This week we had a meeting with Jie-jie’s teachers. They asked for the meeting, saying that it is standard for students and their parents to have a conference with the teachers twice a year.
Here is a little background: Jie-jie is in our neighborhood, standard Swedish school. She has been there about 6 weeks. The school is about 50% immigrant. 75% of the kids are from the school’s district area and the remaining 25% are from an area further north called Araby. The school in that neighborhood is basically 100% immigrant and struggles to maintain teachers and staff. Many of the parents who understand that they do not have to stay at their neighborhood school send their kids to Jie-jie’s school instead. Naturally, such parents tend to be folks who have been around Sweden long enough to understand the system a bit. They and their children tend to be proficient in Swedish.
Jason and I chatted before heading over to the conference and determined that we didn’t have any particular concerns. We are happy and Jie-jie is happy. We were going to listen and learn.
When we arrived the two teachers were waiting for us. One, the head teacher, is with the students each day from 8 to 12:45 (with the exception of a long recess, lunch and any “specials” like gym or library). The class is quite large – approximately 40 students. The other teacher is the math teacher. She is there every day but Friday. The kids are divided up in to two groups so, although they are sometimes all in the same room, they are very frequently split up (e.g. one group is in the gym while the other works with the teachers back in the room). Both teachers speak a little English but neither are particularly comfortable in the language. They wanted to have the conference in Swedish but I said that our Swedish was not good enough. We settled on Swenglish.
The meeting started with us discussing a form that Jie-Jie filled out in which, by making smiling, frowning or neutral mouths on little faces, she indicated how she felt about various aspects of school – math, science, Swedish, her friends, lunch-time, etc. She gave smiles to everything but Swedish. She indicated that she did not like Swedish too much. We had a brief discussion then the teachers dismissed Jie-jie and send her off to “free time.” They said they wanted to speak further with us and I began to worry.
After Jie-jie left, the head teacher explained that, since Jie-jie doesn’t speak very much Swedish and since she started the school year so late, she is quite behind some of the other students. She said that “You cannot skip ahead” and pulled out the Swedish workbook to show what Jie-jie was working on. She was learning to write the letters (?!) in the workbook. The teacher explained that it took her a long time to write her letters because she didn’t speak Swedish. I was puzzled and looked at the workbook. The problem was not writing the letters of course, since Swedish only has 3 new letters and Jie-jie has been writing her letters since she was 3 or 4. The problem was that for each letter there were several exercises that required you to circle the word that starts with the letter or draw a picture of something that starts with the letter, etc. So, Jie-jie had to do the assignments backward – find out what the word for, say, key was, before she could determine whether or not the word began with the letter (most letters have basically the same sounds as English although they may have different names and some letter combinations make different sounds). Jie-jie’s teacher said that she cannot work on writing words and sentences until she finishes writing her letters, that you cannot skip steps. In further support of her aversion to skipped steps, she said that Jie-jie skipped the 6-year-old “forskola” class where she would have had important background to prepare her for class 1. I asked what kind of background and she talked about pre-literacy stuff like rhymes. She said that she knew on the first day that Jie-jie should not be in Class 1. She said that she thought that it would be better for Jie-jie to be in Forskola where she could play all day and learn Swedish. The teacher further pointed out that she had been more successful making friends in that class than in her own.
Then the math teacher chimed in saying that Jie-jie was very bright. She showed that in math she had skipped workbook 1A and started Jie-jie at the beginning of workbook 1B. Jie-jie was making progress and did fine once she explained to her what she needed to do for each exercise. Because of that and because she had to start at the beginning of the workbook, it did take her a little longer. I then suggested that, if she wanted Jie-jie to progress more quickly, she could perhaps send home more homework since Jie-jie only has very occasional math homework. She said that she could definitely do that. Then the head teacher came back to the fact that it was our decision but they thought Jie-jie should be moved to Forskola. Jason and I glanced at each other and said we would need to talk about it.
