A couple of weeks ago, I had been invited to attend a workshop in Helsinki for educators that included a couple school visits. Unfortunately, I had other commitments, but I managed to arrange for visits to the two schools and I visited one of them on Monday.
There have been many, many visitors to Finnish schools in the past few years from all over the world. I imagine some people are curious like I am and I imagine that some people are desperate to find the panacea to fix their systems back home. Some schools around the country cater to international visitors resulting in students and teachers being aloof to a gaggle of educators watching them. And most schools might not have specific programming, staff members, and fees associated with international visitors, but offer a warm, encouraging welcome when asked.
Monday's visit was to a school in Espoo that sees quite a bit of international foot traffic. In fact, I joined a group of 50 or so teachers from Tartu, Estonia who were entirely lovely and enthusiastic. The day was structured and precise, cuing us into what this school does well. It was an inspiring view, kindling that feeling of wonder/envy/ excitement that I can only express as, "I want to teach here!" It's a feeling I've felt in a couple of schools here, for different reasons. In this case, I can't lie, I'm attracted to the gorgeous school facilities. The building is gorgeous and designed with the values and ambitions of the school in mind. I know that the walls of a building are not the heart of a school, that amazing things can happen in the most unextraordinary of places and underwhelming learning can occur in palatial settings. Coupling a solid educational experience with creative teachers, visionary school leaders, and a wonderful environment - and money, I really can't leave that out of the equation; I want to, but I can't - well, you've got a very special place.
The National Curriculum will be evident in any school you visit or attend in Finland. Each of the municipalities might add to the curriculum to enhance and localize the educational experiences for children. Then the schools interpret the national curriculum and municipal enhancements through their school-based lens that might be a specific focus, theme, or set of values. The teacher then has an incredible amount of autonomy of how to teach the curriculum. I'm gleaning that, in most schools, teachers have very few mandates; i.e. teachers aren't going to be told to take on a particular project or forced to collaborate with other teachers. Collaboration can be encouraged and it can flourish among mutually engaged persons.
This school hires for teachers who can and will work collaboratively and for teachers who embrace a transparent, fluid way of teaching and learning. The school employs windows and open doors to illustrate that learning does not only belong in the classroom and is not only delivered by a teacher. Take a look...
In almost every school I've visited, I see spaces in the hallways and foyers where students can work, socialize, rest, play, and be. I love these spots with tables, cushions, benches, ping pong tables, and chairs. This school has designed many of these spaces including a common area outside of each group of classrooms where students can work without direct supervision because they can be seen through the large windows. Beyond this, the teachers employ the idea of a circle of trust - the more trust-worthy students are, the larger their circle of autonomy becomes, extending to where students may choose to work.
There's also a great deal of flexibility inside the classroom - stools, chairs, balls, couches, pillows, standing - it appears that students have some choices about how they participate in lessons like those delivered directly by the teacher.
Innovative spaces and access to materials and technology can be breeding grounds for exciting learning, like this awesome lesson in a 4th grade classroom. Students were making documentaries with iPads to showcase their learning about the anatomy of fish.
Yes, indeed, I was inspired.
But, I need to tell you this...on most days, as a teacher in the US, in NM, in Albuquerque, at the sweet little school I've taught at the past 7.5 years, I am inspired. I see the essence of what I saw in this state-of-the-art school -- skilled, creative teachers; flexibility and innovation; dedication to engaging children; moving children into the world and the world into the classroom; and community. I saw these traits in schools I visited and through teachers I met in Bogotá and Cartegena, Colombia.
You don't need a beautiful building (although, it certainly wouldn't hurt) to have beautiful learning. I think I loved visiting this school -- and visiting most schools, really - because I see the places I love and the places where I teach mirrored in the classrooms and halls and playgrounds in these dear, sweet schools in Finland.
