Fourth Grade in a Foreign Country

By: Sharon Ashworth

Thankfully, there was a smile at the end of the first day of school. Following the smile our daughter told us how some of the girls in her class took her by the hand during class break and showed her around. The morning of the second day they took her hand from mine and as they went into the school. Just maybe, I thought, I won’t feel guilty for insisting on this “culturally enriching experience”, the kind where you dump your kid into the local school in a foreign country and say “have a nice day sweetie”!

My husband and I had decided to spend his sabbatical in Heidelberg, Germany. We’d been to Germany several times before, but never for this long and not with a school-age child. We rationalized our decision to put our daughter in the local school by emphasizing language acquisition, exposure to other cultures, and not paying thousands of dollars for a private international school. So, I dropped my brave child off and then spent the rest of the day with a German-English dictionary and Google translate trying to decipher the school supply list. My daughter had been nervous about not having her supplies the first day, but her dad assured her that the teacher “would not pull out a protractor on the first day”. Well, the teacher did pull out a protractor on the first day but thankfully did not expect anyone else to have one. Families here have to purchase a lengthy list of supplies including lots of notebooks – lined paper, blank paper, graph paper, paper with borders, paper without borders, and each of these notebooks must also have a different color cover, purchased separately of course. My daughter was thrilled that students here need to have a quill type pen. They aren’t feather quills like in Harry Potter, but close enough. Students must also bring house slippers to school to wear after recess, but alas, bunny slippers are not in style. After visiting four different stores we were able to get most of the supplies. I can’t say I miss the big boxes in the U.S., but there are times when a Target sure is handy. On the other hand, in Germany one always passes by a bakery or a gelato stand while walking from one store to the next.

After four weeks of school with no crises, I was impatient for the school year to get underway. During these weeks, my daughter experienced only seven or so run-of-the-mill school days. Let me stop here and define the term ‘school day’. The ‘school day’ starts at 8:00 am and ends at 12:20. But I digress. So, what has she been doing for those four and half hours each school “day”? During the first week of school, the kids practiced for the play staged to celebrate the first graders’ first day of school. During the second week, special educators devoted two days to an anti-violence curriculum. Monday through Wednesday of the following week my daughter’s class took a trip out of town. Friday of that same week the class played in the park and then went home on early dismissal. Finally, I thought school would certainly start the following week, but no, Wednesday was the national holiday to celebrate German Unity Day, which meant no school for three days.

The two-day anti-violence curriculum and the class trip were certainly unique school experiences for my daughter. Of course we have anti-bullying programs in U.S. schools, but they don’t last for two days. My daughter did not elaborate, but the kids spent time learning meditation techniques, discussing hurt feelings, and playing games. The school considers violence a serious matter, as my daughter discovered through some unfortunate misinterpretations. Out in the playground, shortly after the special program, my daughter witnessed two boys fighting and attempted to use her rookie German language skills to point this out to the girl sitting next to her. Well, this certainly had to be dealt with, so the other girl took my daughter by the hand and marched her up to the two boys and there commenced a flurry of German punctuated by expectant looks at my daughter. When this did not produce a satisfactory end to the matter, the flurry of German was repeated to the adult on the playground. Hostile looks and finger-pointing followed the conflagration back into the classroom as my daughter was presented to the teacher for the re-telling of the story, but by this point she had no idea what all the fuss was about. It turned out that everyone up to that point had mistakenly thought that one of the boys had kicked her. She felt terrible, but thankfully no apparent ill will was generated. At this point, we were still patiently waiting for language integration classes to begin.

Kids here start learning English in the first grade, and by fourth grade they can exchange their broken English phrasing for my daughter’s broken German phrasing. There are supposedly integration classes for kids that don’t speak German, something not all primary schools provide, but seven weeks into the school term the classes had not started. We found out later, when language classes finally began the eighth week of school after yet another school break, that classes were two weeks behind because the school Recktorin (principal) was responsible for the lessons and she had been ill. Which brings me to another interesting observation about the school system here. I’ve mentioned how many days off there were in the first month or so of school and how short the school day is, but an additional feature is the sometimes random nature of class time and school hours. Principal sick for two weeks? – no language classes. Gym teacher with an injured foot? – no gym. Students tired after a school trip? – start school late the next day. Teacher not available for the last hour of the day? – end school early. You have to be on your toes as a parent here, especially if you work outside the home.

Now, about that short school day.

“Women 'still stuck at home with the kids'” (9/25/12)
“Long school days 'hinder new sports stars'” (4/20/12)

These two simplistic headlines from The Local, Germany’s News in English bookend Germany’s struggle with increasing demands for longer school days and entrenched cultural norms. The “mommy wars”, the economy, the shortage of day care, are all familiar touchstones in debates about schooling kids in the U.S., but here in Germany the short school day just really puts these topics under a harsh, glaring spotlight. Even for a stay-at-home parent it’s barely enough time to get the groceries before having to turn around and go back to school.

Traditionally, women stayed at home and tutored their kids in the afternoon, working in music and sports lessons. This does not mesh with what I see around me. We live in an apartment complex surrounded by research institutes and medical clinics and there are young women everywhere preparing for their careers. As in the U.S., more women than men are enrolled in the universities. Schools are adapting, albeit slowly, to the increasing numbers of women with advanced degrees and the increasing numbers of women who want to or have to go to work. While I have read that in other German cities, for example Berlin, afternoon programming has increased in the public school system - hence the concern expressed by the second headline - this is not the case here in Heidelberg. Well, that is not entirely true; at our daughter’s school some “afternoon” programs do exist. For instance, I enthusiastically suggested she play rugby for 30 minutes after school on Mondays, but was thoroughly drubbed with a heavy dose of eye rolling. I moved on to Tuesday’s offering of theater. I folded after a horrified look and seeing that theater class did not start until 1:30 so I’d have to pick my daughter up at school and have her back an hour later having fed her lunch. The hour and a half of basketball on Wednesdays likewise does not start until 45 minutes after school ends. Resigned to her “it will be good for you” fate, my daughter joined choir and instrumental music on Thursdays which starts when compulsory school hours end, and will keep her at school until 2:00.

