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The Human Library: Lessons in Compassion

When I imagined my time in Finland, I could have never guessed that one of the most memorable and thought provoking conversations that I would have would be with a former convict during lunch at Myllypuron middle school just outside of Helsinki in Vantaa.

I was invited by a fellow Fulbright teacher from Finland to observe the school’s “Human Library” day for 9th grade students. The concept of the Human Library originated in Denmark in 2000 at the annual Roskilde music festival. Young people had been active in a group called “Stop the Violence” and expanded the theme at the festival. Rock festivals are microcosms of society in many ways. There are people coming together from a variety of backgrounds that may not normally interact in other parts of society. At the festival they had 75 “human books” available, each book representing that individual’s experiences. It is reported that a football player began talking with a feminist and a policeman with a graffiti artist.

This concept spread across Europe and is endorsed by the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization. Myllypuron middle school has been participating for six years and it is organized by one of the social studies teachers. In talking with the organizer she explained that all of the participants coming into the school go through training about how to discuss difficult issues with students, boundaries, and safety for making the event a success. Students are placed in groups based on the individuals they would like to meet. Prior to meeting the “books” they generate questions for their conversations.

I arrived in the meeting room of participants where they were talking quietly over coffee and pastries. I was introduced to a blind person, a political activist from the “True Finns” party, a person with Asperger’s, a transgender person, a police officer, a person with Tourette’s, a Roma person, a former convict, a lesbian couple, and an astrologist. I explained what I was doing in Finland and that I would enjoy the opportunity to talk with any of them if they were willing. Shortly after that a group of students came to “check-out” their book for the next 30 minutes. I was asked to escort them to a classroom. Not even thinking twice, when I opened the classroom I proceeded to sit down with the group, thinking that I was there as a monitor of sorts. The students glanced at me strangely but I didn’t think much of it because I get a lot of strange looks as a foreigner in Finland. Within five minutes the organizer came to the room and motioned for me to leave, she explained that it was agreed upon that teachers would not be in the room while the students were talking with their “books”.

This was another example of the trust that exists within Finnish society. Trust that because these students had been prepped and the speaker had gone through training that there was no need for surveillance. Bells went off in my head about the parent calls that would be coming in for this type of event. When I asked about this, I was told that parents are aware and have not objected to the event but if they did would be free to not have their child participate. But overall, parents trust Finnish teachers to make the best choices for their students because they are viewed as professionals.

In addition, the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education explicitly states the first four values underlying basic education as “human rights, equality, democracy” and “diversity”. It goes on to state a few sentences later, “Basic education promotes responsibility, a sense of community, and respect for the rights and freedoms of the individual”. This event does all of those things in an authentic way by students engaging with community members to create mutual understanding and gives humanity to all community members.

When lunchtime rolled around, I was informed that the former convict would like to sit near me and have a conversation during lunch. Their was a table where all the participants of the day sat and across me a former convict and next to him a police officer. The juxtaposition of this former lawbreaker and peacekeeper was striking. The former convict began speaking about his crimes, without a lot of prompting. I listened intently as he described his young adult life riddled with addiction that led into dealing. One evening while under the influence of drugs he attempted killing someone in a drug deal. He reflected that he is so grateful he was not successful and that getting caught was one of the best things that could have happened to him. He also reflected on the life that he lost due to his addiction and dealing, a wife and a child who wanted nothing to do with him.

He went on to speak about his time in the Finnish prison system. He started his sentence in a closed prison. I was startled by his use of the word “closed” and asked him, “Aren’t all prisons closed?”. He then told me that a short period of time before the end of his sentence he began serving in an open prison. In this prison there were no fences or bars on windows or doors. He was required to get a job, had a curfew, had to pay for rent and food, and lastly commit to being substance free. Before he was allowed to go into the open prison system he went through counseling and substance abuse treatment.

