Sunday, April 29, 2012

You Are Special: Celebrating the ones we love

Life is a gift, and we should take every opportunity to celebrate. Birthdays, especially, are a great time to do something special and to remind people we love that they are special. Today we celebrated the birthday of my oldest daughter. So it was an occasion for one of our favorite family traditions: bringing out the cherished red, You Are Special plate. This was started by my Mom years ago, and I'm proud to carry it on and share with others.

My Mom gave me a red Your Are Special plate at my bridal shower. It comes with  a special permanent marker that can be used to write notes and dates of special occasions on the plate. Mom inscribed a wedding wish for me and my husband and signed and dated the back of the plate. Since she died a few short years later, the indelible handwritten note became all the more precious to me.

On the eve of every birthday in our home, I take the plate out and set the table for breakfast.  The plate and decorations and gifts are laid out for the birthday person. Each year, it takes on some minor enhancement to make it a little different - some confetti, or flowers, a candle, or balloons. Waking up to the Your Are Special plate is a tradition everyone in our family looks forward to on their birthday.

But the plate can be used for other occasions, too: an exceptional report card, promotion at work, anniversary, graduation, or just a random day when someone we love needs a reminder that they are special.

I've bought a few of these plates as gifts for weddings, to pass on the gift my Mom gave me. It's a great way to help newlyweds start their own special traditions celebrating the loved ones in their lives.

What are the traditions you've built into your lives to celebrate the ones you love?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Teen Trials Continued: High School in Germany

About a week ago, I thought things were mostly looking up for the kids. It's been very rough, but we seemed to be working through the challenges and making progress. I guess I was too hopeful, too soon. A new set of trials presented themselves this week and our heads are still spinning.

Our oldest daughter, repeating 10th grade in Germany in order to improve her German and start the required third language (in her case, Spanish), was suddenly told by the school that she needed to take a "Feststellungsprüfung" (Assessment exam) in order to determine if she could stay in school! The school director approached her and told her that she'd have to take a very important test this week in Spanish, to see if she qualified to be in the "Oberstufe" (upper-level of secondary school). This made no sense. The director told her to check the criteria for this test on the website of the regional government (Bezirksregierung). So we looked it up, read through the information, and learned this was a test given to kids who transfer from foreign countries to establish fluency in their native language (presuming it is anything except German or English) and thus exempt them from the requirement to learn a third language in the Gymnasium. It clearly did not apply to her. We tried to reach the school director to clarify this, but were unable to get her before the test was administered Wednesday morning. Nonetheless, I told my daughter to relax, and not worry. We presumed the school was just trying to give her an option to get out of two more years of Spanish lessons - in the rare event that she could actually pass the test. If she failed the assessment, she would just have to continue sludgeing her way through the additional language until she graduated. And for that we were already providing her tutoring twice a week. It would be hard, but she would make it. No worries.

Wednesday comes, and with it the test. That afternoon, my daughter calls home crying, saying she failed the test and is now being told she can't stay in school.  Nonsense. Of course she has to be allowed to stay in school. She is required to stay in school until she is 18. She is doing well in her other subjects. She is taking Spanish, like any kid who transfers from a different middle school system, and she'll be fine. Again, I tried to reach the school director. And what does the director tell me??  My daughter hasn't met the basic requirements to be in a German Gymnasium and thus can't stay; will not be promoted to 11th grade.Should not have even been accepted for 10th grade. The school director is very sorry, but her hands are tied. Hello? Are you KIDDING me???? She tells me I need to appeal to the Regional Government, but we should really consider putting her back in 9th grade or transferring her to a private, international school (BTW, that's an hour away and costs 20,000 Euros per year).

As soon as I hang up the phone, after a long, at first polite, then bewildered, and ultimately very heated and confrontational call with the school director, I call the person responsible for Gymnasium education at the regional government. I explain my dilemma and he asks me to come by in the morning.

So off I went to fight for my daughter's right to get an education.

This system blows my mind. A student in the Gymnasium has 11 to 13 courses per year. My daughter's schedule includes Math, German, English, Spanish, Information Technology, Biology, Chemistry, History, Religion, Art, and Physical Education. Every student in grades 5 through 12 has a similar schedule (with some language and arts variations). There is only one offering per class, per year. So there's 10th grade math, 11th grade math, 12th grade math, and you take each in the grade you are enrolled - just like in elementary school. You can't skip ahead, nor can you repeat a single subject you might have failed. You must pass all of your classes. If you fail one, then you repeat the ENTIRE grade, even if you excelled in all the other subjects. You cannot advance in math and science, if you fail a class in Spanish. This system seems hugely flawed to me.

