27 October, 2012

Culinary Genius


The culinary genius burnt the toast, setting off every smoke alarm in the house and prompting us to run around fanning them and pulling out batteries. Then we opened all the windows and the balcony glass (yes, it's so refreshing to "air" the house down to near-zero temperatures). And then we couldn't find the cat, who was thought to have escaped from the peal of the alarms and the stink aroma of wheaten charcoal, via the nearest wall-hole aka open window.

Culinary Genius™ launched a search effort, mostly composed of whining about how the cat was missing, how it's someone else's fault for turning the toast gauge up to 6, how the cat is missing, how the alarms are really quite annoying, how it's cold, how it isn't her fault and how the cat is missing. Turns out the moggy was perched over the radiator, behind the curtain, appropriately nonplussed.

My apologies to the circa-dozen apartments enjoying enduring the smell and the noise. I have my jacket and blanket on. I am not amused.

26 October, 2012

Good, bad, ugly, sad

Good: Wedding party on the weekend for my brother-in-law and new sister-in-law!

Bad: Eight days and counting of being sick with the flu.

Ugly: The sky thought it would be funny and threw down snow this morning, and it has not melted by afternoon. It is still October. I am not amused.

Sad: That the little old lady selling clothes in the mall thought her pair of knitted socks were worth 23€ (circa $30).

Good (2): K-market had a nice pair of thick, warm boot socks for 10€.

Good (3): New phone! Woodiddles! (Thank you Amanda for that word.)

Good (4): On the first day of light snow, the mall was already gritted. I am not a fan of slippery ground, so this is great (and surprising).

18 October, 2012

A Plus

On the (more) plus side, it turns out that I am not the only student who wants to practice conversation and has noticed that all Finnish courses seem to be severely lacking in speaking practice.

Since we finish early on Fridays, P and I have tentative informal plans to regularly hang out at the school for a while after class and just chinwag in Finnish over a cup of tea. I am hoping to get other students involved, since I've tried to do it before at other classes but didn't have any other students with the same enthusiasm like P does. She truly grasps exactly why it's in our best interests to do it and how badly we'll stumble if it doesn't happen.

She has also noted the general assumption by schools and teachers that "all students have somewhere to practice what they learn". No, no, hell no! I did a quick poll of who has Finnish friends. Only P does, and she stated firmly that personal friends are not interested in spending precious scarce quality time together teaching her Finnish. I agree, because that's not fun for the friends, just like it's not fun for my family.

We have a golden opportunity to practice and it's with new acquaintances. There is no friendship-history in English or Russian or Chinese. There's no past bullshit in the way and no time-pressured environment. Fellow-students are still relative strangers, so there is new information to learn at a level we can understand (where you grew up, talking about your family or interests, discussing the weather, and so on). You already know where your best friend grew up... and your best friend is more interested in talking about what happened this week, which probably isn't in the Finnish 101 handbook.

I never have managed to form long friendships with other students, because mostly, they left me behind in Finnish and now have other things to occupy their time. I really hope that this time I can keep pace with others' learning and make a friend or two.

16 October, 2012

If you live in Helsinki

...GO AND READ this page. (I'll wait until you come back.)


She is Veronika Honkasalo and she just got my vote.

First I found my party (Left Alliance - "a modern labor party that pursues a just, independent, and free society where the people and the environment are a top priority"). Then I had to somehow pick one candidate. Sadly I found only 4 candidates (of about 70) who bothered to write a detailed information page in English.

I understand that. It's Finland. English isn't an official language and my problems understanding Finnish are MY PROBLEMS and nobody else's.

But here's the thing: we foreigners make up 12% of the population here, and we're mostly allowed to vote. It seems as if most candidates WANT equality for all, but only for the people who are already equal (and understand Finnish).

News flash people, if you don't bother to put English, Swedish or Russian pages up, you just threw away thousands of votes. And in this lady's case, the fact that she DID put up English was most of the reason she got my vote - I sincerely hope she gets a ton of votes from all the foreigners just because we only have a handful to choose from and she's the best (imo).

15 October, 2012

Guilt and Cash

Feel guilty for staying home today when I could have made the superhuman effort and gone to class.

