Examples of recent publications

Erpestad, Hanna. "International Educators Take Note of Finland." New World Finn 8.4 (October-December 2007): 22.

Erpestad, Hanna. Book Review of Maija, by Tiina Nunnally. New World Finn 8.2 (April-June 2007): 25.

Erpestad, Hanna. Book Review of A Fool's Paradise, by Anita Konkka. New World Finn 7.3 (July-September 2006): 26.

Erpestad, Hanna. Book Review of The Co-op Label  by Jim Johnson and Marlene Wisuri. New World Finn 6.3 (August-September 2005): 13.

Stenerson, Susan and Hanna Erpestad. "Team-Based Institutional Effectiveness as Guided by Mission Statement." Leadership Abstracts. 18.4 (April 2005).

Erpestad, Hanna. Film Review of Under a Shipwrecked Moon, by Antero Alli. New World Finn 6.1 (February-March 2005): 26.

Erpestad Hanna. Book Review of Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, by Mark Munger. New World Finn 5.4 (October-December 2004): 12.

Erpestad, Hanna. "Gerry Luoma Henkel: America's Kantele Master." Translation of "Gerry Luoma Henkel: Amerikan kantelemestari," by Simo Westerholm. Friiti: Folk Music Magazine  4 (2000).


Writing samples

International Educators Take Note of Finland   
By Hanna Erpestad (2007)

Which country wouldn't want to be regarded as the best-educated nation in the world? During my recent visits to Finnish schools, I discovered that Finland, in fact, feels a bit uneasy about its unrivaled number-one ranking in the international PISA student assessment surveys. "Sure, we're proud of our students' success," explained Esko Poikela, principal of Kotimäki School in Kaarina, "but what do the results really mean? What do they really tell us about the Finnish education system?"

PISA, which stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment, is an internationally standardized assessment of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students from nearly sixty participating countries in the areas of mathematical, science, and reading literacy. Finland has scored the highest overall in the first two surveys, PISA 2000 and PISA 2003. Both assessments show that Finnish students are better at reading than students in other high-literary OECD countries, such as Korea, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Finland also performed better in sciences than the two other top OECD countries, Japan and Korea. According to the official PISA 2003 report, Finland is now "on a par with East Asian countries, whose performance in mathematics and science had been previously unmatched." However, many Finnish educators wonder, if not worry, where Finland will stand when PISA 2006 results are released. "We can only go down from the top," observed Poikela, "and then what will happen? What will that tell us about the Finnish education system?"  While Finnish educators may have some reason for concern, the rest of the world has begun to view the Finnish education system as a model or, certainly, a worthwhile point of comparison.

Since the word about Finnish students' academic success got out, the Finnish education system has been a hot topic in the international media and in different seminars and conferences around the world. Finland has hosted hundreds of PISA delegations in recent years, most from Central European countries and Japan. A quick online search uncovered thousands of German-language articles discussing Finland's PISA success, with Der Spiegel Online referring to Finland as a "PISA-Weltmeister" ("PISA World Champion") and headlines calling for "A Visit to a Pedagogical Paradise" and "Experience Finland, Understand PISA." According to Hanna Laakso, delegation coordinator for Finland's National Board of Education, Finland organized about 120 international delegation visits in 2005 alone, including visitors from the United States. Many more PISA delegations are expected in the upcoming years.

What do foreign PISA delegates hope to find in Finland? Riitta Sarras, PISA expert at Finland's Trade Union of Education (OAJ), explained during an interview in May that international delegations want to gain concrete examples of what makes Finnish educational experiences different from educational experiences in other high-performing countries.

Finland's PISA success appears to be a sum of factors. Certainly, as a small nation of only about five million people and a small, though growing, immigrant population, Finland has a relatively homogenous population. However, homogeneity alone does not explain Finnish students' academic achievement. PISA researchers and Finnish education experts most commonly mention the following reasons for Finland's success: equity of schools, school autonomy, highly-qualified and highly-motivated teachers, the popularity of reading among all socio-economic groups, and the flexibility of curriculum, classroom interaction, and teaching methods.

The equity of Finnish schools is a result of a noteworthy curriculum reform in 1994, which replaced the former track system with a comprehensive school system for grades 1-9. While the former system divided students by achievement level, the current system provides equal education opportunities for every student regardless of achievement level, geographic location, gender, economic status, or native language (just about everyone receives education in his or her native language). All students are taught subjects that extend beyond the core curriculum, including the minimum of two foreign languages, art, music, physical education, woodwork, and textiles. This could, at least in part, explain why between-school variations are statistically insignificant in Finland.