It was very different in the United States, where students need to compile graduation credits over 4 years, but have the flexibility to take different classes at different times, and can even double up on subjects they are good at. So my daughter completed four high school math classes by the end of Sophomore year (10th grade) and would be taking college courses in her junior & senior years.  

Anyway, we met with the man in charge at the regional government, and he was, quite thankfully, very understanding. He confirmed that our daughter did not need to take the qualifying exam and that with the grades she earned so far, and the effort she was demonstrating in Spanish, she had every right to be advanced to the 11th grade where she'll be able to enter the International Baccalaureate Diploma program, with half of her classes taught in English. He called the school director immidiately and clarified that our daughter qualified for school and earned a promotion.

Fire extinguished, time to celebrate!
Not. So. Fast.

Today we got a letter in the mail. Daughter number two is at risk of failing FIVE classes and probably will not be promoted to 9th grade. Although she was promoted last year to 9th grade, and is voluntarily repeating 8th in order to improve her German. It's going to be a long week.... meetings will be scheduled with her teachers and we will see what we can do to make sure she passes all of her classes.

One would think the school might have a little compassion for the kids and what they've been through, leaving their home and friends and being immersed in schools in a foreign country. A few months ago, the school virtually assured me they would pass the kids this year, with the understanding that they need a year just to get adjusted to the language. Why they are now being so difficult is incomprehensible.

The kids are frustrated and hurting right now. Say a prayer for the kids. Wish us luck.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Helping Teens Transition to School in Germany

Expat life can be challenging for the most well-adjusted adults. For teens, it can be especially hard. When we moved to Germany this summer our four children were aged 8-16.  All were born and raised in the United States with English as their primary language. But we've always spoken a fair amount of German with them at home and provided  many German children's TV programs and films for them. This foundation, combined with summers spent visiting Oma and Opa in Germany, provided them with fair to good conversational skills. However, none of them has ever had any formal instruction in reading or writing the language. The oldest took two years of high school German, but even that had a strong conversation focus.

Despite their limited fluency, for a variety of reasons, we chose to integrate the children into German schools. For the youngest, who was entering 3rd grade, the transition was almost seamless. Younger children often have an easier time adjusting both because the school demands are less intense and they are adept at learning new information. However, the transition for the teens has been tough. We found a "Gymnasium" (German secondary school for 5-12th grades with a college-preparatory academic curriculum) that offered the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. Each of the older three kids was enrolled in a repeat year - so that they could focus on their German skills and start the required third language that each would need for graduation. This meant we put the oldest daughter back in 10th grade, the next daughter back into 8th grade, and our older son into 6th grade.

Side note: this level of schooling in Germany requires all children to learn TWO foreign languages for graduation. Ironically, English would be counted as the first "foreign" language for my children. The oldest added Spanish (the only choices in 10th grade being Spanish and Italian), the next daughter had only the option of accelerated French (no other languages are started at this age), and my son chose Latin in 6th grade (French being his other option). This particular graduation requirement is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for my children, who have no formal language training and are trying very hard to learn German. Their peers have all learned at least one foreign language since 1st grade (English) and have a strong handle on the complicated grammar involved in languages (like German) that use a complex system of gender-distinct articles for nouns in the genitive, dative and accusative forms.

Thus, while their classmates are learning very quickly, my children are struggling with: 1) learning German; 2) learning all of their other subjects in German; 3) learning an additional language; 4) coping with a new country, new home, new school, and new friends; 5) grieving for everything they feel they've lost "back home."

It probably wouldn't surprise anyone that my kids hate me more often than not now. For bringing them here. For making them go to school. For ruining their lives. It might surprise my kids, that sometimes I hate myself for all those reasons, too. But we won't go there today. Today, I need to focus on helping my kids through this transition.

The 13 Year Old

One of the things we discovered early on was that the Gymnasium school system and all these demands were most definitely not working at all for our 13-year old son. As it was, he was the most angry and resentful about the move. He's a 13-year old boy, he has to be angry and resentful about something. Furthermore, he is the least organized of the kids and most likely to "forget" homework, school supplies, etc. So in January, as the first semester of school was closing, we made the heart-wrenching decision to introduce another change in his life. After researching and visiting a number of other schools, we pulled him out of the Gymnasium and enrolled him in a "Realschule." There were at least five benefits to this in our minds, and it didn't take long (thankfully!) for him to also realize that this particular change was for the better.