Tried to make up for it with a concerted effort at surveys. Grand total eight bucks (so about 6 euros or so) which was annoying and lame.

Designed two new shirt logos. This one's my fave, Coffee Zombie:

(Go and buy one, they start at $11.99. http://www.cafepress.com/gemdust/8398623 )

12 October, 2012

What a week

A ridiculous rollercoaster, but at least we got off the ride without vomiting.

We have a main teacher who's Russian (and great), plus a second teacher who's a native Finn, and I'm sure she must be one of the most intelligent teachers I've ever had. I say "must be" because there is no way to know for sure apart from the fact that I don't understand 99% of what she says.

Last week (and the week before) I practically lost my voice saying "slow down" and "we don't understand" and "please speak more simply". Over and over again. Alright, I didn't come close to losing my voice, but I sure said those things so many times that she should have heard me. To no avail. I know that my comprehension is poor, but in this class I'm somewhere near the top and I happened to know that another 16 people in the class didn't understand her. (Lunchtime discussions are great.)

Finally on Tuesday she began revising something that we hadn't understood the first time, didn't understand the second time, and she managed to confuse half the class and send people into panic mode over finding their own workplace practice position. (Mention "writing up your CVs" and that people have to go to work soon, and students "wtf" and "huh" quite a bit.) I turned around and loudly asked who understood. Nobody. I started simplifying it based on my memories of last year's class mentioning it. The smart guy asked me to use English because he didn't even understand the basics in Finnish.

And once he understood what she had been talking about over and over that day, he exploded. "Half an hour! Half an hour we have been discussing this, and we don't even need it! This is high school work! We have all had jobs, we are not children, we know how to write our CVs! Why? Why? (He repeated the Finnish word for comprehensive school, which doesn't even apply to immigrants, the Finnish word for compulsory army conscription, which doesn't even apply to immigrants, and the Finnish word for being able to speak Finnish fluently, which doesn't even apply to us.) Why we need these words? How this help us learn Finnish?"

I felt sorry for the teacher, because on a personal level, I like her a lot. And she has to teach what she's told, because the government makes the rules. But she also has to teach so that we understand, and she wasn't.

She wisely put the jobsearch-talk away and gave us a pamphlet on the health benefits of milk. And then, unbelievably, she talked for an hour in such ridiculous complexity that I'm not sure anyone understood a thing. We are people still struggling to form sentences about what we did on our weekends, and faced with information on complex carbohydrates, saturated fat's effect on blood cholesterol levels and the natural food sources of the chemical Selenium, it was an exercise in futility. I'd say half the class don't even understand those things in their native languages.

At the end she tried to tell us it was good practice. I disagreed, loudly. She tried to tell me that I understood the idea and it was good to learn new words. I explained that the text was far too difficult, that if there had been 20 new words perhaps it would be ok, but 100 is too many and that on our own it would have taken four hours to look up every word in the dictionary to understand.

She kinda went quiet as classmates nodded.

The next day she turned up with a far easier exercise and spoke noticeably slower and more simply. I probably hurt her feelings, but there are only so many times that a whole classroom should be expected to endure a lesson which wastes their time, regardless of the fact we HAD to attend.

But I gave her feedback, that I had spoken with others at lunch and people could now understand her, and I thanked her for slowing down.

And then we had the third teacher today. I like her too, because she's also Russian, so she knows how to speak simply to other immigrants. At the end of the day I thanked her for being a teacher who speaks slowly so that we understand. She commented that sometimes she doesn't understand native Finn teacher herself.

So it's not just students having problems understanding native Finn teacher. Hallelujah, there is a Dog.


08 October, 2012

Constructive Conformity

Been thinking lately about schools' insistence on conformity.

We constantly measure each other and compare each other to a norm. Having grown up in Australia, it's something we evolve into as we progress through schooling... there are no exams in the beginning (or at least we are unaware we're being tested) but as we get to high school they are the benchmark for whether we are a success as a student. And the pressure to conform is even greater in places such as the USA and Japan.

