Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip - Part 5

Part Five: Encountering Flow

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 5:  Encountering Flow

This post is the fifth installment of a blog series chronicling Mr. Rickbeil's educational trip (and much needed vacation) to Finland this past summer.

Last Fall, I was in the midst of a brutal six-credit semester at Marymount University when I came across a book titled The Smartest Kids in the World.  I had already chosen to research the topic of anxiety disorders in one of my classes, but I was curious about this book, particularly because I had heard good things about education in Finland.  The book immediately drew me in, and within days I had changed my research topic to the Finnish education system.  Over the rest of the semester, I worked longer and harder than I ever had at any point in my career, leaving Trinity regularly at 6:00 and spending many evenings in the Baltimore County Public Library working on my Finland research.  However, I found the topic to be so interesting and meaningful that the long hours and late nights passed quickly.  Once again, I was encountering flow.

If you have not heard the word flow used in this context, it is best defined as being completely engrossed in what you are doing.  When you are in a state of flow, you are firing on all cylinders, working hard on a task while enjoying it the entire time.  You are motivated yet challenged, and you find the experience too hard to walk away from because you enjoy it so much.  When you are working in a state of flow, hours go by as if they were minutes, and the tedious details of the job become interesting parts of a puzzle.  It is, without doubt, the best way to work.

In my research of Finnish education, I did not reach much about flow.  In my tour of Finnish schools, the educational experts and principals that I spoke with rarely talked about flow or its importance in Finnish classrooms.  They didn't need to.  I saw it firsthand everywhere I went.  The second grade students that walked over to the public library immediately after school were experiencing flow.  The middle school students making pancakes in their home economics class knew about flow.  The teenage high school graduate leading me on a tour of her former elementary school demonstrated flow in all of her work. The teachers working in Finland's schools enjoyed flow as a regular part of their jobs.  It was everywhere.

Flow naturally answered many of my questions about Finnish education.  Why do Finnish schools take 15-minute recess breaks every hour?  The kids have a better chance to experience flow after taking these breaks.  Why do teachers spend significantly fewer hours teaching in Finland and more time collaborating with their peers?  Collaborating makes the job more enjoyable, with more flow.  Why does Finland prioritize the "specials" classes?  They create flow, and the variety of classes within the day make students more likely to find flow within their math and language classes as well.
 I remember one of the most powerful experiences of flow that I experienced in my life.  During my junior year of high school, I had my career dreams set on being a meteorologist on the nightly news.  For my high school service project, I worked as an assistant coach of a 5th and 6th grade girls' basketball team at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton school in my hometown of Saint Cloud, Minnesota.  Within a few weeks, I was hooked.  90 minute practices flew by, and felt as if they were 10 minutes long.  Weekly basketball games  became the most enjoyable part of my week.  I started doodling game plans and diagraming plays in my notebook during chemistry class.  The experience of flow I encountered coaching basketball changed my life for the better and led me to a career of teaching and coaching.

The beauty of flow is that it shows us how God has made each of us so unique that we enjoy different tasks that would bore others.  During my time in Finland, I befriended a German accountant who was well-versed in international tax laws.  At one point, he gave me a detailed lecture on setting up a business within international tax laws while we biked together on the western islands of Finland.  I never, EVER, would consider this work interesting, but I admired his expertise and the fact that he was so enthusiastic about his work.  After all, even international taxes can be an experience of flow- just not for me.

I worry that in the United States we are constantly drawn to an idea of education in which our children are well-rounded experts at everything.  We yearn for our children to reach the American dream of being on the honor roll while earning playing time on the varsity team and playing at an expert level on a musical instrument at the same time.  While learning to be a well-rounded person is certainly important, I think we would do better by focusing on each subject, sport, and activity as an opportunity for flow.  In high school, the service component of my Catholic school helped me discover a love for teaching, coaching, and working with young people that changed my life.  All of our kids should be so lucky.  To create a school in which children learn to love learning, we must arrange it so that our students regularly experience flow.

