School Visits in the USA - Inclusion and Project Based Learning

As a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher, one of the things I was up to during my time in the USA was visiting schools. By the end of my Fulbright period, I'd visited altogether 8 different schools:

  • Bloomington High School North (public high school, grades 9-12)
  • The Project School, Bloomington (public charter school, K-8)
  • Columbus Signature Academy Fodrea Elementary, Columbus, Indiana (public magnet school)
  • Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High, Columbus, Indiana (public magnet school, 9-12)
  • International School of Indiana, Lower and Upper Schools, Indianapolis (private school)
  • Signature School, Evansville, Indiana (public charter school)
  • The Atrium School, Watertown, Massachusetts (private school, K-8)
  • The Mission Hill School, Boston, Massachusetts (public school, pre-K-8)



In this post, I will write a little bit more about what I discovered about the American school system and what I think are some of the good and not-so-good things about it. 

First of all, there are many different types of schools in the USA: public, private, magnet, charter...In addition, some students are homeschooled. Families have a lot of options depending on what they want and can afford. This is a big difference compared to Finland where we don't really have any private schools, or many different options, for that matter. I mean sure, some schools are considered private schools, but they're still free for everyone (such as high schools with a special focus on for example the performing arts, or religious schools). In the US, private schools can cost as much as $25.000 a year, which will amount to a fortune if the kid goes to a private school starting from the age of 5.

Also, when it comes to funding, I got the impression that schools aren't really equal in the US - how much money a school has depends on many things, such as the state, the city, the school district, the socioeconomic status of the people living in the area in question...In Finland, the differences between schools aren't that drastic. Also, because of our centralised core curriculum, all the kids learn pretty much the same content regardless of which school they go to. In the US, schools can be totally different and follow completely different curricula, so kids from different schools can end up with completely different skills and competencies.

One reason why people with more money end up putting their kids in private schools is because private schools often don't use the standardised tests (for example SATs) that public schools seem to be all about. Schools that use standardised tests seem to be really focused on studying for the tests, and I got the impression that the kids don't really learn to think for themselves or understand the connection between school and real life. On the other hand, I think the kids in private schools and charter schools in the US study in a more similar way to kids in Finnish schools and have more interactive lessons, too.

In the US, the procedure of getting into a school building as a visitor is not that simple. The schools often need to perform a background check, and you need to have an invitation from someone who works at the school. When you enter a school building, you first need to go to the front desk to sign in and to receive a visitor badge/sticker/name tag of some kind that you need to attach to your shirt. Thus, you don't just walk in, like in Finland, but instead your visit is monitored more strictly.

The schools I visited didn't really use textbooks anymore. Instead, the students had their own laptops that they could take home, too, and all of their courses and course material could be found on a platform called Canvas. The teachers had had to work their butts off to create all the material for their courses! Finland is now moving towards something like this, too, and while I can see the good intentions behind the transition (more authentic, current and relevant material, more creative power for teachers, skills such as media literacy and the use of technology), I have to say that a full school day with everything happening on the computer was mind-numbing, and even more so since American schools don't have any breaks between lessons! Instead of interactive discussions, most lessons were all about passive and lonely learning with a computer. It was really sad! When there are almost 30 people in a classroom, sharing thoughts and information would be crucial as well as interesting. I would've been more interested in hearing what the kids had to say, but I feel like they weren't really given the chance to express themselves orally anyhow in the classroom, no matter whose classroom it was.

Also, I never realised that high school (grades 9-12) is compulsory education in the US. This is another big difference compared to Finland where compulsory education consists of grades 1-9, after which kids choose to go to either high school (academic) or vocational school (practical and leads to a profession), usually for three years. You can also combine the two, in which case you'll study for an extra year. Both high school and vocational school are optional in Finland, so basically you can drop out after the 9th grade, even if it's not a particularly common thing to do. There's also a third option, which is apprenticeship training.

Anyway, for me, there were some things that I absolutely loved about American schools...

Programmes for Gifted Students




Something I really liked is the way gifted students are taken into account in the US. Finland seems to be all about equality, meaning everyone is given the same amount of everything. We have a good special education system when it comes to students who need special help, but there is one problem - what if you're better than average instead of below? Sure, teachers are supposed to differentiate, but when it comes to our most gifted students, they're not allowed to soar, not really. In Finland, you're not really supposed to be better than anyone else anyway - our comprehensive school in particular is designed to offer the same education for everyone. This leads to a lot of average people with average skills. I realise that  my comments will probably end up annoying a lot of Finnish teachers, but this is my honest opinion. If you're above average, you're kind of kept in your place and often told that there's no point in working too hard and achieving so much - what's the rush? There's definitely a stigma around high-achieving girls in particular, with many teachers thinking they'll end up with a burnout or an eating disorder if they study too much. I mean, what the hell is that all about?! What's wrong with being ambitious and becoming super good at something?! In the US, high schools offer AP (Advanced Placement) and Honors programmes for the gifted students so that they can take college-level, or actual college courses while still in high school. This is a great way of motivating and challenging more advanced students - I know I would've loved an option like this for English when I was in high school! By the way, I know that these days, some cities offer university courses for high school students in Finland, too, but it's not a nationwide thing, which I think it should be.


