At Home or Homesick? The Challenges of Living Abroad

As I was preparing an article on schooling in Germany, I happened to stumble across a question for the forum in a group consisting of American expatriates living in Germany dealing with feeling at home in Germany in comparison to living in the USA. The question was whether the expats regret living in Germany and if so, why. Within an hour of its posting, dozens of responses from members of the group came in, and the results were porous. The majority of respondents were of the opinion if there was a opportunity to return to the US, they would, in a heartbeat!

Now why would so many people want to say that about a country like Germany, which prides itself on its social security and health care network, as well as education, culture, sports, landscapes and the like?  Factors, such as difference in mentalities, difficulties making friends, xenophobia bureaucracy, job opportunities and even language barriers were mentioned, as well as missing some of the things that they were used to back home.

In the 15 years that I’ve been living in Germany, I’ve seen the good and bad sides of Germany, some of the latter that would technically scare off people wanting to live in the country, such as the lack of flexibility in the job market (my biggest pet peeve, since I’m an English teacher and blogger), the politicians trying to cut programs that are beneficial to the people, encounters with Skinheads, aggressive drivers and superficial relationships- where you are only friends with your colleagues if you have something to do with a project. But if compared to the US, some of the problems mentioned are also well known over there.

But perhaps the dissatisfaction may have to do with the decline in good relations between Berlin and Washington, which has become imminent thanks to the Spygate scandal earlier this year involving the NSA. Since the activities of the NSA were brought to light, many Americans living abroad have been put at a disadvantage thanks to additional policies by the US to put them more on a leash and Germans have even distanced themselves from the Americans abroad. This includes the latest proposal by the American tax agency IRS, which has triggered many Americans to trade in their US citizenship for one in their country of residency (click here for more details).

Despite all this, the question for the forum has gotten me to ask the forum the following:

  1. What are some things that you like about Germany that keeps you living there? The same applies to other countries abroad.
  2. What are some things you miss about the US that you can NOT get abroad?
  3. What improvements would you like to see in the place you’re living?
  4. And for those seriously thinking about moving back to the US, what factors would influence your decision about returning home?

In the 15 years living abroad, I still haven’t found anything that would convince me to return home, for there are many things that are keeping me here. Interestingly enough, more people I know are even thinking about moving abroad because Germany has more to offer than what they have at home. To give you a classic example, in a southern Minnesota town with 3,500 inhabitants, I am one of four people who are living here in Germany, two of them happen to be in the same graduating class as I am! After being the only one from the community living in Germany for 15 years, I received company from the other three, who moved to Germany with their families this year. Despite this,  we all have our reasons for living here.  Yet we have collected our share of experiences both good and bad. Many of them I’ve mentioned here in the Files. More will come in the Files as many themes will come to light that will be talked about.

But seriously, what keeps you here in Germany (or abroad) and what would you like to see changed? Put your thoughts and discussion either in the Comment section or in the Files’ facebook page and let’s get a discussion going on this theme, shall we? After all, many of us have enough experience to share, much of which will appear in the Files soon.

In School in Germany: Substitute Teachers or Flexible Class Schedule?

What happens when your teacher is sick and the planned course schedule for that particular day has to be postponed or cancelled? This question may be a no-brainer to some, yet inquiring minds want to know. With the increase in absences because of illness among the teachers due to stress (some resulting from burn-out syndrome) and other viruses that students bring to the classroom on a daily basis, it is important to find out how schools plan ahead so that the students do not fall behind in their classes.

Each school system has its own guidelines with regards to Plan B, regardless of which state or region it is located. In the United States, it is normal to find a substitute teacher taking over classes in case if illness or family emergencies. Substitute teachers are very flexible in a way that they can jump in at any time when they are needed. While some of them bring the knowledge they learned in their education programs at the university to continue teaching- picking up where the absent teacher left off, others elect not to take up the chore and decide either for study hall (meaning students have a chance to catch up on their work in other classes) or other activities. One of the substitute teachers at a junior high school I attended in Minnesota was into reading and therefore, read us many stories during the class period. While she has long since passed, she encouraged others like yours truly to pick up a book from time to time and burn through the pages.

