Suddenly, this

September 29th, 2011

And like that, autumn has begun.

More about the first grade in Switzerland

September 26th, 2011

I’ve talked a little bit about the Swiss schools here – in which I describe – and here – in which I complain – and today I’d like to balance out the complaining a bit with some of what I see as the positive aspects of the Swiss schools. First and foremost, it seems to me that the Swiss schools respect the fact that Kindergarteners and first graders are still very much children and have the developmental needs of children: they need to move; they need to play; they need unscheduled blocks of time to follow their own interests; they need to learn a great many social skills. Swiss Kindergarten, especially, provides this. There are almost no “academics” in Kindergarten, especially not in the first year. The focus instead is on socialization: for many kids, Kindergarten is the first time they are away from home every day. Kindergarteners learn how to play with other kids, how to take instruction from teachers and not just parents, how to deal with the rough-and-tumble of being out in the world: negotiating for toys and books, deciding what game to play and with whom, agreeing to rules, figuring out your place in the world and how to hold your own. Small Boy’s Kindergarten play was pretty physical: his first year, especially, there was a lot of rough-housing of the kind that would send him home with grass-stained pants, and the teachers tolerated a lot of this, letting the children figure out how to set their limits and only stepped in if things started to get out of hand. I got the sense that the kids were given a fair amount of time and space to figure out how to settle their own differences, which is a life skill if ever their was one, and on the whole I appreciate this pretty straight forward approach.

And if you think about it, if you really sit down and think about all the new social skills a Kindergartener has to learn, it’s a lot. It’s hard for a kid to come into a classroom and play nice with all the other kids: first they have to learn what the teacher considers “play nice” to be and then they have to learn how to do it. They have to learn to sit still and listen and share and play games they don’t enjoy and be in the same room with people they might not like and negotiate rules and consequences and who’s friends with whom. I think we forget, or fail to appreciate, how hard that all is for kids, and how much of their brain is engaged by that kind of learning in school. And how important it is. Now imagine adding actual school work on top of it. It’s a lot to ask, and it sound to me like US Kindergarten is asking an awful lot of little kids all at once. And because there is actual academic work to be done, kids have less time to practice and learn the social skills and kids who need time to figure it all out are labeled “discipline problems” because the teachers don’t have the time to let the kids have time to just go on the playground every day and figure it all out.

The first grade in Switzerland gets more serious than Kindergarten, in that there are now actual academics with homework and tests, but the kids still have recess every day and go wild on the playground – again, the green pants – and have gym class three times a week. Although the kids are learning now to sit still and listen to the teacher and there are consequences for too much goofing around – the dreaded thunder clouds – the system acknowledges the fact that six and seven year old kids still need to burn off a lot of kinetic energy. I appreciate that. As the mother of a very kinetic child, I really appreciate that.  As for the hours, which compared to a US school day are limited indeed, I can see some benefits to that as well – the kids have a lot of time in the afternoons to play and screw around and just be kids. And especially in the first grade, I highly doubt the Small Boy is falling behind in any serious way by not being in school longer – there is only so much a small person needs to learn, after all, and I know a fair number of homeschooling parents who report that at every grade level they teach their kids what they need to know to meet state standards in half the time a public school day takes. He’s learning to read and write and count and add and carve a Fischertucan out of wood. I’m not worried about the content of his days.

No set up is going to be perfect, and no set of hours is going to satisfy the needs of all the different families that use a school system, and everybody is going to find something to complain about, but if I look at the Swiss school day purely from the point of view of my first-grader – if there were no demands to satisfy other than those of the first-graders themselves – it looks like a pretty good day.


September 22nd, 2011

After hockey practice, the kids straggle out of the stadium in ones and twos. We’re usually among the last to leave because although I no longer think the Small Boy dawdles in the dressing room – not much, anyway – he somehow manages to be one of the last ones out of the showers. Tonight either the Small Boy was fast or the son of Nice Woman was slow because we left the stadium at the same time, which pretty much never happens. Small Boy and Nice Woman’s son were chattering in Swiss, and then the Small Boy asked me in English to hold something that he was carrying, because it was falling.

