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.

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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).


Learning in Lapland

Fruitless Chase: The Auroras, may be hiding, but our smiles certainly weren’t!

This past week was ski week in Jyväskylä.  There are multiple regions in Finland and each region has ski week on a different week.  As all of the schools were closed, I headed up to Rovaniemi with a fellow Fulbrighter and her family.  As Rovaniemi isn’t on ski week, I was also able to visit a school.

Rovaniemi is what is considered the gateway to Lapland.  It was very touristy and we fit right in!  The first place we went when we arrived in Rovaniemi was Snowman World.  The video in that link is a bit deceptive–there were no costumed snowmen and the ice rink was underwhelming.  (This is not the first time that I have been deceived by Internet advertising: Lake County, California–I loved it after living there, but let’s just say the Internet story is not the “real” story).  However, the tubing was fun (even if I was a bit terrified the first time I went!)


This pic was taken before my first run: I wasn’t smiling half way through!!!  There is a turn where you pick up quite a bit of speed–oh well, in Finland, you do dangerous things if you think you can!!



There were tons of really cool ice carvings on the inside of the ice castle.  Unfortunately, most of the pics I took didn’t turn out.


Jerod (a.k.a Fulbright Daddy), Rachel, Ruthie and Lydia.  It was so great traveling with them.  I don’t think that Snowman World would have been nearly as much fun without the girls–plus, I think that I would have looked a bit odd hanging around without a kid!



This is the REAL Santa!!  Seriously–or maybe the real one is in the next building–??   Regardless, I snapped this pic of the girls talking to him right before I realized you weren’t allowed to take photos.  You could, however, purchase them for 30 Euros.  Santa’s a bit of a capitalist.

After our first day, we returned to our Airbnb where we realized that we had no wifi and worse, there wasn’t a sauna.  Let’s just say, I’ve taken to the Finnish custom of sauna and I’m not sure how I will return to my sauna-less life in the US.  As for the wifi, I never thought that I would be as dependent on the internet as I am, but that’s the reality.  Luckily, Jerod and Rachel were able to use their  phones as hotspots: SAVED!!!  We had a delicious family dinner and went to bed.

On Sunday, we headed into town to go on a tour of a husky and reindeer farm.  Unfortunately, we had our times wrong–our tour wasn’t until Tuesday!  I had a school visit scheduled on Tuesday, though.  Fortunately, the young woman working arranged it so that I could go to the reindeer farm on Sunday afternoon.  While I waited, we went to the Arktikum (the museum and Arctic Science center).  I loved this museum and learned quite a bit about the Arctic and Sami (indigenous people who inhabit the Arctic are of Finland).  I could have spent quite a bit more time here, but I was heading off to see some reindeer 🙂

Below, you will see the absolutely beautiful landscape as we walked to the Arktikum:


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As you can see it is quite cold in Rovaniemi!!  






“Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one reindeer open sleigh…”


That’s me and Jasmine, my reindeer partner!  



I enjoyed my trip to the reindeer farm, insofar as I learned more about reindeer and their importance to Finnish culture.  What I am about to say may appear hypocritical as I have just posted a picture of me riding in a sleigh pulled by one of these reindeer.  However, seeing these animals in captivity was depressing.  There wasn’t space for them to run freely.  I saw so many reindeer on our ride and all of them were tethered to poles or trees.  It made me wish that I wasn’t contributing to an enterprise that exploits these animals.  

For the past year, I looked forward to coming up to the Arctic to see one thing and one thing only: The Northern Lights!!!  When I think about this remarkable natural phenomena I am reminded of a quote from Emerson: “The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence”.  The Northern Lights proved to be inaccessible on this trip; however, I know that I will return one day and see those “envoys of beauty [that] light the universe with their admonishing smile”.  *** In an attempt to see the lights, we went on a late night snowmobile excursion to try to track them down.



This is my snowmobile partner Kana.  Kana is here in Finland as part of a graduation trip.  She just graduated from Dental School.  Congratulations Kana!!  I hope that you are enjoying the rest of your vacation!!


Ruthie and Lydia are ready to take a solo ride!

I wasn’t able to get that many pictures on this trip because I didn’t want to drop my camera and also because it was soooooooo cold.  I didn’t want to take my gloves off.  I think that this is quite possibly the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.  In terms of natural selection, I’m not sure that I could survive in an Arctic climate.  Even though, I was covered from head to toe and had multiple pairs of socks on I could not stay warm.

All in all, this was a great trip and while I didn’t get to see the Northern Lights, it just gives me yet another reason why I will  return to Finland!!

