She walks in with her purse in one hand and sandwich in the other. She puts them on her desk and immediately rushes over the opposite corner of the lab where she playfully punches her friend in the arm. She then runs back to her desk, adjusts her pants, and takes a seat. Using her purse as a barricade, she opens her sandwich and sneaks a bite into her mouth. As the class slowly fills up the room, students chat with their peers, the young woman stops mid sentence to shout a question to a student halfway across the room. Her voice reverberates in the large lab space over the murmur of conversations. Removing her biology text from her purse, she flips to page 254 and focuses in on the day’s lesson.
I recognize this student. Her name is Kaylah, Corina, Imani, Jasmine, Tiye, Shalaria, Keke—I have taught her every year. Young women with an incredible outward confidence, ability to command the attention of a crowd, and sharp intellectual focus.
At the door Ikram, the teacher, greets each student with a handshake. Before class started we had an opportunity to chat. Ikram graduated from University of Amsterdam last year and majored in biochemistry. Gee, a professor at University of Amsterdam and biology teacher, recruited her to come to Cartesius. Ikram explained the feeling of tremendous responsibility and sheer anxiety as a first year educator. She told me a story of a class that was so chatty that, after finally commanding their attention by raising her voice, she heard a student say, “Miss, we can see your gray hairs growing through your headscarf”.
If you are a teacher, you know this moment. Standing at the front of a room full of students that for some reason are focused on everything other than the lesson. At the back of your mind thinking, "but biology is captivating, why would you want to pay attention to anything else? It literally means the study of life."
The feeling of getting students to listen right before summer vacation...
Ikram grew up outside of Utrecht, a city about twenty-five miles from Amsterdam. She told me that growing up, all the students she went to school with were “traditional Dutch”—tall, blonde, and white. Ikram is Muslim, and after moving to Amsterdam for university she found herself among a much more diverse population. She spoke of her experience on the first day of school standing in front of the class, and no longer being an anomaly, but the norm.
I watch the progression of the lesson, entirely in Dutch. It does not take me long to realize that not only do I recognize so many of the students in class, but I also know the subject. My Dutch maybe horrible, but I can speak biology.
You don't need a translation book to know that says biology...
Slagaders (artery), aders (vein), aorta (aorta), I quickly catch on that we are learning about the circulatory system.
The lesson starts with a reading of the chapter assigned for homework the night prior. Ikram calls on a couple of students to pick up reading, periodically pausing to ask questions.
I see Ikram glance at her watch and make the exact same expression I have made thousands of times before, “where did the time in the lesson go?” The science technical assistant Casper enters the room with a tray full of sheep hearts. In addition to naming and discussing the function of the slagaders and aders, students are also conducting a practicum.
The heart of the lesson
I watch as the text comes to life, as students prod the hearts with scalpels trying to identify a list of structures. With a smile spreading across her face, I see the the same girl that walked into class ready to socialize with her friend, completely captivated. Taking out their phones, they use snapchat to take pictures and add captions, the students are enthralled. Ikram circulates to different tables assisting in identifying the cardiac structures. Later that week, they will submit reports with their captioned photos in a lab write-up.
Despite being 4,000 miles away from home, there are striking similarities between Dutch and American classrooms. However, there are also significant contrasts— the most striking being that children all over The Netherlands look genuinely joyous.
It came as no surprise to learn that a 2013 Unicef report rated the Dutch as the happiest children in the world. The United States came in right above Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania (the three poorest countries in the survey) at 26th.
Many of the similarities I see in the classroom give me nostalgia for the daily grind of teaching, but the exploration of ways to inspire joy and inclusivity, motivate my research about how Dutch differences in teaching can help to improve education for all students in the US.
So that one day in the future, the same girl who walked into biology class at 13 and fell in love with the heart becomes a powerful female leader in cardiology.
I owe one million thank you's and dank je wel's to Gee, Ikram, and the entire science team at Cartesius for letting me visit multiple times, observe, and ask one million questions!
Until next post: