Entries from blogs tagged with “Germany”
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.
My daughter guest blogs...
Sigh. Another boring lecture on something I can’t understand. And it’s in German. And it’s still dark outside. Sigh. I am in German school, and it’s not too fun. People fight in the halls, there’s no toilet paper, soap or warm water in the bathrooms, there’s plastic math books you can’t write on and more. There are good things of course, such as Christmas trees in the entryway, St. Nikolas coming to classes and giving out chocolate, and getting sung to on your birthday in about seven languages. This is my story of life in a German school.
My classroom here looks different than my classrooms back home. Instead of a whiteboard there’s a blackboard, instead of a projector hanging from the ceiling there’s a weird rolling doohickey that shines light under clear pages so only non-transparent things show up, and there’s no internet connection. Instead of bringing swap-out shoes for boots on snowy or rainy days, we get to wear slippers. We sit at shared tables instead of individual desks.
In the morning, we usually start by singing songs in a circle or, on Tuesdays, explain what we did during the weekend. Then, depending on the day, we do the subjects assigned to us. We also sometimes get something special or a surprise, like Saint Nikolas coming to class or watching a movie.
German school seems a lot more old- fashioned. Instead of a projector there’s the transparent lighter thingy I already mentioned, and when we watch a movie, we go to the one room with an old, non-flat screen TV. The school looks old too. We have a tiny gym with next to nothing to work with except benches, boxes, mats, balls, things to jump over, and a teeny bit more. We have a stone/brick/cement floor to classrooms. We have no warm water.
An amazing number of people shout here. In gym there’s shouting. In English there’s shouting (a good amount too). In German there’s shouting. In music there’s attempts at shouting, because when we get to music class, the music teacher has already lost his voice to shouting. And the way classmates react to shouting is pretty astounding too. When the teachers shout at students, they don’t show any signs suggesting they did anything wrong. In fact, most of them just look down at their work and don’t say anything. The teachers obviously have given up because they don’t do anything else.
The bathrooms here are really bad. They stink horribly and you can’t count on them having soap, toilet paper, stalls you can use, warmth, toilets that will flush, paper towels, warm water, or locking stalls.
In German school, there’s a lot more fights, physical contact, scuffles, and pushing. At recess, people fight each other, full fledged, with shirt pulling, biting, punching, kicking, etc. In the hallways, people thrash on the ground with another person, and people simply step over them. While we’re waiting after recess for our teacher to open the classroom door, there’s screaming, people playing games, walking on the banister, people pushing their way through other people and pretty much chaos. Also, when the bell rings and we go back to class, the doors get super crowded and there’s a lot of pushing to get through.
Despite all this bad stuff I’ve talked about, school really is pretty fun. You can run in the halls, I’ve learned a few more games, the girls are really nice and some of them I think of as friends, there’s almost no rules at recess (teachers don’t watch us), we have a needlework class, the school celebrates Christmas a lot, and more. Even though it’s pretty bad, there are some golden moments where it’s pretty good.
One really cool thing, I got to meet people from around the world that are staying here. We met people from Columbia, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Korea, Argentina, Iraq, and France. It was also fun listening to all the different languages they spoke. We really connected and we went to special outings and gatherings for international people.
Overall I think this was a great experience. I think I will remember it forever. Meeting new people and learning about a different culture was fun. I think I will miss a lot of stuff here, such as the bakeries, the playgrounds and my friends, but I’m looking forward to going back to the U.S.A. I must remind myself, how much I missed cheeseburgers.
I’ve been pondering religion and turkeys these days. Turkeys, because Thursday is Thanksgiving and we are hosting an international Thanksgiving celebration. Turkeys, because I can’t fit an American-sized turkey into a European-sized oven. Religion, because on Wednesdays my daughter’s teacher teaches religion. Religion, because I am an American and attitudes towards religion here in Germany baffle me, much like the ovens.
