Farmington kids get Finnishing school

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2012 - 11:26 PM

Finland's teaching methods are catching on, including in Farmington.

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Akin Elementary third-graders are led through a series of exercises during physical exercise time between subjects, Wednesday, January 18, 2012.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Before a math test, students in Anne Shadrick's third-grade class are encouraged to pop a stick of gum into their mouths and chew.

When Shadrick teaches her two dozen students a list of spelling words, she has them jog in place, touch their elbows to their knees or do other calisthenics in between writing the words that she recites to them.

Shadrick said research has shown that body movements, even something as subtle as moving your jaw while chewing gum, improve a child's brain activity and learning.

"They move and practice the words at the same time," said Shadrick, who teaches at Akin Road Elementary in the Farmington School District but who was born, raised and educated in Finland. "The movements are incorporated into the lesson. They are not in addition to the lesson. It's a different way to do something than just pencil and paper."

Different is a good way to describe what Shadrick has been doing at Akin for years. Drawing on her Finnish heritage and education, she incorporates some of the same methodologies that have made her native country the envy of the academic world.

Not only does the Nordic country of 5 million people have a high quality of life (free daycare and college, anyone?). It also has built an education system considered among the best, if not the best, in the world.

Spurred by the publication last year of the book "Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?" by Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish teaching methods have become the subject of national debate in the United States and the focus of articles in every major publication from the New York Times to the Atlantic magazine.

In Finland, Shadrick said, teachers are respected as much as doctors or lawyers. All teachers have master's degrees, and only the best and the brightest (10 percent of all applicants) are accepted to college to become a teacher. The state pays for the education and degrees.

"The Finnish education system is big on ... teaching kids how to learn," said Ulla Tervo-Desnick, another Finnish native and a teacher in St. Paul who also incorporates Finnish methods in her classroom at Expo Elementary.

"These are not Finnish secrets. They are just good teaching methods."

Teachers in Finland are given a large degree of trust and autonomy. Students spend only four or five hours in school, do a lot of outside play and get little if any homework. Yet they still produce among the highest test scores in the world, equal to those of students from China, South Korea or Singapore.

"It's remarkable how well they do," said Shadrick. "They spend a lot less time teaching and learning, but they learn more and teach more."

More play, less homework

Shadrick said her methods include extra recess or time outside, a lot of arts and crafts for hands-on experiences, and more problem-solving projects to teach critical thinking.

The techniques are at times at odds with U.S. education systems that push standardized tests, accountability, constant progress reports and less physical activity for kids.

Finland does not have standardized tests. Teacher salaries are not tied to performance reviews or student progress. And physical activity is a fact of life in schools.

Tervo-Desnick said Finnish teachers often use one project or problem to teach multiple disciplines. Something as simple as going outside to study a leaf, for example, provides physical activity as well as the chance to study the biology of the leaf, the geometry of its design, the environment in which it grows and the art of creating something with it.

The teachers are quick to point out that cultural, societal and systemic differences mean the Finnish system cannot be completely adopted in this country. But they do believe the best bits and pieces can be used to improve U.S. education.

Tervo-Desnick believes in the Finnish education model so much that she took things a step further, returning to Finland in 1996 to teach for part of the school year so her children could attend classes there.

"We could design projects and curriculum as we wanted," said Tervo-Desnick. "Some teachers, for example, had looms in their classrooms so kids could make things with their hands."

Her daughter Elli enrolled in fourth grade there, learning Finnish and German while also connecting with her mother's native culture. "I loved going to school there," Elli, now enrolled at the University of Minnesota, said via e-mail.

"We were always physically active, walking or biking to school, going on nature walks to collect things," she wrote.

Staying active

Shadrick has her kids stretch constantly, often creating their own calisthenics routines to do during periodic breaks from learning.

"She does other stuff that most teachers don't do," said Mae Lemm, 8, one of Shadrick's students.

Shadrick also uses stability balls instead of chairs at times. This year she is using Spooner boards (think curved snowboards or skateboards without wheels), on which kids sit, spin or balance while they read, spell or do math problems.

"It helps you concentrate on your books instead of your friends," said Katelyn Leichnam, another of her students.

Shadrick's methods are catching on at Akin Road. Other teachers are using Spooner boards and there is talk of buying 100 more so every classroom can have four of them.

"There is a ripple effect," said Laura Pierce, the principal at Akin Road Elementary. "It's all about energizing kids and learning. She's educating me."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281

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