My trip to Finland was my first visit to Europe.  When I told people this, many of them looked puzzled as to why I would make my first European venture to its remote northern outpost.  I was not puzzled- I love Finland, and it was the perfect place for me to explore first.  My trip there this past summer served as a 17-day experience of flow, whether I was visiting a history museum, relaxing in the sauna, biking on the islands of Finland’s Turku Archipelago, or visiting Finnish schools.  I know I have a specific curiosity in Finland that is not shared by many other people, but I enjoy that as well.  After all, you have to "go with the flow".

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Trinity School Celebrates 75 Years

Trinity School Celebrates 75 Years Of "Teaching Children What They Need For Life."

Trinity School in Ellicott City is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a liturgical celebration on Saturday, October 22, 2016.  The celebration, presided over by Archbishop William Lori, will be held in the school's auditorium.

The land Trinity School inhabits was purchased in 1934 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.  It was originally opened as a junior high and high school for girls.  In 1941, the elementary school was opened and named the Julie Billiart Country Day School, after the foundress of the order.  In 1972, the girls high school was closed. Trinity School grew to take over the high school building.  Trinity's oldest building was constructed in the early 1900's and its newest building, St. Julie Hall, the middle school, was completed in 2002.
The mission and philosophy of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur is still fundamental in the Trinity School of today.  Trinity offers a strong academic curriculum with expanding and enriching programs in all disciplines, creating an environment where children learn to love learning.  The school fosters a positive self-image in its students and provides skills and opportunities for leadership.  Decision-making skills and accepting responsibility for one's actions are integral to a Trinity experience.  Trinity is committed to nurturing self-respect, self-discipline, and self-direction in each student.
One of the cornerstones of a Trinity education is creating a stimulating and caring environment that is conducive to learning both in and out of the classroom.  Trinity encourages students to participate in programs and projects to help the less fortunate, including regular food and supply drives for local food pantries, bingo with the residents of St. Martin's Home and even helping those within the Trinity community that have fallen on difficult times. Not only are students encouraged to participate, but families as well, creating a strong and caring community.
Trinity is steeped in tradition and also administers programs that foster the growth and development of the entire family.  There are a multitude of activities that offer parents the opportunity to join the students, such as the annual Turtle Derby, the Fall Festival, and the Trinity Trot.  Around the campus daily, you can see parents volunteering in many different capacities.
At the helm of Trinity is Sister Catherine Phelps, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur.  She has provided leadership to the Trinity School community for over 45 years.  She has worked with her staff to develop an educational program that encourages students to recognize and accept the uniqueness of each person.  

"I know that I am in a position where I can create an environment that really makes children happy and helps them to thrive," Sr. Catherine states. "I also want to have that same environment for my teachers where they can grow professionally and spiritually."
Trinity has twice been named a United States Department of Education Blue Ribbon School.  The school has earned many other awards such as the Maryland State Green School Award and the several Healthy Howard Innovative Awards.  39 high school scholarships were earned by the class of 2016. 
The Liturgical celebration of Trinity's 75th year on Saturday, October 22 will be held in the school's auditorium at 4:00pm and will be followed by light refreshments.  Trinity welcomes all to hear Archbishop Lori and to join in the festivities.  

Jordan Alexander-Payne
Trinity Parent
Trinity PR & Marketing Committee

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip - Part 4

Part Four: The Most Powerful Word in Finnish

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 4:  The Most Powerful Word In Finnish

This post is the fourth installment of a blog series chronicling Mr. Rickbeil's educational trip (and much needed vacation) to Finland this past summer.

Before my trip to Finland, I had great ambitions to learn the Finnish language.  Since I just finished graduate school in May, I figured I would have some extra time over the summer to study the language.  I planned to study 30-60 minutes a day, making flash cards, and devoting myself to this extra project.  I even downloaded a Finnish learning program for my computer, convinced it would help me expand my Finnish vocabulary.  It never really worked out.  After graduating, my brain was ready for a break, so I didn't really take out the flash cards. When the summer began, I meant to open up my computer and practice on the software, but it was summer, so I kept finding other things to do.  In fact, I think I practiced on my computer program only two or three times over the whole summer.  In retrospect, I had good reasons to be discouraged about studying the language.  Finnish is one of the most complicated languages in the world, and it is extremely difficult for foreigners to learn.  The language derives from Hungarian, and bears almost no resemblance to the Latin-based languages that I know.  Learning Finnish in 30 minutes a day was not going to work anyway.

