Last week marked one month since my arrival here in Finland. It has felt a little strange to not be with my students during this past month while the rest of my teacher friends are busy working away in their classrooms. It is not often teachers have the opportunity to step out of the classroom and be observers of their craft. While I have loved every minute of my experience so far, I found myself really missing my students this week. Missing their quirks, funny comments, hugs, thoughtful questions, and yes, even their playful banter and the “controlled chaos” that is our classroom.
I felt refreshed today when I had the chance to interact with some of the sweetest students of varying ages. Each of them had attributes that reminded me of myself at that age- studious, determined, reflective, and mature. Their views of the world and their learning were refreshing to hear.
I began my morning at Hämeenlinnan yhtenäiskoulu to observe something special- open classrooms and a flexible learning environment. This school had only few actual “classrooms”, and the rest was open space filled with different types of furniture for students to sit. I had the opportunity to shadow a 3rd grade teacher for part of the day, and also stop into some of the English lessons for 3rd and 9th grade classes.
In 3rd grade, there are 54 students, 2 teachers, and a teaching assistant. They have a large space, and furniture available for them to be able to design their space. There are no walls, and only a few small rooms for students to work one-on-one or in small groups with a teacher. Instead, students have a choice (sometimes) of where they can work whether it be on a couch, cozy chair, balance ball, or table. While it could be challenging at times to not have the noise-reducing confines of a classroom, it rarely felt “too noisy”. Students had choice where to sit (sometimes), and could often be seen in small clusters working on their assignments. Teachers were then free to move around the space and work with different groups. I loved the open environment, and choice and freedom students were given. Could this work at a school back in the USA? How comfortable would teachers be with not being able to see all their students all of the time?
Each grade level had a choice in how to set up their class area, and some of the teachers I spoke with admitted that the “open classroom” setup has been a challenge. It requires changing things in your teaching, and being flexible in where the teaching takes place. It leaves a lot of room for creativity, which leaves room for a little uncertainty.
After lunch, I had the chance to join the 3rd graders in their English lessons. This is their first year of English, so they just knew the basics- “Hello, my name is _____” and “Hi, how are you?” While most were quite shy, a few were eager to share the skills they had learned with me. Sarah and Rebekka were also very excited to invite me to play a memory game with them, where we practiced words about the home. Their English game helped me learn a few words in Finnish!
Hanging out with the big kids
After the 3rd grade English class, the middle school English teacher popped her head in to see if I would join in their 9th grade English lesson. Here, students were finishing up a unit on the environment, where they were learning terms such as reduce, reuse and recycle (no, they weren’t singing, much to my disappointment). I, of course, introduced myself to the class and told them why I was here, and the teacher gave them the opportunity to ask any questions they wanted. Crickets. Everywhere I go, I hear “Oh, we Finns are very shy”, and it is definitely true. Although, I can relate. I remember being very nervous to speak German, even though I could form proper sentences. After little prompting and me asking them a few questions, they began to ask me a few questions, like what is the school day like, how much homework do students have, how many exams do they take, etc. Most of the questions came from Emma and Nelli, two girls sitting up front and eager to talk English. When the teacher told the class that they could then play a review game, they immediately asked if I would play with them. So sweet!
We played the game, which had us rolling the dice to move a playing piece, and translating words we landed on. Many of the words prompted thoughts and conversations about the USA, and by the end of the game we were laughing.
The end of class had us comparing Finnish culture and American culture. This was quite an interesting discussion, and I really enjoyed seeing what the students wrote down for their perception of the American culture. This can be a difficult thing to define, as our culture is such a melting pot of many other cultures from around the world, one of the things I love about the USA.
How would you define the American culture?
I finished up the day by taking a little tour to see the rest of the school, which had been newly renovated. The art/textile area was beautiful, with plenty of natural light and varied spaces to work. They even had mannequins to do design work!
I finished the school day with the 3rd graders, several of whom came to give me hugs on their way out and ask me if I would be back tomorrow. I sure wished I could!
This made my day
After the students were dismissed, I headed downstairs to walk to the city center where I would meet Maija, and ran into Emma and Nelli from English class. We ended up spending an hour talking about schools in America, studying abroad (which I highly recommended to both of them), and about their choices for lukio, or high school, which they would be able to chose in a couple months. We were then overheard by two other 8th grade students, and a boy who commented that it was nice hear English being spoken. The two girls I met next (who I proceeded to chat with for another hour!) just blew me away. I don’t think I can recall having this much in-depth conversation with 14-15 year olds. Maru is a student new to Finland who has spent all of her life abroad, in China and India, and in international schools. Her friend Jillian grew up in Vermont and moved to Finland 3 years ago. Both girls have a good grasp on Finnish, however are finding it challenging to take all of their courses in Finnish (yikes!). We talked about their plans for next year. Maru will be moving back to China with her family, which she has mixed feelings about. She is excited to be back close to her friends, although will be sad to leave the ones she has made behind. Jillian is deciding which lukio she will attend. Even though it is a year away, she needs to make sure her grades are good enough to attend the dance/music school she would like to go to in Turku.
I found it interesting that students are allowed to make a choice about where they will go to high school, which could also be in a completely different city. Students are allowed at that point to live in students dorms. Jillian made a comment to me that she thought Finnish teenagers were much more mature than American teenagers. Of course, this is one person’s opinion, but it got me thinking. So I asked Maija what she thought about this, knowing how my own observations thus far of Finnish society affected my views on this topic. From a very young age, Finnish children are allotted quite a bit of responsibility and independence. Most students walk to school. When children are learning to cross country ski, parents let them fall and pick themselves back up again. If a student misbehaves at school, it is the student’s responsibility, not the teacher’s or parent’s. Many students get a job when they are 13 so they can start earning their own money, something they are proud of. Both Maija and I agreed with Jillian’s statement, and ties back to the ever-growing theme I am finding here in Finland: TRUST.