One of the things I really value in my line of work is the opportunity for reflective practice and to work in partnership with others who value this too. Residential projects like this are incredibly intense and with a packed timetable – but the total immersion in one project gives such a good opportunity for deep discussion and sharing ideas. I feel lucky to have built up a really good working relationship with my Finnish colleagues and every time we work together we share some great conversations around pedagogy - but also much wider issues around society, landscape, community, and creativity.
We stayed at Velskola - a great residential centre in the middle of vast forests and lakes not too far from the outskirts of Espoo and Helsinki. It was a very large old house converted into a residential study centre – and for our group from Dunkirk this seemed like a massive mansion, they talked about the actual setting a lot. It’s a great place with a really welcoming cosy feel to it and just the right spaces for us to work in, including a lovely light, big, central room which we could use for the drama sessions (complete with huge windows looking out to the forest).
We had a packed programme which we had carefully devised to ensure there was a lot of time to explore the project issues around building caring communities; but with time also for exploration of the landscape and local area, time to experience the Finnish school in Espoo, time to unwind and chatter, time for bedtime relaxation sessions for the children in front of the fire…
The project is funded by the EU Erasmus plus scheme (see link here), its an ongoing relationship and this is the second pupil camp as part of this particular strand of the project – see weblinks here for images and thoughts about the camp that took place in north Derbyshire in March 2015. There was also a pupil camp in Finland in February 2014, which was part of the Comenius strand of the project and at that point also involved schools from Norway and Italy.
The second week in February is usually the week when there is the most snow in that part of Finland (and when I was there three years ago the snow was incredibly deep). But, like the UK, Finland has had a mixed winter with some cold and snow but also some unusually mild weather. There had been thick snow just before we arrived but then the temperature had warmed and rain had fallen – and continued to fall whilst we were there – which began to wash a lot of the snow away. The landscape still looked very wintry and magical BUT we were delighted when towards the end of the week there was a HUGE thick deep snowfall and our children could fully experience the Finnish winter weather.
The snow is rather “other-worldy” when it falls like that, especially in thick forest. There’s a kind of stillness and silence all around and everything takes on a new look: everything from each tree to each reed is covered in a white blanket. Shapes are changed, sounds are different and the air smells fresh… Footprints invite speculation about what else has passed by, sounds are muffled by the thick snow and take on a whole new quality. It’s a place for imagination and stories to emerge.
I really love the sense of calm gentle ritual that accompanies all these practical things – taking your outdoor shoes off (snow boots for us all) just inside the doorway of every building, making sure food is eaten calmly and shared, lighting the fire, lighting candles, making sure there’s calm time for sharing a drink and a snack… Life in the UK can feel incredibly rushed and busy at times and an average school day can also feel very hectic. Our children from Dunkirk Primary talked a lot about how much calmer things were in Finland, they really noticed the difference.
I’m a massive introvert at heart and the calm thoughtfulness that is found in Finland really appeals to me. There’s a lot of space for contemplation, for reflection, for sitting and watching the forest and for actions to be considered and taken with care.
The on-going relationship between our two schools is a really important one and staff have become firm friends as we work together. Although a residential project like this entails very long days and you are on duty constantly, it’s such a great way to build firm links and to develop understanding of the ways we each work.
I’m always so struck by how fast the children build firm bonds and make connections during projects like this – its really inspiring. I think all the very practical creative work we were undertaking really gives great scope for that – partnership work is vital and there was a lot of space for sharing ideas non-verbally through drama, through making models and creating stop frame animations, through dance, through walking and exploring and so much more.
It was really interesting to listen to thoughts from and see the reactions of the Dunkirk children to Finland and to Finnish life. They are still talking about it a lot and whilst there some of the key points they discussed were:
The total lack of walls or barriers around the outside of the school
That they could HELP THEMSELVES to food at residential centre but also at the school – unlike England where portions are dished out for them
The wildlife – what might be in the vast forest…
The feel, look and size of the trees and forests – they talked a lot about how HUGE the trees were and the VAST expanse of forest
The more laid back style of school – no uniform, teachers are called by their first name, there are big soft seats and cushions etc in the big wide school corridors and much more – but it still felt safe, disciplined and it felt very calm.
There are so many things that only a residential project can offer – and whilst its incredibly exhausting for staff its so special – you build a different relationship with the children and with each other. I think the adults are able to get to know the young people better because there is more time for verbal and non verbal interaction - there is time for chats over meals and during walks, there’s big scope for a wider set of nurturing things: all the opportunities for conversations and little moments that just can’t fit into a school day.
As we did last March in Derbyshire, the work with the children was based around a carefully chosen story which would give scope to ask deep questions and explore some key issues around community, borders, safety and ways of reaching out to strangers. The story we used in Finland is “The Island” and is a hard hitting and stunningly illustrated book by Armin Greder. Parmjit Sagoo (drama / yoga artist at Dunkirk) led sessions exploring the story as it stood - but then also exploring many other scenarios that could have happened and alternative endings. The children created some very moving scenarios and their ideas about ways of reaching out in friendship were very touching.
My role in Finland was specifically to look at pedagogical documentation and ways of capturing the children’s explorations through film and photography. I’ve now got a long job ahead of me to edit footage together but it’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to deeply focus on this element of the work. I spent the week constantly fixed to cameras and tripods - either inside (in thick socks and cosy clothes) or outside in layers of warm clothes, snow boots and ice chains (I probably looked quite comical balancing tripods and cameras through the snowy forest and icy paths…).
Documenting learning and discovery is a vital part in “making learning visible” (something that plays a key role in the Reggio philosophy) and crucial when it comes to finding ways to share this kind of work. It is hard to capture this – children’s learning and discoveries are often subtle, poignant, quiet, time consuming and things are embedded as they are repeated. When filming or photographing I don’t want to interrupt children when they are lost in their thoughts and deeply engaged in “flow state”; I don’t want posed pictures or children to be aware of the camera watching them. It can almost feel intrusive to observe such important moments and having a really good relationship with the children is vital I think in trust being present whilst their work is being recorded on film.
It wasn’t just me using cameras though, the children and other staff recorded much of the project through a variety of means and as a result we’ve got a great range of images, film and subject matter captured. We used ipads to film, photograph, create sound recordings, make stop frame animations and to edit footage together; we used time lapse cameras and in the forest we set out night vision motion sensor cameras to see what might be about. The combination of very hands on activities all week combined with the use of some technology struck a good balance. One of the things the children worked on together was the creation of animations exploring connections, community and the setting in which we were working.
I know all of us involved in the project are digesting everything, thinking of the next steps and ways forward. Staff from the two schools are getting together again in April but there is constant contact between staff and pupils through the internet and ideas, thoughts and work are exchanged. I’m chipping away at editing everything – an incredibly long job – and this brings a lot of reflective thought in the process.
It’s a privilege to be able to work in partnership in this way with adults and children; especially when it’s a partnership that sets out to ask deep questions and to explore issues which search into areas that many projects wouldn’t touch. We live in an ever-changing world (we always have) and notions of community are crucial as we explore what it means to be a caring and diverse society. Its vital to be faced with situations that challenge, that put you out of your comfort zone, that stretch you and that ask searching questions.
And a walk through the forest is always filled with stories… if you just take time to listen…
There's lots more images and further information about the residential project in Finland on the Small Action Big Change project website here.
And further thoughts from those of us who took part are also to be found here.