Swiss schools: what a report card looks like

July 6th, 2012

Yesterday was Small Boy’s last day of first grade, which is sort of an I can’t believe it moment all of its own, but it’s also the day he came home with his first written report card, or Beurteilungsbericht. Back in January we had an Elterngespräch, the parent-teacher conference, but that was strictly oral. We did take home a self-assessment the SB had to do in which he evaluated his own readiness in certain areas, but nothing written from the teacher. The self-assessment was adorable – it was an apple tree, and for each competence Small Boy had to color the apple more or less red – red being ripe, being good. He then talked to his teacher about why he thought that about himself, and the teacher shared this with us. When the teacher first slid the self-evaluation across the table to us, before he explained the business about red being ripe being good, I saw all this red and was very worried, since red marks in school are usually associated with problems. But it turns out red on the apple tree is a good thing.

So this is our first written evaluation of SB’s progress in school – the details of which I’m not going to share, because that’s private, but in broad strikes Small Boy and I are pleased – but I thought some of you might be interested in what a Swiss first grade report card covers.

The first page covers the Obligatorischer Unterricht – performance in the required subjects. The four possible marks are sehr gut (very good), gut (good), genügend (satisfactory), and ungenügend (unsatisfactory). This is pretty much what my early grade school report cards looked like in the U.S. back in my day. And sorry for all the German that is about to follow – don’t worry, everything comes with a translation – but I thought it might amuse some of you to see what I have to muddle through in order to figure out how the Small Boy is doing. (Yes, the Swiss husband will help a great deal in these situations; naturally he’s out of town until tonight so I was on my own yesterday. I understood almost everything but had to look up Vorstellungsvermögen.)

In the first grade, the required subjects are Deutsch (German), Mathematik (math), Natur-Mensch-Mitwelt (which I’m going to translate as social studies with some biology thrown in), Gestalten (art), Musik (music), and Sport (P.E.). German has three subcomponents, each of which receives its own grade:

  • Hören und Sprechen (listening and speaking)
  • Lesen (reading)
  • Schreiben (writing)

Math has four subcomponents, again each receiving its own mark:

  • Vorstellungsvermögen (which can mean imagination or spatial sense)
  • Kenntnisse, Fertigkeiten (knowledge/proficiency/skills)
  • Anwenden/Mathematisieren (application, to mathematize)
  • Prolemlöseverhalten (problem solving).

The second page covers Arbeits- und Lernverhalten (work habits, basically – this is the softer social stuff, you know, “plays well with others.”) Here the skills are graded along a four point continuum ranging from Trifft meistens zu to Trifft selten zu (applies most of the time to applies infrequently). The way they’ve got the skills here worded, Trifft meistens zu is always optimal and Trifft selten zu is always a red flag. There are four groupings here, each of which has subcomponents:

Lernmotivation und Einsatz (motivation and effort). (In sports, for example, a player who goes full-bore all the time is said to give Volleinsatz). This is broken down into:

  • Zeigt Interesse am Unterrichtsstoff (shows interest in the subject matter)
  • Entwickelt gute eigene Ideen (develops one’s own good ideas)
  • Zeigt auch nach Misserfolgen Einsatz (applies oneself even after mistakes).

Then there is Konzentration, Aufmerksamkeit, Ausdauer (concentration, attention, persistence). This is broken down into:

  • Lässt sich wenig ablenken (does not get distracted)
  • Folgt dem Unterrich aufmerksam (follows the lesson attentively)
  • Kann auch längere Arbeiten zu Ende führen (can also complete long-term projects and tasks).

