Vaasa and Jyväskylä : Rhonda’s Eisenhower Fellowship

Suomi o Svenska ? Finnish or Swedish ?
This was the most frequent questioned posed to me in Vaasa, the university town in the heart of Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority. Finn’s appreciate a good study and recently learned that Vaasa is the Finnish city that has the highest frequency of sunny days ! My time in Vaasa was primarily spent with researchers at the University of Vaasa with a brief visit to a bilingual Finnish-Swedish secondary school. A few years ago Finland introduced a trilingual comprehensive database of student information used by schools and families, with some access for social service and medical agencies. Over 95% of schools in the country use « Wilma » and it tracks almost every student data point imaginable. Imagine combining your school’s student information system (like PowerSchool, Infinite Campus, SchoolRunner) with a tool like ClassDojo,and daily school-home-school communications. Parents can log in and make one notification (Rhonda broke her clavicle over the weekend) and all parties receive it. Because it is a national tool, when families move across the country, the data still follows the child, so families don’t have to learn a new system for the new school or risk missing pertinent information in transition. Schools coach teachers in how to balance their comments so that student reports don’t read as a register of wrong-doing, but gives a balanced portrayal of the student and their work.

In the afternoon I gave a brief talk about our SLLIS model and sat on a panel of bilingual education experts about the value and access of bilingual education. I was encouraged to hear that our peers across the ocean are engaging in the same enduring conversations that we have in the US : If a student is struggling in one language, why burden them with a second language ? Why do we reinforce that bilingual/multilingual learners should have the same proficiency/literacy in every language that they speak ? Which languages do we value and why ? To what extent are language rights a declared right? Which languages are afforded certain rights ? Is language’s only value business/economic gain ?

Early in my trip, someone challenged me that once I could pronounce Jyväskylä, I was really starting to understand Finnish phonetics. Never one to pass up a challenge, I mastered it before my train trip and was happy that this was my third stop in Finland. Helsinki and Vaasa both have significant Swedish-speaking populations, which meant that all of their signs and information were printed/announced in both languages. Swedish cognates resemble Dutch and German enough that I could follow signs in Svenska, while still looking for patterns in Finnish. In Jyväskylä, however, Swedish was so absent from daily life that my university guides questioned the utility of the language in greater Finland. I like to think that my program manager was intentional about timing my visit so to match my language comfort and observations about the politics of bilingualism. Nonetheless, I was pleased that my language navigation skills were being put to great use !

University of Jyväskylä is home to the PISA research group of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research. I could have spent all day with this research team asking questions about correlates in performance, predictive performance, and implications for the new national curriculum. I was fascinated that, without any national tests, teachers from across the country could deliver such closely-aligned material. I kept asking the researchers to drill down the data and address how teachers moderate class grades (which determine access to upper secondary, not standardized tests). My host in Jyväskylä had been a special education teacher before joining the university faculty and she pointed out critical practical information about the curriculum and student performance. She chimed in that they follow the curriculum and, in every possible case, the textbooks that are based on the national curriculum. There are some outliers, teachers whose disciplines don’t yet have a strong curriculum or textbook in the language of instruction (bilingual classes especially), but most teachers use the same resources for baseline instruction. Teachers can then devote their personal instructional time to differentiate for students in need. The texts themselves are very smart. They anticipate not only where students will struggle and design activities to support them, they are also superbly paced and culturally relevant. Texts will include examples including seasons, holidays, etc at the time of year that teachers should be teaching that content. If a teacher is not going to use the text or will not finish the text in the school year, they must explain a compelling, pedagogical reason why not. In preschool students and parents get socialized in how to work with the text. This reminded me of the instructional philosophy at North Star Academy in the Uncommon Schools Network (whose students outperformed the rest of the nation on the PISA). At North Star they also dedicate their brain power to building the tightest possible curriculum in each discipline and having all teachers follow it. This helped me contextualize all of the traditional teacher-centered lessons that I had observed throughout my visit. Teachers were not expected to be authors and put great trust that the authors of the national curriculum and related texts were getting the learning sequence right for students.

My final stop at the university was to a course in the JULIET program with Professor Josephine Moate. The JULIET program offers MA in Education students a minor study in bilingual education (Note : At each university that I visited, each professor declared the language of the lectures—Finnish, Swedish, or English—before offering the course and açtively assigned readings açross the three languages). This particular course was designed to give students an opportunity to deconstruct their acquisition of English and learn creative and culturally-relevant ways to support English in their instruction. The class began with a small group task on Tangrams. I could barely contain my excitement ! I love Tangrams and have such fond memories of doing them as a kid. For the students in this course, half Finnish, half International, this was their first time seeing a Tangram and some of the groups struggled to respect the rules. Professor Moate, originally from the UK, shared that they open each class session with a similar hands-on learning task that is new to the majority of students (up next ? Origami) as a way to expose them to new opportunities for their own learning.

During my talk on Creativity and Cultural Relevance in our schools, I showed a brief video of our students in action. Watching the video made me very nostalgic for our own schools and students and hands-on learning. The students in this course were fascinated with circle time and wondered how they could incorporate it in their own teaching. My time with the JULIET program reminded me of the a French children’s book Un Bleu Si Bleu in which the main character travels the world in search of a particular shade of blue, only to find it in his mother’s eyes upon his return. We have so much increduble work ahead of us, but after visiting Finland, I am even more convinced that we are asking the right questions and challenging ourselves in the right ways for our students.


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