Project Wrap-Up

It’s hard to believe that my Fulbright officially ends tomorrow.  I’m writing this post as I get comfy waiting for DHL to pick up my extra luggage and carefully boxed bicycle (yes…I’m bringing it home!).  In many respects, my time here as flown by.  However, looking back at my first posts in January, those freezing days seem like a lifetime ago.  When I arrived here, I was excited to explore a new country and to get to know how foreign language education works.  I wasn’t sure what it would be like to try to complete a project in a place where I didn’t know anyone or have any connections.  A few of you have asked about my project and I’m happy (and relieved) to share with you that it is finished, written up, and turned in.

I came to the Netherlands because the Dutch have a reputation for being excellent with languages. That reputation, paired with the European Union’s focus on increasing bilingualism and multilingualism inspired my project.  I wanted to  do two things while here:

  1. learn as much as I could about the way languages are taught
  2. find a way for language teachers to have more opportunities to dialogue and collaborate

To accomplish goal number one, with the guidance of my advisor, Professor Marjolijn Verspoor at Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, I came up with a plan to observe lots of class of the most commonly taught languages in the Netherlands: English, French, German, Latin, and Ancient Greek.  I was also really interested in learning what Dutch students’ thought about their study of a foreign language.  To satisfy my curiosity in this area, I created and administered a student survey.

To tackle goal number 2, I set out to develop an online community for language teachers to promote global collaboration and sharing of best practices.

I felt pretty confident in my ability to learn about foreign language teaching here through observation.  Over the years, I have enjoyed lots of time in language classrooms.  However, goal number 2 gave me pause.  I have good basic computing skills and really enjoy using technology, but, I have no actual training beyond the mandatory typing class that I took in 7th or 8th grade.

During my time here I visited 12 different schools, some of them only once, others on several occasions.  I saw more than 50 foreign language classes taught by lots of different teachers.  I surveyed about 320 students regarding their thoughts on language study.  Overall, it was a very interesting experience.  I had the opportunity to present my findings at a conference last month in Sarajevo and also at the Dutch Ministry of Education a couple of weeks ago.  My advisor and I have co-authored a paper that, fingers crossed, will be published in the coming months.

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Presenting at the Ministry of Education

While I was doing the school visits, I was also working on the online community.  I thought about what I wanted it to look like, investigated what platform I could use to achieve what I wanted, and eventually started putting it together.  Building this online community involved a healthy dose of frustration.  Every step of the way, I encountered something that I wanted to be able to do, but couldn’t work out how.  Luckily, the platform I chose has a pretty active support forum.  I was a frequent requester of help in this forum!  My questions revealed that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  Expert’s answers were generally incomprehensible and, therefore, required me to ask more questions until, at last, someone understood the depth of my ignorance and took pity on me.  Despite fearing the worst, I did manage to build the community, it is called LinguaConnect.  If you’re interested in seeing a bit more about it, check this presentation out.

Overall, I feel really happy with what I have accomplished in these 5 months.  It has been challenging at times, but I’ve learned tons and feel incredibly grateful for the experience.

Sarajevo – The Joys

In my last blog post, I wrote about some of the things that I found challenging during my trip to Sarajevo.  These challenges, however, were really outweighed by loads of wonderful experiences. I’ll share a few.

The Neretva River

The people that I met in Sarajevo were among the most hospitable, generous, and friendly that I have met.  Whether from the hotel, university, or at various sights, they were so happy to help in any way.  When I checked in to the hotel, I didn’t have any local currency as it’s not available outside Bosnia.  So, the first thing that I needed to do was find an ATM machine.  I asked at the front desk for directions to the nearest machine and instead of drawing me a little map and handing it to me, I found myself being walked through the city by a hotel employee.  After I presented my paper at the university, someone from the audience approached me because she was going to be traveling to Groningen and had some questions for me.  She’s a graduate student at the university that was hosting the conference.  She invited me to her office where we had Bosnian coffee and Turkish delights while I helped her figure out how to get from Sarajevo to Groningen.  It was so nice to be welcomed to Sarajevo in this way because it gave me the opportunities to talk to people and hear what they had to share about their city.

Bosnian coffee pots.

