Navigating Norway: CHS teacher nets Fulbright grant

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Humanities teacher Rachel Cohen leads a discussion in her Colchester High School classroom on Tuesday. Cohen learned she was accepted to a Fulbright program in Norway earlier this year. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Humanities teacher Rachel Cohen leads a discussion in her Colchester High School classroom on Tuesday. Cohen learned she was accepted to a Fulbright program in Norway earlier this year. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Rachel Cohen was alone in a hotel room last summer on her way to a bike race in Colorado when she finally submitted her application to the Fulbright Roving Scholar program in Norway.

The adventure-seeking Colchester High School humanities teacher had spent the summer months crafting a polished bid for the yearlong education program. So, when the acceptance letter showed up in the 29-year-old’s email inbox during a school day last January, Cohen said she froze.

“Honestly, I was very, very intimidated by the whole process,” she said. “It was kind of one of those things where you don’t know until you try. I’m glad that I did.”

Established in 1987, the exclusive grant program sends a handful of motivated American teachers to the Scandinavian country to lead seminars in U.S. history and culture for teachers and students at local lower and upper secondary schools, according its website.

Cohen is one of only two other educators nationwide tapped to take part in the program, both college professors.

Cohen will stay in Oslo, the nation’s capital city, but traverse through the arctic and fjords to more than 100 schools during her tenure, which starts this August. A long-term substitute will cover her yearlong leave of absence, Cohen said. She currently teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History and 9th grade humanities at CHS.

In her application, Cohen designed a dozen course offerings, each targeted toward student or faculty populations. Participating schools can pick their favorite from a webpage before she arrives.

Program organizers have already advised some workshops could be more popular than others among the Norwegian audiences, Cohen said, especially one analyzing the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S.

Cohen said it was her mother, a longtime physical educator at CVU, who first inspired her to pursue teaching. After obtaining an undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont, Cohen worked in a Brattleboro school for a year before accepting a position at CHS seven years ago.

“[I] have a job where I get to constantly push myself in terms of my own thinking and discussion and reading of current events and articles,” Cohen said. “I thrive off that type of learning environment.”

After earning a master’s degree and completing a few school year cycles, Cohen said she began evaluating her professional prospects. Landing on a five-year goal was easy.

“Hopefully being a better teacher. I don’t really have aspirations beyond getting better at what I do and reaching more kids,” she said.

But Cohen began wondering whether she might need to step outside Colchester, if only temporarily, to achieve that aim. Simultaneously, she and her husband began to consider the benefits of living abroad for a year.

Both avid skiers and cyclists, Cohen said the pair only had one major stipulation for their temporary home: Wintery conditions are a must. With that in mind, she said, the Roving Scholar position seemed to check all the boxes.

Cohen said being active in the public school system gives her a unique ability to discuss what’s happening “on the ground” in American learning.

And while Cohen will be the one teaching, she said she’s certain to learn much from the Norwegian education system. The country focuses heavily on personalized learning, Cohen said, allowing students to mold their education based on particular interests and career goals.

Cohen said she’s curious to learn how the Nordic country maintains that system while following apparently strict national curriculums. And just days ago, the 2017 World Happiness Report declared Norway the happiest nation on Earth.

Rachel Cohen, a humanities teacher at Colchester High School, is preparing for a whirlwind trip to Norway. There, she'll offer workshops to area students and teachers on American history and culture. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Rachel Cohen, a humanities teacher at Colchester High School, is preparing for a whirlwind trip to Norway. There, she’ll offer workshops to area students and teachers on American history and culture. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

“Schools are the best way to understand a culture because everyone goes to one,” Cohen said. “I feel like going into a school is like putting a microscope down on a community, a state or a country.”

She’s even tackled the difficult task of learning Norwegian, using a language-learning app some of her students swear by.

Cohen hopes to extend the learning potential to kids in Colchester, too, by facilitating video calls with Norwegian students while she’s away. One workshop focusing on the American dream is closely modeled after the curriculum for 10th graders at CHS, Cohen said, providing an easy opportunity for collaborative discussion.

Still, she said it will be tough to say goodbye to the Laker Ln. building. One interviewer asked Cohen to forecast the most challenging part of the otherwise thrilling experience. The answer was obvious, Cohen said.

“By far it will be not having the ongoing relationships that I have with kids,” she said, blinking back tears. “I’m super invested in their success … That sustains me here as a teacher.”