“Was that a Swiss accent?” Nice Woman asked. “I heard a Swiss accent.”

“I KNOW!” I said back. “He’s not supposed to have one! All the bilingual books say a bilingual kid is supposed to speak both languages accent free, he’s supposed to sound just like me but he totally has an accent!”

“But when he speaks Swiss you don’t hear an accent at all.”

“No, his Swiss is perfect,” I said. “It’s better than his English, actually. And he prefers it.”

And it’s true. He speaks English with a Swiss accent, which ALL the language books say shouldn’t happen, and his English is imperfect. It is very, very good but it’s imperfect; what’s telling is, the mistakes he makes are typical mistakes German-speakers make when speaking English. The use of a false friend; a slightly hinky word order; a certain mispronunciation. I don’t think the Boychen has a Swiss accent when he speaks English, but I’m not sure I would hear it if he did – I forget, until somebody like Nice Lady mentions it, that the Small Boy does so for all I know Boychen does too. I have decided not to worry about this – I continue to model native English, make corrections as needed, and read English books aloud but I’m not going to get terribly worked up about this. It is what it is. It is not what I imagined – as a poet and writer it’s disconcerting to have a child speaking English as, essentially, an excellent second language but the Small Boy is the Small Boy and Swiss is the language of his heart. I am trying to let him make that choice. I am so wrapped up with words, with English words, that I have remind myself to let Small Boy not be wrapped up in them. He doesn’t have to be a wordie. He doesn’t have to be like me.

It’s strange though, to suddenly be reminded that my child speaks with a Swiss accent. Strange that he does it, and strange that I no longer fully notice.

Any parents of bilingual children out there with similar experiences? What do you do when you feel a language imbalance growing? Do you have a secret preferred language in your heart?

Forgetting, and remembering

September 20th, 2011

All things considered, our IVF experience was easy. I mean, compared to people who start their families unassisted it was a complete drag, but taking “IVF is your only chance for biological children” as a baseline, we had an easy time of it. I completed one fresh IVF cycle which netted 18 mature eggs, 13 of which fertilized. From these thirteen, we transferred two at our first transfer, only one of which implanted to become the Small Boy. The remaining embryos were stored for future transfers (a frozen embryo transfer, or FET). When we decided to try again, we decided only to transfer a single embryo on any given attempt – twins was no longer an outcome we were comfortable with.* Our first FET failed, our second FET failed, and our third FET became the Boychen. Four attempts, two healthy singletons pregnancies resulting in two live births. Compared to some people’s experience, it was almost laughably easy.

I forget, if forgetting is the right word, what we did to get these boys, to be this family. Forget, in the way I forget that my father is dead: it blends into my psychic background, an event I no longer dwell on every day because of the passage of time, because of the demands of the present, because if we are lucky we learn to wear our past lightly like the comfortable shirt you slip into at the end of the workday.

It’s there, though, as my father’s death is there, ready to be woken like a sleeping cat who notices the light has shifted and it is no longer dozing in a patch of sunlight. Today I revised some poems during the Small Boy’s hockey practice, and the poem I worked on the most was about that first, that only, fresh cycle. And I remembered it all: the drugs and the injections and the bruised thighs, the swollen ovaries swinging like a bunch of grapes with every step I took, egg retrieval, the transfer, the long long two week wait before we could do a blood test, the knowledge that it might not, might never, work; and I looked up from my notebook and there he was, that four-celled embryo, skating crossovers around the faceoff circle.

He is six and a half. He is in the first grade. He has a math test tomorrow. He plays hockey. He is bilingual. He is tall, and skinny, and blond, and asleep in his room. There he is.

My god, the wonder of it.

* Yes, identical twins could still have been possible and yes, I’ve seen some numbers that suggest that identical twins are marginally more likely to occur in an IVF using ICSI – which we did – than in unassisted pregnancies, and had that been the case, then so be it. But we didn’t want to risk fraternal twins. Given the crippling postpartum anxiety I suffered after the Boychen was born, it was a good thing twins weren’t in the picture.

