What the US Can Learn About Education From Finland

In 2000, students from Finland made the top scores in reading, math, and science on international tests and have continued to stay at the top of international tests ever since. What’s their secret?
I just read the book, Finnish Lessons, which gives a detailed overview of how Finland reformed their education system very slowly from the 1970’s on to become the world’s best. Their strategy is pretty much the opposite of what we’re doing in the US:

1. Teachers have to earn their master’s degree in a highly competitive research-based teaching program. They are then highly respected and given a lot of latitude as to what they teach in the classroom and how.

2. Teachers only teach 4 hours a day (as opposed to the 6 hours US teachers spend teaching). This gives Finnish teachers more time to collaborate with other teachers, plan their lessons, and help struggling students.

3. Students don’t start school until age 7, everyone gets a free nutritious hot lunch, and good medical care is available to all students.

4. A large percentage of students in the lower grades receive special education in order to take care of learning problems early in their schooling.

5. Schools are small — most are under 200 students.

6. There is no standardized testing done in elementary school and the kids don’t have as much homework as in the US.

7. Great care is used to make sure that all schools are well-funded equally.

8. There is no tracking of students.

December 11 – 17, 2010: In Brief

Young Adult Fiction:
Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins (****) [2010] – This is one of those addictively good books you might accidently stay up all night reading.  Seventeen-year-old Anna Oliphant has lived her entire happy life in Atlanta, Georgia until her father decides on a whim that she should spend her last year of high school at an American boarding school in Paris. 

While Anna would love to visit Paris, she hadn’t planned on leaving her best friend, possible boyfriend, and entire life to live in a country where she doesn’t even speak the language. Meredith, the girl next door, hears Anna crying in her room on her first night of boarding school and offers sympathy, hot chocolate, and an invitation into her group of friends. One of Meredith’s friends turns out to be the boy every girl in the school has a crush on.  Though St. Clair has charisma, great hair, and a British accent, Anna warns herself not to fall for him and instead to just be his friend.

Anna’s a likable character.  Her life in Paris is both realistically charming and difficult at the same time, as is her friendship with St. Clair. [For ages 12 and up.  I read the eBook on Nook for Droid Phone.]

Life Highlights:
"Mrs. Evil Octopus" and Other Names I Should Totally Consider Using –  I subbed this past Friday and Monday for a delightful first grade class.  Their teacher found out she needed surgery unexpectedly a week before.  So by Friday, when I arrived, they were mighty tired of subs.

I commiserated with them about how hard it is having a parade of substitute teachers when all they wanted was their own teacher back.  Then I noted that it must be especially hard for them today because I was sure they were looking at me and noticed that secretly I was an evil octopus.  Having an evil octopus for a sub is sooo annoying.  They perked right up when I said this.

Apparently first graders are pro-evil octopus.  Who knew?  I had a fun two days being their teacher.  I especially got a kick out of the students who raised their hands and said, "Mrs. Evil Octopus, can you explain this problem to me?" 

November 28 – December 3, 2010: In Brief

Middle Grade Fiction Novels:
Whales on Stilts (A Pals in Peril Tale), by M.T. Anderson and Kurt Cyrus (***1/2) [2005] – You know a story is going to be a fun read when it starts like this:

"On Career Day Lily visited her dad’s work with him and discovered he worked for a mad scientist who wanted to rule the earth through destruction and desolation."

Whales on Stilts reads like a Saturday morning cartoon in novel form, with lots of clever asides and loopy happenings.  [A middle grade novel for ages 9-12.  I read this in eBook form on Kindle for Droid.]

Web Links:
Create Your Own Comics – This useful link for parents and teachers of comic lovers has a short review and link for 6 different create-your-own-comic websites. 

[Parent note: site # 5 requires registration.  The video for site # 6 is narrated in a Transylvanian-vampire-voice and compares making comics to "making love".  It’s a little risqué but fun.]

