‘Dugnad’ inspires a school band from Norway

I reflect on the Fourth of July as I interview two leaders from the Norwegian marching band Småbispan, which graced the streets of Washington this Independence Day:

  • Vilde Holand Juberg, 19, the drum major and an aspiring law student
  • Gøran Olsen, Småbispan’s director since 2009

Abraham Lincoln and George Washington ride a float in the parade in Washington, D.C., July 4, 2015. (Voxitatis)

LARGO, Md. (July 3) — If there’s a single parade that can be said to celebrate Americanism, it is certainly the July 4th parade in the nation’s capital. A big parade in New York every year celebrates either Christmas or the consumerism that dominates the once-Christian holiday in the US, and a big parade in Pasadena, Calif., celebrates amateur athletics or American football. Only the parade in Washington every Fourth of July celebrates the democratic values Americans espouse today and have fought for since the nation’s founding 239 years ago.

It isn’t so ironic, though, that a marching band made up of only public school students from Norway was listed so prominently in the parade’s promotional materials. Even if it is ironic, the level of irony in their appearance at a parade that celebrates democratic ideals is easily surpassed by the level of irony in the wholesale elimination of democratic principles in the current running of public school systems in the US.

Charter schools weren’t represented by a marching band this year, mainly because they’re too busy pumping up test scores in math and reading to provide a well-rounded education for students. The quality of the typical charter school marching band is too low to merit consideration for any national-class event. Furthermore, the proportion of charter schools that even have a marching band is small, but those that do would have trouble enlisting the kind of parental support and financial commitment required to get a band and its equipment here.

So this year, parade officials, under the auspices of the National Park Service, reached across the ocean to the east and invited musical performers from Norway to give up part of their summer vacation, leave their beautiful homeland, and travel thousands of miles, across six time zones, to march a little more than a mile and a half down Constitution Avenue. America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” When it comes to marching band, it’s not the distance over which you march that counts; it’s the marching you do in that distance.

And the marching they did, proudly and without missing a step, was a huge celebration of America. Yes, it was the soaking in of the flag waving, the skyscrapers and fireworks, the lofty ideals of American leaders’ words enshrined in the monuments before them as they covered the distance. But it was also an ambassadorship from across the Atlantic Ocean, and as more than 80 Norwegian schoolchildren returned to their families, the ideals of a country where modern democracy began met with cognitive dissonance against a backdrop of public schools today that embody democratic ideals more than American schools do.

To gain some understanding of how Norwegian schools keep the voice of the people alive, especially in music performance, I talked with Vilde Holand Juberg, the drum major, or tambur in Norwegian, of the marching band and stage show group known as Småbispan, which comes from Trondheim, Norway, and with the group’s director, Gøran Olsen.

Trip to the US, performance in the National Independence Day Parade

The 87 members of Småbispan and a few chaperones came to the US on Saturday, June 27, spending their first five days doing some sightseeing in New York and then traveling by bus to Washington for some additional sightseeing, a fun trip to Six Flags, and participation in the parade. Their performance on Constitution Avenue was the only one they could arrange in the US this time around.

“We are very proud to have been given this opportunity,” Mr Olsen said. “The serious planning began about a year ago. But planning to come, I think they have been working on that for three years.” Other performances, particularly any the band might have given in New York’s Central Park, turned out to be too expensive to arrange, he said.

But as would happen on a trip to any foreign country by US students, Norwegian musicians saw many new things and gained a little cultural appreciation of America.

“Everything is bigger,” Ms Juberg said in describing New York and the US in general. “Like, we come from a small town. Everything is bigger here, especially in New York—like the buildings. We don’t have those buildings, so everyone was looking up all the time. But it’s friendly people, and we like it, all of us.”

Many members in the group, which is made up of students from 6 to 20 years old, took a trip to Miami after marching in Washington, as part of an extended vacation in the US, but others headed back to Norway on the day after the parade.

