The Little Things: Watching small children slide down a snowy hill
Yesterday I was on my way to the library. There's a sweet little path that takes me past a small park where moms, dads, and toddlers spend a morning or afternoon. Today, there were a few kiddos shoveling snow while another few were ice skating on the little ice rink frozen over what looks likes a little basketball court (I'll let you know for sure after The Thaw.) Yesterday, there was a little class of children - they must have been 4-5 years old - all were wearing reflective vests signifying their out-of-school experience. I stopped to watch the children climb up up up what I consider to be a rather steep, high hill. Then one-by-one they would position themselves at the top of a worn swatch of snow. Bum to snow and off they go - down down down -- they were really flying! -- and just when I thought surely they would slide over the bank of snow and into the parking lot, their mittened-hands spread out, tempering speed with friction. This was a nice addition to the 'usual' sights I've been taking in like the pine trees. The blue skies. The falling snow. The white snow. The yellow snow.
It was a happy way to start the morning.
The Little Things: Albuquerque, New Mexico is in the United States
Today I met a bright, charming young Finn. He is studying for his Matriculation exams and hoping to study marketing/ PR and to work internationally. He's fluent in 3-languages and has a fourth in the wings. He asked where in the United States I live.
Jen: New Mexico.
Charming Young Finn: (smile spreads across his face) Really?
Jen: Yes, do you know it?
Charming Young Finn: Do you live in Albuquerque?
Jen: I do! How do you know Albuquerque?
Charming Young Finn: From Breaking Bad!
Of course! Thank you, Breaking Bad, for establishing that Albuquerque is in New Mexico which is in the United States (there are too many Americans that are not aware that NM is, in fact, part of the United States. I've met some of them who have marveled at my impressive American accent.)
Charming Young Finn explained how he downloaded all seasons of the show and in between studying for his exams, he would watch an episode that turned into watching another and another and another. I had the opportunity to teach him the word and concept of "Binge-Watching."
The Little Things: A Night at the Symphony
Jyväskylä has a symphony which is quite an accomplishment for a city of around 100,000. I had the opportunity to go hear them play on Wednesday night. They were performing movie music and scores from "In the Mood" to "The Hulk" and I kept marveling at how I was in Finland listening to music from American movies.
The Little Things: Puzzles and Bones
Sarah and I have fallen into a comfortable, comforting evening rhythm: After dinner and after the dishes are done, we watch the TV show Bones while we work on a puzzle. Last night we finished our first puzzle; tonight we bought our second. I like this little ritual we've established. And, man, Sarah's good at puzzles. I am visually-spatially challenged and puzzles puzzle me. If we're ambitious and if Sarah doesn't have an early morning, we live on the wild side and stay up to see Castle.
The Little Things: 3:00 Pie
Today I did some work in a café and I am inspired - inspired! - by the people of all ages who step inside for a coffee and pie. Or pastry. Or both. At 3pm. I especially like to see the chic, lovely women, sitting with a friend or sitting alone with a slice of something decadent that is not consumed in haste, but with appreciation.
The Little Things: Research Project Progress
I'm making connections and my calendar is starting to fill up with classroom observations, meetings, university courses, and lessons to teach at the high school and college level. I'm digging deep into the literature about global citizenship and global education and into the Finnish National Curriculum. Rereading some resources and finding new literature while I'm seeing and hearing facets of Finnish culture and system of eduction has been inspiring and I feel creativity and inquiry percolating. It feels so good. At the same time, it feels fragile - I want to hit a stride and maintain the momentum to successfully put together my Capstone Project.
The Little Things: A Little Thing that is a Big Thing to Me
Oh. The ice.
The Little Things: Learning
I have no sweeping pronouncements about Finland. I have no sweeping pronouncements about anything (except the ice.)
My learning is not happening from sonic-boom experiences, but from daily encounters, conversations, observations, and realizations. I like this pace of learning - steady and strong, profound and subtle, sincere and relevant.
And a little admission... I had some not-so-little-experiences in my professional life in the weeks before coming to Finland. I'll write about them in due time. Or maybe not. We'll see. I came feeling quite uprooted. It's at night, when I'm in bed, that this severed state washes over me. I have abandoned dramatic and mystery novels and acclaimed, 'important' fiction I had downloaded for my nightly reading pleasure and have been reading, of all things, Anne of Green Gables. I read the series when I was in junior high school, and I have been comforted by the innocence and hopefulness, even though I cried and cried, again, when Matthew died. This quieter, gentler space has allowed me to breathe and to open and peek out from my the shelter into which I had retreated.
Last night I dreamed about the Northern Lights. I think it is a good sign.
Colorful walls. Low tables. Shelves of books, puzzles and games. An entry way with hooks and cubbies for coats and boots. A basket for skis. Pads and pillows for afternoon naps.
