Seattle Finnish Education Convention Materials

21 09 2013

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So Much Need

9 10 2011

A misplaced post from September 11, 2011

Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.” Lila Downs’s “La niña.” A marathon ten hours holed up indoors with my co-teacher doing research yesterday on a picture perfect New York Saturday, the culling of ancillary material for a hopelessly idealistic, intellectually challenging, and existentially relevant unit on modern day slavery, exploitation, and human trafficking for our 8th graders. These weekends spent talking shop, discussing the various systems and routines we have in place, and figuring out this co-teaching dynamic have me excited.

School started two days before, on a sunny Thursday, a day where, if I were working in an office and chatting around the water cooler, I’d remark that it would have been a great day to head to the beach. But for the movement of a million children from one end of the city to the other, it would have been any other summer day — it wasn’t. For me, it was a day filled with anticipation at the prospects of rejoining the ranks, planning, teaching, learning, bonding with students, and challenging them to think creatively and aspire to new heights. But this is New York City, so it has to, it must, it’s expected to be more complicated than that and so my idealized class returned to more earthly heights and the practicalities of a mixed abilities classroom.

None of what I’m saying should be construed to be complaints, rather, musings on the particular challenges of high-needs teaching and the inherent difficulties of adolescence magnified by unimaginable issues of class, race, immigrant status, language, and the plethora of other topics we often tell ourselves children should never have to confront. Yet they do; and regardless of the de rigueur meme of a “no-excuses” culture, it’s oftentimes far from the realities — personally, home and work aren’t mutually exclusive, and, if I as an adult can’t always separate successfully my personal life from my work life, I’m not so sure we can expect students to be able to do so, either. So in my class of over 30 students, over a third of whom require specialized services, 5 of whom speak English at varying levels of proficiency, and the overwhelming proportion of whom were judged to be below standards according to the state, it’s hard to prioritize, it’s hard to know where to begin and how to tackle the multiple challenges that confront us as a class.

Am I optimistic that I can take on the challenge? Yes. Am I hopeful my students will rise to the challenge and prove that life circumstances aren’t the sole determinant of academic success? Yes. Do I wish it would be easier? Yes. But I also know that what I’m doing isn’t easy and it isn’t meant to be easy. I just hope that I’m a strong enough teacher and a strong enough person, nee, the right person to lead my students to someplace better.

A Rededication, of Sorts

10 09 2011

For months I’ve agonized about this blog, at times reconsidering its utility, debating whether to shut it down or whether it should live on, a new incarnation with renewed purpose.  With the end of my Fulbright and memories of Finland growing fainter, the dark, cold winter nights have quickly been consumed by New York’s heady, sticky summer days and Finland, for me, serves as apotheosis: of longing for simpler times and quieter environs and, moreover, smart policy.  I’ve been working, planning — formally and informally — to get the school year started off right.  Along the way, it occurred to me that, perhaps the most meaningful thing for me to do as both pedagogue and person, is to use this blog as a means of self reflection; in a very public way, I plan to re-inaugurate this site to document my return to the classroom after such a long hiatus.

I can only guess and anticipate — with great hope and trepidation — the challenges and triumphs that lie ahead.  It will be a difficult road, and, after 11 years working in high-needs schools in the Bronx and Lower East Side, I suspect my 12th year to be no different, except that, with each passing year, my skill-set as an educator grows as my idealism slowly dwindles.  It’s a hard world out there, and as a teacher, I feel the pressure to perform, to meet the needs of my students and school community, but at every turn, I feel a wretched obligation to defend my profession, despite the countless hours of work I devote to students who arrive with skills far below where they should be seated alongside students who hunger to be challenged.

The new orthodoxy exhorted by doctrinaires along the political spectrum (dichotomy, really) indict my colleagues and me, imparting on us preternatural powers to determine, as if by sheer force of will, the academic success of students whose needs are many and whose skills too often fall short of their age and developmental level.  That isn’t to say that I won’t try my hardest, but I return to my duties humbled by the great teaching I’ve seen both here and in Finland, with the knowledge that sometimes, dedication just isn’t enough.  How bold a statement it would be were I to say that, “with great expectations come great results,” but it would be naïve, née foolish of me to think that I can undo in mere months what poverty, tragedy, abuse, and cruel fate have wrought on children whose desire for tenuous stability and sense of normalcy trumps their need for nearly anything else.