Although I resigned myself to the fact that I was not going to understand Finnish, I was able to pick up some important words.  I learned to love pekoni (bacon) at the breakfast table with kahvi (coffee) to get me through the morning.  The markets sold many types of lohi (salmon) and plentiful  jäätelö (ice cream) for dessert.  I was even able to pick up the right greeting for the time of day, saying hyvää huomenta (good morning) or hyvää päivää (good day) based on what time it was.   However, the one Finnish word that really opened doors for me was kiitos, the Finnish word for thank you.

The word kiitos had a profound effect on the Finnish people I encountered, and saying the word always seemed to make them smile.  Maybe they felt honored that I was trying to learn Finnish.  Maybe they thought it was cute that an American tourist thought he could attempt to speak their language.  Maybe I was mispronouncing it in a way that was really funny.  Or maybe, expresing gratitude is really more powerful than I ever imagined.

All of the smiles I received encouraged me to say kiitos all the more.  Kiitos to the man who showed me around Helsinki in an impromptu walking tour.  Kiitos to the grocer at the counter who patiently waited on me when I clearly didn't understand how to buy groceries at a Finnish grocery store.  Kiitos to the dry cleaners that told me where I could find a laundromat.  Kiitos to the receptionist at the hotel who gave me directions around town.  Kiitos to every waitress and waitor that served me.  Kiitos to the principals on my study tour that welcomed me into their schools and the professionals that taught me about the Finnish education system.  Everywhere I went, these words had the same profound impact, no matter who I was speaking to.

Although the word kiitos has a nice ring to it, I think "thank you" can have the same powerful impact in our everyday American lives.  When I pray at the end of each day, my first and most important prayer ritual is to thank God for the blessings of the day.  I occasionally write these down, as a reminder that the day really was filled with grace and blessings.  This practice certainly makes me thankful for what I have, but more importantly makes me a more grateful and humble person.  I need to spend more time on this.

A school day, especially in middle school, can be tough on kids. Many young people experience challenges in a school day that can bring them tension, tears, and frustration.  However, when discussing the day as a family, I would encourage you to reflect on the things you were thankful for.  It does not mean that you glaze over the difficult things or minimize the frustrations, but reflecting with gratitude has a way of putting everything in the right perspective.  After all, we are so often blessed with great food, great resources,  and incredible opportunities, and it's so easy to take all of this for granted.  Taking a few moments each day to be thankful can have a profound impact on our year and a transnational impact on our lives.

Finally, I have a final programming note for this week's blog.  I originally planned on making these blog posts a five-part series, but I now realize that I am going to need a few more weeks.  Thus, this week's post is part four of a series that will probably have seven, eight, or nine parts to it by the time it is over.  In the past three weeks, I have been encouraged with the support I have received, and sincerely appreciate the likes, e-mails, and comments I have received from the Trinity family.  I am also grateful for my friends who have been following me on social media, including my mother (thanks, Mom!)  Some of my posts have even been made their way to Finland, which brings me a great amount of joy and satisfaction.  I am most appreciative for all of the support, and I can truly say kiitos from the bottom of my heart.

October's Virtue of the Month: PERSEVERANCE


Perseverance is the will to see things in spite of fear, obstacles, hard work, or discouragement.

A person who practices perseverance shows commitment and determination and demonstrates persistence and endurance.

Do you practice perseverance in these situations?

~ Being faithful to your commitment as a car aide
~ Never missing a drama rehearsal unless ill
~ Attending all Cross Country practices
~ Signing up for a job or activity and completing it
~ Doing your part in a class assignment
~ Setting a goal and reaching it

Practice, Practice, Practice

Perseverance in prayer.  Ask and you shall receive.  Keep on asking!!

Choose to persevere....rather than quit.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip - Part 3

Part Three:  Where Specials Classes are Special

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 3:  Where Specials Classes are Special

This post is the third installment of a five-part series, chronicling Mr. Rickbeil's educational trip (and much needed vacation) to Finland this past summer.