Parents are saying goodbye to their children for the day while the little ones work themselves out of their cold-weather padding. A sign invites all guests to take off our shoes, and, thus, our tour of the English Preschool was done in in our stocking feet.
Early childhood education is a valued part of child development in Finland. While compulsory education begins at age 6 (compulsory Kindergarten just went in to affect this January), it’s more common than not for children to attend preschool which are structured as places of play, social learning, and developmental growth. While a goal of preschool and kindergarten is to prepare students for beginning basic education, the emphasis is not academic. It is not expected that the children enter first grade, at the age of 7, reading. While there is rich exposure to literacy, it is done with the developmental readiness of the children as a group (age) and the child as an individual.
Because, we all learn differently. At different times.
This is the image that I’m formulating in my mind…
Think of a child as a beautiful cake. And think of Finnish Education as the bag of icing or the pastry bag used to decorate the cake. When we’re filling that bag, we open it to make a V. At the open end of the V is the Finnish National Curriculum - comprehensive about what children need to learn yet broad enough to be shaped. Lower on the V, there is local input. Municipalities take the National Curriculum and fashion it based on local factors (economy, culture, geography.) Further down, getting closer to the tip are the schools where teachers and administrators work together to articulate the National Curriculum + local priorities - how will the school be structured? Next, there is the classroom teacher. Over and over, I am hearing how the classroom teacher is trusted, respected, and qualified to manifest learning in the manner in which she sees fit. And it is she who individualizes and differentiates curriculum so that every child is learning.
So that icing that comes out of the tip - it creates a story unique to each child.
My pastry bag analogy is a working hypothesis (it’s even a metaphor in progress.) But I’m wanting to explore this idea more.
This particular preschool and kindergarten we visited is the only private, English-language early childhood school in Jyväskylä. I’m intrigued by the line between private and public education here; while my understanding is limited*, I think I understand this facet — private schools are entitled to public support. For example, since most families in Finland have both parents working, daycare is highly subsidized to make them more accessible to families. The free breakfast and lunch available to all Finnish children is covered by the municipality. In this school, the kindergarten is now free because kindergarten is now compulsory. Finnish children have the right to this education. Special educators and specialists - speech-language pathologists and psychologists, for example - work for the municipality and are deployed to schools as needs arise in support of children. This includes private schools.
The children attending this preschool and kindergarten may be from English-speaking families or even native Finns who want their child to have early exposure to English. Environmental print and instruction is primarily in English. At the same time, there’s a need for Finnish instruction - the children need to acquire Finnish as a second language for academic and societal functioning.
For me, it’s so easy to fall into comparisons between what I’m learning and what I know is happening back home. I read about the changing landscape of American kindergarten classrooms with dismay. Today, I was reflecting on how we are putting our 5-year-old children to tasks that Finnish children take on at the age of 7.
I’m also mindfully working to create a realistic picture of Finnish schools - not a glorified, pristine landscape. With every meeting so far, educators are humble and share their frustrations and challenges, many of which we have in common — limited funds, over-stimulated-by-media children, and facilities issues, to start. There is a sense of continual striving and a “there’s still work to be done” attitude.
As we were leaving, children were getting ready for lunch. Place settings were arranged at the classroom tables. There will be naps and outside play (young children spend 1 - 1.5 hours each day outside engaged in free and organized play. They may stay inside if the temperature is less than -15C/ 5F.) There will be painting and literacy and music. And, the children will go home having worked very, very hard all day - play is the work of children, yes?
Let’s let the children play.
*Questions I have:
1) How many private schools vs. public schools?
2) Why do parents choose private schools in Finland? A few discussions lead me to
believe that some factors include preference for religious education or a specific
methodology like Waldorf or Montessori.
3) This is not a question, but a recurring theme is that there is choice for parents on how
their child will be educated. But, by and large, it seems that families choose and are
confident with the Finnish public school system.
I love schools. My heaven will most certainly have a blackboard, color chalk, drawers full of tape and sticky notes and paint, and miles of shelves of books. When I walk into a school, I feel a sense of being home. Of course, we all know that schools are not about the building - schools are the people of the school. Yet, the facilities do play a part. We want our schools to be beautiful, practical, rich in relevant resources, and reflective of the purpose of education.
I've been in Jyväskyla for less than two weeks and have yet to delve deep into Finnish school culture. I feel like I'm skimming the surface and dunking my head under the surface when I can.
I can write with certainty that I cannot make any generalizations or declarations about the Finnish education system, and I doubt I will be able to once I leave in June. I have my eyes and heart open, and I have so many questions. My visits, observations and photographs are very much snapshots of incomplete stories of schools. For now, it's rather one-dimensional, and that's OK. I know I'll have stories to hear and stories to share over the next 3.5 months.
