What's your favorite thing about the USA? Do you own a gun? Did your school change when you got a new president? Why is college so expensive in America?
These are just some of the insightful questions I've received from ungdomsskole students at the schools I have visited so far. In the last three weeks I've made eleven official Rover stops, including a college class at the Ostfold University and the European Foreign Languages Day conference in Trondheim. To say that I am enjoying my travels would be an understatement. I am routinely reminded what huge honor and privilege this job is, as I have been warmly welcomed by students and teachers everywhere.
Typically, a school visit involves arriving at the school at the beginning of the school day (which might require a flight and/or train ride the evening before), meeting with the host teacher and his or her colleagues, and setting up the classroom. My workshops can be as short at 45 minutes, or as long as the entire morning or afternoon.
My most popular workshop offering so far has been "Teenage Life in America: A Day in the Life of Generation Z." In this workshop students compare teenage life in Norway to teenage life in America. Norwegian teens are interested to learn about the typical school day, sports, and traditions like Homecoming and Spirit week (they are shocked by the 'we've got spirit, yes we do cheer!') They seem to be amazed by all of the options students in the US have to pursue their passions right at school. In Norway, by contrast, all sports and clubs are private, so students and teachers go right home at the end of the school day before heading to practices or rehearsals in the evening.
Last week I taught my workshop on The American Dream to twelve students at Snasa Montessoriskole. This school follows the Montessori method, but receives 85% of its funding from the Norwegian government, and teachers adhere to the national curriculum. Montessori is simply an alternative in teaching method and environment, and anyone easily can opt-in.
We spent the entire morning talking about dreams for the future, why a person might have to put their dreams on hold, and how in some places in the world its easier or more difficult to pursue your dreams. The students told me that a person's ability to achieve their dreams might be impacted by the leaders their country has elected, how much support a person receives from their family, or if their county has a good "safety net" like Norway.
Hearing their perspectives, I couldn't help but compare their responses to how my students in Vermont might answer the same questions I was posing. In the course I teach at Colchester students might say things like "it would be easier if you started out from a rich family," or "it might be harder if you're a minority" or even "if you're are willing to work really hard, anything is possible."
While Norwegians are fascinated by life in the United States and eager to travel there, I'm also struck by how utterly incredulous they are when I explain things like the cost of higher education and healthcare, as well as our child leave policies. I remind students and teachers that the US is a huge, diverse country of over 300 million people. Additionally, our relative new-ness (by contrast, Norway is one of the oldest continually functioning democracies in the world), entrenched two-party system, and system of federalism makes the adoption of cohesive, basic national policies very challenging.
And so, drawing comparisons with students is really at the heart of my work as a Roving Scholar. Last week during another lesson of "Teenage Life in America" I was asking students to consider the diversity of teen life across America by watching video clips, reading infographics and hearing directly from my students at Colchester High School. One of my students back in Vermont, Petra Bajuk, offered this:
But truthfully, its a little hard for me to read this quote because I know it's not reflective of every American's experience. On the one hand, I agree with Petra; she beautifully articulates the American ideals of upward mobility and the pursuit of happiness. When I am feeling particularly prideful, this is the America I imagine. This is the America I desperately want for my students; its what motivates me professionally. But at the same time I wonder, WHO really has the right to be different? WHO is told they can be anything they can dream up? WHO feels like they have endless opportunity?
Petra's quote, in all of its hope and assuredness of what it means to be a teen in America, is at the same time a poignant reminder to me of the achievement gaps that still exist in American schools-- in my own school. Ensuring equitable learning experiences in US public schools is one way that we move closer to this shared vision, and it is work I miss about my job back at home.
This week marks two months in Norway for me. Routines are being established and my Norwegian is getting better with each day. One way I've been practicing is to have the students help me with greetings and goodbyes. They get a kick out of my American pronunciation and the fact that I cannot roll my tongue. But today, without having to ask for help, I successfully ended my lesson with a confident "Takk for mag og ha det bra!"