The focus of prison in Finland and its neighboring Nordic countries is of rehabilitation. And it is working for them, according to the Atlantic, recidivism rates in the Nordic countries is 20-30% while in the United States rates are between 40-70%. Prison populations are kept small and each prisoner is connected with a “contact officer”. This person helps to guide and counsel the prisoner through their sentence. This position was made to prevent guards from only taking punitive actions against prisoners as this is taxing on inmates and the guards. Being a prison guard is taxing, in the U.S. their average life expectancy is 59. After working outside of prison without reoffending for five years the former prisoner I spoke with received a clean slate. I asked why after having a clean slate does he continue to speak about his time in prison. He told me that his life could have been so much different if he had different choices. He wants students to hear that message so that don’t have to go through what he went through.

He also mentioned that he was glad he did not have to serve in an American prison. Granted I am sure that the movies he has seen about prison are sensationalized by Hollywood but when looking at the facts of American prisons it is another area where we could learn from our international neighbors. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has 5% of the world’s population but accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population and we rank number one in incarceration rates per capita. The Vera Institute, a non-profit working to make justice systems fairer, collected research in 2010 from forty states to find that the public cost per inmate was $31,286 while these same 40 states paid $11,184 per public school student. Crime has been going down for the past two decades but prison populations remain high and one of those reasons is because of the lack of social safety net for those leaving prison means many of them end up back there again. I am not suggesting that people not be sanctioned for the crimes that they commit but there is a serious problem when prisons are overcrowded and more money is being spent on inmates than students.

Lunch ended with more conversation between the ex-prisoner and the police officer. I was told that later in the day they committed to visiting more schools together to discuss how law enforcement and ex-prisoners can learn from each other. While I did not have a chance to speak with all of the human books, I heard from the organizing teacher that some students sang to the blind woman at the end of the day because they knew she loved music. There were also comments from participants about how much they learned and were able to break down stereotypes from talking with one another. It was an experience I won’t soon forget and it got me thinking if I could host a similar event with our sociology elective class.  

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Teachers open up about the (mostly lousy) economics of their dream job

Interesting read. Favorite quote from Norway: “I have one major frustration with working as a teacher: Education policy is seemingly run as a wishful thinking project, where politicians draw a path for pupils they don’t understand on a map they haven’t seen. I wish we teachers would have more aggressively participate in forming education policy.”



Much of the recent discussion about inequality has focused on the very rich (the 0.01%) or the very poor (the bottom billion or so). But what about those people who are somewhere in the middle? Through the TED-Ed network, we asked 17 public school teachers working in locations from Kildare to Kathmandu, Johannesburg to Oslo, to tell us what they earned last month, and to give us a sense of how they spent their salaries. We chose to focus on public school teachers, because the way these educators are treated says something about national priorities, the economic climate, and a country’s vision for the future. The teachers’ responses show that it really doesn’t matter where you are — certain worries and goals are universal. Note, answers were lightly edited for space and meaning.

Tell us about yourself: I’m 25; I’m a year 1 classroom teacher; this is my second year of teaching full time.

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***None of the views listed in this post are reflective of my current employer but solely my own.

The educational culture in Finland is one that places responsibility on the children to learn and be independent. The school is often seen as an integral part of the child’s community but is not the scapegoat for social problems in the same way that it has become in the United States.

The end of the school year for my home state was particularly difficult this year as there were two student deaths in two weeks just shy of the end of the year. In times of tragedy the knee-jerk reaction is to point fingers and try to find someone to blame. One enraged parent posted on her blog an open letter to administrators, which I will not dignify with including all of the post but will include the questions that opened the letter: “How many more lives are you going to allow to be sacrificed before you do something about the suicide epidemic that has swept through **** High School, and, what are you going to do about it? ”

These types of questions are some of the biggest challenges facing the American educational system. Rather than seeing the school as a part of the larger whole in the development of the child it is too often seen as an easy target for blame.

The responses to this blog post were varied and I was hopeful for the ones included that showed strong support for our district and students. I wanted to highlight one of the responses for the eloquence and maturity that it showed. I have also been lucky to have this young man as a student. It gets at some of the deeper issues in American educational culture related to competition and standardized testing but also recognizes the role of all community members in creating a culture that nurtures our young adults into adulthood. Gold star to the talented C. Luke Soucy.