Third is Aufgabenbearbeitung, (planning and organizing tasks) with its subgroups:

  • Plant und organisiert die Arbeit zweckmässig (plans and organizes the work appropriately/practically)
  • Teilt die Zeit gut ein (manages time well)
  • Erledigt Arbeiten sorgfältig und zuverlässig (completes the work carefully and dependably)

Finally, Zusammenarbeit und Selbständigkeit, (teamwork/cooperation and independence) with the following subcategories:

  • Kann mit andern zusammenarbeiten (can work with others)
  • Arbeitet selbständig (works independently)
  • Macht die Hausaufgaben zuverlässig (does the homework regularly)

Zuverlässig comes up a lot in the report card and the parent-teacher conference, and for that matter with the Small Boy’s hockey trainers as well. Zuverlässig, with its many possible translations – authentic, dependable, reliable, solid, steady, of good repute – is high praise in Switzerland (imagine that). Allow me this moment of motherly pride: this week more than one authority figure in the Small Boy’s life has told me he is zuverlässig. He’s doing all right, this kid.

Well, that turned into a long post. Ich danke Euch ganz herzlich für Eure Aufmerksamkeit. (I thank you for your attention.)

Happy Independence Day, and good news for Americans living abroad

July 4th, 2012

Because I blogged my reaction to proposed rules that Americans living abroad be required to state on applications for absentee ballots if we intend to return to the U.S., I should blog that the agency responsible for those proposed rules has reversed course, and such a declaration will not be required. The reversal was, in large part, the result of “the vocal concerns of American expatriates.”

Americans living abroad on this Independence Day, remember we still have our voices, wherever in the world we might find ourselves. We’re still citizens of a land we love, however nuanced that love might become. We still file our taxes and we still have our vote. We’re still Americans, with the right to peaceably assemble and petition our government for a redress of grievances. Sometimes, when we do, it even still works.

Do you belong to or donate to Democrats Abroad, Republicans Abroad, American Citizens Abroad, or Overseas Vote Foundation? Maybe today is the right day to look into these organizations that help us hold on to all of our rights, in all the four corners of the world.

Happy Independence Day wherever you find yourself today. Wave your flag.

What are my intentions? I don’t know. Do you?

May 11th, 2012

I’ve got at least four posts about dual citizenship simmering in my head – events are conspiring to make me think about this rather a lot: I have almost completed my application for Swiss citizenship and I should be able to pop that baby in the mail on Monday (long, long time readers might remember that this was on my to-do list about, oh, five years ago…); the whole Michele Bachmann gets-then-withdraws-Swiss citizenship saga (I could write about twenty posts about that alone); and this charming change in wording on the form I have to fill out as an American living abroad when I request a federal election ballot:

the new form leaves civilian voters only these choices: “I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I intend to return”; or “I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I do not intend to return.” The Pentagon office says it needs the information to help election officials decide whether to send out just federal ballots or federal and local ballots.

You can read the full story here (and here’s a shout out to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for having that story not behind a pay wall).

I cannot answer that question. People living abroad on a time-defined work contract might reasonably be able to answer that question, or at least to attempt to answer it in good faith, but I cannot answer that question. I married a Swiss man. We’re living here right now and life is good. R has a good job that he likes and the boys are growing up having a relationship with their only living grandparents and SB is thriving in his hockey program and for now, we’re here. We’re here for the foreseeable future if only because R’s parents are getting older and I don’t want to take the boys away from their grandparents unless there’s really no choice. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t return one day. I’d love to live in the US again, but it depends on so much more than us just wanting it doesn’t it? I mean, we’d need to find the right job in the right place with the right timing – R’s parents aren’t getting any younger and I treasure these years the four of them, grandparents and grandchildren, have together. It’s exactly what Lucy Stensland Laederich of the Federation of Women’s Clubs Overseas says in the article:

At least half the group’s 15,000 members, she said, are living abroad not “because we wanted to, but because of marriage, employment, studies, NGO or church work, etc. I very frankly have no idea which of those two boxes to check because I do not ‘intend’ to return nor do I not ‘intend’ to return.”

