Sunday, August 21, 2011

German Education System

Sadly, I didn't take any pictures of the University so here is a picture of our German Culture Today teacher taking us on a tour through Landau.

The education system in Germany differs greatly from that in the United States as well as in other countries. The discussion of education often came up among our international group within the first few months of the semester, which led to interesting comparisons and contrasts. Before I elaborate on some of the international discussions, I'll give a little overview of the German system.

Children in Germany can attend a Kindergarten from ages three to six, which is more of a preschool than the "Kindergarten" class that we tie in with elementary school. Each state differs slightly, but most elementary schools run from first to fourth grade. Secondary school is then divided into three different tracks: Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. Hauptschule typically ends after the ninth grade and is designed for students seeking vocational work. Realschule is an intermediate school, ending after the tenth grade. And finally, Gymnasium is the school system designed for students moving on to University after they pass a final test in the 12th or 13th year, called the Abitur. (I might also mention Förderschule or Sonderschule, which is a separate school for children with special needs.) In order to determine which school students will enter, a test is administered in fourth grade. However, once a student is placed in a specific tract, they do have the opportunity to move to a different school but I am not sure on the specifics of how or how often that occurs.

Now this system may be a little shocking to Americans, who are used to a basically one-size-fits-all public education. In some ways I do see having a separate vocational and intermediate school as a positive, since some students in high school tend to drop out because they are just not interested in sitting in a classroom learning subjects that might not pertain to their future area of work. (Although I do believe a basic high school education to be very important for everyone. Drop out rates occur for many different reasons, including a lack of vocational training possibilities). But, on the other side I believe separating the students after the fourth grade is much too early. Many students don't settle into their intellectual capabilities or interests until much later. And by the time they are slotted to a school, it seems very unlikely for them to move up due in part to stigma assigned by others, and by themselves. It may also take an intellectual toll on the immigrant community. If a child has recently moved to Germany, or has not yet had enough time to perfect their German because they come from a bilingual household, they may be at a disadvantage to getting into the Gymnasium track which leads them to college. Realschule students who decide they would like to go to University will first have to take one or two years of prep classes in order to do so, which means there are opportunities for them if they choose.

Most Universities in Germany are public, costing students from around 90 to 500 euros a semester depending on the state. Many students take a year or two off in between to travel or work, meaning that most of the students you will see are slightly older than your typical American university 18-22 year olds. And some students may even wait several years to get a place in their choice university. It is difficult to explain the average number of years spent studying because each subject varies slightly. Landau had a large population of students studying to become teachers, who needed about the equivalent of a masters in order to teach. This took about five-six years.

Moving on and opinions aside, here are some of the interesting international tidbits I picked up:
Universities in Greece are on sovereign land that cannot by policed. This leads to many runs for safety and drug sales on campus. At times, rocks and other dangerous items are also thrown at police waiting on the outside. Private schools in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are not seen as being of high quality, since in many cases students and parents believe they don't have to work or be taught if they have paid for their education--it is thought that the students are just handed their degrees.

There will always be debates on how to best educate our children and which systems work better, but our German teacher at Coe always emphasized that sometimes you cannot always define something as better or worse, just different.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Auf Zwei Räder Bleibt Man Jung!

                                      "One remains young on two wheels"

I found this quaint phrase written on the bell of my wonderfully klappriges Damenrad that I rented from ASTA, a student organization at the university. For 50 Euros I could keep the rattling, squeaking, but functional bike for the semester and the money would be returned in full when I returned the bike intact. Not a bad deal considering how important that bike would become to me during the semester! And in fact, I knew I would appreciate a bike even before I got it. My sore feet could attest to that. It's true that Landau is a small town, but perspectives change when your only source of transportation is your own two feet.

The main campus of the university is only a three to five minute walk from the Wohnheim, but many classes are actually spread throughout the town. Back at Coe, I'm used to jumping out of bed and running across campus to class in a measly few minutes if I need too, but in Europe it seemed that many campuses were spread throughout the city. My hypothesis is that since towns and cities were already well developed and had less space than in the U.S., where a college could buy up a large track of land to house their campus as a whole, European universities had to improvise with departments set up in buildings wherever they could find space. In fact, the English department in Landau is located off the main square in an old French barracks, while some political science classes are housed in the Frank-Loebsches Haus, which is an old Jewish housing complex that also contains a museum (once owned by Anne Frank's great-grandfather in the late 1800s). From the Wohnheim it takes about 15 minutes to walk to the main square, but on a bike you can do it in five to seven minutes. A huge difference if you want to save time in getting to class!

