There’s nothing like the real thing
Norgesskolen builds cultural bridges for children from all over the world
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
These days with COVID-19 we’ve all been immersed in online life in one way or the other. While it’s been trial by fire in some cases, we’ve all seen what the online virtual world can offer: concerts, lectures, conferences, music, films, school instruction, and language classes—even 17th of May celebrations.
Yet, let’s face it: sometimes there’s nothing like the real thing. That is the philosophy behind Norgesskolen, a two-and-a-half week summer school for Norwegian language and culture at Sagavoll folkehøgskole in Gvarv in Telemark County, where children from all over the world come together to immerse themselves in Norwegian language and culture.
The program is sponsored by Norwegians Worldwide (Nordmanns-Forbundet), an organization that has existed for over 100 years to represent the interests of thousands of Norwegians abroad. Recently merged with the Norway-America Association (NORAM), the non-profit organization offers practical advice about living abroad and resources to connect Norwegians back to their heritage.
Norgesskolen plays an important role in the programming, since the children of many Norwegians living abroad do not have the opportunity to interact with their homeland culture on a day-to-day basis beyond the four walls of their own home.
Rasa Ziburkute is the head of Norgesskolen, a job she has held for three years. Ziburkute hails from Vilnius, Lithuania, and learned Norwegian as a second language herself, an experience that gives her special insight into the language-learning and cross-cultural training experience. Thirty-two years ago, she applied for Norwegian studies at University of Oslo and earned a master’s degree in Nordic languages and literature. She has taught Norwegian to international students and refugees, giving her strong credentials for her current position.
Early last March, I spoke to Ziburkute about her role at Norgesskolen and what was coming up for the summer of 2020. Speaking with enthusiasm, she told me how getting ready keeps her busy year-round: she is responsible for the course materials and teaching methods, hires staff, negotiates the rent, and is basically responsible for all practical arrangements for the school. With between 70 and 90 children coming from 20 to 25 different countries each year, this is no small task, as Ziburkute and her staff prepare to take charge of the health and happiness of their summer guests.
The children come from all kinds of backgrounds, which can present challenges at the course start. “Some students are amazed that they can run free in the green meadows,” says Ziburkute, “while others find the restrictions funny.” At Norgesskolen, the students are allowed to speak their own languages and English among themselves, but all information from staff is in Norwegian. Sometimes, they must rely on body language and drawings to get their point across, leading to fun and laughter. What is for sure: everyone seems to have a good time together, and many friendships are made for life. In fact, many students return year after year, not only to learn more but also to reunite with their friends.
The Telemark setting of the school among the mountains and fjords provides a backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and many school activities take place outdoors—even when it’s raining. Ziburkute explained that some of the students are not used to being outside while learning language, doing homework, or singing songs, but it’s an important part of the Norwegian experience and full language immersion method. Activities such as sand volleyball, soccer, dodgeball, swimming, canoeing, running, and hiking are also offered out in the fresh air, and there is also a large gym with all types of sports equipment, a climbing wall, and dance floor.
There are other special activities, including a popular camping trip, and for 2021, a day excursion to Skien is planned, the home of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Back at the school, texts from his famous play A Doll’s House may as well be used in the instruction.
A typical day at Norgesskolen always starts with music. By singing Norwegian songs, the students learn about the culture in an immediate way. There are traditional folk songs to learn, but Norway is also known for pop music. Ziburkute shares that old songs from the ’80s are especially popular. “Forelska i lærer’n” (In love with the teacher) is a favorite, as well as songs by contemporary stars, such as Alexander Rybak, Sigrid, AURORA, and Kygo. Classics by Edvard Grieg are not ignored either, but Ziburkute stresses that Norgesskolen is “exploring,” as the students build up a Norwegian cultural identity.
Academic goals are not neglected either. Many parents send their children to Norgesskolen with a clear objective to improve their Norwegian, and there are regular language lessons with assignments in workbooks, including instruction in grammar. The students who are already fluent in Norwegian often help those who know less or are just beginners, and in this way, everyone learns a lot.