***The above quotes came from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature.  If you haven’t read this, you should–at least the first chapter (that’s my favorite 🙂





Observations in the Classroom and the Teacher’s Lounge

It is difficult to condense the experiences that I am having into a short blog post; however, in order to keep everyone at home updated, I will make my best effort.  This entry is going to simply get everyone up to date so that I can get down to the business of analyzing these experiences!

For starters, I have observed several classes in Jyväskylä:

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***It’s becoming abundantly clear to me that I need to get better classroom pictures.  I always feel like such a creep taking pictures, though.

When I first arrived in Jyväskylä, I was exclusively visiting Finnish language acquisition courses.  However, I couldn’t really understand what was happening in the classes.  So, I started interspersing English courses into my observations.  What a great idea!  There are so many nuances to English that I never notice because it is second nature to me.  Observing students learning my first language and how educators teach it has been incredibly helpful.

Here are a few interesting things that I have observed or discussed with teachers in the last three weeks.  These are in no particular order:

  1.  Teachers work a total number of hours per year.  These hours are dispersed differently throughout each teaching period (in Jyväskylä, high schools are on 6 periods throughout the year–the school that I just visited in Rovaniemi has 5 periods in the year).  For instance, a teacher may only work 16 hours per week one period, but 24 hours per week the following period.  Most teachers do not teach more than 24 hours per week.
  2.  Hours are calculated differently for each subject.  For instance a Finnish teacher (the equivalent of an English teacher in the US) works less hours than a Physical Education teacher because of the number of papers that they have to grade.
  3. When a teacher is not scheduled to teach a course, they are free to leave.  It is understood that teachers are professionals and they will get their work completed even if they are not on the campus.
  4. When discussing student grades with one teacher, I asked how often parents contacted her regarding student grades and if anyone had ever asked her to change a grade.  Her response was complete disbelief.  Apparently, in 10 years of teaching, a parent has NEVER contacted her regarding changing their child’s grade.  The teacher’s assessment is trusted because they are the expert in their field.
  5. Assessment is almost entirely summative, meaning that assignments are gone over, but the teachers don’t necessarily grade every single assignment–they provide quite a bit of verbal feedback.  In many of the classes that I have observed, there is quite a bit of peer evaluation and assessment.  In terms of how grades are assigned, it comes down to a skills based exam at the end of each period.  This is something that I want to move toward; however, I do not have confidence that my students will complete work if they know that it is not going to receive a grade. Perhaps, I need to place more trust in them. My fear in trying this approach is that if a student doesn’t complete the formative pieces and learn the skills, I will be blamed entirely for their failure.   I asked one teacher what would happen if a student failed at the end of a course.  She looked at me as though, I was some kind of a simpleton.  She responded: Then they fail.  If they don’t do the work and learn the skills, they deserve to fail.
  6. I’ve mentioned it before, but here it is again.  There is a 15 minute break at the end of each 45 minute course and a 1 hour lunch break!  This may seem like a an excessive amount of time in the day for breaks (to an American); however, these breaks are necessary for everyone’s well-being.  The students have the chance to socialize with their friends, get their homework completed, and release their excess energy making them more prepared for learning when they are in the classroom.  The teachers have ample time to use the restroom, socialize with other adults and eat a healthy lunch.  At my school, the passing periods are 6 minutes, we have a 10 minute break 4 days a week and our lunch is 35 minutes long (it used to be 40 minutes).  While our lunch is contractually protected and we are given that time away from students, the school culture is one that expects teachers to make themselves available during that time to give make up tests, tutor students, advise clubs, etc.  I cannot think of any other profession where one is expected to work throughout their lunch without pay.  At every school that I have visited, there is a designated teacher’s lounge (not a copy room–:)), but a real teacher’s lounge where teachers congregate for coffee breaks throughout the day and a designated area for teachers to eat lunch together.   At the end of the day, these breaks make for more productive workers.

All of the above observations are related to teacher well-being, job satisfaction and quality of life.  I have many more musings on this; however, I will save it for another day!!


Quitting: Everyone else is doing it is not a good enough reason!

On Tuesday evening, I found myself near tears and ready to throw in the towel.  I was asking Why am I even here?  What excuse can I make to leave?


The book that haunts my dreams.

Every Tuesday evening from 16:30-18:00 (that’s 4:30-6 for those of you in the US) I step into what I can only describe as a torture chamber.  Okay.  I exaggerate.  My Suomi (Finnish) class is not torture, but I feel sick to my stomach for the majority of the class period.  It reminds me of almost every moment that I spent in Mr. Selby’s algebra II and pre-calculus classes.  Not because he wasn’t an amazing teacher (he was), but because learning his content was tantamount to learning a foreign language–one whose rules I didn’t understand and couldn’t make sense of no matter how many times I met him before school for one on one help.