In this latest blog post, you will find the following sub-posts: Yes, Virginia, Santa lives in Finland; They served salmon after the reindeer ride, we ate reindeer the next day; Realization: the ice in Jyväskylä was my training ground; and One Flew Out of the Husky-Pulled Sled. WARNING: There is an obscene amount of optimism in this post.
Yes, Virginia, Santa lives in Finland
They served salmon after our reindeer ride; we ate reindeer the next day
Realization: The ice in Jyväskylä was my training ground
After sweet reindeer dreams, we caught a tour to the Ranua Wildlife Park with four lovely people from Malaysia and our awesome Finnish guide. The park is about an hour outside of Rovaniemi, and the drive was lovely - forest and feet of white, fluffy snow. The park was wonderful with owls, otters, wolves, bears, moose, reindeer, eagles...in large, well-kept areas. Our guide was knowledgeable and fun company for the day.
My camera battery ran dry and I forgot to pack an extra, but that was not my challenge for the day. It was the ice. Oh, the ice. Every inch of every walkway and trail was covered in inches of ice. See this photo to the left? -- that's ice. But I was prepared - I had my spikes! I knew how to walk like a penguin! And I walked with a new sense of confidence after training on the mean, icy streets of Jyväskylä for 5 weeks. I watched other tourists slip and slide and if I could have wiggled my nose and produced spikes for them all, I would have. At the same time, I felt ridiculously like I had passed a test of sorts.
To save 100 Euros, we'll walk up that hill
I'm nothing if I'm not determined. And I signed us up for another excursion to see the Northern Lights. We would be picked up at our hotel at 9pm and driven an hour into the forest to a spot where there is a hill. One option was to ride a snowmobile up the hill, ride around a bit, then, if the gods were good, marvel at the aurora. But there was another option - one that would save me 160 Euros -- we could walk up that hill (around 1,000 feet.)
We could not have asked for a more beautiful night - gorgeous, clear, star-filled sky with a late rising, nearly-full moon. At 10pm, we were suited up, and while the Spanish husband and wife duo learned to ride their snowmobiles, Sarah and our guide and I began the trek up the hill with our tiny flashlights. The snow was packed well in most spots, but occasionally I'd step and sink into thigh-high snow. Listening to my labored breathing, Sarah leaned over and said, "It would have been faster on the snowmobile." In a clearing, we happened on three people set up with tripods, hoping to see the Lights. I took my final steps towards them, turned around and in the low sky we began to see a green glow. My photos are highly imperfect captures of a nearly perfect experience (we lost sight of the aurora when those blasted snowmobiles rumbled up the mountain, shining their lights directly in our eyes.) After 20 minutes, the lights dimmed to a light, white glow and we moved into the teepee to warm up with tea and sausages. I peaked outside again to see another few minutes of flare. Our confident, cautiously-optimistic, salesman-esqe guide said that the lights had gone away for the night.....we were lucky to see what we did, but, well, they were gone. I pointed to the northwest sky and said, "Well, look at that!" I don't mean to be annoying that way, it just sort of happens.
At 1am, our Spanish friends hopped on their snowmobiles and we stumbled down the snowy hill. An hour later, we were back at the hotel, tired but happy and even willing to wake up 4.5 hours later for our next adventure.
One Flew Out of the Husky-Pulled Sled
Don't worry - I did not drive and shoot; no camera was operated by the driver of the sled. Thanks to Sarah for capturing our lovely morning.
I was excited about this excursion, and I was scared. I'm not adventurous in body - my spirit (or, maybe it's more of my imagination) - yes! Body, not so much. I was intent and studious while our guide gave instructions on how and when to use the brake on the sled, how to lean in to curves, and how to never let go of the sled even if we fell off. Being under 15, Sarah was destined to be a passenger so she settled in under a green blanket. I stepped onto the sled and as the teams in front of us pulled out, I nervously waited. A small jolt and off we went.