The other plan B can be found in many schools in Germany. If one class is cancelled because of illness or other serious matter, another class takes its place, taught by the teacher.  That means if an English class taught by Mrs. Steinkreuz (for example) is cancelled because she had the stomach flu, that class is replaced by another class, such as History with Mr. Hermann, Ethics with Ms. DeJesus or even French by Madame Moiselle.  The reason for such a flexible class change is simple: Unlike the US, which runs mostly a strict schedule where courses are taught at a certain time every day and teachers have to keep to the plan, Germany’s schedule, at least on the high school level, resembles that of a college class schedule, where students elect to choose certain classes that fit their schedule. Granted that (foreign) language, history and social studies, and sciences must be in the mix, but a flexible schedule enables the student to work with their studies to ensure they have them completed at their pace, while teachers have a chance to further their planning. Some class replacements may have to do with a teacher having an extended session to watch a film, while others may be in connection with a field trip that was planned. In either case, this flexibility does have some advantages. Yet one notable disadvantage is that a sudden change in scheduling can also put the planning of both the students as well as the teacher out of alignment, which means that some topics planned for the session may have to be either postponed or even cancelled; a disadvantage for the teacher as well as some students that were eager to learn about it.

But it does not mean that schools in Germany do not have substitute teachers.  They are usually available to jump in should plan B does not work. It can consist of someone from another school, one working part time in the school system, Referendar (those teaching on a probationary basis for 1-2 years before being hired full time by the state) and the interns doing their Praxissemester (like yours truly did).  Sometimes substitute teachers can also have a positive impact in a way that they can keep the schedule in tact as much as possible while allowing the students to complete their work on their topic without missing the beat.  But as I noticed from my experience in the Praxissemester, even that combination has its limits, especially when  many teachers are absent due to stress-related issues, which will be discussed later when talking about Burn-out Syndrome, and the number of substitutes are limited, both in numbers as well as in knowledge. In the case of the interns, they require a hired staff when teaching a session, to ensure that they are not overrun by the students in class. A concept that is understandable when the intern is 22 years of age (on average) and does not know if the profession is the right one.

Keeping the pros and cons of substitute teaching and replacement sessions in mind, let’s ask the Forum about this topic:

  1. In your school, how does it work when a teacher is absent due to illness or other emergencies? Do you provide a substitute, replace a session with one from another subject or do something totally different?
  2. How have you dealt with teachers who are absent for longer periods of time due to illness, etc. (say more than 1 week)?
  3. If you had a choice between providing a substitute, replacing a session or both, which option would you choose and why?

Place your comments here or in the Files’ facebook page and share some information on how you deal with absenteeism among teachers. Sometimes your suggestions and ideas will help others in the long term. As we will eventually talk about Burn-Out Syndrome in the series, the profession can be a highly demanding job that requires teachers with nerves of steel to do the job. However even the teachers have their limits, even yours truly.

In School in Germany: Children of Divorced Parents

Tunnel of Uncertainty

 

 

This entry starts off with a quote to keep in mind: Life is one long tunnel with uncertainty awaiting you. Run as far as you can go and you will be rewarded for your efforts.

The key to success is to have a permanent support group that is there for you whenever you need them. For children, the support group consists of family, such as parents, grandparents and siblings, but also your distant relatives. Yet suppose that is nonexistent?

Divorces have become just as popular a trend as marriage, for in the United States, an average of 3.6 couples out of 1000 people divorce every year, eclipsing the trend of 3.4 couples tying the knot out of 1000. This trend has existed since 2008, despite the parallel decrease of both rates since 2006. In Germany, 49% of married couples split up after a certain time, which is four percentage points less than its American counterpart, but five percentage points higher than the average in the European Union.  Reasons for couples splitting up much sooner have been tied to career chances, lack of future planning, the wish for no children, and in the end, irreconcilable differences.

While the strive for individuality is becoming more and more common in today’s society, the effects of a divorce can especially be felt on the children. In Germany alone, more than 100,000 children are affected by a divorce every year with 1.3 million of them living with only one parent. The psychological effects of a divorce on a child is enormous. They lose their sense of security when one parent has to leave and may never be seen again. In addition, families and circle of friends split up, thus losing contact with them. Sometimes children are the center of many legal battles between divorced parents which can result in intervention on the legal level. They feel isolated and sometimes engage in risky and sometimes destructive behavior, especially later on in life.  When one parent remarries, it can be difficult to adjust to the new partner, even if that person has children from a previous relationship.

In school, children have a sense of difficulty in handling homework and other tasks and therefore, their performance decreases. Furthermore, they can become more unfocused and agitated towards other people, including the teacher- sometimes even aggressive. Depression, anxiety and indifference follows. Surprisingly though, adolescents are more likely to process the affects of a divorce better than children ages 10 and younger. Yet without a sense of hominess and love, children of divorced parents feel like running through a long tunnel of uncertainty, with no end in sight, as seen in this picture above.