Finland's curriculum reform in 1994 also redirected much of the former powers of central administration to local authorities and individual schools. As a result, Finnish schools have a great deal of autonomy, more than in most PISA survey countries, and principals, teachers, and parents do most administrative decisions jointly. Finland also has well-qualified teachers who enjoy a high social standing. Minimally, each teacher in grades 1-6 has a Masters degree in education while teachers in grades 7-12 have a Masters degree in their subject area. Parents trust their children's teachers, and as I observed in each school I visited, students in all grade levels show a great deal of respect toward their teachers. Disruptive behavior and violence are not common in Finnish schools. For example, Poikela recalls only two incidents of school bullying during his two-year tenure as principal of Kotimäki School, which serves about 600 students in grades 1-9 in a small town right outside a major city, Turku. Not surprisingly, teacher motivation and morale are high, and the teaching profession is popular--only one in ten applicants to teacher education programs in Finland is admitted.

My personal interest in Finnish schools is two-fold. First, I am a product of the Finnish education system, having graduated from the Tampere Normal School in the late 1970s. Second, I have been an educator and an administrator at a U.S. college for about ten years. My institution, like most U.S. higher education institutions, is seeking ways to address a serious and current concern about the growing number of high school graduates entering higher education under-prepared. Perhaps Finland's PISA success could point out some solutions or alternative teaching and learning models?

While I found the official PISA results informative, I was most intrigued by what I observed during my recent school visits in Finland. I was completely surprised to find many things unchanged from when I was a student in Finland in the 1970s. At the beginning of a class session, students in all grades still stand up to greet the teacher. The hallways are still as (relatively) quiet as they were when I attended Finnish schools as students move from one classroom to another in stocking feet or slippers, creating a quieter, more relaxed, and I would argue, friendlier atmosphere. Also, students-at least through grade 9-still have two or three 15-minute recess breaks outdoors each day to catch some fresh air, socialize with friends, and exercise. And most surprising of all, bicycles and mopeds in the schoolyard are unlocked, at larger urban schools as well as smaller rural schools. "Theft in schools is nearly unheard of," explained Hannu Naumanen, principal of about 400 students in grades 7-9 in Joensuu. I was happy to discover that some things don't change!

Some things, of course, have changed. Finnish students now call teachers by their first names, but unlike what one might think, this is not causing any confusion about who is in charge of the classroom. Sarras explains that the friendly relationship that Finnish teachers have with their students translates into a more respectful, comfortable learning experiences, and a few students feel the need to act out and disturb a classroom.

Despite Finland's PISA success, Finnish officials are the first to suggest that their system is far from perfect. Finns are particularly interested in closing the gender gap that still exists in the country's reading results (even though Finnish boys perform better than students in most OECD countries) and addressing the needs of a growing immigration population. Some Finnish educators also fear that the PISA results are not a true reflection of Finnish students' academic ability. They claim that the surveys pay too much attention to external factors, such as students' home life, library use, and school lunch, and not enough on their deep understanding of the subject matter. I heard this complaint from many mathematics teachers in particular. However, perhaps the Finns continue to attain much international attention not only due to their PISA success but also their realistic interpretation of the results and commitment to continuous improvement.

And where does the U.S. fit in? In contrast to Finland's PISA success, the survey results place the United States at, or slightly below, the PISA average. In some areas, U.S. students rank at the end of the scale, prompting U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in a December 2004 press release to exclaim, "'The PISA results are a blinking warning light.'"  However, the United States is not alone. Many other industrialized countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, have also received disappointing PISA results, and many of them have began to look to Finland to learn from its assessment success.    

As principal Poikela observed, Finland can only go down from the top, but right now, Finland is at the top-and the rest of the world is taking note. Whatever the true reasons behind Finland's assessment success are, I believe that Finland can serve as an informative and interesting point of comparison and model to educators, parents, and students worldwide.


Review of Mark Munger's Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh
by Hanna Erpestad (2004)

The sinking of the Titanic. The Strike of 1916. The Great War. The Spanish Grippe. The Great Cloquet Fire. These are some of the raw materials Mark Munger uses in his new historical novel Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh, creating a fascinating, colorful portrait of Finnish immigrant life, and death, in Northern Minnesota.

