Thursday, July 6, 2017

Deutschland Dispatch # 7: Reflection

The Brandenburg Gate, ( Yes, where David Hasselhoff performed)
How did my travels to Germany make me a better teacher?

1.  My increased passion.  My students respond best to me when I exude my passion for a particular topic.  If nothing else, my time in Germany ignited a deep passion in me for Europe - and starting this Fall I will increase my coverage of Germany in my day to day classroom discussions.  And not only in the historical sense, but more in a cultural awareness understanding.  I can more honestly answer questions like: How tall is the Berlin wall?  Are the German people friendly? What is the food like? Did you see Hansel and Gretel? etc.
(answers: Not as tall as you think, As long as you are not late, meat and potatoes, No, though I looked).
Me,o n top of the Reich stag building, Berlin 2017

2.  Long -lasting relationships with quality educators.  This trip to Germany has been some of the best professional development I have ever experienced.  The main reason?  The people that I met.  I am first and foremost, a relational learner - and I learn best when I am in a group of people.  Dialogue and conversation dominated this trip to Germany for me, and I learned SO MUCH from these new friends.  This will have a positive and direct impact on my students, as I will be able to bring new methods, ideas, and approaches to my classroom.

The Soviet army, on top of the Reichstag building, Berlin 1945
3.  Modeling a life of travel and adventure. I want my students to see beyond the four walls of the classroom.  I want them to know that the wider world is the best place to learn.  And that we learn best when we are taken out of our comfort zone, and experience new things.  So, my main priority is to live that very belief.

4.  Seriously unpacking the North Carolina public school system.  Two of the things that jumped out at me the most in Germany include: The complete lack of technology in German classrooms, and the unabashed student tracking of the school system.

Studying these differences, it elicits more questions for me, including:

  • Why are we giving every student in our school system a device?  Is it worth it, and is it increasing student learning?  And if so, why are the Germans (who are well known for their tech and engineering prowess) not following suite?
  • Does placing students in separate schools after the fourth grade pay dividends?  Is the German system set up to support kids strengths?  Or is the system merely maintaining societal class lines (all middle class kids attend one of the two top schools)?
  • And what about the university system?  The fact that the German universities are free changes the game.  Whereas, the intense tracking of the lower grades can correspond to socio-economic distinctions, the fact that an achievement score on your final exams (usually completed after 10th grade) means entrance to any university that one chooses, is amazing.

So, overall, I left Germany with a head full of new ideas, inspiration, and many new friends.  But I also returned home with more questions, which tells me that the trip was a worthwhile endeavor - and an experience that will continue to bear fruit for me and my teaching for many years to come.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Deutschland Dispatch # 6: Munich is Amazing.

The "new" Rat haus in Munich, with famous Glockenspiel
Driving from Freiburg to Munich is an incredible experience, namely for the view of Lake Constance, with Switzerland on the other shore. Though I was initially focused on this being the setting for the infamous Council of Constance (1414) where Moravian founder Jan Hus was executed, the beauty of the region became overwhelming - and was undeniable.

Entering Munich, it was clear that this city takes its architecture seriously.  Around every corner there seems to exist another amazing building, most of which are either churches or palaces built by the Bavarian kings (Ludwig or Maximillian).

Free day in Munich, by bike
We stopped at the Olympic Park (constructed for the 1972 Olympics, which turned into a nightmare due to the terrorist kidnapping of Israeli athletes) where we ate lunch and took in an extreme sports showcase...which was awesome.  From there we traveled to the BMW headquarters (in a building built to look like a four cylinder engine no less), where we learned about the famed German apprenticeships.  And it was as impressive as advertised - seeing 16 year old students completely immersed in the BMW business, and learning the skills while on the job.  Our group seemed unanimous in our appreciation for it, and discussed the opportunities (and barriers) to implementation in the USA. It was also a relief to meet students who were not necessarily University bound, as we had spent much of our time learning about the Gymnasium schools, and University systems.

A surfer on the Eisbach
By day 2, we truly started to drink deep from Munich - we walked around the city, explored on our own - and navigated the U-Bahn.  Seeing the famous Rathaus and glockenspiel, walking along the Isar River, and consistently finding amazing Turkish food was the order to the day.

Eventually we found the famous English garden, a massive park (larger than Central Park) that stretches for miles.  In addition, it is a favorite local haunt, and being around all of the everyday folks from Munich made me feel most at home.  Sunbathing, tossing frisbee, and (of course) soccer games were taking place as far as the eye could see.  The park is dotted with pedicabs, monuments, and the river.

The English Garden bike riding gang
Overall, it was clear that the English Garden was the coolest place in all of Europe, and we had to return the next day.  So, on Sunday -we rented bikes, and headed out.  We decided that we needed to emulate the locals and take a dip in the extremely cold river, the Eisbach that runs through the park.  (Munich has created a fast flowing channel, with man made waves that allows for surfing.  But many folks also just jump in this channel and allow the fast current to carry them down.)  So we did it, and it was exhilarating, though cold.  (But upon getting out, I quickly realized that my wedding ring...was gone!  Indeed the extreme cold of the river had allowed it to loosen, and now it sits somewhere at the bottom of a German river.  Initially, I freaked.  I looked for it to no avail, but my friends all made me feel better about it.  I decided to try and find a new one while in Munich- to no avail.)

