Saturday, July 25, 2015


Did you know that Angry Birds come from Finland?  So does Nokia and Marimenko patterns and fashions.  Finland is a mix of classic architecture and modern design with great technological innovation.  Helsinki has a mix of East and West.  Finland was once ruled by both Sweden and Russia. While little remains of it’s Russian occupation, Swedish is the second national language and there are towns with more Swedes than Finns, such as Porvoo.  Helsinki was founded in 1550 by Gustaf Vasa.  The most prominent building in Helsinki is the Tuomio Kirkko Cathedral.  The Senaatintori, the square below the cathedral had a wonderful market with lots of little booths and yummy Finnish food.  The Olympics were held here in 1940.  Due to WWII, the Olympic station was not inaugurated until the 1950s.  The most famous Finnish Olympian was Pavo Nomi, who was a runner.  The Kansallismuseo is the national museum and is full of Finnish history.


Finns are very quite and humble people.  They mostly stay close to their families and are not very socially outgoing.  They value trust and equity.  The country is small, quaint and very clean.  Half of the population lives in the Southern part of Finland.

         One of the most important elements in the Finnish culture is the Sauna.  Every home has one and there are public Saunas as well.  Sauna is a verb in Finnish.  It is something you do. It is a very sacred time and very important.  Typically, families sauna together. If you lived in large older apartment complex, you would have a community sauna.  Modern apartments are built with individual saunas.  Most saunas have showers attached to them for when you don’t have a lake near by.  I was very lucky to have stayed with a host family who let us sauna with them.  It was amazing! I really want a sauna at my house now!
Jumping in the lake after the sauna 

Inside the sauna


         The Temppeliaukion Kirkko or The Rock Church is a church built entirely out of Rock.  The acoustics in the building were amazing and there are lots of concerts there.  The church reflects Finland’s close relationship with nature.
Finland is full of lakes and forests.  There are 180,000 lakes in Finland and around 40,000 islands in the Archipelago.  They have two winters: Dark winter when the Laplands can go three months without seeing the sun and Spring Winter.  In the summer, the sun sets around 1am and rises around 3am and there are a few nights when the sun doesn’t set at all.  This is called midsummer and there are lots of celebrations in mid June.  We were able to participate in some of the celebrations.  One tradition is for single women to gather 7 different wildflowers and sleep with them under their pillow.  They will dream of their future husband.  We were also able to spend the night at a Lake Cabin where we spent time in the Sauna and then jumped in the really cold lake!  Fins also take birch branches and beat them on their bare skin to help circulation. 

A famous Finnish Architect's home 

Sibelius Monument (a famous musician) 

A castle that was also a prison during Russian occupation.  Prisoners built the rock walls 

Finland has lots of centers devoted to nature. We were able to tour one of them.  You can go on hikes and tour the interactive museum that featured the climate and wildlife in Finland.  These nature centers are designed to teach school children the importance of nature, which leads to good citizenship.  One of the classes taught children how to cook on a little portable stove. Another had them going on a quest to follow a species through a lifespan. 
During Midsummer, all Finns go to their lake cabins.  The streets of Helsinki were barren during Midsummer, even more so than on Christmas! 
Midsummer Festival 


Chillin' at the lake around 11pm! 

