Well, I haven’t written in a month. Since I have a 3 1/2 hour train ride, get ready!! I’m devoting the entire trip to this blog.
While I was in Rovaniemi, it wasn’t all fun and games. I was able to visit Ounasvaara Koulu for two days. This was quite an experience for me as up to that point, I mainly spent my time in adult education and lukios (high schools).
The primary reason for my visit was to spend time in Heidi Launonen’s preparatory class. Students coming from other countries come to Heidi first where they stay for 1-2 years in order to learn the language. She indicated that it is pretty difficult for older students (14-17) to learn the language and also that it is easier for students who do not know English to learn Finnish. A student’s knowledge of English can act as a crutch (perhaps that is why I am not progressing in my studies…). The majority of Heidi’s 14 students are refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their uncertain status in the country poses its own set of difficulties. Many of these students have faced trauma and horrors that most of us cannot imagine. She meets with each student’s family three times per year (all parents attend) to help guide their transition.
Heidi and Nadja (her co-teacher) teach the students in all subjects. Students attend elective courses with their Finnish speaking peers such as home economics and crafts (I was able to observe in both of these classes). One of the difficulties they face is the variety of skill sets that each student brings with them. They need to differentiate instruction for each student because they are all at different levels. That is one of the reasons that small class sizes are absolutely necessary.
The students in the preparatory class take all of their core classes with Heidi (the exception is two students who are especially gifted in math–they take math with their Finnish peers); however, the students take their elective courses with their Finnish peers in order to smooth the integration process.
This sounds good in theory; however, I observed the students in their elective courses. The young man you see receiving math instruction and then stirring the pizza dough didn’t interact with any of his peers and the teacher only spoke about him, not to him. When each group was choosing their toppings, the instructor vocally reminded his group (and the entire class) that he was Muslim and they couldn’t put ham on their pizza. At first, I thought that this was a thoughtful reminder, but as the class period went on and I spoke to her, I’m not sure that it was a comment to make him feel safe and included, but rather a comment to remind him and everyone else that he was different and an outsider. Later while the students were working, she and I were discussing the course, the school–teacher stuff. At one point she told me that “they never had discipline problems until the immigrants came” (keep in mind, this school only has 14 immigrant students–look at the pictures above. Do they look like a bunch of trouble makers?). I am hearing this attitude expressed quite a bit lately in different terms–“Crime has increased ever since the immigrants came…”
This is the same type of bigoted, xenophobic rhetoric that is being propagated in the US. I was hoping to find something different, here, in Finland the land of equality. It is becoming clear (to me) that while schools are providing quality education for immigrant and refugee students, these students have an uphill battle with bigotry at a societal level in a society that insists everyone is equal. I will provide more detail on what I have named “strings attached” equality at the end of my time here.
I digress. Heidi and Nadja are extraordinary educators. They give everything they have to help guide these students and provide stability at a time where so much is uncertain for them. While I think that preparatory classes are the right direction to go in terms of language acquisition, I also think that it is necessary for elective teachers to include these students and help make connections between peers (I only gave one vivid example, but I have seen this happen in several courses at several different schools).