Sarajevo expanded my travel horizons a bit further and I loved that feeling.  During my visit, there were many times that communication was difficult for me but, it was always met with humor and grace rather than frustration.  In my first taxi ride from the university back to the hotel, the driver was pleasantly trying to make conversation.  In very broken English, he apologized that he could not speak more.  I then asked whether he spoke French… Italian…German… Spanish (I know… spanish is a stretch for me, but it’s much better than my Bosnian).  He kept indicating “no.”  Then, he asked me whether I spoke Croatian, Russian, Turkish, or Arabic and I kept indicating “no.”  Between the 2 of us, we offered 10 languages and there was no common denominator.  We both laughed and shrugged.

This trip to Bosnia was my first visit to a country where I heard the Muslim call to prayer each day.  It was beautiful.  On one day, I spent time in a mosque, a Catholic church, a Jewish synagogue, and an Eastern Orthodox church all within a 10 minute radius.  For this reason, Sarajevo is called the Jerusalem of Europe.   Sarajevo’s diversity is also reflected in its fascinating architecture.  Part of the historical center of Sarajevo was built by the Ottoman empire and the neighboring part was built by the Austro-Hungarian empire.  The feel and look of these areas is completely different and the point where the two meet is really quite dramatic.

Me Inside Gazi Husrev Begs Mosque

I had the opportunity to leave the city for a day and experience Bosnia and Herzegovina’s beautiful countryside.  It really is spectacular.  I went on a day-trip to the town of Mostar.  The route we took led us through the rugged  Dinaric alps along the Neretva river.  I have to say that this river is gorgeous, bright emerald green water snakes its way through the mountains.  It was a lovely drive.  The scenery gradually changes from sharp mountains to the rolling vineyards that thrive in Herzegovina’s Mediterranean climate.   Mostar’s old town is very picturesque; the highlight is the bridge, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, which connects one side of town to the other.

View of Mostar’s old town

My trip to Sarajevo was memorable for so many reasons.  I am in awe of the natural beauty of the place, the vibrancy of the culture and genuine kindness of the people who live there.

Mostar’s bridge and surroundings

Sarajevo – The Challenges


I’ve decided that my time in Sarajevo deserves at least a couple of blog posts, so here’s the first installment.  I am going to focus on the tougher and more challenging things that I’ve seen here.

I came to Sarajevo to learn from and present at the International Conference on Foreign Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics.  Since the conference was scheduled towards the end of my time as a Fulbrighter in the Netherlands, it seemed like it might be a good opportunity to share what I’ve learned.  Also, I was really looking forward to visiting a new city and region; I’ve never been to Sarajevo before, in fact, I’ve never been to Eastern Europe at all.

The conference was great.  I enjoyed learning from keynote speeches given by accomplished researchers and passionate scholars.  My presentation went smoothly, was well-received, and I feel like I have accomplished something and also made an academic contribution.

Sarajevo, I am confident, will leave its mark on me.  It’s has been a trip filled with competing emotions.  At the moment that I’m writing this, it’s 10pm, the bells of Katedrala Srca Isusova (Sacred Heart of Jesus) are ringing as the Muezzins from the surrounding mosques are calling people to prayer.  I have never been anywhere like this before.

Inside the Gazi Husrev Begs Mosque
Inside the Gazi Husrev Begs Mosque
Katedrala Srca Isusova – Statue of Pope John Paul II

I was in high school during the siege of Sarajevo.  I remember seeing news footage of United Nations troops on the ground in “sniper alley.”  But, I had only the most basic understanding of what was happening.  While I was enjoying my summer vacation before starting university at UCLA, the Srebrenica genocide happened here.  In the years since, as the trials of various individuals came into the news, I learned more.  Yet, when I arrived here, I still couldn’t call myself educated on the events.

It’s been twenty years since the siege ended and I’ve been struck by the sheer quantity of visual reminders of the war that I see today. The airport is located at the western edge of the city while my hotel is in the historical center in the east.  So, on the ride from the airport to the hotel, I saw a good stretch of the city.  The main artery of the city, as it turns out, is the infamous “sniper alley.” Many buildings along this road and throughout the city show various degrees of damage.  On numerous occasions over the last few days, I’ve wondered what it’s like to be faced daily with very real reminders of unimaginably difficult times.  I will admit that I was expecting the city to be further along in its rebuilding than it is.