Bullying – In this Slate article, Amanda Marcotte offers an insightful take on the root causes of bullying.  Her conclusion:

"The ugly truth is that kids get bullied because they’re not conforming to some social standard the bullies hold, and often the adults in charge agree with the bullies on the social standard, which makes them side all too often with bullies against the bullied. This is the most under-discussed aspect of the problem, by far.

The only people who seem to be talking about how bullying is a direct result of larger social messages about conformity are a handful of people talking about homophobic bullying, and how it reflects larger social messages about queerness that the bullies are absorbing and acting out. And even in this case, most of the discussion around things like the It Gets Better Project are mealy-mouthed condemnations of bullying without looking at root causes.

Until the adults in charge vigorously disagree with the bullies on subjects such as, "Kids who are unathletic are second class," or, "Kids who don’t conform to rigid gender roles are threatening,’" there isn’t going to be much we can do about bullying."

(Emphasis mine)

November 14 -20, 2010: In Brief

TV Quote:
"I’m not asking you to dye your hair red and call me Mulder, I would simply ask that you consider the possibility that Marie had knowledge of, or had contact with something up there." 
Richard Castle (to Kate Beckett on the show Castle)

Middle Grade Fiction Books:
The Carnival of Lost Souls:  A Handcuff Kid Novel, by Laura Quimby (****) [2010] After years of searching, foster child Jack Carr and his social worker Mildred think they may have finally found him a home. An elderly professor specifically asked for a child who likes magic tricks. Handcuff-collecting, Houdini-loving Jack fits that description perfectly.  

Jack’s new home with the professor and his doting housekeeper, Concheta, is a dream come true until the Professor dares Jack not to peek into an old carnival chest in his office. Of course, Jack has to peek.  It’s too late that he realizes he’s been tricked into taking on the professor’s debt, a deal the professor made long ago when he was just a boy.

Now Jack’s soul belongs to the great Mussini.  As Jack is pulled into the land of the dead, the professor urges Jack to use his love of Houdini to help him get free.  Jack’s skill of escaping from handcuffs helps him in his new role, entertaining the dead in one of the acts of Mussini’s traveling carnival.  Could Jack’s skills also help him escape and return to the land of the living?  That’s the trick Jack needs to figure out.

The Carnival of Lost Souls is an entertaining tale.  Quimby creates an intriguing land of the dead where life seems much like the days when there were traveling carnivals with seedy edges, a group of lovable kids, and creepy surprises along the way.

Full Disclosure:  Laura is another member of one of my writer’s groups.  Her book is a delight and one of those action-filled tales that are hard for older elementary-schoolers to find. [Middle grade fantasy for ages 10 and up.]

Web Links:
Avid Writing Kids–  If you have a child who writes a mountain of stories or poems, you’re probably wondering how to help them grow as a writer.  Rosanne Parry at From the Mixed-Up Files offers three sound ways to encourage your budding author.  Her advice:

1. Help them save and safely store their work.
2. Help them find a time and place for writing.
3. Help them find a writing community.

Check out the details here.

October & November 2009: In Brief

Lessons I Learned About Kidney Stones:
1) The staff at my local emergency room is super nice.
2) Almost everyone I know has either had a kidney stone or knows someone who had one.
3) It’s pretty much like going through labor but without the baby at the end.  Though my body seems to have more trouble with simple illnesses than most people.  Instead of passing the stone after a couple of days of pain, like most people, I had my stone for over 4 weeks until I had to have a procedure to remove it.
4) When the doctor said, "You might have some irritation after the procedure", what he really meant was that if my stone was really stuck — which it was– I’d have a week of searing pain that I could dull by taking pain medication every 4 hours.
5) Watching Being Human is an excellent way to spend a week living on the couch and taking around-the-clock pain medicine.
6) Filling a tube sock with rice and nuking it in the microwave for 60 seconds makes a wonderful heating pad.
7) In conclusion, kidney stones are more fun than any human should be allowed to have. 😉

Sprinting Back Into Regular Life:
The minute I was well I subbed almost every day.  On the last day of my job before Thanksgiving the principal told me that Ms. D. had broken her ankle on her trip and asked if I could sub all next week too.  I said, "Sure.  Why not?"  Then I spent Thanksgiving weekend making fun, educational lesson plans, cruising the library for good books, and designing samples of the projects we would do.  Whew!

