Changes. Yes, many changes. A new president, for one. (We DID it!!!!) This new year has brought smaller changes, too. I’ve grown a titch bulkier and developed a few more wrinkles (I’m nearly 60, you know). I also acquired a new car, which compelled me to pursue another stint of teaching overseas. Where? Well, where else? Back in Istanbul, of course.  I said goodbye to family and friends, skis and snowshoes, and…

Goodbye Libby, Erin, Matthew, and Mitsy!

Goodbye Libby, Erin, Matthew, and Mitzy!

Goodbye, snowshoes!

Goodbye, snowshoes (and snow)!

I just arrived at the Koç School campus on Saturday—a drizzly, sopping afternoon. I was detained FAR too long at customs (an expired residence permit necessitated much discussion among the police and a hunt for the official stamp to CANCEL it). I was greatly relieved to find that my driver had waited the extra half hour for me. I dozed through most of the hour-long drive to campus, waking for a few moments just as we crossed the Bosphorus. It’s always a joy to gaze up and down that incredible waterway and marvel at the the Rumile Castle just beneath the bridge. Ah, Istanbul!

After settling into my lojman, a cozy little two- bedroom just like I had before, the sun peeked out. Hooray! I tried to shake myself awake with a walk around campus (about 3K). Things are pretty green here, with iris shoots pushing up and rosebushes leafing out. Everything looked pretty much the same as before, except for a recent addition to the high school. As I continued around toward the elementary, though, I wondered about the huge wooden structure looming ahead. My goodness—A HORSE! I kid you not. There’s a monstrous Trojan horse planted on the elementary playground overlooking the tennis courts. It has a wooden mane and tail, and its body is a vast room with barred windows (apparently to prevent accidental falls), easily large enough to hide a hundred soldiers.

The HORSE by moonlight

I assume you realize that Troy is located in Turkey, southwest of Istanbul where the Aegean Sea meets the Dardanelles Strait. I haven’t been there yet, but it’s on my list. Previously thought to be a mythical city, Troy first appeared in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (these works date somewhere between 600 and 900 B.C.). You know, Helen of Troy and Odysseus and all that? Well, the actual remains of 4,000-year-old Troy were discovered in the 19th century, and many of its treasures now reside in Russia and Germany. Yes, my friends, Troy is right here in Turkey. AND—on the Koç campus.

The HORSE by day

I’m not sure who masterminded this structure, but I understand it’s been rather controversial. Can’t imagine why! They had to install lights and a closed-circuit camera in the beast’s belly to prevent untoward evening dalliances by students living on campus. Maybe teachers, too, huh? Who knows?

I can’t help but chuckle as I think of the shenanigans that may have ensued before the camera was installed. Here in Turkey we tend to react to situations in a knee-jerk fashion, so I assume there was some impetus for the expense of a surveillance camera. Ah, Istanbul!

Big Brother is watching you—Troy or 1984?

There’s one more notable change here at Koç. We have security systems for every lojman (apartment) with a blinking red light above the door. Apparently in spite of our much-appreciated 24/7 guards cruising campus, someone discovered a prowler in their house one night. We’ve been warned to keep all our doors locked, there are new motion sensors on the chain-link fence that surrounds the campus, and every lojman has an alarm system, complete with a blinking red light over the front door.

Our added security…

I haven’t done too much walking yet, as it’s been raining most of the week. My friend Ileyn joked that she expects to see pairs of animals queuing up on a nearby hillside. Did you know, by the way, that Turkey is also where Noah supposedly built the ark? Mount Ararat is in Eastern Turkey, and I hear that’s the place. Check your National Geographic archives. I just hope this rain doesn’t continue another 35 days and 35 nights. I mean, enough is enough!

I’ve noticed a few other changes here, too, thanks to our new high school director, Koray Özsaraç. He’s improved the climate of the school: the kids are in uniform, the teachers seem happier, and the halls are quieter. He’s also put an end to students butting in the lunch lines (though I’m still waiting for the day that teachers get to step ahead of the kids).

Well, it’s good to be back with people I know and love. My classes are rolling along, and I look forward to my first trip into the city this weekend. Ah, Istanbul!

