Never Meet a Stranger in the Alps

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I am not sure how to start this column entry off as I needed some time to think about what to write about. But being a Methodist who also has a background in other religions in Christianity (mainly Lutheran and Catholic, the latter of which I was baptised at the age of 3 months) and learning some lessons from a devote Christian I met a few months ago, I figure I would start off with a quote from the Bible from the book of James.

James 4:11-12: 11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.[a] The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

The topic I am referring to in this article: politics in social network- in particular, Facebook. And even further, the events in France and refugees. When I joined Facebook in 2010, I did it with the main intention of reconnecting with friends and colleagues whom I lost connections since leaving the United States for my adventure in Germany, while at the same time, establish new friendship with people I met while in Germany, as well as those who have similar interests as I so and those whose interesting life stories have led us to connecting.  And this in addition to connecting with family members.

Fast forwarding to the present, and despite being reconnected with people, who I would put into eleven different categories (including people from five different alma maters, two high schools, the bridgehunting community, close friends, expatriates and family), I have realized that social networking does have worms in them which can destroy connections and friendships. In particular, when it comes to politics.

A few days ago, I had put a post on my timeline expressing my opposition to the petition made by 32 US Governors to President Barack Obama to put a halt to the immigration of refugees from Syria and Iraq, despite their lands being destroyed by ISIS terrorists, and in response to the terrorists attacks in Paris and Beirut that killed ca. 200 people and injured many more. The responses to the posts were outrageous. The respondants showed disrepect towards the President, calling him a dictator even though the US Government system consists of Congress (which passes the bills), Executive (where the President signs the bill into law) and Judicial (where the Supreme Court can determine its constitutionality) Branches.  But what more alarming was a comment by one respondant saying the following to a German in this conversation, who supported the refugees living in Europe and the US: “If it hadn’t been for us Americans, you (…..) would be speaking Russian!” (I think you can fit any degrading comment depicting a German in here) 

You can imagine the author’s reaction in response to the comment, analogizing it with a scene from The Big Lebowski:

If there is a word of advice regarding posting potential controversial topics on Facebook, it would be this: Do NOT mess with a stranger in the Alps. Your enounter will determine your life’s destiny.

This incident opened my eyes to reality in ways that were not opened before- not even during the days of George W. Bush. It went beyond the insult made on my family and friends here in Germany and into an area most sensitive to the human body, mind and soul- our freedom of expression, our freedom to state our opinion and respect the opinions of others.  We were taught the US Constitution in school and I learned about the German Basic Law while living here, both of which feature the right to free speech. Before social networking came about and became an important commodity in our lives, we would enjoy conversations in person where our opinions mattered and we learned from each other. Even when Bush ran the country to the ground during his reign, we kept ourselves civilized and respected each other and our rights.

What has happened to it? With the introduction of social network, we have been getting bombarded by information deemed biased, containing half-lies and leading us to hatred. Whenever we post our own opinions towards topics like refugees or provide questions for the forum, we are received with hate comments even from strangers. Even the information from neutral sources is played down as absurd. And instead of a good chat with a friend far away, we get thrown out of his/her network for expressing our opinions because it does not conform with his/her opinion. It is like with the Miranda Law in the US: Anything you say can and will be used against you, except in this case, we cannot state anything without causing a fight and below-the-belt comments like what I witnessed. Sadly, other people have experienced worse and have even started reconsidering plans to spend Christmas with them.

What in God’s name have we become? Have we lost our sense of reasoning and sensitivity towards others?  Has (at least this latest round of) politics really destroyed the fabric of friendship and family?  When will this hatred on social network finally stop?

The same devout Christian from Saxony once forewarned me that I was posting too much and that my political opinions will eventually cause dischord which cannot be reversed. Unfortunately, her revelations were right, but with the latest debate on refugees in the US and Europe, it has affected us all, not just myself. Several people have even reconsidered closing down their Facebook accounts because being on there is like walking through a Wal-Mart store filled with trailer trash people purging the store, destroying items in their path without even paying for them. But as I have many in my network I keep in touch with, it does not make sense. The only solution is to take a few steps back, spend less time with the social network and cease posting political comments and engaging in political discussions. And kick out those who try to start one in my timeline.