It was glorious. Within a minute, I was feeling free and confident and just so happy. Sarah and I talked about how awesome it was. She was a good, appropriate front-seat driver, advising when to brake and ease up. We were laughing and sailing over the snow. The group stopped periodically, giving me a little break to stretch out my hands. The handle was a bit too big for my hands; I could not wrap my hand around it entirely. I'd stretch and kick off the snow that had accumulated on the running boards and off we'd go again.
We'd just rounded a corner and I was feeling sassy when our team headed up on a bank, revealing a tree right in front of us. I pulled left - left, left, left, LEFT and then I flew left, left, left, LEFT (and there was no way I could have hung on to that sled.) I flew and I bounced and then I thought about being trampled by the team behind us so I rolled, rolled, ROLLED into the trees. The team, the sled and Sarah kept on going.
When I landed, I heard a definite crunch/ pop from my left shoulder. When I stopped rolling, I lay in the snow taking stock -- what's hurting? what is that........ok, it's my shoulder. I went from flat on my back to kneeling in the snow, reassessing -- yup, it's my shoulder. I got to my feet - shoulder! I struggled to get my hat off when one of the guides got to me. I relayed that I hurt my shoulder. Did I need to get to a hospital right away? No....I could do that after the tour, I was sure. Could I drive the sled? Um, no, thank you. I got a ride on the back of a snowmobile (when you fall, you don't have to pay the 80 euros, it seems) to catch up with Sarah and the group. They added some dogs to our sled and one of the guides drove us back. I had been driving for about 45-minutes and we had a lovely 30-minutes left through the forest. I had wanted to be a passenger, but I didn't expect to do that under these circumstances.
A few hours later, while we were at the hospital waiting to see a doctor, Sarah and I talked about her experience....after that turn, she, too, saw the tree. Right in front of her. And she thought, oh sh*^.! She banked left and braced herself while the sled bumped back onto the trail.
"We did it!" she exclaimed before realizing that the sled felt...different....lighter.
She wondered if she'd lost the camera. No. That's around her neck. Her phone? In her pocket.
Then she started to count the dogs -- maybe we lost a dog....
Then she turned to ask me and...aha! Mom's gone! And the team was going full steam ahead until the guide on the snowmobile chased down the sled, jumped on the back and hit the brakes.
We laughed about this for hours! For days! By then, I had ingested codeine to relieve the pain. I was in and out of the exam room and for x-rays and I was just done -- done putting my clothes back on; so I put my shirt and my sweater and my bra in the clear bag they gave me and hung out in my coat in the waiting room. Add to this image my cackling while listening to Sarah explain, over and over, how she thought we lost a dog!
Our tour guide stayed with us for those 5 hours at the hospital (and the company picked up the bill.) I left with an initial diagnosis of a rotator cuff injury and a referral to visit a doctor in Jyväskylä. While we were inside, 4 inches of snow fell and I wondered, how long were we in there? Our guide, a kind Kiwi who recently moved to Finland, drove us to our hotel, at one point turning into oncoming traffic. After getting into the correct lane, I queried, "So, they don't drive on the left side here in Finland?"
My shoulder is sore, and I am fine. Waiting to see a doc. And even after the fall and the hospital and the near-death experience of having been driven into oncoming traffic, it was one of the best days of my life. We were in Finland, in the forest, with a team of dogs. I had the wind on my face and felt so happy. I was with my girl who kept me laughing and who carried all of the luggage for the rest of the trip.
We'd missed the tree but we didn't miss a moment of joy that morning.
Sarah and I traveled to St. Petersburg during her school week-long Ski Holiday a couple of weeks ago. It was a big little trip over a couple of days. I'm glad we went even though our time and experiences were limited.