The first grade in Switzerland

September 19th, 2011

From what I understand from my friends with school-aged children in the States (and from reading blogs), in the US, Kindergarten is the new first grade. Kindergarten is not, as I understand it, the way we experienced it when we were kids. There is less free play, and more sitting still, and the actual work of learning the ABCs. Some Kindergarteners come home with homework, even if does only take 10 minutes twice a week. The amount of time allotted to doing whatever you want with whichever classmates strike your fancy at the time seems to be limited, though from my distant perspective it seems to vary wildly from place to place. Certainly today’s Kindergarten does not seem to be a place where socialization and play are the priorities and hey, if you walk out of here writing your own name that’s pretty much a bonus.

US Kindergarten sounds a lot like the Swiss first grade. Small Boy did not have what we adults would recognize as “work” in Kindergarten. Fine motor skills and pencil control were trained through art projects rather than writing. Oh, the art projects. Cutting and pasting and drawing and sewing and weaving and carving and once, for this past Mother’s Day gift, etching a design into a rock with a stylus. Language skills and memory were covered in song and rhyme and story time. The rest of the time, they played. The children were largely free to choose what they wanted to do and with whom, although if Small Boy and Best Friend sat at the drawing table four days in a row they were encouraged, on the fifth day, to maybe do something else with somebody else. There was time to play outside every day, unless it was pouring rain (snow was fine), and judging from the knees of the Small Boy’s pants there was a great deal of wrestling and tackling involved. There was structure in the day, in terms of time blocks, but within the structure there was a great deal of freedom.

Towards the end of Small Boy’s second year of Kindergarten the children who would enter school the following year started practicing the type of work they might be presented with in school. The older kids (Kindergarten classes are mixed between the 5 year olds in their first year of Kindergarten and the 6 year olds in their second) gradually started having to sit still more; art projects became less paint whatever you want and more do here what the instructions are telling you. They did start practicing writing letters and yes, every single one of them could write their names. They took home a little bit of homework, and they visited the school building. Fridays, when the first year kids don’t come to Kindergarten, were almost, almost like school.

And now, Small Boy is starting his sixth week of school. He is fully settled in now, but the first week was rough. I could tell from his behavior at home – reacting badly to situations much more quickly than usual, arguing with me, breaking down in tears when I told him no to something (I no longer remember what – probably if he could watch TV). His behavior at school that first week was fine, no reports from the teacher, no notes home, but that is typical Small Boy: he works very hard to hold it together in places like school or hockey training (the trainers are strict, and I’ve seen them give kids 10 minute go sit on the bench penalties for what seem like minor infractions, but never the Small Boy)* and then he comes home and lets go. So I could tell, that first week, that the new routine – sitting still for 90 minutes before recess – was a lot for him.

The work so far is basic: they are learning letters and numbers, starting to read. There is homework three days a week (Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays), and it never takes very long; they do most of the work in class. So far the homework has only been in either math or German. The subjects covered in the first grade are German, Math, Nature-Mitwelt-Mench (natural and social sciences – right now the theme is Water), Art (drawing, textiles, and woodworking), and Music. He has a fifteen minute recess every day and Sport (P.E.) three times a week. He’s in school five mornings and one afternoon a week, plus every other Thursday.

Every student has a homework notebook in which the teacher writes down the assignments on the left hand page; there is a column where I am supposed to record how long it took Small Boy to do the assignment. I think this is a great idea – it gives the teacher an idea of how hard or easy the work might be for a child (if a kid got every problem right but took 90 minutes to do it, that’s something the teacher needs to know) and it also trains the parents in the idea that they need to be attentive to their child’s homework practices. This might be second nature for some parents and not for others; this way the parents are slowly learning to be involved and it’s done in what seems to me a non-judgmental way. I’m curious what other people think about this, but I sort of love this idea.

The right hand page is for communications between the teacher and the parents. Here on the page in the picture, the teacher wrote a note to remind us that class pictures would be taken on Monday (Mo: Photograf) and that by Wednesday at the latest Small Boy needed to have a toothbrush (Mi: Zahnbürste) because the dental hygienist was coming that day. Progress is noted on a weekly basis: sunshine, sun with a cloud or two, or clouds. (You’ll notice Small Boy got the sunshine. He’s had all sunshines except for one teeny tiny cloud last week because somehow we forgot to do one problem on a homework set. We just skipped right over it, didn’t even see it somehow. Both of us! The teacher told him if Small Boy keeps doing as he’s been doing, he’ll erase the cloud next week.) Clouds seem to be given for not paying attention, talking in class, and not doing your work. Each week, a parent has to sign that week’s page.