Sometimes being away from this junk can serve as a signal for people to think about their actions, to learn to respect the opinions of others and become civilized towards each other. As the statement at the beginning shows, I respect the opinions of others. I want others to respect mine too. Listening to others helps a person grow, too. A little word of advice before posting the next political comment for discussion on your timeline or that of others.

P.S. to that person who advised me to cut back on my posting, in case you read this, I will take that advice in hope to find a bit of peace in light of all the problems we have in the world. In other words, I owe you for this. 😉

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A Tribute to Helmut Schmidt

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Former German Chancellor handled the RAF Affair and the NATO Double-Pact during his regime (1974-1982) dead at 96.

HAMBURG- Helmut Schmidt, whose political career lasted for over 60 years both in and outside government and left a positive image for Germany in terms of international and domestic policies has died. Schmidt passed away this afternoon at a hospital in Hamburg after complications from a surgery in September to remove a blood clot. He was 96 years old. Schmidt was a member of the German Social Democratic Party from 1946 until 1982, which included his roles as Minister of Defense  (1969-1972), as well as Minister of Economics and later Finance (1972-1974), all under Chancellor Willi Brandt. When he resign amid an espionage scandal in 1974, Schmidt took power as German Chancellor and ruled the country with a coalition featuring his party and the Free Liberals. Schmidt became the only Chancellor to lose his office through a Vote of No Confidence on 1 October, 1982, thus ushering in the era of Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democratic Party. The reason was the FDP’s alliance with the CDU, which made Schmidt a lame duck. Kohl still holds the record of being the longest reigning Chancellor, ruling for 16 years until 1998. During his time in power, Schmidt championed the strengthening and expansion of politics on the European level, including the introduction of a European currency (which was eventually introduced in 1999 and replaced the German Mark in 2002), as well as fostered domestic spending to help the unemployed, expand health insurance, and pass health and safety laws. He put an end to the reign of terror caused by the group Red Army Faction, and his policies involving the Cold War, led to the NATO Double-Track Policy, where mid-range missiles were stationed in West Germany, causing protests in many cities. Schmidt was loved and hated by many within and outside Germany because of his policies and his comments on certain events, especially on the international front. However, after he stepped down in 1982, Schmidt became an avid writer and editor, having been co-publisher of the German newspaper Die Zeit and authored several books, mainly focusing on politics and his memoirs about his time in Bonn and Hamburg. However, there are a few more facts that we don’t know about Schmidt. And therefore, we have the:

Large Blog ImageFAST FACTS:

 

  1. Upon his death, Helmut Schmidt became the oldest living former chancellor, having outlived Konrad Adenauer by five years. Adenauer died in 1967 at the age of 91. He has also outlived the oldest former US Presidents, Gerald Ford (1972-76) and Ronald Reagan (1981-88), both of whom lived to be 93 years old. They died in 2006 and 2004, respectively.
  2. During the Great Flood of 1962, which hammered Hamburg and the state of Schleswig-Holstein, Schmidt, who was Hamburg’s senator, initiated moves by taking charge of the Federal Police and the Germany Army and directed them to the flooded areas, rescuing people stranded on top of houses and providing aid where needed. This overstepped boundaries and led to a change in the German Constitution which forbade the use of federal forces unless deemed a necessity. The flooding and natural disasters were added as a necessity in 1968.
  3. Schmidt was an avid pianist, having recorded music for several composers from the 1980s on.
  4. Schmidt was an avid smoker, having smoked heavily, both privately as well as in public and especially on TV shows. This was his signature for his character which was carried all the way to the end, despite controversies involving him violating smoking bans.
  5. Schmidt was the automatic go-to guy to talk to when asked about several political themes, both on the German as well as the international fronts. This included his views on the environment, whose opposition to shutting down nuclear power plants and his comment on global warming being hysterically overheated stirred a lot of controversies, but conceded that a population explosion is the biggest threat to mankind because of the potential exhaustion of resources. He was on many talk shows, having been interviewed in German and English.
  6. He was the focus of a Loriot caricature in the 1970s, when he was at his height of popularity amid several scandals and incidents affecting Germany.
  7. Schmidt’s interest in politics came during his experience serving the Army during the Third Reich and witnessing a trial that was considered biased and brutal, as the Nazis ordered the execution of conspirators responsible for trying to assassinate Adolf Hitler, including Claus von Stauffenberg, whose streets in many cities were later named in his honor.

