October report

The eagle flies again and has dropped me at Frankfurt airport. Transit zone. The Lufthansa strike is over. On my left I can see blue eagles in yellow circles on blue tails. On my right, there’s the thick weekend edition of “Die Zeit”. The front page says: “Adieu Helmut”. I could have chosen “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” focussing on the “tidal wave of refugees” Germany is facing at the moment, as finance minister Schäuble said or “Bild”, telling us the shocking news of last night’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

 

I’m on a teaching mobility but the last few weeks have definitely been characterised by the national and international news. No escape. What’s relevant and what is absolutely trivial? Yesterday, Lothar De Maizière, Germany’s minister of the interior, in his speech in parliament said: “It’s true that criminality figures have risen since the arrival of refugees. It’s normal. Wherever there are people, there is criminality. Wherever there are a lot of people, the number of criminal offences consequently rises. But is it relevant in the discussion whether to blame refugees for all the things that go wrong inside or outside refugee facilities? No, it isn’t. It’s even trivial!”

Obviously, the point he wanted to make is his concern about the Verrohung, the increasing harshening of German society. A growing number of people have started to use insulting, humiliating, even poisonous and acerbic language in everyday discussions about refugees. I agree that this brutalisation is a reason for concern. On the other hand, can Germany really make it, hosting the majority of more than 1 million refugees? Angela Merkel says: “Wir schaffen es”. I do hope she’s right.

 

Perhaps Germany needs a politician like Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of West Germany from 1974 until 1982. I was only a child when he led Germany as prime minister but I do remember he was admired for the way he managed many crises, both nationally and internationally. ”The intellectual courage towards reason“ is a phrase by philosopher Karl Popper. Translated and adapted into Helmut Schmidt’s words, it becomes: ”Keine Begeisterung sollte größer sein als die nüchterne Leidenschaft zur praktischen Vernunft“ or no enthusiasm should exceed the sober passion towards practical reason. Would this capacity help today’s German politicians?

I am aware of this fact too, on our school level. Could or should we change something about our school organisation in Leuven? I am convinced that we should - at least - consider changing our inflexible trimesterised exam system. Spreading exams in time would give both teachers and pupils more useful time to rehearse if needed or to extend the lesson content if wanted. Why do we just accept the organisation of a system introduced some 60 years ago? Does it really help our pupils to plan their study time well? What do we want to achieve with it? Make our pupils better at coping with stress? Teaching them to study large quantities of course material by planning well in advance? In my opinion coping well with stress and planning are important skills to practise but let’s not forget that modern teaching has developed into an increasingly filled and sometimes overloaded programme - from the pupils’ point of view - of home and project work, presentations and glorified exercises in reproducing and regurgitating facts reproduction. This amount of work and stress rears its ugly head three times a year for Flemish pupils. Shall we just go on accepting this because it has always been this way? Or shall we look into it further to see if e.g. the German and Italian evaluation systems contain valuable, adoptable elements? Of course it needs to be studied carefully but I will always defend my enthusiastic ideas, bearing Helmut Schmidt’s practical reasoning in mind of course.

After a stop in Ancona/Chiaravalle to check on our long-term mobility pupil Ymke and prepare my colleague Diederik Roelandts’ teaching mobility, I headed for Ljubljana. It’s my first visit to Slovenia ever but I’m sure it won’t be my last!

 

Our hosts are headmasters, teachers and pupils of Gimnazija Antona Askerca in Ljubljana. The school is located in the centre of Ljubljana, between the Roman Wall and Aškerčeva Street on the foundations of ancient Emona – this is what Ljubljana was called in the times of the Western Roman Empire. In 1911, at the time of its construction, the school building was one of the most beautiful architectural achievements in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The school is situated on Aškerčeva Street.

 

Our hosts? Indeed, two of my German colleagues – Elke Gárate and Gundula Beschorner – from Potsdam and a delegation of pupils, are here for a transnational meeting to present the project work they have done so far. The Slovenian students show us their school in the form of a nice presentation, a short tour of the school – named after Anton Aškerc, a famous Slovenian poet and Nobel Prize nominee, newspaper editor, travel writer and archivist known for his progressive and free-thinking social ideals – and a presentation on our comic book project work using the smartboard in one of the computer rooms. Both partners turned some famous local stories into a comic book, in Slovene and German, and explained the plot of the stories and the working process to each other. You can have a look at some screenshots here.

