Saturday, November 30, 2013

Teacher Nienke and adventures at Estonian High Schools

The past three weeks I've participated in a wonderful project called 'Erasmus in Schools'. Even though I'm not an Erasmus exchange student myself (which was the case in Riga in 2009, now I'm a bilateral exchange student) I managed to join for some fun at five different high schools. The aim of this project is to familiarize high school students with other cultures, opportunities to study abroad and to hear a foreign language spoken by someone else than just their teachers. The Dutch Embassy in Tallinn was so kind to spoil me with a lot of Dutch goodies from wooden shoe key chains to posters and fancy looking magazines about Dutch culture and design. For me they happened to be useful tools to 'bribe' the students in getting involved in my interactive teaching method.


The first school I visited was Vanallina Hardiuskolleegium in Old Town. I ended up in an art class with a small group of arty-looking young individuals. Besides the fact they were painting, they also managed to listen carefully and answer my questions. Especially when I started handing out the key chains for good participatory behavior the students got more and more engaged. The teacher offered me a cup of tea and while comfortably sitting in the middle of the class I discussed topics like soft drugs, homosexuality, bikes and the awesomeness and usefulness of studying abroad. After the class most of the students gathered around me to chit chat a little more about a.o. their dreams.

 The art class and their foreign Christmas sweaters wearing guests from the Netherlands and the Czech Republic

Some nice conversations after class. It's always so much fun to meet inspiring young people! Picture: Triin Laumets.

 Messages from the students, nice for later!

The second school I visited was the Lasnamäe Vene Gümnaasium, a Russian school in a very Russian looking district. During the bus ride with mentor Alexander and Korean student Ji Min we encountered some interesting guys. They were obviously (still) drunk and they were very excited for their second bus ride ever. One of them didn't have a valid bus ticket and told he'd make a scene as soon as he would get caught. Normally residents of Tallinn can make free use of public transportation within the city by the way. Alexander could communicate with them in Russian and while I was innocently looking out of the window they kept on guessing what my nationality is. They said I'm extremely beautiful. Well, great, was that the alcohol speaking that anyways makes anything beautiful? Time for some more intellectual stuff. The first twenty minutes I spent in a class filled with approx. 40 talkative teens. A hand full of them participated very actively (they all received a key chain for that of course). Now there is such a fuss going on between homosexuality and the Olympic Games which will be held in Russia I felt the need to tackle the topic in class, just to see what would happen. "What if you would see two guys on the streets of Tallinn holding hands and giving each other a kiss?", was my question. A few guys were pretty straight forward mentioning "All gays should be killed". Others were more tolorant. I asked the before mentioned blokes a follow up question. "But... what if you would see two beautiful girls walking hand in hand, giving each other a kiss, should they also be killed?". Then their answer was "Of course not!". The eyebrow frowning mindset of some young boys... interesting.

The Russian Gymnasium in Lasnamäe. Picture: Ji Min Lee

The second part of that hour I gave the same presentation in another class. Of course it was not only about the homosexuality discussion, but also about typical Dutch topics like bikes and cheese. The students were a lot more calm and participated without any insults. I can understand now how such a delight it must be for a hard working teacher to have a class in front of you that pays attention that well. We even managed to practice some Dutch all together. I especially trained their 'ggg' sounds, which they absolutely loved to practice out loud! In the end, satisfied, I left the building armed with some nice gifts from the gymnasium. What an eye opening day once again. I really love motivating people to share their own opinions and moderate little discussions in front of the class. Furthermore, it's a great experience to stand in front of an audience without feeling nervous about it.

 Unsharp, but certainly the proof I was there! What a lovely class it was. Outside you can see the rather Russian looking living blocs. Picture: Ji Min Lee

We made it! On our way back home with some tasty presents. Picture: Ji Min Lee

Then the third school, Ehte Hümanitaargümnaasium. I went there together with Triin, the project coordinator of Erasmus in Schools and Daniela, a student from Germany. We were 'kind of' welcomed by a janitor speaking Russian only. He immediately handed out some blue plastic shoe covers in order to keep the spotlessly clean floor clean. If only he'd know I often wear my shoes in my living room/study room/bedroom without feeling guilty about it... An English teacher eventually showed us the way to the classroom and provided us with strong coffee probably labeled as a 'keep the teacher awake' blend. The first presentation scheduled for today was till now the best I had experienced during the entire project. Around 40 students, many of them with smiles upon their faces (quite exceptional!), listening carefully and participating so nicely well. Normally the pupils answer my questions, but in this class I also got a lot of questions in return. They seemed honestly interested in the Netherlands, not only about drugs luckily. Then the school bell rang: it was a popular trance song. A whole new world of creative school bells opened for me this week.

Desperately keeping the floor clean

In the middle Natalia and Vlad, two very kind students which stayed after the lecture for some small talk

"Can we take a stupid face picture together?". Yes.