During my time at the Gymnasium, I encountered an example of a student, whose parents divorced a year earlier. He was a sixth grader with potential, yet after the parents split up, his performance, interest in the subjects and attitude towards others decreased dramatically, causing concern among his teachers. While I had a chance to work with him while team-teaching English with a colleague who is in charge of the 6th grade group, one of things that came to mind is how schools deal with students of divorced parents.

In the US, intervention is found on three different level, beginning with school counselors and peer groups on the local,  psychologists on the secondary level, who help both parents and children affected by the divorce, and the tertiary level, which involves forms of law enforcement, should the situation get out of hand.  In Germany however, according to sources, no such intervention exists, leaving the parents on their own to contend with the effects of the divorce, and teachers (many with little or no experience) to deal with the behavior of the students, most of which is that of a “one size fits all” approach, which is not a very effective approach when dealing with special cases like this one. Reason for the lack of intervention is the lack of personnel, cooperation and funding for such programs, with areas in the eastern half being the hardest hit. However such programs, like teacher and counselor training, peer programs for students and divorced parents, team teaching and even 1-1 tutoring can be effective in helping these children go through the processes and get their lives back in order, getting them used to the new situation without having their studies and social life be hindered. Without them, it is up to the teacher to help them as much as possible. Yet, as I saw and even experienced first-hand, teachers are not the wonder drug that works wonders on everybody. Their job is to present new things for students to learn and to help them learn and succeed. Therefore additional help to deal with special cases like this one are needed to alleviate the pressure on the teacher and the students.

 

This leads to the following questions for the forum concerning children of divorced parents and intervention:

1. Which school (either in the US or Europe) has a good intervention program that helps children affected by family tragedies and other events, and how does that work in comparison to the existing programs in the US?

2. Have you dealt with children of divorced parents in school? If so, how did you handle them and their parents?

3. Should schools have such an intervention program to help children like these? If so, how should it be structured? Who should take responsibility for which areas? What kind of training should teachers and counselors have?

Feel free to comment one or all of the questions in the Comment section or in the Files’ facebook pages.

 

I would like to end my column with the conclusion of my intervention with my patient. When I and my colleague team-taught, we did it in a way that one of us worked with him, while the other helped the others in the group. Being a group of 23 sixth graders who had English right after lunch, it was a chore and a half, but one that reaped an enormous reward when I left at the conclusion of my practical training. That was- apart from a standing ovation- a handshake from my student with a big thanks for helping him improve on his English. Sometimes a little push combined with some individual help can go a long way, yet if there was a word of advice to give him, it would be one I got from a group of passengers whom I traveled with to Flensburg a few years ago:

Things always go upwards after hitting rock bottom.

In the end, after reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, one will see relief and normalcy just like it was before such an event. It is better to look forward than looking back and regretting the past.

 

Author’s Note:

Here are some useful links about children and divorced parents in both languages that can be useful for you, in addition to what I wrote in this entry. Two of them was courtesy of one of the professors who had dealt with this topic before and was very helpful in providing some ideas and suggestions on how to deal with cases like this. To him I give my sincere thanks. Links:

http://www.familienhandbuch.de/cms/Familienforschung%20Scheidung_und_Trennung.pdf

http://schulpsychologie.lsr-noe.gv.at/downloads/trennung_scheidung.pdf

http://www2.uwstout.edu/content/lib/thesis/2009/2009landuccin.pdf

 

In School in Germany: Early School Starts

Two one-room school houses in Allamakee County, Iowa. Photo taken in August 2011

 

It will not be long before the next school year starts in Germany, for after two months off, many states are starting their school year on August 31st; in states, such as Bavaria, they are starting even later. Parents have already begun to prepare for the Einführungsfeiern (The Induction into elementary school) for the incoming first graders, scheduled for the 30th of August (in most states), which is as sacred as Christmas Day. But that is a different story to be told at another time.

In the United States however, school has already started in most states, such as Minnesota, where I grew up being acquainted with the state’s school system and culture. This start of the school year is the first time the US is starting its school year much earlier than its European counterpart, and it is raising some questions about its effectiveness, for this early start is having a huge impact on other aspects that are typical of a summer break but are being threatened.

How and why might you ask?