Exactly. I don’t know what my intentions are here because I don’t have intentions, I have a life. Who among you can say you intend to remain in the state in which you currently reside forever? We’re living our lives, expats, the same as everybody else: our messy uncertain unpredictable human lives. I don’t intend to stay here forever, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. I don’t intend to go back to the U.S., but that doesn’t mean I won’t. I don’t intend to do anything but live the life that my family is building.

And say, for whatever reason, life plays out so that I don’t return to the U.S. to live. Do I then forfeit my right to my homeland? Do I forfeit my right to cast a vote for elected officials who pass laws that I as an American must obey no matter where in the world I live (hello, financial reporting requirements, I’m looking at you; hello registering my sons for the draft, I’m looking at you)? Am I less American? Do I love my country less? I suppose there are plenty of people who would answer yes to that last question but it’s so much more complicated than that when you’re in an international marriage. People with seven children have love enough for all of them, is it so hard to imagine that I have love enough for two countries, two languages, two different skies?

I’m living my life, finding my footing and making mistakes the same as everybody else. What are my intentions? To love my children, to be a better wife, to be a good person, to write just one perfect poem, to take one kid from falling down ten times in four minutes to skating backwards all the way across the rink. These are my intentions. Where will I do these things? My god, I have no idea. Does it matter?


April 2nd, 2012

I was at the US Embassy this morning to renew my passport; I’ll be traveling in May to attend this workshop (I know! Squeee!) and my current passport expires three days after my expected return to Switzerland, which is far too close for comfort for me – and potentially problematic since US citizens entering Switzerland without a visa need to travel on a passport valid for three months past the arrival date; according to information R dug up for me, my status as a legal permanent resident would trump that requirement, but I don’t like taking chances so off I went to the embassy. The situation has improved enormously since I wrote this post:  I was able to make an appointment and I was in and out in twenty minutes. (Well done, US Embassy in Bern!)

While I was there – and mind you, I really was only in the building for twenty minutes – two unrelated people renounced their citizenship. I didn’t mean to spy, but it’s a small waiting area and you can pretty much hear everybody else’s business. Both people were dual US-Swiss citizens; each had received Swiss citizenship through one parent and US citizenship through the other. Like my boys, like the children of so many of my friends. I couldn’t help but wonder, if the boys grow up here, stay here as adults, will they too see their US citizenship as a burden? And it is burdensome to be an Overseas American, the tax filing requirements alone drive many a US-expat nearly insane with frustration and don’t get me started on bank account reporting requirements; but for me the burden is worth it because I grew up in the US, I’m American in a way my boys will probably never be, and it’s almost impossible to imagine renouncing my citizenship. I overheard the consular officer declaring to one of the people “As of today you are no longer a citizen of the United States” and I thought no, I’m pretty sure I could never do that. But I can imagine my boys, men one day, perhaps doing it. If they live here always, marry Swiss girls…I can imagine, perhaps, one day, my boys surrendering their US citizenship.

That thought makes me terribly sad.

My Swiss Life (post 3)

February 24th, 2012

Today was Kinderfasnacht in Bern (Carnival for children; tomorrow is Carnival for the grown-ups); I took the boys for the children’s parade, and in a crowd estimated at nearly five thousand we ran into people we know twice and saw several more families with whom we’re on nodding terms. It happens more and more – I see people I know when the boys and I go skating in our free time, I run into people in the city or in the near-by shopping center.

It never ceases to amaze me how long it has taken me to feel like I have a life here; a Swiss life; a life of my own. I thought it last night when I was on the ice for the hockey school, in charge of the pick-up hockey end of the rink for the first time. (All the little ones can skate now, and I got a chance to see some of the older kids in action.) I love being on the ice at hockey school – all my hand-wringing seems so ridiculous to me now – and I am comfortable in the role of Trainerin and I genuinely enjoy my fellow trainers. After the Saturday hockey school – which runs right over lunchtime – we all go to the restaurant after the practice and eat something and have some beer (there’s more beer associated with hockey school than I expected; it’s fun) and it’s nice.

