-term education reform has been discussed in Croatia for decades. The shift from teacher-focused teaching to teaching methods that give students responsibility for learning, reward initiative, and focus on problem solving appears on the horizon.

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