Well, turning the clocks back 20 years, we see a different environment. 1994, right before becoming junior in high school in the US, we started our summer break at the beginning of June and ended it on Labor Day. Three months’ time we had, where we could travel the world to see our relatives, work a summer job to earn money for a car, participate in a summer camp, help with the crops, prepare the animals and the like for the county and state fair competitions, and just relax on the beach or on the water. Summer time was a time to meet with friends, become acquainted with new ones, experiment with love with an innocent girl or even cruise around in the car with the music cranked up to the maximum, waking the neighborhood.  It was the time when we needed some down time before we went up a level- whether it was the next grade or college. My summer was a spectacular one, as it featured fund-raising for new music uniforms for choir, golfing with friends, cruising around with bass music, and competing in the talent show, where we won on the county level but was levelled in the semi-finals at the state fair.  There is no way we can say this if we fast forward to the present.

There are probably some arguments favoring such an early start, such as stockpiling snow days so that we can use them or preparing for aptitude tests in April to compare ourselves with the European and Asian counterparts. Yet when looking at those arguments, I can counter them with the fact that we too had snow days but did not have to make up for them at any cost. And those aptitude tests to determine who is weak in math, reading and writing- studies show that they are hindering the development and own creativity of the individual. A very useful DVD entitled “Alphabet” by Erwin Wagenhofer, shows how streamlining education and enforcing the ideas onto even children have led to an increased rate in suicide, especially in Asia, where children start learning math and economics at the age of three.  While such tests, like the PISA are important to determine where we are in the world, the curriculum and the planning should not evolve around it directly. Otherwise we will have more children left behind than 20 years ago.

Baseball at Target Field in Minneapolis. Photo taken in September 2010

These early starts will indeed have a tremendous impact on the traditional past-times that we have been used to for ages. The hardest hit will be the county and state fairs, for these events, which last 1-2 weeks on the county level and 2-3 on the state level and feature a display of prized animals and products as well as concerts, will see a substantial decrease in the number of visitors. This will force organizers to consider moving them up a month, which will put pressure on farmers and their families to have them prepared for exhibit by the Fourth of July. Other events that usually happen in August, such as the Rennaissance Festival near the Twin Cities, as well as sporting events, like baseball and softball will also take a hit regarding the loss of attendants and even participants.  And lastly, for the students and the teachers, early starts mean less time to recuperate from the stressful school year behind them and especially for teachers, it means less time to upgrade their curriculum and plan for the upcoming school year. Even though most schools rely on text books, with the advancement of technology, many teachers need time to work with them and integrate them into their planning- and this in addition to their own creative brewing of activities useful for their classes.

And for what? The use of snow days AND for preparing for tests that will determine who is “dumb” and who is not?

If there are some ideas on how to deal with the two, speaking from a teacher’s point of view, my advice is to scrap the idea of early starts. Many schools in Germany have 8-11 week summer breaks which cover all of July and August. In Finnland, summer breaks are for 11 weeks from the end of May to the middle of August. Yet this is the same country that stresses individual development over tests and flexibility over stockpiling snow days.  Figure in the week breaks both countries have, and they are equivalent to the 12-13 weeks the US has off. While it would be possible to start break in mid-June, which would cover the entire time in July and August, the bottom line is that many of us cannot envision August not being the time for summer break, especially as summer reaches its peak in terms of hot weather, and most of the activities occur during that time.

So my word of advice to the school administrators in the US: look at what your European counterparts are doing for their children and look at what you are doing to your children. Scrap your obsessions of the aptitude tests and look at the individual development of the children. Look at your schedule and how it is impacting events outside the walls of the school building. And scrap the early start and reintroduce the school year starting after Labor Day.  Americans have been so used to this tradition and it does have more benefits than drawbacks, especially as far as the children are concerned….

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.

In School in Germany: Bilingual Teaching in the Classroom: An Author’s Perspective

Teaching History in the English Language: Teacher’s Task

 

This is a continuation of the series of Bilingual Teaching, the introduction of which can be viewed here.

Books closed. Exams completed. Chapter closed.  A sigh of relief for the pupils in the Gymnasium. Now moving onto the next chapter- but this time in your native tongues, please.

 

Having taught history in English, it is easy to tell who enjoyed learning in English and who was happy to see the camel be sent packing and speak German again. Yet to be that concrete and judgmental would not benefit anyone, even the teacher. In fact, since the US is too monolingual, this statement would be “too American,” for even my taste.

