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The Sun Sets Slowly in Lapland

IMG_0970Recalling our trip this past March, I left our PennFinn13 group and headed north with my daughter.  We rented a  car and drove about four hours northeast of Rovaniemi, Finland to Inari.  One would never know we were above the Arctic circle as the roads were in better condition than many roads back in Vermont on the 45th parallel.  I wondered about the difference between hoar frost, permafrost and frost heaves.  Thinking about the general construction and engineering of the roads, I figured I’d better leave this topic for another day.  Suffice it to say we did not hit one frost heave.  In addition to being great educators, the Finns seem to understand road engineering.

My daughter and I  learned about the Kings Cup, a championship reindeer racing event.  We wanted to watch the Sami athletes on skis being pulled behind reindeer. We stayed in a small cabin at a campsite with simple bunks, rented some skis and from then on skied everywhere.  On the first day in Inari we met Carol Brown Leonardi, a British woman who had worked at the University of Rovaniemi, but was now at the Open University in Cambridge, UK.  Her current research brought her to Inari studying the Sami people and local economy.  With shivering hands and a notebook, she interviewed us about the impetus for our vacation and our thoughts about tourism and other general impressions.  I asked her if she wanted to borrow my small hand held tape recorder.  She was delighted by the idea so we skied back to the cabin and I bought her my tape recorder, the same one with sound bytes from my research from the schools in Helsinki.  She put away her notepad. A day later I met her at the local hotel so she could download the sound flies to her computer.

The Kings Cup is a yearly event where the reindeer herders provide jockeys to compete against each other in sprints, relay races and a longer loop out on the ice.  The jockeys are dressed in sleek Nordic or alpine racing suits.  Some race on Nordic skis, some on alpine and one competitor chose telemark skis.  The race organizers piled up snow to make a packed path lined with small branches on Inarijarvi (Lake Inari).  Next to the course were booths with reindeer sausage and all manner of animal pelts, hats, jackets, and other sundry.  The reindeer were corralled in a makeshift paddock on the side of the race course.

reindeer waiting to race

Over the course of the weekend, everyone laughed, smiled and wore lots of festive clothing.  It was cold.  The races themselves were spectacular.  Reindeer are not large animals, but as they raced by their large tongues lolled and they gracefully sprinted.  Once past the finish line they were corralled to their area and fed fresh clumps of lichen.

reindeer lichen

During the relay races, one competitor would complete a lap, release the reins, ski over and tag the next member of the team and the next reindeer would be released from the start chutes.  Some of the reindeer had a mind of their own and chose to trot across the ice and ignore the actual course.  When another reindeer entered the vicinity the stubborn wayward reindeer would then gear up to race again, bursting onto the course to compete with the others. The crowds consisted of tourists and locals.  The children at the Kings Cup wandered about, laughing and playing in the snow, free to be part of the festivities.  There were no parents training them or barking commands, but all adults had a watchful eye and would gently redirect a child now and again.

reindeer racingThere was broadband everywhere  (A constitutional right for the people of Finland).  After my daughter negotiated the price of some reindeer pelts, we got ready to pay and the Sami man took from his breast pocket a credit card wifi swipe unit, punched in the price, took my money and we were done.  We strapped the pelts to our backpacks and headed out across the lake back to our cabin.

pelts on packOne difference between my home and Finland is it takes forever for the sun to set when you are on the Arctic Circle.  In Vermont if you are at the summit of Camel’s Hump or Mt. Mansfield, you bundle up, feel the wind whipping over the 4,000 foot peak, sit down and wait for nature’s show. The sky lights up, orange red and yellow hues, then the sun sinks over Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks, it is over in about 20 minutes.  In Lapland this takes about three hours.  Think about it — the northern latitude and the rotating earth.  With our reindeer pelts we skied out onto the lake which went forever.  We kept going and then decided we ought to turn back, skiing into the sun we watched for a long time as the giant yellow orb slowly lowered itself to the horizon.



I am so very appreciative of all the Finnish educators who made our trip possible and to the PennFinn13 leader Joe Mazza and teammates.   The reflections, insights, ideas and inspirations, like the sunset on Inarijärvi, linger on and on.  I am not sure it will ever be completely gone, as the red glow occupies a little space in my heart for the beautiful people of Finland.