After the presentation the Slovenians offer us their local specialty "potica" (pronounced [potitsa]), a sweet nutty pastry in the shape of a long log. Headmaster Zdenka Može Jedrejčić told us about the Slovenian school system (from kindergarden to higher education), simultaneously translated by German teacher Katarina Vozelj Srčnik. After that we joined Vanja for an English lesson and Matjaž Zorko for a history lesson, co-taught in English by pupils and teacher. I also invited myself to a French lesson, teaching a guest lesson (in French, indeed, I haven’t lost it!) on Belgium. You can download the presentation I used in the teaching material section. I had an interesting talk with Slovenian colleague Katarina comparing our jobs as German teachers. I showed her my material and shared it with her using Microsoft SharePoint. She likes the material developed by Dutch author Peter Schols, for whom I am developing didactic add-ons in PowerPoint and PowerPoint Mix. If I find the time and if Peter agrees, I’ll make a few English-based lessons for Katarina to use in class. Time for Vanja and I to leave school now. Vanja swipes her key card into the electronic time clock, registering the end of another day of teaching…

During our post-lunch tour through Ljubljana, guided by colleagues Matjaž and Vanja, I discover that not so far from the school building, Slovenian architect Jože Plecnik renovated a monastery run by the Teutonic Order, formed to assist Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals. Its members are commonly known as the Teutonic Knights, since they also served as a crusading military order in the Middle Ages. What a coincidence! This is the same order of Christian knights that built the castle at Alden Biesen in Belgium, the very place where our international projects at Miniemeninstituut started 10 years ago.

 

On Wednesday we visited the Ljubljana museum of ethnicity. The main topic of the exhibition was stereotypes, as defined on a shield at the entrance: “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”. The museum guide – the best story-telling and most entertaining guide I have ever seen – showed us traditional Slovenian artefacts covering decades of Slovenian history. I have to admit that I didn’t have any cliché images in mind before visiting Slovenia so there was little chance of having to rid my conscience of any stereotypes or preconceptions of Slovenians. However, the point was clear: the museum stripped down Slovenian society through history, showing exactly how it developed over centuries. Stripping down to Slovenian identity, you could say. Yet another coincidence?

 

On Thursday and Friday we concluded our visit to Slovenia by visiting the Notranjska region: the Postojna caves, Predjama castle and the Slovenian coast (cities of Piran, Portorož and Koper). Thinking about for your next holiday destination? Do consider Slovenia and Ljubljana.  

On Friday morning I left Ljubljana at 5 am to take the plane back to Brussels for a weekend at home with the kids. I normally wouldn’t elaborate on this if it wasn’t for K3. K what? Let me explain. After all, an international project without any basic information on Belgium and Flanders specifically, wouldn’t be complete, would it? All credit goes to Nette, my daughter…

 

K3 is a girl band, performing happy-clappy songs for children and young teenagers. Now, girl group K3 is no more. Or to be more accurate, the existing members of the group have quit. The group itself, a brand developed by children’s production company Studio 100, will remain, their replacements recruited via a talent show on TV. I was watching this K3 talent show with my daughter when I suddenly recognised a line in the lyrics of one of the songs. I thought I heard something similar to “99 Jahre Krieg ließen keinen Platz für Sieger“ in the song „10.000 luchtballonnen“ (10,000 balloons). At least, it reminded me of Nena’s “99 Luftballons”, the 80’s song criticising the cold war. If you heard and understood: “10.000 jaren oorlog zonder dat ooit iemand won” in Dutch (10,000 years of war without a victory for anyone), wouldn’t you think of Nena too?

The group was stripped of any suggestion of adulthood, dressed in Crayola colours, pink ribbons and short lacy socks and made to sing nonsense songs, with titles such as Blub, ik ben een vis (Blub, I’m a Fish), Hokus Pokus Dikke Dokus, etc. Needless to say, it was a huge success among little Flemish girls, my daughter included. The hits followed one after the other, and so did the products: books, comics, musicals, a TV series, three feature films, too much merchandise to count and endless concert tours in Flanders and the Netherlands.

 

Did you know that K3 even had a sister girl band in Germany? I used to have fun listening to Wir 3 (as the band is called in Germany) songs in my German lessons in the past. Just for fun, I think I’ll start including them in my lessons again! Pity Wir 3 ceased to exist in 2010. I’ll have to start translating the songs for a karaoke version in class performed by myself, I suppose…

Time to return to the classroom at Einsteingymnasium and colleague Gundula Beschorner’s classes specifically. In order to improve my teaching practice and to collect new ideas I have been observing quite a number of lessons taught by Gundula, covering a series of topics on history, politics and modern society. She is an absolute top-class teacher and whenever I’m free I attend her lessons to refresh my methodological memory and also learn new things. Gundula was born and raised in the former GDR, the socialist country which wasn’t as democratic as its name wanted everyone to believe. Maybe she’s such a good history and politics teacher because she really lived in both the divided and reunited Germany. Whether she speaks about the organisation of today’s parliament, life under the Erich Honecker dictatorship or the influence of the enlightened Friedrich II, Prussia’s great king, she always manages to engage her audience and hold it for 45 minutes. The way she made pupils act out the conversation between two 17-century washerwomen speaking about the latest laws issued by the king while doing the laundry using a washboard was absolutely hilarious. Also the homework in which the pupils had to write a letter in the name of King Frederick II who wrote to his authoritarian father King Frederick-William (the Soldier King) about their difficult relationship was a real eye-opener.

