Welcome Back! New features to be aware of

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To start off this entry, I would like to provide a useful quote for you to ponder: The only way to succeed is going up. All other directions are pointless.  For almost five years, the Flensburg Files has provided readers with some interesting topics from the writer’s point of view, ranging from German-American issues, to cultural differences, to celebrities being honored (or dishonored), to providing some interesting places for people to visit. All of the entries have been on the blog level, operated by areavoices, a subsidiary of Forum Communications based in Fargo, North Dakota

That is until today, that is.

For the first time ever, the Files now has its own website, powered by WordPress. The address is similar to the areavoices web address but only shorter.

However, even though some finishing touches are being made at the time of this entry, some new features and changes that are found here include the following:

1. There will be more opportunities to interact with other readers, responding to articles and questions posted by the author. This includes having a questionnaire available in an article posted where necessary as well as more platform space for people to post their opinions about the topic.

2. No more bureaucracy regarding contacting the author. You can use the contact form provided in the website to contact the author directly, without dealing with typing errors, rejections, etc.

3. More opportunities to access news stories in both languages: Apart from the articles on themes posted by the author, the Files is available on facebook and twitter, where you can like and follow respectively. Yet the difference is the Twitter page will have mainly articles from German (-speaking) newspapers on a regional and national level. The facebook pages features a wide array of articles dealing with German-American, cultural issues and other interesting facts, much of which are useful for expatriates living in Germany and Europe. All of them are in the English language.

4. Wider array of topics to be covered here: Apart from the usual contents featured in the Files- touring places of interest, German-American Multicultural topics, and other news projects (including the current one focusing on Germany’s 25 years), the Files will include some topics pertaining to the German-English language, looking at the not-so-easy-to-explain facts and many creative ways of garnering interest in the language.  A couple more categories are in the works and will be presented later in the year.

5. More photos: Thanks to more storage space, more photos will be posted in the Files, pending on the topic presented. This despite finding additional ones on the Files’ facebook and flickr pages, which the readers will be directed to in case it is necessary.

6. Better access to other online blogs and websites. The Files will have a page of links available for people get more direct access to the websites they are going. Like in the blog, the links have to do with German news in English, foreign language and culture.

7. More ways to follow. Apart from facebook and twitter, you can also follow the Files via wordpress, RSS feedburner, and other social newtwork pages, as well as subscribe via e-mail, and you can get better access on your Smartphone. This way you can get access to the Files at any time.

These are only a few of the many new features the Files’ new website has, some of the which was not seen in the blog. Although the areavoices blog page will be kept as readers have been accessing it through the Forum newspapers, plus the articles written solely for that blog will remain as is, they will be directed to the website as the blog will feature an abbreviated version of the article that will be available in this website. This will apply for long articles but not those that have questions for the audience.

Keeping this in mind, there is a list of themes to cover in the coming days and weeks; so without further ado, it is time to start writing and for the readers to start following. Happy reading and looking forward to your comments.

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Will Speed for Free Food!

hi score
Photo courtesy of the Clearwater (Kansas) Police Department

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If you enjoy speeding and disregarding signs, let alone give the police and the Kraftfahrtbundesamt (Driver’s Office) in Flensburg (Germany) a headache, then this article is for you. Regardless of whether you are in Germany or the US, people love to speed and will stop at nothing to ensure that they are at least 20 km/h over the limit. In Germany, we have the blitzer machines, where drivers and their car license plates are photographed, and after a brief process of determining how many Flensburg Points  one receives and how much money one has to pay, the driver gets the check in the mail. Many people have found creative ways of manipulating these blitzer machines, like this one below:

 

Well, not quite. 🙂 But people destesting these machines have done a fabulous job manipulating them, which includes putting recycling cans over them:

 

In the US, we do not have such devices- although having them would solve all our infrastructural woes and fix our deficit in an instant- but we do have radar devices, which tracks the speed of drivers especially when going through communities, and this story shows that even some drivers love to pull a good joke. In Clearwater, Kansas, located 10 miles southwest of Wichita, police officials, in particular Chief Garcia, received a laugh of the century, as one of the drivers placed a makeshift sign next to the radar device, challenging the drivers to speed as fast as possible in order to win a prize, as shown in the picture at the beginning! 🙂 The police is looking for someone who gave the chief the biggest laugh in his career so that the driver can be “rewarded” with a free meal.