In this school we are a family – Visiting Knapp Elementary School

In the beginning of our visit to Knapp Elementary School outside of Philadelphia, the Principal Joe Mazza welcomed all students, personnel and us visitors to begin the new school day through central radio.  The announcement included birthday wishes to all having birthday at a current day and because of becoming vacation, birthdays on summertime were also mentioned. Students were involved in the announcement and in the end of it they said their pledge to the day: “I am a smart, special, valuable person. I respect my self and I respect others. My words are kind and honest. I accept only my best in all I do. I am PROUD to be me!”
We began our school tour in the concert made by the school orchestra. They surprised us by playing our national anthem “Maamme”. What an awesome moment! It was really a pleasure to meet all the students and answer their questions. We were happy to tell them some cultural and other information about Finland and were asking the questions about their schooling. They were happy to hear about the possibilities to peer collaboration next fall with Finnish students.

After the school tour Knapp leadership teams shared comprehensive efforts on the part of the school teams. Teachers in Knapp may choose their team in the beginning of the term and there are approximately 7-9 teachers in a team. Sounds very familiar to us: we have same kind of shared leadership and teamwork idea also in Koulumestari School in Espoo. Sharing more specifically these practices and experiences could be very rewarding in the future.

In Knapp they use social media and web based tools to share the information needed. As the school is multicultural having about 22 languages spoken in the students’ homes, they have translated the most important information at their website into all languages by using Google translator. Also various other home school partnership practices was highlighted. This is also our common goal – developing home, school and community partnership and practices and the use of technology in this collaboration.

Warm thanks to Knapp personnel, students and parents! It was great to meet you and feel the family-like atmosphere at your school.

Tip of the day: How about recycling your children’s books? At Knapp they had a bookshelf where you can bring your old book and take a “new” with you.

Minna, Kati and Tiina, Koulumestari School/Learning Center Innokas, University of Helsinki

Know the Neighborhood You Teach In

This week, Finnish educators from Koulumestari Elementary and Helsingin normaalilyseo (Normal School) are here visiting US schools, as well as learning about teacher/leader education programs at the University of Pennsylvania as part of our #pennfinn13 partnership. Below is the first post after today’s visit to Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

Visit to Penn GSE

In April we had visitors from University of Pennsylvania. They were trying to figure out what is special in Finnish school system. This week we have an opportunity to visit Philadelphia and meet some old friends and get to know new acquaintances. Goal of our visit is to find new ideas and create collaboration between Universities and schools. A very important issue is to collaborate in a practical student to student peer level.

Mural Arts - Philadelphia

Mural Arts – Philadelphia

Today we paid a visit to University of Pennsylvania. We met enthusiastic professionals that have same kind on ideologies that we do. There was one thing above all that we want to bring back to Finland with us. When you start your job as a teacher in a new area, you should get to know the neighborhood of that school. What kids do after school? Where and how they spend their free time? What is it like to be a kid today in area? How about students as experts making a tour in school neighborhoods with their new teacher? While getting familiar with each other a good idea is to discuss about the expectations vice versa.

Tip of the day: Knowing one’s surroundings, its culture and history, makes you commit to your own neighborhood.  See http://muralarts.org/

Kati Sormunen, Minna Kukkonen and Tiina Korhonen www.innokas.fi/en

For more in Koulumestari Elementary School in Finland check out these links.


Three Is A Magic Number (In Any Language)

by Brandon Wiley



Whatever language you speak, the “magic number” when is comes to languages in Finland seemed to be three.  That is, every student I spoke to shared that they speak at least three languages.  Most usually, students were conversant in Finnish, Swedish and English.  In addition, we found many students who could speak French, German, Russian and at one school, Latin was still an offering.  I must admit that this wasn’t much of a surprise to me, as I have cofinnishamericanme to learn that many students outside of the United States develop fluency in multiple languages, especially throughout Europe. Throughout our conversations (in English, I might add), I tried to get a better understanding of why the acquisition of multiple languages seemed to be an important part of the Finnish education system.