Americans can travel to St. Petersburg without a visa for 72-hours when entering by ferry with a company like St. Peter Line. Through them, I booked our overnight ferry trips plus two nights in the city. We took a train from Jyväskylä to Helsinki, made our way to the harbor, and boarded the Princess Maria. We had a little cabin with a window, sink, toilet and shower. The ship offered a couple of options for food (buffet, Italian restaurant, snack bar), a bar, slot machines, karaoke, live entertainment and a movie theater. It wasn't fancy, but it was functional and entertaining. After walking the deck and checking out the ship, Sarah and I hunkered down in our cabin to watch movies, read and sleep.
Around 1am I was woken up by a loud crunching noise. Looking out the window, I saw this...
We were crunching through ice for the next 7 hours. It was a wild sight to behold - so other-wordly in the dark; I kept thinking about the surface of the moon.
We spent two days walking around this big city of 4 million people. So much history, so much to see, so little time. And, to be honest, I wasn't feeling well and we just didn't have it in us to attempt to fit it 'all' in especially when the second day was so foggy we couldn't see across the street. Most of our time was spent in the Hermitage museum which was overwhelming in size, opulence and the sheer number of items to see.
The experience was a stark contrast to how we're experiencing Finland - over time and in a community.
The city had few tourists because it was February, a rather dreary time of the year. I've seen photos of St. Petersburg in the summer and it looks magnificent. I'm glad we went and, truly, I really did not experience anything this lovely city has to offer.
You can see some of my photos here.
On Wednesday, March 4, my adviser from the university graciously took us to a rural school about 17 miles/ 27 km outside of Jyväskylä. It was a beautiful morning when we set out with big, fluffly snowflakes falling. As we made our way out of the city, the world became whiter and quieter.
This little school is a community school. In this rural area, some children do come to school by 'taxi' - a van. This school is a beloved place and in the past years families have chosen to move to this area (most work in Jyväskylä) with this school being a paramount motivator.
I'm learning how Finland's education system is facing budget cuts, including the closing of some little schools and consolidation. This school will be closed as will another area rural school. They will join together as one school...eventually. It seems that the money has been slow to trickle to this project so these schools might be able to eek out a couple more years.
Essentially, this is a three-classroom school - preschool with less than 10 children, grades 1 - 2 with maybe 12 students, and grades 3 - 6 with around 15 students. There's one teacher for each class, and, the 1-2 grade teacher is also the principal. It's been common in Finland that the principals also teach. In this case, I can't help thinking how this woman has 2 full-time jobs! The school is also home to a daycare with about a dozen children. Basic education is a guaranteed right and supported by tax payers. Daycare is heavily subsidized - families pay on a sliding scale based on their income in the spirit of access and equity. However, I've spoken with some parents who pay at the top of the sliding scale - they pay in one month what a family in the United States might pay in one week.
You can see all of the children - preschool - 6th grade - and their 3 teachers in this sweet video.
Many elements of what we observed are commonplace in Finnish schools. In fact, I've recently been given advice about my research project -- I don't need to visit many schools because there's a level of uniformity in that all schools are delivering the national curriculum with highly qualified teachers in a country that values education. Instead, I've been advised to look at schools in diverse geographical areas - intentional dip sticks, that's how I'm thinking of it.
The national curriculum, though, is translated through the lens of local municipalities and then schools which gives unique elements to schools, too. For example, this school uses multi-age classrooms, which is not a common feature in Finland but a common feature in rural schools.
So, please, come on a little tour with me, complete with commentary - just put your cursor over each picture to see the caption or click on the picture and page through the photos.
As a teacher and having experienced an elementary education, much of this day was recognizable. The nuances of the rhythm of the day with breaks, diversity of classes and the mid-day meal are such binding factors, though, to the children learning.
I want to add one more idea here. Yesterday I was involved in a conversation with the director of the Fulbright Center of Finland. She said something that re-framed so much for me. Education here is not free. Meals are not free. University education is not free even when students do not pay tuition and receive an 'allowance' for living expenses and can attend university for, oh, 7 years.
