Amanda Siepiola is an american teacher currently living in Helsinki, Finland for her Fulbright learning experience. Here she tells us about her discoveries while abroad:
I’m a teacher. In order to become a better teacher, though, I decided to step away from my second grade classroom at Horace Mann Elementary School in Washington, D.C. to spend six months as a learner through the Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching program. I landed in my new home—Helsinki, Finland—in the middle of January and, so far, my experience has been all that I imagined it would be and more.
My pedagogical interests include using constructivist teaching methods and elements of play to engage students and enhance their learning. I began researching constructivism and play with brio. I visited schools, met and observed teachers, participated in University of Helsinki courses with Pasi Sahlberg about the Finnish Education System and Mirja-Tytti Talib about Teacher Identity, joined the University’s Mentor Teacher Training workshop, and sat in on education research group seminars. I’ve been spending my days reading, talking, and writing about teaching and learning, and it’s left me re-energized and re-inspired to walk back through my classroom doors when I head back to the States in July.
As a classroom teacher, I’m not afforded the time and space to ponder and wonder about my craft. I don’t always have time to dissect just how children learn or to read article after article about play theory or to observe other teachers in action, for instance. Here, in Finland, I’ve had time to do all of those things. I’ve been given the time to learn and the space to reflect, and I know that I’ll be a better teacher for my students and a better colleague for my fellow teachers upon my return to Washington, D.C.
One day in the beginning of March, my research led me in a surprising direction. I spent the morning in a third and fourth grade classroom in Helsinki, watching ten-year-olds pretend to be on the show Leijonan kita (or Jaws of the Lion), which is similar to Shark Tank, a reality-tv show. Four students were investors while the rest of the students worked in groups to create inventions that would help people with hearing problems since they had studied how people hear prior to my visit. I watched them get in character and act as if they were on the show. Every single student was engaged and didn’t want to wait until the following Monday to continue; they wanted to continue “playing” that afternoon.
I found what I was looking for—students constructing meaning, applying new content to solve problems, collaborating with peers, teaching each other, supporting their claims with evidence, all while playing and pretending, and having fun. As I left that school, I realized that what those children were doing is something called larping or live-action role-playing, and that there are teachers in Finland and in the neighboring Nordic countries employing a teaching method called educational larping, or edu-larping. So, that’s where I’m headed. I’ll be meeting more teachers and larp scholars and I’ll travel to conferences to learn just how to bring edu-larping to my students in Washington, D.C. and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
Yes, I’m learning how to research, I’m learning new methods, and I’m reflecting on teaching and learning. I’m taking full advantage of the professional development aspect of my experience as a Fulbrighter; however, and perhaps more importantly, I’m taking advantage of and learning from all of the other experiences that are affecting my personal development.
I had never spent more than three weeks outside of the United States’ borders at one time before I moved to Finland in January. I was both terrified and excited about the unknown that lay ahead of me; stepping outside of my comfort zone is how we grow. I vowed to jump into the uncertainty of my new home and experiences that came my way by being brave and saying yes to each opportunity. This attitude has led me to my professional discovery, but also to meet wonderful, kind and interesting people with which I’ve enjoyed new, amazing experiences.
There are too many people and experiences to name. One of them is my Finnish Fulbright friend Marianna Sydänmaanlakka who invited my fellow American Fulbright teachers Laurie Eldridge, Karen Lee, Janet English, and I to travel with her family during the skiing holiday in February to Oulu and Kemi. We snowmobiled, had a picnic on a snowy island, enjoyed homemade salmon soup, and we spent the night at Kemi’s snow castle. My friends, the Mokko family, whose daughter I taught at Horace Mann when they lived in Washington, D.C., welcome me into their home for dinner almost weekly. I’ve spent hours talking with Finnish researchers and teachers, and every single one of them has been beyond kind, welcoming and helpful. I was introduced to the traditional Finnish smoke sauna and ice swimming experience by Johanna Lahti and Terhi Mölsä from the Fulbright Center, and have now done it three times! It is meeting these people and jumping into these experiences in my new home that has made my time in Finland much, much more than simply a professional development opportunity to improve my teaching practice.