A Primary School
Primary schools in Finland include grades 1 - 6. As I understand, compulsory kindergarten will soon be added. Students enter first grade at 7 after many students have attended pre-school and kindergarten. This primary school is unique in that it is a teacher training school through the University. Education students are here observing, learning, and practicing over several years. All teachers in Finland are required to have a Master's degree and there is a strong sense that upon graduating from the university, students are ready to assume life as a confident, skilled teacher.
We were met by two charming sixth grade students who served as our tour guides. They both have been studying English for a couple of years and they are impressively fluent.
Here's a bit of the tour...
An Upper Secondary School
Compulsory education includes grade 1 - 9 in Finland. In their 9th grade year - at this time of the year, actually - students start applying to post-basic education - vocational education or upper secondary school. Vocational school can include academic course work, but the focus is career readiness through trades like culinary arts, technology, business and administration, tourism, natural resources, and health and social services.
Students who choose to apply for upper secondary school must have a high grade point average and a commitment to rigorous study. Typically, students between the ages of 16 - 19 study for three years while some do take four years to complete upper secondary studies. At the end of their studies, students take the Matriculation Exams to enter university, polytechnical universities, and/ or vocational schools.
On the day we visited - February 11 - 3rd/ 4th year students were celebrating their last days of school before they take three weeks for final study before the Matriculation Exams begin. That evening, across the country, students were participating in something like a "kick out day." I stayed for a bit to see a few of the presentations in the gym for students, teachers, and parents. Our primary purpose of this visit was to meet with the principal who, as a Fulbright Teacher, was in the United States. He gave us an overview of the Finnish education system in addition to some of the reform initiatives. For example, this school was just combined with another upper secondary school in efforts to consolidate and save money.
On Thursday, February 12, we visited the other campus, where we were invited to observe Penkkarit. This is a beloved Finnish tradition that was taking place all over the country on this day. 'Graduating' upperclassman organize an assembly for the school in which they honor the teachers through humor, jokes and fun. While there were hundreds of people in the gym, there was a sort of intimacy to it. Even if there was not a language barrier, I doubt I would have understood the nuances of the stories shared based on history and relationships. The atmosphere was joyful, expectant, and celebratory. The sense of community was vivid and palpable.
After the assembly, the graduates boarded trucks decorated with their banners. They took a ride through town, throwing out candy. Again, this was an event happening across this lovely nation.
Within three days, we observed traditional events for upper secondary students across Finland. Today - February 13 - the new upperclassman had their Vanhojen tanssit - a sort of senior ball. This involves students learning various dances - polka, tango, and others - through Sports class to be presented to the community. It was lovely and extraordinary, really -- 90+ high school students dancing formally with grace. It was such a unique sight to behold.
Hunting and Gathering
We arrived to a kitchen stocked with one pan, a couple of pots, a dozen tea cups and saucers, 3 dinner plates, a few bowls, two knives, a cutting board, a strainer, a kettle, a couple of place settings of utensils, a spatula, an oven and stove, a microwave, a fridge and freezer. We have everything we need (and more - really, how many knives do we need?)
Our fridge, freezer and pantry were bare with possibility - oh, what will we find to fill these spaces? That first night, at 8:30pm, having been in our apartment for five minutes, we rushed out to the market down the street before it closed at 9. We rushed through the aisles tossing in bread, a cucumber, ham, orange juice, yogurt, strawberry soup, and mint tea. These items covered 1.5 meals. The next day we found a larger, better-stocked, and less expensive market in the City Center, below the Sokos department store. Equipped with my one shopping bag, knowing we had a 20-minute walk home (uphill), and already laden with shampoo, conditioner, body soap, napkins and a hair dryer, we trod as lightly as we could - pasta, sauce, beef, milk, cheese, eggs. 1.3 meals.
I'm sure you see the pattern - we were soon back for groceries. A few times. And guess where I need to go this afternoon?
Getting our fridge and pantry stocked with a few days of food has proven to be a challenge. Diversity of food is not an issue. In fact, I'm quite overwhelmed with the vast choices and variety, a mix of recognizable and ooh-what's-that? I've spent quite a bit of time hunting...then gathering...then trekking home to unload, prepare, and consume. Please don't forget that I have an active 12-year old who is often ravenous.
What's presently in our kitchen? A bowl of guacamole I made last night, a jar of pickles, yogurt, milk, two bottles of salsa, eggs, smoked salmon, a little jar of capers, 4 tortillas, a few slices of salami, a bag of blueberries, a head of cauliflower, a bag of brussel sporuts, 2 apples, orange juice, butter, 1.5 limes, grilled bell peppers I made last night and I'll eat for lunch in just a bit, 3 tomatoes, an onion, 2 bulbs of garlic, a bowl of mandarin oranges, bottle of honey, box of jasmine rice, and a bag of what turned out to be Dorito-like chips when I was shooting for tortilla chips (Sarah was not unhappy about this error.)
