Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Future is Still Murky...and That's Okay

It's been quite a few months since I have written a blog entry.  In fact, we were still in Finland the last time I wrote.  My lack of writing isn't because I've had nothing to say - quite the opposite, actually.  It's more like I've needed time to synthesize the seemingly endless and relentless thoughts that are with me day in and day out.  In many regards, the transition back to life in America has been difficult for me.  I was not prepared for the degree to which this trip would transform me, nor was I expecting the transformation to affect so many aspects of my life.

Today is the 100th Anniversary of Finnish Independence, and this milestone has stirred up in me the desire to finally share some reflections on this blog.  Here's some of what I wrote in my first blog post, nearly a year ago on January 3rd:

"Now we are less than a week away from leaving and I can hardly believe it.  I keep saying that I’m ready to finally get going, that this has been looming for so long and I’m anxious to rip the bandaid off and just DO THIS!  But it strikes me every time I say it that I actually have no idea what all of this will be like.  There is so much unknown.  “The future is murky” has become my mantra - not only for my time in Finland, but also for what my life will look like after we return.  I went into this thinking that the Fulbright was the final destination, but I have learned that for most people, the Fulbright is a stepping stone that opens many doors.  And what are those doors for me?  I have no idea.  But the way everything has fallen into place at every step of the way gives me a sense of peace about the unknown.  I’m confident that taking this wild risk is the right move for us to be taking, and good things will come from it, even if it is hard to know what that means."  

As the title of this entry suggests, the future is still murky, and I'm okay with that. It is true that the Fulbright was not the final destination for me, it was most definitely a jumping off point. Here are a few tangible things that have come directly out of this experience:
  • I've been hired as part of the artistic staff in the Angelica Cantanti Youth Choirs and I couldn't be happier to have this beautiful, artistic, creative outlet in my life.  
  • My choir was invited to perform this September at FinnFest as part of the Finland 100 celebration.
  • I was also asked to present my Fulbright project, "An In Depth Look at Music Education and Children's Choirs in Finland" at the FinnFest choral symposium.
  • I have had the opportunity to share my research with multiple groups, including graduate students in music education and fellow educators in my school district.
  • I've accepted the invitation to direct the ACDA-MN State Honor Choir for 4-5-6 Boys in May of 2019.  Directing a state honor choir was one of my post-Fulbright 5 year goals, so I'm VERY excited for this opportunity.
In addition to the tangible, there is so much that I have gained personally, and so much that I hope is still to come.  To those of you who have listened to me talk ad nauseam about my time and learning in Finland, I sincerely thank you.  It means more to me than I can tell you.  I've never wrestled internally with something quite like this before.   I've been through many highs and lows on this journey of trying to discern what exactly I believe about education as a teacher and as a mother.  Each of the discussions, listening, questioning, and even the arguments, have been helpful in the process of me working through all of this.

So what exactly do I believe?  Here are a few things:

  • We need to pay more attention to "who" we are teaching.  The "who" and "what/how" of education cannot be separated, but I believe there is currently an imbalance in American education.  It is my opinion that teachers do give attention to this, but I do not believe we are encouraged systemically to really know our students for who they are.  We are trained to know their academic strengths and challenges, but not to really know them and their passions/strengths/fears/struggles.  We are also not focused on how to help them discover their own identity and then foster that into a happy, fulfilling, sustainable future.
  • I wish our littlest students were given more help and time in becoming ready to learn before being asked to learn.   Perhaps not having a lockstep system where students move ahead based on their birthday would be a way to address this issue.  Could we find a way to decide this that takes into consideration things like home life, previous personal and education experience, and developmental skills? 
  • I believe more attention needs to be given in the early years to helping students develop their character and identity.  Again, I believe our early childhood and primary teachers work very hard to do this in their individual classroom.  I do not see, however, enough support for this on  systemic level.  What I mean by this is the training and professional development we receive is extremely heavy on the side of instruction and content.  The academic demands placed on primary teachers are really incredible, and seem to come at the expense of character development.  My school district has a new program in our high school that allows students to choose different pathways in their education.  My understanding is that this is based on the idea that there are different roads to "success" and that "success/career readiness" doesn't look the same for everyone - and that's GREAT!  I would love to see this idea expanded to our younger students.  
  • Kids need more time playing and moving, preferably outside!  Really.  20 minutes of recess is not enough.  (Elementary students in Finland go outside for 15 minutes of every hour - 45 minutes of learning and then 15 minutes of recess.  All. Day. Long.)  Besides the obvious benefits of moving and using their bodies, I believe this would have many positive effects on our students.  Unstructured play time is where students have real-world interactions, both positive and difficult, with their peers.  This is the time when students can practice and apply skills like problem solving, conflict resolution, and other relational skills in authentic ways.  I've wondered if there is any research documenting the percentage of time students spend in teacher directed activities vs. self directed activities.  If you know anything about this, let me know!
  • American teachers, at least the ones that I know of, and especially the ones in my school district, are SO WELL TRAINED!!!  Our instruction is incredible.  I don't know how to stress this enough.  I wish administrators and others who make educational decisions could see what I saw in Finland.  All 8 of us Fulbrighters in Finland last year had the same observation:  Across all subjects and grade levels, the instruction we saw in Finland was not as engaging or rigorous as what we see in our home schools.  And the children of the Fulbrighters who were attending Finnish schools said the same thing. 
  • Finland's success is not due to the quality of instruction, it is due to three things, in my opinion:  
    1. The many social safety nets in place for all of their citizens, which results in their students being ready to learn because all of their basic needs are met before they come to school.
    2.  A society who makes decisions from the standpoint of "we all do better when we all do better."  It is a shared cultural priority to care for others rather than to focus on the needs of you and your own.  
    3. The purpose of education in Finland is to help students discover and affirm their personal identity as human beings, learners, and community members.  
What are the implications of all of this?  I see two primary sides to the equation of education: 
teachers and students.  I know this is over-simplified, but stick with me.  My personal opinion is that as a system, the vast majority of attention is focused on teachers and how to improve their instruction in order to increase student success.  My current wonderings are: What would happen if we trusted teachers and their instructional skills and turned our focus toward the students?  What would happen if our professional development focused on how to help our students develop their personal character and identity?  What if we had a system that accommodated and affirmed each and every child, rather than making children conform to our system? What if our early childhood education was more developmentally appropriate? What if we trusted students enough to let them take risks and learn/grow from those experiences?  

Who wants to explore these idea with me?   I'm serious! 

I know there's more...but that's a lot of what I've been thinking about.  And I have hopes about where these musing might take me.  I was not expecting to come away from Finland with a passion for educational systems and education reform, but that's where I seem to be.  I hope to move out of the classroom and into some sort of position where I might be able to have an influence on our systems.  That could look a lot of different ways (who wants to open an experimental school with me?) - which is why I still think the future is murky, but now that's an exciting thing to me.  This journey has taken me exactly where I need to be, and has provided me with the exact people I need in my life.  I trust that if I continue to listen to the messages presented to me and follow my passions, I will end up exactly where I'm supposed to be...even if I can't predict what that might be.  


1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your thoughts. Teacher trust is huge.
    You are correct that current (political) theory is 'more teacher training' which results in long meetings and staff development. That is one-size-fits-all for teachers, whether they are specialists, classroom, primary, intermediate, pull-out teachers, special education, etc.
    That time is taken at the expense of planning and preparation time, and at the expense of time to thoughtfully evaluate students' work.
    That is what we once did before the students arrived at school.
    The one thing we are doing now that hints at being student-centric, in Burnsville, is cultural proficiency. It is a start to being aware of every student and to recognizing that they have unique perspectives and needs, even within like cultures, religions, and financial situations, and much more between.