The turkey situation is fairly straightforward; I will adapt and likely overcook two very small chickens instead. Adapting my American attitudes towards religion in the schools is not so straightforward. Maybe we “adapted” by enrolling our child in religion class (see post from 9/23), but I would find maintaining this ruse difficult if we became long-term residents. How is it that education in our Heidelberg public school revolves around Christianity? What do those who adhere to Jewish or Islamic faiths think about the overarching theme? Would atheists and agnostics appreciate time spent studying other subjects?
Casually conversing with friends, I learn that religious instruction in public schools is traditional and the issue merits mostly shrugs. Such an attitude apparently stems from the historical partnership between Church and State to provide education and social services. The German government arranges the infrastructure for collecting taxes and then redistributes the monies to recognized religious organizations –mostly Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish -according to the percentage of the population registered with each group. The religious bodies in turn pay for the administration of the taxing system and expend the monies to build and maintain churches, synagogues, hospitals, and nursing homes, and to train religion teachers. If you register as a member of a recognized religious group you must pay the tax. You can opt out of course, but if so you also opt out of services and rites provided by the religious establishment.
Attempting to address my American bewilderment, a learned acquaintance suggested that it is better to teach tolerance and morality within a non-discriminatory, academic framework such as that provided by Church-State cooperation. As for the case of Islam, better a State approved curriculum than a radical one say the politicians quoted in papers. Another comment comes from someone who has relocated to the U.S. and expresses surprise at having to “pay for her child to learn about God” (i.e., private school). The fundamental assumption here is the existence of God. All atheists and agnostics step out into the hall please.
Let’s, for a moment, go with the premise that a religion class might teach students about a formative force in human history and that such a class might break-down prejudicial assumptions and promote greater tolerance among individuals of different faiths. Imagine proposing such a class to the Kanas State Board of Education (imagine!). What group or groups would design the curriculum? What faiths would we include? Would fundamentalist Christians allow discussion of Judaism or Islam, or vice versa? What if we structured classes like the Germans –a class for Protestants, one for Catholics, one for Jews, one for Muslims? Need I mention Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Hindus to name just a few other faiths? Even if a school district happened to establish a “Protestant” class, could you see a group of Evangelicals and Episcopalians agreeing on what to teach? I related this scenario to a small, diverse group but they seemed to shake their collective heads at a peculiarity of American society.
Of course a “no big deal” attitude is easier to maintain in a homogenous society, and incongruously in a more secular nation, but Germany is experiencing diversity growing pains and finding an increasing Muslim population challenging. Here again though, this has not prompted questioning of religion in public schools, but rather an attempt to incorporate a new class for the newcomers. Some schools in certain parts of Germany now allow a choice between Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Islamic religion class -for all other cases you’ll have to petition and my guess is the flying-spaghetti monster is out of the question. It’s all very simple you see, the Basic Law of Germany specifically limits religious instruction to religion class, prohibits any discussion of religion outside of this class, and specifically reserves one the right to opt out of religion class. So there is no need for my consternation; if one wants more religious education, there are private schools; if one wants no religion, there are private schools. By law you cannot be forced to take religion class and if you do sign up, you cannot be discriminated against for your personal beliefs (fundamentally Christian perspective aside).
It remains problematic for me to imagine religious teachings in U.S. public schools precisely because the U.S. is a more religious nation than Germany and a more diverse nation. Although I can admire much about German society and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to experience a fundamentally different point of view, I continue to appreciate my home country’s attempts to protect diversity of opinion and its comparative commitment to secular education. Of course diversity is complicated and diversity is hard. America always has and will continue to wrestle with diversity, ever inching forward, and for this I am thankful. Now, if I could just get the oven settings right so I don’t make a mess of the pie.
We have finally completed a long enough run of school days for me to give you an idea of what kids are learning in the 4th grade here in Heidelberg. As I mentioned in my post on October 5th, it’s been one thing after another preventing a solid string of normal days. So here is a rundown in order of time spent per week.
German (4 days a week for a total of 5 hours and 15 minutes)
The language arts seem quite similar to what you‘d find in the Lawrence schools. The kids practice writing sentences and stories, they identify the parts of a sentence and correct sentence structure. They answer questions based on readings and memorize poems, but don’t take many spelling tests. I am so proud of my daughter for gamely trying to write a story in German. If you could literally translate an English sentence into a German sentence this might be a fairly straightforward exercise, but the sentence structure of the German language is very different from that of English. For example, the sentence “One is not allowed to swim here” written in German is literally translated into English as “One is allowed here not to swim”.
