Growing Places

August. That’s the instant sensation of entering the glass hothouses at the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden. The doors swung shut behind me, and I was enveloped in that feeling of steamy sidewalks after the rain, of nights reading on my front porch. It’s 40 kroner ($4-6 USD) for the walk-through; if only it were free, I’d be there on all the days I feel homesick for sunnier weather. (Though, given the six-weeks-with-a-snow-day streak at college last winter, I’m sure I wouldn’t find much escape in Pennsylvania, either.)

Last Sunday, my housing friends Rachel, Sydney, and I met up at Social Foodies–a cafe that also funds aid projects in Denmark and across Africa–and all stole from the bag of flødeboller (Danish chocolate-marshmallow treats) that Rachel had made for a DIS-sponsored cooking class there. We took the subway down to the garden and spent an afternoon basking in the greenhouses, which feature orchids, palms, cacti, and exotic plants. Outside, we passed by the hills and lawns that form the remainder of the green space; I’m sure they’ll make great picnic spots in a few months.

“I bet this is the most elevated surface in Copenhagen…
…hey, you should put that on your blog.” –Rachel

First Field Study

Like greenhouse plants, it seems, we all thrive as students in particular environments. Leading up to my education class’s visit to a K-through-9 school, we broke into groups to talk about the best and worst teachers we’d ever had. Complaints were vented. Memories were shared. We agreed as a class that the great teachers in our lives somehow struck a balance between being supportive and authentic while challenging us.

Would any educators at our field study mirror our ideal teachers? Early Wednesday morning, I caught a bus, then a train, then the subway with Vicky (another folkehøjskole floormate who’s in my class) to see. Our school was on Amager, a large island directly opposite Copenhagen–also home of the university I head to on Mondays for my Kierkegaard class. Many students at our site rely on public housing or other assistance; nearly all of them live a five-minute walk or bike ride from the building.

The street outside our field study school

I sat in on a 9th-grade social science course with classmates from DIS, and was surprised by how much it reminded me of my mandatory high school personal finance requirement–right down to the ThinkPad laptops and supply-and-demand graphs. But the class ended on an innovative activity that hadn’t been a common practice in my own freshman year. As students clustered up to research different countries’ economies on their laptops, their teacher explained to us that they were working in the “cafe model”: each group would teach another group about their findings, and then the second group would present them. It’s easy to throw out a ten-minute spiel about a topic, blink, and forget it (guilty). It takes real understanding to bring someone else up to the same level of comprehension as you.

After joining up to reflect with other groups in the class, who’d shadowed younger classes, administrators led us on a walking tour of the school. Unlike the windowless, blocked classrooms I’ve often had, this building incorporated lots of glass, wood, and natural light. There were even live birds in an enclosure in the front hallway–we all did a double take after realizing the soft cheeps we heard weren’t coming from a speaker.

Growing plants near the science wing of the school

Observing educational design might’ve been the point of this field study, but I think I learned more about teenagers. Even halfway across the world, they’re still the same, in all their TikTok-quoting, mid-class-stretching, spontaneously laughing glory. What’s remarkable is that, because Danish public schools split cohorts by birth year rather than ability, the kids in that social science class have been in the same courses for nearly ten years. They really know each other as individuals, and I could sense it in the cadence of their conversation, even in Danish. Vicky would point out to me later that by the end of the class, at some point, everyone had raised a hand to speak.


When our field study ended, our professor Heidi offered to take us over to a local playground, Bondegården–with goats. Ninety-nine percent of our class followed her there with no hesitation.

Besides the petting zoo animals–kids can also visit with chickens and pigs–Bondegården is one site of the suttetræ (“pacifier tree”) tradition. When Danish children outgrow their pacifiers, their families tie them to branches, sometimes adding decorations or handwritten notes. Heidi told us that her daughter, after her own visit to another tree, received some gifts from a “pacifier fairy”. (A cousin of the Tooth Fairy, maybe.)

In another area of the playground, by a zipline and a labyrinthine castle playset, we came to towers, several feet high, that children had independently built with wood and nails. (No pictures for privacy reasons–imagine a structure the height of the castle below. Ten-year-old me would’ve had a blast.) I remembered the “adventure playgrounds” I’ve read about in England, where kids are free to play and experiment without helicoptering supervision.

I was struck the whole time, both on this playground and in our field study site, at how much trust surrounded these children. Young kids, unaccompanied by a teacher, were scattered working around the common space when we first went in the school. They looked at our big, loud abroad-student circle with curiosity, and then went back to their assignments, uninterrupted. Later, a physics teacher we ran into had no reservations when explaining why one of his students wasn’t in class the day before a major paper. She’s at home, working, he told us (to paraphrase), because it’s too distracting for her here and she wants to focus.

The greatest example of trust, one I won’t forget soon, came when we turned out of the playground. “Do you see what’s over there?” Heidi asked, pointing a finger over the fence demarcating the gravelly path from what could’ve been a vuggestue (“cradle room”, nursery service). A dozen black strollers were on the lawn, in view of the window–but with no one outside next to them. We offered up the correct answer, shocked, as Heidi grinned: babies, sleeping.

…Meanwhile In Roskilde

Back at home, it was a good week for conversations with ROFH people. Between my first shift on folkehøjskole kitchen duty–chopping rutabagas, potatoes, and carrots–and nightly dinner, I’ve heard about hip-hop’s influence in Denmark (explaining the Run-D.M.C. graffiti I found at our field study site), the annual summer music festival in Roskilde, and Danglish (Danes’ tendency to slip between Danish and English). On Saturday, a handful of us gathered with a visiting teacher for hyggeligt (nice, hygge-filled) rounds of board games, ping-pong, and table football. I’m starting to catch the basic phrases I’ve picked up in Danish language class in conversations–that game night, there were many “unskyld“s (“I’m sorry”s) after an impromptu Expo marker throwing war.

It has now fully sunk in that I have been in Denmark for three weeks. I feel unsure whether I have yet done anything in particular, or just observed a lot. I’m also now realizing how much time my commute from Roskilde can swallow–especially in the last week, when I took a short hiatus from biking (for safety’s sake) and walked the twenty minutes to the train. Plus, I’m not a fan of building an impenetrable first-month friend group, but it has been harder to meet more DIS students when I vanish from Copenhagen at 4pm most days.

Later this week comes my study trip for my core class–a bus trip to Hamburg, Germany (!)–and, though I’m counting down the days, I’m hoping I’ll have enough time to grow to the fullest where I’m living here, too.

A gloomy day at the Roskilde Fjord, where I biked to last weekend

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