Sunday, April 21, 2013

7 Days, 4 Schools, 3 Museums and 1 Awesome Adventure on a Sled

We put our requests in early this year :)

RD was an extra passenger on our road trip as we went 4 hours further
north to Inari and Ivalo

Thanks for the video Christine! 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

An Honest Conversation

My last school visit in Helsinki was at a construction vocational school and I had an unexpected, honest and insightful conversation that will stick with me for awhile.  I found myself passing the afternoon around a table in a warm sunny corner with young men from Israel, Rwanda, Afghanistan, America, Russia and my Finnish host.

Eric started the conversation describing what it was like to first see snow when he moved from Rwanda to Helsinki as refugee.  Kasra (Afghan) quickly threw a cup at him and said that he was making it up and that he really hated every minute of it.  I knew that these two good friends were going to be entertaining and I was going to get a good look into their lives.  Jonatan from Israel and Valentin from Russia joined us after awhile and before I knew it an American came over to find out what we were talking about.  This is the diversity that is unique to East Helsinki.

Our conversation floated between serious and comical- these guys really know how to tell a story and so I want to attempt to tell you theirs.

Jonatan immigrated to Finland when he was 13 years old from Israel. He spent his first year in Finland in a class for foreigners learning Finnish. He described how it was really tough his first years before he could speak Finnish. Jonatan talked about how he didn't have a lot of friends and he didn't know how to get around. Once he finished his language class, Jonatan was faced with the decision about what type of upper secondary school to apply to. He decided that a lukio (traditional high school) would be too difficult because he didn't do very well in school and wanted to pursue construction because he knew he could get job and that it would be much more hands on. Jonatan is about to finish the construction program and is currently working on his diploma project where he is working with a local builder on a new way to lay foundation. He is very hopeful that he will be able to get a full time job when he graduates.

Eric moved from Rwanda when he was 17 years old and breaks into a huge grin when he says there are only two Rwandans in Finland- himself and his brother. Eric also took the language class before he went into the vocational school program, but openly says it was dating a Finnish girl (now his wife) who really helped him with the language.

Kasra is clearly a school leader as everyone stops to give a friendly hello as they pass by us. He immigrated to Finland from Afghanistan when he was 13 years old because his father was sick and the United Nations helped his family get to Finland for health care. He went right into Finnish schools and learned the language with other Finnish students in compulsory school. Kasra went to a lukio and graduated in 4 years with a diploma. He then had trouble finding work and decided that the most open field to immigrants was construction so he applied to the adult vocational school and will be finishing his work this spring. Kasra talked openly about how the only way he made friends was because he played football with them and practiced his Finnish on the field. He describes his first year in Finland as lonely.

Valentin was the newest to Finland out of the group. He moved from Russia three years ago when he was 17. He is finishing up his studies next spring, but is planning on continuing to the University of Applied Sciences in the fall to continue his education. Valentin explained that he doesn't know what he really wants to do so he figured that he will just keep going to school until he finds what he likes.  

At the end of the conversation an American joined us just to see what we were talking about. I didn't get his name, but he shared the same perspective as many of the 18 year olds in my classroom. He moved to Finland because his mom is Finnish and they moved back to Helsinki after living in Washington his whole life. He had no idea what he wanted to pursue as a career and so just decided on construction to make his mom happy. The nonchalant attitude that he approached life with set his voice apart from the others in the conversation. It could be the influence of not having a struggle that brought him to Finland or it could be something else entirely. Regardless it sounded very American to me.

The common themes that kept coming through this conversation were how tough it is to be in Finland and not be Finnish. However, it isn't the kind of tough that would send these guys packing. Instead they rose to the challenge and each of them now describe themselves as Finnish. They are proud of the hard work they have put in to be where they are and to have the opportunities they do because of the quality of Finnish education. Ironically, it was in this conversation that I truly understood the idea of Finnish Sisu. The determination and perseverance that this country is so proud of is found in these stories just as it is found in the history of Finland.