The novel's prologue, set on board of the Titanic, introduces the reader to ordinary working class Finns seeking a better life in a new country. Only some of them survive, and none lives to become the novel's hero. Yet, the opening narration connects effectively with the rest of the plot. A letter written to one of the passengers introduces the novel's main character, a young Finnish immigrant named Anders Alhomaki, as a possible job connection in Duluth, Minnesota. While the passengers on the Titanic imagine a better life, the letter makes "only the promise of possibilities." The novel repeats the word "possibilities" several times, emphasizing the uncertain outcomes of the immigrants' dreams.
When the story moves to Duluth, Minnesota, the September 1918 setting forecasts further uncertainty and disaster.  In "the fickle climate of Northern Minnesota," a body is found hanging from a birch tree.  There is no explanation for the Finnish immigrant's death, only speculation and hints. Who was this man? What really happened to him, and to all Finnish immigrants of his time? While some of the characters are based on real people, Munger's closing notes emphasize, "This is a story." But how much of the story is imagined and how much is real? The indefinable line between fact and fiction makes the reader thirsty for details, for connections, for deeper understanding of the past.

Meant as a compliment, Suomalaiset is in many ways an ordinary story of ordinary immigrant Finns, whose personalities and lives seem very familiar and real to Finnish American readers. Initially, some of the main characters seem stereotyped, such as Alhomaki, whose "taciturn nature" often forces him into silence. However, anyone familiar with Finns knows stubborn Finns. I suspect many readers smile in recognition, for example, when the stoic Alhomaki, fighting in the World War I, laconically observes, "Fifteen below feels like fifteen below." Thankfully Munger does not attempt to imitate the characters' heavily accented speech, but instead delights us with familiar Finnish names, Finnish foods (though some of their names are unfortunately misspelled), and local brand names, such as Duluth Pack and Fitgers Beer.  Suomalaiset will undoubtedly inspire many readers to examine old photographs, maps, and other historical artifacts in search of their ancestors', and consequently their own, history and identity.

Suomalaiset, however, is much more than a catalog of items found in historical archives.  The novel is a complex work of literary art. It is a love story, a novel of self-development, and a tale of heroism. Set in the turbulent times of labor unrest, racial tension, gender inequality, natural disasters, and the Great War, the novel tells passionate, and often desperate, stories of personal and social struggle. Many immigrants' dreams of employment, love, and a better life turn to near, or complete, impossibilities.

Suomalaiset paints several immigrant portraits, each framed by opposing social forces. The novel's hero, Anders Alhomaki, finds himself without a job after his name is associated with the Strike of 1916. His working class background also prevents him from marrying his true love, Elin Gustaafson, a daughter of a wealthy Finnish lawyer. Forced to assume a new identity, as Andrew Maki, he soon finds new employment and love but withdraws, much like Henry David Thoreau, to a cabin on a small lake to contemplate "his position, his place in America." This is just the beginning of Maki's story of heroism and self-discovery. Munger uses Maki's passion for boxing as an effective metaphor for his lifetime of battles--with love, the upper class, the enemy in World War I, even himself.

One of the most intriguing sub-plots examines young Elin Gustaafson's struggle to balance her affluent, conservative upper class upbringing with her passion for the working class and the Suffragettes. Another juxtaposes Onni Kinkkonen's dreams of a happy married life with the punishment he faces when accused of evading military service in the Great War. No portrait in Suomalaiset is larger than life. Each is a colorful postcard from the past, a realistic record of Finnish American immigrant life in the early 20th century.

Suomalaiset is a rewarding book for anyone who enjoys a journey back in time. Like any good historical novel, Suomalaiset not only draws the reader into its imaginative past but also connects history with the present. America at war, social inequality, political unrest, and domestic war are just as relevant topics today as they were in the early 20th century. It is difficult to put the novel down without contemplating how one is personally connected to the early 20th century immigrant history and, further, what motivates today's U.S. immigration.  As the young Finnish-Canadian Titanic scholar asks in the novel's first chapter, "Why leave behind everything; your home, your family, your language, your culture, for the unknown?"

I strongly recommend Mark Munger's Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh for casual reading as well as serious classroom study. The novel inspires us to examine not only our past but also the present--to envision new possibilities of what might have been and what could be.