This week has been the first week in school for The Daughter. Sure, she’s been in day care or kindergarten in Finland and Korea, but given how the system here in California works, she’s now for the first time officially enrolled in the main educational system of a country/state. This week was the first day of school (which is here called kindergarten; the terminology is very different from what you’d expect if you translated the Finnish terms directly into English, pretty much a complete opposite, in fact).
But I digress. So, last Wednesday was the first day in school. This was in fact the second time I had to leave The Daughter alone in “school”, first one having been in Finland 3.5 years ago when she started in day care. (In case you’re wondering, it was The Better Half who took care of the first day in kindergarten in Seoul, so that’s why I’ve only done this twice. All in all, she’s gone through it three times, with increasing difficulty as it comes to the language.) Let me tell you, it doesn’t get any easier over time, of course this time being complicated with a completely new and mostly unfamiliar language and starting in the middle of the year.
“Mostly unfamiliar” in the previous sentence is of course subject to interpretation, since at home The Better Half and I talk with each other in English, but we use Finnish and Korean to talk to the kids (me Finnish, she Korean; remember what happens when I try to use Korean?), so the Kids are exposed to English. They also sometimes watch TV programs or movies in English, so it’s not like they’ve never been exposed to it. And yes, they have both demonstrated understanding it in some contexts, such as me asking The Better Half in English where The Daughters gloves are and she (the little one) runs to get them. She did get an official language test before school to determine her level, and apart from copying letters which she did well, she was definitely at a beginner level. So that shattered our illusions about her language skills. 🙂
So, with some amount of trepidation, we went off on Wednesday morning, which happened to be a foggy morning (not unusual around here). Somehow I felt that it was somehow appropriate, thinking of a metaphor of “walking into the unknown, not seeing where to go, not knowing what you will find”, which in a sense does capture the essence of learning (and life, when you think of it). Anyway, we got to our school, Malcolm X Elementary School, which is within easy walking distance from our home. We had already registered the day before, so it was just a matter of going to the right class room and meeting her teacher.
The teacher seemed very nice, the other kids were very excited to have a new kid in the class, and they were very eager to interact with her. I stayed for a while to see how it went, but everything seemed to go smoothly and as soon as they started their actual activities, I sad goodbye and went off to work. She stayed without too much protest (obviously a little bit), but no tears were shed. I guess the best way to summarize the experience was that after the day, when we picked her up from school, she said she wanted to come again the next day.
Everyone we’ve talked with (admittedly only school staff and parents of other kids) have said that the school is very good and based on our experience of a whopping 3 days, I think it looks good. Then again, the thing we mostly want out of this experience is for her to learn English and for that it’s probably enough to be immersed in an English-speaking environment. The structure is much more teaching-oriented than the equivalent level in Finland, and the local kids already know how to read (at least some), do basic math, etc., so in that sense, she’s definitely behind the other kids. Yes, school starts one year later in Finland, but 5-year-olds spend most of their time playing. Even the official pre-school year in Finland seems to be less learning/teaching-oriented than here (or Korea). Anyone working in education is of course familiar with Finland scoring high on the international tests and this question of “is it better to start formal teaching later?” always comes up. All I can say is that I don’t know (and that all the different ways seem to produce healthy, balanced adults for the most part, so maybe it actually doesn’t matter in the end).
So far the teacher has told that Our Daughter has done very well in school. I try to remove the usual US “everything is so great” attitude from that, but it’s hard to know just exactly how well things are going. The Daughter is showing progress in English (even after only 3 days) and seems to be making friends in school, so I’m optimistic, with a healthy dose of skepticism thrown in. I do have to keep in mind that she’s now working on her third language and she’s not even 6 years old. I don’t think I even knew a single word in any other language than Finnish at her age, and she’s already fluent in two (“fluent” as in what you would expect from a 5.5-year-old). After our year abroad, she will have spent over 20% of her life outside of Finland. Me? First trip abroad happened when I was 8 years old and that was one day in Stockholm. The world has indeed changed a lot.