Photo courtesy of Erica Leighton

By: Lauren McCallum, Design Director

Over spring break, five USM students discovered Iceland, from the differences in their educational system to the natural beauty that makes up the country.

They prepared themselves through their online AED 299 class, which focuses on art and education in Iceland. While there, they interacted with Icelandic artists, various schools and took time to immerse themselves in the Icelandic culture.

Leading up to the spring break trip, the class was assigned various readings about Iceland and its culture. Erica Leighton, the assistant housing coordinator who audited the course, mentioned covering information about the founding of Iceland and Icelandic legends, along with understanding more about their culture and the way education fits into it, including “some readings on their curriculum model and the way they structure their educational curriculum.”

“This online travel course resulted from a MEIF North Atlantic grant that I wrote with Dr. Jean Whitney in USM’s teacher education program to fund a teacher exchange between Iceland and Maine,” said art department head Kelly Hrenko. “We wrote this online travel course as one way to connect teacher education and art students in Maine and Iceland.”

Hrenko explained how this course was spread beyond the walls of USM by inviting Jeff Badger, a staff member from SMCC’s art department, to help lead the course. The class was designed to connect any students in Maine with students in Iceland.
“The course provides opportunities for students to work in schools, with artists, and with other teacher education students from the University of the Arts and University of Iceland teacher education programs,” Hrenko said.
Senior art education major Cole Leighton and freshman elementary education major Maddy Cropley both spoke about how they visited and worked with a middle school, an elementary school, a university and a learning community for people with disabilities. This involved working on projects with art education students from the Iceland Academy of Arts and 7th grade students at a school in Keflavik.

“In the middle school, we worked with students, teachers and future teachers to create a replica of a local lighthouse. During this process, we were able to talk with the students about what they do in school and what kinds of things they enjoy,” said Cropley. “At the elementary school, we shared information about Maine with the students, and invited the students to draw pictures of themselves doing their favorite things and eating their favorite foods. We brought pictures by American elementary students for them, and will bring the Icelandic students’ drawings to the same American students.”

Cropley explained how in doing these kinds of interactive, cross-cultural projects during the trip, it allowed the students to get a better grasp on the world they live in. They were handed a new global perspective from a culture unlike their own.

“I learned a lot about the field of education as a whole while on this trip: what types of needs all students have, how schools can meet the needs of students, what common struggles all school teachers face, how a school interacts with its community, etc.,” Cropley said.

The students had access to many learning experiences. As said by Hrenko, they were placed in a position to better connect the North Atlantic region with Maine, giving them “global competence by preparing them to live and work in a global, diverse, interconnected, interdependent, complex changing world.” Both areas are connected because of “strong arts, culture and ocean-based commerce.”

“Teacher education and the arts play a huge role in creative economies and workforce development of both maine and Iceland,” said Hrenko. “Teacher education programs that include learning about international educational systems provides our student teachers with a global perspective as well as additional skills and new understandings they can use in their own classrooms.”

In addition to visiting schools and working with the staff and students there, Hrenko explained how the group had the opportunity to learn about Icelandic culture and art through a well-known Icelandic artist and art professor, Olof Nordal, who will also be coming to USM for an artist residency from April 8 to April 12.

“My biggest take away from this experience is that education is universal across countries and continents and cultures. We all have a desire to learn, and we can all be taught in similar ways,” said Cropley. “It was also interesting to see the differences in Icelandic and American schools, as that provided insight into what particular things work well in each system. I think I have a better idea of what it means to be a good teacher after seeing a wider variety of ways to run a classroom.”

However, the group did not only focus on education. According to Cole, they had time to explore the “natural wonders” outside of Reykjavik, including the three primary stops on the route, which are “the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, the bridge Between Continents, geysers in Haukadalur, multiple lighthouses and a few geothermal hotspots on the Reykjanes Peninsula,” in addition to a few museums and delicious food locations.

“Traveling through school also opens doors to experiences that you wouldn’t necessarily get to have if just going on a vacation,” said Cole. “A tour and a talk with local artists, or working with students from another culture, for example.”

This group experienced the benefits of traveling abroad, as well as learning how education works in another culture. A new global perspective allowed each of them to return to USM with more information about integrating their learning with their aspirations.

“Study abroad is such a cool way to really immerse yourself in perspective taking, it gets you out of your comfort zone and puts you in a new place,” said Erica. “If you have the opportunity and the means to take advantage of those study abroad opportunities, especially with all the scholarships and financial aid that are available, take the chance now. It’s so hard to travel after college.”


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