The Doner- Turkish food in Munich
Concluding this trip is bittersweet, as I am so excited about seeing my family at home, yet hate to see this experience end. After ten days in Germany with 29 friends, who started off as strangers, my concluding thought is simple:  Everything is about human connectedness.  Everything we do is driven by relationships with each other.  From the deep depths of emotion that I experienced in Dachau, to the thrill of leaping into the Eisbach river in the English garden - the ties that bind these emotional experiences together remain my feelings towards those that I love.  Walking into the crematorium at Dachau was an overwhelming fear of loss.  Swimming in the Eisbach was joyful, as it was a shared visceral experience with 10 of my friends.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Deutschland Dispatch # 5: Dachau.

The entrance to Dachau
While in Munich, we took the (way too short) drive to Dachau.  The first concentration camp built by the Nazis, Dachau became the model for most subsequent camps.  Architecturally, it checked every box that you probably expect a Nazi concentration camp to check: barbed wire, grey, stark, low ceiling buildings, and a feeling of hopelessness.  Upon entering, it is clear that this is no ordinary memorial.  Instead, everything that we did simply felt like a funeral for those who suffered and died.  It was quiet.

The infamous "Work makes you free" sign.
The feeling of despair was most potent, and it was hard to shake.  Today there are many memorial gardens, and houses of worship dotting the area - but the feeling is still there. Especially when touring the crematoriums (with their ovens, and fake showers), and the execution firing ranges - it is mortifying.

The Dachau concentration camp is located a mere 18 miles from downtown Munich - one of the largest cities in all of Germany.  It is surrounded by neighborhoods, and a small town (sharing the name Dachau).  When the US forces liberated this camp in 1945, they required all residents of the town to tour the camp and see the horrors.  In addition, the residents had to help bury the dead.  In many ways, this was the most terrifying element for me - as it was simply not very hard for tyranny to succeed.  The longer I was there, the clearer it was just how out in the open this process actually was.  Due to public complacency, and more likely, abject fear - it was borderline easy.

But the nation of Germany has worked harder than most to shine light on these horrors.  Again, we visited a massive concentration camp where some of the worst horrors were ever committed by man.  And it goes back to how I felt in Berlin - this country is so intent on using its own history as a tool to grow.  Though painful, as an historian, I can not applaud this sentiment more.

I walked away in tears, as I thought about my own family and loved ones.  But as I walked, I became more resolute to fight my own complacency in the face of tyranny, and hopelessness.  This tour made me even more grateful that I am a teacher, a profession that remains most crucial for the betterment of the human race. I hope that I can play my part well.

Never again.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Deutschland Dispatch # 4: I Love Freiburg

One of the old town gates of Freiburg.  The site of a medieval with hunt.
Freiburg, Germany immediately felt familiar to me, as I would compare it to my city of Asheville, NC.  It is located on a river, in the middle of the famous Black Forest.  Just 20 minutes from France, it is well known as an outdoors Mecca of sorts, attracting hikers, kayakers, students, and liberal types from all over Germany.  They lead Germany in sustainable living, which we took in first hand by touring the communities of Vauban, and St. Peter - each of which are two of the most environmental friendly communities in Europe.  We were also fortunate enough to hike through the Black Forest (home of Hansel and Gretel) and learn about the massive wind turbine that provide much of the energy for the area.  It was beautiful ( and reminiscent of home), as well as inspirational.

In addition, Freiburg is a university town, and it shows.  The University of Freiburg brings in thousands of young people, who populate the town with an amazing energy.  In the evenings, as we strolled through the city in search of more ice cream, we were inundated with young students who sat with their bare feet in the shallow water channels, or bachle (which are about 2 feet wide, 6 inches deep, and run throughout the old city, apparently for fire fighting in the Middle ages), drinking beverages and talking.

Market day at The Freiburg Cathedral
It was during our stay in Freiburg that our group truly hit our sweet spot, and we all came to absolutely love the city.  By that point, we had all been together for 3-4 days, and we fell into a groove with each other.  Travelling became easier, and it was clear to all who among us was best with German translations, map navigating, or filming.  Folks were able to recognize other people who traveled at their respective pace, or who enjoyed similar activities. Everyone consistently demonstrated a touch of grace with each other (which was especially impressive in the 90 degree heat, with no AC), and hugs became much more common in Freiburg.