Helmut Schmidt, despite the controversies and the opposition from others, was considered the elder statesman with open arms. Whenever he was asked about certain political current events, he was quick to provide some food for thought, something for people to think about and discuss, something for politicians to think about before enacting or vetoing any measures being debated first in Bonn and later in Berlin. Schmidt was considered the face of Germany in the 1970s but is really the face of European politics and international affairs, for his policies and advocacy for a more European model of politics, while ensuring that countries are able to keep their sovereignty and maintain a democratic regime in tact. Cooperation was for him the key to a peaceful environment, something that was anything but that during the Cold War, but was later carried out when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union warmed up and eventually, when the two divided Germanys became one in 1990. Schmidt made and maintained ties with many politicians, many of them are still alive today. But despite warnings of smoking being unhealthy, Schmidt was unphased by it, for smoking was still for the intellectuals, and he provided that no matter where he went or who he talked with. Schmidt will be missed for his character and his guidance in international affairs, especially now, when we have bigger issues affecting Germany and we have to go on without him, or at least with the lessons he gave us.

Schmidt is survived by his daughter, Susanne, who has followed his father’s footsteps by working for Bloomberg Television, but is preceded in death by his wife Hannelore “Loki”, who died in 2010, and his infant son.  Leb wohl Herr Schmidt und vielen Dank für Ihre Beiträge und Mithilfe. Gott segnet Sie.

Helmut Schmidt Highlights:

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In School in Germany: Teaching Infrastructure History in School

 

Article written for sister Column 

History- a subject that goes beyond borders and looks at things that we never knew about, getting us to think about them, putting them in the context of our own lives and the environment we are living in. It goes beyond the borders of geography and how the countries were developed. It goes beyond arena of sports events and looks at the development of each kind and how the men and women contributed to it. It digs deeper into how the country was mapped out in terms of landscape, networks of infrastructure and the social aspects which led to revolution and redesign by reformists and those who wanted to make their place better than before.  In other words, one has to dig deeper to find the truth and challenge what had been written in the past but was now rebuked because of new evidence.

In school, especially on the secondary level, history is a must, and it is important that students know about the history of their country and the rest of the world for two reasons:

1. To help them become acquainted with their own region and country and discover who they are and where they came from and

2. To encourage them to find out more about themselves and where they live, by looking and exploiting the aspects that are seldom mentioned.

As there are certain requirements written by law and because of certain time constraints, only a peck of the history that exists is even taught in the schools, and when it is taught, it is with the traditional social form of teaching: the book and frontal teaching (German: Frontal Unterricht). It is not surprising that the interest in history among youngsters up to 18 is near the bottom of the food chain, in both countries- more so in the US than in Germany because of the strive of educators to have the students achieve high results in the international tests for math, reading and sciences. But as we see in the PISA studies, and which will be discussed in the Files’ article about Frontal Teaching, sometimes student involvement and allowing them to discover something new can encourage a positive education result, even better than the recent studies.

But even with these constraints, the teacher can make some space for some new things that cannot be found in books themselves- at least not yet, that is. And when students are encouraged to do some work on their own, whether it is analysing a text and writing a review about it or presenting about it, then they will benefit from it in a way that they can add the knowledge to what was taught in the past and have fun doing it. This is where the topic of Industrialization and Infrastructure enters the picture.

