My first-born, now 6-year old missing her 7th tooth, started school in Norway on August 18th. There is no kindergarten for 5 year old in Norway, and I’ve learned at our first parent meeting that had I attended elementary school in Norway, I would not have begun school until ripe old age of 7 (as I believe is still the case in Finland)!
Starting school is a huge milestone in any child and parent’s life, although I realized that my anxiety and excitement about Greta starting school was definitely heightened due to the fact that she is taking this step in a foreign country, foreign culture, with foreign expectations. After Erik and I attended a new parent meeting at Greta’s school back in May, I was so grateful that I had four years to master the language before attending a meeting informing me of what a parent could expect with a first grader at our local school. I can’t imagine being unable to read the “Fredagsbrev” (Friday letter) that is sent home every week, or not understanding the weekly calendar.
Despite the reassurance and preparation we received from our parent meeting, I discovered on Day One of school that I had expectations that I didn’t even realize I had until those expectation weren’t met. I found myself really irritated that we hadn’t received a letter from the classroom teachers in the weeks leading up to school start explaining what school supplies a 6 year old needs. I found myself highly irritated that I could not find information anywhere—anywhere—on what the hours of school are for the 1st grade class (they differ from grade to grade, and apparently, from school to school within the same town!). Not on the school’s website (a public school), or on the class page, or on the town’s official webpage. . . nowhere! We had received this information in May at the parent’s meeting on a piece of paper, but that had long since been misplaced. I eventually emailed the school, who forwarded it on to one of the classroom teachers, who responed almost immediately—the day before school started.
These minor and major surprises will most certainly keep popping up—expectations I have about how a “normal” first grade class functions, based solely on my own dim 33 year-old memories and stories I hear from friends back in the US.
We received a letter from the school the Saturday before school started, welcoming the parents and children to an official start of school send-off, meeting outside at the flagpole, at 10am for the new first graders. With Henrik happily off at barnehage, Erik and I walked the 0.8km with our growing girl to the local public school—Søre Ål barneskole. We met a mass of parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings gathered at the flagpole.
Søre Ål skole has what they call an “open” classroom—an educational approach that has been used very successfully at this particular school for over 30 years, we are told. None of the other elementary schools in Lillehammer use this type of set-up, but we have heard that the teachers who work here are very satisfied and happy with this kind of organization. Greta’s class has 47 children in it, and three “kontakt” teachers. Each teacher has a set group of kids that they have primary responsibility for, but the children interact with each teacher as well. For math class, for example, the class is divided into three groups. For gym, they might divide into two, and alternate that activity with music, and then swap teachers. For another lesson, an assistant might come in, and the class is divided into four.
The 47 children have two different rooms—one that has a divider down the middle, and another large open room where all 47 kids can sit in a circle on the floor. In the main classroom, the kids sit at tables of 5-6 kids (assigned, of course) and I’m told these table assignments will change over the school year. It is a system that sounds incredibly complicated and chaotic, but according to every parent that I have spoken to, it works.
So. . . 47 kids, plus their parents, and potentially their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a few younger siblings are gathering at the flagpole. The rektor (principal) calls each child up individually to stand with their kontakt lære (main teacher). Some kids are nervous, and haul their parents along, too. Greta hangs back, but bravely marches forward with a gentle shove from her mamma.
I thought this was it (another expectation I didn’t realize I held). I thought we’d give her a hug and kiss goodbye , wave, and walk home for a cup of coffee before I had to turn around and pick her up in 2 hours and 45 minutes at 12:45 (more on that later). But no. . . . now ALL the parents, grandparents and accessories go into school together, into the room designed to fit 47 kids in a circle on the floor. Now 47 kids plus 1-2 parents, some grandparents—let’s estimate 175+ people, shall we?—are trying to fit into a room where the teachers will welcome the kids and sing silly songs.
I whisper to another mother, “When do we go?” and she responded, “Oh-we stay all day!” And so it is in Norway. And so we stayed. Eventually the children separated from the parents—or most of them—and the parents hung around in the cloakroom, or outdoors on the picnic tables, drinking bad powdered coffee, occasionally peeking in on the kids, or quietly sitting on the edge of the classroom, or sometimes right next to their kids.
Which put me (Erik had since decided only one of us needed to hang out doing nothing with their day, and left for work, with a handful of other parents) in the situation that I hate most here in Norway—forced to mingle with a group of strangers, making small talk in a second language. Looking back it wasn’t nearly as bad as I perhaps thought at the moment—I now see these parents nearly every day, and will perhaps see them on a regular basis for the next upteen years, depending of course on the twists of fate.
The second day of school was how I expected the first day of school to be; I walked Greta to school, along with two other first-grade girls from our neighborhood, kissed her good-bye at the steps, and in she went. The third day of school surprised me—Greta met the two neighborhood girls, and the three of them walked to school alone. And that has continued. For this, I feel very grateful to live in Norway and Lillehammer—that children are safe not just walking to school, but walking to school alone. Nearly all the children in the school are within walking distance to school, and certain neighborhoods organize “gågrupper” (walking groups) of children, so the sidewalks and paths are filled with children in the half hour before school starts. Older children are allowed to ride their bikes, but city/national laws (seriously—a national law) does not allow children under the 4th grade to ride a bike to school. In the winter, many children will ski or take a spark (kicksled). That will be something to write about for sure.