So, if you really need your child to be somewhere other than at home with you or a nanny, your options in Heidelberg are to send your kid to a private school with longer hours, pay for one of the few day care slots available for school age kids, or pay for what appears to be a Boys and Girls Club type operation called Päd active. Päd active is a non-profit organization that operates on school grounds and charges parents by a sliding scale for one to four hours of after school activities and homework time. This will get you to 5:00, at some schools.

I discovered another complicating factor for working parents in Germany while attending the two and one-half hour parents’ night at the school – planning for your child’s exams. While waiting our turn to speak with the teacher, I chatted with an English-speaking mom about how she managed the short school days while working for an international corporation - it was quarter-past nine and she had not been home yet. Yes, it was difficult but she’d been managing that for quite some time; her immediate concern centered on the exams. She really needed to know when the exams would take place so that she could take time off of work to help her daughter prepare. Exams are a very serious matter in the German school system. I’m not talking about the types of exams that you find in the states, the results of which are used to rate the school not the child, but exams that can determine the trajectory of a child’s education from the 5th grade on. These are kids that still romp around the playground playing tag and hopscotch, but scores on these exams may ultimately determine whether or not they attend college. Until this year, exam scores and teacher recommendations determined whether your child went on to Gymnasium - a high school college prep curriculum - or to vocational school.

You may have heard about the German system of tracking students. Hang with me here and I’ll take you through it. Here in Bäden-Württemberg there are five different types of secondary schools that your child can attend after the 4th grade. Throughout Germany a student may attend a Hauptschule, a Realschule, or a Gymnasium, and here in Heidelberg, the student may also attend a Werkrealschule or a Gesamtschule. The Werkrealschule is like the Hauptschule but you can take extra courses to get a Realschule degree. The Gesamtschule is a comprehensive school that combines the curriculums of the Hauptschule, the Realschule, and the Gymnasium. So where does your kid go after finishing primary school? Certainly not just to the middle school down the road.

A simplified explanation of the German secondary school system is as follows. After 4th grade students attend secondary school depending upon their academic abilities. Teachers assess a student’s academic abilities based on general observations and grades. If grades and teacher recommendations are good enough the student attends Gymnasium, a college preparatory curriculum, from 5th grade until 12th grade. Completing Gymnasium and passing final exams gives you the Arbitur, a diploma needed to attend University. If grades and recommendations are not sufficient for Gymnasium the student enters a Hauptschule (grades 5-9) or a Realschule (grades 5-10). Both these types of schools provide a curriculum geared toward eventual vocational training, with the Realschule leading to more advanced vocational training (more schooling for more technical fields). This general system can vary across the 16 German states, or Länder, and is in transition. I spoke with the parents of a Gymnasium student who told me it was only last year that the state of Bäden-Württemberg gave parents more say in what type of school their children attended after 4th grade. As it is with the U.S. high school diploma, without the Arbitur a child’s future educational and employment opportunities are limited so parents are keen to get their kids into a Gymnasium.

My original reaction to all this was to thank goodness for undertaking our adventure before my daughter reached 5th grade. Upon reflection however, and now several weeks into school, I see there are any number of benefits and pitfalls for any age child to attend school in a foreign country. Younger children communicate by playing; no translation seems necessary for “do you want to play?” said in any language. Younger children also learn new languages faster. On the other hand, children under six are less likely to remember events, sights, and people in later years and tend to be less tolerant of history lessons and wandering around museums. Speaking with a few parents who arrived in Germany with older children I found that starting school at the Gymnasium level might not have been as bad as I thought. There are dedicated classes for getting foreign kids up to speed on the language and with pre-teens and teens there is a great deal more to conversation among friends than yelling “your it!” on the playground.

Years from now, when our daughter relates to her friends back home about the time her parents decided it would be a “good idea” to live abroad and for her to go a school where (cue eye-rolling) “they spoke no English!” we will also sit around our kitchen table and laugh about the time a conversation simultaneously centered around the subject “ship”, “chip”, or “sheep” depending upon the accent of the person speaking. Our daughter will remember being bored and frustrated with long explanations of school work spoken only in German, but also remember the new games her schoolmates taught her and the pride she took in memorizing a famous German poem.

As parents we do the best we can for our kids and my husband and I are fortunate in that we can provide a great many things for our daughter. We’ve decided that living abroad, even for a short time, definitely falls into the “best we can” category. When she looks back at her childhood, we hope our daughter agrees.

About the author:

Sharon Ashworth currently lives in Heidelberg, Germany with her husband and nine-year old daughter.  Her family has lived in Germany before, but this time promises to learn more Deutsch, meet more locals, and eat more Kuchen.
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Contest Comments » There are 2 comments

Daniel Morales wrote 4 years ago:

Really excellent piece! Your writing is clean and clear and really informative. I enjoyed it.

Sine Thieme wrote 4 years ago:

Sharon, I really enjoyed reading this piece as I'm originally from Germany and your essay brought back many memories. And goodness, how complicated the school system sounds to an outsider, but you've described it well. Kudos to you and your husband for sending your daughter to the local school. She will have learned more later from the experience than she ever could have learned at a "normal" American school. We also have "gone local" with our kids here in South Africa and are very happy about that decision, even though it made some things more scary and complicated and the transition back will be more work. It's worth it!

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