Math (4 days a week for a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes)
At this point in the term math consists of adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying three digit numbers. The math problems posed take all sorts of forms including order of operation, word problems, and mystery numbers (pre-algebra). The kids have also begun a series of tests that will play a part in determining their school placement for 5th grade (see post on Sept. 28th about academic tracking).
Science (2 days a week for a total of 2 hours and 25 minutes)
The science topic for this term is trees - tree parts, tree structure, tree species, tree fruits. In the coming weeks the kids will work in groups doing research on organisms that live in trees. Speaking of organisms that live in trees, back home in Lawrence we are overrun with squirrels but here there is hardly a squirrel to be seen. When we do catch site of a squirrel it is the much smaller Eurasian red squirrel. Despite not having seen even one grey squirrel we have learned that the red squirrel is in decline, its population threatened by the introduction of the Eastern grey squirrel from the U.S. to Europe. The situation has prompted red squirrel conservation efforts and the establishment of squirrel protection stations.
Art (2 days a week for a total of 2 hours and 25 minutes)
Although the kids have done some drawing and painting, most of the time is spent doing cross-stitch.
Religion (1 day a week for 1 hour and 30 minutes)
My daughter dreads Wednesday morning religion class. While sitting around a candle singing is engaging enough, it is often followed by long lectures that she cannot hope to understand. This is a shame because one of the topics was apparently a history lesson about Martin Luther. The class has also spent a considerable amount of time talking about ‘evidence’ but my daughter was unable to be more specific. In one lesson the children were asked if they believed in God. Interestingly, most of the children answered no. Religious instruction in the schools is paid for by the state, but content is approved by the church. I still don’t know what the Muslim kids do during religion class. Some schools offer ethics classes in lieu of religion class and some (very few) offer classes in Islam, but neither of these options is available at my daughter’s school.
Gym (1 day a week for 1 hour and 30 minutes)
Given that the number of school hours per week is limited and the kids have two recess breaks during their 4.5-hour school day, I’m surprised they bother with gym. The kids must change into gym clothes and are then instructed to go through a number of tumbling and vaulting exercises. Following these exercises they play some sort of game like sharks and minnows. The gym teacher is also the English teacher and the Art teacher.
English (2 days a week, 1 hour and 30 minutes)
My daughter loves her English/Gym/Art teacher who teaches the class for the entire day on Mondays. English class focuses on very simple dialogues. I was invited to class to talk about how Americans celebrate Halloween and may go back to talk about Christmas. I find this rather amusing since the school we left in Lawrence has moved away from celebrating any holidays and has replaced holiday themed parties with service projects. Now we live in a more secular country, but one that observes Catholic holidays and teaches religion in its public schools.
Music (1 day a week for 45 minutes)
Imagine trying to get 20 plus students to focus on anything the last period of the day on Friday. That’s music class. Fortunately my daughter signed up for choir and instrumental music after school on Thursdays (see post from October 12th).
So far there have been no history lessons and no social studies, although it is possible that these subjects are covered in the context of religion class. We are still waiting for the language integration classes to begin.
Bicyclists are everywhere – on the streets, on the sidewalks, even in the bike lanes. They have their own traffic lights. Heidelbergers are so adept at getting around on two wheels that you often see them biking with their hands in their pockets, with a cup of coffee, or while talking on the phone. And yes, I have seen people texting while biking. I can’t imagine anyone trying this more than once as the walkways on campus teem with other cyclists and pedestrians. Of course I can count on one hand the number of helmets I’ve seen. Because I live on a University campus you might think that students pedal all these bicycles, but I have seen plenty of professionals cycling past. Have an important meeting during the day? – Don your high heels and hose and hop on the bike. Got kids to get to school before work? – Put them in the bike seat or trailer and you are good to go. Which brings me to the bicycles themselves and the contraptions attached to them.
