By: Neil Mufson
Mr. Mufson delves into an interesting Dutch tradition following his trip to Denmark.
Over the summer our family had the pleasure of visiting Denmark, a country I had never been to before and about which I knew very little. Beyond its natural beauty and rugged history, Denmark “felt” very different from any place I had been. It was hard to describe and even harder to pinpoint. I suppose that since our trip was short, I shouldn’t generalize or draw too many conclusions. But I noticed these things: people riding their bikes everywhere in a very orderly way, obeying traffic laws, and seeming to remain calm even in crowds (I only noticed one person texting while biking!); people seeming to have trust about things that we Americans never would; extreme friendliness, politeness, and interest in others; tidiness and pride of place; no honking of car horns; consideration for others; a true flair for design; earth-friendly practices as the norm; nothing that looked like slums; few apparently homeless people; an emphasis on hygge (HUE-gah), a word for which there is no translation but means something along the lines of a warm atmosphere in which people enjoy good things with good people, or coziness. I could go on.

On the way back, I read an article Beth had saved for me, and it started to make sense.  Written by Jessica Alexander, author of The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, the article documented how one of the most important subjects in Denmark’s internationally acclaimed schools is empathy.  As Alexander writes, “It is woven into [Danish] schools’ curriculum from pre-school through high school. The Danes’ highly developed sense of empathy is one of the main reasons that Denmark is consistently voted one of the happiest countries in the world (this year it was again number one). Empathy plays a key role in improving our social connections… it is a learned skill.”

In doing research for her book, Alexander found that “Teaching empathy has not only proven to make kids more emotionally and socially competent and greatly reduce bullying. It can also help them be more successful and high-functioning adults in the future.”  

One of the common components of every school’s empathy curriculum is klassen time or “the class’s hour.”  This core curricular practice is a special time once a week “for students to come together in a comfortable setting to talk about problems they may be having. Together, the class tries to find a solution… If there are no problems to be discussed, then they simply come together to relax and hygge  — or cozy around together.”  And what is a key part of klassen time?  Every week students take turns either baking klassen time kage (“class hour cake”) or they can bring in some other hyggelig snack to enjoy together.  Sounds a lot like our school’s tradition of “Special Snack.”

Alexander notes that “During klassen time the teacher brings up any issues she may have observed, in addition to what the students themselves mention… ‘Our job as the teacher is to make sure that the children understand how the other feels, and see why the others feel as they do.’” The emphasis is on getting the students to see their inter-connectedness and that which can bring them together rather than divide them.
I have challenged our teachers this year to see if they can bring more hygge into the classroom, especially during Special Snack time.  I see it as a great opportunity to promote community, improve interpersonal relations, and reinforce The Country School’s core values.

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