In the dead of winter, eleven English teachers from school districts in and around Oslo, Norway visited Auburn, Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, Alabama to learn more about Southern culture, history, education, and traditions. While the contingent of teachers was in Auburn, they were hosted by Michael Cook, Assistant Professor of English Language Arts in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching.
“I was fortunate to become involved in this project through Dr. David Virtue, our Department Head in Curriculum and Teaching,” Cook explained. “Dr. Virtue has been involved with this particular group for several years, and he kind of handed them off to me. But I was very familiar with cultural exchanges, since I have had the opportunity to make several such visits myself to countries as diverse as the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, and England, all connected to a grant I am involved in with two colleagues at North Carolina State University. “
The Norwegian English teachers all came from the same school district in Oslo, though they did not know each other prior to the trip. The group was especially interested in learning more about the South and its struggle for Civil Rights.
“These teachers incorporate English into other subject s at their respective schools, but they were all united in their fascination of the Civil Rights struggle,” Cook explained. “The Scandinavian countries are less diverse than we are here in the United States. They were interested in both the ways it works well here and the ways in which we fall short of our diversity aims.”
When they weren’t visiting landmark sites of the Civil Rights struggle, the teachers stayed in Auburn where they combined social outings with learning about our educational system. Dr. Cook hosted the teachers in a class where he demonstrated how he might teach this subject to a group of high school students.
“We used the graphic novel March, by Civil Rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis,” Cook said. “They were blown away not only by the power of the book, but by their visits around Alabama. They had all these stereotypes in their heads and found our schools to be much better than they thought they would be. And they appreciated the weight of history all around them. They said they felt ‘privileged’ to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.”
Norway, in spite of its perceived racial homogeneity, is becoming more diverse. As of 2017, there were nearly 900,000 immigrants in a country with a total population of about 5 million. Cook said the visitors felt that coming to the Deep South would broaden their perspectives back home.
“They want to see how it works here, hoping they can make their own country stronger through diversity,” Cook said. “We now hope this can become an ongoing relationship, and that we can take some of our preservice teachers to Oslo to see ways we might become better teachers for our students. Based on my experiences, you just learn in a different way when you travel and see different viewpoints. When you are the ‘outsider’ you can sometimes see things more clearly and become more empathetic to different challenges your students might face back home.”
Cook also noted that the Norwegians were in the US on Valentine’s Day, when the school massacre took place in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Seventeen students were killed with a high-powered, assault-style rifle.
“They really were fascinated by the immediate responses of ‘thoughts and prayers,’ which takes away from the attempt to discuss the larger issue, and by an almost immediate push back against discussing issues of school shootings, including the quick PR campaign from the NRA,” he said. “In the Scandinavian countries, pretty much everyone is Lutheran, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily in church every Sunday. They also remarked on the immediate suggestions that we arm teachers with guns. They seemed to feel that was an unhealthy power dynamic.”
There was also a lot of discussion of the unique governing style of President Trump.
“I’d say they are kind of waiting to see what happens there as time goes on. But for us a big point of emphasis was our class session when we went over how we would teach the book March to our students here at home.”
The Norwegians seemed deeply moved as they learned about Lewis and his own motives and personal beliefs.
“They saw that, in spite of his being mistreated so badly, and even beaten on Bloody Sunday, that he and his colleagues did not seek to ‘get revenge’ on whites, but instead to try to love all people and protest in a nonviolent manner.”
“Overall, it was enlightening on both sides,” Cook said. “They were a lot of fun and clearly have a great appreciation for what we have done and are doing here in the United States. I just hope we can share this great experience with our own students in the years to come.”
Learn more by visiting the Facebook site “Norwegians take On Auburn.”