”So, what are you actually going to do in America?”
Many of my friends asked me that after I told them I had been granted a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching and was therefore going to Indiana this fall. Often I replied by quoting my application: “My main goal is to create online material for my American studies class in Vaskivuori High School in Vantaa“.
After a couple of months here in Bloomington, Indiana, I have learnt that there is much more to the program. In addition to actually working on my project, I have also visited schools and observed classes, discussed educational matters with teachers, students and principals, attended two classes at the Indiana University, given presentations on Finnish education, attended seminars and much more.
So far the most rewarding experience professionally has been learning about the American education system with its benefits and challenges. Visiting schools, reading about the school system and discussing with teachers and researchers have led me to believe that the American education system is like a miniature version of the American society: there is a huge variety and the schools differ from one another a lot. Some schools are really, really good: resources are vast, teachers are highly educated and innovative, and students motivated. At the other end of the spectrum some schools have difficulties providing the students the education they deserve.
Learning about American schools has also helped me to see the praised Finnish education system a bit more clearly. After being a classroom teacher for more than ten years in Finland, it has been a good experience to take some distance from the job (both literally and metaphorically) and view it from the outside. Finland’s success could easily make teachers, and school officials, blind to the downsides and unwilling to make any necessary renewals. I am confident that what I have learnt here will have an effect on my teaching methods once I return to my job in January 2015.
In addition to the official and mandatory program, there are a lot of cultural activities available in, around and outside of Bloomington.
Bloomington is quite a small town in the American heartland. The population is about 80,000 and mostly white and middle class. While the size of the town is rather small, one should acknowledge that there are about 40,000 students on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University and that the university has a huge impact on the whole town. The university is one of the biggest employers in Bloomington and creates a vibrant and liberal atmosphere with a lot of cultural activities available. The high ranking and famous Jacobs School of Music attracts gifted young musicians to town, many of whom can be found playing in local pubs in addition to performances on campus. I have enjoyed a variety of events together with my wife and the other Fulbright teachers. Our group consists of 11 teachers from five countries; two each from New Zealand, India, Morocco and Finland and three from Singapore.
As I am writing this, I am already half-way through the program. We arrived in Bloomington on August 16th after a week of orientation in Washington, D.C., together with American teachers going abroad to their respective destinations. The “graduation party” is scheduled for December 10th, only six weeks away. Time has really flown by! Yet there are still a lot of interesting things to do before departure.
One thing that I am really looking forward to is a trip to Boston in late November to attend the annual social studies teachers’ conference organized by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). I will attend lectures and other conference activities together with more than 3,000 social studies teachers across the nation and the world. The program includes a visit to the JFK Presidential Museum and Library and a Freedom Walk focusing on events in Boston during the American Revolution. The week after the conference is Thanksgiving week, and my wife and I have been invited to spend it with a friend on the coast of Maine. New England has been on my bucket list for a long time, so I am extremely happy to go there. Also, as a fan of traveling, I am happy that my wife and I are going for a three-week road trip after the program ends, before our scheduled flight back to Finland. We will be traveling approximately 2,500 miles, and the trip includes listening to jazz in New Orleans and spending Christmas in Charleston.
The Fulbright experience has been really rewarding. I highly recommend that all students, teachers and academics look into all the programs that Fulbright has to offer.
Text: Petteri Granat, Fulbright Scholar