I imagine that the ELL (English Language Learner) students in my classroom feel the same discomfort as they struggle in my class and the classes of my colleagues as they attempt to navigate the language in our courses in addition to the very specific academic jargon in each of our content areas.  The difference between my students and me is that my survival does not depend on my learning Finnish.  I could abandon this class and I would not suffer.  The vast majority of the population in this country know and can communicate in English.

ELL students are not afforded the same luxury in my country.  In order to find success academically in the United States one must speak English.  I would also argue that in most cases one must also have a good command of English to find economic success.   If a high standard of living is tied to education and economic success (which it arguably is) then it would stand to reason that those who do not have mastery of English are denied access to the myriad opportunities available.

At the beginning of the course, there were over 20 students.  This week, there were less than 10.  I felt there was no shame in quitting–everyone else was doing it!  Then I looked at my partner Behnaz.  She came to Finland from Iran.  I have no idea why she came here as our communication is isolated to us pushing our cellphones across the table with the help of Google translate.  She knows a few phrases in English, but she only speaks Persian.  While this course is difficult for me, I have to believe that it is exponentially more difficult for her.  The course is taught primarily in Finnish; however, when instructions are not given in Finnish they are given in English.  How Behnaz returns each week with a smile on her face is beyond me.  She and I are easily the worst Finnish speakers in the class, but I can’t feel badly for myself.  I speak English and I can ask for clarification, I can ask the instructor to repeat something, I can ask for explanation of rules pertaining to verb conjugation, pronoun endings, etc.  Behnaz cannot.  My wish is that by the end of this course that we can speak to each other.  The majority of our communication at this point is limited to our shared looks of confusion and laughter at the absurdity of our abilities.  At least I hope she’s laughing with me!

While it would be easy to walk away, I think this discomfort is important to my research.  I have always felt sympathy for students who struggle to understand (all students, not just language learning students); however, it has been a long time since I have felt the struggle myself.  Being surrounded by a language that you do not understand is exhausting.  The amount of concentration that it takes to pick up every 5th or 6th word in an attempt to gain some semblance of meaning leaves me bone tired.  Suffice it to say, I have a new lens with which to view language acquisition.  At this point, the lens is blurry, but with hard work, I think that everything will start to come into focus.

My skills are low, but my spirits are high!  If my students can struggle through each day, every day to understand concepts that are beyond their grasp, then I owe it to their diligence to persevere and “Finnish” this course.

Kiitoksia ja hyvää ilta!

Orientation Fulbright Style and Eating My Way Through Tallinn

The week of January 23rd,  I traveled to Helsinki for my orientation.  It was so nice to finally meet the people who put so much effort into making this trip possible.  It was also nice to reunite with the Fulbrighters in Helsinki and Joensuu.  It was a busy couple of days. On Thursday, we had several presenters who discussed the Finnish Education System, the Fulbright program and how they receive their funding, and the history of Finland.  We ended the day at the US Embassy for dinner.  The following day, we were on the move.  We started the day at the University of Helsinki, then we went to Sibelius Lukio in Helsinki, took a walking tour and ended the day at the American Resource Center at Kaisa Library where a US consulate came to speak to us about certain issues that may arise (losing a passport, getting arrested, you know the basics :), we had a Finnish lesson and received our certificates of participation.  Fulbright Finland, also gave us all a copy The Kalevala, a Finnish epic.

After a busy few days in Helsinki, Mayra, Andrea and I took a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia for the weekend.  The ferry was much larger than ferries that I have traveled on in the past.  It was more like a cruise ship!  As soon as we arrived at our Air bnb, we toasted our travels with some champagne that our amazing host Kaarel left for us.  Seriously, if you are ever in Tallinn, you must stay at his place!  It’s amazing.

We awoke the next morning and tried a place that Kaarel recommended for breakfast:

I don’t take a ton of food pictures because I’m normally too hungry to actually snap pics of my food.  Regardless, these Russian pies were to die for.  I made a hasty decision and got the carrot and egg one–don’t.  It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t the best.  How do I know?  We came back later that day to pick up some to go so that we would have them for breakfast before our ferry left.  Seriously, I cannot stop thinking about these pies. They are actually Russian pierogi, but it’s nothing like Polish pierogi.  It’s more like a pasty, but actually good. If you’re wondering what the best one was, I would have to say the Christmas one (that wasn’t what it was called, but there was gingerbread and apples and other delicious items) or the turkey and plum (I was skeptical, but it looked good–I’m throwing all of my food skepticism to the wind for the rest of this trip.  If something looks good and smells good, I’m trying it–even if it has cheese in it!).  I don’t want to sound like a weirdo, but basically every place that we ate in Tallinn had delicious food and it’s making my mouth water just thinking about it.  Most of it was Russian.  I didn’t think that I would love Russian food as much as I did, but I have to admit, I’m excited to get back to Tallinn for more Russian pancakes and pies.