Fiction Books Finished:
The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart (** 1/2) – Talented orphans are recruited into a secret society.  While the beginning pulled me in, I found the middle a bit slow.  The book has a good message about advertising and seems to be quite popular but for some reason I didn’t enjoy it that much.  [Ages 9 and up]

Gregor the Overlander & Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, by Suzanne Collins (*** 1/2) – When eleven-year old Gregor tries to stop his two-year old sister "Boots" from falling down a laundry chute, the two of them are sucked down a wind tunnel and land in the world of Underland.  There he meets giant bats, cockroaches, rats, and the nearly translucent Underlander humans who believe Gregor just might be the warrior they’ve been waiting for. This is a great middle-grade fantasy series.  Underland is a fascinating world full of appealing characters.  It would make a good classroom or family read too.  [Ages 9 and up]

The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkoski (***) – When the Prince of Bohemia steals a clockmaker’s eyes, twelve-year old Petra decides to steal her father’s eyes back.  This middle grade fantasy– set in a slightly magical 16th century Prague– starts out slow but builds to an exciting conclusion.  [For ages 10 and up]

Non-Fiction Books Finished:
Woman: An Intimate Geography, by Natalie Angier (*** 1/2) – An enjoyable book on the female body.  Angier describes menstruation, fertilization, and menopause in ways that not only explain but inspire. Her chapter taking down evolutionary psychology is especially welcoming.

Teaching Outside the Box, by LouAnne Johnson, (*** 1/2) – The movie Dangerous Minds is based on LouAnne Johnson’s first teaching experience with low-income at risk high schoolers.  Since then Johnson’s had a wide range of teaching experiences and gives good advice for teaching reading and English to students from upper elementary school through high school and college — emphasizing both strong class management and how to motivate students to learn.

TV- Top 5 Favorites of the Month (In A,B,C Order)
(The) Big Bang Theory, current season 3 – I like the way Penny and Leonard’s relationship isn’t the focus of the show.

Being Human, series 1 – is an enjoyable unique supernatural story about three twenty-some adults sharing a flat together in Bristol. Instead of the usual save-the-world plot, this story about a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost is mostly a story of new adults dealing with the day-to-day dramas of adulthood, relationships, and coming to terms with who they are.  [ I watched the 6 episode series on itunes.]

(The) Good Wife, current season 1 – Out of the dozens of new shows I tried this season, The Good Wife is the only one I’ve stuck with.  Julianna Marguilies is wonderful as a woman trying to breath life back into her law career after her husband has been jailed in an Eliot Spitzer type situation.  The legal cases are interesting and I like the way this show doesn’t spell everything out for the viewer.

Mad Men, current season 3 – turned out to be my favorite season so far.  It started out slow but built to a series of satisfying conclusions.

Supernatural, current season 5

Sub Jobs:
1/2 day- Art teacher at another school
1 day- Media teacher at my regular school
1 day – Ms. D’s 2nd grade
1/2 day – 1st grade reading at another school
1/2 day – 1st grade reading at another school
5 days – Ms. D’s 2nd grade

March 2009: In Brief

The Allergy Shots Are Working!
Yay! Yay! Yay!  The real test comes this April.  Still, it was fantastic having a clear head and plenty of energy in March.

2 Family Dinners–  The good thing about staying in my family’s "home town" is that the more adventurous family members come back frequently.  So I can be a homebody and still have fun family dinners with my dad and sibs.

SCBWI Westminster Conference–  There was the usual helpful/inspiring information, a chance to hang with fun people, and even a presentation on the Library of Congress’s cool website, plus, conference cookies.