The atmosphere changed during the second presentation in front of another class. The group was overruled by a group of Russian guys aged around 17/18. Daniela started off with a great presentation about Germany, but after five minutes the guys were already asking why her friend (with which they meant me) didn't want to talk to them. We explained I'd speak during the second half of the class. Yet, after not even 20 minutes they rudely interrupted Daniela by saying "Ok, well, that's enough, now we want to hear more about the Netherlands". The tone was rather painful. Triin and I eventually came up for Daniela by telling the guys how extremely rude they behaved. I guess at that point it would have been good that the teacher also would verbally punish them, but he didn't. Whereas my previous lecture at this gymnasium went so well, I felt like the upcoming one ended up being the worse. Till now all my presentations about the Netherlands have been fairly the same. One topic which would be almost strange not to mention is the soft drugs policy. I can't change anything about that stereotype, yet, I can tell the young Estonians that the situation is not as bad as they might think (tolerated - not forbidden to try it - therefore not really exciting - low number of addiction and general usage amongst youngsters).

 Sterile classroom.. I kind of got a hospital feeling here. Picture: Triin Laumets

During the previous class the first question asked was about the Dutch education system, during the second class the first question was how much one gram of stuff costs. I have no idea. Hindsight I should maybe have not communicated with the front row guys that much. Yet, they were the ones in fact participating. The only topics discussed by them however were the awesomeness of soft drugs and the disgustingness of gays. Also here the trap questions worked; no problems with two beautiful women messing around with each other. On the way back Trinn, Daniela and I discussed how much influence classmates can actually have on your willingness to openly particpate in a lecture. Those few guys were so overruling in their own little group, but they probably wouldn't have had the guts to behave the same way when being completely alone, without the pressure from their friends to act 'cool'.

 The audience... Picture: Triin Laumets

Dutch-German forces united :-)! Picture: Triin Laumets

The fourth school on my list was Südalinna Kool located a 20-minute walk from my home. The first thing I noticed before entering the school was that there was only one bike parked outside which later on happened to be from the teacher whose class I'd take over that hour. It was certainly the most quite class of the entire week. Even though the students were all aged around 17, they were very shy and an active participation during the class was not in their dictionary for that very morning. At the end of the class, after asking them three times if they had any more questions about the Netherlands, the only question which was asked was if my hair color is my natural hair color. Yes. When the students left the class one girl came towards me to give me a very kind compliment. She told me she lived in Belgium with her family for quite a while and that my way of teaching made her feel very much 'at home'.

 Busy with my introduction. Telling that 'Bos' actually means forest and that it's easier for Estonians to pronounce my name when it's written like 'Niinke'. Picture: Merilin Näär

Then, last but not least, the fifth school I visited was Jüri Gumnaasium, outside the city borders of Tallinn. The school is located in an area with a lot of business opportunities and I was told the houses there are quite fancy. Yes, this school happened to be for the kids from slightly richer Estonian families. Together with two German students and one from Turkey I was guided around all the facilities at the school. When crossing the gym hall Daniela and I shared the same thought: it's such a delight gym classes are not part of our curriculum anymore! After the classes most students attend 'hobby school', also located within the same building. Then, after yet another door, we discovered a huge, good looking swimming pool. Wow, to be honest I didn't expect all these wonderful facilities here. I actually thought I'd end up at a small wooden school located just outside Tallinn with only the basics offered to the students.

 Sun and snow and ready to go: Jüri Gumnaasium! Picture: Kätlin Oinus

Tropical temperatures inside, snow outside

My lecture went well. It was the same story all over again. The class consisted of 11 students only and they were very, very silent. It took a while to gain their trust but in the end they slowly started to share their opinions. After having experenced different kinds of schools during these weeks I can say that there is a huge difference in interaction. What I personally noticed is that mainly the art students and the Russian speaking students are the most expressive. They are not afraid to let their opinions be heard. From my perspective, the Estonian students needed quite some encouragement before speaking out loud. I'm very thankful that the Dutch Embassy provided me with some fun goodies so I could in this way support the students a bit in their slight fear to speak. I also noticed that Estonian students only talk to the teacher when they stand close to each other so that the conversation stays a bit discrete. This is absolutely not the case in the Netherlands, were students and teachers speak out loud so that others might benefit from the transferred information too. Or, they're just too lazy to walk towards each other. Same counts for conversations in public transport. Whispering Estonians (and Latvians and Lithuanians too), loud and present Dutchmen. By the way... want to know how my last class ended? One guy came towards me, asking "Do you know the movie New Kids Turbo?". On which I replied "Oh my goodness, yes junge! How do you know that? I hope it isn't translated into Estonian!". He saw the English version. Hm, I wonder how his perception of the Netherlands is.

 At the canteen of Jüri Gumnaasium, awarded with the title 'Best schoolmeals in Estonia'. I indeed seemed very happy with my meatball. Not so sure about the others though ;-). Picture: Kätlin Oinus

I want to thank Triin Laumets for her efforts to make the Erasmus in Schools project such a great success. Besides her own studies she had lots of work organizing all meetings. Her work surely paid off. Foreign students managed to get a fantastic insight into Estonia's young people society while the Estonian students gained a lot of extra knowledge on foreign cultures and possibilities for them to study abroad. Two big thumbs up for this wonderful initiative!

 Applause for the girl on the left! Thanks Triin :-)

1 comment:

  1. I am an Estonian who studied in the Netherlands and weirdly enough I had the exact opposite experience. In the university of Tilburg I was always the only one participating in the discussions and I was always the only one with my hand up high to answer to the questions the lecturers gave us. All the Dutch people were silent, and I knew they knew the answers too, because many of them were a lot smarter than me, but they remained silent. Perhaps this was just me, or maybe this changes after you get older (university level).

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