The Day When the Temperature Went Under Zero

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Prepositions. They can serve as a compliment to an adjective or verb, yet with over three dozen of them in the English language (more in German and other languages), they can be a nuisance as the meaning and usage of them are sometimes confusing, especially when a person learning English as a foreign language wants to know the equivalent in the native tongue. Sometimes there are pairs of prepositions, which mean the same in general but are used for different purposes, such as over and above, through and via, ….

or this one: under and below.

While both prepositions mean anything below average, below the line or even below zero, one deals with moving down towards and beyond the threshold- which is under- while the other stays under the threshold- below.

For example, one can say “I went under water” or “I crawled under the bed”, for movement and “The sunken ship is 300 meters below sea level”, or “The neighbors living below us are noisy”, to describe something stationary and still. Yet, can we make the difference with the thermometer?

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As a general rule, a temperature can be below zero or a certain degree because it implies that the mercury is constantly at this mark and cannot move at a fast pace. This is independent of the real air temperature which can be warmer or colder, pending on the humidity and the dew point.  That means the temperature may be -1° Celsius (34° Fahrenheit), but can be warmer because of the high humidity and the sun, or colder because of the dry air, low humidity and the wind. Since the 1990s, the Real Feel Temperature Index has been using several factors to compare the temperature on the thermometer and how it feels on the person in reality, based on light, wind and moisture.

But can a temperature go under zero?

As a general rule, you cannot use under when you describe the temperature because the mercury is so slow that it would take many hours for it to fall. The same applies to over and above when describing the increase in temperature, which is why we use above only. However, as history presents itself, there are some exceptions to the rule.

If a student asks you (as a teacher) why we use below zero, instead of under zero, you can share him/her a pair of stories of how certain regions actually went under zero- in a very short time, during two very tragic events in the United States. Here they are in summary:

  1. November 11, 1911:   According to weather historian Jim Lee, a very strong cold front carrying first strong thunderstorms with rain and tornadoes, and afterwards sleet, snow and blizzard conditions struck the Central Plains region, causing temperatures to plummet by double digits within an hour. This included Springfield, Missouri, where temperatures dropped by as much as 40° F in 15 minutes. From 80°F (27° C) before this drammatic drop at 3:45pm, to 40° F (4° C) fifteen minutes later, to its bottoming-out low of 13° F (-11° C) by midnight, the city was one of over two dozen, whose record high and low temperatures were recorded on the same day, which included Oklahoma City and Kansas City. Over a dozen tornadoes followed by blizzards in this Great Blue Norther, caused over $3 million in damages- the heaviest hit areas were in the Ohio River valley, as well as in Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan. 13 people lost their lives with over 50 people injured.
  1. November 11, 1940:  Known as the panhandle hook, this tragic  event reshaped the way forecasts are given. On this day, hundreds of people took the day off from work to go hunting for ducks and pheasants with temperatures in the mid to upper 60s Fahrenheit (18-20° C), many of them were underdressed for the occasion. During the afternoon, the temperatures dropped dramatically to a point where by midnight, they were at or below 0°F (-20° C)!!! Many hunters were taken by surprised and tried to seek shelter from the cold, icy wind, combined with heavy snow and white-out conditions. Fifty degree drops were recorded in a region of over 1000 kilometers long, including states like Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin, where 1-2 foot snowfall combined with 20 f00t (6 meter) drifts were recorded. Collegeville, Minnesota set a record for the most amount of snow in a storm with 27 inches (69 cm). 145 people perished in the snowfall, many of whom froze to death. 49 of the deaths were recorded in Minnesota, of which half of them froze to death. Rescue efforts by pilots Max Conrad and John Bean by locating stranded hunters and providing aid saved many lives. The storm resulted in changes in weather forecasting as 24-hour mandatory coverage and improved technology was later introduced, which is still in use today but with advanced technology.

These two events show that temperatures can go under zero if the mercury moves quicker than it should, even though in a grammatical sense, one should use below as it shows consistency on a longer termed basis. If your students ask why below is best used for temperatures below the mark instead of under, it is best to say that under is used for movement purposes but in quicker form and also on a temporary basis. It is unknown how (long) a mole can live and dig under the ground, but treasure and cellars can be found below the ground (level) because they are permanent. Yet when it comes to temperatures, especially after reading the examples of the storms that occurred on Veterans Day in the States, some exceptions do apply, although they very rarely happen. So use below zero instead of under zero unless you want to be that brave duck hunter wishing to hunt while in the snow. 😉

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Christmas Market Tour 2015: Pella, Iowa

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Author’s Note: This stop was taken last year during the tour through the United States. Due to illness on the part of the author upon his return to Germany, the decision was made to include it into this year’s tour.  Sincere apologies for the inconvenience. 