During my internship at a Gymnasium in Germany, I had an opportunity to dig deeper into the history of the development of Germany in the 1800s by looking at aspects like the creation of democracy, Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the German state in 1871 and how Germany became a super power and remained so until the end of World War I. At the present time the students are talking about Germany, Europe and the age of industrialization between 1871 and 1914, where several aspects, such as imperialism, socialism, worker’s union and environment are being introduced. Even the expansion of the transportation infrastructure and the landscape made of steel will be mentioned. Believe it or not, this is the topic the author of the Chronicles and Files is about to do.

Talking about the infrastructure and comparing it between Germany and the US does produce their similarities in terms of inventions and the development of materials for the construction of buildings, railroads and bridges, yet how does a teacher present these aspects to the students without boring them.  Let’s look at the topic of bridges, for example. There are two different arguments for and against presenting this topic. The contra part would be the simple fact that a bridge is a bridge, crossing a ravine connecting point A and point B. If it fails or is too old, then it is replaced. The pro part to this topic feature the arguments about unique bridge designs, bridge builders that were common, including those who immigrated to the States from Germany, like Ralph Mojeski, Lawrence Johnson, Albert Fink, and Gustav Lindenthal, to name a few. Then there is the switch from iron to steel mainly because of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and lastly the consolidation of 28 bridge builders into the American Bridge Company in 1901 and its competition from other bridge builders in the west, as well as outside the country.

Nathan Holth once presented this topic as a whole during his time as a student teacher (his PPT presentation can be seen here). Some of the unique features, include the builder’s plaque, portal bracing of the truss bridge and ornamental features can enable historians to determine how the development of bridges came about in the US between 1871 and 1914. As I will be the second pontist to present this in a couple weeks time, the topic will be on a wider scale as Germany and US have some similarities with regard to bridge construction. The difference is with regards to the fact that the German concentration seems to be more on canals and railways than with highways, like in the US. Also the full establishment of steel companies, like Thuyssen-Krupp before 1871 enabled Germany to expand the steel-building landscape, constructing bridges and high-rise buildings in large cities, like Berlin and Hamburg, in addition to its fleet of ships.

The question is if one wants to present bridge building in connection with the industrialization- be it in the US, Germany, Europe or when comparing between two countries, what aspects are important and should be presented to the students, keeping in mind that the topic is industrialization, and the time frame is betweenthe 1870s and 1914, the time of World War I?  Which aspects should the students research on in their own spare time? And lastly how should it be taught in high school in comparison to college?

Put your comments here or on the Files’ or Chronicles’ facebook pages as to how you would approach an exotic topic like this, while keeping the topic of Industrialization in mind.  The results of the session, which will be in a couple weeks, will be presented in the Files and sister column the Chronicles.

 

 

In School in Germany: A typical day in the German Gymnasium

One of many German schools.

What is a typical day like in a school in your home country?  How many classes does a student have per week? Of which, are there core classes that need to be taken? Are there block sessions? And lastly, is your school year based on quarters or semesters?

In the US at a typical school, a student usually has 7-8 sessions a day, starting at 8:00 in the morning and ending at 3:00pm. Lunch is usually during the fourth or fifth periods, which falls at the same time as the fine arts classes, such as choir, band, orchestra, art, etc. Those not participating in these extra-curricular activities have the option of study hall or an elective course, pending on when the teacher eats lunch. After all, teachers usually have to teach the entire day- consisting of 60-70 minutes per session, with a session of down time for lunch and doing some preparations. Core classes vary from state to state. Speaking from experience during my time in high school, our core classes consisted of English, Social Studies and Mathematics, with three years of natural sciences, two years of physical education and health and  two years of foreign languages (mostly Spanish, but some schools had French and German).  While core courses take place either daily or three days a week, other courses take place 2-3 times a week pending on schedule. Grades for the classes are given out every quarter or semester, pending on the school.   Sports are usually after school and many schools offer elective courses to prepare students for college, some of which are through cooperation with the universities.  And while changes in the curriculum have taken place in the past decade to focus on international proficiency exams- which has placed the US in 10-15th place in reading, sciences, and math- there are some changes that could be made if politicians had the time and money to do so. One of them deals with bilingual teaching in different subjects, which will be discussed later on in the series.