Some of it is the boys – people kept telling me that as the Small Boy got older he would be the wedge opening the door to Swiss life and certainly I’ve seen the truth in that. A lot of it is the hockey, and I think the reason the hockey is working so well for me is that, yes, it’s an activity that I’m involved in because of the boys but I got the boys involved in hockey because it was an activity that had been, for a long time, a big part of my life. So I don’t feel as though I’m being dragged hither and yon by my kids’ interests but that I’m being reintroduced to something I had forgotten that I missed.

And a lot of it is the job, and although the job is hockey related I suspect it would be much the same with any job, because here is something I have learned: friends are important, friends are essential, but I have come to the conclusion that colleagues are just as important. Having work colleagues I see twice a week has added to my life enormously in ways I would never have guessed. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had work colleagues, and I didn’t even realize I was missing it until I started working at the hockey school and suddenly there it was: “Oh. Wait. So this is what it’s like to  really feel like I fit in here.” Before, I’d always figured I was integrated, and I was in all the surface ways, but this feels different. This is past integrated, this is enmeshed. This is having Swiss-speaking friends who did not come through my husband. This is being expected to show up at places, and being missed when I don’t.

It took so little – yet so much – and I feel like life here has finally settled into place. It amazes me how long it took. It amazes me more that it is only in retrospect that I see that I was never really settled in the first place. That this, with these small changes, feels like a different life. A real life. My real Swiss life. Finally.

(Previous Swiss life posts can be found here and here)

New Poem Up

February 23rd, 2012

A bit of shameless self-promotion: my poem “The Changing of the Flowers” is up in the ever-gorgeous Literary Bohemian. You expats of all stripes might especially appreciate it.

“Everybody was expecting you” (My Swiss Life, post 2)

February 6th, 2012

(These “My Swiss Life” post are not, strictly speaking, chronological, but for anybody interested, post one can be found here.)

SB had a hockey tournament yesterday, in the blinding cold, that I had to miss. I was at the Geneva Writers’ Conference (more about that in another post). It’s only the second match I’ve ever had to miss – the only other one I missed was when SB got his concussionso I was feeling a bit superstitious about missing this, but the conference ran most of the day on Sunday; it’s only held every two years and is far too good an opportunity for an English-language writer in Switzerland to pass up, so there I was in Geneva while SB was playing in Bern.

Earlier in the week, it looked like the tournament might have to be cancelled. We, as the home team for this set of games, were responsible for coming up with two time-keepers and two referees and as of Thursday evening we were short one referee (or Schiri in Swiss – pronounced “she-ree” and short for Schiedsrichter and one of my favorite Swiss words). Thursday night we parents received a scathing e-mail from the program head – not SB’s coach, who stayed diplomatically above the fray, but the head of the program, whose job it is to make a fray when a fray must be made – that somebody better step up and volunteer to be the second Schiri or the tournament would have to be cancelled and that would be a shame for the kids and a true embarrassment for the prestigious SCB Future program. Surely not all of you have some other obligation on Sunday, right??

I would have stepped up – I teach in the hockey school, after all, and can certainly handle reffing a Bambini match and I really do want to do my part – but I had the conference and I headed off to Geneva hoping somebody would volunteer. I didn’t receive any angry emails canceling the tournament for Sunday, so I assumed the match was on – in spite of temperatures hovering at minus 15 Celcius – but on Sunday I sent off a quick SMS to R asking “So SB’s tourney is on? Tell him mama says good luck” and received this in reply:

“They are doing warmup now and will start soon. Having coffee with the others. Everybody was expecting you.”