School Spirit

This is one of the best things ever! American high schools in particular have theme colours, a school mascot, and so called spirit wear that you can buy at the school shop. For example, Bloomington High School North's colours are gold and maroon, their mascot is a cougar, and all the students are referred to as cougars as well. Many students come to school in spirit wear, meaning school sweaters, T-shirts, and so on. In addition, there's other merchandise such as mugs and key rings. Schools have their own sports teams, and kids go to sports events to cheer their school's teams on. The whole thing creates a nice feeling of a tight-knit community, and I would love it if we had a system like that in Finland as well!




Project Based Learning

Private and charter schools often have a special focus on projects, which is obviously great. Project based learning (PBL) begins at an early age, and the project topics are most of the time decided together with the whole class. The results are shared with the class, the parents, and on the walls of the schools as well, which is amazing as, through pictures, you can see the whole process with all of its different phases, all the way to the finished product or other final result. The kids in these schools were amazing, they knew how to express themselves like professionals regardless of their age, they were polite, looked adults in the eye, and showed real concern towards less fortunate people and animals. Some of the projects included rescuing sea turtles, helping the victims of a natural disaster, knitting blankets and sending them to a developing country, organising a community-wide event, building science-related things I understand nothing about...It was amazing! The most heart-warming thing for me was the genuine good will of the children - when they got to choose a project they wanted to work on, they chose something where they could help others. This world has hope!

The projects could last for two weeks or for six months, depending on how large the subject area was or how interested the kids seemed in the topic. Other stuff from the curriculum was then somehow worked around the main project topic. Also, not all classes had the same project, and it was actually more important for the interest in a project to stem from the children themselves rather than forcing them to do something another class was doing at the same time,



In these classrooms, kids were studying about different climates. To make it more real, the temperature of the classrooms was raised to something resembling a savannah and a rain forest - loved it!




Inclusion and Diversity

I've definitely saved the best for last! The most amazing thing for me in the US was the way everyone was included in any community. I realise that if you're American, you might not agree with me or you might feel like this kind of inclusion doesn't exist everywhere in the country. However, coming from Finland, I have to say that no matter where I went and what school I visited, it was evident that diversity is celebrated in the US, and kids are taught to be proud of their roots and their identities, whether it's gay, lesbian, trans, African American, Asian American, Mexican American, Native American, mixed race, disabled or something else.




Different groups of people are visible in the school buildings through posters, literature, library displays and decorations, flags, safe space stickers, and extracurricular clubs. Also, teachers from different backgrounds are hired unlike in Finland, where it seems to be an eternal curse and almost a sin to be from another country and still want to work in your own field. Words cannot express the struggle it can be for a person from a different country to be treated as an equal in Finland. No matter what you do, you're always "the foreigner" and you're given less than a native Finn would be. You're expected to do the crap jobs Finns themselves don't want to do, and then you're accused of being here to "steal our jobs". You're told your Finnish pronunciation sounds foreign and that you're not good enough because of that (happened to several people from my wife's class teacher training group in job interviews). In Finland, foreign adults are often introduced to students through so called specialty visits - "look, here we have a person from *insert country*". Instead, it would be important to include adults from many countries in the actual school community. In the USA, on the other hand, I visited schools that had teachers from many different South American and Asian countries, teachers with various different ethnic backgrounds, skin colours and sexual orientations.

What some people in Finland don't seem to understand is how important it is for the kids from different backgrounds to also see themselves in the adults around them. LGBTQ+ kids, immigrant kids, kids with parents from different countries...they all need to see themselves in the school community around them, they need role models, and their identities need to be talked about just as much as those of students belonging to majorities. I was so inspired and touched by all the inclusion I both experienced and witnessed in the US! Teachers need to stop being embarrassed and whispering about diversity and instead let the kids know that also Finnish schools belong to all students!




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So yes, here are my general thoughts on American schools. I do realise I've only seen eight schools, and only in two parts of the country, but this is what I managed to gather in my four months of school visits. What do you like the most about schools in your country? What would you change?



Coming up: some posts about Boston, so stay tuned!

Comments

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