"What do you think of Donald Trump?" and other questions from Finnish 5th graders

Two days ago, I had the opportunity to visit a Finnish grade school that houses grades K-6. My sister is a Kindergarten teacher there and I tagged along for the day. What one notices first of the school building is that everything is very tidy and clean. Also, the teachers across grade levels and special ed talk all the time! During every recess. The school really functioned like a well-oiled machine. The teachers are in charge and not the principal. The principal is an administrative figure and doesn't meddle with any practical matters, especially not with curriculum or instruction.

Students take off their outside shoes and put on inside shoes. Lunch (free for all students) was spinach crepes with rice, potato salad, and cubed boiled carrots. All children, including the 6-year-old Kindergarteners ate their lunch using both a fork and a knife. What impressive table manners! I got to observe a morning meeting in action. This is what a morning meeting board in the Kindergarten classroom looks like:

morning meeting

After lunch I visited a 5th grade English class (11-12 year-olds). They had prepared questions for me in advance. Some were more common ones, such as:

  • Do you like animals?
  • Do you listen to music?
  • Do you like pizza?
  • Do you play any instrument?

I bounced back the same questions to the students. Many of the students listen to American music. They all love pizza and hamburgers. The Finnish families don’t eat out often at all. They all have dinners at home together with their families (and they don't include pizza or hamburgers). The funniest question that a student asked was: “Do you have a boyfriend?” My husband thought this was the cutest question ever and now signs his texts with “from your boyfriend.” A common sentiment by Finns was reflected in the question, “Is it dangerous there?”. Many Finns, unfortunately, form an image of the U.S. based on American movies and cheaply-produced reality TV (e.g., Cops, Bachelor, Survivor, etc.). That gives Finns a very bad and inaccurate picture of what life actually is like in the U.S. We had a conversation in the class about the size of the U.S. (320 million people vs. 5 million in Finland). We talked about big cities. There would have been so many other layers to consider, but we didn’t have time.

The most challenging question was: “What do you think of Donald Trump?” First of all, I was very proud that a 5th-grader in Finland knew anything about U.S. politics. How many 5th-graders in the States would know anything about politics in ANY other country but the U.S.? Not many. There is a very strong negative view of U.S. politics in Europe in general, including Finland. I could’ve said so many things and really tried to put on my teacher hat since these kids are the next generation. However, I definitely didn’t want to sugarcoat anything since these kids were too smart for any bs. So what did I say? I said that while there are supporters who actually love him, there are a lot of people who are very very unhappy. There are a lot of people who are very scared. If you’re an immigrant, your life really has been affected in bad ways. I shared the experiences of my students from the Middle East, who can’t go back to their home countries even with valid visas since they wouldn’t be able to re-enter the country. I shared with them about the experiences of my students of color facing more overt racism which many feel is acceptable now. I shared with them how many Americans feel ashamed of our president, who doesn’t have a basic sense of decency or any intercultural sensitivity with other countries. The U.S. already is seen as the big, scary kid on the playground and now this kid has turned into an ignorant bully. That’s what I said. I should’ve said even more and added layers about how he actually got elected (who voted, who didn’t, who voted for him despite his openly negative rhetoric, etc.). I also should’ve talked about one of the positive outcomes of the election, namely people getting involved, standing up for other people’s rights, and participating in the society.

We ended on a happier note. We talked about how they learned English outside of the classroom. Many learn English by watching TV and through social media and online outlets. There were four boys whose English was outstanding. They understood everything I said and their vocabulary was amazing. Guess how they learned to speak and understand English so well? By playing video games. Games like “Counterstrike”, “Destiny” and “Overwatch” are popular and where boys and girls participate playing real-time as part of a team whose members are from all over the world. The language of communication is English. This is a definite positive side to videogames that we might not have even considered as English-speakers.

Today I’m headed to another school on the other side of Finland and will have more stories to share in the near future.