Can I just tell you I LOVE the homework notebook? Seriously. Best idea ever.

What does school look like where you live? If you’re an expat, and your kids are in the local schools, are you happy with them? I have to say, although I’ve been known to complain about the, um, limited hours shall we call them?, I can also see some real upsides to the Swiss schools. More on that in another post.

* I approve of this approach, by the way. Hockey is an extremely physical sport with a great deal of contact, and the kids need to learn early that the apparent aggression in hockey is actually quite controlled – there are rules, after all, about what’s a legal check and what is not. There are rules against fighting. If somebody deals you an honest blow, you can’t turn around and whack them for it and you can’t take it personally. The honest check is part of the game, and if you can’t get checked without losing your temper you won’t be playing hockey for long because no coach is going to want to deal with that. I approve of the trainers nipping temper in the bud, calling out every bad hit, and issuing penalties. A kid simply cannot engage in a contact sport without mastering some self-control.

Snuggle night

September 18th, 2011

Sundays are snuggle nights with the Small Boy – I stay in his bed with him until he falls asleep. He still needs this; if he had his way, somebody would stay in bed with him until he fell asleep every night. (If he had his way, actually, he’d sleep in bed with R and me.) I need snuggle night too, if only as a reminder that my big hockey playing boy isn’t really so big. He still wants somebody there with him until he falls asleep; he still sometimes gathers up all of his stuffed animals and surrounds himself with them before going to bed; he is still, sometimes, just a little boy.


September 17th, 2011

Both boys wake earlier than they do on a weekday. The Small Boy sneaks to the bathroom, I can feel him trying to be quiet, but Boychen knows he is up and calls to his brother. He always wants his brother to be the one to open the door to his room, help him get out of bed. Small Boy goes to get him and they stay in the Boychen’s room, with the door closed, playing – horses, I think, from the sound effects; later, cars. This, then, the sweetness.

* * *

I am making pancakes when they start squabbling with each other in the living room; I let it go, giving them the space and time to figure out how to deescalate things themselves, but it goes in the other direction. Boychen hits the Small Boy, and I give him a two-minute penalty for unnecessary roughness, and Boychen tells me he doesn’t like me. I don’t like you, Mama! I’m sorry to hear that, I say, I still like you. But it stings.

* * *

Five minutes later they are happily putting together a puzzle of the United States. They finish it themselves, then come eat pancakes. Small Boy eats four. My mother used to joke that my brother, the hockey player, had a hollow leg. Yes, it would seem so. Boychen, the child who survives somehow on air and goldfish crackers, eats a respectable two. They drink their milk, ask if they are allowed to watch TV. The yelling, the hit, the penalty: forgotten

* * *

What will they remember from these teeter-totter childhood days? The horses and the puzzle, or the squabble?


September 16th, 2011

Not, mind you, that it’s all sweetness and light around here. The same boy who can so impress me on the ice can drive me to distraction around the house. Don’t think, for example, that he doesn’t ignore his brother and pretend to be asleep when the Boychen comes to wake him up for school, ignoring him and ignoring him even as the Boychen’s distress grows, ignoring him as Boychen cries and grows ever more hysterical until it takes us twenty minutes to calm Boychen down enough to be able to eat breakfast. For example. That casual disregard for Boychen’s feelings – I don’t know how to talk about it (nor do I like to, here) and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s jealousy and sibling rivalry and some days I’m at my wits’ end. It is Boychen-specific and inconsistent. They can be adorable brothers together, and especially when we are out in the world, in museums or on playgrounds, Small Boy can be quite protective of his little brother. At home he can play perfectly well with his little brother or he can suddenly be… unkind.

And yes, I’ve read Siblings Without Rivalry although I suppose it’s time to read it again. In all my spare time. Actually I can read it next week, in the evenings, when I have nothing to do because R will be away on a business trip to the States.

