BANGOR – Studying in Sweden 10 years ago, social studies teacher Mark Tasker was so captivated by his surroundings that all he wanted was to share his experience.
“I kept thinking, what a fantastic place to bring students. The things we could develop and learn about together would be phenomenal,” said Tasker, who traveled to Sweden while earning a master’s degree in Scandinavian studies from the University of Minnesota.
Now chairman of the social studies department at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, Tasker, 40, finally has a chance to show off the country for which he feels a personal connection.
Next summer he plans to travel with 10 Bapst students to the mountainous province of Jamtland for an eight- to 10-day expedition that will cover subjects ranging from science and social studies to art and writing.
Participants will examine the area’s glacial geology and flora and fauna, study the history of the province, and observe how the indigenous people called Sami engage in their centuries-old practice of herding reindeer.
Students also will be encouraged to take out their watercolors and cameras to capture the glorious scenery.
Throughout the trip they’ll keep journals that will be used to create a Web-based project, portfolio or essay once they return home.
“We could sit in the classroom and talk about this or I could even show them my slides,” Tasker said. “But they have to see the sunlight, feel the rocks under their boots, walk around on glacial moorings, and smell the wonderful air. I think they’ll fall in love with the place just like I did. From Day One I just knew this was my place.”
Tasker got the ball rolling last month when he invited two teachers from Dragoon School in Umea – a city of about 110,000 in northern Sweden – to spend eight days at Bapst.
Lisa Johansson, 26, and Susanne Lundblad, 32, taught social studies and science classes and organized workshops about the teaching methods and organizational system used in Swedish schools.
There was an immediate rapport between the visiting teachers and the Bapst community. “Things couldn’t have gone any better if I had scripted them. I bet they talked to 450 students,” said Tasker. “I had more requests for their presence than I had Swedes to go around.”
Tasker hopes the summer expedition will become part of a long-term research project in which students return to Sweden annually.
“There’s a glacier just to the south of the area and we could keep tabs on its health and what shape it’s in as we go back summer after summer,” he said. “We could look at reindeer numbers to see how successful the Sami are at reindeer herding. Or we could look at global warming. If we’re there at the same time every summer we could get a benchmark of climatic conditions.”
For the social studies teacher, this is a prized opportunity to get students into “real world field science and real world anthropology.”
“Why wait until students are in college to get them into the field?” he said.
Down the road he envisions a two-month exchange program during the school year where small groups of students and faculty from Dragoon and Bapst visit each other and stay with host families.
Meanwhile, excitement about the summer program is building, fueled by the visit from the Swedish teachers. “Students already are clamoring to go,” Tasker said.
He forecast a “pretty rigorous selection process” requiring students to write an essay about why they’re interested in the trip and to undergo physical training.
“I’ll encourage them to participate in the Nordic ski program at Bapst,” Tasker said. “I would want to see them hiking in the spring … and see them in the weight room.
“I want to make sure they’ve thought this out. There’ll be some pretty long days on the trail with a hefty amount of wind,” he said. “I need to see that they can [function] in the cold and the wet, and I have to see that we can come together as a team.
“I want this to be a real field science expedition. You can’t do that if people are in misery because their conditioning isn’t there, or if they’re wishing they hadn’t done this.”
Plans are to have students fly into Stockholm and travel into the mountains by rail, staying at inexpensive hostels along the way.
Participants likely will have to pick up the lion’s share of the cost of the trip, projected to be in excess of $1,000 per person, Tasker said.
Even though students at Dragoon are required to learn English, Bapst participants will be able to gain a perspective in a foreign culture “without having to hammer through basic Swedish,” said Tasker, who speaks the language fluently.
The exchange program came about with help from Tasker’s former tutor, now an international programs coordinator at Dragoon who taught Tasker Swedish when he was an undergraduate at the University of Maine.
Last month, during a break in their hectic schedule, the Swedish visitors said they came to Bapst not only to begin a long-term relationship, but to learn about new teaching techniques and improve their English.
In fact, the women said they came away with at least one new idea. When they return to their classrooms, they’ll focus more on details – a departure from Swedish curriculum which concentrates on general knowledge.
Students here take more notes, said Johansson, who plans on requiring her own students to hand in the notes they jot down during class.
With 2,000 students and 200 teachers, Dragoon is the fifth-largest school in Sweden, they said. Teens are the same everywhere, but there are some differences between American and Swedish high schools.
In their country there are no school dress codes and students are encouraged to call teachers by their first names, the teachers said.
Young people begin learning English in the third grade and are required to take it in high school.
Although the driving age is 18, few Swedish teens have cars. They rely on public transportation or walk or bike practically everywhere.
Swedes are mad for food from McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut, and for television shows like “Friends” and “Frazier,” according to the teachers.
“I was surprised at how Americanized they are,” said Katy Hamilton, 14, a freshman at Bapst.
Chere Wickstrom, 15, got in touch with her roots thanks to the guests who pounced with delight upon her Swedish surname.
The sophomore discussed Swedish traditions with the teachers and said she now plans on asking her great grandparents – who live in New Sweden but are originally from Sweden – about life in the old country.
For their part, the visiting teachers found Bapst students attentive and easy to be around.
“Everyone here is so polite,” said Johansson. “They asked a lot of important questions. And whenever I say something they’re always interested.”
The Swedes were delighted at the prospect of an exchange between Bapst and Dragoon, which already has nine such programs, including two in the United States.
“It’s important that students learn to see and appreciate other cultures,” said Lundblad.