Enough about the food!  Some of you may be wondering why so much of the food is Russian.  For starters, there is the proximity of Estonia to Russia and the fact that there is a significant Russian minority in Estonia.  However, the most likely reason is the Soviet occupation of Estonia from 1944-1991.  The majority of the pictures that I am about to share do not necessarily demonstrate the Soviet influence in Estonia as most of the pictures I took are from Old Town which was almost completely untouched by the Soviets; however, throughout Estonia, you can see the influence in the sparse architectural style. As I already stated, Estonia’s independence is relatively new.  It is only since 1991 that they have been a free country and they are definitely a patriotic one!  The Estonian flag waves proudly throughout the city!  We only had one day in Tallinn, so we started out by getting acquainted with Old Town, then we went on a walking tour (I have never been so cold!  There wasn’t nearly as much walking as their was standing around and listening.  Our tour guide was great, though, and incredibly informative), stopped for lunch and then went to the Soviet Occupation Museum (one of the best museums that I’ve ever been to–and I normally don’t like museums all that much–we were there for two hours until it closed and I think that I could have easily spent 2 more hours there), then we ended the day with some traditional Estonian beers at a bar that you guessed it Kaarel recommended.  Seriously, that guy is a true Estonian treasure!


Best travel partners a girl could ask for!!  Not only did they tolerate my, bordering on neurotic, need to adhere to a time schedule, but they also seemed to enjoy (or at least pretend to enjoy) my spontaneous need to burst into song.


Entrance to Old Town


This is a good overview of Old Town from Toompea Hill.



Central Square: this place will be packed in the summer time!!



Alexander Nevsky Cathedral



This is the War of Independence Victory Column.  It is located in Freedom Square.  The monument is to commemorate the fallen soldiers in the Estonian War for Independence (1918-1920).  The monument was opened in 2009–quite a bit after the war.  Because of World War II and the subsequent Soviet occupation, it took quite a bit longer to erect the monument than anticipated.



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All in all, we had a great time, but the time in Tallinn was too short. I look forward to going back in the summer time once my project is complete.  I have plans to travel through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  As dark a time as the Soviet occupation was for all three of these Baltic nations, I have to admit that I am fascinated by this often ignored (at least in the history courses that I have taken) part of history.

Finnish Education and Immigrant Integration

Over the past several weeks, I have begun the process of studying the Finnish education system with a specific focus on language acquisition for immigrant and refugee students.  To aid this process, I am auditing two courses at the University of Jyväskylä: Issues in Finnish Language Education and Teaching in Multilingual and Multicultural Settings.  Both of these courses began by discussing the Finnish educational system with a focused emphasis on primary and upper secondary education.  For a comprehensive look at the system in all aspects refer to this slide show from the Finnish National Board of Education.

In a nutshell and in no particular order, below are some differences that I see between the US and Finnish system so far:

  •  Funding: the schools are funded primarily through the government and also through each individual municipality.  The funding is not tied to school performance and the decisions for spending is left almost exclusively to each local municipality.  In the United States, each school receives money from the federal government; however, each state has different criteria governing school funds.  Trying to figure out the ins and outs of this is mind boggling–I was recently asked to speak to a graduate course on the differences between centralized and decentralized education and when it came to funding, I explained that I was no expert but that I could explain how it works in my school district and more broadly the state of California.  For example, California’s public schools receive funding from three sources: the state (57%), property taxes and other local sources (29%), and the federal government (14%). The proportion of funding from each source varies across school districts (these statistics came from the Public Policy Institute of California–their tagline is: Informing and improving public policy through independent, objective nonpartisan research–I trust these stats).  While each school in Finland is funded in the same way, the schools in the US are funded differently depending on which state you live.


  • Primary Education: in grades 1-6 (ages 7-12), the goal is for students to have the same teacher all six years.  Of course, this is not always possible if a teacher leaves or transfers schools; however, it is the goal.  Having the same teacher all six years has many benefits: the teacher gets to know his/her students well enough to assess their individual needs, the teacher is able to either slow or quicken the pace of instruction based on the abilities of their students.  There is no rush to “cover” material that is on a test because there are no tests.  In fact students do not receive grades at all.  All assessment is verbal.  In addition to this, students only have 19-25 (45 minute) lessons per week.  I am not a numbers girl, but this breaks down to 3.75 hours of instructional time each day if they are at the high end.  After each 45 minute lesson there is a 15 minute recess and the students receive 1 hour for lunch.  The school days are shorter in Finland and the students have more time for rest and play.