Oops, I nearly forgot: East and West Germany reunited 25 years ago on 2 and 3 October. The country was drunk on euphoria and a sense of heightened optimism. While reigning chancellor Helmut Kohl promised “flourishing landscapes”, his predecessor Willy Brandt produced the now legendary sentence: “What belongs together will grow together”. Well, I don’t think it has yet, from what I can see. At least, not everyone agrees, despite the beautifully organised celebration near the Brandenburg Gate. Some say that the music and fireworks put a veil over the ongoing differences.

 

Time to relax now. Belgium beats Italy 3-1 and I am in the first row. No, not at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels but at Bar Herman, a Belgian bar on Schönhauser Allee near Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. I watched the match with another Flemish colleague who I had met earlier that evening at the Belgian embassy near the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. Together with a group of Flemish and Walloon teachers (of German) I was invited for an aperitif and a chat with the people of Goethe-Institut Berlin who - each year - organise a teacher training week full of cultural and historical highlights and ideas for lessons and school trips.

I would like to finish my October report by telling you about the “Polen Mobil” event organised at school and the book presentation of Matthias Kneip’s “111 Gründe, Polen zu lieben” (111 reasons to love Poland). First I was curious because I’ve been to Poland myself a few times. At the end I was even more enthusiastic to go back and discover more. The author was born in a mixed Polish-German (Bavarian) family and had noticed already as a child that if you finish your meal in Poland with an empty plate, the hosts will fill it again without asking (neither you nor them have to say anything). After all in Poland the guest is king and he or she should at least have a well-filled plate put in front of them at the table. The book doesn’t leave anything out: bigos (hunter’s stew with pork and sauerkraut), flaki (beef stew in the form of a dense soup), fasolka po bretonsku (baked beans and meat stew soup, originally from Brittany but popular in Poland), pierogi, barszscz czerwony (red beetroot borscht soup) or żurek (sour dough soup) belong on every Polish dinner table. Despite the presence of McDonald’s and Burger King even the Zapiekanki, the Polish open-face baguettes, still survive. I remember having eaten the żurek and borscht when I was invited for dinner to a Polish host family’s home in Opalenica (near Poznan) during one of our first Comenius projects. If you took part in a Polish dinner party you will have to admit that – despite all the prejudices – eating together is what counts. Drinking can also be done on other days. No wonder, as Kneip writes, that one’s love for Poland goes through the stomach. And it’s true that Polish and, by extension, German traditional food has little in common with the light Mediterranean dishes we have gotten used to from our holidays in the south but if you bear in mind that Poland’s location isn’t situated in the warm climate zone and that people traditionally have to cook what their soil offers them, you accept the different ingredients and learn to appreciate the new flavours stimulating your taste buds. If you manage to say ”thanks“ in Polish (dziękuję), the whole country is at your feet because the Polish know what an extreme effort it is for a foreign mouth to produce Polish sounds.

 

There are also, remarkably, many common traits between Germany (and the rest of Europe) and Poland that I had no idea of. Matthias Kneip writes about the highlights, characteristics and avoidable mistakes in a light and funny way and I’ve been reading his book with pleasure every time I’ve been travelling since. Later in my mobility I will visit my colleagues in Poland again for a short job-shadowing experience, expanding my field of experience also to the east.

Did you know that in 2016 the 25th anniversary of the German-Polish friendship agreement will be celebrated and Breslau (Wroclaw) will be the next cultural capital of Europe? In 2015 Belgium’s Mons (Bergen) had the honour. This fact brings me back to Belgium. Or where am I? In Italy? Or Slovenia? No, I’m in Brandenburg, Germany and I’ve had no regrets whatsoever.

 

In my November report I will elaborate on my visits to the Lindenstraße Stasi-prison (“Lindenhotel”), the book “Klopfzeichen” (knocking signs) by Heidelore Rutz, former Stasi-prisoner, the Cecilienhof residence where Truman, Stalin and Churchill signed the treaty on the division of Germany after the Second World War, the Charlottenburg Castle in Berlin and the importance of 9 November in German history. As for life at school, I’ll have a closer look at Untis, the electronic school management system, Zensys, the electronic pupil evaluation platform and the organisation of the “Schnuppertag” open day.

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