September was a travelling month. I think I covered some 7,000 km on buses, trams, planes and trains - as I am doing right now. “Trenitalia vi dá il benvenuto e vi augura buon viaggio” the electronic display in the carriage says. I'm on my way to Trieste in the north-east of Italy from where it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to Ljubljana, my next stop. Our Slovenian partners are organising a project week together with Potsdam’s Einsteingymnasium, and as I now officially work for the latter, I feel I can’t afford to miss it. Last week the students and I continued to work on the Pixton comic books at school and during this project week Slovenian and German students are presenting their intermediate results to each other.
I left Ancona only half an hour ago where I went to pay a visit to Ymke Decat (left), our long-term learning mobility student and her host family. We went through the German material Ymke is studying independently and checked her progress in the other subjects she has to keep up with. I didn't hear a single word of complaint, neither from Ymke, nor from her hosts and my Leuven colleagues. Communication is running smoothly and Ymke is sticking to her assignment deadlines. Settling in at the Podesti school in Chiaravalle is also going well for her. So far so good and congratulations to Ymke for all her efforts! Thanks also to the Chiaravalle headmaster, teachers, the former and current coordinator and her classmates for preparing Ymke and making her feel welcome.
Back to Brandenburg, Berlin and Potsdam. My first month at Einsteingymnasium is already behind me and I've seen and experienced a lot, thanks to my great colleagues who let me observe/be present during their lessons, be it announced or unannounced! Speaking of surprises, this is a quote from Albert Einstein, written in large letters on the back wall of the Einsteingymnasium festivity hall: „Phantasie ist wichtiger als Wissen, denn wissen ist begrenzt” or in English: fantasy is more important than knowledge because knowledge is limited. Isn't that indeed what a school should do: combine both a focus on knowledge without neglecting the fostering of creativity in a pupil’s head? I must admit I didn't expect these words to have come from Einstein.
Another surprise – or, should I say, discovery – was my visit to the Baltic Sea. To the city of Stralsund and the isle of Rügen, to be more precise. I joined the second-grade pupils (in Germany called "8. Klasse" as they continue counting after six years of primary school) on their traditional field trip at the start of the new school year. This part of Germany, called Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, was new to me.
During my four-hour early bird train ride from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to Stralsund (where I joined the group and visited the Marienkirche and the marine life centre) I saw a landscape that reminded me of rural Flanders – acres of meadows and fields – split into two by the railway I was on. I couldn't have guessed that the next day I would have a ride on an authentic early century small track steam engine to go and visit Jagdschloss Granitz and the day after Königsstuhl, a most beautiful nature park (Unesco world heritage site) including white cliffs and rocky beaches with breath-taking views. Indeed, the altitude made me have shaky legs and trembling hands, preventing me from taking a selfie. I’ll never forget that feeling!
And I won’t forget my return trip either! Being used to Belgium’s public transport being less than punctual most of the time, I took the risk of popping in to the supermarket near the youth hostel in Sellin, got rid of the last of my coins and bought some sweets and Schnaps made from the local speciality Sanddorn, a plant which grows well in the sandy dunes of Rügen (in English "sea buckthorn"). What a badly-timed decision (pardon the pun)! I underestimated German punctuality and missed the last and only bus back to Stralsund. As I'm a well-organised teacher I knew - thanks to my recently downloaded Deutsche Bahn app - that there was another bus, the last one, an hour later. They are so well organised, those Germans! I even bought my on-line ticket using the app, which of course is very convenient when you’re travelling without a printer. No panic, I would catch the last bus for sure. And I did!
Then, however, problems started. From under his glasses, the bus driver - very professional and highly experienced I'm sure - looked at my Samsung display on which I proudly presented my electronic ticket to him. Even if you didn't understand a word of German, “Was ist das denn? Ich akzeptiere nur VBR-Busfahrscheine!” wouldn't be a mystery to you. Apparently the app and the local transportation company aren't the best of friends and neither were the bus driver and I. I wanted to stick to my e-ticket because I had run out of coins and bank notes thanks to the Sanddorn souvenirs. My bank card? No way, these aren't the Berlin/Brandenburg buses. This is rural Rügen! In the next seven minutes we developed a conversation which lead to the threat of calling the police and me getting nervous because I knew my train connection time was very tight. The other passengers had never witnessed an argument like this before, I'm sure. And for me it was the first time I ever had to beg people I didn't know at all for money. Fortunately, rural Rügen inhabitants are more understanding than gruff Rügen bus drivers. Thanks to two €1 donations I could continue my attempt to get off the island. The fact that I had to spend the night in Stralsund due to the seven-minute argument and the fact that I missed the last train to Berlin is only a minor detail in this travel story.
Meanwhile I am somewhere in between Bologna and Padova on the Frecciargento high speed train. Last weekend Germany celebrated 25 years of reunification. In the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost I read this remarkable paragraph, written by Güner Yasemin Balci, a Turkish-Kurdish-born journalist: “…kulturelle Unterschiede sind durchaus nicht immer eine Bereicherung, die den eigenen Horizont erweitert - sie können auch eine Mauer sein, hinter der man sich bereitwillig verschanzt, weil man sich dort sicher fühlt“. According to me, this very ambiguous phenomenon means that being open-minded towards new experiences can cause others to build a wall, behind which they can hide because there they feel comfortable and secure. Indeed, this is something I have started to accept and deal with, after almost two months of teaching in Germany and over a year of coordinating Strip to Identity. No matter how hard you try to defend the positive outcomes of transnational cooperation and its effects on school education, there will always be disbelievers who will say the exact opposite. Perhaps trying hard to convince other people is even the wrong approach. My headmaster once said: “If you want to bring about changes in a school, choose the gradual way.” I'm starting to believe he’s right. The only thing I ask myself is: “How long does gradual take?” How patient can one be?
Back to reality. Suddenly I have to think of my “new” class back in Potsdam. I teach English to the 7th graders, the first year of secondary school. They are a group of 28 boys and girls, eager to learn. I do hope they are studying hard for next week’s vocabulary and grammar test. By the way, new to me is the marking system, going from 5 (very weak) to 1 (excellent). On top of that, I have to prepare my French lesson on Belgium, which will be something between a presentation and an interactive lesson. Will I have time to work on it while I'm in Ljubljana? I’ll just have to wait and see.
Oh yes, before I forget. Some readers among you may ask themselves if my pupils (back in Belgium, in Germany and those at the partner schools) benefit from all these experiences. Well, at this stage at least I try to involve them, even while I'm travelling. On the Strip to Identity website I set up a page containing my Whatsapp “Landeskunde” communication corner. This way, I can offer my students from last year in Leuven something to read every now and then: a slogan, a short text, a joke or a picture for them to discuss in class with my replacement teacher.
I would like to conclude this September report by looking ahead to when my mobility will have to be evaluated, measured and quantified… if it is measurable at all? Coming back to Einstein’s words: creativity has no limits. Can a teacher’s creativity, empathy and passion be quantified? Are pedagogical success and learning progress to be treated as if they were economic entities? Boosting creative, critical and individual thinking among pupils is easier said than done. Can a teacher assess them at all? Social, personal and ecological competences like altruism, responsibility, cooperation skills, the willingness to compromise, fairness: aren't they beyond measurability? In "die Zeit" secondary school teacher Andreas Obrecht wrote an interesting article on this topic. The subtitle of the article "Ohne jedes Maß" is definitely food for discussion: "a good teacher can't be evaluated".
If it's your cup of tea, please take a look at the EPC-model below, the project competence evaluation model my colleagues and I developed to assess our project work. At least this will be a point of discussion in the next few months.
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