  • Upper Secondary Education: after year 9, students have the choice to pursue either general upper secondary education which generally leads to studying at a university or vocational upper secondary education and training this generally leads to either continued specialized vocational training or directly into the work force.  While we have vocational training in the United States, there is a perceived stigma attached to these programs and they are not as highly sought after.  In Finland, the number of students pursuing the traditionally academic track and vocational track is almost equal.


  • Standardized Testing:  This is a big one.  There is only one standardized test given in Finland and that is the PISA (The Program of International Student Assessment).  It is an optional test that is taken at the end of year 9.  Finland’s PISA scores, though, are what put them on the map as being an educational Mecca.  I will discuss this more in-depth in later posts.  If you are interested in reading up on the PISA, the Internet is a great tool.  The only other high stakes test that Finnish students are required to take are their matriculation exams at the end of their schooling.  As of the middle of February, graduating Finnish high schoolers will no longer attend courses, but they will begin preparation for their matriculation exams.  Personally, I think that the emphasis on high stakes standardized testing is misplaced in the United States.  For starters, these tests are given at the end of a school year and the results are not received until the following school year.  If the point is to use these assessments to drive instruction, then they are missing the mark.  If we insist on giving these tests (which I would argue are arbitrary and instructional time could be put to much better use) we should use them as a diagnostic the first week of school and then use the results to drive instruction for the remainder of the year.


  • Cost of University and post secondary schooling: There is no cost!  That’s right, if you are a member of the EU (that rule just changed, up until the fall of 2017 anyone from any country could come to Finland and receive a free college education) you can attend any Finnish university free of charge.  In fact, students also receive a study grant if they are attending a university in good standing (this applies to non-Finnish citizens if they have the proper residency permits).  The grant isn’t huge, it’s around 300 Euro per month, but it’s basically like getting paid to attend school without incurring the debt that so many Americans incur in their quest to obtain a college degree.


  • School Lunch Program: Each Finnish primary and secondary school serves a hot, nutritious lunch each day to all students free of charge.  Most students eat the lunch.  I have had the pleasure of enjoying these lunches and they are delicious.  There is a hot main course, salad, milk or water and bread (so much bread!).  They also use real plates, silverware, glasses, etc.  Each student is responsible for clearing their own tray and placing their plates, silverware and glasses in the proper area.  Not only does sharing a common meal build a sense of community, but the idea of personal responsibility is ingrained from a very young age: clean up after yourself, take what you want, but eat what you take.  I do not see much waste in a Finnish cafeteria (or Finnish life in general).  In the garbage container, you will generally find napkins in the paper container and very little food in the biodegradable container.  The sustainability programs, here, in Finland are amazing–more on that in another post!


  • There are also vast differences in the perception of the teaching profession, job satisfaction and teacher training programs.  I am going to leave that for a separate post, though.

Wow!  For a nutshell, I kind of got a bit long-winded.  So, I will try to be brief for the remainder of this entry.  Over the past three weeks, I have attended and observed courses in addition to meeting with the director of the adult education program in Jyväskylä and a professor at JAMK whose cross-cultural management course spearheaded a program to raise awareness on the refugee crisis: United for Refugees.  This program began in the fall of 2015, and each successive class has added to what the original course began.  (***Please click on the link United for Refugees to read a blog post from the United Nations–it explains the course and project far better than I could).


At this point, I have not had as many opportunities to observe in primary and upper secondary classrooms as I would like (I have 3 visits planned for next week).  My research has taken me down a path that I did not expect, but am more than happy to follow at this juncture.  The majority of my observations have taken place in adult education centers.  There is a specific program for immigrants and refugees that is called the Immigration Integration program.  In this program, participants have 3 years to take Finnish courses (taught 5 days a week from 9-2 with a one month break in the summer) where they learn the language and culture while also preparing to enter the workforce with their classroom experience culminating in an internship at a local business, hospital, retirement home, restaurant, etc.  While they are enrolled in the program, they receive government assistance in terms of healthcare, food, shelter, etc.  At the end of the program, they are eligible to apply for citizenship if they are able to pass the language test.  They are also able to remain in Finland if they are able to find employment.  Knowing the Finnish language is requisite in obtaining employment in most cases, so that is why the language immersion courses are so important.