Can you imagine someone seeing this in Germany? Or Europe?

It is known that Germans have a dry sense of humor with most of them taking this as way too seriously- pending on which part of Germany you’re living in. However, aside the humor behind this picture that even some of the people at the Flensburg office would take when seeing this, the true purpose behind this radar device is the same as the German blitzer: to save lives and keep the roads safe for others to use.  Therefore, even though some of us may take this as a dose of laughter to start off the day on the road, even in Germany, the word to the wise is “Don’t, unless you want to set a new record for the highest number of Flensburg points you receive when getting caught!”

In other words, enjoy the laugh but drive carefully. 😉

For those wanting to know about Germany’s Flensburg Point system, the author wrote about this theme a few years ago as it was undergoing some reforms. More on that here.

 

Here’s a question for those who love driving:

What were some other acts drivers have done in order to get away with breaking the rules of the road, regardless of whether it was in the US, Germany or Europe? We love to hear them. Put your stories here in the comment section, or in the Flensburg Files’ facebook page, which you can access here

 

Special thanks to the Clearwater Police Department of Clearwater, Kansas for allowing use of this photo. It did provide a good laugh over here and when others read this, they will have a great start while on the road travelling to work. 😉

Blue Elephant Turns 40!

Statue of the Maus (right) and the Elephant at Anger, Erfurt's city center. Photo taken in 2011
Statue of the Maus (right) and the Elephant (left) at Anger, Erfurt’s city center. Photo taken in 2011

FF new logoBlue happens to be my favorite color. It reminds me of a lake in Iowa, where I went swimming as a kid. It reminds me of the blue skies and how it was decorated with cotton candy cloud, while I was dreaming of the future. It reminds me of a blue elephant that is making kids laugh.

A blue elephant?

Yes, in German TV, we do have a blue elephant, and yes, he has his own TV show. And believe it or not, the Blue Elephant is going to be 40!

On this day on 23 January, 1975, the Blue Elephant made his first appearance as a sidekick to the orange mouse in the German cartoon series, Die Sendung mit der Maus. (EN: The Show with the Mouse). After three years, the creators of the show- Gert Munterfering,  Monika Paetow and Armin Maiwald, who turned 75 a month ago- decided that one was a very lonely number, and the Mouse needed some company to keep him and the audience entertained. Therefore, the Blue Elephant came into the limelight and did just that. He gave the mouse some laughs, some tricks with his trunk, but most importantly, a friendship which has lasted up until today.  Add the duck and the pink bunny (the latter as part of his own debut of Die Sendung mit dem Elephant in 2007), and it is safe to say that the crowd has been the core that has made the show, produced by German TV station WDR and can be watched by children and adults alike every Sunday, one of the top five shows that should be watched at least once when visiting and/or living in Germany (soccer, Tatort/mystery series, Löwenzahn and travel documentaries are the other four).

It is very difficult to pick the creme de la creme of the short clips featuring the blue elephant and his friends (including the mouse), but the Files have compiled a gallery which you can click to watch and you can decide for yourself which one is the best. Highlights of the elephant’s 40th birthday can be found via link here.

 

 

 

 

For not only providing the Mouse with back-up and entertainment and for making us laugh and getting us going on a rather quiet and lazy Sunday morning, the Files would like to thank the Blue Elephant for 40 years of the best. Happy Birthday and may you provide us with 40 more years of the best. You and the mouse are the reason why we devote 30 minutes of our time every Sunday in the blue sky watching you on TV.

And for yours truly, being a non-German American expat, another reason to appreciate the color of blue. 🙂

38: The Magic Number

Food for thought:

For this article I would like to start off with a small quote dealing with this magic number:

Each of us go through phases in life,

Each of us has to change,

Each of us develops physically,

Each of us has to do that mentally,

Each of us has challenges in life to be overcome,

 Each of us finds a way to achieve that no matter the cost, and finally,

Each of us knows when to say when,

Each of us knows when a change is going to come, and with that,

Each of us knows that it is up to us or them to make that change.