As part of the national core curriculum, a strong focus is placed on developing the “mother tongue” language skills and exploration of literature.  Additionally, students are expected to focus on an A-language starting in grades 1 – 6 of compulsory education.  A B-language is studied starting in grades 7-9.  Often, English is taught during the early grades and is woven throughout coursework, with some classes taught exclusively in English. Despite the fact students do not start school until age 7, some families make an effort to begin this education prior to age 7.  For example, we came across a ‘Finnish American” school that allows families to start students earlier than grade 1 and begins a focus on language acquisition at an early age.

Students seemed to understand the importance of learning multiple languages, especially English, and shared their views on the importance of learning different languages.  Some of the perspectives shared were:

“We all need to learn English because it is the international language of business and law. It’s just necessary to learn it since it is used by so many countries, including, of course the United States.” – Grade 9 student

“I think it’s important for us to learn different languages so that we can be competitive and have an advantage in the future” – Grade 10 student

“Learning languages for me is really hard, but I think important. I want to travel some day and need to be able to speak to people.” – Primary student

“We incorporate world languages into our curriculum to help students understand the different cultures of the world. The curriculum is not simply to learn how to talk to others, but to better understand the way people live, work and think. Language is what binds us and connects us.  But, if you aren’t fluent, it can also separate us.” – high school World Languages teacher

Understanding that the study and acquisition of languages plays a major role in the Finnish education system caused me to reflect on how this compares to the US system. Why does this matter?  To my mind, it matters on two levels.  First, I was once again struck by the Finnish emphasis on the “whole child” and providing a well-rounded curriculum and experience.  In far too many American schools, world language is reserved for middle or high school coursework, with relatively few language immersion or early childhood language programs. In increasingly difficult economic times, more and more American schools are making cuts to world language programs or severely limiting the languages offered. It seems that it is more likely for U.S. schools to focus on helping students meet the minimum amount of language instruction necessary instead of thinking about how to maximize the number of languages students are fluent in before graduation. For a country as diverse and “cosmopolitan” as the United States, this stance seems very parochial and outdated.  Through the study of languages, students engage in the study of cultures, customs and beliefs held by those different from themselves.  Language instruction helps students develop a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives, history and expression.  When students can master languages other than their native tongue, it opens a world of opportunities, helps overcome geographic and cultural barriers and generally makes interacting with others more enjoyable.  In my last three trips outside of the United States, I did not speak the language of the host country I visited.  I regret this and wonder how the experience could have been even richer had I been able to communicate authentically and fluently.  In the spirit of developing the “whole child,” I wonder what would happen in the United States if language instruction was viewed as a “core content area?” (Answer: we’d probably test it to death.)

The second reason I think a focus on world language instruction matters is the competitive advantage it will give students in the 21st century. As graduates enter a highly competitive global world, they will be vying for admission to the same colleges/universities and applying for the same jobs. Even if  all other things are equal, having limited language proficiency outside of English will be a competitive disadvantage for many American students.  This focus on language instruction isn’t just happening in Finland.  In a recent trip to China, I visited a school with over 5,000 students, all of whom were working hard to master their English speaking and writing skills.  Their goal – attend U.S. colleges and universities beyond high school.  Students around the world are developing language skills, yet the policy and funding in the United States seems to be lagging in this area.

As a side note, I’d like to give credit to our PennFinn13 colleagues, Jennifer, who spent several months leading up to our trip learning Finnish.  She was an invaluable member of the team due to her ability to get us important information about bus schedules, menu options and basic interaction with the locals. However, we quickly learned that most everyone we encountered, whether in restaurants, grocery stores or on public transportation, spoke English extremely well.  Jennifer spent time listening to podcasts in her car as she drove to/from work and longer excursions before departing for Helsinki. (Rumor has it that she could be seen talking to herself in Finnish at times!) Not only was her commitment to learning the language impressive, it made a real difference in our overall experience in the country.  She has inspired me to study another language now and look forward to the challenge and benefit it will bring to my life.  Stay tuned….

