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: Zahnb├╝rste) 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.