One of the highlights of Sophia Denaro’s ’17 first trip to Europe was her visit to an elementary school.
The unexpected treat came from a melodious chorus of children at Siltamaki Primary, a school in northern Helsinski focused on collaborative and creative learning, music pedagogy and educational technology. The children welcomed her and 22 other Furman guests by performing their school’s theme song along with a second special song that the children composed together.
“It was beautiful,” says Denaro, a native of Bellevue, Washington, who will begin teaching at Oakview Elementary School in Greenville this fall and is pursuing her M.A. degree in education from Furman. “It was such a valuable experience to be able to visit so many classrooms and see ideas I can implement in my own classroom.”
As part of a unique Furman May Experience course, “International Perspectives on Public Education,” Denaro was able to visit 13 different schools in Finland and the Czech Republic. She also spent an evening with former Prime Minister of Finland Alexander Stubb ’93 and visited with some reindeer on a farm near the Arctic Circle.
Planning for the new program, led by Education Professor Michael Svec and Sociology Professor Joseph Merry, began over a year ago. Nearly a third of the participants graduated from Furman in May, heard Stubb deliver the keynote address at their Commencement and returned to campus four days later for the May X course.
The group started their school tour in Finland, a recognized world leader in public education, and continued onto schools in the Czech Republic, which offer unique approaches for vocational and career training beginning as early as the fifth grade.
“Visiting Finland’s schools has been on my bucket list for a while. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to actually get to experience the schools first hand,” says Denaro.
Touring more than one country and seeing different types of schools, ranging from Pudasjarvi, the largest log schoolhouse in the world, to cutting-edge science laboratories in city universities, were key parts of the experience, says Svec.
“If you only saw one country, then it might be easy to conclude one country had the solution for high-quality public education, but two or three different solutions – all with pros and cons – lead to deeper and more complex discussions,” he says. “We wanted to engage our students in a self-assessment of their own values and beliefs and the impact those will have on public education in the U.S. The goal is to inspire our students to be engaging, inclusive and innovative teachers.”
“This trip was so focused on what I wanted to do,” says Jessica Rose McDowell ’17, who will teach third grade at Roebuck Elementary this fall. “We were able to talk to students, teachers and administrators. We watched their interactions as they taught and learned from each other. It validated what we’ve been learning at Furman and made me feel very prepared as a new teacher.”
Having education and sociology majors travel together added another valuable element to the program, says Merry.
“These are two disciplines that complement each other well and each can learn a lot from the other,” he says. “The cross-national perspective on education encouraged not only a focus on schools and classroom learning but how those schools were situated in a broader social context with history, culture and policy.”
Of course, the group took some time to participate in traditional tourist activities. They walked on the Charles Bridge, explored Prague Castle, attended a concert by the Prague Symphony Orchestra, visited Prague’s Jewish Quarter, toured the Toyota Peugeot Citroen car factory, saw the Strahov Monastery libraries and ate lots of gelato.
The concert in Prague was a favorite experience for Kelsey Milian ’20, a sociology and non-teaching education major from Miami.
“This trip inspired me from the moment I saw the flyer in Furman Hall,” said Milian. “It convinced me that in order to make a difference in society, you have to be willing to challenge yourself and have a strong desire to learn from the different cultures around you.”