Brooks, good friends, and great music

In early April my friend Marnie told me to set aside May 27th for a big event at the Koç School. When I realized it was a Tuesday I was disappointed. The trip from my home on the European side of Istanbul to hers on the easternmost Asian side is long; though only 20 miles, it’s about 3 hours on public transport— a daunting trip for a school night. I changed my attitude, though, when she said it was a live music event. THAT would be worth the trek!

I caught a school service bus to the Asian side of the Bosphorus (only 45 minutes), then hopped on the train to Pendik (another 45, including the wait). I walked four blocks up to the bus “station,” where I was the first to board the next blue mini-bus. Another 20 minute wait, and I was on the 40-minute ride to the Koç School. It had taken me 2 ½ hours from Robert College to the Koç School, record time for afternoon rush hour. Lucky me!

As I checked in at the gate, familiar smiles greeted me, eager for news of my life since Koç. In my limited Turkish I managed a short account before starting the trek across campus to the Paulus’ house.

The guards’ warm welcome brightened my walk along the familiar sidewalks and lawns—nostalgia hit as I cut through the student commons, a huge glass pyramid that joins the major wings of the high school. On my way through, I noticed a poster for Brooks Williams, the headliner for the school’s upcoming talent show. Hmmm…

Brooks beams at his audience.

Marnie and Tony welcomed me with warm hugs and introduced me to their friend Brooks Williams. In the flesh. He’s actually just a regular guy, though I was soon to learn an incredibly talented one. Brooks was the featured event for the evening of backyard music. The Pauluses have known him for years, and he interrupted a musical tour of England to buzz down and join them in Istanbul for a week. An accomplished acoustic guitarist and folk singer, his music is reminiscent of Leo Kotke or John Fahey—my favorites—and he’s that good, too. (Check him out at .)

Brooks and music lovers
The Koç School’s two Davids enjoy Brooks’ folk strumming.

I basked in the warmth of good friends at Koç—about 20 or 30 teachers, staff, administrators, and their lovely children. We were wined and dined with an impressive spread of fabulous mezes (Turkish hors d’oeuvres), then congregated outdoors for music. Ahhhh…Music!

The perfect way for folks to enjoy guitar…

Brooks awed us with both voice and guitar for nearly an hour as the sun sank over the hills of Istanbul, then two local musicians, Tolga and Erdem, took center stage with Turkish folk music. They demonstrated some fascinating percussive techniques, which were great fun. Then, of course, the three guitarists joined together for a jam session, a delightful finale to the evening—which ended far too soon for my tastes.

Tolga and Erdam “strut their stuff”.

The next night brought more live music, this time on my side of the Bosphorus for dinner and jazz. I arrived at Eminönü about an hour early (you never know how long a trip will take with Istanbul traffic), so I headed for the Rustem Paşa Mosque (a favorite spot) to relax in the breezy shade of its second-story courtyard. Lo and behold, who should walk in but Tony, Marnie, Brooks, and Mesure (a Turkish friend from Koç), also early arrivals to the city. Speaks to the charm of the Rustem Paşa, doesn’t it?

The outdoor prayer terrace at Rustem Paşa Mosque

Rustem Paşa interior: a man at prayer

After enjoying the mosque, Mesure treated us to a delicious array of culinary delights at the Hamdi Restaurant (a traditional favorite), then after dinner Brooks and I worked off a bit of our dinner with a trek across the Golden Horn and up the cobbled lanes to Nardis, a night club just below the Galata Tower, where we met others for an evening of jazz (and, of course, rakı—a traditional Turkish drink).

The Nardis was great, but how can you beat the intimacy of good friends at a backyard concert? It just can’t be done, not even in Istanbul.

Brooks\' is The Man

Yup! Great tunes!

And—tonight I’m going to a Jethro Tull concert. Imagine that!