 

We have many milestones in our lives which we have to adapt to before it is done for us. We become teens at 13, start drinking at 14 (or if you’re an American, 21), start dating at 18, become adults at 21, have a career before 25, have a family before 35 and retire at the age of 65.  Many people claim that there are magic numbers of 39 or 50, where many of us drop dead early, a concept I do not believe at all, for how long we live depends on how we maintain our physical and psychological being.

But what about the magic number of 38? What’s so important about this age?

Just hitting that milestone a couple weeks ago, I had a chance to take a look at that particular age, for the age of 38 represents the crossroads, the point where the last phases of changes in a person’s appearance and character are undertaken, the point where one needs to examine himself and decide once and for all if he is who he wants to be or if a change of environment is warranted. It is the age where one should have everything in place and be happy with them- a healthy family, an enjoyable job and/or career, an excellent network of friends (not just facebook friends but those whom you meet in person frequently) and lastly, some hobbies that you enjoy.  It is that age where one looks back once and for all to see what is missing but also looks forward to see how these missing pieces of the puzzle can be put into place. In other words, it is make or break- you make the changes before it is done for you- and most likely not to your best advantage.

Having a conversation with my father on the phone most recently I mentioned about this awkward age and some of the symptoms mentioned here- in my case, the need to do something different in life instead of the same old, same old. His advice on this matter is that “….no matter where you go and what to do in life, remember what you have done in the past and how it shaped your life.” Perhaps I should annex that comment and say “….and the lives of others too,” because one’s actions set off a chain reaction that affects others in one way or another.  Facing some difficult decisions at that particular age, sometimes it does not hurt to have a look at the past to see what has been achieved but also what can be done from that point on before taking that step forward.  It does not necessarily refer to career changes or something like that. It can also have to do with correcting mistakes of the past, rebuilding ties with people whom you lost contact with for many years, or if one is not happy in a relationship, one can make some changes for the good. In either case, 38 is the best time to make these changes before the big 4-0 hits and with that, the mid-life crisis. I think of it as the last opportunity to start anew.

So if you are like me- 38 and not sure how to proceed from there, try this trick:  Make two lists- one consisting of accomplishments made up until now, both professionally and personally, and one consisting of a wish list- and compare. If your wish list is longer than your accomplishments, ask yourself why and decide the best course of action to make the changes necessary to your advantage. After all, what you do will be beneficial to yourself and to others as well. And even if it is the other way around, if there are a couple items you wish to do so badly, ask yourself why and decide if and how to fulfill it.  Once you have your plan in place, you will be able to enter the 40s with a positive aspect and not facing a crisis that could have been avoidable.

Looking at my mental lists, I found that there are still some unfinished business to take care, some of which I have already done, but more are left to do. It is a start and once a decision is made, there is no turning back. Sometimes a new setting and a new path goes a long way, especially when hitting 38. My philosophy goes a bit further than that. Life is like facing an interchange facing three different freeways: The best highway to take is the one unmarked- the one that will make history with your name on it.

My two cents on this topic.

In School in Germany: No Tailored Exams, Please!

Empty study corner at one of the German Hochschulen. Could tailored exams have something to do with that?

If there is a word of advice I could give to the teachers on the school and university level, speaking from my own experience as an English teacher, I would give them this one: Exams are no free tickets to success. Students have to pay for their ticket in order to pass. Exams are designed by the teacher with the goal of not only testing the students’ knowledge on a topic, but also to determine which areas the students need to improve on. From my standpoint, an exam is used to challenge the students- to get them to think outside the box and use the acquired knowledge in other ways and in their own words.

Sadly, looking at the exams today from a teacher’s point of view, as well as that of the students’, I see their value sliding down the mountain in a violent avalanche. And here’s a question and story to share with you as the reader:

 

First the question (and it is ok to post in the comment section and remain anonymous):

What was the weirdest exam you have ever taken in school or college? How was it structured? What about the content- was it relevant to what you learned? How were the questions formulated and how difficult were they?