Germany is a very ecologically-minded country, shown by its use of public transportation, trash separation to support recycling, and bicycle friendly cities and country sides. Most students living in Landau used a bike as their main form of transportation because cars can be very expensive (gas prices also come out to about $9 a gallon) and the fact that bikes are so much more convenient in a small town with narrow streets and limited parking. This also means that Germans take bicycle laws very seriously. We soon found out (one of the exchange students through experience) that it is illegal to ride your bike while drunk, and the police can in fact take away your driver's license for such an offense. It is also illegal to ride your bike at night without a light, but I'm not sure of the fine that goes along with this law. Both of these laws seem like common sense, but it was still amazing to think about some of the same vehicular laws applying to bicyclist because we don't normally think of bikes as being a main form of transportation in the United States. This being said however, most bicyclists in Landau didn't wear helmets, something I found very interesting in such a safety-conscious nation.

My mom didn't like the fact that I didn't have a helmet to wear either, and she liked it even less when a fellow Coe student fell off her bike and chipped several teeth. Mom then joked that I should start wearing a football helmet! Didn't happen to say the least. Luckily, I didn't have any spills on my bike. Although my favorite part of the ride from the Wohnheim was a fairly steep, winding cobblestone road down past the university. I would woosh down the road, wind rippling through my hair and pretend that I was flying instead of careening perhaps too quickly around the curve. Several times the thought occurred to me, "If I suddenly had to stop or something happened to my trusty but old bike, I would be splattered horribly on all of these cobblestones..."But I enjoyed the thrill each time nonetheless.

My bike and I went through many adventures including pitch black rides through the forest to the Wohnheim when the headlight would decide it was done working for the night. Riding the bike in total darkness was a lot more comforting than walking through total darkness, but a little more precarious. You had to practice getting the last turn off to the apartments just right, by feel of course--I can't emphasize more about how dark it really was in there--so you wouldn't get whacked by the branches on either side of the path. I also had to remember to bring a little plastic bag with me if it had recently rained because my seat had a crack in it that exposed the foam stuffing, perfect for soaking up water and storing it until I sat down and got a wet pair of pants. The bike also had a terrible tendency of eating up my pant legs and depositing grease on them whenever it could. Although, my all time favorite memory of my bike was the unfortunately hot day I decided to fill up my tires at a small bicycle shop downtown. I got a little too much air in the back tire and within a few seconds it expanded further, bursting the inner tube. No, "bursting" is too light of a word. It was an EXPLOSION that left my ears ringing and my mind in total confusion for several moments before a few people came running around the corner to see what had happened. Luckily I could just leave my bike there at the shop and pick it up the next day as good as new.

I've had a bike at Coe every year, but it never seemed like I got enough usage out of it. I think that after my semester in Germany relying on my bike to get me around everyday, I will take advantage of using my bike more often in Cedar Rapids. It's a newer bike of course, with gears and lights that actually work, but I still think I will miss my klappriges Damenrad.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Landau in der Pfalz

Unfortunately my blogging fell to the wayside for the rest of my time abroad, but there are still some things that I would like to share about my experience before I go back to school at the end of the month and have no time whatsoever to do any blogging :)

I last left you in Berlin on a sunny spring day, the day after which my mom and I took the train to visit our friends Alwin and Elisabeth in Hamburg. After a wonderful few days in Hamburg we were off to Katzenbach for an overnight stay before moving (finally) on to Landau.

Landau is a small town of about 43,500 people, situated in the southwestern corner of Germany in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz. This area of the Pfalz is commonly known as the "Tuscany" of Germany for its temperate weather and abundant vineyards. My mentor Sarah picked us up at the train station and brought us to my new apartment in the Studenten Wohnheim, or student apartments. It included a small bathroom and kitchen (well perhaps I should say refrigerator, sink, stove top and cupboards--not really a kitchen), and fairly large bedroom. Luckily, my room was located on the third floor overlooking the forest and mountains in the distance. This was as opposed to the other side of the Wohnheim which faced a less scenic hospital. Sarah also took me to Aldi to get some groceries and other last minute essentials for living on my own. After exploring the university campus, a five minute walk through the woods from the Wohnheim, my mom and I walked down to the Marktplatz or town square (another 10 minute walk) before a teary goodbye at the train station. I walked back alone to the Wohnheim, feeling a bit sad but also exhilarated to be out on my own. I loved Landau already. A cute little town with many shops and cafes, easily accessible by foot or bike, and surrounded by a lush countryside filled with vineyards and rolling hills.

                                                   View from my window the first evening