And can somebody please tell me how it came to be the middle of September? And am I the only one wondering what has happened to the year?

A boy, bigger

September 15th, 2011

Back-to-school time in the US has prompted a flurry of posts about parental anxiety over the transition to school, about wanting to stop time, about how it’s all going so fast. And it is. So very fast. The Small Boy is so tall that sometimes people don’t believe me when I say he’s six – he was almost kept out of a shopping center’s playland yesterday until I offered up his precise birthday. But the thing is, it’s good. It’s amazing, actually, watching the Small Boy grow and grow apart from me. That is the goal, yes? That they can walk out the door themselves, walk to school themselves, put on their own hockey equipment, take off their own skates? That they grow older, and taller, and into themselves?

Every week at hockey training Small Boy practices some new step towards independence. It’s interesting to me, because it is clearly practice – lately, after I’ve parked in the parking garage and he’s hauled the hockey bag out of the trunk, he says to me: “I’m going to go ahead to the stadium now. You wait here so I can get ahead of you,” and off he goes, up the elevator and off to the rink. I wait a few minutes, and take the stairs. Inside the stadium, he gets himself and the bag down the stairs without help – he’s figured it out since the day Nice Woman had to help him, and it involves crashing the bag down the stairs, but that’s the way the Piccolos (the next age group up) do it, so that’s what he does too. Every week he takes over some small task that I had been doing. I used to fill his water bottle and carry it to the players’ bench, but he does that now. He just started doing it one day. After practice he gets his skates off himself (getting them on and properly laced up is still quite the challenge). He runs off to the showers without me – I’ve been told in no uncertain terms not to hang around making sure he gets all the soap out of his hair. After practice, in the parking garage, he hoists the equipment bag into the trunk of the car himself. (Getting the bag up the flight of stairs and out the stadium door, that’s the last barrier. He tried once, but it’s too much.)

Small Boy asked me recently if he could take the train to practice, and although he then immediately said no, he was joking, I don’t think he was entirely. I think he wants that. I think he is already looking forward and seeing the day when he is one of the older boys who does this whole practice thing without his mom’s help. And when I tear up a bit at that thought, and I do, it is not from a sense sadness or loss but sheer wonder and pride at this child who is becoming, so astonishingly, his very own self.

Being a foreigner in Switzerland has made me paranoid: Exhibit A

September 14th, 2011

The Small Boy came home from school yesterday with a letter requesting parental permission for him to be part of a study on motivation and motivational problems faced by primary school students. If we allowed the Small Boy to participate, he would be asked some questions in October and the same set of questions in the spring. They gave a few examples of the type of questions that might be asked (“How do you think the following sentence applies to yourself: Compared to other students my age, I am good at homework” for example), and they seemed harmless enough.

However. Parents who agreed to let their children participate in the study were asked to fill out a survey – well, I was asked to fill out the survey, as the letter requested that the caregiver who spends the most time with the child complete the survey – and I wasn’t so comfortable with the questions being asked. There were questions about how I discipline Small Boy (the person filling out the questionnaire was directed to give answers that applied only to the child who brought the survey home), whether I know his friends, if I praise him when he does something well, if he stays out later than he’s allowed, if he goes off without me knowing where or with whom, if I play with him regularly, ask about his day at school, and so on. I wasn’t thrilled with a lot of the questions, but I might have gone ahead and done it if they hadn’t also asked for the following: what language is spoken in the home, how long I have lived in Switzerland, the nationality on my passport, and how long the child in question has lived in Switzerland. And so help me, the first thought that popped into my head was how somebody was going to use this survey to complain about how foreigners parent their children and no way was I filling that thing out.

I hate thinking thoughts like that. I hate that I wondered if every kid in the Small Boy’s class got that survey, or just the ones with foreign roots (oh, I plan on bringing it up in casual conversation with a full on Swiss mom when I get the chance). I hate that as a former social scientist myself, I still doubt the motivations behind this survey. I hate that I often wonder if my children are being judged because of me.

Am I the only one, fellow expats, or do you have moments like this too?