I am an American science teacher spending four months in Finland on a Fulbright grant. I’ve been visiting many Innokas schools and was asked to share some posts from my own blog.
Despite studying Finnish for over a year, I had never learned the word piiri, which translates to “circuit” or “circle.” During my trip to Lapland to visit the Ylikylä School in Rovaniemi, I became familiar with both translations.
Arriving during the weekend, and armed with a rental car wearing studded tires, I had the opportunity to be a tourist. On my way from the airport to town, I made the mandatory stop at Santa’s Village. I finally figured out that all the signs for napapiiri were not directing me to a town of that name, but rather to the Arctic Circle.
My original plans didn’t include dogsledding, thinking it to be the touristy Lapland equivalent of a Central Park carriage ride. But another Fulbrighter highly recommended it, so I decided to give it a try. I’m mighty glad that I went, especially as I had the sled to myself and got to drive for the whole 2 hours through snowy forest.
Following the recommendation of a teacher in Oulu, I drove to the town of Kemi to check out the snow hotel. I don’t quite see the point of sleeping there, as I’ve spent enough cold nights in tents and lean-tos to know what it feels like to crawl out a warm sleeping bag in the morning. But it was worth the visit to walk around and see all of the carvings in the rooms and the restaurant. And there were very few visitors, so I usually was the only one in the room.
On Sunday afternoon, I got back to the reason I had come northward, as I worked on a lesson I’d be teaching the next day. The plan was for me to teach first graders (age 7) about electric circuits. IN FINNISH. I had spoken to a number of classes of older students who were studying English, but this would be my first time trying to communicate (and teach physics, no less) in Finnish.
I basically used the same lesson I do with my 9th graders when I’m introducing circuits, giving kids a bunch of different challenges that get progressively harder. It gives them a chance to figure things out on their own, and it forms a basis for future lessons on the “why” of their discoveries about how to connect the bulbs in series and parallel. AND this particular lesson would be easy to do using pictures and just a few words. While the first graders took a little longer and sometimes needed hints, they got through all of the challenges. I think they enjoyed the activity, as the next day they asked if they’d be doing physics again.
When spending time with this class, I also got to observe how creative scheduling can be used to give support to students. There are six special education students who benefit from having their Finnish lessons in a small group. To allow the teacher to have time with them, students in the class do not all have the same schedule. Some students come in during the red “A” block, while others come for the blue “B” block. The class also has an assistant who helps when the entire group is together (and who also provides skiing lessons!). A special education teacher also sometimes takes students who need help with a particular subject.
During my second day, the students used what they had learned about building circuits to design some sort of device that uses a light and and a switch. Their teacher, Anna-Kristiina, had to explain this part of the project to them, while I just demonstrated how to make a switch using aluminum foil. Every classroom I’ve visited has a document camera, something that’s very helpful when demonstrating things like how to clip wires in a circuit. I wrote a grant two years ago to get one in my own classroom, and I’m not sure how I ever taught without it.
During my days with the class, I also observed their other lessons and got to talk to some of the other teachers. I’ve been in enough schools to start noticing commonalities among them. Finnish schools all give students a good deal of freedom, and they all are places where learning is designed to meet the needs of the students. There are no standardized tests, and there is no pressure for kids to learn things at a faster pace than is natural for them.
Most of my upcoming school visits will focus on the higher grades, but I’ve loved all the time I’ve spent with the younger students. It’s been useful to see the whole range of grade levels, and it helps me understand why the gap between the weaker and stronger students is much smaller than in the US.