Aside from a few foldable bicycles, most bikes we see are beater bikes. If you are not familiar with this term, think Schwinn, around 1970. These bikes look and sound like they’ve been ridden for a couple of decades across many a cobblestone street. A cheery little bell usually enhances the rattle and creak coming up behind you and take the edge off what is really a command to “get out of the way!” The reason for all the beater bikes is simple – nice bikes don’t stand a chance and will likely disappear entirely or be reduced to those sad skeletal remains you see locked to posts or bike racks. In addition to a bell, everyone sports some kind of basket on the bike. If you’ve got kids to haul around, bicycles become veritable station wagons. The other day I saw a woman picking up her kids at school, or more precisely, hauling her kids home from school. She had one little one happily buckled into a seat attached to the front handlebars and another kid sitting in a somewhat larger seat perched above the rear tire. Attached to the bike was a trailer filled with backpacks, coats, and general kid detritus. Good thing the average number of kids per woman in Germany is only 1.35.
It’s easier, however, to get more than two kids around town by bike than it is to put them in one of those Smart cars. For children who can’t walk yet there are bike seats and trailers, but if a kid can walk, a kid can bike. I have seen the littlest kids tooling around on bicycles, even the binky sucking set. I’ve taken to calling the tiny bicycles I see at the school “binky bikes”. Now, I won’t send my nine-year old out on the neighborhood streets of Lawrence so the ease with which German parents abandon their cars is a source of endless fascination and envy for me. Of course it is easy to see how and why parents opt out of car-centered lives. First, the school is on the edge of a dense residential neighborhood and has approximately eight dedicated parking spots. Second, paths dedicated to walking and biking infiltrate the surrounding neighborhood (unlike at home, my daughter and I never have to walk in the street to get to school). Third, two streetcars stop at the school, every ten minutes. I have to admit, aside from hauling the pumpkin home in my backpack, I really like the freedom of not having to own a car.
“Women 'still stuck at home with the kids'” (9/25/12) “Long school days 'hinder new sports stars'” (4/20/12)
These two simplistic headlines from The Local, Germany’s News in English bookend Germany’s* struggle with increasing demands for longer school days and entrenched cultural norms. The “mommy wars”, the economy, the shortage of day care, are all familiar touchstones in debates about schooling kids in the U.S., but here in Germany the short school day just really puts these topics under a harsh, glaring spotlight. Even for a stay-at-home parent it’s barely enough time to get the groceries before having to turn around and go back to school.
Traditionally, women stayed at home and tutored their kids in the afternoon, working in music and sports lessons. This does not mesh with what I see around me. We live in an apartment complex surrounded by research institutes and medical clinics and there are young women everywhere preparing for their careers. As in the U.S., more women than men are enrolled in the universities.
Schools here change slowly, adapting to the increasing numbers of women with advanced degrees and the increasing numbers of women who want to or have to go to work; and yes, the debate here also focuses on women as if they are the only member of the species capable of caring for children. While I have read that in other German cities, for example Berlin, afternoon programming has increased in the public school system - hence the concern expressed by the second headline - this is not the case here in Heidelberg. Well, that is not entirely true; at our daughter’s school some “afternoon” programs do exist. For instance, I enthusiastically suggested she play rugby for 30 minutes after school on Mondays, but was thoroughly drubbed with a heavy dose of eye rolling. I moved on to Tuesday’s offering of theater. I folded after a horrified look and seeing that theater class did not start until 1:30 so I’d have to pick my daughter up at school and have her back an hour later having fed her lunch. The hour and a half of basketball on Wednesdays likewise does not start until 45 minutes after school ends. Resigned to her “it will be good for you” fate, my daughter will join choir and instrumental music on Thursdays which starts when compulsory school hours end, and will keep her at school until 2:00.
So, if you really need your child to be somewhere other than at home with a nanny so you can have a job, your options in Heidelberg are to send your kid to a private school with longer hours, pay for one of the few day care slots available for school age kids, or pay for what appears to be a Boys and Girls Club type operation called Päd active. Päd active is a non-profit organization that operates on school grounds and charges parents by a sliding scale for one to four hours of after school activities and homework time. This will get you to 5:00, at some schools.