I smiled – everybody had been expecting me. That’s where I’ve finally gotten to in my Swiss life. I have people expecting me. I’ve written before about how most of these people probably will not become friends outside of the hockey context – though possibly two or three families might – but that’s also okay. I remember my mother and the other hockey moms, winter friends, stadium friends, the way they sat together and drank their bad coffee from styrofoam cups and I think: this is good too, this locational fellowship, this contextual friendship. When I show up at SB’s practices and games, I’m welcomed, I have people to sit with and chat with, I am part of the crowd – no longer hovering around the edges – and when I don’t show up, people ask where I am. That feels like a huge thing. It’s a good thing in my life, and if it is bound my the time and space of hockey seasons and ice stadiums that’s fine. I think we all have contextual friends – work colleagues we enjoy but somehow never socialize with outside of the office, the people in our yoga or boxing classes we see every week but rarely if ever meet for lunch. And those people occupy important places in our lives, they anchor us, they make us feel as though we belong. They add texture and dimension to our lives and I’d been missing that for a long time and now, thanks to the Small Boy and his love of all things hockey (which is, at heart, thanks to me for enrolling him in the first place all those years ago), I’ve got it. And when I’m not there, people notice.

It’s a little thing, being expected. Except that it’s not really so little at all is it?

(And if you’re wondering, SB’s team won all three games and SB scored three goals.)

My Swiss Life (Part I)

January 23rd, 2012

I’ve been trying to write about what I’m calling my New Swiss Life for at least a month now but I’m suffering from perfection syndrome, trying so hard to express myself so perfectly that I end up not expressing myself at all – so I’m just going to start. I expect this to be an ongoing story – I can’t possibly say everything in a single blog post and there is a lot to be said because for a blogger who’s an expat, I haven’t been writing much about Switzerland or culture clashes or integration lately. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because I’m (yes, finally) applying for Swiss citizenship, so maybe it’s time to start thinking out loud.

I moved to Switzerland in December of 2000 and for a variety of reasons that in retrospect R and I both agree were not good enough reasons, we lived in a small village near Bern even though he was at the time working in Zürich. (The price and availability of housing in Zürich was certainly one of the reasons.) I was taking intensive German lessons four hours a day five days a week; if you throw in my commute and studying time, my German classes consumed a good six and a half hours a day, but R was, that whole first year, gone thirteen hours a day. We were in a small village, I didn’t know anybody, there was not another native English speaker in my German class (for which I am very grateful – it did wonders for my German to be forced to try to make friends and small talk in German – but it certainly limits the speed and ease with which you can form friendships when, for example, you can’t even speak in the past tense), R was gone a lot, and even in the best of circumstances I am shy and reserved and not terribly good at making friends. That whole first year was miserable. Sometimes, even now, R will say to me with a sort of amazement that he can’t believe I didn’t leave him and go back to the U.S. during that first year or eighteen months. Sometimes, even now, I will think with a sort of amazement the same thing. I was miserable that first year.

The thing about learning standard German in Switzerland is that the Swiss don’t speak standard German, they speak Swiss and the two are not the same. If I had it to do all again, if I could have peeked into a magic ball and seen the way my life here has played out, the things I’m involved in, the things that matter most to me now, I would not have enrolled in a standard German course, I would have gone straight into a Schweizerdeutsch course and managed the written German later. Because not being able to speak Swiss is a real stumbling block in trying to build a Swiss life. My standard German, thanks to all those intensive lessons, is very good but it marks me instantly as an outsider no matter how long I have been here. Oh the Swiss understand me and I, at last, understand the Swiss but my German is a constant reminder of my foreignness, a little division between us, a stumbling block to overcome. A small one, perhaps, but it is there, a little hitch, a little hiccup.

The Swiss have a reputation for being reserved, hard to get to know; I myself have called the Swiss “a tough nut to crack” (you can read the comments on this post, especially those from Gretchen, for some more insight into this) and I think there is some truth to this (though I also am in the middle of seeing how very untrue it is) but I also think that half of it is simply the language and I finally understand the Swiss – not just linguistically, but emotionally – on this point. German and Swiss are not interchangeable and speaking German is not an approximation of speaking Swiss. I wish R had insisted on this point (but R is funny, and to this day thinks I did it the right way by mastering standard written German). But I wish I had done it differently; I would, if I could, go back and do it differently but I can’t, of course, so I am trying to make up for lost time and working hard to pick up Swiss. I don’t want to speak German anymore. And I think those first few years would have been so much easier if I had learned Swiss from the start. I get it now, the Swiss love of their dialekt, I really do.