The Social Center—and Şakır Bey

Never heard of a campus bar before (except at universities), but who’s complaining? Actually, our social center on the Koc campus has been an important part of my life in Turkey. One of the highlights has been our distinguished bartender, Şakır Bey, as well as social events ranging from our weekly potato night to a variety of special events. So lucky we are!
Şakır Bey serves as a host for many of us on campus. (SHAH-kur Bey, which is like Mr. Şakır, only Şakır is his first name—that’s how you address men in Turkey.) A retired naval officer, he has been the social center bartender for the past 11 years (after 25 years in the military). When I first arrived two years ago, I couldn’t understand why everyone was up in arms about the possible termination of their bartender. I mean, really! How much difference can a bartender make?

Well, I didn’t know Şakır Güner. He’s one in a million, and he’s made every single person on campus feel appreciated and important. “Benim genc arkadasim” he calls me, and I call him the same (gench arkadashEEM= my young friend). We’re both retiring this year. Need I say more? Şakır Bey is friendly, professional, and efficient. He takes care of everyone without imposing himself, and he’s always ready for a game of backgammon (tavla) with anyone who has time to spare. My friend Sue is coming for her second visit, and her first question was whether she’d get to see Şakır Bey again. That’s how wonderful he is. Unfortunately, he’ll be retired when she arrives.


I regret to admit that we leave Şakır Bey sitting alone in the social center too many nights. He’s there five nights a week from 5:00 to 10:00, and we just can’t get down there every night. When I do go down for a beer, we chat in my limited Turkish and his limited English, teaching each other as our conversation progresses. It’s a real treat for both of us. Our favorite topic of conversation is retirement. I’m going back to my wilderness home in Grand Marais, and he plans to travel with his lovely wife, Meliha. They’ve purchased a summer home on the Black Sea, but their first travel excursion will be to the beautiful city of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast in July. His eyes glow as he speaks of it.


Back to the social center We just had what might have been the best event yet: last Sunday three very talented actors presented a production of The Love List, a hilarious Neil-Simon-like play by Canadian playwright Norm Foster. Take three gifted actors —Larry Bent, Dan Kapp, and Lisa Kapp—a snappy, intelligent script and mix them with an appreciative well-fed audience, and you’ve got a hit! The play is about a 50-year-old man who puts together a 10-point list for a dating service, then faces the reality of his choices. It’s great!




(Especially in this era of computer dating, it’s pretty on target). You have to see it to find out about item number four (which I’ll leave to your imagination). I recommend it highly to our community theater for future production. At any rate, we thoroughly enjoyed our evening, many of us laughing until tears streamed from our eyes. I call that a successful event.p1010232.JPG

We’ve had other enjoyable events at the social center: a wine-tasting party (also organized by the Kapps), a Halloween party, numerous game nights, a Thanksgiving Dinner, a Christmas dinner, and a weekly gathering for baked potatoes and fixings—the famed Potato Night. It’s been a great way to get an easy meal, to connect with friends, and to just get out of the lojman for a while.


Gotta love that social center—and especially Şakır Bey!

(play photos by Tony Paulus)

Campus Birthday (a pinker glimpse of life at Koç)

My Mother’s Day fete was a double-whammy: a birthday party for Carmen and Katrina (Canadians who’ve never lived in Canada). These darling twins are now a whopping FIVE years old! I was tickled to be included in their celebration, probably thanks to my little dog Libby, whom they love dearly.
I haven’t attended a five-year birthday party since my second son turned five, more years ago than I can count (well, maybe not THAT long, but I can hardly remember). I think I made Ross a fish-shaped cake, which apparently makes me the resident cake expert. (Actually, I offered to help.) A fish was a heck of a lot easier than two unicorns, let me tell you. Actually, Sue had done the research and baked and shaped the cakes; all I had to do was the icing: heads, ears, and manes. Sue added eyes and candy bridles, the crowning touch. We both did the sprinkles.

The Pink Unicorn Cakes:

The party was a sweet way to spend Mother’s Day. Serge (the dad) and I delivered the cakes before the children arrived, and I have to admit, I was unprepared for the difference between little boy parties (chaos) and little girl parties (cooperation). I was soon surrounded by princesses, mostly in pink. In fact, as I went through my photos, the overriding theme was clearly pinkness! Pink tablecloths, pink party hats, pink plates and napkins, pink cakes, and of course, pink dresses. Pink, pink, pink. (Faith, though, arrived in a traditional lavender Vietnamese costume, very princess-like.)