         The main reason I went to Finland was to study their education system. It is currently seen as one of the best in the world.  Every few years countries are given the PISA test. This tests math, science, and reading levels and compares the different countries.  The US has typically come in around 25th.  For the first few years, Finland came in first in all of the categories.  Countries are interested to know what they are doing in Finland that is helping their students to score so high on the test and to be academically proficient. 
         One thing I learned while visiting Finland is that their educational advancements had a lot to do with their economical advancements.  Finland has a socialized medicine program similar to that in other European countries.  The citizens are taxed at a higher percent but their health, living, and educational needs are paid for by the government.  In the 60s and 70s Finland worked to make changes to their educational system.  One reason Finland is able to make such social changes is because they have one of the highest percentages of women serving on their parliament.  And currently 19/200 parliament members were teachers.  Finland focuses on equity and making sure all students have equal access to education.  All education is free in Finland (even the Universities are free).  When a baby is born, he/she gets a baby box from the government with basic supplies.  All moms get up to a year of maternity leave when they have a baby.  Because health care is free, all babies get what they need to be healthy and develop properly.  Children are expected to play.  There is not the same stress as in the US with rushing to teach children to read or give them an educational head start. 
         Children typically start school at age 7.  Each school has a social worker, a psychologist, and a nurse who is available for all children.  All children will learn Finnish and Swedish and English and one or more other languages.  Finns are the most lingual people I have come across.  Finnish is only spoken in Finland and the only other language close to it is Estonian so it is necessary for them to learn other languages to be a global country.  I talked with a girl who said her favorite class was English because she knew it would be most helpful for her. 
         Finns have a big focus on play.  Students will have a 15-minute break every 45 minutes.  This is unstructured playtime.  They do not have a lot of playground equipment. Most kids play sports during their breaks.  Students go outside all year. There are no inside recess days (and Finland gets COLD in the winter).  Students wear warm clothes. 
         While there is a national curriculum, there are no high stakes testing in Finland.  Teachers are allowed to teach and assess the national curriculum how they feel is best for their students.  Teachers meet together often to discuss students’ needs and lessons.  The two main values of Finnish education is Trust and Equity.  They trust the teachers to create effective curriculum.  Grade-level tests are given to a random group of students each year and are used to evaluate the curriculum, not the teachers or the students.  There is a focus on collaboration and not on competition.  There are very few private schools and no charter schools.  So the majority of the population attends public school.  Sports are not associated with schools so there is no school teams or competitions.  Children often participate in sports but it is directed through the community and not the school. 

Special Education:
         Special education is very different in Finland.  In the US, most students have to get a special education classification in order to receive extra or specialized services. That is not the case in Finland.  From the start of school, there is a special education teacher who assists the teachers and students.  Teachers can refer any student for any subject or concept for extra support.  Students can also go to the special education teacher and ask for help.  There is not a negative stigma in asking or receiving help from the special education teacher.  In fact, the majority of students receive help at some time or another, especially in the primary grades.  I watch our Special Education teachers get bogged down with paper work and testing and legal protocols.  In order to become a special education teacher in Finland, a teacher must have taught for a few years in a classroom and then takes courses to become a special education teacher.  These teachers are valued and seen as an integral part of the school, not as a separate department. 
         Each school also has a nurse, psychologist and social worker.  If a student has not been in school for a while, the social worker will visit his/her home to talk with the student and family.  Students’ school meals are free for all students (equity). They also receive all of their learning materials.  There are no school buses but transportation is provided such as buses, taxis, etc.  In both Sweden and Finland I saw young children traveling by themselves in public transportation (trust). The percentage of children in poverty is around 3.5% as opposed to 14% in the US. 
         The school board chooses the principals by vote.  All principals must teach something (i.e. one class per week).  Students attend school for 190 days.  The time school starts varies depending on whether or not the teachers are meeting together that morning.  Teachers are paid based on the amount of hours they teach. Specialist teachers (such as English teachers) are paid more because they have specialized.  There are only a few universities in Finland that offer the teacher education program. It is very competitive to get into.  Applicants are judged on their matriculation exam score, interviews, applications, and a scenario where they are put with other candidates and given a task (such as designing a math unit for a third grade classroom). They are observed to see how well they work with other teachers. 
         After grade 9 (when students are around 16) they can choose a few different paths. They can enter the work force, go to an academic high school for two years that prepares them for university or go to a trade school where they can learn a trade.  In order to go to the University, students must pass a matriculation exam, which is a comprehensive exam and is very intense.
         One of the misconceptions we have about Finnish teachers is the rumor that they make as much as doctors and lawyers.  That is not true.  Teachers are not paid the same as a doctor or lawyer.  It is not considered a very high paying job. It is considered a good job, however, and is valued.  Teachers have a low turn over rate.  The US spends a large amount of money trying to recruit teachers.  Finland teachers stay teachers for a long time and rarely leave.  It’s probably because the teaching conditions are much more autonomous.  Teachers can just worry about students, not test scores, not school grades, not athletic records, etc.  Teachers face the same classroom issues that US teachers and teachers in other countries face such as classroom management issues, students not doing their homework, upset or demanding parents, difficult faculty members, etc.  Several of the schools we visited did not have online grades.  The students were not really aware of their final grades until the end (much like college).  One teacher explained to me that she uses both quality of work and student attitude to determine grades. The schools we visited were simple and concerned with teaching, not with the latest technology or program. 
         When I talked with students, it was clear that students throughout the world are pretty much the same. They told me the teachers who let them get away with things, teachers who were strict, how much they liked lunch and seeing their friends at school and how to text in class and not get caught.  One thing students at my school would not like is that students are not allowed to use their phones at lunch or during breaks (at least not at the secondary school we visited). 