 

As mentioned in the introduction, bilingual modules were introduced slowly but surely beginning in 2009 in many parts of Germany. This includes Thuringia, which started teaching bilingual modules this school year.   The Gymnasium where I’m doing my practical training has had the module since the beginning of the school year, yet it had offered classes in English for upper grades years before the state passed the bill in 2009. There, courses in English, French, Spanish and other foreign languages have been offered in classes dealing with humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. History was one of the classes that has the module and has been completed. As I have indicated in my previous column entries, my theme deals with the USA in the 1920s and 30s and how it returned to isolation after World War I and watched the events unfold in Europe while it lived the lifestyle of the Roaring 20s. Apart from frontal teaching and providing materials and handouts, experiments were conducted to ensure that the students learn not only the history of the US but also improve on their foreign language skills, the concept better known as Content Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL), where foreign languages are introduced in the curriculum with the goal of students picking up skills in their respective areas of study. Such experiments included mini-presentations, using literature and video and mock debates, which best fits the subject of study in history.

 

And the results?

 

Looking at the results, one has to divide it into input (in terms of materials and teaching methods) and output (the reception of the audience). As there were no books available in the Gymnasium on history in the English language most of the activities had to be developed by the teacher himself, using the books at home (as well as one borrowed by another history teacher), as well as some creative ideas to garner the students’ attention. While Germany is conservative in many aspects, going by Konrad Adenauer’s “No Experiments” campaign, used in the 1957 elections for chancellorship, for bilingual teaching, it is important as a teacher to be creative and experiment with things, but make sure that the worksheets and activities to be presented to the students must be appropriate in terms of content and language (especially vocabulary). More important is that the students are able to retain the knowledge, which can be done orally, written, or both but at regular intervals. Highly recommended is a summary sheet with all the facts and vocabulary words for the class to learn and remember, especially when exams come up, and they will need them.

Apart from what I had mentioned earlier, in terms of Guessing Quizzes, The Mock Debate, Mini-Presentations and literature for analyzing, what was useful was using video and audio examples, like recordings of Roosevelt’s Fireside Speeches or the first radio broadcast in 1926. This way, students would have the opportunity to listen, analyze and interpret them in connection with the topic presented by the teacher.  Yet the preparation time is immense and it was not surprising that I, like many other teachers in the Gymnasium, had several late nighters in the row in order to produce the perfect task for the students in the coming session. While this is only a practical training semester (Praxissemester), and a future teacher can afford such experiments, it becomes even tougher when you are a full-time teacher. During an interview conducted with teachers, many of them feel that having worksheets and the book could cut down the time to prepare for classes effectively. The question is, how to order the right book without going broke? Many schools, especially in the eastern and northern parts of Germany cannot afford the luxury of ordering books for bilingual teaching, due to a lack of funding by the state. The problem has been ongoing for over 15 years now, and unless the German government and the private sector can step in to help, the budget will be thinner. This includes the availability of (interactive) technology, which is making strides in many countries, including the US, but Germany is lagging behind in many areas. Therefore we are left with being creative in producing our own worksheets and activities, in order for the bilingual class to work at all. From my experience, if there are no print materials available in the school,  get some from the internet and plan to prepare early, as one page of worksheet- produced from scratch- will take you an hour. A summary,  30-minutes per page.

 

As far as the students were concerned, the results were mixed. There was a wide correlation between those having basic knowledge of English, those having sufficient enough knowledge of English to start a conversation and those who are fluent and have excellent knowledge of English, which makes finding the medium rather difficult. Yet once found, the next step was garnering their attention and involving them. Apart from the fact that the target group were 9th graders, many of whom are going through or have finished “growing up,” the key problem found in the group was being intimidated by the fact that the teacher was a native speaker of English, and even more so from America, which means they had to be acquainted with an American accent instead of the British one that they were used to hearing before. But as mentioned in a previous article, the trend a shifting towards an international form of English, where American and British English were being divulged into one with no accent and words from different regions.    In either case, after a pair of sessions, many of them became more forthcoming with communication and learning vocabulary, which was done through chalk and board and pronunciation (the latter was important to ensure that they are spoken correctly).  In some cases, when only a fraction of the group is not forthcoming with English, one could call on them to speak in a given situation. Yet many of them fell back to German to better explain their answers and opinions, a clause that exists in the curriculum provided by the state, but can also hinder their attempts to better themselves in a foreign language, like English.  Despite being active in discussions and learning new subjects through various methods, one of the factors that makes bilingual teaching ineffective, if looking at it from the student’s perspective, is the time factor. Two sessions of bilingual History in English a week with 45 minutes per session may be a lot for students, but not enough to better understand the subject material and reflect on the importance of the theme with the subject, like History.  This holds true if a teacher plans a session only to find that half of the session was covered due to external factors. Therefore, when planning your sessions in another language, look at your students and their language knowledge. Test their knowledge in the first session before planning your curriculum. Choose wisely when working with a subject like this one I did. Do not be afraid to experiment as long as your students are able to follow. But make sure your time is divided in a way that you complete your task, but the students can profit from it, especially when working within the confines of time.