 

While there were a couple instances where I formulated an exam where some sections were difficult to a point where I in the end had to throw the sections out and give the students some extra points (for the former students I taught English at the University of Bayreuth, you should have an idea what I’m referring to), as a student pursuing a teaching degree, I encountered an exam that was so bizarre, that even as a teacher would lose face if this was given in a lecture. This was known as the Tailored Exam.

 

The object of the tailored exam: a week before the exam, students get to choose a selected amount of questions to be inserted into the exam. These exam questions are based on the questions provided during the semester, sometimes in the PowerPoint presentations.  As soon as the questions are chosen, the students choose the point value for each question. This type of exam resembles ordering a meal deal at a fast food restaurant where you choose the burger as well as the size of French fries and soft drink you want.  And while this tailored exam does help the students narrow down the content needed to be studied before the exam (because the questions are already given, directing the students to the topics where they need to concentrate on), there are several drawbacks to this type of exam.

 

First of all, students have the tendency to select the easiest questions and reformulate them to their liking, thus leaving out the most relevant information needed for their studies, let alone their careers. This is similar to an exam for students of medicine, where a question on the different blood types outweighs the procedure to remove an inflamed appendix. Both are important, but if you don’t know how to conduct an appendectomy the proper way…… Taking the easiest way out through easy questions is delaying the inevitable, which is the real-time praxis. And if a person cannot handle the problems facing them in their profession, this shortcut will come back to haunt them.

Secondly, tailoring the exams to their needs will allow for a debate among the students as to which questions should be in and which ones are to be omitted- an argument that is a waste of time, especially if they need the time possible to prepare for the exam. And as for the teacher’s credibility….

Last but not least, while the teacher may find it easy to correct the exams, his/her credibility would vanish like water vaporizing from a pot at 200° Celsius, for students would dictate how the exam should be structured, and by allowing them to do this with the teacher’s consent, the authority to control the students’ wishes would be gone. And no matter how a teacher redeems him/herself (by adding trick questions or reformulating them to make them difficult for students to answer), his/her reputation would be lost for good. As a chain reaction, word about the tailored exam would spread, and the population of the student body would be divided up into those going to the teacher for an easy grade and those complaining about the fairness of the exam provided by the teacher and the institute he/she is employed at.  Not a way to end a working relationship between the university and the teacher should he/she decide to move on to another academic institution after two years or even retire.

In the 14+ years I have been teaching English, including seven at three different universities, I have found that the best way to win the hearts and minds of the students is to challenge their thinking but also be honest and fair to them. After all, as I have witnessed, students will best remember you for these characteristics in addition to your humor and creative ways to get them to listen. In the case of one of the universities I taught, I accumulated a vast number of student veterans- those visiting my classes semester after semester- as a result of this quality of teaching.  By having the students make the exam for the teacher, that teacher is diluting this quality of teaching that is badly needed in today’s schools and academic institutions. The end result is the teacher losing all the respect from the students and a career becoming short-lived.

There are many other variants of exams to give to the students, such as multiple choice, fill-in the blanks, short answer questions, essays and even the hybrid forms- the last of which I prefer. These plus a list of subjects students should expect to see in the exams will encourage them to go through the materials thoroughly and know the essentials. But tailored exams- the ones made (or should I say dictated by the students) is a no-go, unless you are a teacher wanting a quick exit from your career. But even then, there are other ways of getting out of it that are more honorable. It is also more honorable to challenge the brains of your students and get them to learn the most important things for their future careers.

So from the heart of this teacher to the hearts and creative minds of other teachers out there: No tailored exams, please! You will do yourself and your students a big favor and give education a better reputation.

 

Thank you and best of luck formulating your next exam, keeping this in mind.

Mr. Smith

 

Note: If you have some stories of exams that you wrote that were unorthodox but are considered useful for other teachers to use, or if you have some tips on how to create an exam that both the students as well as the teacher can benefit from, put your suggestions here in the comment section or send them to Jason Smith at the Files at: Flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. These ideas will be forwarded on in a different article as the Files continues to look at education in Germany vs. the US, based on the author’s experience as well as other factors influencing the educational landscape.  Thanks and looking forward to your ideas and thoughts.