Both Ms Juberg and Mr Olsen acknowledged the contribution of band members’ parents for both fundraising and their service on various committees needed by the band.

Parents “have this Norwegian thing that we call dugnad,” Ms Juberg said. “Everyone volunteers to come and help us earn money, to perform at concerts. Yeah, we couldn’t get going without the volunteers and without the parents.”

The Norwegian concept of dugnad corresponds to what Americans might think of as volunteer work, Mr Olsen explained, and almost all of the parents chip in on one or more committees. In the US, parent involvement often includes telling public schools what they can and can’t do, what tests they can give, what controversial classes like sex education should be taught, what day school should start, and so on. Parents often oppose teachers’ actions and don’t support those teaching and learning activities as often as parents do in Norway.

This may be a true Americanism, this right people feel they have to tell the public schools what they can and can’t do, despite state and federal laws. However, it can also be viewed as an influence of for-profit corporations peddling computers, tests, and curricular materials in the huge education marketplace. Although the curriculum in Norway is less diverse than it is in the US and there aren’t quite as many tests, the idea of parents getting involved in Norway would be like a parent taking an occasional day off to volunteer as a classroom aide. That spirit of dugnad is rare in the US but more prevalent in Norwegian schools. That’s what Ms Juberg was referring to when she described what got the band to America.

“Some have the responsibility for the uniforms and checking that everything is all right,” Ms Juberg said. “Some of them are responsible for the instruments, for making sure they’re working. Others are responsible for the trips, like one for this journey to the USA.”

Band is extracurricular, with students from many schools

Unlike many high schools in the US, band doesn’t meet to rehearse during the school day. Part of the reason is that students in Småbispan go to several different schools at all levels from primary school to high school. The band performs every fall at a recruiting concert at Bispehaugen School, which serves to get young students excited about performing in the band.

But another part of the reason is that band is completely extracurricular and voluntary. Yes, students have general music classes in the curriculum through about seventh grade. They study music history, possibly piano or guitar, and music in society during several hours every week in those classes. But instrumental music isn’t part of the curriculum.

That means the group has to practice after school, which they do a few times every week. The occasional weekend rehearsals and meetings aren’t always popular with students, but sometimes a trip to the US or performance for something like National Day in Norway necessitates some extra preparation time.

Starting at about age 8, students can attend a separate school for culture to take lessons on their instruments, Mr Olsen said. Different culture schools provide instruction in vocal music, acting, dance, and other artistic pursuits as well, but it’s uncommon for members of Småbispan not to attend a culture school for instrumental music lessons. “That’s also a school,” he said, “but it’s in the spare time of pupils. It’s in the afternoon. It’s additional. They get classes for playing their instruments.” Referring to Ms Juberg, he added, “She went to culture school to play saxophone; I went to play the trombone. So everyone gets culture school.”

The culture school idea, which is parallel in many ways to kids in the US attending a tech high school that is separate from their regular high school, runs from about the third grade through high school. When students get to high school, they also have the option of choosing to focus their studies on one particular area. The high school system in Norway, in general, allows students to focus their studies on a certain area.

“Most people, they study a normal curriculum: math, science, English, Norwegian,” Ms Juberg said. “But some choose to study music, and they have music as well as some other classes during school.” Not every high school in her city has a focus on instrumental music available, she said, but her high school certainly does. Students who focus on music “all play an instrument: they’re focusing on developing themselves as musicians.”

Ms Juberg’s own career plans don’t include pursuing music as a profession, despite being “really good,” according to her director.

“Next year I’m going to [the University of] Bergen, and I’m going to study law,” she said. “So I’m going to be a lawyer. I think,” she added, laughing.

