It’s that time of year in Upstate New York to get ready for school. Some Southern states are already back to school in the U.S. In Germany, each state has its own school calendar so that when we arrived in Bonn back in July 1990 for the Fulbright orientation days, I was given tips for a successful year as a teacher. Little did I realize that I would also have a new set of vocabulary words to use when it came time for school for my two children. Our son had to get a Schulranzen which I thought would be just like our book bags in the U.S. Far from it. First of all, the cost alone shocked me. When it came time for our daughter to get one for second grade, I was no longer shocked. The cost was more than $100. Why are they so expensive compared to U.S. backpacks? Well, for starters, the construction is sturdier. I was informed that the hard plastic interior was meant to keep school papers in good condition plus it was healthier for the back to carry them rather high up as compared to our book bags.
The list of needed supplies continued with an Etui or pencil case. It was meant to hold more than pencils, however. Also inside were a pencil sharpener, colored pencils, a fountain pen and ink cartridges (Füllfederhalter), an eraser (Radiergummi) and a Tintenkiller(ink slayer) or Tintenhai(ink shark) which I have shown in a photo. It appears as a two-sided pen/marker. One side contained a white felt tip which magically made the fountain pen ink disappear. The other end had a blue tip with which corrections could be made. However, a second error required the use of the whiteout product which was smeared over the error and then allowed to dry before a correction could be done. German school classrooms did not have pencil sharpeners so each student brought the small hand held one.
Our son began first grade in Germany, and I went to the stationery store with my supply list in hand and asked for the DIN A4 and DIN A5 paper not knowing what to expect. These are standard sized paper used in German schools in addition to graph paper. Many American parents are used to purchasing three hole punched paper for notebooks. In Germany there was a choice of either two or four holes. German paper is longer and narrower than the standard lined notebook paper used in the US. Elementary children normally use wide ruled paper. I have included a photo of the paper both our children used to being cursive penmanship which was taught in first grade. If you observe closely, there are four lines instead of the standard wide or college lined notebook paper.
Also, on day one of first grade, students brought Hausschuhe(slippers for in school use)and came with a Schultüte, a large cone of sweets and supplies. Parents were expected to attend the first day of school with their children which happened to be a Saturday morning at the end of July. The first graders were given a task to complete and a picture to color. The teacher then spoke with parents about what would be taught during the year. We were expected to communicate regularly with the teacher and sign off on homework assignments and tests. Additionally, we were told to purchase a Blockflöte or recorder. I observed the combined first and second grade classes, and they all played their recorders and took turns singing either the melody or harmony.
The Fulbright Exchange Teacher experience was more than simply learning to be flexible in teaching and to learn from other German teachers. It was also an enormous cultural immersion for my children. I did not make adjustments for my children but let them learn by doing, by immersing them in school and the language. Children learn quickly and are resilient. By December and the mid-year parent meeting, the teacher complimented all of us on the quick transition to using Hochdeutsch or High German from using the dialects spoken at home. Any German I had used with our two children had been High German with is the standard all Germans used. Most children arrive speaking a dialect and then have to learn High German. The parents explained to the teacher that because our son had only spoken High German, their sons and daughters had to learn Hochdeutsch so that they could communicate with him.
So, no matter the country, I wish much learning and teaching success to all students and teachers around the world.
Note: my models to show off the German Schulranzen are neighborhood children who were very happy to pose for me.