The next stop on the Christmas tour in the US is Pella, in south central Iowa. Located 45 miles southeast of Des Moines, the city with 10,400 inhabitants was established in 1847, when 800 settlers, led by dominee Henry Scholte moved to the area to make a living. The name Pella was derived from the village Perea, where Christians found refuge during the Roman-Jewish War of 70 A.D.  Today, Pella maintains its Dutch heritage in many ways than one. One can see that with the architecture, when driving past the town square and its Dutch-style facade and its double-leaf bascule bridge spanning an artificial canal. The Vermeer Mill is the largest Dutch-style windmill in North America. The Dutch “S”, a pastry with marzipan filling that is typical in the Netherlands, can be found at the Vander Ploeg Bakery, along with other Dutch-style pastries. And when visiting the city’s two meat markets (Ulrich and Veld), one can find imported cheese and meat products from the Benelux Region (Benelux consists of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg).

And while the city is located north of Red Rock Lake, an artificial lake created in 1969 that is laden with recreational activities all year round, Pella has two important holidays that the people celerbate: Tulip Days in May and Christmas. Tulip Festival is a typical Dutch festival where tens of thousands convene for a weekend of celebrations and the crowning of the Tulip Queen.  Christmas in a Dutch setting, like Pella, on the other hand, is typically American- Christmas lights display in the city center as well as the countryside, as well as a display of Christmas trees in one house. There’s no Sinterklaas coming into the harbor by ship- how could they if the ship meets the Red Rock Dam and he has to take a truck up the road past Wal-mart and into the city? Even with his Black Peters as his helpers? 😉  A look at how Sinterklaas is celebrated (naturally on the day before St. Nicholas Day in Germany) can be found via link (here) and in the video below:

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But just because the Christmas season is more or less Americanized and makes Pella un-Dutch, does not mean a person should stay away from the city because it is not European enough nor has some European flair in the holiday season. There are many reasons to spend a few hours in this Dutch community which is anchored by three different Dutch institutes- Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella Windows and Central College, along with other Dutch-style stores. The Files has the top five places to visit during the holiday season that are worth visiting:

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  1. Vermeer Mill: Built by the Vermeer Corporation in 2002, the Vermeer Mill is the largest functioning flour mill in North America. Tours of the mill and demonstrations on how the mill works are available, but this place is a keeper for one can see how the mill works. Furthermore, as you can see in the picture above, the mill has a viewing platform where you can see all of Pella’s city center, including its famous Market Square. The Mill is part of the Museum Complex, which also features a miniature display of towns in a Dutch setting in the Interpretive Center section of the Mill. The model has existed for over 30 years, and one needs an hour to look at the details of the display.
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Grinding geers in the mill
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Winter scenery at the Interpretive Section of the Vermeer Mill

2. Historic Village: Inside the Museum Complex is a must-see attraction in the Historic Village. The Village consists of 24 buildings, many of them have existed since the founding of Pella in 1848, including the church, blacksmith shop and shoemaker. Others, such as the log cabin, one of the first built in Marion County, were brought in and restored. Even the street lamps at the complex originates from the bygone ear. Most likely gas-powered, the bulbs displayed are from the 1930s.

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One of the first log cabins in Marion County
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Vintage street light with 30s era light bulbs

Each building features a display or a demonstration, pending on which building has what. For instance, the shoemaker shop produces and displays wooden shoes, which are typical of Dutch culture. Examples and displays of these shoes, including a jumbo pair at the museum shop, can be see everywhere. Some places have displays with mannequins dressed in their Dutch apparel. The bakery offers a display and a plate full of cookies to try. And even a gallery with the displays of all the Tulip Festival dresses and a hall of fame of all the queens are a treat to see. We were welcomed with Christmas trees in the majority of the houses and buildings on display

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Dutch-style shoes after being wood-carved

3. Scholte House and Gardens: Located on Washington Street, the house is the first in Pella, being built by Hendrik Scholte in 1848 for his wife. One can see the rooms and exhibits pertaining to their lives and the history of Pella. While the house and the gardens are best seen in the spring time during the Tulip Festival as well as during the summer, the house itself has a wide display of 15 Christmas trees to see, each one has its own taste and history. While we saw the house but not the display because it was closed, a columnist visiting the house at Christmas time found the displays very impressive. Yet with the holiday season one should look at expanding their opening hours to include weekends and 2-3 more days in the week instead of only one day a week. But in either case, the house has maintained its original form and is impressive even from the business district.