That Look I’ve Most Certainly Seen Before

“The young cherish people and places from which they receive the skills and the emotional support which enable them to make it in the world or to meet their basic human needs”  -James P. Comer

Yesterday we visited an elementary School in Finland, a small learning community focused on innovation. From the moment we entered the learning community we could see that the environment was organized as a space respectful of the stakeholders who would call that particular facility “home”. Through focused observation we gained a sense that we were in the midst of a child centered community taking note of some of the same promising practices we observed during our Finish school visits.

Our experience was peppered with exemplary examples of intentionality, highlighted by a professional learning community focused on student achievement by way of targeted teacher development. There was tremendous “buy in” from all stakeholder groups as one interviewed parent expressed her allegiance to the school, its mission and the faculty members who worked committedly to ready her child for collegiate study and a productive life thereafter. This was an awesome school with a culture designed for learning and once again a place where “trust” was an essential component of school development. However, even in the most successful of places, we find that challenges exist and during today’s visit, one particular challenge spoke loud and clear.

While observing what I considered to be an innovative activity highlighting the intelligences of participating students, I became somewhat distracted by a young girl whose face looked somewhat different from the many faces I observed throughout the past four days. Uncertain as to whether my observation was justified, I proceeded on with my note taking but couldn’t help but continue thinking about the young girl’s face and the question of inquiry that followed me over four thousand miles, from New York to Finland. How does race and culture (among Finland’s minority) factor into this now understood culture of Finish “trust and tradition”. Is life the same for students who look, sound and think differently. Enter a young Finish student named Aira. She hesitantly walked across the room and initiated a conversation. This young sixth grader struck up a conversation with me about New York City, Times Square and her desire to “one day see the bright lights.” I decided at that point to take the opportunity to informally interview the young 6th grader to gain a perspective that had only been afforded me on one other occasion during my tenure in Finland. Similar to the young ninth grader I interviewed the day before, Aira was of African descent. Her mother was from Finland and her father from Central Africa.

During my time with Aira we talked about school and her feelings concerning her teachers and her peers.  She affirmed her teachers as she described the degree of support she receives from them.  Unfortunately, according to her, the same could not be said about her peers. “I don’t have many friends”, she expressed. I immediately asked, why?  It was at that moment she looked down at the floor, pointed to her skin and whispered something which fell short of my range of hearing. I asked Aira to repeat what she said, she looked up, surveyed the room, and with “that look of shame” on her face (of which I am all too familiar), she pointed to her skin once again and said, “my color”. At this time multiple thoughts raced through my head.  I’m not exactly sure why, because it was a question I had on my mind since first reading Finish Lessons. I proceeded to restate what I thought she expressed while simultaneously pointing to my own skin and she signified with a quick and definitive “YES”. I subsequently asked Aira to sit and there began a conversation that reciprocally served the both of us throughout the day. We talked about the friends she does have, her interests in dance and music.  We talked about her travels abroad. We discussed her being a highly expressive individual in a place where “that’s not good”. She mentioned that all too often people interpret her behavior as loud or rude. I couldn’t help but enjoy Aira’s smile, her openness and energy throughout our conversations.  She was that same individual that I see in my school each and every day whose desire is nothing more (whether pre-adolescent, adolescent or adult) than to feel a sense of safety, belonging and acknowledgement. It was clear to me that this was something Aira was in need of attaining. Unfortunately, her reality left her far from her desired destination.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow shared his theory of a hierarchal order of needs. As such we have become clear that there are certain physiological and psychological needs that must be addressed if we are to experience an affirming affect of self-belief, self-trust and ultimately self-actualization. There are millions of Airas in schools throughout the world who are not on course to experience personal actualization simply because they are not engaged in a manner that is meaningful and relevant to them. They are not receiving the requisite support needed to embrace that feeling of belonging. If it is our goal as educational advocates to ensure high levels of achievement for all learners, it behooves us to remain ever cognizant that there is a prerequisite work that begins with first seeing our students as they are and subsequently creating and developing environments that address the most basic of our student’s needs. Years ago, I remember viewing a TED talk hosted by Ken Robinson.  Prior to completing his talk, Robinson shared a story of a young girl who found herself on the right side of misunderstanding. This position which was taken by teachers and ultimately her mother could have ended in misdiagnosis ultimately leading to a life unfulfilled.