Lovely maidens: Carmen, Katrina, Faith, and Sarah:

And the Charming Birthday Girls:

Sue and Serge had planned the classic party, complete with musical chairs and pin the crown on the unicorn (a pink one). The children were darling as they skipped around the one-too-few chairs, and as each was left out, they were cheered and given a small candy bar. No problems with sportsmanship there!

Musical Chairs a la Children:

The children decided to run a musical chairs game for the adults, too, which was interesting. Everyone had a blast, but you have to understand that when adults play games, there’s an element of competition involved. We laughed derisively instead of cheering as each person was left out (I was the first), and things went fairly smoothly except for a few lapses in manners.

And…the Adult Version:

At the end of the game, however, one player pulled a fast one (actually, pulled the last chair out from under his opponent). Oops! Little error in judgment. Luckily, nursery chairs are low to the ground.

Soon Sue gathered the children around the display board for a game of Stick the Crown on the Unicorn (pink, of course). They were wonderful sports, watching each contestant as he or she strove to find the unicorn’s head. Katrina came the closest, but of course, EVERYBODY won.

Next came food, blowing out birthday candles, presents, and time on the playground. What a joy it was to share this exciting, sweet event.
(Libby would have loved it, but she wasn’t invited. She doesn’t do pink.)

Life in Lojmanlar (campus apartments)-for new hires

I was pleasantly surprised when I first saw my lojman (apartment). In fact, I was actually charmed by it’s sunset balcony overlooking the distant hills of Istanbul. I was soon to learn that there were both ups and downs about life on campus, though I’ve been very happy here.

A lojman balcony sunset:


What do I like? Well, though my lojman is nowhere near as large as my home in Minnesota, the two bedrooms are very comfortable (I use the small one as an office), the storage space is more than adequate, the living room is bright and cheery, and the kitchen and bath facilities are fine. I got busy decorating immediately, though, to bring my lojman from serviceable to friendly. I found some posters and frames at Ikea, then scrounged for picture hangers at a hardware store, and within weeks my new home was not only comfortable but attractive as well. Add a few candles and a fan (it’s HOT here in August), and it was delightful. It doesn’t take long to amass Turkish brick-a-brack (and rugs) to make your lojman a home.

My lojman–living room, kitchen, and bedrooms…

The family lojmans are more than twice the size of the singles, with three bedrooms, two baths, a huge living room, a dining room, and a kitchen (as well as an upstairs balcony). Some of them even have a sunken living room—very cool!

I was surprised to learn that we also have a social center in our little campus living complex—complete with a bartender five nights a week. The social center is open every night (it’s used for preschool classes on weekdays), and we often have social gatherings there: movie nights, game nights, baked potato night (a weekly potluck affair), and special events like music performances, wine tasting, and holiday gatherings. It’s a great way to connect with people, and on Wednesdays drinks are half price. Such a deal!

Game night at the Social Center:

(Don’t lose sleep anticipating the joys of Turkish wine. You’ll be disappointed.) By the way, the people here are delightful. Reach out to build friendships, and you’re sure to enjoy yourself.

Christmas Party at the Social Center–Mollie and company!

One challenge is that the campus is very isolated. There’s no place you can walk to for groceries or dinner or even coffee. Everything is too far, and the road is WAY too dangerous to walk or bike on. (The driving here is scary.) I’d had visions of biking to the Marmara (which is only 5K away—impossible ).

The Security Gate–you’re well protected!

The good side of the isolation issue is that Ilyen, our saintly liason, sets up service busses to get us off campus many times a week. There are grocery trips during the week, and on weekends there’s a street market bus, a Friday bus to the movies (or to do whatever you choose in the area of the city you visit), a Saturday bus into the city, and a Sunday church bus into Taksim. The options are varied, and if you took advantage of every service bus, you would seldom be on campus.