“Those who want to study, get to study,” says Ziburkute, and there is an open library for them, filled with Norwegian books. Many leave with a competency that allows them to continue learning Norwegian in other more advanced programs. Some return to Norway with their families and begin in Norwegian schools, other older students go on to the International Summer School in Oslo, and eventually, some take the Bergenstest to study at the university in Norway.
But in every job there is to be done, there is an element of fun at Norgesskolen, and even in the formal instruction, there are snippets of Norwegian culture creatively integrated. Each year, a new textbook is produced to keep things lively and informative. In 2021, the main topic is “Norge i verden”—Norway in the world—to encourage the students to reflect on what Norway has shared with the rest of the world, not only traditions and handicrafts, but also how politics and the peace process, oil, energy, and environmental innovation affect the global situation.
During their intensive time together, the students also get the chance to celebrate Norwegian holidays, including Christmas, Easter, and Norwegian Constitution Day, syttende mai. Several evenings are spent making sustainable Christmas presents with yarn, textiles, drawing, and painting, and a julebord dinner is served with ribbe, medisterkake, and surkål (no lutefisk), and yes, the beloved julenisse makes his long-awaited appearance.
For the Easter morning celebration, everyone gets up a half-hour later and has a breakfast of eggs and smoked salmon in their pajamas. The hall is decorated with chickens, eggs, and flowers, and of course, there is a traditional Easter egg hunt.
But the 17th of May is perhaps the most special celebration. One afternoon, everyone marches in a parade singing songs they’ve learned. The students even learn about russ. Last year, four of the staff wore the traditional red or blue jumpsuits. Technically, you’re not allowed to wear it if you are not a russ yourself, so they had to borrow their costumes form their younger friends or children.
And of course, there are always lots of photos taken at these special occasions, documenting cherished memories for the staff, students, and their families.
The course participants are housed in three main dormitories, with 10 to 15 students on each floor, with floors for boys and girls alternating. There are two counselors on site 24/7 to oversee things. Everyone takes their meals together, and naturally, traditional norsk food is served, with specialties including fish soup, oatmeal porridge, and brunost, with lots of healthy Norwegian bread. Cooking is also part of the curriculum, and everyone learns how to make cinnamon buns—skillingsboller—and Norwegian waffles.
While at Norgesskolen, students have access to electronic devices, although digital access is limited, because the goal is to make friends at camp. Computers and iPads are used for teaching purposes, and smartphones can be used for one hour a day for a “communication hour” to connect with friends and play games. Most kids are having such a good time that they have to be reminded to call home.
Anyone interested in Norwegian culture between the ages of 9 and 19 can apply to attend Norgesskolen. There is a simple online application on their website. New students are required to provide a short statement of motivation reflecting on their goals, what they want to learn and why. And because it is a not-for-profit camp, costs are kept at a minimum, and scholarship aid is available.
Sadly, shortly after I talked to Ziburkute, the 2020 camp sessions were canceled because of the COVID-19 crisis. Recently, we connected again, and she reported that the program is back on for 2021, with plans to put any necessary precautions in place. The school is working closely with the health authorities to ensure safety. Any symptoms of illness will be monitored, and social-distancing will be mandated when necessary. The ongoing situation is being monitored closely as it unfolds.
Tentatively, all activities are being moved outdoors, and fewer contact sports will be offered. The ongoing situation is being followed together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Currently, the rate of infection in Norway is very low, and it is considered to be one of the safest countries in the world in regard to coronavirus. “Norway is a very safe place to be,” says Ziburkute, who hopes that all students will be able to come back to Norgesskolen next summer.
In the end, there is so much to do at Norgesskolen that is impossible to write about it all in one short article. But as said, there is nothing like the real thing, as this unique experience awaits your children and grandchildren in Norway.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 4, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.