Thursday, January 31, 2013

When you have a choice, you must have a fair

This week I went to the Jyväskylän Paviljonki to see the Next Step fair in action. Bonus- I also took a really amazing Finnish speaking friend with me so that I could understand what was happening. Talk about a big help!

In Finland, students can choose what school they want to go to after their compulsory education ends in grade 9. This upper secondary school can be located anywhere in the country and if your parents can't afford to send you then you can get government assistance to go. So even though money matters, it isn't the only factor that determines your choice. When you have so many choices at 14-15 years old, you need a fair to help you understand where you can go. That is what Next Step is- a big bonanza of choices! I was overwhelmed and excited about the possibilities for students.   

There are schools there that specialize in journalism, arts, writing, horse riding, plumbing (they let me try to put the plumbing system together to see if I could problem solve- not bad, but slow was my feedback!) security, music, tourism, sports, mechanics, and many more. It really seems like if you can dream it, you can find a place to study it! 

This reminded me of a college fair, but there were 14-15 year olds running around instead of 18 year olds. Their teachers were trying to keep track of them and I recognized the look of counting and recounting students as you try to figure out the one you lost.  I have had that look on my face many times!

The other really cool thing about this event and this stage of student's education is that the whole community is behind the student making the choice. The newspaper publishes a separate section that outlines choices that students have (I hear about 98% of Finnish homes get the newspaper- could have something to do with high literacy rates...hmmm another Fulbright project?) This edition gives advice and opportunities for students at this decision point- pretty cool if you ask me!  Wouldn't it be great if the whole community around you was invested in you making the right decision for you and not just what they think is the right decision!

Hanging with the Cool Kids

I have been really lucky to spend this past week hanging out in classrooms talking with teachers and students about the things they are learning and the Finnish school systems.

One of my favorite classes was the English-Level 3 kids. They are two weeks away from being done with classes and going on a month long "study break" to prepare for their matriculation exams. I was talking to a couple of boys after class and asked them how much of the month they were going to really use for studying and they turned to look at each other, then responded "maybe half." I love the honesty of young people!

These matriculation exams are the only "high-stakes test" in the entire Finnish system and the students know to take them seriously. University is very competitive to get into and so they know that it is important to do well and the responsibility is on them to study and prepare. It can take 2 or 3 times applying to University to get in, but that is seen as normal so students already have in their mind the things they can do in their gap year- travel, do an internship, military service, go to open University, go to vocational school or even go back to school to get higher matriculation exam grades. There are no dead ends in this system (more on this to come later!). According to everyone I ask, young and old, it is not seen as a poor decision to not go directly in to University after high school. So even this high-stakes test doesn't have the pressure attached to it that some of the US tests do!  

These ladies are playing a game that is helping them review for their exam. Students take turn rolling the dice and then landing on a square with point values. In each square, it asks them a question they have to respond to in English. For example, "something you should have done last week." The student then has to respond with a complete English sentence  If their partner says it is correct, they get the points. There are three levels, each with different types of tasks. These ladies were a blast to hang with. One question was, "Why are you being so difficult?" The response, "Because it is my job!" I love teenagers!

These two guys were trying to use me to cheat and ask me the answers. During level three, they have to make a phrase using the word or expression that was in the box. The word was "dare" and the boy on the left said to his partner, "I dare you to go up to the front of the class and start singing saying the American told you to." I think they have a pretty good grasp on the English language!
Here are a few shots from around the school. In this school students get ipads in their first year of high school and all the teachers get one too! Before classes start, students hang out in the hallways getting last minute homework or review done, before teachers come to open the doors. Unsupervised of course- gotta love all the luottamus

I also got adventurous this week and took the regional bus to Petäjävesi Lukio (high school) and the campus of Jyväskylä College, Crafts and Design which is located across the parking lot from the lukio. This town only had 4,000 people so it is a small school with about 150 students total in the upper secondary school.  Small town, small school- I was excited to see equality in schools in action!

Pause in the school observations story for a moment- This town is about 45 minutes outside of Jyväskylä and I had to be creative in figuring out which stop to get off at. Because I was on a regional bus, the stops don't flash above to let you know when you should get off. And the stops don't actually have signs that name the stop. So I boarded the bus at the bus station (instead of the stop outside my house) so I could A- figure out which bus to get on (I had no idea what the bus would even say on the outside) and B- start to count stops. So armed with my gps on my phone and my paper print out of stops, I tried to keep track of which ones we were passing. Granted, the bus only stops to eiher pick someone up or let someone off so I had not idea if we were passing stops or not. About half way through the trip, I realized we were only picking up young people and they must be on their way to school. I was two stops off my count, when they all got up and got off the bus. I figured I had nothing to loose so I got off with them and followed them to school. Love it! Without them I might still be on the bus :)  

The lukio or academic high school
This school is amazing! I saw English, Advanced Mathmatics and PE while I was in the lukio and spent time in the vocational school too. There are about 100 students in the vocational school and about 80 adults (you can go back to vocational school as an adult to change your career- again, no dead ends). They have programs for Textiles (read fashion design- do you know how many of my DC students would LOVE to study fashion design in high school!), metal working, photography, and wood working. Each vocational school has a different focus and so this is where you go if you are a crafty person. Here are a few shots from the day.