If you choose to trek out on your own (which you will), public transportation will get you there, but it takes forever. A trip on public transport to the city entails:
1. a 10-minute walk to the road (through the security gate)
2. a 40-minute mini-bus ride to Pendik (after as much as a 20-minute wait)
3. a 35-minute train ride to Kadikoy, the end of the Asian side (after another wait)
4. a 30-minute ferry ride to the European side (after yet another wait)
5. a tram ride up to Sultanahmet or the Grand Bazaar or Taksim or wherever you choose.
In other words, you have to plan about 3 hours to get to or from town on your own. Of course, a taxi is an option if you’re feeling rich.

Istanbul ferries–you’ll love them!

We do have a nearby airport (Sabiha Gokcen), which has many bargain fares to places like Germany and London and all over Turkey (which you’ll want to explore). The ugly side of that is that Koc is in the flight path. The first night I thought my life was over when a plane skimmed the top of my lojman. I’ve gotten used to it, and I appreciate the convenience of Sabiha flights.

Our saintly Ileyn is here to help with any problem that may arise, from medical emergencies to water delivery. Oh, yes. The tap water is pretty bad, so you buy huge 19-liter bottles for drinking water. My friend Terri even uses it for her pets. I’m not that nice. Libby gets tap water.

Many of us walk the 3-K loop around campus every day, which I must admit gets old if you don’t have a walking buddy, and there’s now a fitness center in the new Student Social Center by the high school. Hopes spring eternal for a pool in the future. Hmmm…
Gosh–what else? If you have questions, feel free to email me: I’d be happy to answer whatever I can.

I have to say, I’ve loved my time at Koc. As you know, nothing’s perfect, but this has been a wonderful adventure. I’ll leave still loving it. That’s a good thing.

My Favorite Turks

Let me tell you about something important to me. Yesterday was the last day of class for my IB certificate seniors, kids I’ve taught for two years. I love each and every one of them.

I decided to make flourless chocolate cake, (two cakes, actually) and invite them to my lojman (apartment) to celebrate a rewarding two years together. As I raced out of the building at 1:40, four of them met me outside and walked with me to my lojman. I recruited them to whip up topping (the directions are in THEIR language, after all), slice strawberries, and serve my very favorite, bitter-chocolate-rich cake. They dove right in. Libby was excited to see them, but got a bit shy once all 20 of them had arrived. She spent the rest of the party under the bed.

My Kitchen Crew
I’ve never had a relationship like this with an entire class–I LOVE these kids,! All 20 of them. Of course, it hasn’t been perfect all the time. I’ve been frustrated with them on occasion, as I’m sure they have been with me. IB was new to all of us, and we had to feel our way through it. They showed their mettle with insightful class disscusions, analytical writing, and incredibly creative class presentations. Part of our Wednesday gathering was remembering the hilarious things some of them did this year: Zeynep as Paris Hilton, Iraz wandering the classroom as a homeless person, and Selim Can (John) as a Macbeth Mafioso. None was more hilarious, though, than the interview of Haluk, a poor African person, giving straight-faced gibberish answers to his interpreter, who translated them into English for his interviewer and audience. I can’t belive we didn’t wet our pants , we laughed so hard.

Together we’ve weathered comparative commentaries, mock orals, and individual oral presentations, and somehow we’ve bonded through it all. As I said, I LOVE these kids!


It makes me sad to hear that some senior English teachers are relieved to see their students leave. O.K. I admit that even my 20 proteges have been a challenge lately. They always have OSS workbooks in their laps. It takes me five or ten minutes to settle them down at the start of class. Sometimes one or two of them even fall asleep in class. (NEVER have I allowed that in my 32 years of teaching–these kids are WIPED.) They study non-stop,seldom getting to bed before midnight. Their lives are ruled by dershane classes (cram school) and the OSS. English class is mere fluff at this point. I’m sorry they have to go through this, but in spite of it all, I’ve done my best to prepare them for the IB exams in May. I think they’ll do well if they try. I hope they do.

I’ll miss them all. I’ll miss them a lot.

Four of them are coming to the States next year–Zeynep to the University of Chicago, a mere 11 hours away. Denizhan will be at Middlebury, Iraz at Brandeis, and Haluk will be somewhere out East. I’m sure Selim Can will join them the following year, either at Harvard or Yale. I’m sure I’ll visit each of them.

Of course, I’ll return to visit the others in Turkey, maybe next winter. My ticket home this summer is a round-trip fare :).