 

From the teacher’s perspective after experimenting with bilingual teaching (History in English), one can summarize that it is possible to teaching subjects in a foreign language if and only if one follows the guidelines:

 

  1. Know your group and their language level
  2. Know the time you have for the module as well as per session
  3. Know what materials you need to make in connection with the given topic
  4. Know that it is ok to experiment if no materials are available in the school and you need to develop some
  5. Know that the students will need to adapt to the language, regardless if you are a native speaker or not
  6. Know that some students, who either lack the knowledge or are shy, need a push from you and some help with vocabulary in order for them to improve their foreign language skills
  7. Know that the students will be happy to have a summary at the end of the topic so that they have something as reference.

As there is an expectation that there are no books and other materials available, you need to know that time and efforts are needed, preferably before beginning the topic as it will enable you to make the adjustments along the way. And lastly, if you are teaching a subject in a foreign language for the first time, don’t be afraid to leave a copy of your materials for your colleagues for future use. You will do them a big favor.

 

Now that the teacher’s aspect has been spoken, we’ll have a look at what the other teacher colleagues and students have to say, as a questionnaire and an interview was carried out in connection with the topic. More on that later in the series on bilingual teaching in the German school.

 

Author’s Note: The Files will continue its series on In School In Germany through the end of September. Reason for that was because of the World Cup and lots of other non-column commitments, including things related to the Praxissemester. Stay tuned. 

In School in Germany: Is President Obama too American?

Frage für das Forum:  Is President Barack Obama too American or too International?

Two years left until he finishes his second and final term as President of the United States and soon, we will be looking at the legacy of President Barack Obama. Once loved by many Americans and Europeans alike because he was a symbol of hope in the midst of the second worst economic crisis in the history of the US, he is now a target of criticism from the same people who voted him into office.

Here’s a latest example which will provide room for discussion at home over the Fourth of July weekend and latest when social studies teachers talk about his legacy in the classroom:

During the final exam at the Gymnasium where I’m doing my practical training, also known as the Abitur Exam, as it is the key exam needed for entrance to college, one of the students took part in the oral portion of the exam (consisting of both written and oral parts) in the subject of English, and was asked about how she thought of Barack Obama and his presidency. After mentioning the positive aspects, such as health care, employment programs and stricter environmental policies, the negative aspect she pointed out was the fact that Obama was too “American” because of his support of the NSA activities- Spygate- which has damaged relations between the country and Europe.

Too American?  And on the US side, he is considered too much of a socialists, something that is common even on the international scale, if we look at some of the countries that have socialist-like governments, like France, Greece, etc.

In the past five years, President Obama has tried to bring the US and Europe closer together, which includes trade policies, adopting health care and environmental policies, and the like. This has made many Americans feel that he is too international and demand that the US return to the policy of Exceptionalism- every man for himself, no matter the circumstances. Yet from the European perspective, American is trying to exert its influence on the European front, which goes beyond the NSA-Spygate scandal. One of the hottest issues at the moment is the American’s attempts of importing genetically modified foods, which is banned by the EU and rejected by Europeans who have been used to eating organic foods. In other words, the Europeans do not mind what America does as long as they are not forced to do what they want them to do.

This leads to the question worth considering and even talking about: Is President Obama a true American or an Internationalist? Or even better if one wants to criticize his policies and the effects on US-European relations: Is Obama too American or too European, and what are your reasons? Speaking from an expatriate’s point of view, there are enough arguments supporting both criticisms although Obama should keep focusing on the policies at home, as they are still in need of being addressed. This includes the policies involving education, environment, food, and even health care, for the policies passed so far still need some improvement.

But seriously, if you want to judge his legacy and criticize him, which side would you take? Is he too American or too European? Maybe he is just a one-man show? What do you think?  Think about this and consider this question for your next meeting or even social studies class. You’ll be amazed at the different opinions you’ll get.

The Flensburg Files and sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to wish the Americans both at home and abroad a Happy Fourth of July. Enjoy the fireworks and the celebrations honoring the declaration of independence and the creation of a new nation, which took 13 years of blood, toil and tears to make.