Yet the intractable morass that is our policy discourse and the solutions proffered by well-intentioned demagogues and extortionists-cum-eduprofiteers only serve to highlight how impractical a site like this might be, other than perhaps as a salve to a cadre of weary whipping boys for the reform-minded élite.  I resolve, then, to dedicate my all to my profession, my craft, my school, my students, but promise nothing more than the hope that maybe, with the right kind of kindling, sparks become embers and embers become fires that rage, rage, rage somewhere in the depths of a tiny, hungry soul aching for nourishment by some substance, a manna that sates the yearning for knowledge and a future yet unrealized.

Beautiful Jyväskylä

23 05 2011

No commentary, just the splendor of Jyväskylä and the lake region on a bike ride yesterday.

Hellos and Farewells

23 05 2011

The time finally came last week, when, on a chilly, drizzly day, Fulbrighters from around Finland converged on Helsinki for final goodbyes and to meet the new Finnish Fulbrighters whose grants begin next year.  The picture below is of Team Finland all together for perhaps the last time, as Sarah (far right) leaves sometime in early June.  We’ve had some really fun times and I’m going to miss everyone.  Our crazy travels across the country, our speeches and presentations to empty auditoriums, babysitting duties, and classroom after classroom after classroom just add color to our wonderful dynamic.  To Eija and Mikko, words really can’t express my gratitude for your hospitality, warmth, humor, selflessness, and kindness.  Special thanks also to the Fulbright Center staff for their support.  As this project comes to a close, there’s a lot of Finland that I have yet to explore (outside the classroom, I mean), and I’ll add more as I discover this amazing country and its spectacular awesome people!  Kiitoksia kaikista!

The Accidental Partygoer

17 05 2011

Something awesome happened yesterday: Finland celebrated a huge victory in the Hockey World Championships, winning the title after a 6-1 thumping of its big brother arch rival, Sweden. Crowds began congregating in Kauppatori Square, near the center of Helsinki to celebrate. Celebrants were decked out in white and blue, many with painted faces or carrying Finnish flags of various sizes.

The good times were a-rollin’ and it just so happened that luck intervened to help make this a memorable celebration, particularly in a country whose devotion to hockey is tantamount to a national religion.  I happened to be in Helsinki for a Fulbright event yesterday and preparing to speak at the Finnish National Board of Education today and was told that there would be a huge celebration.  Out of curiosity, some Fulbrighters and I headed down to Kauppatori, encountering throngs of soon-to-be-wasted Finns doing everything they could to amp up their hockey fanaticism. The constant stream of partygoers destined to join a crowd that grew larger by the minute, sang songs, jubilantly rapped, and revelled in an impromptu national party, far bigger than anything seen since Lordi won the Eurovision song contest in 2006.  An estimated 100,000 Finns clogged Helsinki’s streets to celebrate.

But it was more than just a party.  In such a small country, national pride comes in many forms, and as of late, Finland has received increasing amounts of international recognition.  I’ve always wondered what it was like to live in a small country celebrating national sports heroes; in the U.S., we rarely celebrate an individual or small group of people as national heroes (the only recent example I can recall being the pilot who landed his plane into New York’s Hudson River a couple of years ago), so I was curious, from a cultural standpoint, to see what something like this would be like.  Certainly, it didn’t disappoint, and the only regret I have is that I wasn’t able to stay longer to enjoy the party.  Lugging around bags, my backpack and laptop, not to mention the fact that I was decked out in a business suit, made ambling through the crowd a frustrating experience. Nevertheless, to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience gave me new insight into the Finnish national persona and I’m certainly richer for the experience.

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Sprummer Has Arrived!

14 05 2011

At long last, the Arctic veil has lifted and, beneath piles and piles of ice, snow, and gravel lay an enchanting, resplendent city bordered on two sides by shimmering blue lakes that occasionally peer through a verdant canopy of tender birch leaves and frost-worn pine needles.  I’d always been rather envious of my fellow Fulbrighters, with their fancy metropolises, bright lights, and big city glamor, but now I’m almost sad they don’t get to see the magic unfolding all around — a symphony whose flourishes and baselines teeter in perfect balance as the atonal winter gives way to the legato of sunnier days, quickening to the accelerando and crescendo of midsummer, before settling into an inevitable autumnal dénouement.  Perhaps I’ve taken this analogy too far, but I have to admit that the pendular nature of Finnish seasons gives the thoughtful observer an even greater insight into the Finnish soul, making such musical masterpieces as Finlandia, in all its melancholy and splendor, so relatable.  With a backdrop like this, who can resist a little time away from research to soak up some sun and to literally smell the flowers?


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