The vocational school- each vocation has their own house

This was a scene right out of Project Runway!
Beautiful design sketches were being turned into incredible clothes!

There was a girl working on this loom and was in such a
grove she didn't even notice us coming in.

This poster (in Finnish of course!) outlines the course requirements for the three years in the photography school.  The courses in gray are the academic high school courses that students must take- 30 credits of core and elective studies.  Students just go across the parking lot to the to take their classes with students who are on the academic track. No differences in the level of difficulty when you take them with the same students! The photography students can decide if they want to specialize in photo journalism, art photography or studio in their final year. Years 1 and 2 are about the theory, darkroom skills, legal rights and on the job experience with working photographers. If students decide they don't like photography, they can change their mind and do something else.  

These are the photography students that started this year-
only 40 get in and they have many more applicants.

One student in metal working made this for
her final project- I would buy it!

You only see boys in this picture, but the class is half girls
and half boys! 
Made by a 2nd year woodworking student- her designs
and creations.  She was so proud of the work she has
accomplished and really proud of her learning.
This is no Ikea :)  Made by an adult education student for
his two boys.
Yard art for the center of the campus- made by students of course.

In Finland, there are not enough spaces in vocational schools for all the students who want to attend making it very competitive to get into the specific school you want. Vocational schools are also becoming more popular and therefore more competitive. Bottom line- grades matter here too! Most students come out of vocational high schools and go into a Polytechnic College or College of Applied Sciences for additional training and so students are motivated because they are doing what they love and they are working toward a goal. Can't beat that!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Fun Finnish Fact #2

(#1 was the quiet, I just didn't have a catchy title at that point- too much quiet makes it difficult to be clever!)

This week has been full of meetings with different people working in different areas of my project- guidance, vocational education, teacher training and general educational stuff. It has also been full of meeting with people who are Finns to get to know them and start to build friendships. What this means is that for someone who has been adapting quite nicely to the not as much talking culture, I have been talking a lot! But I have also been listening and one common theme has come up in almost every conversation I have had.


It means trust. Now trust is not a new idea for me. I trust a lot of people in my life, but trust as a cultural value is a new idea for me. The Finnish are very proud that their society is built on trust.  I think the best part is that they actually believe it and not just say it. You can see it all around you from people not locking up their bikes outside a store to students leaving their coats and shoes outside the classroom door so they will be comfy while learning. There is also a deeper trust that is harder to explain unless you are here to feel it. In my conversations with people, the Finns are trusting me to ask the right questions, talk to their colleagues and help them to grow and improve.  Everyone has said that just because the country is getting good PISA scores (international test- this is a big deal and ranks Finland at the top of all education lists!), does not mean that they can't continue to improve.  So everyone is curious to know what I find out so it can help them improve and they trust that I will do a good job.

There is a saying here that has come up in a couple of different contexts.  I only feel as good as you feel.  What a delight to approach everything from a community perspective.  I think that it is because of this value that you see government structures and local communities focusing on making sure that the income gap between rich and poor is never too large, making sure that every school is a good school, helping ensure that everyone has enough to eat and an opportunity to learn, forecasting the type of jobs that will be available in the future so that students are counseled accurately and deciding as a country that helping each other is the most important thing to do.

Now my disclaimer that there are subtle signs that this value might be slowly changing as Finland becomes more globalized and I haven't had a lot of interactions with young people to see if they share the same perspective as the older generations. But I am hopeful that this cultural value doesn't disappear in the new generation and only begins to be shared with the rest of the world.

As for me, I hope I feel good as good as you feel because that is feeling pretty good! :)  As a matter of fact, while I was writing this, these yummy things were cooking in the oven.  A perfect treat for a wintery Saturday morning.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fun Times with Finnish Friends

I spent last weekend in Helsinki for a orientation and then hanging out with the Sydänmaanlakka family.  Janet said it perfectly when she described the weekend as a "big warm hug on a cold day!"

It started off meeting the Fulbright Center staff and talking about educational stuff.

Then on Saturday Amanda, Laurie and I headed out to walk around Helsinki and to see the sites.  We wandered around the design district and found our way to the harbor with a few stops in between. When I got up in the morning, my phone said it was -15 degrees F.  Burr!

A little pause to warm up and enjoy something delicious at Karl Fazer's Chocolate Shop!

