Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip - Part 6

Part Six: The Tour de Finland

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 6: The Tour de Finland

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

In the middle of my stay in Finland, I signed up for a one week bike tour in an area of Southwest Finland called the Turku Archipelago.  This bike route spans a region in the Baltic Sea covered with thousands of islands, stretching from the city of Turku toward the Aland Islands that lie between Finland and Sweden.  The route I took was 186 kilometers (or 115 miles) long, containing long days of biking Finland's backroads and island-hopping on ten separate ferries on the Baltic Sea.  For me, great vacations take me out of my regular routine and into the wilderness, and I can't imagine being much more "out" than this tour along Finland's coast.  The cool 60-degree weather of most days also was a welcome relief in the midst of a typical sweltering summer in Baltimore.

On the first morning of the bike tour, I found myself somewhat unprepared for the 43-mile trip that would follow that day.  The company had sent me detailed directions of where to turn, but I was in full "vacation mode" and didn't really study the routes.  At the bike rental shop where I picked up my bike for the week, I noticed a young German couple named Robin and Claudia trying out bikes and realized that they must be on my trip as well.  This was my opportunity.  After introducing myself, I asked if they would  mind if I rode with them for the day, since we were headed for the same place.  They agreed, and it was the beginning of a friendship that would last for the next 115 miles.

I certainly understood that bicycles and married couples do not need third wheels, so I started the trip by biking with them while allowing them to have their space whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Robin would navigate the route with his map while Claudia stopped to take photos of the picturesque scenery.  I did my part by tracking our GPS coordinates on my phone, occasionally settling disputes about whether we were supposed to be turning left or right.  They were excited to practice their English skills by speaking to me, and I was excited to learn about life in Europe through them.  After we arrived at our lodgings on the first day, I decided to eat dinner on my own to give them the space that they probably booked the trip to enjoy together.  It was my last meal alone for the rest of the trip.

Two other English couples were also on our tour, and I spent considerable time biking and dining with Richard and Jenn, who were from Bristol.  Richard had the hilarious British sense of humor that you often see on movies, so he was an immediate hit, even if he did not enjoy my puns.  Jenn was warm and welcoming from the beginning, and I always felt comfortable joining them for a meal or a cup of tea.  The third day of our tour allowed us a rest day, and I spent nearly the entire day with them walking around the island, eating meals, and enjoying the scenery.

When I signed up for the bike tour, I imagined that I would spend the entire week taking in the scenery and solitude of a week of my bike.  Instead, I found myself more and more occupied by my new friends.  We spent all of our meals together, dining on increasingly larger tables that could accommodate all of our group.   I learned how to enjoy a conversation over tea in the morning or a five-course dinner at the end of the day.  I learned more than I ever imagined about German medical schools, cold water swimming, European tax laws, and the European Union.  But more than anything, I learned how to be a European for the week, with the sights, tastes, and large hotel breakfasts that came with it.

Anyone who has ever seen me run a 5k race or coach a basketball game knows that I am competitive, and I enjoy the thrill of competition and the feeling of victories and accomplished goals.  I envisioned my bike tour being full of personal fitness goals and photographs that I could post of Facebook to the delight of my friends.   However, it did not take me long to realize this tour was not a race, but a casual ride with six new friends on the journey.  This is a very Finnish way of looking at things, where teamwork is treasured and the frequent recesses offered during school days are seen as classrooms in collaboration.  I like this approach, as collaboration and partnership are indoctrinated aspects of Finnish life.  Collaboration and teamwork even make their way into their tax structure, as Finland pays some of the highest taxes in the world (the value-added tax in Finland is 24%), but many of the people I met agreed with the high taxes and the benefits of the services the taxes provide.

In the United States, we have a way of turning many things into competitions, and school is not immune to this competitive culture.  Students want the highest scores on the test and the highest honors at the end of the school year.  Even simple games at recess can turn into Super Bowls of competition.  School is not much fun as a competition, however, and is much better off seen as a journey with other cyclists on their way.

I think that life is often like my bike trip, trekking through picturesque scenery on a path to heaven, with traveling companions assisting us along the way.  As we continue our trek through this school year, let's learn to enjoy the companionship of our fellow bikers.  After all, they are the best part of the trip!

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.