Then I started asking questions: What was the structure of the day? Did the students work independently in their books or all together? Were they divided into groups, all together except for Jie-jie, or did each kid progress at their own speed? Did Jie-jie’s limited Swedish ability and current place in the work require any additional effort from them? Was it affecting the management or progress of the class?
Both teachers quickly said that Jie-jie was no more work than any other student and that she did not disrupt the class. I learned that in each subject the students begin with a little lesson given by the teacher to the whole class. In the case of math and Swedish, that lesson is given at the level necessary for the kids who are furthest along. After the lesson, the children get their workbooks and work independently while the teacher circulates to answer questions. All the children are at different places. In the case of other subjects, like science, the students do not have workbooks and work all together. In Jie-jie’s science workbook, for example, she had carefully drawn a flowering bulb and labeled in Swedish the parts of the plant. I looked at her penmanship journal and her teacher talked about how fine her handwriting is. She also had a writing journal in which she drew pictures and wrote (mostly in English) about her life. I was quite happy with all of the work that I saw.
Eventually we headed out and it didn’t take more than 60 seconds for us to determine we were on the same page. We were quite happy with her progress in math. We are forever in awe of her ability to pick up so much Swedish in only 3 months and grateful that she is so willing to come along on our wanderings. We recognize that her friends tend to be in the other class but she sees them during recess and in the free time that begins at 1 p.m. (in total about 3 hours per day). The idea that we would put her back was ridiculous. It would send Jie-jie the message that she was not prepared for work that is completely within her ability. We determined that we should double our efforts to show that we are proud of her for hard she was working. We reaffirmed our conclusion that this is the last time at least until late middle or high school that Jie-jie is getting immersed in a new non-English speaking academic environment.
Once we established that we could move on to discussing the meaning of what we had just experienced.
Fortunately, I have had enough cross-cultural experience here and in schooling the kids in China that I was able to bracket my automatic, negative and angry reaction and step away from the meaning that I imputed to the conference. The primary teacher is a kind person and conscientious teacher. She really is motivated by her desire to do what is best for my daughter. The problem is that she and I have different ideas about what that is. Here, are some of the cross-cultural things going on here:
- From her perspective, learning should be enjoyable, tacked to pre-determined age standards, and reasonably easy (meaning not requiring too much effort for success), occur without putting stress on the student and take place in the typical setting. From my perspective, learning is work that can be enjoyable when students feel challenged and meet those challenges but should also include failure, puzzles and mysteries that students cannot resolve without the guidance of the teachers and collaborative work with others.
- From her perspective the Swedish educational curriculum is rational and neutral, consisting of necessary sequential steps. Learning occurs through following the steps. From my perspective kids are learning all the time in all different kinds of ways and the Swedish school system is offers one particular culturally-determined and procedural-ideological approach. She thinks we are off-base for not following the steps of her system. I believe that Jie-jie’s alternative educational background is an adequate substitute for the Swedish steps that she has skipped.
- Immigrants usually spend some period of time upon arrival in educational programs designed to have them adapt to Sweden and the Swedish educational system. Our neighborhood school does not have this program. They are scattered throughout the city. Given my own experiences in SFI and my belief that hanging out with a bunch of other newcomers is exactly the wrong way to learn Swedish, I’m not complaining, but I am not sure how we managed to never be notified or enrolled in these programs. Maybe because we placed our kids in school before we were in the system with our personnummers? All the same, it is a bit surprising to see a teacher in a school that has so many immigrant students seem to be so set on the idea that you need to learn Swedish before you can learn anything else.
- I feel fortunate that we have significant prior cross-cultural experience that allows us to bracket our interpretations of things but also gives a sense that we know who we are and how we do things. It is this that allows us to encounter situations like this without coming unglued or defeated. On the contrary, encountering that limited flexibility freed me from having to worry about compromise.
- And also, I have the most amazing children ever.