I used to have a preconception that standardised tests were a necessary evil. How else can you measure whether a child is achieving what they ought to achieve? What I hadn't considered was that it just isn't necessary for a small child to "achieve" any set standard in the first place! As soon as you remove a time-sensitive goal and replace it with "in progress" learning, then every child is succeeding, each and every day. You see, children are always learning, whether we try to teach them or not. They are observing and modelling themselves based on the world they see.

Finland's approach to compulsory schooling for children: every child can learn. No ifs, ands or buts, no exceptions, children learn. They can and they will. There is no question of not succeeding. The teachers know they children will succeed. Wherever they need to get to, the teachers know they'll get there.

This is not about putting pressure on a child and telling them that they must achieve. This is about displaying trust that the child can do it. When you cannot even conceive that something might go wrong, think about how much easier the task becomes! What would you do right now, if you knew you could not fail? The answer: Anything you want. What can a child learn, if they know they cannot fail? Anything.

Most of the grading system used with school children here (peruskoulu / compulsory years) is about the personal effort they put in. Yes, even if you're naturally capable of learning, it's still possible to try and achieve better. Some kids do try harder, and they get the better results. Thus the grades become about effort and not about brains or ability, and still they're only a vague measure. This, imo, is a far better focus for school success than whether or not you are a "failure" - understanding that effort brings success. It equips children for the competitive nature of high school, of university, of life in general. Effort = Reward. Not Brain = Award, a huge failing on the part of test-based schooling, which leaves the bright middle school students utterly unable to motivate themselves to study - why bother studying when you're accustomed to getting your results handed to you? What happens to those kids when the work becomes more difficult? Sink or swim... hardly a pleasant life experience at the age of 11 or 12.

Teachers in Finland are very well trained (probably among the best-trained teachers in the world). Their overriding goal is to support a child into achieving success - a concept very different from "ensuring all kids meet a benchmark". The reality of life is that we have benchmarks. Doctors measure our weight and compare it to a healthy norm. Professors measure our university work. Bosses measure whether we've done our job to a certain standard. In an adult world we know about benchmarks and we expect them. But for a child, they hinder healthy growth and the love of learning.

This is not to say that you need to move to Finland if you want a healthy learning environment for your child. (Although it might be the simplest way.) There are very similar aims in Steiner schooling, and other independent schools embrace the same concepts. Many might consider these child-centric methods to be "hocus pocus" - yes, they do seem strange and "not serious" when you are used to traditional test-based schooling in rigid setups. The thing to understand is that there is still very real learning going on despite the lack of school desks, or the lack of times tables. The learning is just not according to the timing you might expect. These children frequently out-perform their peers when they reach high school age as they have learned to teach themselves. Their teachers do not have "no goals" for the kids - just no pressure to meet a timetable with them, no pressure to get there in a certain predictable way. The kids will get there anyway.

When you think about it, what do you really need to start high school? The ability to read and write. The ability to do basic arithmetic. The ability to get along with your peers; to tell the time; to respect the teachers. Despite what you might assume, you don't actually need much else - even the kids that can't do complicated mathematics are still accepted into high school! Think about the endless hours and tests and homework and practice and stress and useless knowledge that school kids pick up along the way. Traditional schooling seems as if it's a relic which has been untouched for decades; nobody has pulled it apart completely and questioned what's useful and what's not.

But you can still nurture a love of learning, even if your child attends a strict traditional school. It's about investigating things because you can. Of reading for the fun of it. Of collecting rocks and leaves, of playing with berries and learning that they stain your fingers. It's genuine enjoyment of learning. It's about praise for effort rather than for success. It's about trusting in your child to learn despite what benchmarks say. Every child learns.

03 October, 2012

Pekalla on uusi poikaystävä. Hänen nimensa on Mikko.

Doing Finnish homework. All Finnish men are named Pekka (unless they're named Mikko).

All Finnish women are Liisa.

(Did you know... Pekka Virtanen on rappari työskentelee uudessa rakkennuksessa Malmilla tällä hetkellä? Now you do.)

Gave my husband a headache asking the difference between "nopeampi" and "nopeammin" = SUCCESS. He has declined my kind offer of attending school with me tomorrow. These things are important so that I can tell the class why Pekka's car is red.