Newsflyer: 11 June, 2014

Unknown photographer. Used in connection with article found here: http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/lwx/lightning/va-lightning.htm Public Domain

Giant Storm Causes Widespread Damage throughout Germany.  World Cup in Brazil in Full Gear.  Hamburg SV Handball Team Finished?

Getting off the train this morning at Erfurt Central Station in central Thuringia, passengers received a shock of their lives, as the sounds of thunder and lightning made the state capital sound like warfare going on. Pick any war in the last 20 years and it was reenacted by mother nature. And this in addition to heavy rains that flooded streets and brought the vehicular infrastructure to a complete standstill for a time.  But this was the overture to the series of storms that occurred over the course of two days, ending today, which is comparable to Hurricane Kyrill in February 2007, and caused severe damage throughout all of Germany. More on that and a pair of sports-related items in the Files’ Newsflyer.

Video of the Storm

Kyrillian-sized storm cripples Germany:

Local Flooding in Cologne, Rostock and Berlin. Downed trees in the Ruhr River area, northern Hesse and Saxony-Anhalt. Train services suspended. Power outages everywhere. This was a familiar sign when Kyrill brought all of Germany to a complete standstill in 2007. Yet with the storm system sweeping through Germany yesterday and today, it brought back memories of the event. Sweltering heat gave way to golfball-sized hail, high winds and torrential downpour that caused critical damage to many cities throughout Germany. Fallen trees and flooding caused several raillines to suspend services, including the hardest hit area, the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the German railways suspended all services statewide yesterday for the fourth time since 2007. Officials there are predicting services to return to normal by the weekend. Stations in Essen, Dusseldorf and Cologne were cut off from the rest of the rail network. Raillines between Berlin, Hamburg and places to the north and west were either closed down or rerouted. Over 100,000 travelers were stranded or had to find alternatives, which didn’t fare better with motorways being blocked due to downed trees and other objects.  Damage is estimated to be more than $135 million. News sources are predicting a clean-up effort taking up to more than a week to complete; this includes restoring the infrastructure affected by the storm. More information and photos can be found here.

Hamburger SV Handball Team to Fold?

Once deemed as the one of the powerhouses of German handball, especially after winning the Champions League Title last year, the handball team from Hamburg’s days as a Premere League team may be numbered. Faced with a 2.7 million Euro deficit (ca. $4.4 million), no president since the resignation of Andreas Rudolph in May and with that, the team’s main sponsor withdrawing its financial support, the team was denied entrance to the first and second leagues. Its last attempt to save face and be allowed to play next season in the Premere League is to overturn the decision by the German Handball League through the arbitration panel. The decision should take place on Wednesday. Should the panel uphold the decision or Hamburg withdraw its appeal, the team will be forced to play in the Regional League (3rd League) in the next season. In addition, the team will not be allowed to participate in the European Cup in the next season, despite finishing fourth in the standings. Melsungen would replace the spot left vacant. And lastly, the team will most likely file for bankruptcy, which could lead to the club being liquidated, should no one step in with money to help them. Such a free fall would be catastrophic, as Hamburg has competed well against the likes of the 2014 Season and German Cup champions, THW Kiel, as well as Berlin, Rhine-Neckar Lions, and the 2014 Champions League winners, SG Flensburg-Handewitt. More information can be found here.

World Cup begins tomorrow

Germany and the US are two of 32 teams that will go head-to head with the competitors beginning tomorrow. The 2014 FIFA World Cup will take place in Brazil at 12 several locations, with the Championship to take place on July 13th in Rio de Janeiro. For the first time since 1930, all the teams winning a World Cup will participate in the competition (Argentina, England, France, Italy, Spain, Uruguay, and Germany).  Spain is the returning champion, having edged the Netherlands in the 2010 Cup. This is the fifth time the Cup is taking place in South America, which has been won by teams from that continent the last four times. That means Brazil is the heavy favorites to take the Cup. More interesting is the pool play, in particular, Group G, where the US and Germany are in. They are scheduled to meet on 26 June in Recife. The stakes are high for the head coaches of both teams, who are both looking for their first World Cup title. Jurgen Klinnsmann is being criticized for the American team being Europeanized, which could be his downfall if his team does not make it. Joachim Loewe is hoping that winning the title will improve his chances of a contract extension before 2016. With both teams hobbling with players banged up from regular season competition, it will be interesting to see how the match will turn out, let alone, who will go far in the Cup. More on the Cup to come in the Files. If you want to know more about the tournament, click here for details.

