Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

Lesson 2

I gave my second lesson Thursday evening to my class of 22 Universidade Nova de Lisboa graduate students. They are a brave group, willing to be taught by someone who can barely utter pleasantries in their language, much less lecture.

First we talked about the homework assignment: Use the internet to find out as much about my background and personal life as they could. This exercise will lead to a lesson about the role of public records in a democracy and ultimately about getting and using such records here in Portugal. The students did a good job; along with the easy-to-find professional information, several of them tracked down my home address, former addresses, the names of various relatives, mention of my hobbies (cooking!), and more. They also confirmed some things I am not: A registered sex offender, a contributor of money to politicians, a former NFL linebacker, an artist, a band leader, etc. They also learned not to trust everything they find about someone: Several people-finder databases that are otherwise accurate have me living some years ago in a Florida city where in fact I never lived.

The next topic was, for journalism students and journalists in general, the dreaded M-word: Math. I told them that the bad news is that journalists absolutely must be able to do math. (But the good news is that it’s pretty much grade-school math!) I did a Powerpoint lecture on calculating such newsroom math terrors as percentage change, crime rates and the cost-of-living index. I also handed out my “Newsroom Math Cheat Sheet”, one page with just about all the math a reporter needs to know.

In the second half of the class, I introduced the students to using the Excel spreadsheet program for computer-assisted reporting problems. I gave a quick PowerPoint overview of Excel’s tools for sorting, filtering, transforming and summarizing data.

The students then downloaded a spreadsheet I had prepared of the number of crimes reported in 278 Portuguese cities during 2009. (I got the raw data from the excellent Instituto Nacional de Estatística site.) I showed the class how to sort by the number of crimes, how to filter it to show only selected records, how to write a formula to total the crimes in each city, and so on. (I’m saving until next class a demonstration of how to use pivot tables to summarize data by categories.)

When class ended, three students told me they were having a problem making my addition formula work. I belatedly realized that it was because they were using the Portuguese version of Excel and I was demonstrating using the English version. D’oh! Instead of =SUM, the function here is =SOMA. (=AVERAGE is =MÉDIA, =MEDIAN is =MED, etc.) So the next day I ordered the Portuguese Language Pack for Microsoft Office, and I also found a table of English<->Portuguese translations for Excel functions. Perhaps next week I’ll confuse my students less!

(The fact of learning about this problem AFTER the lesson was over prompted me to send an email note to my students telling them they are being too polite in class. I told them they need to speak up when a problem occurs or if they don’t understand something I am saying or demonstrating. Some teachers like students who sit quietly in class. Not me — I prefer lots of feedback.)

Finally, I also sent out an email with a two-part homework assignment. The first part is a 12-question newsroom math quiz. The second part is a 7-question Excel exercise using the crime data. Both parts are to be answered online. (If you are interested, you can see the questions here as a Word document.) I also created for the students a tipsheet for answering the Excel questions. I look forward to seeing how well they do.

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