An exchange of ideas

Swedish, Minneapolis teachers share educational experiences

“In Minneapolis, you have an expectation that children will succeed, an attitude of ‘yes, you can do it!’” observed a Swedish teacher, part of a group from Uppsala, Sweden that visited Minneapolis public schools in late October.

Minneapolis and Uppsala are sister cities. The municipal friendship is sponsored here by the American Swedish Institute (ASI), and Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has been exchanging study visits with Uppsala’s schools since 2005. Minneapolis educators use their spring vacations to spend a week shadowing counterpart teachers in Uppsala and observing school activities. As a bonus, they live with their counterparts during the week and get some idea of Swedish family life.

In return, Uppsala educators visit MPS for a week of similar experiences in late October each year. They make group visits to MPS programs of special interest, such as the Native American-focused Anishinabe Academy, and they spend much of their time with their hosts as they work with students and staff. They, too, stay in the homes of their American counterparts.

In Minneapolis, the exchange program is coordinated by Cooper resident Cheryl Paschke, retired coordinator of arts and music instruction for MPS. She first learned the value of foreign experiences for educators when she took a sabbatical in 2000– 2001 to study music and arts education in Stockholm.

Paschke said teachers there were eager to share strategies, resources and practices that benefit students. “Our exchange program enables educators to experience another culture and education system first hand,” she said, “seeing both the similarities and the differences, often underscoring what is already working for them or opening a new possibility to them.”

The Swedish and American educators shared their impressions of each other’s schools during a wrap-up discussion of their 2008 study exchange, the fourth between the two school systems.

Swedish schools ‘more like home’

Minneapolis educators found surprising differences in the Swedish schools they visited. “[Uppsala] schools feel more like home,” said one local teacher. “The school lunchrooms have flowers and place mats on the tables. Food is served on real dishes. And lunches are free to all.”

Another MPS teacher noted that the Uppsala secondary schools provide gathering places in the hallways, with benches, tables and even couches for their students. (Someone else reminded him that the fire code forbids upholstered furniture in MPS school hallways.)

Ibrahim Ayeh, who works in the administration of English Language Learning for MPS, was very impressed that children of immigrants in Sweden get 90 minutes of literacy instruction in their first language every week. “It really improves the communication between parent and child when the children can communicate well in the parents’ language,” he said in an interview.

Ayeh also admires the Swedish teaching assignment of 17 teaching hours per week, rather than the 25 required here. “Teachers work as much there,” he said, “but more of the time is used for class preparation.”

Nan Miller, director of policy development for MPS, traveled to Uppsala last spring. She found it useful to look at the work and governance of MPS “with another lens.” For instance, “school choice” in Sweden is a national policy. Students may choose a program in another part of the country, if they like.

Miller learned from her Swedish guest — who directs a career preparation program, supported by local businesses, in an Uppsala vocational school — about their capacity to graduate students with certification to start work immediately in a trade or a profession, such as meat-cutting, tourism, or auto repair.

The Swedes reflect on Minneapolis schools

Lotta Åhman, an Uppsala school social worker, liked Minneapolis’ emphasis on drawing parents into their children’s education. “We talk about that at our school, but here you’re doing it all over the city,” she said. “All around town, we saw posters telling parents to be a part of their kids’ studies.”

She also liked the emphasis on improving everybody’s performance, not just the work of the children with special needs. “It’s good to be successful,” she said. “Here, you try to find the kids with skills. Our kids who are doing well are kind of left to their own devices. They should be proud of being the top student. I think in the U.S. they do have that pride.”

Several of the Swedes expressed “shock” at seeing police, supervisory personnel and cameras in the Minneapolis schools as a means of student control. They agreed that their students come to school with more sense of internal control, learned in a home environment of respect. They did like one aspect of Minneapolis supervision: the single entrance to schools with a “front desk” for welcoming visitors, although they didn’t realize that it had to do with security until the Minneapolitans explained it to them.

Home-stay a valuable cultural experience

Both groups say that the home-visit is a major benefit of the program. “It’s fantastic to have a personal guide,” said one of the Uppsala teachers. “We have exchanges with schools in other parts of Europe, but this program is more at the personal level, with the home-stay and learning about the culture firsthand.”

Ayeh was also pleased with the home-stay. Swedish math and science teacher Maria Kronander and her husband hosted him in Uppsala and, in turn, stayed with him and his family in their Howe neighborhood home. “I found a family in Sweden, and they have a family here in Minneapolis,” he said, adding that he “made sure they got a real Somali breakfast, including our tea.”

Miller also said the home-stay was integral to the value of the program. She noted that it allowed for some very deep discussions, not just of schools, but also of politics, cultural issues, inter-country relations, and language. “We couldn’t have experienced that if we had stayed in hotels,” said Miller.

The wrap-up discussion between the Minneapolis and Uppsala educators ended with optimistic talk of expansion of the program, possibly to include student exchanges. “This is the new globalization,” said one teacher. “We all work with children. We’ve gotten a lot of impressions. We want to come back now that we have a base of information.”

Katie Fournier is co-chair of the Minneapolis/Uppsala Friendship Committee.

last revised: June 16, 2009