         One thing I found interesting a bit disheartening is that Finland has to make several budget cuts due to economic difficulty.  One thing they are cutting this year is teacher aids.  It’s interesting that Finland also has started cutting the positions that most school districts in Utah have had to cut, such as hall monitors, teachers aids, etc.  These may seem like small positions but they are often what make the biggest difference for teachers and students.  Without an aid, a teacher has to find time to provide the support for students and it often gets overwhelming with all the other responsibilities.  It will be interesting to follow Finland in the next few years to see if they are able to maintain the level of education benefits they currently offer.  One thing is for sure, the Fins are resilient and do not shy away from a challenge.  They are a pleasant and collaborative community with a focus on quality of life. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change here in the US?  Collaboration instead of competition! 
Sheep at one of the farming trade schools 

Students can learn to build log cabins 

The school also taught veterinary skills 

Our first host family. She is a Swedish, Spanish, and English teacher

Our second host family. These two taught me all about Finnish music and sports 

Our second host!  She teaches home economics 

A passage in an English textbook 

Very popular Finish breakfast item. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

St. Petersburg!

St Petersburg!

After going through lots of security and customs, we entered Russia!  We had a short time in St. Petersburg so we had to little down time.  We took a bus tour of the city, went to one of the most intricate cathedrals, Isaac’s Cathedral, had lunch at a quaint restaurant, and then toured the Hermitage, which was Catherine the Great’s winter palace. 

In 1703 Peter the Great founded his capital. Outside of St. Isaac’s Cathedral there is a statue of Nicholas the first, who was conservative an unpopular with the people after his orders to make the swampy St. Petersburg into a great city.  There is a cathedral with a gold spire where most of the Czars are buried. 

St. Petersburg also claims to be the Venice of the North since it is built around canals and islands as well.  In comparison to Stockholm and Helsinki, and Tallinn, St. Petersburg was gray and reserved.  We didn’t have a lot of interaction with people like we did in the other cities.  I was enthralled by the floors in the Hermitage and all the different textures.  It was a very impressive mix of classical artists, sculptors and architects.  One of the highlights was seeing a couple of famous Da Vinci and Rembrandt paintings. 
Nicholas the first and St. Isaac's Cathedral 

The church of the Spilled Blood 

The Hermitage 

Inside Isaac's Cathedral 

An apartment complex 

Where the Czars are buried. 

the floors in the Winter Palace

I wish we had been able to spend more time in Russia to explore the culture a bit more. But, I am very grateful to have been able to see Russia and especially the beautiful buildings in St. Petersburg. 

Monday, July 20, 2015



After spending a few days in Sweden, we headed to the country of Estonia on a large cruise ship.  The ship sailed through the Archepellago and took us to Tallin, the capital city in Estonia.  We spent most of our time in the Old City where we went on a walking tour, spent time shopping, and ate an authentic medieval lunch.  Some of the highlights were looking at the Harseatic architecture.  The largest cathedral in Tallin was the Aleksan Nevsky Cathedral, which has a golden onion rooftop. 

We ate lunch at Olde Hansa. The menu included herb bread with nuts, crusaders lentil sauce, turnips, barley, and sauerkraut.  One of the highlights was using the unique restroom.  It was quite the “throne.”

After the old town, we toured the KGB museum at the Viru hotel.  The hotel provided the KGB a means to spy on many local and international visitors.  Some of their spy strategies included listening devices in all of the hotel rooms.  Some guests probably figured out what was going on.  One set of guests were complaining that there were not enough towels in their room and suddenly a maid showed up with extra towels.  They also had a secretary whose main job was to sit in the hotel lobby and write down the time each guest left and when they returned.  There was some interesting old school spying going on. 

We also visited the Tallin’s song festival grounds.  Estonians used song to protest the Russian occupation of Estonia in as a non-violent protest.  It was constructed in the 1960s.  It was designed by Alar Kotli, Henno Sepmann, and Uno Tolpus.  In 1991 Estonia became independent from Russia.  At this site they held the singing revolution.  They sang songs that were banned during 
the Russian rule.