Sunday, October 25, 2009

Atlantik-Bruecke Study Trip to Germany, 2009

Travel to Germany has been exclusively in the realm of family trips for me, so when I read about the opportunity to visit Germany as a professional, I applied without much hope of being selected. According to the publicity put out by the IDOE, the program was being opened to Indiana teachers for the first time, and to Social Studies teachers for the first time. I assumed that there were many, many teachers who would be better suited for the study trip than I. When my principal came into my classroom last year to announce my selection, I assumed she had misunderstood the phone call- surely I must just be a finalist, and that interviews will follow. Only after calling to confirm the selection myself did I start to realize what had really happened.

My next moment of disbelief came with the organizational meeting. We were told that the trip was going to be completely paid for, and further that we each would be lodging in separate rooms during our travels. Teachers, at least those I am familiar with, are used to the idea that nothing is paid for unless you first jump through hoops and beg. This notion of the all-expenses-paid trip was simply amazing. I still find it hard to comprehend. Becoming a representative for my state, as well as for my profession marks a high point in my professional life that will be hard to match or exceed.

Germany is the homeland of my mother, and so I have been on many trips throughout my youth and adult life. I have cultivated a love of Germany that I will carry with me always. My love was not diminished on this study trip. Nearly every place I visited was new to me. My mother's family lives in Nordrhein-Westfalen in the town of Bad Salzuflen. All of my previous travels have had that town as the hub of other journeys. Our group did not travel to my family's state, so this meant that everything I saw was fresh and new. Even Berlin, the one place I had seen before, was new to me since I had the benefit of my excellent fellow teachers as companions. Their insights complemented my own observations and allowed me to understand everything differently. And, of course, the indispensable Mr. Pinnow helped me to see Germany through his own unique experiences. What an extraordinary gentleman and guide!

Our journey began in Munich. Mr. Werner Karg greeted us and gave us all our initial directions for the next three days. Little did we know that the first evening in Germany would include the famed Oktoberfest. As an introduction into the German culture of the south, I could think of nothing better. I tried to imagine how the same scene of Munich's Oktoberfest would change if transported to America intact. I have never been amid such a dense crowd that was, at the same time, friendly and boisterous. The police force was working, but in a much different way than their counterparts in America would have done.

At this point I must comment on the food and drink, not only in Munich, but throughout the journey. I felt like I was in a dream land whenever meals were presented. Everything was perfect. I was constantly reminded of my childhood stays in Germany with my Oma's kitchen always producing perfect meals and treats for my family. The bread, cheese, and meats were beyond compare. The mineral water and beer were outstanding. Some of my companions could not develop a liking for the waters, but I found them to be delightfully refreshing. How can something so simple as a brotchen be so elusive in America? I tried as many new foods as I could, but I was pleased that the cuisine of the south of Germany is not as different as I thought it might be from that of the north. It was all familiar and inviting like an old friend.

Along the way I tried to pay attention to details that my students would focus on. I took pictures of normal houses, traffic lights, street signs, fruit stands, bicycle racks, and many other mundane scenes not found on post cards. For it is in the daily differences of life that life in other countries really begins to make sense. I will be sharing many of my pictures with my students, but I already knew that they would become bored with nothing to see except monuments and gothic architecture. They are interested in the differences found in what is normal. It was quite useful when we visited schools and also government officials who explained Germany's educational structure for us all. What could be more normal than food, other than school?

My students and those of Germany have much in common, but seeing the differences again is important. One of the differences, visually, is that schools in Germany do not fit neatly into a normal model of architecture. They occupy different buildings, some very old, and some new. The schools we visited had the feel of America's college campuses. Students were moving about during breaks with hardly an adult looking their way. Teachers arrive according to varying schedules, and students are expected to attend classes, presumably with little oversight. And the most constant topic among the students we spoke with was the graduation exams. High-stakes testing in Germany is an even greater concern than it is in America. The testing systems are different, to be sure, but the focus on the testing at the expense of nearly everything else sounded frustratingly familiar.

In the realm of politics, I found it quite intriguing that the ghosts of older political parties were still haunting the ballot boxes of Germany. The former communists, I can understand, since their reign in the east has only ended 25 years ago. But when we visited our friends in Saxony, they spoke quite plainly about the "nazis" in politics under a new name. The NDP was said to command close to 7 or 8 percent of the votes in Saxony, though far less nationally. Apparently they are able to capitalize on the fears of the people who believe foreign influence is harming Germany. I suppose it might be similar to a German visiting America's southern states only to learn that the KKK is still an active group in our country, and still has influence in politics, though it is not a party unto itself.

As this is meant to be a summary of my journey, I will end with a few of my most memorable observations. Please stress to everyone next time exactly why you should pack light. Hauling, hoisting, and pressing overloaded suitcases above our heads became a running joke of the trip. Many travelers learned their lesson on that important point. Germans are welcoming, accommodating, and gracious people. The home visits were serene. German public transportation is amazing in its efficiency, but that includes punctuality. Do not arrive late. Germans live with and among their history. It is always under your feet and in your line of sight. Americans are sometimes forgetful of our history because its visual remnants are not always around. Finally, it is essential to know that among allies as well as enemies, common ground and cultural similitude is as easy to see as are differences. The more energy and effort we spend focusing on our common ground, the sooner we can joyfully share common spaces.

Thank you to everyone associated with the Atlantik-Bruecke organization. You have conferred upon me the blessing of a great learning experience, and I am in your debt. Call on me if I can ever be of help in the future. All others who read this, know that to travel abroad with an open mind will afford you an education like no classroom can provide.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Atlantik-Bruecke Study Trip, 2009

I took part in this fantastic journey through Germany thanks to the Atlantik-Bruecke Foundation and the Indiana Department of Education. Twelve teachers of Social Studies from across Indiana were selected based on their applications and recommendations. We traveled throughout the southern and eastern parts of Germany. The focus of the trip was the study of the German political system as well as to interact with other educators and students in Germany.