I took the above pictures at Jyvälän Setlementti.  This particular class ranges in age from 22-56 and the students are from all over the world: China, England, Thailand, the Netherlands, Burundi, Senegal, Kenya, Phillipines, India, Turkey, Russia and Sudan.  This particular class has been learning Finnish for a year and a half and they were working on preparing interview questions because they are starting their internships next week.  The instructor told me that this is a pretty advanced class.  Most of them studied extensively in their home countries.  Some were teachers and one man that I met worked as an engineer before leaving India for Finland.  Many of the students also spoke English, so in the second half of the class, they introduced themselves to me and each one of them taught me a word, phrase or question in Finnish that they thought I would find helpful.  One of my favorites was “Usko itseesi!” (Believe in yourself!).

School Visits, Ice Skating and Finnish Lessons–oh my!

Riding the bus into town yesterday, I put my book down as we crossed the bridge over Lake Jyväsjärvi.  As I looked out over the lake,  I realized just how lucky I am.  I’ve thought it several times over the last year; however, it struck me: I live in Finland for the next five months!  I have an opportunity that few educators or professionals, in general, get.  I have five months to reflect on my teaching practice and research ways to help refugee and immigrant students.  This is an immense opportunity and responsibility.

Watching the confirmation hearing this week for the presumptive Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, was challenging.  She lacks the basic knowledge and experience that lends itself to equitable access for all students to a quality education. I often wonder why, in the United States, we do not call upon the knowledge base from those in the field of education (i.e. teachers) when creating educational policy and appointing people to these high level positions.  The divisive nature of politics in the US has created an us against them mentality wherein the best interests of our country are taking a backseat to party politics.  It is time that we, as citizens, demand advocacy for one of our most vulnerable populations: children.  Education is the best equalizer that we have and it is of utmost importance that every child from every background receives equal access to quality education.

Over the past week and a half, I have visited Jyväskylän Lyseon lukio, two times–in a country that sees the value in providing free and equitable education to all students.  The purpose of these visits was to give Susanna’s IB (International Baccalaureate) students the opportunity to ask me some questions about the United States. The first class had a total of 8 students in attendance and the second had 15. They explained the IB program to me and told me a bit about themselves.  Before beginning the discussion, Susanna had them create a mind map on the Smartboard and we went from there.  The topics they were most interested in were religion (the role it plays in American society), the importance of family, small talk, inequality (for women, minorities and those who are wealthy vs those who are not), the expense of college, healthcare, guns and the recent election.


Susanna and I in her “classroom”.  I put that in quotes because in Finnish schools, teachers do not have their own rooms. They move to different rooms much like in college.



There are many areas throughout the school for students to study or socialize.


Notice how clean everything is–I LOVE it!!!


We talked extensively on most of these topics.  The students were shocked by the amount of money that most people spend on a college education as education is free in Finland to the highest degree.  They were equally shocked by the state of healthcare in the United States and how (for the most part) health coverage is tied to the job that one has.  That is not the case, here, in Finland.  The students were also particularly interested in discussing gun violence in the United States and they wanted to know why everyone wanted to carry a gun.  Suffice it to say, the students had very real concerns about the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States. I really enjoyed having the opportunity to interact with Susanna’s students (it made me miss my own students!!).  They made astute observations and spoke articulately on each topic they proposed.

By the end of the day, though, I was feeling a bit downtrodden about the state of inequity in the United States as the majority of the topics that we discussed mostly came back to the fact that while opportunity exists in the US for everyone, access to those opportunities vary greatly.  This does not mean that the United States is not a great country and that it doesn’t have potential for growth and change.  Acknowledging the flagrant lack of equity in most of the social systems is the first step  toward achieving access for all people in every aspect of American society.

Visiting Susanna’s school is only a small part of what I’ve been up to.  The past week has been a whirlwind! I have (more or less) learned to navigate the bus system, acquainted myself with The University of Jyväskylä, met my adviser Dr. Riikka Alanen, attended my first Finnish language class at the Adult Education Center, received tutoring for Finnish at the Gloria Multicultural Center and interviewed the director (their main goal is to provide services to help immigrants integrate into Finnish society) and I’ve set up three meetings for next week with educators that specialize in immigrant education and language instruction.  Suffice it to say that I’ve been busy; however, I do not feel stressed or anxious. This is the first time in my adult life that I have enjoyed the pleasure of study and research without also working full time.  I couldn’t be happier!


This is Ruusupuisto Hall, the education building (I’ll take more pictures of the inside later–I didn’t want to be the weirdo taking tons of pictures, I’m trying to fit in!).  It’s much nicer than Sangren Hall at Western Michigan University!

It has not been all work, though.  I attended a hockey game last weekend with my fellow Fulbrighters and I also spent some time ice skating on the lake near my house.  Next week, I’m heading to Helsinki for my Fulbright Orientation and after that, two of my Fulbrighting (do you like how I’m taking liberties with this word??) friends are headed to Tallinn, Estonia with me for the weekend!!!