4. Jaarsma Bakery and Smokey Row Café: Both located along Franklin Street, the shops are literally a block apart, but each one serves the finest pastries, bars and coffee products. The Jaarsma Bakery, located across the street from the Public Gardens, offers a wide variety of Dutch pastries, including the Dutch apple cake, almond bars and the Dutch “S”. They are excellent to take home for the holidays to share with family and friends, as we did just that.  The Smokey Row Café provides travellers and tourists alike with a wide selection of coffee with pastries to eat in a historic coffeehouse setting, as you can see in the pic below. The café is also a great meeting place for the young and old alike and has a family setting that makes a person stop there again and again.

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5. Market Square: Behind the Jaarsma Bakery is the Market Square, one of the most modern places in Iowa and one that mimics a Dutch setting, with its famous red brick buildings and Dutch facade . The square is the central point of entertainment, as the Opera House, the Cinnema, The Amsterdam Hotel and Conference Center and the Pella Showroom are all located in one block, divided by a man-made canal that is crossed by a double-leaf bascule bridge, typical of the bridges in the Netherlands. While the square is laden with flowers and other floral decorations, it would be a perfect place for a Christmas market, if city officials are willing to at least experiment with it. As Christmas markets are popular in Germany, France and the Netherlands, the city can benefit from having one at least for a couple week(end)s during the holiday season.

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After a few hours in Pella, it was time for us to move on, but not before collecting some thoughts and recollections on the city and its settings around Christmas time. Although Pella does have a lot to offer for Christmas events and places to visit during the holiday season, it is clear that the Dutch community is more focused on the Tulip Festival and other events in the summer months, which means the holiday events are like the ones in an American town: light festivals, music concerts in churches and shopping. But can you imagine what Pella would look like if they had a Christmas market in the Market Square and Public Gardens and events similar to what the Dutch have at home in the Netherlands? Could you imagine how Pella would stand out among the rest of the communities in Iowa during the holiday season? And can you imagine how it would be a big of a magnet for tourists?

Check out the photos and think about it. 🙂 <3

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Author’s Note:  Sister column the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles did a series on the historic bridges in Marion County, including the bascule bridge in Pella, as well as historic bridges that existed over the Des Moines River before the Red Rock Lake was created in the 1960s. More on the bridges here:

Horn’s Ferry Bridge

Bridges at Red Rock Lake

Old Hwy. 14 Bridge near Cordova State Park

Pella Bascule Bridge

Fast Fact:  Pella was the birthplace of Wyatt Earp, famous US marshal. All his brothers except Virgil were  raised near Pella.

The Mystery Christmas Piece: The Three Candles

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The Schwibbogen, one of the landmarks a person will see while visiting Germany at Christmas time. Consisting of an arch with holders for candles, the Bogen is more commonly known as the Lichterbogen, and has its traditions going back to the 18th Century. The first known Bogen was made in Johanngeorgenstadt in the Ore Mountain region in Saxony, in 1740. It was made of black metal, which is the color of the ore found in the mountain range, was made out of a forged metal piece, and was later painted with a series of colors, adding to the piece 11 candles. This is still the standard number for a normal Bogen, but the number of candles is dependent on the size. The smaller the Bogen, the fewer the candles. Paula Jordan, in 1937, provided the design of the Bogen, by carving a scene. At first, it featured 2 miners, 1 wood carver, a bobbin lace maker, a Christmas Tree, 2 miner’s hammers, 2 crossed swords, and an angel. The light shining in represented the light the miners went without for months as they mined the mountain. However, since World War II, the scenes have varied. Nowadays, one can see scenes depicting the trip to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth, a historic Christmas village, and nature scenes, just to name a few.  Here’s a classical example of a Bogen one will find in a window sill of a German home:

 

Photo courtesy of Oliver Merkel.
Photo courtesy of Oliver Merkel.