- Interesting note: Communist East Germany had all-day school and free day care centers. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, female employment in the East was near 90 percent, in the West 55 percent (NYT, 1/17/10).
The school day here is short compared to the U.S., but don’t German kids spend more days per year in school? Yes, but the more apt comparison is the number of hours in school.
Kansas: 186 school days; 1,116 instructional hours (KS Dept. of Education) Germany: 220 school days (average); 641 instructional hours for 7-8 year olds, 793 for 9-11 year olds (OECD)
I have to admit, I am a bit impatient for the school year to really get underway. My daughter just finished week four of school, but has experienced only seven or so run-of-the-mill school days. I remind myself that activities substituting for regular lessons are not wasted time and that my daughter enjoys them, but I’m ready for her to focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. So, what has she been doing for those four and half hours each school “day”? During the first week of school, the kids practiced for the play staged to celebrate the 1st graders’ first day of school. During the second week, special educators devoted two days to an anti-violence curriculum. Monday through Wednesday of the following week my daughter’s class took a trip out of town. Friday of that same week the class played in the park and then went home on early dismissal. Finally, I thought school would certainly start this past week, but no, Wednesday was the national holiday to celebrate German Unity Day, which meant no school for three days. Maybe they will start school this coming Monday.
The two-day anti-violence curriculum and the class trip were certainly unique school experiences for my daughter. Of course we have anti-bullying programs in our Lawrence schools, but they don’t last for two days. My daughter did not elaborate, but the kids spent time learning meditation techniques, discussing hurt feelings, and playing games. For at least a portion of time, the facilitators separated the boys from the girls. The school considers violence a serious matter, as my daughter discovered through some unfortunate misinterpretations. Out in the playground, shortly after the special program, my daughter witnessed two boys fighting and attempted to use her rookie German language skills to point this out to the girl sitting next to her. Well, this certainly had to be dealt with, so the other girl took my daughter by the hand and marched her up to the two boys and there commenced a flurry of German punctuated by expectant looks at my daughter. When this did not produce a satisfactory end to the matter, the flurry of German was repeated to the adult on the playground. Hostile looks and finger-pointing followed the conflagration back into the classroom as my daughter was presented to the teacher for the re-telling of the story, but by this point she had no idea what all the fuss was about. It turned out that everyone up to that point had mistakenly thought that one of the boys had kicked her. She felt terrible, but thankfully no apparent ill will was generated. We all hope the language integration classes begin soon.
Fortunately, the class trip was drama-free. The kids and two teachers traveled by regional train to a youth hostel in a small village about thirty minutes from Heidelberg. The weather turned a bit ugly, but the kids still kayaked, climbed walls, hiked trails, learned about wildlife, and generally hung out. My daughter left for the trip in tears but came back all smiles.
You may have heard about the German system of tracking students.
Here in Bäden-Württemberg there are five different types of secondary schools that your child can attend after the 4th grade. Throughout Germany a student may attend a Hauptschule, a Realschule, or a Gymnasium, and here in Heidelberg, the student may also attend a Werkrealschule or a Gesamtschule. The Werkrealschule is like the Hauptschule but you can take extra courses to get a Realschule degree. The Gesamtschule is a comprehensive school that combines the curriculums of the Hauptschule, the Realschule, and the Gymnasium. So where does your kid go after finishing primary school? Certainly not just to the middle school down the road.
A simplified explanation of the German secondary school system is as follows. After 4th grade students attend secondary school depending upon their academic abilities. Teachers assess a student’s academic abilities based on general observations and grades. If grades and teacher recommendations are good enough the student attends Gymnasium, a college preparatory curriculum, from 5th grade until 12th grade. Completing Gymnasium and passing final exams gives you the Arbitur, a diploma needed to attend University. If grades and recommendations are not sufficient for Gymnasium the student enters a Hauptschule (grades 5-9) or a Realschule (grades 5-10). Both these types of schools provide a curriculum geared toward eventual vocational training, with the Realschule leading to more advanced vocational training (more schooling for more technical fields). This general system can vary across the 16 German states, or Länder. In some states, like here in Bäden-Wertenburg, the basic model is shifting.