Inspired by the work of noted travel author Rick Steves, one of the goals of my Finland trip was to fully experience the ins and outs Finnish culture.  In his writing, Steves encourages tourists to go beyond the "touristy" places to truly meet the people of a foreign culture and embrace their way of life.  During my time in Finland, I learned quite a bit about the Finnish people by going to Church, shopping at the grocery store, visiting the public sauna, and taking walks through the central marketplaces of the towns.  However, I gained my best insights on Finnish culture by visiting Finnish schools.

For one week of my visit to Finland, I participated in a Finnish study tour led by a company called Learning Scoop, which specializes in giving foreign educators a tour of the Finnish education system.  During my study tour, I was able to visit four different schools, spending a few hours at each school.  I walked through the hallways, visited classrooms, met with some of the students, teachers, and principals, and dined on their school lunches.  One of the biggest differences I noticed with their culture was their special treatment of the classes we would call "specials".

Looking at a side-by-side comparison of our two curriculums, I noticed that Finnish students spend more time working on classes that we would not consider our "core" subjects, such as foreign languages, physical education, art, and music.  Although Finland's students place near the top of the charts on international reading, math, and science tests, they  spend a smaller proportion of their school day in these subjects.   Instead, it is very common to find Finnish students studying other pursuits during a school day.  Students learn multiple foreign languages in school, and it is not uncommon for a middle school student to study Swedish, English, and an additional language of their choice in addition to their native Finnish.  Music and art are also important parts of their curriculum, just as they are in many American schools.  While many Trinity students would tell you that gym class is their favorite, it is also a hit in Finland.  Some of the schools even have small forests with cross-country ski trails right on their campus, so students can enjoy a 5k loop on their skis during gym class.

Additionally, it is not uncommon to find classrooms in Finnish schools with looms, sewing machines, power saws, and woodworking equipment.  Crafting and woodworking are staples of the Finnish educational system, and they have revised their curriculum to make sure that boys and girls learn how to sew and do woodwork.  Home economics class is also alive and well in Finland, and many schools offer this as an elective class.  During one of my school visits, I walked into a classroom full of kitchen appliances, with eager students learning to cook and eat pancakes together.  Some of the principals told me that home economics has become the most popular class in their school, as students want to emulate the celebrity chefs on TV.  Of course, if I had the chance to eat pancakes in class, this might be my favorite class too!

In the United States, we have a way of short-changing these "special" classes.  When we have to prioritize, we limit our scope to math and language arts, sometimes clumping science and social studies into this as well.  Although all of these subjects are important, Finland taught me not to underestimate the rest of the curriculum.  After all, it is through these subjects that we truly learn about what we need for life.

As a single adult, I have to admit that my learning in these "specials" classes has become increasingly important to my life.  My Catholic school religion classes led me to a career teaching religion, and Mass on Sunday serves as the foundation of my week.  Gym class has become more and more influential to me as an adult, as learning to exercise regularly, eat properly, and develop a fitness routine helps me to do my best.  I'm even finding myself more drawn to music and the arts, as they make for a well-balanced life.  As for home economics:  The more I go on in life, the more I realize how I missed the boat by not taking a class like this.  Last week, I felt inspired to sautee some chicken and kale for a nutritious and protein-rich dinner.  My cooking errors were numerous.  First, I did not marinate or season the chicken, leaving it way too bland.  Next, I did not put enough oil in the pan, causing the chicken to cook slowly.  After this, I added too much oil to compensate, giving the kale leaves a slick and greasy texture.  The end result was a rather fatty and tasteless collection of chicken and kale- with plenty of leftovers for the next evening's dinner.   Yes, I can positively state that I could have benefitted from home economics class!

The more time I spent in Finland, the more I realized that these "special" subjects not only receive priority in school, but they are prioritized in life.  The Finns place a high priority on the arts, and take pride in many of their classical composers and musicians.  They enjoy physical fitness, and it is common to see many people walking, running, and biking outside on a summer day.  The Finnish people are also experts in learning foreign languages, and were very comfortable demonstrating their English to tourists like me.  Finland does not just prioritize these subjects because they want to give their students a break from math and language arts, but because they are important to living a healthy and balanced life.

