By Miranda Metheny
I always hear that children, like smiles, are the same wherever you go. On some level, that’s true, just as on some level its true for all people. At the German elementary school where I volunteer, the girls play the same hand-clapping games I remember playing at that age, and the boys are just as obsessed with adding laser beams and machine guns to every assignment as their American peers. Some are too shy to speak up in class, while others climb onto their desk to make sure the teacher can see their raised hands. They take ten minutes to form teams for a five minute group exercise. They expect extra points for colour-coding their math equations. They can never wait for recess.
Amidst all the sameness, though, differences start to poke out. Before I go any farther, I should probably mention that my school seems to be a somewhat elite school, especially as far as English education goes. It’s possible that it pulls from a slightly more diverse, educated and well-to-do segment of the population than the baseline average. Nevertheless, a lot of what I see does fit with the general culture here, which only makes sense; these kids are growing up German.
1.) A Global Perspective
The education in Europe, naturally both reflecting and influencing the mindset here, is more internationally oriented. When I was these kids age, I would have broken into a cold sweat trying to find Germany on an unmarked map. While it’s not necessarily surprising that they can easily spot America, I was a little shocked that four or five of them knew just where Missouri was — two of them had even been there!
Its also obvious why the average German is so good at English — foreign language education is a high priority here. The ability level varies, of course (from the odd ex-pat native speaker to the children who have enough trouble reading in their mother tongue), but in general it astonishes me what these kids are capable of. Aside from the rare awkward construction, the occasional poorly chosen preposition and a little too much hesitation, you could sometimes mistake the classroom for an American one during the English lessons. They teach the concept of family trees by showing one of the British Royal Family (in light of the recent wedding), food chains by discussing the native animals of Australia (where they have a partner school) and the basics of design and layout by collaborating on a small English language magazine.
My goal here is not to unduly criticize America’s foreign language education (or lack thereof) — I realize that there are real and valid reasons why it’s less of a priority for us. No language would be as obvious a choice for American children as English is for Germans: the reality of their geography simply demands more international communication, half of the popular culture here is English-language and the list goes on and on. However, if we ever decide to get serious as a nation about learning Spanish or Chinese or whatever, this would be a great place to look for an example.
On the other hand:
The way they’re handling “the rest of the world” is a little spotty. The children themselves are quite multicultural — each teacher keeps a complex chart of which children do and do not participate in religious education, which children can and can’t have pork, or beef, or meat in general. Despite this, I have seen no better coverage of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East or Asia than in American schools. Sometimes things even wander out of the American definition of politically correct — such as the Alphabet Chart that illustrates C with the caricature of a stereotypically Chinese man.
2.) Little Liberals
When lunch boxes come out of hiding here, I don’t see peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, “Lunchables,” or Hershey bars — rather, the norm seems to be whole-grain bread, raw, locally grown vegetables, organic fruit juices, unflavoured rice cakes and popped quinoa. Raising a population that cares about nutrition, natural ingredients and the sustainability of their produce starts quite young, apparently, as do certain other “liberal” tendencies.
One day, I went onto the playground yard to find a large group of the children shouting and chanting over to the side, harassing the man who had been hired to do some maintenance work on the play area. They had taken materials from the classrooms and painted big posters saying, “We want our playground back,” and “Go home!” The teachers came in, took away the signs and encouraged them to write letters to the district coordinator rather than bothering the poor worker. It was hard for me to keep from laughing — the children seemed to be playing “protest” the same way they might play “house” or “school!”
On the other hand:
I can’t decide how to classify their treatment of the gender divide here. Boys and girls seem to work together on projects gladly, they giggle while doing so and seem to consider each other good friends. But at recess, the two groups split definitively — the girls talk, play clapping games and do handstands against the back wall, while the boys play tag, football or “Star Wars” reenactments. I wonder how natural such a clean division can be, especially when I notice adults here telling children clearly what’s for boys to like, and what’s for girls to like. They are specifically taught to look for the difference in layout, content and colour-scheme of advertisements meant for boys and girls, and not in a purely academic way. If a girl picks out a book about bugs or weapons, she is kindly asked if she’d like to trade for a new one, something that a girl must like better. Sometimes the girl wants to keep her “boy-book,” and the adults let them do so without another word — but I find the question itself startlingly out-of-place in a gender-equal society such as Germany’s.
3.) Power to the Children
One big difference I’ve noticed is the amount of personality responsibility given to the children here. Most reach school at the beginning of the day by riding their bikes or taking public busses. The teacher sends them in unsupervised pairs out to the school grounds to gather sticks or rocks for projects. They open their milk bottles with a sharp, awl-like instrument that they could easily put out each others eyes with. And yet, for the most part, things go quite well. They don’t put each others eyes out, hide in the yard until the teacher comes out to find them or roam around town playing hooky from school.
Although sometimes the sort of things these children are allowed, and expected, to do surprises me, I haven’t seen it go badly yet, making me wonder how much of our supervision and protection is strictly necessary, and which system prepares children better for the responsibilities of adulthood.