Driving Glasses– I read so many books and blogs I’ve changed my distance vision.  So far, my plan to only wear my glasses for driving is working.  Life is eerily clear when I drive and happily misty-and-water-colored when I don’t.  Luckily I don’t drive very often.

Fiction Books:
Mudville, by Kurtis Scaletta (***)
Wake, by Lisa McCann (*** 1/2)

Non-Fiction Books:
Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time
, by Susan Scott (****)

Dead Like Me (**)- Unlike Serenity, this movie was not worthy of the TV series it continues.

Afro Celt Sound System, Gossip, Kelly Clarkson, The Puppini Sisters, and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs
TV:Top 5 Favorites of the Month (In A,B,C Order)
Battlestar Galactica
– Not the best series finale ever, but it had its moments.
Dollhouse– Episodes six and seven did pique my interest.
Flight of the Conchords
The Big Bang Theory

Sub Jobs:
1 day- Reading Teacher
1 day- Media Specialist
1/2 day- Computer Teacher
1 day- 2nd grade in Ms. K’s class
1/2 day- Media Specialist
1 day- 2nd grade in Ms. K’s class

Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire

Author: Rafe Esquith

Publisher: Penguin Group, 2007

Pages: 244

Genre:  Non-fiction, Teaching

Rating: ****


Rafe Esquith has been uniquely teaching fifth graders in central Los Angeles for almost 25 years.  Each chapter details sound ideas for teaching one subject: math, reading, writing, problem solving, history, art, life skills, art, and music.  He also describes the classroom-based economy he uses, the instrumental music program he teaches at lunch, his afterschool movie club, his student movie rental service, class trips, and the annual Shakespeare- rock opera play his students perform.

Esquith’s musings about being a teacher and mentor, his assessments of his own mistakes, his struggles with school bureaucracy, and his thoughtful optimism about what teachers can do for their students were comforting to me. Esquith isn’t perfect; he’s a bit over involved and over invested in being liked by students. His crazy teaching hours – he’s in the classroom 12 hours a day, 6 days a week – aren’t really realistic for most teachers and he’s judgmental of teachers who don’t meet his high standards. Still, I found his teaching ideas specific and useful and his dedication and successes comforting.  Highly recommended for both beginning and experienced elementary and middle school teachers.

Setting Limits in the Classroom

Author: Robert J. MacKenzie, Ed.D.

Publisher: Three Rivers Press, 1996, 2003

Pages: 351

Genre:  Non-fiction, Teaching

Rating: **** ½


Setting Limits in the Classroom is a straightforward guide to effective behavior management skills for the classroom.  MacKenzie describes easy techniques for dealing with students in a firm, but calm and friendly, manner using: clear verbal messages, encouraging messages, logical consequences, two-stage time-out procedures, “try-it again” approaches, and more.


He uses examples of real teachers in classrooms, pointing out the difference between permissive, punitive, and democratic methods of managing behavior. He then charts out the teacher’s actions with the students – what he calls a “dance” – noting which actions stopped a behavior and which were merely fancy language that did nothing to change the situation for the better.


The book outlines daily regular management skills, how to start off the year and teach kids the rules, methods beyond bribes and material prizes to reward students for good behavior, how to help parents with homework issues, how to deal with extreme behavior, and how to design a school wide discipline program that works effectively.


The techniques in this book are techniques that probably everyone’s heard of, what makes the book special is how clearly these techniques are explained, and the full description of how a teacher might use the technique to solve a classroom behavior problem.  MacKenzie is thorough in going through all the possible actions a student might have and how an effective teacher could respond, using a carefully sequenced string of techniques.


Highly Recommended.


****Setting Limits– This is MacKenzie’s book for parents.  It covers almost the same skills, using examples and details geared for parents at home rather than teachers.  There’s an especially good section on using these skills with teens. An indispensable book, one teachers could recommend to parents who need a good reference for home use.