Of course, these services cost money and they are funded by tax payers. Finns are taxed based on their income - the more money you make, the more you are taxed, with national income tax for the highest earners (over 100,000 Euros a year) being a little more than 30%. On top of that, Finns pay municipal income taxes, from 15% to 22%. So, it's possible for high-earning Finns to pay over 50% in income tax.
This is a democratic nation of engaged voters who value education, health care, and other elements of a 'social safety net' for its citizenry. So, it's not that Finland has free education, it's that they choose to fund it collectively in the spirit of educational equity. Finns don't pay for "my child" they pay for "all children."
1) Walking on ice is manageable when I wear studs on my boots and if I walk like a penguin.
2) The United States Ambassador to Finland spoke to us Fulbright teachers, scholars and students yesterday. One of his challenges to us was to to confront our comfort zone and fears every day.
To him, to myself and to you I say - Done! The past 3 weeks I did this every time I took three steps out of our apartment building and had to negotiate the gauntlet of ice -- right there. See first point and penguin stance.
3) Yeah, I'm not done with challenges and moving out my comfort zone - ever. And, you may be comforted to know that warm weather will be upon us next week and a deeper thaw may occur and the ice won't be a focal point of blog posts and discussions.
4) I am learning everyday. I'm learning incredible things from incredible people. These past two days I participated in the Fulbright Forum. I am humbled to be a part of this group of students, scholars and teachers. I have to say, I was profoundly impressed by the students - masters, doctoral and post-doc students from across the US who are here in Finland conducting diverse, relevant, world-changing research in the fields of geology, biology, criminal justice, health policy, gender studies in physics, nursing education, urban planning....These folks are changing the world. And the scholars! Researches in the field of history, economics, literature, electrical engineering, law, business, communication technology, agriculture...The content and format was rigorous, fast-paced, eye-opening, inspirational, and joyful.
5) I can make no conclusions or sweeping generalizations about Finland, Finnish education, Finnish people, Finnish food, Finnish dogs...(although, I have strong opinions about Finnish ice. And, I can say this - Finnish dogs are cuuuuute. Everyday we see over a dozen being walked by their humans and several of those doggies are wearing doggie coats. It's pretty much one of the best things ever.)
These days, I'm thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story." If you haven't seen this, show yourself a little love and watch it now or very soon. This idea - "that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding" - kind of haunts me. It's a challenge that I've decided to confront with inquiry and a reminder to myself and to any audience (on this blog, in a café, on the phone, through an email) that what I'm gleaning here is not representative of everything Finnish. I need to continue to question and investigate and refashion my assumptions and entry points to a place I can call "More to the Story."
6) Next post will include a tour of a sweet primary school we visited on Wednesday.
7) Finally, it was surreal on Monday to think of my students, NM students, and students across the United States beginning PARCC testing (who needs March Madness when we can have PARCC Madness...) and to know that my child was here in Finland, at school, snowboarding. I'm following the PARCC debates and protests from so far away. Honestly, I'm so grateful that I'm not there to face this. Standardized testing like this is mind-numbing and blood-boiling for this teacher because we are not part of any of the process except for supervising students when they test. I have such little control and agency to affect how the kids perform on these tests because critical contributing factors are beyond my control - the child's educational history, the validity of the test questions, the person who got the job of scoring the tests by responding to a Craig's List ad, the kids' buy-in, parents' buy-in, your buy-in, the Governor buying this 'experience' and 'product' from Pearson Education for millions of dollars, the weather, the internet connection, sleep or no sleep by students and scorers, the misalignment of planets and the occasional solar eclipse. I'm hoping this nonsense will all be resolved when I get home in June (unfortunately, I'm 100% sure this won't happen, but a girl can dream. And I do have a dream that one day American students can learn and American teachers can teach without the shadow of a singular high-stakes test at the age of 8, throughout middle school, and as the difference between receiving a diploma or a certificate of completion.) I'm 100% sure we can do better by our children.
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.