Østerskov Efterskole

Yesterday, the students at Østerskov Efterskole in Hobro (Jutland), Denmark returned from their one-week Autumn Break. We arrived the same evening and were immediately welcomed—and overwhelmed by their energy.

I was immediately amazed at the liberties that the students have in this school. They crowd into a group meeting room which clearly does not have room for everyone to have a seat and laze across chairs and tables, sit on tables, walk across tables, sit on the floor, and cuddle with each other. In the hallways, they run and shout, ramming into each other, wrestle on the entryway floor. They go outside for a cigarette, after carrying it around in their hands (next year, there will be no smoking allowed). There is no dress code, and self-expression is encouraged. Everywhere, they swear in English. They are all on first-name basis with their teachers, and randomly come up to them to give them hugs.
The only thing they are admonished for is their volume during group instruction and discussion time. The students hold up both hands and flutter them for agreement and applause, or one finger to ask a question.

Yet despite all this, they love their school and are proud to show it off. Frequently another student comes up to introduce himself and offer assistance. They are engaged in the learning. Students are given an assignment, and when they gather together again, everyone has it done. They are excited about the next step and already have their minds going. As in any school, the quality varies from student to student, and higher-end kids excel in detail and confidence. Everything is done on computers, except a bit of graphing design on paper. There are student laptops everywhere, and lots of cubbies of computer lab areas. The computers are all networked, so the teachers can see what the students have completed.

Each student has a job, too. Teams of students take turns preparing, cooking, serving and cleaning up the meals. Some of the students have responsibilities with equipment rooms. When they have a meal job, they are excused from the lessons going on at that time.

They are excited about the evening RP (role-playing) games. Games are the love of the students here, and that is why they attend this school. There are a couple of different games each evening that are directed by the headmaster and teachers. Science Fiction and Fantasy are favorite topics, but there is a lot of history included as well. Boxes of games abound in every corner, and there are trophies in hallway glass cabinets from competitions. A special glass-fronted bookcase holds Dungeons & Dragons books, but a student tells me that game is boring to him—he prefers Vampires or Pirates RP games or Magic the Gathering. Students run RP games for other students: they set up the background story, develop the characters and then invite others to join in. They take on those characters and make them their own.

The staff is very kind, and it is interesting to sit with them as they go on auto-pilot and speak Danish with each other. One of the staff members is impressed that I was able to glean as much as I could from a conversation she was having with a group of drama students. I am gaining more vocabulary and hope to have a bit of conversational ability by the time we leave here three weeks from now. I met the German teacher today and talked with her about her teaching job here. This is her first year and she is struggling with her agenda for this weekend’s parent visit day. She has focused on conversation so far, and only sees them once every other week, so she doesn’t have any work samples to show the parents—it’s all been conversation so far. She feels successful, though—this is the first time she has taught German where the students tell her that they enjoy learning the language.

The teachers have one week on for teaching and one week off for planning, so they work directly in lessons with the students every other week. The electives are held on Monday mornings, with core lessons and projects in the afternoon and on other days. This week’s unit is on board games, so the students split in groups no larger than two and decided upon a theme for their game. Each game has to be either science fiction or history-based. The purpose is to encourage research into historical and/or science facts. Next week we will study the Middle Ages and students and staff will wear costumes from that time period all week.

Every afternoon, students write in logbook on their computers for an hour, describing what they did that day and what they learned. After that, they choose something from their day’s work to put into their electronic portfolio. All this goes onto the server and the student’s advisor check to make sure it’s there and complete. The server was down today, so the advisor went around individually, but normally they’re all on-line together, assumable giving feedback in real time.

School lessons begin at 9:00 a.m. and end at 4:30 pm, then there is a break until dinner time and evening activities begin after that. Silent time is at 10:30 pm; tomorrow we will get up at 7:00 to do morning exercises at 7:30 before breakfast. Today we ran and did pushups and crunches –tomorrow we’ll do something different!

The camaraderie is great and I haven’t seen any students upset at others yet. I will be meeting with the headmaster on Wednesday and will find out demographics. In the meantime, I do know that there are 84 boys, 12 girls, according to one staff member. They come from all over Denmark to attend this choice-based public school.

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