One will also find Schwibbogen at the Christmas markets, including the Striezelmarkt in Dresden and the largest Schwibbogen in the world at its place of origin in Johanngeorgenstadt, which was erected in 2012 and has remained a place to see ever since! 🙂

Going from the Ore Mountains, 7,400 kilometers to the west, one will see another form of the Schwibbogen, but in the state of Iowa. During the Christmas trip through Van Buren County, Iowa, and in particular, Bentonsport, several houses were shining with candles of their own. But these are totall different than the Schwibbogen we see in German households and Christmas markets. Each window had three candles, with one in the middle that is taller than the two outer ones. This is similar to the very top picture in the article, even though it is a mimic of what was seen at the village. When attempting to photograph the houses, the author was met with this:

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Even though there is not much to see from there, it shows how the candles are arranged in front of the window, closed with a curtain. Van Buren County was predominantly Dutch (more on that will come when looking at the Christmas villages), but it is unknown what the meaning behind the three candles are, let alone who was behind the concept and why. Could it be that the Dutch were simply mimicking the Schwibbogen from Saxony but just simply using three candles instead of eleven and subtracting the designed arch holder? And what does the design of the three candles stand for?

Any ideas are more than welcomed. Just add your comments or use the contact form to inform the author what the difference between the three candles and the Schwibbogen are in terms of origin and meaning. The information will be provided once the answers are collected and when looking at the Christmas villages in the county. They are small, but each one has its own culture which has been kept by its residents. The three candles are one of these that can be seen today at Christmas time, even while passing by the houses travelling along the Des Moines River, heading northwest to Des Moines.  Looking forward to the info on this phenomenon. 🙂

 

Author’s Note: Check out the Flensburg Files’ wordpress page, as a pair of genres dealing with Christmas have been posted recently. They are film ads produced by a German and a British retailer, respectively. Both are dealing with the dark sides of Christmas, as the German one looks at loneliness without family (click here) and ways to get them home for the holidays (even though the technique presented is controversial), and the British one deals with a girl meeting a man far far away (click here), who is lonely and wants company, which is given in the end.  Both have powerful messages, so have your tissues out. 🙂

 

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2014 Christmas Market Tour Nr. 2: Amana Colonies, Iowa

Old Mill Race, located across from the Mill Race Brewery in Middle Amana, Photos taken in December, 2014

After a long and relaxing three weeks of Christmas vacation, followed by a rude greeting of the flu upon arrival back in Germany and finally, finishing some work regarding sorting out thousands of photos taken and finishing some business with the Ammann Awards for the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, we will return to the Christmas market tour for 2014. As mentioned in the tour of Jena, the Files was going a different route with regards to the Christmas market tour, tying together travel with regional culture and family. Our tour continues on to the United States and the Christmas markets that not only exist, but have increased in numbers in the past three years. While Christmas markets have established their foundations in cities, like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New York, other cities, like Austin (Texas), Philadelphia and even Minneapolis have recently introduced their version of the Christmas (or even holiday) market, catching on with the German trend. Even some of the smaller towns, like Kiel, Wisconsin  and villages in Indiana have looked up to Germany and its five-plus centuries of tradition which has presented a holiday appeal.

But it is not necessary to copy the plans of a Christmas market by having the huts clustered in a market square and each one offering candies and crafts that can be found in Europe. Some of the Christmas markets seen so far on tour offer commercialized items and little local goods, thus making them not so appealing for the tourist but more of a gathering place to eat and drink mulled wine (Glühwein). As in the case of our next candidate, the Amana Colonies in eastern Iowa, one can mix Christmas with their own customs and traditions, and the community can stand out among the rest at Christmas time. For the Colonies, the Christmas tradition is spread out among not only one, but seven communities.

Consisting of High Amana, Middle Amana, Homestead, Lower Amana, South Amana, East Amana and Main Amana, the villages were established in 1854 by the German Pietists, a local Lutheran group group formed 300 years ago in the German state of Hesse that stressed the importance of religious freedom and creativity. Persecuted in their homeland, the  settlers of the Community of True Inspiration, as it was first coined, immigrated to the United States, where they first settled in West Seneca (near Buffalo) before resettling in the rich fertile lands along the Iowa River, 25 miles (45 km) west of presnet day Iowa City. There, they lived a communal life for over 80 years, where self-sufficiency and isolation on the one hand and religious freedom to practice their own beliefs on the other hand were practiced. The communal cluster discontinued its function in 1934, in response to the Great Depression, and created a for-profit organization named Amana Society. The Amana Corproation was established at the same time, which created electrical appliances, including refrigerators and air conditioners. That company, located in Middle Amana, is now owned by Whirlpool.