Hello, Mrs. Mueller. I’m happy to finally see a reaction to the grotesque cycle we’ve been building up, but I disagree as to where you’re directing it.

I’m one of about 4,000 people who spends nine months of the year trudging over the hill each morning to ******* High School. I’m involved in enough activities so that I know a solid quarter of those people, and the struggles are definitely genuine. With 3,600 students, too many of my peers slide through the cracks in the system and you’re right that there’s a problem here we have to talk about. But I don’t think you can blame that culture as squarely on the faculty and staff as you do here.

You say that the administration is “blinded by ambition and numbers”, but I don’t think they’ve chosen their blindness or that they’ve blinded themselves. Aren’t you forgetting about the common core and the entire standardized testing system the state has put in place to rate schools against each other? What happens to the district if those blinding numbers begin to slide? They haven’t chosen their motivations, and while it seems petty to pit human life against funding and prestige, if you’re talking about administrative actions, it’s that funding and prestige that keeps the district alive.

Furthermore, the school’s hands are bound just as tightly by parents as by anyone else. I walked in on one of my AP teachers this year pleading with her fellow staff members that there should be a limit placed on the number of AP classes a student could take. Slacken the pressure and so on. Just what you’re talking about. But of course it won’t happen, and not because it wouldn’t be healthy (it would), or because there’s no exigence for it (there is), but can you imagine the parent outrage that would be unleashed in so doing? I’m sorry about your daughter’s teacher refusing to open a class discussion on the subject, but I’m taken aback by your assumption that this is some sort of pseudo-policy. Dozens of teachers I’m around show only concern and a desire to help, and in many of my classes that sort of discussion has taken place. To judge an entire class of people as guilty based on that one example is as inconsiderate as it is unfair.

It’s possible that as a student and you being a parent, we approach this in different mindsets. We students are your children, your responsibility, and since the school is supposed to care for us in loco parentis, it’s their fault that something’s gone wrong. As a parent, you see that. As a student walking the floor each day, I see instead the influence that we have on each other and the exclusion and the pain and the slow crawl towards graduation that not all of us finish, and I don’t think our youth absolves us of the suffering we put upon each other. We are just as responsible as everyone else in causing that pressure and causing the anguish that leads to the tragedies surrounding us. And while it’s tempting to have at the authority figures in question, we are the living body of the school, sentient, rash, and just as culpable as you.

You acknowledge that this is a nationwide “epidemic”, and yet you ask “What is it about Wayzata Public Schools that has created this culture?” And I get it, that you start working where you are, but in this case I don’t think that works. Until the state stops using cold numbers to rate the schools, the schools will be blinded by them. Until the colleges stop looking for your honor rolls, letters, and accolades, parents will scream at an attempt to take them away. We share the knee-jerk reaction of “something must be done!” but I don’t see where you explain what. All that you’ve done is concentrated blame on one set of people, whereas this is really a failure of a much broader society comprised of students, teachers, parents, and governments. And, well, I think that’s unfair.

But really, it’s the last thing you said that did it for me. “Stop killing them,” you say, as if these teachers, who have touched us and helped us and worked the most thankless of all jobs for us, had pulled each trigger themselves. “You’ve got to change something,” you tell them. But it’s not that simple, because you and I and everyone else will have to change, too. And if your idea of doing “something” is trying to bloody their hands, which are only as guilty as ours, then you’re part of the problem.



School’s out for summer….

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In Finland children receive a free, warm, and nutritious lunch throughout the school year. The Finnish National Board of Education had this to say in one of their publications: “A good lunch is something that gives pleasure, satisfies the need for nutrition, provides a balanced
diet, maintains the ability to work, relaxes, refreshes and is safe.In Finland, we are proud of our long history of providing free school meals”.

I just learned that they also can receive school lunch in the summer. Local parks are providing lunches for those under 16, check out the video.

Nigeria and the Danger of a Single Story

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I have been so busy visiting schools, gathering interviews, attending conferences, and participating in Finnish life that my blog has been left in the dust. New posts will be coming soon.

