Martinstag – St. Martin’s Day

November 11th is celebrated as St. Martin’s Day in Germany (yeah, I’m more than a month behind on my blog posts, but I’m working on it!).

The holiday is mostly honored by young children, who learn stories about the charitable former Roman soldier and 4th century French monk. St. Martin famously cut his cloak in half to save a beggar in a snowstorm. St. Martin is also used to teach humility, since the legend has it that he hid in a goose pen to avoid being ordained as a bishop.

Much of Europe still celebrates this holiday in varying forms. Some nations honor Armistice Day concurrently as well.

At the International school the students all met at dusk and watched a skit performed by Joe’s 2nd grade class about the life of St. Martin.

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Joe used his Ukulele to accompany the crowd to a traditional song about the lanterns that the students had learned in advance.

Then the students walked in a twilight procession with their lanterns through the town and along the Danube. They had decorated the lanterns at school with tissue paper and glitter. They are then balanced on store-bought battery-powered wands that have a powerful halogen bulb hanging from them.

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The dim lighting was too challenging for my lack of camera skills.

After the walk, the students gathered at the school for warm drinks (a mix of fruit juice and tea) and a traditional sweet bun shaped like a goose. I couldn’t get a photo of those in the dark, but they resembled the photos below:

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We were excited to partake in this European holiday celebration. So many of the German holidays are very similar to American ones, due to the heavy German immigrant population. But St. Martin’s day was new to us, and it was a delightful (albeit chilly!) experience.

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International Preschool

I had a chance to snap a couple of shots of Sam’s classroom this week. Since the first day we visited his classroom, I have always been impressed by the size and scope of the facilities that this international school offers for their Early Years Program (EYP). The EYP spans 3 classrooms of students aged 3-5 (both pre-K and kindergarten in America).

Here’s my two boys bundled up for their walk to school:

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Once at school, the students from EYP1 through grade 5 all remove their shoes and change into Hausschuhe (inside shoes). This helps the school stay clean. Many students wear Crocs or other comfortable shoes, but always with sturdy soles, unlike American slippers.

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Here’s the area where Sam changes his shoes. They also keep gear for all types of weather at the school, such as sun hats, rain pants & boots, and snow gear. The students in Germany go outside in all types of weather. No “rainy-day recess” unless there is a tornado or lightning storm nearby. Below is a playground shot on a sunny day:

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Sam is with other 4-year olds in EYP2, and has 11 students in his class, with one teacher in addition to several teacher’s aides and parent helpers that come in at various times. There is an adjoining classroom of EYP1 students and they often participate in activities with those kids as well. Some of my pictures are of the EYP1 classroom, since they have recently reorganized and split apart these two groups, which used to be taught more-or-less together.

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It’s a pretty typical preschool space, with areas for various activities. The canopy  at the back is for “home play”, Lucy’s favorite spot when we come to visit.
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Sam’s favorite activity is drawing and painting. The exposure to peers has improved Sam’s interest in drawing from making monochromatic scribbles in August to the current obsession with stick figures.
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The EYP2 students have circle time each morning and each student has a different job for the week. Sam is very proud to tell us about his job and the responsibilities it entails.
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The school lunch is catered by a local company, so it’s not cheap. This is much more common in Europe, where school lunch is not as standardized or subsidized as in America. The school lunch menu offers four (4!) choices each day, ranging from rotisserie pork roast, brisket with beet salad, chicken legs with creamed bell pepper, mushroom risotto, fried rice with vegetables, pasta with arugula, and vegetarian winter stew. Sam does really well with all of this variety and often comes home talking about the new foods he’s tried that day. Plus, he’s discovered a love of rice pudding, which they serve once a week or so. For the younger EYP kids, they order one lunch option and serve it “family style”, so Sam is also picking up some good table manners.

Another thing you’ll never find in American schools? At school functions, they sometimes serve beer!

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After lunch, all the students are expected to brush their teeth, and have a space to store their cup and towel next to the sink. I love this idea! It’s not something I’ve seen enforced or even encouraged in American preschools as of yet. In the photo below, you can see all the little tooth-brushing cubbies to the right of the sink.
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Sam’s class has music, P.E., and library time once a week, just like the elementary grades.  The P.E. is not held in the school building, but at a gym a 10-minute walk away. The teachers all have a complicated drop-off and pick-up schedule so they can coordinate walking all the students to and from P.E. throughout the week. There is a sports club close to the school where the older grades hold their P.E. classes at times, but Sam’s class is directed to a center for gymnastics that has soft floors and lots of cushions for jumping and swinging around. It’s great for little kids. They also go to have swimming lessons every other week at a nearby pool.