I spoke with the parents of a Gymnasium student the other day who told me it was only last year that the state gave parents more say in what type of school their children attended after 4th grade. I got the impression that teachers’ recommendations remain critical and parents need to firmly communicate a desire for their children to go to Gymnasium. As it is with our high school diploma, without the Arbitur a child’s future educational and employment opportunities are limited. I wonder what the potential differing opinions of a child’s academic abilities do to the relationship between a teacher and the child’s parents? As you can imagine, many parents here want their children to attend Gymnasium – just think about defining your child’s future prospects at the age of 9 or 10!
The result, according to one of my daughter’s teachers, is the phasing out and closing of the Hauptschule, to be replaced by the relatively new Gesamtschule. The teacher I spoke with said the Gesamtschule is such a new entity that even she is confused as to what this new hybrid will accomplish. I can’t be entirely sure, but from what I’ve read the Gesamtschule takes kids of all abilities and allows interested students to move into a Gymnasium curriculum and eventually take exams leading to the Arbitur. Having just read of the Lawrence School Board’s goal to add more career training to the high schools, it strikes me that both Heidelberg and Lawrence are attempting to create more comprehensive secondary education facilities; Heidelberg attempting to give more kids a shot at a college-prep curriculum and Lawrence attempting to give more kids a shot at careers starting right out of high school.
Given the larger separation between vocational and university education in Germany, there does not appear to be discussion of career training per se at the universities like one hears in the U.S. Germany’s response may be the increasing establishment of many specialty institutions of higher education, particularly business schools.
Ok we’ve got the weekly schedule now, at least on paper. Our daughter’s class actually spent a good chunk of the first week of school rehearsing a play for the new first graders so they really are just starting a routine. The school day is 4 hours and 20 minutes long, from 8:00 am until 12:20 pm. It is divided into 45-minute blocks with one 20-minute break at 9:30 and one 15-minute break at 11:20. On Friday’s, school goes until 1:05 and music is taught in this extra 45-minute block.
The subjects taught in school include: German language arts, Math, English, Human nature and culture (I think this includes the natural/physical sciences), Visual Arts and needlework, Gym, Music, and Religion.
While I think the inclusion of needlework is certainly interesting, I’ll have to get back to that at a later time. For now, I’ll say a few things about Religion class. When trolling the website for this school, I thought I had seen something about religion class but we were told that the school was not religiously affiliated. When filling out the forms for enrollment, however, we were asked to choose a religious affiliation for our daughter’s religion class. Not wanting our daughter to participate in religious education in a public school, we asked to opt out. This was fine, but it meant that our daughter would have to find something else to do with this time – maybe she could go to integration class, but they weren’t sure, maybe she could just read a book. The Recktor then assured us that the class was mostly about morals and ethics and not so much about a particular religious doctrine, and that no matter what school our daughter attended there would be a religion class. Well, we are here to experience another part of the world so we figured why not; it would give our daughter another perspective on the German culture and it sure beat sitting in the hallway. Our only choices however, were Protestant or Catholic. According to the city’s website 5.8% of the population is of some other religious affiliation, and 14.5% claim no religious affiliation. There appears to be a large Muslim population in Heidelberg. Not sure what any of these kids do during religion class. This is such a contentious issue in the US and I am curious to ask the locals their perspective. And do the kids that don’t participate really end up with nothing to do?
On the heels of the Chicago teacher’s strike, I looked into teacher unions here in Germany. Most teachers here belong to one of two union groups, the GEW (Trade Union of Education and Science) or one of several unions under the umbrella of the DBB (German Federation of Civil Servants). Reading through some documents and websites produced by the GEW, Education International (an international federation of education unions), and the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the same folks who bring you the PISA test) I find so many of the same concerns and debates we are experiencing in the U.S. right now.
- PISA test results show that German students are lagging behind other OECD countries (Korea and Finland are the top ranked OECD countries according to the latest PISA results available).