As I said, I LOVE these kids! How lucky can one get?


Leader of the Pack

Producing a play in Turkey is quite a different thing—at least at the Koc School. Oh, there are scripts, actors, music, choreography, costumes, rehearsals and set, of course, but everything is done quite differently. It’s been a real eye-opener for me. Perhaps it’s because we work with a privileged clientele. Perhaps it’s because our students travel great distances to school. Perhaps it’s because our juniors and seniors are obsessed with preparing for the OSS exam. Whatever the reasons, the Koc (“coach”) production of Leader of the Pack has been quite different from anything I’ve ever experienced.


Director Larry Bent, Musical Director Dan Kapp, Choreographer / Costume Designer Lisa Kapp, and producer Marnie Paulus began the process last spring, recruiting actors, teachers, and staff for the production. Auditions were held in May for the gala 50’s musical based on the life of Ellie Greenwich, who composed many popular rock songs including “Chapel of Love,” and “Leader of the Pack” with husband Jeff Barry.

Typical of high school productions, the girls outnumbered the boys ten to one. After weeks of recruiting, they decided to pare the script down to accommodate the primarily female cast. Good call.

Rehearsals began in September for the March production—a seven-month rehearsal schedule! WOW! (My longest rehearsal schedule for a musical was eight weeks.) In spite of the fact that rehearsals were only held twice a week, attendance was abysmal and some cast members dropped out.

“Our overall attendance was about 75%,” said director Larry Bent. “A few weeks before opening we’d never had the full cast for the group dance numbers.” He’d about had it a few times, but somehow the directors all hung in there.

“I wanted to drop out, but my mom wouldn’t let me, and I’m GLAD!” said Lara Ankan of her experience. Turkish kids don’t often have opportunities to make a commitment like this one; their schedules are too tough, and even extracurricular sports mean a few practices a week. The 25 cast members who stuck out the year were jazzed about the production once they got onstage. The directors started smiling, too, those last few weeks when the show looked like it might pull together. It did, and then some.


Beyond the 7-month rehearsal schedule, though, what was so different? Well…

First off, the custodial staff built the set, a very sturdy affair that looked professional–in fact, it was a set of three record-disc platforms with professionally-screened labels on the records. The art department painted the scrim (obviously purchased) and flats for the backdrop, and students were excused from classes to do the work. At home, set construction happens on evenings and weekends, and it’s volunteer labor all the way.

Dancing shoes were custom-made for each member of the cast, at a whopping cost of $30 each. (I ought to) That really alleviates the last-minute scramble for footwear. Gold lame vests for the musicians were custom made as well, at a whopping $3 each (fabric scrounged from the school’s very minimal costume loft, which is mostly graduation robes).

Long before the performance, Dan Kapp hired a professional piano player to round out his volunteer orchestra, and they sounded GREAT! (My 9th grade musical protégé Ugur Kupeli played the drums.)


During the last month of rehearsals, treats and meals were supplied for cast members. During the performances, a meal was served before the production, then healthy snacks, water, and sandwiches were provided backstage for everyone. Go figure! The school not only provided service bus transportation for the cast, but also for teachers and families who chose to attend the production. Now THERE’S a budget item!

Another phenomenal difference was the volunteer help. More than 100 people were involved in this production, from actors to stage crew to musicians, costumers, stage crew, and supervisors. It was an incredible cooperative effort by many dedicated people.

The Leader of the Pack budget of just under 20,000 New Turkish Lira (about $15,000) paid for scripts, royalties, costumes, and who-knows-what else.

As always in the theater world, the production finally pulled together. Everyone started attending rehearsals (at the same time!), the ever-charming male lead finally learned his lines, and last-minute costume alterations were made. When opening night arrived, excitement was high. Bouffant hairdos and light pink lipstick were added to the mix, and the cast stormed the stage. The show was a smash—the first musical in years to be produced by the Koc School.


I just have one question. How come these kids speak with a Turkish accent, but it disappears when they sing? I just don’ t get it. Maybe that’s why they have English teachers…

Grading in Turkey


I never understood why we couldn’t chew gum in school. I thought my parents were crazy for forbidding me to ride with a driver until he or she had been driving for a year. I’ve never thought it made sense for poor people to pay taxes that get refunded anyway. Life is full of those irritating mysteries, and we just learn to live with them.

