Sarah von Sydow in Paris. Autumn 2017.

I saw how speaking multiple languages can make people more empathetic. I learned two new languages as an adult and witnessed how it changed my understanding of other people. It was fascinating. Languages also make people pragmatic. They train the student to ask "how do I really say this - how do I make sure the most essential meaning is conveyed?". The student starts to think about essential meaning, which is so important. These qualities, empathy, and pragmatism, have the capacity to affect massive change, and should be distributed widely. This is why I've chosen to teach languages. It is not easy, but it is worth it.

The idea to implement my second teaching praxis outside of Sweden began to take form during my first praxis here in Stockholm. I was placed at a comfortable, middle class, well-funded, well functioning school. It was a soft introduction for me to the Swedish school system, given that I came here from the United States 6 years ago, and had never set foot in a public school here outside of SFI.

Schools Exist Within a Context

During my first praxis, I learned how Swedish schools operate. They aren't like American Schools. The coffee break, lunchroom practices, 'team' rooms (shared offices), among other unarticulated cultural knowledge, added many layers of unexpected complexity. These simple day to day logistics required lots of extra energy because I had no cultural context for them. At the end of each school day, I was exhausted.

I began to wonder what happens to schools when they are taken out of their culture's context. What would a school void of a cultural context look like? What if the context in which the school existed changed? Sweden has several schools abroad. The Swedish School in Paris was an ideal place to examine such questions while furthering my experience as a teacher. Plus, the idea of spending time in Paris didn't hurt. I love to go to museums.

A Swedish Island in Paris

The most striking aspect of the Swedish School in Paris is how its students and parents transform it beyond the role of educational institution: it felt like going home. Every morning, we would navigate the streets of the French capital. Crossing a gate and a courtyard, we reached an outlying island of Scandinavia, our small school. I thought back to the school where I had my first praxis and wondered if that place had the same function, made invisible by its context.

Let's be clear: the Swedish School isn't all Swedish. All of Scandinavia is represented and the school served as an intersection for many different cultures. Students were regularly asked to question their cultural constructions at the same time that they examined and experienced the social constructions and practices of France. It was similar to my own experience as a student in the Swedish university system, and as a foreign person attempting to integrate myself into Swedish society.

Sarah Teaching at the Swedish School in Paris.

When I arrived at Swedish School in Paris , I learned I was to teach grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and upper secondary school. Having the entire range of school ages was really interesting and also rare. I felt like an old-fashioned schoolmistress from in a one-room schoolhouse. This school, however, functioned more like an educational halfway house than a one-room beacon in the countryside. Many students are put in this school temporarily while their parents work on short-term contracts in Paris. My class only had 6 students, and I was surprised to learn that it was common to loose one at some point. I couldn't imagine how losing 20 % of the class overnight would feel. You get to know the students so closely when you are so few. This experience made me realize how strong the relationship between teacher and student can be.

There were so few students that grade 4 to 6 and grades 7 to 9 were taught as two mixed aged groups, like my one-room schoolhouse dream. At first I was worried that it would be difficult to adjust the material to different levels, but actually found it easier to teach a mixed age group. The older students were able to help the younger ones learn concepts they had already mastered. Socially, they viewed each other as equals in the classroom. The younger students didn't have anxiety about their academic future, they knew exactly what 9th grade was going to be like while they were in 7th. One thing was apparent by the end of my praxis: small class sizes benefit the social and educational environment. For me, it was pedagogic paradise.

Democracy in the Classroom

I wanted to have radical democracy in the school. I told the students they had the right to decide what they learn, so they voted on what material they wanted to cover. I sought their consent to teach what I was teaching and then made sure it included necessary components of the Board of Education's steering documents. This approach made a huge difference in student motivation and engagement.

When my group of grades 4 to 6 wrote their own Halloween play (in English) and performed it for the preschool students, it reminded me that children's creativity is unlimited and unrestrained. I used the "name stick" technique borrowed from Dylan William during the creative process. I would randomly draw names and have the students orally expressed their plot point, which I would then I write on Padlet so all the students could see the manuscript and follow along.

I taught a unit on Manifestos with the 7-9 group. It exposed them to a new way of writing and thinking while also filling me with hope for our future. They were completely free to write any type of manifesto, even parodies. Most of them chose to write about human rights and the environment. With this group of students, the future is going to be interesting.

Other teaching highlights included reading "Sultana's Dream" by  Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in the upper secondary school. It sparked a productive conversation about how simple techniques, such as reversing the gender roles of characters in a story, can reveal how hegemonic forces work. They arrived at this conclusion themselves in a group discussion. It was a moment where the students taught themselves.

My Mentors

I listened carefully to the advice of my mentors. I was particularly interested in their advice on managing expectations. I threw away more lesson plans than I kept, and learned to welcome the chaos that comes with the search for knowledge.

Teaching at SSP changed me as a person. I miss my students and the energy of the school. I hope I can return to that Swedish Island in France someday. I sincerely recommend that all teaching students do their praxis abroad. It will open your eyes to new ways of teaching and learning.

Sarah's supervising teacher Birgitta Fröjdendahl met with teacher educators and Sarah.