The following is a post from Spotlight guest author, Rachel Cohen. Ms. Cohen is a humanities teacher at CHS who was awarded a Roving Scholar Fulbright Fellowship to Norway for the 2017-2018 school year. The Fulbright Program is an international educational exchange program that only awards two or three Roving Scholar Fellowships each year to applicants from all across America. The program brings American teachers to Norway for the school year where they spend their time traveling the country teaching and leading seminars about American history, culture, and teaching methods for both students and faculty.
To hear more from Ms. Cohen about her journey abroad, visit her blog at www.rachelmaecohen.com.
Greetings from Norway!
This month marks the mid-way point on my year in Norway as a Roving Scholar in American Studies, a grant made possible by the US-Norway Fulbright Foundation. While I am based in Oslo, the last five months have taken me to schools throughout this beautiful country. I have traveled by train, ferry and plane to reach some very remote schools, and others in large cities. I have logged nearly 70 teaching days and taught over 3,000 Norwegians students and teachers about US history, culture, geography, and the American education system. I have learned a new transportation system, developed strategies to cope with the long, polar nights, and learned a little bit of the Norwegian language along the way. I’ve also developed a fondness for brunost (brown cheese), the classic Norwegian “vaffel” and even reindeer meat! It’s a whirlwind of a teaching year— different in so many ways from my job at Colchester High School, and yet, at other times, I am reminded just how universal teaching and learning truly are.
Most days I present several workshops to students in ungdomsskole, or lower secondary school, grades 8-10. After school, I often meet with teachers to talk about current trends in US education, sharing best practices in our respective systems.
A popular student workshop is called Teenage Life in America: A Day in the Life of Generation Z. In this workshop I ask students to finish the sentence “Teenage Life in Norway is all about…?” Here, their responses usually include things like “handball!” or “skiing!”, as well as “school work, hanging out with friends, preparing for the future, and watching Netflix.” Back in August I asked some of my students at CHS the same question, and when I share their responses it reveals how, in many ways, life is pretty similar for Norwegian and American teens!
This workshop led to a letter writing project between my students here and Mr. Price’s geography classes. In December we were able to skype with two classes here in Norway, in the tiny town of Kirkenes on the Russian border, and at another on the east side of Oslo, where the students are almost entirely new Norwegian or the children of immigrants. (You might be surprised to learn that about 17% of Norway’s population has an immigrant background). Questions ranged from “do you trust your President/Prime Minister?” To “what do you typically eat for dinner?” And “can you sing your national song for us?” This lesson will be one of my favorites of the year, I am certain.
The Norwegian School Day
My students here are surprised to learn that all Colchester schools begin before 8 am (compared to at least 8:30 here), that students move around the school all day rather than having all of their classes in one room, and that a hot meal is served at lunch. In Norway all students bring their lunch in a small box, and its customary to eat two slices of bread, and pålegg, meaning toppings for an open-faced sandwich. Cheese, caviar paste, meat pate, and cucumbers are most common. When Norwegians go home mid-afternoon they will have usually have a larger, warm meal then called middag, and perhaps a snack before bed.
Norwegian students are also surprised to learn about the large variety of extracurriculars opportunities that exist within American schools. By contrast, Norwegian teens play sports on town teams and are involved in private clubs for theater, arts, and music. So unlike in Colchester, the schools here are pretty quiet once the academic day has ended. Further, the students pay fees to participate in sports and everyone is welcome to play on the teams; there are no cuts. Students travel quite far for games and tournaments— sometimes even to other countries! Most teachers and students I talk with are very intrigued by (and perhaps even a little envious of!) the sense of community and spirit that school-sponsored extracurriculars foster in the USA.
A Social Democracy
Another popular workshop is based off of the 10th grade American Experience curriculum, and it is a look at opportunities and obstacles people face, both in the US and in Norway, to achieving their dreams. This topic often leads to a discussion of some of the benefits of Norway’s strong social programs, funded by relatively high taxes (about 35% on average) and their publicly owned oil fund. Many students are surprised to learn that American families have to save money for college, students hold jobs to save up too, and by the amount of debt that graduates take on. Here, higher education is basically free and accessible to everyone, at any time in a person’s life.
The US in the World
I’m surprised to learn just how much Norway’s culture is influenced by the US. Students watch American television, love American music, and use SnapChat to communicate with friends. Many students are eager to travel to New York City or Miami. Learning English is compulsory beginning in the first grade, and the English language is taught through a curriculum of US and British studies. As a result, many Norwegian teens have a good grasp of US history, and can identify many of the freedoms protected by the US Constitution. Norwegians also seem to know quite a lot about the history of indigenous Americans, and can draw comparisons between how American Indians and the Sami people have been treated by our respective governments.
Most Norwegians see the US as a great ally. Occupied by the Nazis during WWII and constantly under threat due to their border with Russia during the Cold War, Norwegians tend to hold America’s commitment to preserving democracy abroad in high regard. This helps explain Norwegians’ keen interest in the American political system and current events. Almost daily students express concerns about the threat of nuclear war. One teacher recently told me, “Our society is inextricably linked to American values. Destabilization in the American world means destabilization everywhere.”
Turning Nations into People
Despite the number of new students I meet each day, the real student here is me. With each interaction, workshop, train ride, and school lunch, I am growing as a teacher and lifelong learner in ways I never imagined I would. Every day I meet people from all walks of life who challenge my assumptions and force me to think differently. In the classroom I’ve been tested with questions that are complex and heart wrenching. “Are you proud to be an American? Is it harder to be an immigrant in America or Norway? Do you think the USA could learn anything from the Norwegian prison system?” I am at once a spokesperson for the US and a private citizen living abroad. Striking that balance has been the great challenge of this job, but an enriching experience all around.
Senator William Fulbright created the Fulbright Foundation in 1946 to promote mutual understanding in the post-WWII world. The value of this program and other opportunities for cross-cultural exchange has become abundantly clear to me. Often students will tell me I’m the first real American they have ever met, and that I helped them think differently about the US, perhaps even to second guess their stereotypes and biases. I am humbled and proud to be in this role. My work seems to be fulfilling Senator Fulbright’s vision:
“Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations. Man’s capacity for decent behavior seems to vary directly with his perception of others as individual humans with human motives and feelings, whereas his capacity for barbarism seems related to his perception of an adversary in abstract terms.”
I am deeply grateful to both my colleagues at CHS and the Colchester community for allowing me to pursue this educational opportunity. While most days I have to pinch myself just to make sure I’m not dreaming, the work is never easy and most evenings I collapse onto a hotel bed, exhausted from teaching, traveling, and navigating a foreign country on my own.
But I am confident that I will return to my position at CHS with new teaching skills and a fresh outlook on global citizenship. I am looking forward to Fall 2018 and sharing more stories of my travels with my friends in Colchester!
Tussen takk og ha det bra,