After some of the guys had to head to class, it was just Eric, Kasra and I left talking.  The questions had turned to the States and about my life there. As I described what it was like living within a primarily African-American neighborhood and having to learn new ways to adapt to a new culture, we found common ground. I asked them about facing discrimination in Finland as foreigners. Both Eric and Kasra were honest about several situations in their 4 or 5 years in Finland which made them directly feel as if they were discriminated against because they were not Finnish. They described stories of job interviews that they knew they wouldn't get or stares as people passed them by. What was striking is that when talking about these situations, there was no hate or frustration that came through. In many ways immigration is a relatively new conversation in Finland and these guys are living the beginning of that conversation. However, as I heard about their dreams and plans for life in Finland they were full of hope and promise. Helsinki is clearly a place that is learning how to embrace immigrants and open their doors to people from all over the world.

Living in central Finland, I don't see the diversity in the same way that I would if I was living in Helsinki. Classrooms in Jyväskylä aren't facing the same challenges yet, but I am hopeful that the conversations and policy decisions that are made now in Helsinki will make the transition easier when more diversity extends throughout Finland. And I am most hopeful for Eric, Kasra, Valentin and Jonatan. Each one of them are proud to say they see no reason to leave Finland and consider this country their home. Although my stay is temporary and my experience is different, it is easy to see why they call Finland home.

Hanging Out On the East Side

The East side of Helsinki that is! I got to visit schools in Helsinki for a week and loved every minute of it! Most of my time was spent in the East Helsinki communities that are home to many of the immigrants and foreigners in Finland. My goal was to learn their stories as they entered into the Finnish education system and to try to understand what Finnish education looks like in more diverse communities. Over the course of 4 days, I visited 3 vocational schools and 1 lukio (traditional high school) that specialized in a language program.

My week started out with a printing and design school. At this school I ran into two girls who were working on a printing machine. They had a picture that they were trying to print using a series of overlaying colors.  But the machine was broken, so they were knee deep with tools in an effort to fix it when I came by. I was curious so I struck up a conversation to find out how they learned to do what they were doing. One of the students was in her final year and one was in her first. The conversation went something like this:

Me:  Wow, it looks like you really know what you are doing.  How did you learn how to fix that machine?

Year 1 Student: Well, we are partnered here so I learned from my mentor what to do when a print comes out looking like this.  (She shows me a print where the colors are clearly not lining up)

I turned to the Year 3 student:  How did you learn how to do it? 

Year 3 Student:  I guess I learned from my mentor in my first year.  Or maybe the teacher showed us how, I can’t remember.  We aren’t really big on tests like your country is.  It is more about being able to do something. 

I learned how to design and make
stickers- including how to make
the cut so they peal off easy!  
And that sums up my project findings!! Critical thinking and problem solving here in Finland is about demonstrating not about bubbling it in on a piece of paper. I love being able to see that in action!

These two young ladies proceeded to work on this machine, testing prints, tinkering with parts, discussing things and starting over until they had a wonderful print of the picture they started with. Not one single adult got involved- entirely student driven learning!

On Tuesday, I headed to an electrical engineering school and met “the best teacher in Finland.” Now in the US, it is not a big deal to rank or declare that you are the best at something.  But in Finland it is unheard of!  After walking around the school and talking with students, my host announced with very little fanfair that we were about to meet “the best, most kind teacher in Finland.” For a country that is truly based on equality and making sure that opportunities are the same, I couldn’t wait to meet this teacher! 

Sari Vilèn in front of a practice house.
And I do think she is one of the best! Sari Vilén had a group of 12 boys who were staying after school voluntarily to continue to work on their final project. In order for a student to pass the class, they have to demonstrate their knowledge on a fake house’s electrical system. They wanted to get some extra practice in before the actual demonstration next week. So when we walked in, she was conferencing with a student who had just finished a self-refection on an electrical module he had completed. He identified where he went wrong and how he would correct it when it would do it the next time. This was a written reflection that included graphs and tables full of math equations and visual thinking. The conference was clearly student lead until I interrupted. It was a great example of the individual approached regularly involved in teaching here. 