- A shortage of teachers, especially in the math and sciences.
- Early childhood education is limited and the teachers are poorly paid.
- Increased privatization of education.
- School infrastructures are not maintained.
- Education financing is inadequate as is teacher pay.
An OECD report from 2004 outlined the educational challenges Germany is facing and identified issues to be addressed. These should also sound familiar: teacher training, assessment and evaluation, and teacher accountability.
And here is a portion of the EI Resolution on the Future of the Teaching Profession (2011): “many governments and international organisations are turning their attention currently towards the work of teachers in the classroom and of school leaders. [There is] “the temptation for some governments is to adopt punitive models for teacher effectiveness, including the casualisation of teacher contracts and the adoption of financial incentives for individual teachers to achieve high levels of pupil performance against specific test and examination results, accompanied by the threat of dismissal if specific targets are not met.” This is often accompanied “by the use of high-stakes institutional evaluation, based on narrow measures”.
So, we are certainly not the only country wrestling with these issues and it appears that no other country has come up with a cure-all education policy. However, I am now curious about Finland.
Thankfully, there was a smile at the end of the first day of school. Following the smile our daughter told us how some of the girls in her class took her by the hand during class break and showed her around. The morning of the second day they took her hand from mine and as they went into the school. I hope this simple act of kindness will stay with her so that she may pass it forward.
In the meantime, I spent a great deal of time with an German-English dictionary and Google translate trying to decipher the school supply list, which was not available until the first day of school. My daughter had been nervous about not having her supplies the first day, but her dad assured her that the teacher “would not pull out a protractor on the first day”. Well, the teacher did pull out a protractor on the first day but thankfully did not expect anyone else to have one. Families here have to purchase a lengthy list of supplies, much as we do in Lawrence. Unlike the Lawrence lists, kids here purchase a lot more notebooks of paper – lined paper, blank paper, graph paper, paper with borders, paper without borders, etc. Each of these notebooks must also have a different color cover, purchased separately of course. My daughter was thrilled that students here need to have a quill type pen. They aren’t feather quills like in Harry Potter, but close enough. Students here must also bring house slippers to school for after recess (there is also something on the website about kids sweeping out the classroom and helping the janitor’s garbage, but we are not sure about this yet). After visiting four different stores we were able to get most of the supplies. I can’t say I miss the big boxes, but there are times when a Target sure is handy. On the other hand, one always passes by a bakery or a gelato stand while walking from one store to the next.
This is a bit of a long post but I wanted to include some general information as I get started (see yesterday’s post for an introduction to the blog).
Some quick stats gleaned from official city websites:
Heidelberg Population: 133, 763 (2010)
Number of primary schools (1 - 4th): 18, serving 3,494 students
Number of special needs schools: 4, serving 422 students
Number of private primary schools: 7
Lawrence Population: 91,464 (2009)
Number of elementary schools (K – 5th): 14, serving 4, 644 students (2011/2012)
Number of special needs schools: 0
Number of private elementary schools: 3
4th grade at the Heidelberg Grundschule: 2 sections, my daughter’s class has 20 students
4th grade at Cordley Elementary (my daughter’s hometown school): 3 sections, 18-20 students last time I checked.
Things we “knew” about school in Heidelberg going in:
- Our daughter would be attending the neighborhood school.
- The school day would start at 7:45 and end at 1:00.
- We would be able to walk or take public transportation to school.
- This fall was going to be German language immersion for our daughter.
- Although understandably nervous and hesitant about this culturally enriching adventure, our daughter had expressed interest in learning German and was enjoying the language (at the expense of her parents) very much.
- We were confident in our decision that, given the short day and only 3 and ½ months of school, this would be “a culturally enriching adventure” for our daughter.
Things that took us by surprise:
- Turns out that as of 2010, you can go to any school in the city (although I’m sure there must be capacity restrictions) and there are two relatively close schools in our part of town.
- The school day is even shorter than we thought, 7:55 to 12:20 (the actual times vary by school).
- The school physically closest to us is an 18-minute walk or a 13-minute bus ride. The other school is a 22-minute walk or a 4-minute streetcar ride.