Saturday night we headed to Kerava to have dinner with our friends and then Sunday bundled up again to play in the snow. When we finished sledding, we cooked reindeer sausages on the open fire and drank hot chocolate.  A perfect way to end an afternoon of lots of laughs and great memories!       

I had to pull off my hood so you could see my delight,
instead it looks a little like I was disorientated :)
I promise reindeer is yummy on an open fire!
The Finnish guy standing next to me, leaned over and
said "You know you are eating Rudolph, right?"
Made me giggle!

The hill may look small, but it was mighty!  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

And they say Finnish is a tough language...

It is a ridiculous language- way beyond tough.  I took my first Finnish class last night and I learned that there are three reasons why I am never going to understand this language.

1.  One additional letter could get you killed.

Tapaan sinut illalla.  Translation=I will meet you tomorrow evening.
Tapan sinut illalla.  Translation= I will kill you tomorrow evening.

2.  There is no way that this root word can mean all of these things.

tuli= fire
tuuli= wind
tulli= customs

(The scariest part of this is that I thought the teacher was saying the same word over and over before she showed us the spelling.  I'm clearly in trouble.)

3.  Every time anyone says anything, my initial response is "huh?'

I also got a taste of Finnish culture when I repeated a word after the teacher and she looked me straight in the eye and said "no, that's not it," took a deep sigh and looked at the clock.  Directness is valued here.  My ego was bruised.  You know you aren't in a US classroom when the teacher actually tells you that you are wrong instead of saying something along the lines of "yes, but..." I think it is good for me to be a student in a Finnish classroom too.  Another lesson learned.

It's pretty quiet here

It is snowing today, which makes it quieter than normal and normal is pretty quiet. I got an email from a friend asking about my initial observations since I have landed in Finland and the biggest one has to be the quiet.

Before I came, I heard that the Finns were people of few words. I even read it in a book and got kinda excited about it. I figured this is one piece of the culture I can get with. But I certainly didn't understand it until I got here. On the streets, people pass each other in silence without recognition that you even walked by. (I had someone tell me that if a person smiles at you on the sidewalk, you know they are either American or a drunk Finn!) Offices are quiet while people work diligently on a task, not a background note of music to be heard.  I haven't heard a peep from the neighbors. School hallways only have a slight murmur as I waited with students today for class to begin. And when people speak, they speak softly. Sometimes I have to lean in.  It is amazing really.

Anyone who has been in my classroom before has heard me say multiple times, "why are we all yelling at each other?"  In the hallways at school, I regularly turn to other teachers on hallway duty and ask, "have they always been this loud?"  I complain about the summertime street noise in southeast and shutter as parked cars feel the need to blast music at the highest volume.  In my DC world, I can hear a neighbor's entire conversation with me sitting on my porch and they on their own.  However, I didn't really realize that as much as I complain, I had adjusted to the volume of DC.

So now that I am faced with real quiet, I sort of panic and find myself wanting to make noise.  In fact, I open my window at night and pull up an extra blanket because I want to hear cars drive past.  This morning the most familiar noise woke me up as my neighbors were scraping ice off their car.  I smiled, hit snooze and rolled over quite thankful that I wasn't going to have to do that anytime soon.  I recently read that Finland is literally the best country in the world, but I have to argue that this city girl thinks a little noise might make it better!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

I went for a walk...

and thought I would show you the beautiful town I live in!

Back to School TIme

On Friday, I spent a great afternoon walking around this school- Jyvaskylan Normaalikoulu. It is the school that is associated with the University so they are very used to visitors coming and going. I loved being there and back around around teenagers!

When I first walked in, I automatically looked for an office to check in at. What I found instead was a group of students in a lounge area enjoying each other's company and not an adult in sight. Then as if on a silent cue, they gathered their things a went about their way. No yelling from an adult to get to class or a threatening stack of detentions were present- they just simply did what they were supposed to. The trust that people have in students here to simply do the right thing is amazing! A lesson we can definitely learn from.

The other big take away from the school visit is that the Finnish system is based on choice- choice in your schedule, choice in your interests, choice in the path you take and maybe most importantly, choice to change your mind. The guidance counselor who was showing me around is amazing and answered every question I could think of. I am headed back next week for some class visits to an English class.

On a side note, the building was completely open. No one was checking me in or looking in my bag, I just walked in and waited for the person I was meeting. Amazing. The classroom doors are locked and that is how they protect their students while still keeping a very welcoming atmosphere in the building. On Wednesday when I go back, I just have to arrive a few minutes early to ask the teacher if I can stay and observe the class. There are seats already in the room for visitors making me feel welcome before I even get there. On Friday, I watched a few minutes of a lesson where 8th grade students were learning how to dance with each other in a PE class. The panic on their faces and the nervousness in their steps needed no translation- kids are kids wherever you go!