What's for dinner? Steamed and sauteed veggies and I'm going to shoot for baked chicken. Have chip debit card - will hunt, gather, and cook.
Identity Dilemma (dilemma downgraded from crisis)
Hi. I'm Jennifer Ann Chavez-Miller.
I'm a mom who is presently solo-parenting and I'm sort of freaked out. While my kid is easy in a million ways, being the sole parent in her daily life the past 12 days has been eye-opening. I am very aware of how I cannot fill her dad's shoes - they are just too big, metaphorically and literally. I do not wrestle. I am more likely to slip on patches of ice and go down in a flash. I'm less able to shrug off the small stuff. As such, I feel vulnerable while she watches me fumble and bumble and very-nearly-fail-to-get-us-on-the-right-train.
I'm wearing snow boots everyday. Every time I step out the door, I'm in my snow boots. I wore my other boots one day, but they are no match for icy patches. I'm sticking to the snow boots for comfort - they are my security blanket. I miss my everyday shoes -- those cute shoes I bought in December - black pumps with black and white checkered detailed -- sigh. They are in the closet here, lonely. I'm in pants, except for one day last week. I prefer dresses and skirts and tights. Maybe I'll wear a skirt and my wool tights this afternoon. As a professional, for better or worse, I rely on my clothes as part of my identity - I love being a teacher and I love my teacher clothes. Boots + big winter jacket + wool beanie hat + gloves feels cozy but awkward. I'm feeling like a marshmallow, stumbling around in the snow, slipping and yelping. This does not bode well for my self-confidence.
I'm a teacher. Without a class. I'm embracing this opportunity for a deep breath, but it feels ... lonely. So many times during this past 12 days I have seen something, experienced something, and thought of particular students who would want to see that medieval iron sword or hear about the man on hockey skates who was riding the lift up the ski slope and skating down. I've thought about how I want to share that I was wrong about homework in Finland - children do have homework! I am so looking forward to beginning observations and interactions in schools this week. I love classrooms. That's where I want to be....sometimes.....
Because I'm also an explorer. Well, an explorer with boundaries and a budget. This is one quality I want my daughter to know about me, to embrace. The world is so big, so diverse, so accessible. On Saturday, I told her that I think she'd remember this day for the rest of her life - the first day she skied in Finland, feeling the cold breeze on her face, being an ocean away from home. Getting out - out of the country, out of the apartment, out of my comfort zone -- we're doing it.
I'm a wife, missing Brian. I miss our daily life together even though I'm intrigued with life apart (for a pre-determined period of time - I'm coming back....right, Bri?) Mostly, I'm grateful for Brian.
I'm an American. Working on basic Finnish, master of kiitos (thank you.) I'm also a sort of heathen as evidenced by the conundrum faced when I was enrolling Sarah at school this morning. I did not fill out an affiliated religion and there was confusion on how to convey that blank space into the drop-menu that listed world religions of every kind and no option to be...blank. Finnish students can and do get religion instruction - based on their self-identified, documented religion (90% of Finns have membership to the Lutheran Church.) Children also have the opportunity to learn about World Religion. We opted for that - world religion studies. The principal was kind and assured us that our way was good - religion is not taught in American public schools. And, I'm pretty sure he told the secretary to just to pick a religion for the registration form.
I'm a New Mexican who thought that we'd just live without green chili for four months. But they have lots of Mexican food items here. Now I'm thinking that we need a box of chili sent out, stat, because if we can find comparable stuff here, we might as well be eating the good stuff.
I'm a researcher. Here on a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher Award. I'm still shaking my head in awe and gratitude. I'm here to study how Finnish educators teach global citizenship. So far, I have a few dozen questions and no answers. Sounds about right after a week into my grant period.
I like how the Finns recycle almost everything - biowaste, recovery paper, recyclable cardboard, glass, and metal.
I like walking and getting to know places on foot.
I like walking in the snow.
I like when the clouds blow away and blue skies sparkle through and the snow takes on hues of lavender.
I love having friends - old and new - in Finland.
I like having a sauna in our apartment building, about 20 feet from our apartment, and with our own scheduled time to use it.
I like being with Sarah - walking, talking, playing, watching, waiting, hunting, gathering...
Finally, and not ever trivial...Gratitude
Grateful for this opportunity. For this day. For this time with my girl and this time for my professional growth.
Gratitude reigns supreme.
You can read my capstone project - Global Learning: Fostering knowledge, attitudes and skills for global citizenship - here
This blog represents my point of view only and is not associated with the U.S. State Department or the Fulbright Program.