- The school we chose has a German integration program for students who don’t speak German.
When faced with the reality of actually starting school in Germany, we all had our confidence shaken.
Schools were on break when we arrived, so we were unable to contact anyone until a week before classes started. Even with the help of a native speaker, a primary school mom, we could not make heads or tails of the school website. Fortunately, with the help of our translator we were able to meet with a teacher and the Rektorin (principal) of one school on the Friday before classes were to begin. At our meeting we find, as expected, that most teachers and the Rektorin speak English, certainly a great deal more than we can speak Deutsch. Granted, everyone was frantically getting ready for the next term (and it turns out they had not been expecting us so they were very kind to slot us in) but we had no other option of enrolling and getting information. Which brings me to the distinct advantage of the Lawrence School District’s Welcome Center. Now, if I did not speak English, I would not be able to use the District’s website to find the Welcome Center information but through word of mouth and a bit of Google translate I might know of its existence and then at least have a central location to go to for help***. Here, there is no designated district staff to handle incoming students, with the exception of new first graders, and it is left to individual schools and teachers who may or may not have time to deal with confused foreigners.
Another potentially noteworthy difference here at the beginning of our school year is the integration program for non-German speaking students. We were told by the woman who teaches the integration program that it was really only for people who were to permanently reside in Germany and that we should not expect her to give our daughter much attention, certainly much less so than the other kids (non-German speaking students are quite common at this school, and it appears to be like one of our designated ESL schools). Fair enough, my husband and I have travelled a great deal throughout the world and we do not expect things to be as they are in the United States. We must also be careful of attitude and tone that may be confused in translation. So, we remain pleasantly surprised that there is an integration program at all, but I do note the difference in attitude. I can’t imagine an ESL instructor in the Lawrence public schools making a distinction between a child who is in our schools for one month or six years.
I’ll have more posts about this subject as school gets underway as well as posts about the curriculum and how on earth parents cope with such a short school day.
*** Curious, I checked out the homepages of the elementary schools in Lawrence and found that Cordley’s school website can be read in other languages and Quail Run has a Spanish version of the school calendar and supply list on it’s homepage. The District’s website has some forms in Spanish, but there is nothing indicating this on the homepage. Google translate is not great, but it is something.
“Math, Science, Reading Scores Show U.S. Schools Slipping Behind”, Dec. 2010, PBS Newshour; “Other Nations Outclass U.S. on Education”, Sept. 2010, CBS News; “Poor schools undermining US national security, panel says”, March, 2012, Yahoo News. We’ve got a crisis on our hands people and before you can even register this crisis, there is someone claiming to have the solution for our educational deficits: raise teacher salaries, lengthen the school year, more testing, less testing, adopt the Montessori/Waldorf/New American Academy/put your favorite reform here education model. If you read the news you find numerous references to our world ranking on reading, math, and science as determined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test. Needless to say, we are not number one in any of these categories. Those countries scoring higher in all categories include some you might think of first, China, Korea, and Japan, but also include countries that might not jump to mind, such as Estonia, Finland, and Norway. So what are we to make of this as we send our children off to school each day? How do these other countries educate their children? Have they figured out something that we have not? Unless this is your field of research, you are not going to sift through piles data and publications that compare education systems and neither am I. But I am curious and highly skeptical of any claim that this, that, or the other thing is going to “fix” our public school system and I now have an opportunity to see first hand how another school in another country functions.
My husband and I have moved to Heidelberg, Germany for the fall semester and our daughter will be attending 4th grade at one of the city’s public schools. Germany ranks higher than the U.S. in science and math, but just below us in reading. I will be writing a regular blog in an attempt to give you an idea of what a particular German school is like, on the ground, day-to-day. My intent is not to declare one system or the other superior but instead highlight where the Heidelberg and Lawrence school systems differ and where they are similar, not just academically, but culturally as well. In the course of the semester, I expect to appreciate what it is we do well in Lawrence and possibly bring forth ideas from Germany that will be worth debating around the kitchen table and at the school board meetings.