Jyväsjärvi has been my marker of passing time and changing seasons. When we arrived at the beginning of February, it was frozen, of course. 12 days ago, walking along the shore with Brian, the ice was fragile and the shoreline was watery. This past week, with warmer weather (think low-mid 40s/ 4-7 degrees C) and some rain, the ice is gone. Here's a photo essay of the evolution of Jyväsjärvi over 3 months. Note: click on photo for larger view.
One thing I love about being in Finland is how different it is from New Mexico. I'm grateful for my friend Katja who took us out around Vaasa and Kvarken and for the lovely evenings we shared.
Last week I had the pleasure and honor of traveling to Vaasa on the western coast of Finland and Seinäjoki which is between Vaasa and Jyväskylä.
I visited three different schools. I set up visits to the Swedish Teacher Training School and the Seinäjoki Upper Secondary School two months ago because of their involvement in the Schools Reaching Out to a Global World project. I gained valuable, inspiring insight from both of these visits particularly around the necessity of structural and collegial support for learning and teaching that takes students out of the textbook, out of the classroom, and even out of the country. The third school I visited was a sweet little school outside of Vaasa where my friend Katja teaches. Here, I participated in a close-knit school community where the idea of primary school being a place to 'learn how to learn' and 'learn how to be' was abundantly evident. My little walk through the forest with a class of 2nd graders was one of the most joyful experiences I've had in Finland. These school visits will be highlighted in my final portfolio project which I'll share sometime in mid-late summer. For now, I'll share some ideas that have peaking and settling in my brain.
1) Being a representative as an American teacher is not always easy for one complex reason - the US is so diverse, schools across the US are so diverse, and I cannot in anyway, speak One Truth about education in the United States. While having this amazing opportunity to see schools in Finland and having had the opportunity to see schools in Colombia last summer, I feel very small in my knowledge of education across my own country. I have an excellent handle on the situation in the context in which I teach and live, but beyond that, I'm prone to formulating my knowledge base primarily through professional journals, media and social media. We teachers, of course, know that the best learning is through experience, so, I ask myself, how can I get into classrooms across the US to get a comprehensive picture of the state of education in my home country? So far, the options I've come up with for this endeavor include (a) winning the lottery, allowing me to extend my sabbatical from teaching (statistically unlikely) and (b)writing to Oprah pitching my idea to be a roving education story teller, bringing heart-warming and soul-searing accounts from classrooms across American that would elicit tears (um, even more unlikely than winning the lottery.)
2) Teachers are powerful when there is a systemic structure of support for students, from health care to school leadership. From administrative support to professional trust. From protecting children through a Constitution to providing multiple breaks throughout the day for children to play.
I can't help but look at, from afar, how aspects of US education are crumbling. In just these few months, Ive been shell-shocked by example after example of diminished trust of teachers, the pervasive use of standardized testing, and the reports of how our children are failing. I refute the idea that teachers are the lynch pin in school and student success.
"The... fallacy is that “the most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers.” This false belief is central to the “no excuses” school of thought. If a teacher was the most important single factor in improving quality of education, then the power of a school would indeed be stronger than children’s family background or peer influences
in explaining student achievement in school."
I think Finland demonstrates how teachers and students can thrive when they are working as part of a Whole. I also think this is true for many students and teachers in the United States. In fact, from my point of view, the United States exemplifies educational innovation in ways that I have not seen here in Finland. It's the inequitable opportunity for American students that is unsettling.
#3) I truly want to visit schools across the United States. My vantage point is so limited just like that of most teachers. A Finnish teacher told me that I'd visited more schools in Finland than she has and, in fact, I've been to more places in Finland than she had. I suspect that some of the things I'm seeing that I'm wowed by (ice skating for PE, school at the edge of a forest, music classes that are like mini-rock bands) are happening in places around the US. I just haven't seen this before.
But, here's my hypothesis - if I visited 20 schools around the United States - in urban areas, rural areas, large schools, small schools, primary through secondary, I'd see very different schools. The variety would be immense. And the inequity might be intense in terms of facilities, resources, teacher engagement, safety, technology, values, opportunities, community support, funding, and leadership. I make this assertion because in my hometown of Albuquerque, it is possible to see a gamut of schools -- palatial edifices compared to thousands of kids and teachers who work in portable buildings as their 'permanent' facility; class sizes of 24 compared to class sizes of 36; schools where students are trusted vs. schools that require students to wear a colored vest to go to the bathroom (and how dare they wander to a color zone in the school other than what they are wearing.) We have schools that still able to take students on field trips and others that don't have the time (standardized testing) or funds to take kids out beyond the school.
I've observed over 20 schools in Finland and over 50 classrooms. I've seen diversity, yes. Each school has it's own character, spirit, and path. Still there is a commonality of quality and equality among each school that is palpable. All classrooms have a projector and computers. Each school has a developmentally structured play yard. Every single school has been brimming with student art work. Children at all schools receive a nutritious, hot meal (and all children partake in school lunch.) There are laptops or iPads or both. I've seen at least one ping pong table at nearly every school I've visited. Teacher lounges are colorful, active spaces where teachers meet in between classes for coffee and conversation. Kids walk around in stocking feet and teachers change from outside shoes to inside shoes. The coat racks are rainbows of coats, hats, snow pants, scarves, and gloves.
There's an assurance that every child is going to get a comparable, quality educational experience that exists in the psyche of the Finnish people. That's what I want to bottle up and take home with me.
I've been thinking.
One of the gifts of this Fulbright experience has been the time and space to think. When I do 'strategic thinking,' I'm usually at the kitchen table making webs and lists. A 30-minute walk to a school gets my heart pumping and thoughts churning. I wake up refreshed and, sometimes, in those giddy I'm-awake moments, I have ideas that lead me somewhere new.
I think about, in no particular order:
I've been in Finland for 10 weeks. I have 7 weeks remaining. After the first month of trying to figure things out (shopping, using the stove, using the washing machine, bus schedules, spikes for boots, how to contact schools, who to contact) I decided to spend another full month visiting as many classrooms as I could, even if it did not directly relate to my project. I wanted to get as solid and as well-rounded of a view of Finnish education as possible. My goal was then to focus on visits and experiences that directly relate to my project over April and May.
For me, I am so grateful that I took the time to explore because, I believe, I cannot look at a slice of Finnish education (in my case, how Finnish teachers engage students in global citizenship) without looking at the Whole. I cannot understand what I'm seeing and what I'm not seeing without understanding the systemic context that supports, defines and sustains Finnish education.
When I wrote my proposal and when I arrived in Finland, I assumed I would be seeing wide-spread strategic, replicable teaching in the area of global citizenship. These assumptions were based on my readings and research. The reality is that I'm not seeing what I assumed I'd see through my American educator lens. I had chosen to use a paradigm of global competency that is very American and apply it to Finland. Of course, this will not work. Square peg, round hole.
I've had to rethink what I wanted to present. I do not want to dwell on what I'm not seeing because that's irrelevant. I want to focus on what I am seeing. This past week and over the next 6 weeks, I have scheduled several school visits around the country with schools and board of education officials in an effort to zero in on how Finnish teachers do and will engage students in global citizenship under the current and new national curriculum. Isn't that awesome? I get to dig deeper and think deeper. I have the privelege of working to understand Finnish education without comparing it to what I know as an American teacher. I'm connects and I'm having A-ha moments and I'm learning...everyday, I'm learning.
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.