December 14, 2007

Building bridges: Education and culture cross paths during principal’s visit to Finland

Despite the language barrier, Immaculate Heart of Mary School principal Annette Jones of Indianapolis and Annikka, a 6-year-old student at Central School of Viiala in Akaa, Finland, play a color game.	(Submitted photo)

Despite the language barrier, Immaculate Heart of Mary School principal Annette Jones of Indianapolis and Annikka, a 6-year-old student at Central School of Viiala in Akaa, Finland, play a color game. (Submitted photo)

By Mike Krokos

Walk in each morning, pull off your shoes and slip into something more comfortable—like slippers.

Take time for a daylong hike to study and discuss nature’s beauty right outside your classroom window.

And if you’re a preschool student, don’t forget the special chewing gum provided after lunch.

Welcome to a few of the unique elements at the heart of Finland’s education system.

Thanks to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Annette Jones recently had the opportunity to travel to northern Europe and see a Finnish school operate firsthand. She also spent a few days visiting a school in Ireland.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Jones, the principal at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Indianapolis. “It’s hard to capture it [the experience].

“The purpose of the visit was to look at education in another culture,” added Jones, who is in her eighth year as principal of the Indianapolis North Deanery school. “I hope to incorporate some of their strengths into our school.

“In the future, I want more inter­national exchanges for our students, and a greater international focus in our schools.”

Established by an act of Congress in 1946, the Fulbright program provides opportunities for teachers, administrators and other faculty to participate in a direct exchange of positions with colleagues from other countries.

As was the case for Jones, Fulbright’s Senior Specialist Program offers three to six weeks of “work shadowing” and observational study opportunities for U.S. and international administrators.

Jones is one of approximately 170 U.S. citizens traveling abroad during the 2007-08 academic year thanks to the Fulbright program.

Her Finnish counterpart, principal Kaija-Leena Salovaara of Central School of Viiala in Akaa, Finland, will visit Indiana for a month next spring.

Immaculate Heart of Mary School teaches students from first- to eighth-grade. Central School of Viiala has students from preschool to sixth-grade.

The Fulbright scholarship includes a stipend for housing and pays for recipients’ travel expenses.

Since the program’s inception, more than 98,400 U.S. Fulbright scholars have studied, taught or conducted research in 140 countries around the world. More than 162,000 foreign citizens have come to the U.S. through the program.

Education in another culture

Comparable to the state of Montana in size, Finland is home to approximately 5 million people.

The Finnish education system is unique because school is free, including through college, said Salovaara.

“We get a free, warm lunch every day, and even all the books in primary and secondary level [are paid for],” Salovaara said in an e-mail from Finland.

“Only in high school do you have to buy your books, but training is free.”

As soon as they arrive each day, students pull off their shoes and put on more comfortable footwear provided by the school.

Not only does this custom create a more relaxed learning environment, it also helps keep the schools cleaner, Jones said.

The elementary school curriculum includes woodworking, sewing and knitting. The classes cross genders so it isn’t unusual to see a boy at a sewing machine or a girl crafting something with wood.

What about the gum provided to preschool children after lunch? It helps promote good dental hygiene.

The daylong hike that the Immaculate Heart of Mary principal made with students and teachers is part of the country’s national curriculum, which incorporates nature.

The pine and birch trees that are staples of the country’s beautiful scenery have become integral elements in the classroom. On the hike, lunch was included and information stations were set up throughout the forest as part of the learning activity. Since the country is 70 percent forest and 20 percent water, it only makes sense for nature to be a part of the education process, Jones said.

And it helps to bring physical fitness into the curriculum.

“Finland offers lots of exercise for students,” she said. “There is a lot of walking.”

Absorbing a school’s strengths

From the shorter 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. school day to the daylong field trip held in the forest adjacent to the school, Jones spent the better part of a month absorbing as much as possible about education at Central School of Viiala.

But learning, in this instance, was a two-way street, said Salovaara.

“Annette gave me good ideas of leadership and for teacher observation,” said the Finnish principal.

Jones, who admits she has “a strong interest in inter­national education,” is no stranger to the concept of learning from a global perspective.

In the summer of 2006, she spent 10 days in Beijing, China, attending an international education conference.

One thing that the principal hopes to do in the future is add French classes to Immaculate Heart of Mary’s curriculum. Currently, Spanish is the only foreign language taught at the school.

“In Finland, they start learning English in third- or fourth-grade, and in high school, they start learning another [third] language,” said Jones, who has been an educator in the archdiocese for 19 years.

The principal’s goal of adding another language should come as no surprise.

Immaculate Heart of Mary School was named a 2005 Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education, and Jones is always looking for ways to improve the school’s curriculum, noted Annette “Mickey” Lentz, executive director for Catholic education and faith formation for the archdiocese.

“Annette is one of our best administrators because she is so innovative and creative,” Lentz said.

Questions about Indiana

As Jones “shadowed” Salovaara, the Immaculate Heart of Mary principal was more than happy to share Indiana’s culture with students in the classroom.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts were part of the conversation. So were American currency, the U.S. flag and the length of the school day here.

“They were amazed at how long our school day was [from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.],” Jones said.

Of course, food was a topic, too. For her part, Jones sampled reindeer meat during a day trip to the nearby Arctic Circle.

“It’s dark and salty,” she said.

And the trip to the Arctic Circle included the rare opportunity for Jones and Salovaara to get “The Official Photo with Santa Claus.”

The Comenius Project

While Jones admits shadowing a Finnish principal was extremely worthwhile, she said learning about the Comenius Project was invaluable as well.

An educational partnership begun three years ago between Finland, Slovakia, Norway and Ireland, the unique program offers school teachers and administrators the chance “to make trips and do exchanges” with the other countries, Jones said.

The five-day trip to Ireland—four days at a Catholic elementary school in Galway and one day in Dublin—was an extension of the Comenius Project, Jones noted.

At Scoil Chaitriona, the visiting educators were treated to Irish dancing and spent time in classrooms learning and sharing.

‘They already had relationships established,” Jones said. “Educational ideas and teaching methods are exchanged.”

“There are 400 projects going on where Finnish schools are involved,” Salovaara said.

That experience, and the lessons she brought home from Finland, will last a lifetime, Jones added.

The shoe on the other foot

As part of the Fulbright “shadowing” experience, Salovaara will visit Indiana in early 2008.

Besides spending several weeks with Jones at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, the Finnish principal is also scheduled to attend the National Catholic Educational Association convention in Indianapolis in late March.

There, she will be able to interact with the estimated 10,000 educators who are expected to attend.

“I’m looking forward to showing her Immaculate Heart of Mary and having her be a part of the NCEA,” Jones said.

Lentz agreed.

“I hope she [Salovaara] gains much knowledge of our educational culture in the exchange,” Lentz said.

For her part, Salovaara plans to come to the U.S. with an open mind.

“I think these kinds of visits are the best way to create friendships, share knowledge and remove doubts between people and cultures around the world,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for me and my school to get to know the culture in your country.”

Jones’ trip helped to build a bridge across those cultures.

“It was such an incredible experience,” she said. “I really liked the openness of the teachers and admini­strators and how much they shared information, their openness and communication and willingness to learn.”

If Jones has her way, the bridge building will continue beyond the principals’ experiences.

“I hope to get pen pal relationships started between our students,” she said. †

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