German schools, more or less, follow a similar path to the American counterpart, but some exceptions should be noted.  For instance, in a Gymnasium, each session is 45 minutes long, unless there is a block session, which is double the time. Students usually start class between 7:30 and 8:00 in the morning and have an average of six sessions before leaving at 2:00pm. Exceptions to the rule are when they have sessions in the 7th or 8th session   Instead of having one big break, Germans prefer their usual system of three smaller breaks, beginning with breakfast for 15 minutes after the second  session, a 25-minute break after the fourth and another 25-minute break after the sixth session. Some schools divide students up into groups, pending on their abilities and their preferences for subjects. That means in a group, the students stick to their members through (almost) all of the classes throughout the year. So it is possible that a grade will have 4-6 different groups, pending on school size. This was what I’ve noticed with my Gymnasium so far, yet other schools organize their groups rather differently.  The day usually starts off with the core classes and end with the electives. With a compact schedule as mentioned here,  students can collect as much information as they can before the afternoon comes, and their Mittagstief (mental down-time) kicks in.   Teaching schedules vary from teacher to teacher (and from school to school), and it is not surprising that some teach only half a day while others teach a couple days in the week. But overall a full 8-10 hour day does include many breaks in between, enabling them to take some down time to prepare, or cool off if a teacher had a rough class period because of rowdy students.

If one assumes that a German schedule is easier than the American one, think again. Of all the benefits teachers have over here, based on my observations, the job can be a chore, for despite helping the kids succeed, the preparation time and all the documentation that needs to be done on the classes and the issues students face, it can wear a person down to a point of burn-out. This sore topic will be discussed later in the series.  And if a teacher is working at a school in big cities, like Hamburg, Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt, it can be even more difficult because of the language barrier. An example the dark sides of teaching can be seen in a documentary produced by German public TV station, NDR can be found here:

http://www.ndr.de/regional/hamburg/lehrer281.html

 

But having these issues does not mean one should give up on the profession, let alone avoid it altogether.  When comparing the two country’s school systems, there is one similarity that should be kept in mind: the teachers love their job, not just because of the kids they are teaching, but because of the passion and their willingness to get them to learn something new each day.  There are many new topics to talk about, let alone new methods to capture the students’ attention and get them to learn something. Some come out of the studies at the university, some through materials developed by publishers, and some through one’s own creativity. Of course one has to deal with setbacks with the two, but when a teacher finds the right formula to educate the youth, given the environment that he is in and the students he is teaching, then the teacher will be successful.

Keeping this in mind, I would like to end my entry with a little rule of thumb, based on the works of Pestalozzi. The Swiss pedagogue taught in various learning conditions, but was passionate enough to create his theory of oral learning, as a way of teaching his children the way of life, through communication, literacy and sciences. Despite the difference in teaching environments, in order to become a successful teacher, no matter where you are, one must follow the 4 Ps to success, which are: Patience, Passion, Perseverance and Persistence.  Following those will help you a great deal as you enter and continuing to work in your profession.

 

 

 

FRAGE FÜR DAS FORUM:

While both school models are based on traditional systems that have existed for decades, many charter schools have sprung up over the past two decades in both the US and Germany. Therefore, the following questions:

  1. Describe your school.  How is it structured in terms of curriculum and classes? Is it the same as what was mentioned here, or are there any differences?
  2. If the school is different than what was described above, tell us about your school: when it was established, who founded it and how classes are being taught. Is it a reform school or another school that is part of the system?
  3. Would you prefer teaching in a traditional school or a reform school? Why?

 

Some examples of reform schools will be mentioned later in the series, but in the meantime, place your stories and comments here or on the Files’ facebook or Twitter pages.

