From the airplane window, Iceland looked like the surface of the moon. We were there for an 8-day Erasmus job shadowing and culture exchange experience. Our first day was spent at Menntaskolinn vid Hamrahlid College and it started with principal Steinn Johannsson explaining all about the Icelandic school system and their curriculum.
Hamrahlid College, which was founded in 1966, is one of Iceland’s oldest public upper secondary schools and very popular, which is why they get the best students from all over Reykjavik. The course-based, two-semester system offers three programmes: language studies, natural sciences and social sciences. A course is five credits and lasts one semester, which means 60 hours of class and 60 hours of studying at home. Majoring in a subject means taking six courses, which would then earn the student a Studentsprof in his or her chosen programme. After 3-3.5 years of college a student would graduate with a total of 205 credits.
There is no matriculation examination, which puts a lot of weight on course grades. The college’s primary objective to prepare its 1100 students for university and 90% of them choose higher studies instead of vocational school. Important values mentioned in the curriculum include equality, sustainability, democracy and human rights, health and welfare, literacy, and creativity.
Since 1997 they have had an IB programme with approximately 75-100 students. It is no wonder then that the college is very international, with students from over 30 countries. The college values languages and students are expected to take at least Icelandic, English and Danish, which is mandatory because Iceland is a former colony of Denmark. In addition to these three, the students can choose Norwegian, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, or Russian.
The college offers many extracurricular activities. There is an internationally acclaimed choir of 90 students, Kor Menntaskolans vid Hamrahlid, and an active and engaged student union, NFMH. The students organize all sorts of social events and put together a stylish Year Book. There is also the LGBTQ Association, a Songwriters’ Club, a Filmmakers’ Club, a Feminist Initiative and much more. Hamrahlid College is also a magnet school for dance education (modern dance and ballet) at the upper secondary school level.
The principal took us for a tour around the impressive building with its 40 classrooms and art-adorned walls, showing us a cafeteria where students eat their own lunches brought from home, a huge auditorium, a library with an extensive collection, and several sports facilities such as a dance room, a squash court, a fitness centre, and a yoga room. We also got to meet the heads of the English Department, Mark Zimmer and Iris Ragnarsdottir, who would be our mentors for the week. They explained that there were approximately 80-90 teachers at the school and some of them were foreigners from countries such as Canada, Finland, Denmark and China.
During our five days at the school, we participated in IB classes as well as regular English, art, and physics classes. We also held a quiz on Finland for one of the classes with Moomin lollipops as prizes. It was surprising that the students rarely had their own laptops and instead often studied using books, hand-outs and their cellphones. We learned that students paid for their study books in addition to a 100€ yearly school fee, but were not required to purchase laptops for school work. Much of the material was available on INNA, a combined online teaching environment and administrative portal. The atmosphere in the classrooms was often excited and relaxed. The students seemed to enjoy expressing their opinions, debating and participating actively in class. Much of the teaching was quite traditional and the focus was not on grammar, but on the interaction between students and teachers, as well as essay-writing, reading assignments, podcasts, and portfolio projects.
The English courses were demanding and in-depth, partly due to the fact that one course lasted about five months. Reading a book was a requirement for all English courses and the selection included classic works like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, George Orwell’s 1984, Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Grey and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. We were especially inspired by the elective courses in creative writing, graphic novels, film and science fiction course. The college even offered a year-long Reading for Pleasure Course, which warmed our bookworm hearts dearly.
By the end of our stay, we had made new friends amongst the English and IB teachers and hope to keep in touch with our mentors as well as Gudmundur “Mummi” Arnlaugsson, Alda Kravec and Asdis Björnsdottir. Perhaps they would like to do a job shadowing at Espoon Yhteislyseo Upper Secondary School one day or have their students participate in a student exchange!
Having been inspired by their teaching, we hope to some day have courses like Comics and Society or Reading for Pleasure. We also intend to develop our existing courses by exploring e-Twinning opportunities, using podcasts more extensively, experimenting with methods to expand active vocabularies, and having students work on their interviewing skills. In the future, it would be interesting to organize a student and teacher exchange between the schools and perhaps cooperate on a UNESCO project funded by Erasmus+.
When not at school, we tried to learn as much as we could about Iceland. Our adventures included a planetarium show at the Perlan Observatory in Reykjavik, riding Icelandic horses at Eldhestar Stables, soaking in the Secret Lagoon as well as many public thermal pools, enjoying traditional music at the National Music Hall Harpa, admiring Icelandic art in different galleries, climbing up the Hallgrimskirkja church steeple, and visiting Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was quite amazing to witness an active geyser eject a massive column of hot water and steam into the air!
A huge storm prevented our departure on Thursday, as all the flights to and from Reykjavik were cancelled. No worries though, as we got an extra day to do some work and finish our new favorite Icelandic suspense series Trapped on Netflix…
Bizarre Facts about Iceland
Did you know that…?
- Iceland only has a population of 360,000 and a dating app will tell you if you are too close a relation to go out with someone.
- The stereotypical Icelander is quiet and withdrawn, much like the stereotypical Finn.
- There are five active volcanoes in Iceland and 13 Santa Clauses known as the jul lads.
- Iceland is quite self-sufficient when it comes to growing vegetables and fruit as they warm their greenhouses with geothermal heat.
- Some of the spas sit on conduits leading straight to the earth’s core and have the potential to explode at any time.
- If you understand Swedish, you will understand enough Icelandic to at least read the menu at a restaurant.
- Icelandic horses are HORSES and they are exported all over the world, but never imported in order to keep the breed pure. They have five gaits instead of just three.
- Old dwellings are rarely demolished because Icelanders believe that elves live in them.
- Icelanders enjoy traditional dishes such as smoked puffin, fermented shark, as well as horse and whale meat. And they love licorice!
- Iceland is a land of extreme weather phenomena so when there is a code orange or red, stay indoors! Recently some tourists have frozen to death due to wandering too far in a blizzard.
- Glaciers are in constant motion and when they stop moving, they are referred to as ‘dead ice’. Global warming is melting the glaciers at a dramatic pace.
Article and photos: English teachers Marjo Inkala and Anna Puhakka