LJWorld.com weblogs Fourth Grade in a Foreign Country
Well, that’s it for our German adventure. We have had a truly wonderful experience meeting people from around the world, learning a new language, and getting to know a different part of the planet. Our fourth grader enjoyed most of our semester abroad and, despite what she posted the other day as a guest blogger, has asked if we could stay longer. She is really going to miss her classmates. I am so proud of her for sticking to it, coming home with a smile almost everyday, and for doing so well in school despite the language barrier. She learned a great deal of German and did so much of it all on her own – no formal help from the school, and certainly not much help from her “I’m still learning how to introduce myself and buy bread” parents. Thank goodness for a woman we met by chance on a hike one day. For no reason, other than to be helpful and kind, she tutored and encouraged our daughter one day each week from October until now. We will certainly keep in touch and hope to pass her kindness forward.
Our daughter did manage very well in school, but for a kid who loves school and likes to do well in school, the academic part of school has been somewhat frustrating. If we had opted to stay in Germany for a whole school year, she would likely chatter away in German by the end (those with experience in these matters tell us that at about 6 months into language immersion acquisition really takes off). However, because school here was a mixed-bag experience I believe we hit the right balance with our half-year, “this will be fun” endeavor.
What to think of Fourth Grade in a Foreign Country
I have to admit; from a parent’s perspective the school here was somewhat of a disappointment. I come away with renewed appreciation of our Lawrence schools. The schoolwork was no more rigorous, nor was there more homework, as I had anticipated. The school day was incredibly short, the number of holidays and non-academic school days made it hard to fall into a rhythm, and, as you read in the last post, school discipline is less than ideal. Another oddity – the school is only required to keep your child at school until 11:30 a.m., so if the scheduled teacher after than time is ill, or has another obligation, the classroom teacher calls each parent to come pick up their child early! I do know from talking to a few pre-teens that once kids move beyond primary school the academic rigor and workload increase tremendously. I am left with the impression that primary school is fairly basic and then once the parents and teachers sort everyone out the real work for the students begins. I cannot say this model is bad, it may work fine to teach kids the basics with plenty of time after school for other activities and play, but it is not a model that works well for my kid or me. Thank goodness for virtual school – our daughter would be woefully behind her potential in math if we had not been able to access a self-paced math curriculum through the Lawrence School District.
In the four months my daughter attended school, the language integration class met once. By the time the language teacher met with my daughter, my daughter qualified for level 2 German. Maybe she and the little girl from Iraq just did not rank. Can you imagine our ESL teachers meeting with a student who did not speak English only once or twice this past fall? I wonder about the other children who will continue in the school system here. Of course children pick up languages fast, the little girl from Iraq now translates for her mom and our daughter of learned a great deal, but when kids are assigned to different schools as soon as the 5th grade (see previous post), I can’t help but think of the disadvantages for newcomers. So, we will call half a year good, for academic as well as social reasons.
Our daughter had so few opportunities to play with other kids after school. Most of the kids in her class stayed for the after school program while our daughter came home to do additional school lessons. Coordinating play dates is difficult when you are not proficient in the local language, and the English-speaking parents either live far out of town or their kids are busy with sports and music lessons – much like they are in the U.S. So, four months hanging out with your parents every day after school is enough for any child.
On learning a new language
Of course it was difficult to be in a strange school speaking a strange language, but the sense of accomplishment expressed on our daughter’s face whenever she recited a poem or when locals praised her for speaking “sehr gut Deutsch” was wonderful to witness. She would not have come so far had we placed her in an English-speaking school with German language classes. With such a solid foundation built, she will more likely continue practicing so as not to lose this newfound knowledge. Unfortunately, foreign language instruction in the Lawrence schools does not begin until 7th grade. This contrast greatly with Europe where one can encounter at least three or four languages in the distance it takes us to get to Denver. Foreign language education starts in 1st grade here and in many other countries.
But I guess that’s the point, we can travel far without the need to whip out a phrase book, and when we do travel outside our borders we run into plenty of people who speak some English. I try to remember that we are very, very fortunate, and somewhat spoiled. That being said, I can speak from personal experience that knowing the local language is by far more helpful and gratifying than expecting everyone to communicate in English. It’s also still necessary if you are not sticking to the tourist spots. Our favorite bakery lady natively speaks Turkish but is fluent in German, and we have a grand time with my stumbling attempts to communicate in German when I stop by to buy our bread. Our friend Oscar from Colombia is learning German also and combined with the handful of English words he knows and my handful of Spanish words leftover from high school, we manage and laugh a great deal. The storekeepers, the kids at school, and the people working with visiting foreigners all are quick to correct hopeless phrasings and pronunciations but they do it with a smile, appreciating our efforts. Of course I now have the advantage of a tag-a-long interpreter.
On the last day of school our daughter announced that returning to an English speaking school just “will not be as interesting”. Her classmates presented her with a notebook in which each student drew pictures and labeled them with the German word so she would not forget. On a recent group excursion by train we chatted with people who spoke Italian, French, Ukrainian, Spanish, and German. The middle schooler on the trip was studying for her French test while chatting with her parents in Spanish, the trip leader in German, and my daughter in English. My daughter’s response to her new German book and the train ride? – This. Is. So. Cool!
Worth it, just for that.
We will miss the people we met, we will miss the bread and the streetcars, we will miss the hiking, and we will miss the castles. We will not yet be returning to Kansas. Vermont is our next adventure. I may post some musings from there about 4th grade, because from a Kansas perspective, Vermont just might qualify as fourth grade in a foreign country.