As Finnish As I Wanna Be?: November Thoughts On Realistic Adaptation


[Note: this post already seems dated. The election on Tuesday has sent me scrambling for new ways to teach about tolerance, global identity, and globalization. More on all that soon.]

September, begun with Hope for Great New Things in the classroom, has given way to the slow trudge across the muddy lawns of November. Returned from a semester in Finland, some plans give way to the realities of the American system (thankfully little of it enforced at my progressive, independent school):

there will be standardized tests–even for kids at progressive, “lab” schools;

for most students there are “standards,” largely based on content, much of it soon forgotten;

the “college process” weighs heavily on students; and so:

kids care a lot about grades;

the American pace of life makes designing new lessons difficult for me and has taught my students to seek today’s “right answer” rather than see each class meeting as a part of a larger whole; and,

some students aren’t accustomed to taking charge of their learning.

So what to do?

Here are some of the things I am trying:

design classrooms for student comfort; beanbags (I’ll get them someday!), plants, tea;

show real trust in students: after having the class as a whole set clear norms for their behavior, let them move and speak freely in the classroom;

use digital technology to increase learning. Get phones into the mix TEACH kids how to use their devices for academic outcomes. Although it hasn’t been without some bumps along the way, this year I am requiring my students use their laptops and phones more in class. Cracking down on improper use doesn’t teach them how to use them appropriately. Today, some of my sophomores (second-years who turn 16 this year) were texting and visiting non-academic sites. I reminded the class that they would rather be allowed to use their tech wisely than have it banned. I think this message is getting through. I’m confident it is with my older students;

project-oriented units, employing technology and teamwork;

check-ins, reflections, peer evaluations.

Part of a lesson Frederick Douglass that went poorly twice this week. Did I give them enough structure? Apparently not.

If we can’t do mastery-based learning (yet), how about differentiated assessments in which students (sometimes) get to choose their own adventure? Video presentation, graphic novels, or podcast. “Think about about French nationalism by designing a new flag, anthem, holidays, and postage stamps.” All that really matters is that they express the ideas, the fundamental questions, at the heart of the unit, in complex and coherent ways.


One ongoing struggle: turn-around times on assessments. The other week I had faculty meetings after school Monday and Wednesday; Sunday was given over to Open House. Four ten-hour days of conferences began just days later.

At the same time, I just read again about how Finnish teachers try to give constant, daily feedback. I find such sentences stressful to read! I am getting around my classroom, trying to speak with every student every day (at least that is the goal) but I can’t say I am giving them all feedback. I begin most classes with documents on Google Classroom, asking my students how long the homework took and one or two other questions. It’s hard to read all of these, let alone respond to them all. So, I still wonder, how can I give more meaningful formative feedback while getting six or seven hours of sleep.

* * * * * *

What did I learn that day?


Part of me wonders if the solution is, in part, to keep stepping back and thinking about what content they will remember in two, five, or ten years. Good, meaty projects, thick questions, and active learning. This is what they remember. I have to hook the content to those times of fun and engagement. It seems ever more clear that active learning of any kind–any learning-by-doing–leads to better retention for more students than the read-and-discuss model.



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