After this I got to tour the electrical engineering lab and got a great insight in the way she runs her classroom. She has students set up the “house” and make it run efficiently in lights, heating, air and fire alarms. Then she goes through and makes a mess of it. Students have to pretend that they are coming to a home where the previous electrician screwed up and fix the problem. They can only use the notes and other modules they have practiced to help solve the problems. 

I think the most impressive part of this visit is this diagram. There is a very advanced student who is going through the modules very quickly. Sari asked him to recreate a diagram in a simpler visual form to help a group of struggling students. From this picture it is hard to tell, but this diagram takes words and instructions and puts them into a step-by-step visual process at the same time as outlining the instructions in written form. On the back there are even more detailed visuals breaking down the complicated tasks. This student was still there 45 minutes after class ended helping a student understand and practice for the final that was taking place next week. It was a beautiful example of a teacher understanding her students and knowing what will work to promote learning. 

I think Sari Vilén deserves every word of praise that my host gave her.

I also got to visit a lukio that had about 20% of it’s population from a home where at least one parent is a non-native Finnish speaker.  It was great to see some of the same things I have seen in other schools, very present here. There didn’t seem to be any cliques or divisions. Teachers spoke about the extra support (and finances) that the school gives to help learners from diverse backgrounds.  It is clear that there is a very large effort to integrate students.  

It routinely came up the main problem with immigrant students happens in the compulsory school, and is mainly because of language mastery.  Since I tried to learn Finnish, I undertand the difficulty!  If a student comes into the Finnish Education system during compulsory school, they go directly into the classroom and get support learning Finnish from the school.  If a student is older than compulsory school, they get placed in a one year class to learn Finnish with foreigners and then they can apply for upper secondary school.  This makes the skill levels very different for immigrants in classrooms.  From the conversations I had with the counselors, it sounds like the Finnish government supports more diverse schools with finances and resources to help make a school like the one I was visiting equal with every other Finnish upper secondary school.

I got to hang out and talk for a long time with two students who were very candid about life in high school and how tough it is.  My favorite line was from Ada who said, "We are here by choice so it doesn't matter how tough it is, I chose it so I will do it."  Well said, Ada, well said.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Room Full of Good Ideas and a City Ready to Listen

My second trip in March took me to Berlin for a European Fulbright Conference. I had two major take aways from this trip: 

1.  I love Berlin! 
2.  I love hanging out with Fulbrighters!

The conference had a lot of free time to mingle and meet other European Fulbrighters. It is amazing the projects and ideas that Fulbright sponsors all over the world. I want to make sure to pause and give a little context to this amazing program.

Photo Credit: Janet English
In 1945, Senator William Fulbright introduced a bill to Congress that would establish an exchange between students in the United States and other countries in the fields of education, culture and science in an effort to support peace. If you think about this in the context of history, our global community had just experienced war and division in some of the worst ways. WWII had just ended and the world had seen the power of Hitler to discriminate and torture a group of people resulting in large scale destruction and death. The world was facing the challenge of rebuilding towns and communities that had been shattered in the war and reuniting families that had been torn apart. The world was not peaceful, but this brave Senator decided to do something about it. The bill passed and because of it over 307,000 people have traveled to 155 countries to observe, share and work on projects that promote peace, collaboration, unity and progress. I got to hang with some of these people during my week in Berlin and I couldn’t have been more inspired by them. Thank you President Harry S. Truman for signing this bill in 1946!  Without that vision that started 68 years ago, I wouldn’t get to study in Finland or meet such amazing likeminded people from all over Europe.

And to be able to do this in the setting of Berlin was amazing! If you haven’t been to this city, you should go!  It feels as if it is on the brink of something great. Berlin embraces the horrendous history that has taken place in the city and is willing to confront the issues that are at the root of those divisive times. Between the Cold War Museums and the Holocaust remembrances, there is a surprising hope in the city that I haven’t felt in other places I have visited. There is a vibrancy that catches you off guard and makes you want to lean in to hear the conversations that are happening around you. I got to do a lot of different things while I was there so I will let the pictures speak for themselves. Trust me when I say, go to Berlin!

This is a döner and it is worth going to Berlin just to eat one!