Please don't take any of this as a message against language arts and math, as they obviously carry great importance in school and in life.  However, there is so much more to life than just academic work and so much more to school than just the core subjects.  If you come to my home for dinner, you will realize just how important the "specials" classes really are.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip - Part 2

Part Two:  The Sauna Experience

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 2:  The Sauna Experience

This post is the second installment of a five-part series, chronicling Mr. Rickbeil's educational trip (and much needed vacation) to Finland this past summer.

Being from Minnesota, I understand stress.  Life in Minnesota has plenty of stresses, including snow in April (and occasionally May), tater tot hotdish, frequent summer road construction, more frequent summer mosquitoes, and weeks in a row where the temperature never tops 30 degrees.  Additionally, we have some strange rituals in Minnesota designed to reduce stress that actually seem to create more stress such as ice fishing, camping with the mosquitoes, and watching the Minnesota Vikings.  Growing up prepared me for strange forms of stress and recreation, but nothing could have prepared me for the Finnish version of recreation.

In Finland, the national recreation obsession is the sauna, and they are everywhere in Finland.  They are in the vast majority of the hotels, apartment complexes, and individual homes.  They are in summer cottages on lakes and larger vacation homes beside the Baltic Sea.  If you are ever lucky enough to take a boat tour around Helsinki, you will find an endless supply of houses with an equally endless supply of saunas.  In fact, most of the saunas are built to resemble the houses they are next to, with the same color roofs and paneling.

Staying in hotels, I had plenty of opportunities to visit a sauna, although the hotel saunas are supposedly not as authentic as the municipal ones.  On one of my days in Finland, I paid a visit to a public sauna next to the large lake on the North end of the city I was staying in.  I was suffering with the jitters from a rather strong cup of coffee (another Finnish tradition), so visiting the Sauna in the early evening seemed to be a good idea to relax.  I had no idea what I was in for.

The sauna experience begins with a plunge into the lake.  In fact, most summer cottages usually place their sauna a few steps away from the waterfront for this convenience.  However, this lake was nothing like Chesapeake Bay.  In fact it was a frigid 55 degrees, which seems out of place anywhere in the middle of August.  Although I have plunged in a few Polar Bear plunges, the cold water was a shock to my system, and I immediately began gasping for breath in the water while the native Finns around me chuckled to themselves.  After a short one or two-minute swim, I made a mad dash out of the water and into the sauna itself.

This was the other side of the story.  The sauna building was a toasty 185 degrees, which was not even the warmest sauna I visited during my stay.  The first few minutes are comfortable, taking away the cold blast of the water.  The next few minutes make you sweat.  The next few minutes make your ears and eyes feel like spaghetti that is softening up in a boiling pot of water.  When someone pours a ladle-full of water on to the rocks in the sauna, a pleasant steam rises and fills the entire room- until a minute later, when you realize that same steam is giving your face and ears the sensation that they are melting.

This was the first cool dip and toast.  I repeated this pattern about 12 times over the next two hours.  The first few plunges seemed masochistic, but something strange happened the more I entered the water and the sauna.  I started getting used to it, as each plunge seemed a little less frigid and each toast seemed a little more tolerable.  My body had actually adapted to the sauna experience, and I found myself enjoying the experience more and more.

The Finnish people swear by the saunas, and it did not take me long to understand why.  The constant ups and downs in my heart rate left me feeling completely relaxed after the two hour experience.  My body felt like it had run a five-mile race, even though I spent most of the time sitting still in the steam.  The Finnish people swear that saunas help them to reduce their stress, sleep better, live longer, and fight off disease.  Finnish people celebrate saunas with their families, with honored guests, and even to finalize business agreements.  They are the essential cultural experience of Finland, and I can see how the toasty sauna must be a relief during a long, cold winter.

I miss the sauna, and wish I could put a public sauna with a cold lake right here in Ellicott City.  But the point that my sauna experience really drove home was the importance of having a plan for stress.  In Finland, frequent saunas a good way to handle the stresses of life. I may not have a local sauna, but I need to plan for the stress that is a routine part of life.  I need to make time to run, work out, and play pick-up basketball.  I also need a daily prayer routine, regular time with my friends, and a few hours each week with the Minnesota Vikings, even if the latter may actually increase said stress.