In School in Germany: Mini-presentations

Question for teachers of foreign languages, history, social studies and even classes dealing with religion and culture: when preparing a topic that is complex and difficult to handle, how do you approach it? Do you divide them up into subpoints and provide them with materials and activities or do you provide a question-answer session pertaining to the subpoints discussed in class? What about having students presenting their subpoints as part of the topic?

One of the experiments I tried with my history classes was the Mini-presentation. An open form of frontal teaching, students are assigned a subpoint in connection with the topic to be presented, to be prepare at home, finding the most important and relevant information supporting it. They then conduct a 5-minute presentation on their points, while the remaining class (as well as the teacher) take notes. The teacher can exercise the right to add and correct the information to ensure that the facts fit to the points.

An example to present was the topic of the USA in the 1920s and its return to normalcy, where the Americans wanted nothing to do with international affairs and live the life they had before being dragged into World War I in 1917. With a group of 20+ students in grade 9, each one was given a theme for them to research. The points belonged to the categories of domestic policies, international relations, and accomplishments and inventions. Each student had up to 5 minutes to present his/her findings to the rest of the class, with questions and discussion to follow. The themes belonging to the Roaring 20s included: jazz music, Washington Conference, the radio, Prohibition, Women’s Right to Vote, Dawes Act, Fordney-McCumber Act, farming, the US highway system, and airplanes, just to name a few.

Advantages of a mini-presentation is students have a chance to know about the important points, let alone be encouraged to dig deeper in the research. For foreign language teaching, they have the chance to improve their language skills and acquire vocabulary relevant to the topic discussed in class. Two major disadvantages are the time factor and the fact that many students can forget the information mentioned if they do not write it down or have problems in communicating. For the first part, it is difficult if a session is between 45 and 60 minutes, pending on which school you are teaching, as mentioned in an earlier article. It is perhaps more effective if these presentations are done over the course of two sessions, or in a block session, as many Gymnasien in Germany have. To avoid problems with the second part, it is the easiest if a handout with a summary of the points are presented at the end of the topic so that the students have something on a sheet of paper.

But speaking from experience, mini-presentations are perhaps the most effective but also interesting way to lead the class through the subject without having difficulties in understanding the themes. This is because the students have the opportunity to do the frontal teaching, while the teacher can moderate to help them with their language, presentation and knowledge skills. On the school level, the students will get a whiff of what is expected of them when graduating: presentations of 10-30 minutes at the university and in their jobs. As our society has become more communicative, presentations are becoming the key requirement skills needed for the job, even more so if in a foreign language.

So for teachers of the aforementioned courses, now is the time to do the students a favor. And believe me, they will benefit from it-double! ;-)

In School in Germany: Graduation from School in Germany Part I

Confetti, make-up, dance music, competition between seniors and teachers. That is the subject of this blog entry for today is the last day of school for seniors at the Gymnasium, where I’m student-teaching, and we had the chance to say good-bye to them as they threw a party for all pupils and staff members alike. The celebration featured competition in the form of racing, Pictionary, and choosing the right medicine- which is all in connection with the graduating theme: medicine. All pupils were given make-up in red, and many classrooms were converted into areas of medicine (as a little sense of humor to start off the day).  Staff members were given awards for their hard work in assisting the class of 2014, wherever needed. And dance music, using the Top 40 songs of 2013/14 topped off the celebration , as the Class of 2014 received their diplomas and made their exit similar to a Mexican wedding.  Or did they?

Before going into graduation ceremonies in Germany in comparison to the US, I have a few statements for you, and you as the reader have to choose which ones are false. Select and answer in the Comment section of the Files below, or on the Files’ facebook pages.  Reasons and experiences on the part of Americans and Germans are more than welcome. In part II, which will be in a couple months, the answers will be revealed and will take you by surprise.

So without further ado, here we go:

  1. In German schools, there are informal graduation ceremonies similar to the ones mentioned, after the Abitur exam
  2. Germany and the US have formal graduation ceremonies, where graduates receive their diplomas.
  3. There are graduation dances (balls) in the US
  4. There are graduation speeches at both German and American high schools
  5. The Abitur exam in Germany features four topics pupils must prepare and pass.
  6. German graduates can decide between attending the university, university of applied sciences (Fachhochschule) or technical university with their diplomas.

If you need any hints or have any questions, please let the author know at flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com.

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