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Finding community thousands of miles apart

• May 14, 2019 at 3:00 PM

Under a month ago, I was the fortunate recipient of a Fulbright Finland Inter-Country Travel Grant, which offers travel reimbursement for Fulbrighters working in other European countries to visit Finland and work with teachers and students there. In my weeklong visit, it became clear that the educational structures of the three countries — United States, the Netherlands and Finland — are extraordinarily different.

In the Netherlands, universities don’t label themselves as more elite than others. The result is that all students and educators know what it takes to get into university in regards to grades, and then they push, together, to get there.

In Finland, all school lunches are free. For everyone. As a matter of fact, when I was there, I happened to catch them on the day of smoked salmon. Offered to every student. For free.

In the States, we make so many opportunities for students to let the school be their social center. Whether it’s sports, arts or academics, there are many options for students to be engaged in the school structure.

The differences don’t stop there. The Dutch start leveling their students at age 12; the Finns wait to level by ability until students are age 16, running every student through the same curriculum until then. We Americans don’t have a unified system for leveling; no, we allow it to be a decision for each school district.

The changes go on and on from food to curriculum to ability to special education to vocational education to ...

But one thing, between these three countries, is clearly not different: the students themselves.

Every single time I’ve met a student here in the Netherlands or in Finland, I’ve thought of a student back in the States. First, the pastry chefs of Episode 173 of “The Share Chair Podcast” discuss their frustration with standard school, but their love of their internships where they learn to make hot food for 600 people gives them top-notch learning. They discuss their drive, and anxiety, to have their own store one day.

With their story, I’m reminded of my diesel mechanic students back in Spring Lake. Often, during their second half of the day back in the classroom, they yawn and show exhaustion — usually from years of feeling unsuccessful in the traditional classroom. But when they discuss their time at the OAISD tech center, they fire up, talking about what they’ve learned with vigor. They, too, have the drive to own their own shop, but they feel fear of it failing at it, as well.

In Episode 173, the first episode from Finland, Sara talks about her life as a missionary kid, sharing her religious beliefs with others who rest on a spectrum from interested to angry. She discusses how it feels to have the world as her home, not just one country. We have that in Spring Lake, as well: deeply religious students who want to share what they know to be true and are met with appreciation and, sometimes, hostility. We also have students who come in for a year and then are gone again, moving around the state or country or world — never feeling that “home” is a single city.

In Episode 162, Ghina and Chante talk about their struggle to find community inside their community due to moving into the Netherlands. That’s not so surprising, really. Not when you hear it in Episode 61 from Andrea in Spring Lake, as well.

Whether it’s the joy of a job well done or the anger of a school system or the pain of a broken family, teenagers share in similar emotions — even if the systems from which they come are quite different.

Teenagers, like all of us, are very human, with human needs. Often, that’s community. “The Share Chair Podcast,” it turns out, is one place to find it, even if the community members are thousands of miles away.

About the writer: Spring Lake High School teacher David Theune received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching grant from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. Through the grant, Theune and his family are spending five months living in the Netherlands and writing about his adventure for the Tribune.

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