Teachers Became More Creative and More Confident
Author: Eva Einarsdóttir
Read and understand – that was the theme of a Nordplus collaboration project which included three Swedish-teaching schools – from three different countries. The project has improved the children’s reading comprehension to such an extent that the methods have now become permanent.
By Joan Rask
When children between the age of 7 and 12 do not comprehend what they read, it might have something to do with their teachers – and the principals. Hökåsenskolan in Västerås decided to do something about this. The children must become better at comprehending what they read in Swedish – and instead of seeking out inspiration from other linguistic branches, they sought out the Finnish schools at Åland and Åbo that teach Swedish as their first language. Project manager Helene Gregers Varg has been part of the project from the beginning and has project manager for the last two years of the three-year-long collaboration.
”Finland has produced excellent results when it comes to reading, and that’s why we wanted to have a closer look at what they’re doing right. We wanted to compare and contrast curricula, so it was important to us that we could collaborate with Swedish-speaking schools,” says Helene Gregers Varg.
That became the start of a fruitful project, focusing on further education and competence development of teachers at three completely ordinary schools. It happened via meetings, exchange of methods, shared teaching platforms, and the sharing of theoretical knowledge on what works best regarding reading comprehension. It was key that all relevant teachers at the three schools involved participated in the project. Sofi Ekholm is the principal of Kälibo skola in Åland, and she was certain at once that Kälibo skola had to participate.
”We had to increase reading comprehension. We knew it wasn’t at the level it was supposed to be and therefore we had to start with the teachers,” says Sofi Ekholm.
She has been the principal of Kälibo skola since 2006, and it was important to Sofi Ekholm that the teachers at the school were able to see the purpose of the new project.
”In the beginning I was very worried. The teachers didn’t really engage with the project, but when I realised that I had to give them time to work with the new methods, it opened the teachers’ eyes to the advantages,” says Sofi Ekholm.
And then the results started rolling in.
”That the teachers could prepare and together increase their competency made the difference. The project has been really good and the teachers are happier now. Absolutely,” says the principal.
In practice, time was set aside for the project every month in Åland. It did not exactly work like this at Hökåsenskolan in Sweden, as time was the only thing that Helene Gregers Varg actually really missed during the project.
”We haven’t had as much time to actually engage with it at the school as we would have liked,” she says.
Her two teacher-colleagues Katarina Kumlin and Jenny Åkerholm nod in agreement, and the three women share the feeling that time for reflection and preparing lessons in a novel way were missing. However, it is the only negative they can think of.
”It was exciting to participate in the classroom teaching; to get tips and ideas and hear how others work with reading comprehension. Even though the pupils from the three countries aren’t that different, us teachers teach very differently every now and again,” says Jenny Åkerholm.
Katarina Kumlin highlights how valuable it has been to her to experience how others use methods she did not know of before the project.
”Today, I often utilise movement-based instructional videos. I saw it in action when we visited Cygneus skola in Åbo, and I’m really taking advantage of it now,” she says.
The project has had a positive impact on the three Swedish teachers from Västerås – both professionally and personally. When they visited Åland and Åbo, it was the first time their job had them travel internationally.
”It provides a special kind of focus for our dialogues, both with the colleagues we travelled with and those we met there. It has been incredible, and it has also been important to discuss the more professional questions. When you let go of your usual environment, new conversations come to life,” says Jenny Åkerholm.
One of the things she became increasingly aware of was the effect of pupils per teacher on the possibilities in teaching.
”When we came back from Åland, it was a little difficult to see our own classes with up to 28 pupils per class. We are about 1,5 teachers per class, while they have 18 pupils – and two teachers. Therefore, we are maybe even more so in need of inspiration and a focus on what can increase the quality of our teaching,” says Helene Gregers Varg.
The positive rubs off
The positive changes only led to more good things. In Åland, principal Sofi Ekholm has experienced good results, not only when it comes to teaching Swedish, but also in regard to other subjects.
”Now, the teachers go over texts and words with the children and ask ‘what does this mean?’. Before you lectured more and thought the pupils would understand, but not everyone did,” she says.
She emphasises that one of the most significant changes is that Swedish textbooks have been phased out. The teachers instead use literary texts as the frame of reference.
”Here at Källbo skola, the teachers believe a big change has taken place, and they experience it every day in their own teaching. They have gone from being controlled by text books to working in a completely different way today. They are more free, and they use their creativity and professional skills in a more direct manner,” says Sofi Ekholm.
She explains that the literary texts included in teaching can be of all types. The teacher decides and selects and includes what best suits the class and each individual pupil. Swedish, Nordic and international authors are often used in teaching.
It gives more than it takes
”Results matter the most, and we’ve had such terrific results. It has been an extremely worth-while and educational experience to be part of such a project! It is definitely demanding, but it gives more than it takes – and it’s fun at the same time – so I can only recommend that everyone should attempt to participate in such a project,” says Sofi Ekholm.
The project was directly targeting teachers, but also pupils and principals benefitted from the project. The principals formed their own network.
”Of course we talked about the project, but also about other things, such as employee policy and how we run the schools. The meetings with other principals gave me greater insight into how I can include all teachers in the project, and it has surely been valuable for me to participate,” she continues.
Everyone had to participate – but few travelled
When an entire school participates in a project, big communication and motivation challenges arise. Sofi Ekholm experienced this and so did the three teachers from Sweden. There were namely only 5-6 teachers who travelled to the meetings. They then had to share their experiences and the new methods with their colleagues when they came back.
”In the beginning it wasn’t easy, so the project was a topic of discussion during every meeting. But we succeeded!” explains Jenny Åkerholm.
Katarina Kumlin nods and continues:
”It gives me great inspiration to see how the others teach and work with the same issues as we do,” she says.
A key change has been the literary texts.
”We saw how literary texts became a central part of teaching when the children in Åbo worked with their own texts and stories – we’ve never done it this way before, but we do now to a far greater extent,” says Helene Gregers Varg.
They all agree that the collaboration with other schools in other counties has had great impact on the pupils on two levels. One is teaching, the other is cultural. They are confident that experiencing how adults collaborate across the Nordic countries and become inspired to do new things have benefitted the children.
”If you want to challenge your own mindset and opinions, you should definitely participate in a project with other countries involved. Most important is the teacher network across the three schools that we’ve established. We hope it’ll continue, and we are already in the process of planning a course with reading comprehension in math,” says Helene Gregers Varg.