24 March 2011

Spring shorts

Students' attitudes
to standardized tests

Test form for answers
Today we held our listening comprehension class in a large, bright corner classroom with four large windows looking out towards the north and east. The students had (to my surprise) brought cake and tea to celebrate my birthday. As we were enjoying the delicious cake and its icing--made with caramelized sweetened condensed milk--one student waved at the windows and said, "Spring--Russian style." Outside the snow was coming down in a swirling blizzard.
One word describes our February this year--frigid. March has come as a great relief, although we pay for this relief with endless slush, which will alternately soften and refreeze perhaps several more times. (This evening it has already refrozen.) Flowers generally won't appear for another month or more. Still, the winter that seemed discouragingly endless just weeks ago is now on the retreat.

Educational reform is a huge topic these days in Russia, with special attention to two controversies. The older controversy surrounds the adoption of a uniform high school assessment/college entrance exam called the "Unified State Exam." On the right, you can see the lists of "pro" and "con" arguments the students in my secondary school classes gave in our class discussions on this exam, which replaces the traditional oral exams of the past. The last photo shows the answer form for the exam, which for some students is as intimidating as the questions!

The more recent controversy concerns proposals from the ministry of education to reorganize the secondary school curriculum, creating a core of four basic subjects and putting many traditionally crucial subjects into a list of electives beyond that core. The number of electives permitted would be quite limited. Some of my students say, or report that their parents say, that students will have to pay tuition to take those electives (mathematics, Russian language, Russian literature, science subjects, and others). A few have even reported the suspicion that these reforms are supposed to cut down the number of "over-educated" people in favor of creating more blue-collar workers. The proposals and objections are summarized (in Russian) here and here, among many other places.

These are not the only debates going on here about education, although these are what I hear the most about myself. Many educators remain unconvinced about Russia's replacement of the traditional five-year specialist's degree with the "Bologna Process" structure of bachelor's and master's degrees.

As I've mentioned before, I often use popular music in my classes, especially my high school classes. Students get from six to twelve lines of a song with many words and phrases replaced with blank lines, which they try to fill in while listening to the song. We check their answers, then play the song again with the full lyrics on display. Often the words and phrases lead to lots of good discussion--for example, when we discussed the spirituals that became anthems of the U.S. civil rights movement. (And a question for Skip James and Derek Trucks: who exactly was "Crow Jane"?)

Of course I draw from my own beloved collection of blues and soul songs, but I've also diversified my offerings to include such sources as Garbage, Fountains of Wayne, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Arbouretum, Jenia Lubich, and the Fray, whose "How to Save a Life" was probably the most popular so far. Some of these songs were nominated by the students themselves--I'll consider almost any song in which I can actually distinguish the lyrics and am not embarrassed by them.

"The Dark Side of Internet Freedom," explained in an entertaining way via the, um, Internet.

Martin E. Marty on Bonhoeffer and Bethge: "The birth of a book."

"When I left, it wasn't an abrupt break. It was a gradual drift, largely triggered by reasons that lay me open to charges of being a spiritual shopper, a casual consumer - but which were actually nagging doubts, little breaths of discomfort that, now I had a new life and felt better about myself, I didn't have to suppress to stay on the life raft." --From "Wait, so that was a cult?"

Chicagoans can see two films about Muhammad Yunus, the founder and head of the Grameen Bank, currently under fire from Bangladesh's Central Bank.

Here's a useful summary and link catalog for the Google Books settlement case.

Wrongful conviction: Virginia man freed after 27 years' imprisonment.

On Monday the world said goodbye to a wonderful blues musician, 97-year-old Pinetop Perkins. I brought my camera to his performance at the 2007 Waterfront Blues Festival, the day before his 94th birthday. Forgive my shaky hand at the beginning--it gets steadier.... In this clip, Pinetop joins James Cotton and his band. Cotton also welcomed Hubert Sumlin to his set that memorable day.


Karen Street said...

Johan, I found your discussion of education changes interesting. What country/ies are providing the model for the change? If you ever encounter a pretty decent English language explanation, please post!

'Mela said...

Hi Johan,

A lovely day, listening to the very dapper Pinetop Perkins...

Thanks for posting!

Jazz and Blues Fests said...

Dang, I missed Pinetop Perkins at the Waterfront Blues Festivals. Would have loved to see him perform there live.

Jeremy Mott said...

Besides Derek Trucks and Skip James,
I know of another pair of blues
singers who sing of Crow Jane. These
are Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
But, like you, I have no idea what
Crow Jane refers to. My guess is that it has something to do with Jim
Crow, but that's only a guess.
Yesterday I received a fund appeal
with news from the Center on Conscience & War. Their new executive director, replacing J.E.McNeil, will be Maria Santelli.
I don't know what church, if any,
she is affiliated with. I do know
that J.E;McNeil, a Quaker, was a
fine executive director, and she will be a hard act to follow.
Jeremy Mott