We have also been very impressed by the selection offered by the library. It’s not an easy task to provide books for such a broad range of students (ages 3-18) in both English and German, but the school librarian has done a very good job. Sam has come home with varied and interesting books each week, with no repeats so far!

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The above shot is a cozy reading corner in Sam’s classroom. It’s really hard to find English-language books for kids in Germany, and expensive to ship them here. We’ve become increasingly grateful for the access Sam has at school to books that we can all read together and understand.

Overall, there are more similarities to American preschool than I expected. And Sam has really benefited from the quality of teachers that this school employs as well as the spacious classrooms and smaller student-to-teacher ratio. He’s loved having a lot of responsibility to carry out tasks and has become fiercely independent about packing his backpack and getting himself dressed and ready in the morning. However, we’ve had a little challenge due to the language barrier. At such a young age, there’s a decided split between the native English and native German speaking kids, and they had a difficult time mixing and playing together in the earlier months. It’s also a challenge for the teachers to address the needs of the German students to learn basic English words (colors, numbers, alphabet sounds), while still providing enough challenge to the English-speakers.

We’re grateful to have had such a good experience with Sam’s schooling thus far and are proud to be able to offer our son such an excellent head-start. In America, we couldn’t even afford to send him to preschool at all!

And check out his über-handsome school portrait (says the proud mama):

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Working at an international school

***Disclaimer: This is my personal interpretation of my husband’s experience. I cannot pretend to be representative of others’ experiences. We are in no way trying to put forth a complete picture of the school we work at nor international schools in general.

Joe has worked in three public elementary schools in Washington State, before taking the cross-Atlantic leap to come teach at an international school in Ulm, Germany. Here are some of the differences we’ve noticed:

The pay & cost of living: We are not making a ton of money, but surviving as a family of four on a single salary is much more feasible now than in America.

The class size: Joe currently has 15 students, compared to 22-26 in his US public school classrooms. Some of his colleagues have as few as 8 students in their classes. It really changes how much attention teachers can give each student when the class sizes are so much smaller. The classes at his international school go on a lot of field trips each year, which is much more possible when you don’t have as many students to shepherd around.

The gender ratio: Sometimes at American public schools, Joe was the only male teacher other than a PE teacher and a janitor. Now it’s much closer to 50/50. I believe this to be both a recruitment tactic on the part of the school and also a symptom of the fact that men are more likely to move internationally for their careers. While women certainly do, it’s harder for a woman to be assertive and ambitious even today. And when they have families, I do believe women are less likely to ask their husbands to quit their jobs so that they can move for their own career opportunities.

Parental involvement: Because international schools are elective, they operate much like private schools. Since Sam’s tuition is free for us, we are not exactly sure of the sum the other students are paying, but we saw one figure that looked quite high. Many of the parents in Joe’s classroom own their own businesses or work for high-profile companies. Thusly, they often have more flexibility to come to parent night (Joe’s attendance rate was nearly 100%) and invest time and money in their children’s education. That is quite a difference from some of the low-income classrooms in which Joe has taught, where parents struggled to keep their kids clothed and fed, and often didn’t have a chance to help with school because they were working multiple jobs or caring for multiple children at home.

Discipline: Where we come from, I feel that there was a very clear disciplinary process. Students and parents understood that if they were overly violent or disruptive toward other students that the punishment would progress from small consequences to eventual expulsion for serious offenses. I worry that with high tuitions being collected, the international school is afraid to expel a student because that would mean so much money lost. So they try to deal as best they can without that ultimate punishment. This can make for a tense situation because teachers and other parents in the classroom feel somewhat powerless to provide a good learning environment for the other affected students in the class.

Overall, we’ve had a very good experience so far. It’s a steep learning curve for Joe to be immersed in an entirely new curriculum, but his colleagues have been very supportive. I’m amazed to witness how collaborative the teachers have become, given that many of them are new arrivals at the school this year. It’s been good to have a contrast to the American public school way of doing things, and I think this will make Joe a stronger teacher in the long run.