In the meantime, check out this TED Talk by one of my favorite authors. Her talk title “The Danger of a Single Story” is something I use in my AP Comparative Government class on the first or second day of class. In the AP curriculum, Nigeria’s government is one of the six we study and students have little prior knowledge of Africa’s most populous country with the second largest economy on the continent.

I have thought about posting this video for awhile. Part of my hesitation in posting some of my experiences in Finland has been that I am cautious of my “truths” to be any single story of Finland.

The media sweep of branding #bringbackourgirls makes Chimamanda Adichie’s talk that much more important. Don’t let this terrible story of human rights abuses and terrorist groups be the only thing that you know about Nigeria.

Our world is better off when we learn more about each other. In the words of Senator Fulbright “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy–the ability to see the world as others see it, and to allow for the possibility that others may see something we have failed to see, or may see it more accurately”.

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What it really means to leave no child behind….

Finland has spent the past decade basking in the glow of positive media coverage regarding their education system. Most of the press has been a result of PISA test scores in math, reading, and science. In the most recent tests in 2012, Finland ranked 12th of the OECD countries while the United States ranked 36th.  It is ironic that Finland received all of this attention from tests, because standardized testing is almost non-existent in their school systems. In order to understand Finland’s educational success it is necessary to first examine social policies that support children and families before formal schooling begins.

Most public school educators in the United States, myself included, would not be shy to say that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has made a disastrous mess of teaching and learning. Students are “experts” at bubbling in answers but lack the critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity skills necessary for life beyond the classroom walls. For all of the rhetoric surrounding education reform, student achievement, and teacher quality there lacks real and difficult conversations about why these struggles persist regardless of the amount of taxpayer dollars thrown at schools.

In the past two months these are some of the various ways that I have observed how Finland does not leave any children behind. It starts with the baby box arriving approximately one month before the expected birthdate. This box has been provided to citizens since 1938, when Finland was a poor country with high infant mortality, and wanted to make sure all children had an equal start in life. The box includes clothes, a snowsuit, and basic first aid kit for baby, and the box itself doubles as a crib. Even though Finland is no longer a poor country, 95% opt to take the box rather than get the cash grant equivalent of 140€.

Maternal wellness is also a high priority. The last month of pregnancy is when maternity leave begins, recognizing the need for final preparations before baby comes. Once the baby is born, leave extends for the mother or the father for the first nine months. During this time, parents receive an allowance to support the care of the child. This allowance continues until the age of 17, roughly 100€ per month. Once parenting leave is finished after nine months, parents can opt to continue on leave until the child is three and receive an in-home childcare allowance. If parents choose to go back to work then they are given an allowance paying for childcare. For those concerned over governmental control, this is not a one-size fits all option.

There are private, public, religious, and in-home options available. According the OECD Early Childhood Education and Care Policy report on Finland, the goal of such policies are “to create a safe growth environment for children and to guarantee parents the material and psychological resources to bear and raise children”. This is an agreed upon premise by the political system, that the well being of the children is key to the future success of Finland. It sounds simple, but there is a reason that the United States is considered #30 on the State of the World’s Mothers and Finland is #1.

At age three when many children enter “preschool” the focus is much different than similar institutions in the U.S. The Finns have taken note from neurological research about children’s development and focused on the importance of play. This unstructured play is essential for building self-regulation skills, imagination, and preparing them for more difficult academic skills when they are older. Children begin learning some academic skills at age six but do they not start formal schooling until age seven. It doesn’t hurt that in the preschools staff are highly trained in child development with a requirement to have a bachelor’s degree and receive a livable wage making it more attractive to go into early childhood education. In the U.S., the average childcare worker working full-time is often below the poverty line and does not receive benefits, creating high rates of turnover and instability in the market. Furthermore, because citizens pay for preschool privately it is unattainable for the poorest citizens in the U.S. Steve Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, has found 60% of the poorest children do not receive preschool making them up to 18 months behind when they do enter school.

If the U.S. wants to get real about decreasing the achievement gap, improving the outcomes of our educational systems, and long-term economic growth , broader social and economic policies need to be discussed and acted upon.