I didn’t have Swiss friends, other than the Swiss spouses or partners of my English-speaking friends, for years. R’s job situation when we first moved here – working in Zurich but living outside Bern – didn’t help, because it made socializing with his work colleagues difficult, although of course now with the benefit of hindsight I can see all the ways we might have made that easier. And because if you talk to expats living in Switzerland you’ll hear the “Swiss are so reserved” line a good ninety percent of the time, it’s easy to fall into believing this and giving up; to not explore if there aren’t just little cultural differences you have to pick up on and adapt to; to not wonder what about your own personality and behavior are contributing to the situation. Yes, the Swiss are reserved but I am shy and self-conscious in German. And if I am honest with myself, I am shy and self-conscious in English. I grew up in a house where my parents did not socialize and learning how to do this – how to invite people over to dinner just for the sake of inviting people over to dinner – has been hard for me. It was, when I remind myself, hard in English. It was hard back home. At some point, it became clear that I was using the old Swiss reserve schtick as an excuse and that I needed to do some heavy lifting.

And so I started lifting. And my life now, ten years on, is so different. “Bloom where you’re planted,” Australian Friend likes to say and yes, yes, yes to this. It has taken ten years, but I am blooming.

The One With The Turkey

December 6th, 2011

For the past several years, I’ve almost let Thanksgiving go by without a celebration. For the past several years, I’ve almost given up on Thanksgiving and then, in a last moment fit of determination, I make last minute invitations to Expat Thanksgiving. I recognize, in that moment of decision, that if I let it go this year I will let it go forever and the boys will grow up without Thanksgiving. That most American of holidays. As expats, so much falls aside, so many cultural touchstones pass our kids by no matter how conscientiously we try to pass them on. Thanksgiving, it seems, is my line in the sand. I think I can let it go, but when the moment is upon me I know that I can’t, that I musn’t.

So I threw out last minute invitations, made the last minute scramble for a turkey. R’s family has a long, long-standing relationship with the butcher in the small village we lived in when I first moved to Switzerland – a relationship that spans two generations of butchers and two generations of customers – so we turned to Small Village Butcher for our turkey order and he got us a turkey. Oh boy, did he get us a turkey. An eleven kilo turkey. That’s an American-sized turkey and I’m here to tell you: American-sized turkeys do not fit in European-sized ovens. No, no they do not. The turkey did not fit in our oven. We’ve had some close calls before, but in ten years of varied and sundry families hosting Expat Thanksgiving this is the first time we couldn’t fit the bird in the oven. I suppose it was bound to happen one of these years.

The butcher roasted the turkey for us on Sunday (that sound you just heard was the collective gasp of my Swiss and German readership, followed by exclamations of: he roasted the turkey for them on a Sunday? Mein Gott!) and R went to pick it up in a catering hot-box and when he arrived home with it and brought it inside everybody stood around in the kitchen exclaiming and taking pictures and exclaiming. An eleven kilo turkey is … impressive. Daunting, even. We did our best, pressed second servings on everybody and sent people home with leftovers and still have three containers of turkey in the refrigerator. Eleven kilos of turkey is a lot of turkey.

My mother always made a turkey tetrazzini with Thanksgiving leftovers, and I’m going to have to root around and see if I have her recipe somewhere, because I’ve got a lot of leftovers. And because my mother’s turkey tetrazzini was outstanding. As was her apple pie, which I made again this year. As it was baking, when the house smelled like pie and I had the warm anticipation of expecting guests for Thanksgiving, I saw a rainbow out my kitchen window.

It’s a good thing to hold on to traditions. A little better even, I think, when you have to fight for them a bit.

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.