Here is the ice rink that I shoveled on the lake. I don’t have any pics of me skating, though.



I think this is what the entrance to Narnia must look like!!



These are the skaters that performed after the first period. Let’s just say that my skills in no way rival theirs!!!


Planes, Trains and Buses: Transportation and a Vehicle for Humility

It hasn’t been a full week since I left Sacramento, but it feels like a lifetime.  Getting to Finland was interesting. A few delays placed me in Helsinki much later than anticipated; however, it gave me the opportunity to travel on Finnair as opposed to my original arrangement.  What a lovely experience.  Finnair puts American carriers to shame.  I wish that I would have taken a picture–suffice it to say that the plane was the nicest I have ever traveled on.

Unfortunately due to delays, I didn’t arrive to my hotel until after 11, so I went to sleep and awoke early to take a walk around the city before departing for Jyväskylä.  Below are a few pics I took.

The train ride to Jyväskylä was smooth.  Due to the fact that I was able to purchase a super saver ticket a few weeks ago, I obtained a first class ticket for the bargain price of 20 Euro! This is the first (and probably only) time that I will travel first class, but I figured the splurge was warranted!


This is what 30 hours of travel and 4 hours of sleep looks like! At least I’m traveling in style!!

Upon arrival, I was greeted by Susanna Soininen who promptly took me to get a bus pass and grocery shopping before heading to my new home!!  I could not be more grateful to Susanna and her family for welcoming me to Jyväskylä.  They made sure that my new home was ready for me in every possible way.  It may seem small, but she made sure that I had cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, toilet paper, tin foil, cold medicine etc.  Moving to a new place is daunting, but when you have someone supporting you, it is so much easier.  Susanna may not see it this way, but I see her as my living, breathing guardian angel at this point!  Thank you!!

Below are a few pictures that Susanna sent me of my place prior to my arrival and some pictures from my neighborhood Nenäinniemi (it is an immediate goal to pronounce this correctly):

Honestly, the pictures of the house do not do it justice.  This is probably the nicest place that I have ever lived.  It is significantly larger than my apartment in Sacramento and it has a washing machine!!!  Not since living at my parent’s house have I had a washing machine in my home.  At 3 in the morning the other day (I’ve been experiencing serious jet lag), I thought it would be a good idea to do a load of laundry.  After putting the soap in, I realized that it wasn’t working (user error on my part).  Calling Susanna at 3 in the morning was, obviously, out of the question.  So, I proceeded to wash and wring out an entire load of laundry in the sink. I have often thought that if I could live in any other time period that I would have liked to live in the late 1800s or turn of the century; however, it is times like these that I realize that I wouldn’t have fared well without the amenities of modern society!

I absolutely love where I live!!  I am about a 15-20 minute bus ride to the city center.  Of course navigating the bus system is something that may take me a bit to get used to.  So far, I’ve only had one big mishap. After my first school visit, I went to the city library to get a library card, check out a few books and head home for a relaxing evening.  Sounds simple, right?  Well, navigation has never been my strong point.  I got on the wrong bus and road it for two full cycles thinking that I had simply missed my stop; however, after speaking to the bus driver, he informed me that I was, in fact, on the wrong bus.  He instructed me to get off and wait for the correct one.  I did as instructed and after waiting for 15 minutes, I saw my bus.  You can imagine my excitement–I was going home!  No.  Apparently I wasn’t visible to the driver as he blew past me.  Ughh.  Utter disappointment.  At this point, my heavy winter clothing wasn’t enough to keep out the chill so I hopped on the next bus that came as all of them eventually wind up at the city center.  From there I was able to get the correct bus and made it home safely.  I think that I am likely to have more mishaps like this before I become a navigational expert (expert may be stretching it).  However, these experiences give me the opportunity to ask for help.  Something that I have always struggled with.  It is hard for me to concede that I do not know what I am doing, but I must humble myself and admit when I am in over my head. I’ve found, thus far, that by and large Finnish people (and most people in general) are more than willing to help, if I ask.


I was able to meet up with my fellow Jyväskylä Fulbrighters this week for a reunion lunch.  From left to right, me, Mayra, Rachel, Mark and Ruthie (Rachel’s daughter) in front.  You will notice that there isn’t any snow on the streets.  In the city center, there are several pedestrian only streets and those streets are heated so that snow and ice do not build up.

