A Roving American Scholar in Norway

Lee Ann Potter’s Fulbright year in Norway was educational for students and scholar alike


Photo: Bjoertvedt / Wikimedia
During her year in Norway, Lee Ann Potter (left) visited the northernmost school in the world, Longyearbyen Skole. It didn’t look like this when she visited, though, because Polar Night had descended and it was “middle of the night dark” at all times.

Christine Foster Meloni

Lee Ann Potter, the current Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress, had never been to Norway, despite her Norwegian roots, when she first heard about the Fulbright Roving Scholar program. This unique Fulbright program is available only in Norway.

Potter applied and was accepted for the 2009-2010 academic year, taking a leave of absence from her then-position as head of Education and Volunteer Programs at the National Archives.

She was invited to speak about her experience at a meeting of the Washington, D.C., chapter of Lakselaget, an organization for professional women who are interested in contemporary Norwegian issues and all things Norwegian.

Lee Ann Potter

Photo courtesy of Lee Ann Potter

During her tenure as a roving scholar, Potter lived in Oslo with her husband and two children, a 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter who both attended the Oslo International School because she wanted them “to develop a global view.”

Her specific responsibility as a roving scholar was to teach lessons to both students (between 16-19 years old in upper secondary schools) and teachers on topics related to U.S. history, government, culture, and geography.

Her most popular workshop was “The United States: A Nation of Immigrants.” She asked the participants to consider the question, “What does it mean to be ‘a nation of immigrants’?” She gave them documents related to immigration to analyze, including census schedules, passenger arrival lists, and naturalization forms, as well as historic photos, maps, and posters. She, of course, spent time discussing the emigration of Norwegians to America in particular.

Another popular workshop was “Show Me the Money” in which the participants studied U.S. currency. They were asked the following questions. Who is pictured on U.S. bills and coins? What are some of their well-known quotations? Based on these quotations, what do you think their character traits were? Compare the people depicted on the American and Norwegian currencies. Why do you think there are mainly politicians on U.S. currency and mainly authors and artists on Norwegian currency?

In the “Dear Uncle Sam” workshop the participants considered the Americans’ right to petition their government. They were given examples of letters, petitions, and memorials from the U.S. National Archives on subjects such as abolition, woman suffrage, and civil rights. The essential question was “What do letters and petitions sent by U.S. citizens to government officials reveal about democracy in the United States and the American character?”

Potter visited schools all over Norway, 44 in all.

She was impressed with the very substantive English-language classes. Norwegians start studying English in preschool. This is why they do not consider English a foreign language when they are adults. They have been speaking it all of their lives!

She was amazed that all of the children had laptops with complete access to the Internet. Nothing was blocked! She remarked, “You may be in a rural area but it is never remote!”

Every classroom has windows that can be opened to let in fresh air. “Windows are everywhere,” she remarked. “The Norwegians are fanatics about fresh air!”

All of the children had outdoor and indoor shoes. When they arrived at school, they took off their outdoor shoes and put on their indoor shoes. This is true, however, not only of children in schools. She observed the same practice everywhere else. No one seemed to wear outdoor shoes inside buildings. Everyone wore socks, slippers, or “indoor” shoes.

Potter wrote the following in her Norway blog: “In the foyer of my hotel and at the entrance to the school, the art gallery, the tourist information center, and the museum, shelves provided people with places to put their outdoor shoes and boots. During my short stay, I grew to really like this. Not only did it cut down on noise and dirt, but people just seemed more comfortable.”

She was impressed with the beautiful coffee machines in every teacher’s lounge. Some even had coffee choices similar to a specialty coffee shop.

Her northernmost school was the northernmost school in the world! It was Longyearbyen Skole on the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard. The Polar Night had begun three weeks before she arrived. She was surprised at just how dark it was. She emphasized that it was not just “twilight dark” but “in the middle of the night dark.” In her blog she wrote that this darkness was “elegant and mysterious, as well as cozy and confusing.”

She saw lit candles everywhere in Norway, not just in the Far North, and felt that they contributed to a sense of quiet and calm. She learned that Norwegians purchase more candles per capita annually than any other group of people in the world.

The year in Norway was a very memorable experience for Potter and her entire family. She learned a great deal about Norwegian culture. She also learned some Norwegian but, she admits, her reading skills far surpass her speaking skills.

Although she will treasure all of her experiences, her fondest memories will be of the wonderful Norwegians she met.

To read more about her year in Norway, visit her blog at leeannpotter.com/Lee_Ann_Potters_Wheel/Blog/Blog.html.

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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