When visiting Amana Colonies, one can see traces of self-sufficiency at its best, as many local eateries and beverage companies have their own products people can try year round. The majority of them can be found in Main Amana, like the Ackermann Winery, which produces one of the best wines in the state of Iowa (such as the dandelion-flavored- highly recommended), and the Mill Stream Brewery, which produces one of the best micro-brews in Iowa (such as the chocolate-flavored, dark ale, and the pilsner). Many shops offer homegrown fudge bars and coffee with different flavors one will not see even here in Germany. The Ronneburg Restaurant offers the best German entrées for visitors to try in an environment similar to a typical Gastätte in western Germany. There is also the Amana Woolen Mill, where after 160 years,  clothing is still being produced even today, using homegrown wool. Then there are many arts and crafts shops, each one having their own theme. Highly recommended is the  Good Quilt, where handmade quilts and lawn ornaments made of steel can be seen even in the front yard.

While many towns in the US have their holiday events centered on Christmas lights and concerts, the Amana Colonies focuses their holiday tradition on their cultural heritage. After all, self-sufficiency sometimes has its rewards when after many generations, the people still continue produce local hand-made goods and practice some of their holiday traditions brought over from Germany. The main holiday event takes place during the time of St. Nicholas Day (the first weekend of December), named Prelude to Christmas. There, thousands of visitors have an opportunity to see the displays of goods locally produced, while at the same time, meet new people while embracing the events, such as the Amana Cookie Walk, caroling throughout the area, storytelling and singing at the Heritage Museum, watching a theatrical or madrigal at the Old Creamery Theater, and lastly, meeting Santa and his reindeer (yes- live reindeer).  A video on the event below shows you an overview of the event:

But apart from finding the best local goods, as we did during our stay, or even seeing the villages lit up at night during the holidays, it would be a sin if one does NOT visit the Tannenbaum Forest. Located at the Festhalle Barn next to the Visitor’s Information Center in Amana, the Tannenbaum Forest showcases a wide display of Christmas trees, each one donated by a private business or organization in the Colonies and each one displays a different theme. Expect to spend at half hour to an hour in awe, looking at trees with themes, such as the pink flamingo, or from the films, like Frozen and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (the latter celebrated its 50th anniversary this Christmas), as well as ones traditional of their heritage both here as well as in Germany. Beware that you see everything inside, even the Christmas Pyramid, a German household for Christmas where lit candles allows for the blades of a fan to move and figures to move around like a merry-go-round. You’ll find this as you are finished looking at the display of trees and make your exit for the nearest cafe for fudge-flavored coffee or apple cider. 🙂  The Tannenbaum Forest lasts from Thanksgiving until shortly before Christmas. If one misses the Prelude to Christmas, one should see this main showcase for Christmas as you stay for a few days to embrace the culture the Colonies have to offer.

Overall, in comparison to the Christmas markets seen so far, the Amana Colonies remains to this day as the jewel to be discovered. While many cities and villages showcase their display of lights and holiday events attracting thousands of locals and other communities have their set of Christmas tents in the market square to attract many people, the Christmas venture (as I call it because it is not really a market in German standards), with its row of small shops selling local goods and its main attraction with the Tannenbaum Forest, attracts a fair share of tourists, both during the Prelude festival as well as during the holiday season, but it is for the most part, rather quiet and peaceful, with streets lined with wooden and brick houses dating back to the 1800s all decorated with Christmas lights and other decorations typical of Christmas time for them. It allows for people to visit the places without having to fight through the crowds or trample on items belonging to the shops, as seen at many Christmas markets. When walking along the streets at night, you do not have to worry about people picking fights or stalking, which makes seeing the houses on display a more enjoyable experience. The Amana Colonies, especially at Christmas time, presents a warm feeling of home and family, where you can chat with locals over coffee and fudge bars and have a great time. The Colonies seem to be one of those places resembling the black home- you visit the place once, you are bound to do it again, many times until you finally decide to move there. This was the feeling we had during our visit. If it is like that for you, when visiting the Amana Colonies (or any community you visit), then look at it and take advantage of it.  If anything, if it does not work, visiting Amana Colonies, especially before Christmas, will provide you with a prelude to the holiday season where the feeling of home will stick with you- right up until you can share the experience with your family. This was our experience, at least.