Basically, this week has been amazing!!  I’ve reunited with great friends and met many new people.  I can’t wait to see how all of this unfolds.  So far, my entries haven’t focused as much on education as many of you might expect.  Do not worry!!  My next entry will focus entirely on my first school visit where Susanna works: Jyväskylän Lyseon Lukio.  For now, though, I’m going ice skating!  Susanna took me to get them the second day that I was here!


Embracing the Unknown and Socks: How many pairs are realistic for a six month trip?

It has been a busy few months trying to prepare for my departure.  I was able to get back to Michigan during both Thanksgiving and Christmas to see my family.


My mom, dad, brother Mike and me in front of my parent’s beautiful tree!

While I was home, it was actually colder in Marlette than it was in Jyväskylä.  So, I’m feeling pretty confident about my ability to adapt to the cold.  I hope that confidence isn’t misplaced!

I depart for Helsinki in less than 24 hours.  It seemed like this day would never come and now that it has, I am overwhelmed with emotions.  Mostly excitement; however, the fear of the unknown is powerful.  I keep reminding myself (with the help of my mom) that this is not the first time that I have moved somewhere sight unseen.  In July of 2005, I moved across the country to California after accepting a teaching job over the phone.  It is because of that move that I find myself in the position that I am today.  So, while I enter this journey with slight trepidation, I also understand that without risk, there are no rewards and that past experience lends itself to the belief that I can thrive in any environment that I find myself as long as I am willing to embrace the unknown.

This brings us to the second part of the title of this post.  Packing for six months is a daunting task, especially for a notorious over packer such as myself.  As a former Girl Scout, the motto: BE PREPARED rings loudly in my ears.



At this juncture, my new motto is: be prepared to purchase what you’ve forgotten when you arrive in Finland!  Above, you will see my original decisions.  I have since pared it down a bit.  After all, who needs five sundresses when you can get by with two?  As for the socks, the number may not be realistic, but I have twelve pairs.  That’s right.  Four cotton for working out, four mid-weight wool for everyday and four heavy wool for outdoor activities.  I stand by this number.



As a member of a society that values “stuff,” it was difficult to refrain from taking every comfort with me (hence the decision to only take travel sizes of my hair products opposed to a six month supply–trust me when I say this decision was difficult).  I am trying to embrace not only the unknown, but also the concept of less is more.  No doubt, I will do both with warm feet!

The next time I write, I will be in Jyväskylä.  Hopefully I will have a picture of me ice skating on the lake below:


Hei hei (good bye in Finnish) for now!!

Visitors from Finland

This past week, I had the opportunity to host Susanna Soininen, her husband Heikki and their daughter Lilja, here, in Sacramento.  Susanna is also a recipient of the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and she is currently conducting her research at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.  Susanna and her family live in Jyväskylä and I am renting an apartment from them while I am conducting my research.  I would be lying if I said that I haven’t had a good deal of apprehension over the past few weeks with regards to my impending move; however, after spending some time with Susanna and her family, I am not only ready to leave, but am anxious to get this show on the road so to speak.

While Susanna was here, she had the opportunity to visit El Dorado High School and observe two of my colleagues in the history department.



Susanna and I on the EDHS Campus

She also observed one of my classes and my students had the opportunity to ask her some questions about Finland.  Overall, they were shocked with the amount of freedom that her students had and the fact that education and healthcare are free and available to all citizens while only incurring a tax rate of about 32%.

Susanna also relayed the slower pace of life that Finns have in comparison to the people in the United States.  I was heartened when a student made reference to this later in the week while we were reading “The Artist of the Beautiful”* by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the story, the vast majority of the people prize utility over art and beauty.  This particular student who shall remain nameless (because I’m not sure about the rules regarding posting students’ names on a blog) connected the onset of the Industrial Revolution to the quickened pace that has steadily taken its hold in American culture.

On our way back and forth from Sacramento to Placerville, I had the opportunity to have many insightful conversations with Susanna regarding education in the US and education in Finland.  I am very much looking forward to getting to see the Finnish system in action.


Heikki, Lilja and Susanna in downtown Sacramento on the night of the election.

While Susanna and her family were, here, in Sacramento, the United States elected a new president.  Several of her students in  Jyväskylä slept over at the school the night of the election so that they could watch the results live.  I was amazed that they had so much interest in American politics as so many people who live here do not.  She asked me if I would be willing to facetime with her students and answer some questions.  I was a bit nervous as I’m not used to discussing politics with students.  However, it was a great experience and I cannot wait to meet her students and colleagues once I get to Finland.


This is a picture that Susanna’s daughter sent today from Jyvaskyla.

I will be heading to Finland in less than two months!  I hope that it snows even more before I get there!!


*If you haven’t read “The Artist of the Beautiful,” I suggest you stop whatever you are doing and get that taken care of.  You will not regret it.