College is tuition-free, acceptance based on high school grades

Two stark differences between going to college at Bergen and going to college in, say, Austin, Texas, are:

  • The University of Bergen is tuition-free, whereas many students who attend college in Austin will mount tens of thousands of dollars in debt that some of them won’t be able to pay off. Support for college tuition comes from the national government, which collects higher taxes than US citizens pay.
  • Students are accepted in Bergen based primarily on grades assigned by classroom teachers, except for certain majors, which use test scores for admission, whereas students who apply in Austin have their fates decided by a different list of factors, including test scores, the quality of their high school, extracurricular activities, a personal essay, their race, and so on.

The voices of teachers carry much more weight in Norway when it comes to directing students’ education than they do in the US. There have even been times when officials here have used police force to squelch the voices of teachers or other members of the larger community who were fighting for what they believed were rights all students have to a free public education.

Some national testing, but no high stakes for students

Contrary to what you may have heard, students in Norway do take national tests. The test results are sent to teachers to help with their professional development, not so much for any concept of “accountability.” A debate is raging now in Norway, just as it is in the US, over how many tests students are required to take and how much time students spend on testing.

“We have standard tests, national tests, to see how the pupils read, to see how they do math, to see how they do in English,” Mr Olsen, who teaches at Rosenborg School in Trondheim, said. “You have standard tests” used in a formative way, he said, “so our government tests students. But you don’t have SATs that return results” for individual students.

Since results on national tests aren’t reported back for individual students, their success depends only on local teachers and school officials, rather than corporations whose workers design and score standardized tests. No corporation has more say in how Norwegian children are educated than classroom teachers do, and that’s something worth thinking about.

Here’s how grades are determined in a Norwegian high school, Ms Juberg said:

So after each chapter in, like, English or science, we have a test. And then at the end of the year, the teachers will get the grades that the students have gotten throughout the year, and they give a grade for the class.

That’s how grades are determined in US classrooms as well, but then standardized test scores are superimposed on those grades in a way that implies a complete mistrust of local teachers and school administrators. This has been done because statisticians have convinced politicians that an “A” from one teacher doesn’t mean the same thing as an “A” from another teacher. It doesn’t in Norway, either, since all teachers write and score their own tests, but when it comes down to it, the US system takes all input about a student’s performance away from the people who are closest to that student’s education: his or her teachers.

Also, classroom grades determine a child’s future, including admission to one of Norway’s tuition-free colleges, and no score on any standardized test has any say whatsoever in a child’s future. This is why I thought so heavily about voices of corporations outweighing voices of people during this year’s Independence Day party.

Religion, ethics, and humanism have a place in the curriculum

Finally, US classrooms have been taken out of the democratic process by removing the study of religion from public schools. The nation has done this primarily because of the need to avoid proselytizing, which always manages to become the endpoint of religious studies.

But a strong component of Norway’s core curriculum is a subject known as RLE (“religion, livssyn, and etikk“). The course is about ethics, human rights, culture in a muticultural world, and a comparison of religious beliefs held by different people throughout the world.

“We often study, like, comparisons of the different religions,” Ms Juberg explained. “We try to learn as much about them as possible—to understand them and to understand people. …”

“To understand other cultures,” Mr Olsen continued. “Why does Islam have their way? Why do Buddhists have their way?” In order to study the real world today, it is necessary “to understand the world as a cultural community,” he said.

The removal of the study of religious history from US schools has effectively voided many historical documents in which references to religious beliefs are plainly stated. There can be no establishment of religion, or praying, in public schools, but RLE doesn’t have any of that either, at least in the schools attended by Ms Juberg. The failure of US schoolchildren, who become US adults, to understand differences among people of different religions or to promote cultural understanding and human rights has done nothing but get the US into more conflicts.

Voxitatis extends its sincere thanks to the people of Trondheim, Norway, for providing the financial and social support that enabled and encouraged these young musicians to come to America and entertain people for a minute or two down the streets of Washington. I especially thank Arild Haugen, the press coordinator for Småbispan’s 2015 US Tour, for arranging interviews with Ms Juberg and Mr Olsen, which enabled the production of this article.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.