As a current Principal I wholeheartedly understand the danger in drawing definitive conclusions from a one day visit, however that look that I observed is universal and the conversation, quite the same. I must however, commend my Finnish colleagues of the school as during my exit conversation with administrators we discussed my findings (as they themselves observed Aira continuously seeking me out throughout the day).  We talked about the creation of a formal structure/forum that would extend to students like Aira opportunities to express her thoughts and feelings. We further discussed the importance of extending efforts beyond the one day celebrations highlighting cultural foods, garments, etc. as a result, we are forging a partnership where my school, Riverton Street Charter School, will engage their school in a Skyping collaborative so that Aira and the members of her community can enjoy authentic opportunities to converse with children of different backgrounds, interests and experiences.

In the final analysis, our work to develop global citizens begins with helping children feel good about themselves and others.  All stakeholders have a role in ensuring that students develop holistically across physical, cognitive, social-interactive, speech-language, ethical and psychological pathways.   I’ve observed many examples of healthy development during my week here in Finland.  It is clear that school leaders are beginning to work intentionality/strategically to address the holistic needs of their students as evidenced by the structuring of child welfare teams, tasked guidance counselors, social engagement facilitators, etc. However, as in America the question of “all” continues to surface and according to my observations and discussions this week, I believe there’s much work to be done developing cultural competencies here as well.

This Inquiring Mind Wants to Know . . .

Image credit: educlusterfinland.fi

By: Verone Kennedy

Schools improve when they learn from other schools.  Isolation is the enemy of all improvement.  -Andy Hargraves

As a former Coordinator of Middle School Initiatives for the City of New York, much of my work revolved around addressing the low 4 year graduation rates of our H.S. students via a comprehensive strategic  campaign to assess and address the quality of “middle level schooling” throughout the city. Today in NYC, “ student performance” relative to high school graduation and college readiness (far from the same) continues to reflect low level outcomes in addition to glaring disproportionality across demographic/sub-grouped learners.
This week I have been extended a rare opportunity to travel with a cohort of eight colleagues (and our UPENN GSE Program Director) to Helsinki, Finland to spend an extensive amount of time with Pasi Sahlberg, faculty from the University of Helsinki, school leaders, teachers, students and parents. My overarching objective is to gain insight into the manner in which Finland shifted its paradigm of practice courageously rethinking and implementing that which they believed mattered most for the stakeholders of Finnish schooling and ultimately their society at large. According to the 2006 PISA report, Finland’s transformation from a system of mediocrity to one of highly effective practice/outcomes occurred largely due to “effective teacher education” and a systemic model of design that employed the following:

  • Flexibility and Diversity relative to school-based curriculum development which was informed and supported by relevant data (quantitative and qualitative information)
  • A major emphasis on Broad Knowledge placing an equal degree of emphasis across developmental pathways considerate of the acquisition of knowledge, skills, socialization, creativity, personality, morality, etc.
  • Trust through Professionalism leading to a systemic effort to treat teachers and administrators as professional practitioners who possess requisite skills and a clear sense of mission to effectively teach/lead.

During these five days abroad, I am most interested in exploring and better understanding the emphasis Finland places on the facilitation of “Broad Knowledge Learning” and the manner/measure in which its policies, practices and protocols support the facilitation of a holistic approach to student development.  Considering the aforementioned, I intend to forge a mini-study taking a more focused look at student diversity and the manner in which Finland explicitly/implicitly addresses differentiation across curricular, instructional and social constitutions. My goal is to leave with a greater degree of insight into the strategies/approaches that we (as educators working in urban systems of significant diversity) can employ to more effectively facilitate learning across racial, socio-economic, gender and related service support lines? Finland’s emphasis on “Broad Knowledge” offers a promising perspective by which we can think more critically about creating, sustaining and in some cases improving our learner centered communities.

I invite you to join us as we set out on this experience of observation and discourse.  My invitation to you is not a call for passive reading or one limiting you to an act of self-reflection.  Quite the contrary, we are imploring you to actively engage in this study by sharing relevant thoughts, ideas and personal connections.  So . . . it is with a spirit of appreciation for this opportunity that I thank Joe Mazza, my study colleagues and of course you for the role you will play in supporting our team’s relevant, rigorous and relational learning this week in Finland.