Language Barrier?  Soccer makes it all okay.
We attended numerous lectures at the university, and the heat was (unfortunately) sweltering.  That said, we all received numerous perspectives on the German education system (from teachers, university professors, and students) - and this provided a perfect catalyst for rich discussion among all of us. Notably, while at the University we were introduced to students who were recent refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  We listened to their stories, and learned more about the German government's decision to welcome millions of refugees in 2015.  We then had lunch together, wherein I once again learned that when a common language is a challenge (my German is awful, and they are still learning English) - you talk about soccer, which we did (For those of you keeping score at home, they cheer hard for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, respectively - though all of us agreed on the merits of Messi)...and it was awesome.
Black Forest

And therein lies the brilliance of this professional development: take 28 qualified teachers to a foreign country, provide them opportunities to learn about schools, and create space for discussion and reflection.  at its end, you will have 28 teachers who return home with new ideas, criticisms, and inspiration for their classrooms.  If your lucky (which I have been), they return home as great friends as well.

The Bachle of Freiburg

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Deutschland Dispatch # 3: Stuttgart and Herrenburg

I confess that for as much as I appreciated my three days in Berlin, I was ready to travel to a different part of Germany.  We flew to Stuttgart in the early morning, and immediately attended a meeting with the minister of education for the state of Baden-Wutenburg. It was extremely informative (though extremely hot).

Afterwards we spent some time in the center of the old city. There we visited the old castle (13th century). It was so fun to watch the mood of our group shift dramatically- taking more pictures, and generally showing so much excitement for these truly historic parts of Germany.  Stuttgart very much fulfills the traditional paradigm of an old European town, and we all recognized that we were no longer in ( the more international and modern) Berlin.

Our visit to Gymnasium was enjoyable, as we were able to meet with teachers and students for quite a while.  I felt very much at home at this school, as I was able to meet Jonathon, who teaches tenth grade geography.  Being in his class with 16 year old German kids was like being at any given day in my class. The students asked great questions about the USA, including  “Does everyone carry a firearm?”  We talked a lot about how large and diverse the USA is, usually discussing the differences between Texas and NYC.

But the greatest discovery of our trip came in the evening as we ended up in the small town of Herrenburg (founded, 1278), due to a last minute hotel switch. A few of us decided to walk through the town, where we discovered an amazing medieval town, complete with immaculate houses, narrow streets, and a cathedral with a glockenspiel. We took in the sunset, grabbed an ice cream cone, and explored.

As John Lennon said, “Life is what you get when you don't get what you expected.”

And he was the walrus, so who am I to question it?

Deutschland Dispatch #2: Berlin

Starting our trip in Berlin has been an intriguing experience. As much as I love being in a European capital, Berlin has a unique spirit about it ( which was easy to understand, as EVERYTHING is in English). Exploring the city with the group (i.e: navigating the U-Bahn, language barrier, and trying new foods) made for quick bonding, inside jokes, and friendships forged. I am quite sure that these new relationships will be my most valued souvenir from this trip.

Though I loved seeing the remnants of the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag building, and the amazing parks, the city carries a heavy, heavy weight of history. Specifically, the Soviet influence on Berlin remains palpable. The socialist architecture, sculptures of Karl Marx, and memorials (specifically at Treptower Park) are all a testament to the historic influence of the USSR.

At the same time, what most impressed me about Berlin was the German people's eagerness to embrace their history (to the point of even preserving the Soviet graffiti in the Reichstag building from the fall of Berlin in 1945), and tirelessly shine a light on the horrors of their Nazi past. Not once did I witness a “whitewash” of history in Berlin.  Instead, I experienced a consistent willingness to engage with that past, and to emphatically say “never again.”  I am so impressed, and it is a lesson from which all of us can learn.

Traveling with 27 other public school teachers with Go Global NC is refreshing. Being surrounded by teachers who care deeply about the craft is always inspiring, and this trip is no exception. But visiting the JFK School in Berlin illicited such great conversations with my new friends about teaching, and new perspectives. Seeing how the Germans “do school” is every bit as interesting and informative as I hoped it would be.

 I left Berlin with more questions about our education system, a deep respect for the German people's historic self-awareness, and (most importantly) 28 new friends.

On to Baden-Wurtenburg...

Deutschland Dispatch #1: Why Germany?

Why travel to Germany?

On day one, sitting in the Newark airport, looking at pictures of my two boys at the pool - I confess that I am struggling to remember why I chose to leave for ten days, and travel to Germany. As I have never been away from my family for this length of time, it stings. But I will push on, because man I love to travel. I love it all: the moving sidewalks, bad food, security weirdness- it is my jam.

So, Why am I going on the trip anyway?

 1. Because William Faulkner says “the past is never dead. It Isn't even past.”  To understand our world, we have to live it. What we are experiencing today will tomorrow be the past, so we must drink deep. Traveling to Germany is a huge step in that effort.

2. To teach it , we have to model it. It is my hope that my students see the world as something amazing to explore. At the core, I intend to return to my classroom with a fresh experience that I can share with my students.

3.  I have taught for 17 years. At this point, it is crucial that I consistently find new catalysts for inspiration. Never one to rest on my laurels, this trip is already turning my gears. Meeting so many of these great teachers from across NC, and seeing a new country is just the ticket to help me grow as an educator.

So here's to Deutschland!!  And here's to growth...

Featured Post

What is Punk Rock Pedagogy?

The most valuable preparation that I ever received for teaching history in a public high school was from punk rock bands.  Growing up in Win...