 

Fast Facts: The Amana Colonies celebrated the Year of the Four this past year. The religious movement that later resulted in the establishment of the Colonies was formed 300 years ago by Eberhard L. Gruber and Johann F. Rock. Middle Amana was built 160 years ago. Amana Corporation was formed 80 years ago, as with the Amana Society as a for-profit organization. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Colonies’ enlistment on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

To learn more about the history of the Amana Colonies, click here for details. Information on other events at the Colonies can be found on their main website, which you can click here for more details. There, you can find out the best deals for lodging and food. Have enough cash with you as it can be expensive.

The author has a collection of photos of Christmas at the Amana Colonies, which can be found on the Flensburg Files’ facebook page. Type it in or click here for more photos.

Our next stop on the tour takes us to a pair of Dutch clusters in Iowa. One of them has a very well-esteemed reputation, while the other has ghosts. In either case, lat’s have a look at them, shall we? 🙂

 

In School in Germany: Teaching Geography

This class is the first of many in the series on topics that should be taught in US schools from the point of view of the teacher observing classes at a German school. The first topic deals with Geography.

OK fellow Americans (and especially fellow Iowans and Minnesotans), before we get started with the subject of classes that should be taught, here are a few questions that you should try and answer.

1. Peaches are an important commodity in Egypt. True or False? If false, what crops grow there?

 

2. __________, ____________, ____________, ______________and ___________ are the  minerals that can be found in Minnesota. Of which, _______________ is still being mined there in the ___________________ Iron Range

 

3. What is the capital of Palau?  aPonce          b. Melekeok      c. Koror                               d. Kauai               e. Kuala Lumpur

4. Honey is produced in Canada. True or False? If false, what is produced there?

T/F   False: ____________________________

 

5. Which country has the highest crime rate in the world? Why?

a. Mexico        b. Germany       c.  USA                 d. Russia              e. China               f. Poland

 

6. Which province in the Ukraine joined the Russian Federation earlier this year and which ones want to join?

a.: __________________; b.: ______________________________________________

 

7. The Rust Belt, consisting of the states of O___________,W___________V _____________, P____________________, and I______________ and the cities of I______________, P__________________,P _____________________,C ________________,C _____________ received its name because of what industry that existed between 1860 and ca. 1970?

a. Steel             b. Tobacco          c. Iron                   d. corn                 e. wood               f. both a&c

 

8. Rice is grown in Iowa. True or False? If false, which US state grows rice?    T/F, If false, ________________________________

 

9. Which Eastern European Countries became part of the Warsaw Pact in 1955? Hint: there are seven countries not counting Yugoslavia?

 

10. Catholicism is the predominant religion in which German states?

 

11. Albert Lea, Minnesota was named after an explorer who founded the region. True or False?    T/F

 

Do not look up the answers, but try and guess at them, either on your own or in the Comment section. The answers will be provided in a different article. Yet if you cannot answer any of the questions, then chances are you should have either visited or paid attention in Geography.  Geography is part of the curriculum in the German classroom, yet it is one of core classes that is often ignored in the classroom in other countries, or are included as a tiny fraction of the curriculum of social studies, together with history, politics, and independent living. Yet one goes by the assumption that Geography is about maps, countries and capitals. In Germany, it goes much deeper than that, as I observed in the classroom during the Praxissemester. This is what a person can expect from a Geography class:

Using a student’s guide, in this case, Diercke’s Geography book, whose volumes consists of regions, the class has an opportunity to focus on a country and its profile based on the following aspects: landscape, population, industry/economy, resources, geology, culture, societal issues, environmental issues, places of interest, and politics (governmental system and its function and flaws).  Each aspect has its own set of vocabulary words pupils need to learn, both in German as well as in English. Each one has its own graphs and diagrams, as well as certain skills pupils are expected to learn, such as presenting an aspect, analysis, comparisons of certain aspects, as well as research and presenting facts, just to name a few.  While some of these skills can be taught in other subjects, such as foreign languages as and natural and social science classes, the advantages of geography are numerous. Apart from knowing the vocabulary and the places, pupils are supposed to be prepared to know about the regions, for they can be useful for travel, any projects involving these countries, and cultural encounters with people from these countries profiled in the classroom.

Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the example of the session I sat in, with Japan.  Some of us have some knowledge about the country, apart from the Fukushima Triple Disaster of 2011 (Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown) that the Japanese have been recovering from ever since. And for some of the older generations, Japan was the champion in the electronics industry in the 1970s and 80s, mastering the Americans and Europeans before the economy took a double nosedive in the 1990s and in the mid-2000s. Yet in the session, pupils became acquainted with the Japanese industry and its ironic environmental policies, looking at the competition of the automobile industry between the Japanese and the Americans in the form of presenting a comparison and a profile of each of the automobile companies in Japan. In addition, a discussion of Japan’s secret problem of environmental pollution was presented, using the facts from Diercke and some additional materials deemed useful for the discussion. With 127 million inhabitants on a small island, whose topography comprises of 80% mountains and 20% flatlands, it is really no surprise that the country has suffered from its overpopulation, yet the topic was brand new to the students, even though it was covered previously when discussing about China, Japan’s archrival.

The class is required in the Gymnasium, yet the curriculum varies from state to state. In Thuringia, it is one year with one region, beginning with Europe. The American aspect is usually covered in the 11th grade and, pending on the Gymnasium, some aspects are offered in English, with the goal of getting the pupils acquainted with the English vocabulary. While English has become the lingua franca and is used everywhere, one could consider adding Spanish, French, and a couple Asian languages (in vocabulary terms) into the curriculum as much of the world also have countries that have at least one of the above-mentioned languages, including Latin America and Spain, where Spanish is predominant.  This way, pupils have an opportunity to be acquainted with terms rarely seen in the primary language unless translated, which loses its meaning.

This leads to the question of why geography is not offered either solely in American schools, or maybe they are being offered but only rarely. Speaking from personal experience, many schools have different sets of curriculum where Geography is placed at the bottom of the food chain, especially with regards to it being integrated into social studies. And its focus: Only North America and in particular, the United States, where the country’s history, social aspects and political systems are discussed. Current events and presenting them in writing and orally are found in these social studies classes, thus encouraging pupils to research and present their topics, yet most of the events are found in the US and Europe, and there is rarely any mentioning of countries outside the regions.  Some schools had the opportunity to be hooked up to Channel One, where news stories were presented for 20 minutes in the morning, during its heyday in the 1990s. Yet too many commercials and controversies have prompted many schools to protest or even break ties with the network, even though it still exists today after a decade of changing hands.  By introducing a year or two of Geography at least on the high school level, plus tea spoons on the lower level, it will enable pupils in American schools to be acquainted with the rest of the world and the key areas that are worth knowing about. It will save the embarrassment of not knowing some places outside the US, as I witnessed in a pair of stories worth noting:

 

1. A professor of political science at a college in Minnesota draws a map of Europe, placing the Czech Republic above Poland and Hungary in the area where Austria was located- in front of a pair of foreign exchange students from Germany who were grinning in the process. Of course this was the same professor who chose Munich and Berchtesgaden over Berlin and Interlaken over Geneva and Berne for a month-long seminar tour on Public Policy, where every capital of Europe was visited except for Austria, Poland, the Iberia region and Benelux. But that’s a side note in itself.

 

2. My best friend and his (now ex-) girlfriend meet me and my fiancée (now wife) at that time at a restaurant, where she boasted about going to Europe for a music concert. Yet when asked where exactly (which country and city), she could not answer that question- only proudly responded with “But we’re going to Europe!”

 

3. Then we had many questions and assumptions that East Germany and the Berlin Wall existed. One was wise enough to mention during a phone conversation that the reason he could not reach a relative in eastern Germany was that the East German Housing Development had blocked telephone access from America. And this was 10 years ago, I should add.

 

There are enough reasons for me (and others) to add that justify the need to offer a compulsory Geography class in American schools. While the core requirements are being introduced in the American school system, it is unknown whether Geography is part of the core. If not, then it is recommended, for the class does have its advantages, as mentioned here.  While geography contests and individual work will be stressed by those opposing the idea of teaching Geography, the main question to be asked to these people are “Are you willing to learn something about another region and the culture before encountering them, or are you willing to be ignorant and be foolish in your attempts to encounter other cultures without learning about them first?” Speaking from experience, I would rather take the safe path than one unknown and fall into several traps in the process. But that’s my opinion.