I wanted to understand more.  So, I decided to take a walking tour with a local guide, Erwin. It was a great experience and I learned lots that helped me understand today’s Sarajevo. Here’s what I understand now…

  • In the years since the end of the war, money ear-marked for the reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina has not actually been used for that purpose due to severe political corruption.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina ranks as the 5th poorest country in Europe with an average per capita annual income of less than $5000.
  • The official unemployment rate here is around 45%.
  • 20% of the GDP annually is made up of money that Bosnians who live abroad send back to their families still living in Bosnia.

My conversations with people who live here flesh out the economic facts with personal stories of the difficulties that they continue to face.  The economic situation certainly does not favor reconstruction but there is a desire, also, not to completely erase the traces of the painful recent past.

Damage to the pavement from mortar shelling. Throughout the city, these areas have been filled with red resin as reminders.
Galleria 11/07/95 – Srebrenica Genocide Memorial

If you find yourself in Sarajevo and want a really informative tour, I recommend Toorico Tours.



The Dutch School System

During my first week in the Netherlands, I discovered that it was going to take some time for me to get a handle on the way the education system works.  At this point, after almost four months, I feel more or less ready to write this post.  Dutch readers, feel free to correct me if I still haven’t got it right!

Private schools are very rare in the Netherlands.  When I have told classes here that I teach in a private school, I usually have to explain what that means.  When I mention that I teach only boys, general confusion and dismay ensues.  However, the state school system does allow for a  much wider variety of school types than the US system does.  It seems that a school can decide on the method that it would like to use (e.g. Montessori) and also whether it wants to have a specific religious context.  As long as certain educational objectives are met, all schools receive government funding.

Dutch children have to start school at the age of 5, although many little ones begin when they are 4 years old.  I have visited a few elementary schools during my time here and have been struck by the amount of time for play that children have, especially in the first few years of school.  Elementary school students start learning English around the age of 10, although some start much earlier.  I had the pleasure of visiting a class of 5 year olds who were starting to learn English.  They were so excited to practice on me!

Students @ De Triangle School in Enschede
At the age of 12, when students leave the elementary school, they generally take a test.  This test, along with teacher and parental feedback, establishes which of the streams of secondary education they should enter.   There are three streams: VWO, HAVO, and VMBO.

VWO, voorbereidend wetenschappelijk onderwijs, is the pre-university stream.  Students who graduate from this 6 year stream with passing grades are eligible for admission into the Dutch university system.  Within VWO there are three different tiers: regular, gymnasium and bilingual education.  At the gymnasium schools, students are required to study both Latin and Greek.  The bilingual schools are really cool.  They are required to teach 50% of their subject area classes in English.  During the first 3 years, students take a core set of classes.  During the last 3 years, students select a particular “profile” of classes although there are some requirement for all students.  They have 4 profiles to choose from:

1)  Culture and Society – emphasis is on the arts and languages
2) Economy and Society – emphasis on social sciences, history, and economics
3) Nature and Health – emphasis on biology and other natural sciences
4) Nature and Technology  – emphasis on natural and physical sciences
Scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses @ Willem Lodewijk Gymnasium in Groningen
HAVO, hoger algemeen voortgezet onderwijs, is the general secondary education stream  Students attend HAVO for 5 years, until they are 17 and are then eligible to go to a university of applied science.
VMBO, voorbereidend middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, is the pre-vocational stream.  This stream last 4 years, and, as you may have come to expect, has some different routes to completion.  These routes differ in the ratio of theoretical training to practical vocational training.  Students who complete this stream are eligible to go directly into the work force or to a specialized vocational school.
A “caring” classroom @ ROC A12 vocational school in Velp
So, there you have it… in a nutshell.  I’d love to hear what you think about this system that differs quite a bit from the system in the United States.