Turkish Ministry of Education rules are like that. Ataturk, the Father of Modern Turkey, mandated education for all, and the Ministry of Education was established to make sure that happened in a thorough and egalitarian way. Good plan.

Of course, I’ve had to adjust from one educational system to another, and I admit that our Western methods often deserve the criticism that we aren’t exacting enough or that we put too much energy into making education fun. Point taken. Perhaps that’s why the U.S. is now putting so much energy into establishing graduation standards; we must assure that our graduates are both literate and knowledgeable.

In Turkish education, standardization is not only required, it dominates every facet of education. Students take a pre-determined set of subjects, with a heavy dose of science and math. Turkish students are eons ahead of their American peers in science and math, though much of their learning is rote rather than theoretical. In the Western system students work with the theories behind equations, while Turkish students tend to memorize the equations. These kids are masters of memorization. If I give my students a sample essay to review before an exam, many of them will memorize the entire essay and adapt it to the prompt on their exam. Only in Turkey!

I guess what I mostly want to say is that Turkish students work their tails off—at least many of them. (Of course, we have lazy kids here, too.) Education is highly valued, though it’s more about grades than learning.

And therein lies the conundrum. Grades.

In a country that demands excellence from its students, the grading system defies logic.

Let me explain. In the U.S., we grade on a percentage system, usually with 60 percent required to pass, and ten percent each for A through D. Turkey grades on a percentage system as well, but with a passing grade of 45%. (Eat your hearts out, American teens!)

Of course, teachers grade tougher in Turkey, so I think a 45% might be close to a U.S. 60%, though I can’t say that for certain. Instead of giving letter grades, the Turkish system is numeric:

25-44%=1 (failing)
0-24%=0 (failing)

Here’s the rub, though. A student’s final grade is not the average of the two semester percentages–it’s the average of the two numeric grades. For instance, if a student gets a 4 (as low as 70%) one term and a 5 (as low as 85%) the second term, the average is 4.5, which is rounded up to a 5, in spite of the fact that this student actually has a year average of 77.5, a mid-four.

In reviewing this system, I’ve computed that it’s possible to get a passing grade in Turkey with a course average of 27.5%. If a student did nothing one term (it happens) earning 0% (a 0 grade), then kicked in to earn a 55% the next term (a 3), the 0 and the 3 are averaged to make a 1.5, which is rounded up to a 2, a passing grade. This student has only earned 27.5% overall for the year (nearly 18% below a passing 45%), yet he/she passes. I stand amazed.

That’s not all.

If that student didn’t quite make a 55% grade the second semester, he could take an exam the following August, a “grade raising exam”, to pass the course. Any student can opt to take an exam to change their grade, and this 90-minute exam can override an entire year’s course grade. What that means is that you could fail a year with zero points, yet pass a course through the exam. There are students who bank on this. Some don’t pass the test, which puts them in deep doo-doo with baba and anne (dad and mom).

As you can see, this system defies logic. Grades are paramount in this country, and every step is taken to enable students to be successful. Cheating is rampant, and it’s the rare student who resists the temptation. I value honesty highly, so this has been a struggle for me. (I admit that I’ve lied in my life, but I can honestly say that I never cheated in school–my students don’t believe me.)

Law suits are common here, too, not over teacher behavior, but over what is seen as unfair grading practice. That’s why it’s so crucial for teachers to moderate exam grades so that grading is equalized across the entire grade.

Students here are constantly computing their averages, and at the end of the term, they will openly announce the exact grade they need on their exam or class grade to meet their goal. “I need a 73 on this exam, Ms. Mershon,” expecting me to take that into consideration as I grade it. One student asked me how much it would cost to “buy” a few percentage points. I grinned and said, “Oh, a million dollars or so.” I think he was serious. I wasn’t.

I love Turkey and I enjoy teaching here, but I can’t help feeling professionally compromised by their grading system. I imagine all the teachers do. We just hope our doctors didn’t squeak through on grade-raising exams.