Thursday, April 18, 2013

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.

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