Learning Dutch

Groningen Market
Groningen Market

As someone who loves languages, I was really excited to spend time learning a bit of Dutch.  I consider myself to be fairly good at learning languages so I wasn’t really that worried about it.  I’m embarrassed to admit that my efforts to learn Dutch have not been particularly successful.  Shortly after arriving here, I signed up for a beginning Dutch class through the language center at University of Groningen. Because I needed to have days available to visit local schools, I enrolled in the class that meets once per week for 2 hours.  I knew that it wasn’t likely to be enough for me to make enormous strides, but I thought I’d make decent progress.  The sounds of Dutch language are difficult for me to produce. While some words resemble English, many do not and I continue to struggle even with the basics.  I find myself anxious and reluctant to try using Dutch because there’s a pretty good chance I’ll get it wrong.  I have definitely made some progress, but perhaps not as much as I imagined I would.    You might wonder how I know that I’ve made progress.  My gauge is the weekly market.  During my first weeks in Groningen, in order to buy vegetables at the market, I would politely ask the vendors if they spoke English, then ask for what I wanted and pay.  After a couple of weeks, I started to offer a greeting in Dutch, then switch to English, then say “thanks” and “goodbye” in Dutch.  The next step in the progression was learning the numbers in Dutch and the names of the fruits and veggies that I like.  Now, I am able to use the numbers and names of veggies in a simple sentences beginning with “I would like…”.  So, I have made progress, it’s just very slow compared to the quick progress I made with Italian a few years ago.  Nonetheless, I’m grateful for this experience of struggling with a language.  It’s been a while since I’ve been a complete beginner.  My experience in these first months of learning Dutch reminds me of the challenges that my students face when they sit down in my classes and, more importantly, how they feel facing those challenges.

My Visit to Velp

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to visit ROC A12, a large vocational school in a small town called Velp.  I saw some classes: Child Development, German, and Spanish.  I had a great tour of the school, including a look at the onsite restaurant and kitchen which are fully managed by the students.

In a school with 5000 students, there are lots of bikes.
In a school with 5000 students, there are lots of bikes.

I had some great conversations with teachers and students.  The students were very interested in hearing about my work here, as well as what I do back home.  They had questions about life in California and what schools are like in the United States.  Is high school really like the movie High School Musical?  I had to confess that I’d never even seen it.  In general, the students were surprised to learn that I teach in an all-boys school.  They could not imagine what a single-sex school might be like.  I don’t believe they exist here.  Some wanted to know what the weather was like and others asked whether I’d ever been to Los Angeles.  It was clear that their image of America was shaped by what they saw on television and they were eager to have confirmation one way or the other from me.

Two students really wanted to talk to me about what’s happening in our presidential campaign.  Melissa and Darryl were very well-informed about the candidates from both parties and wanted to make sure that what they’d learned from Dutch media coverage was accurate.  They really impressed me and we had a great conversation.  I could have sat and talked to them for hours!  They wondered if Muslim-Americans felt the same uncomfortable tension and scrutiny after the San Bernadino violence as they did after the Paris attacks.  They seemed to want reassurance that there are people in the United States who do not agree with Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.  I enjoyed the chance to try to see my own country’s politics from another perspective.  This experience was a very personal reminder to me of how people all over the world are paying close attention to what is happening politically in the United States.

Melissa, Darryl, and I after German class
Melissa, Darryl, and I after German class


Weekend Explorations

I’ve been using the weekends to see more of the Netherlands.  Here are some pictures from my first month’s exploration.

Leeuwarden - A small town in Friesland
Leeuwarden – A small town in Friesland
Exhibit on the Dutch resistance efforts - @ Friesmuseum in Leeuwarden
Exhibit on the Dutch resistance efforts – @ Friesmuseum in Leeuwarden
Ceramics museum - Leeuwarden
Ceramics museum – Leeuwarden
Ceramics museum - Leeuwarden
Ceramics museum – Leeuwarden
Mauritshuis - Den Haag
Mauritshuis – Den Haag
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer - @ Mauritshuis
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer – @ Mauritshuis
Delft canal
Delft canal
"Delftware" Fiat 500
“Delftware” Fiat 500
Antique shop - Delft
Antique shop – Delft
Canal view - Amsterdam
Canal view – Amsterdam
Another canal view - Amsterdam
Another canal view – Amsterdam