In School in Germany: Ask the Ami

 

 

To start off this entry, I have a word of advice to all Americans who are teaching (or will be teaching) and are wishing to gather some valuable experience abroad: Be prepared to be bombarded with questions from your students with regards to your home country, and when answering them, be objective but truthful.
So far in the first week alone at the Gymnasium, I’ve had at least four sessions, where half of the time was spent with Q&A about my native country, my life as a teacher, my favorites and least favorites, and (my most interesting part) views of President Obama and the NSA.  We also had some questions about German-American (cultural) differences and a few other items of interest.
For some teaching in Germany for the first time, this will take you by surprise, yet after teaching for a long time, it is the norm for students to throw out questions to be answered from my own view, which is truthfully and objectively.  But it brings up a question worth discussing, which is why are Americans still being loved even to this day?  Granted we were responsible for first saving western Germany from the tyrants that left scars on Germany’s past and keeping it from becoming part of a regime ruled by another tyrant. We also influenced the eastern half to tear down the Berlin Wall and reunite with its western counterpart.  But we also had our dark times with W. in power and him ruining all our political relations and, in the end, the US economy, through his “Texas-style” politics which has sent many Americans fleeing to Canada and Europe.
Yet from a teacher’s point of view, I guess the reason why we are still loved over here in Germany is because of our awareness of the fact that there is a world beyond the country’s borders and the fact that we are more aware of what’s going on than the ones who have never been abroad. Furthermore, apart from our introduction to popular culture to Europe, we have been successfully bringing humor and a “cool” way of handling issues- meaning relaxing, finding ways to make lives even better, making people laugh, and lastly, convincing the ones who are obsessed with cleanliness and extreme planning, there is such a thing as Plan B and beyond, should Plan A fail. As I’ve been in many situations with the last point, having Plan B is my sticking point, as it provides flexibility in finding ways to achieve something.

But in spite of the glamor and positive aspects, we’ve been more honest with ourselves, showing Germans (and on a wider scale, Europeans)  the reality of the US, but from an objective point of view. This means showing people what the US really has, which is the good, the bad and interesting sides, and allowing them to look at the country from their own perspective. As the US was touted the hero of democracy in the 1980s and 90s, the country today is still a superpower in many aspects, but has all the problems that Europeans have- with inequality and poverty, problems with education and health care, increased mortality, high unemployment, and more difficulties competing on the international scale because of the domestic problems that we have not been able to handle.  By being truthful about ourselves and objective about our country and views in the world has made us more human, more open, but in turn more liked by our European counterparts than we were 30 years back. If admitting our mistakes and being aware of what’s going on is not a big step towards better relations, than I don’t know what is.

So, to close this entry, when asked about the US and the American way of life: be open, be objective but most importantly, be truthful. Give the students all aspects from various points of view. But also show them that we are much better than we were in the past. We were heroes of the past and proud of our heritage, but we are also open to changes to the benefit of the US, its allies and the rest of the world, for we are all human, all friends, and all united in a single cause.

Here are some interesting questions I’ve dealt with so far:

What’s your view of the NSA and its spying?

JS: Both Americans and Europeans find this not cool. Invasion of privacy has no place anywhere because we are entitled to our rights, which includes having our own lives that is not being watched 24/7.  Good relations is one thing, but spying, both home and abroad: It’s something that we do not accept both in the US as well as abroad.

 

What’s your view of Germany in terms of history?

JS: Germany is a country that is looking ahead and taking pride in what it has developed in the last 50 years. Of course many people still remember the dark ages of the Third Reich, yet as we walk away from that, we have taken pride in technological developments and our open mindedness since 1945.

 

Favorite places in Germany?

JS: There are many in Germany. The northern half is one of my favorite places, especially along the Baltic Sea. Yet there are other places worth exploring, like the mountain areas in central and extreme southern Germany as well as the North Sea.

 

Apart from the Bratwurst and beer, what else is special about Germany?

JS: Soccer, Handball, its history (esp. when looking at cities, like Berlin), the historic bridges and lastly, the Christmas markets

 

Favorite City in the US?  Favorite American Football Team?

JS: Pittsburgh; The Pittsburgh Steelers

 

And my favorite one: Are you planning on staying in Germany?

JS: You betcha! 🙂