The beginning of the school year is an especially stressful time, and it does not take long on campus to feel the stress and anxiety that come with the anticipation of everything coming in the new school year.  As a family, I encourage you to plan for the stresses that will be coming your way this year.  Make a plan of when you will play together, exercise together, or do things you enjoy together that will help you manage the stress in your life.  You might not find yourself cooking in a Finnish sauna, but planning for the stresses that are coming will help you thrive in the midst of them.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 1:  Less is More

This post is the first installment of a five-part series, chronicling Mr. Rickbeil's educational trip (and much needed vacation) to Finland this past summer.

This summer, I decided to take a field trip to a faraway place to learn about the most successful and efficient school system in the world.  I wanted to see how a different culture educates their kids.  I wanted to learn from their successes and see what aspects of their educational system are applicable to American schools, Catholic schools, and all of us at Trinity.  My journey took me over 4,200 miles away to a small country on the North coast of the Baltic Sea.  This is the story of my trip to Finland.

Finland has been an educational giant in the developed world since the results of the first PISA tests sixteen years ago, which ranked Finland 1st in reading literacy, 4th in math literacy, and 3rd in science literacy.  If you find it surprising that Finland ranked at the top of the list, nobody was more surprised than the Finnish people themselves.  When the first results were released, the educators themselves figured it was some kind of mistake.  This “mistake” was only confirmed three years later, when Finland placed 1st in the world in reading literacy and science literacy, and second in the world in math literacy.  Finland clearly had a good thing going after all.  Of course, humility comes somewhat naturally to Finnish culture, which may explain their top ranking in the world after all.

In my 16 days in Finland, I was constantly surrounded by a people and a country where less is more.  The city of Helsinki contained fewer skyscrapers than any big city I have ever seen, with two modest Cathedrals setting the skyline for the city.  The Finnish people live in modest homes and apartments, retreating to small cottages in nature as their favorite vacation spot.  Although it helped that I was on vacation, I was constantly presented opportunities to slow down, enjoy a cup of coffee, and take in a meal at a café.  Finland was a good destination for business travel and relaxing, and people genuinely seem to enjoy a slower pace of life.

This culture of "less is more" permeates their education system as well.  Children start their formal schooling in first grade at the age of seven with hours that resemble my half-day kindergarten back in the 1980's.  Finnish students take recess several times per day, with law mandating a 15-minute break after each 45-minute class.  Doing the math, this adds up to as many as six recesses a day in a common middle school schedule.  Finnish teachers spend significantly fewer hours teaching the week and more time collaborating with other Finnish teachers over warm cups of coffee.  Visiting Finnish middle schools, it was not uncommon to find foosball and ping pong tables in the hallways, as students needed something to do with all of their break time in the middle of the day.

The most amazing thing about their "less is more" philosophy is that it worked.  I knew about their approach, their recesses, and their efficiency in class.  What surprised me was their rationale behind their approach.  Finnish children do not get so many breaks because it lightens their load or because guilty Finnish adults worry too much about the stresses on today's youth.  The breaks and "less is more" mentality is emphasized because it gets results.

In a trip designed to learn from Finnish culture and schools, I am not 100% sure what to make of all of this.  I'm not sure that frequent recesses, breaks, and foosball tables would improve our education in the United States as it does in Finland, although I call dibs on the foosball table if we ever get one.  However, as we start a new school year, I do know that I could benefit from a little more "less is more" in my life.  I know that my work could improve with a little more sleep, a few less 10-hour workdays, and a few less activities crammed into my free time.

This may be the place many of our families find themselves in as we enter this new school year.  As we settle into the September routine, I encourage you to think about "Less is More".  You may find that by doing fewer activities and allowing more open time on your family calendars, you will find yourself happier and more productive.  Maybe the "to do" list could be shorter so long as the things at the top get done.  Maybe we can all benefit from a few more lazy Sundays, a few more opportunities to relax on the margins of our daily schedules.

This school year, don’t be afraid to do a little less.  As the Finns taught me, less can definitely be more.