First, the Realschule is somewhat less academically-demanding because kids who complete after 10th grade have the option of apprenticing in a trade or transferring to a 3-year college-prep program. Thus, the school is more focused on meeting individual learning needs and offering a hands-on, interactive approach to learning. Secondly, there is no additional foreign-language requirement (goodbye Latin!). Third, the school was willing to move our son back up to 7th-grade during this mid-year transition, to put him in a class of his age-peers (he was the oldest in his 6th grade class because we had held him back when he was the youngest in Kindergarten!). Fourth, this school has a bilingual program, offering two of his science courses in English! Finally, the school participates in a city-wide program for immigrant children, providing an additional 10 hours per week of in-school German language instruction. Add to all of these great benefits the fact that the school is closer to our home and our son can ride his bike everyday instead of taking a train and 2 streetcars, it seems like this should have been a "no-brainer" decision.

Nonetheless, you would never believe how we agonized over the decision. We were afraid of making another change, pulling him from the school he was beginning to feel familiar at and the friends he was starting to make. We were afraid of separating him from his older sisters who could look out for him. We were afraid the peer group at the new school would not be a good fit. We were afraid he would not be encouraged to meet his academic potential. We were afraid of dealing with three different schools (PTAs, teacher conferences, schedules, etc). But thankfully we did not let fear lead the decision making. Ultimately, we found a school that better fit our son's needs and where he will be able to succeed. So far, a few months into the new school, he seems to be thriving. And we're seeing much more of his old charming, sweet & funny self, and less of the angry teen rebel who seemed to be invading his body.

The 16 Year Old

My oldest child had to work amazingly hard all her life to compensate for a reading disability, spending countless hours with tutors and in summer school reading programs. But by high school, her hard work was paying off and she was excelling in all honors and Advanced Placement courses. She was on the Mock Trial team, the Model United Nations Team, the Science Club, served as Sophomore Class treasurer, and played field hockey and lacrosse. Demonstrating a gift for math and science, she manged to complete four courses of maths in two years of American high school. Teachers adored her and she was already eagerly looking at colleges in the US. How could I possibly pull such a successful, well-rounded child out of school and move her to Germany??? Could I really expect her to finish her last 2 years of high school in a foreign country? In a foreign language that she can barely read? Talk about ruining a life.

Yet from the get-go, this one has surprised me. Yes, she is struggling. Yes, school sucks royally on most days; she generally hates it and has shed plenty of tears in anger and frustration. But she has been very open-minded and even excited about the move. She loves being in Europe. She is eager to travel and see new sites. So we walk a tight-rope, trying to maintain her self-esteem and happiness in the face of  incredible academic set-backs and even failures. She has had to repeat 10th grade, delaying college. She has tutoring again several times a week, for both German and Spanish. She is barely passing subjects she loved like History and Biology. She is so worried about passing school now, she has lost sight of her college dreams.

Helping this child succeed may not be as easy as changing schools now. So I'm trying to get her refocused on her goals and find realistic ways of reaching them. We need to be able to see beyond today's challenges, putting obstacles and worst-case-scenarios in perspective, while concentrating on future rewards. She used to be excited about college, but now fears she won't get into a good program. But I believe there is a great college for every kid who wants to go and is willing to work hard. So we've begun researching new options. Since she loves Europe and has EU citizenship, it makes sense to explore colleges here - financially much more viable for us than anything in the US now. But the language barrier is very real. So she needs a school that offers classes in English. Of course, the United Kingdom has options. But even here in Germany, we've now found a couple of Engineering programs that have piqued her interest and that heavily recruit international students, with classes either entirely in English or in a combination of English and German, after an integrated period of advanced German language training. These schools accept the IB Diploma, which she begins next year and is confident she can complete successfully (its in English), even if she does not pass all of her "Abitur" exams for a parallel German secondary school degree. Knowing this helps relieve a little of the pressure she has felt. One of these universities has a summer camp for high school students to introduce them to their engineering programs. We're signing her up for it, giving her renewed hope and faith in a bright future.

The 15 Year Old

A Middle Child. Those of us (me, too) who are middle children know this brings its own set of issues :) My beautiful, smart social butterfly can tell you all about how unfair life is. The older one gets this..., the younger ones get that.... the middle one gets ignored. Sadly, there is some truth to this. For child #2, school was always relatively easy and she was fairly popular, meaning, we didn't ever have to worry much about her.  But that really isn't true, is it? Maybe we need to worry a little more about the one who keeps her feelings all locked up while keeping her head down and her feet forward. Having just graduated from a private K-8th grade school in the US, she was so excited about starting at the public high school her sister attended. Smart and goal-oriented, she was also talking about attending prestigious colleges and law schools. And then we took her from her broad circle of close friends, from a place where she excelled, set her back in 8th grade again, in a school that included kids as young as 5th grade, and took away everything special about the high school experience she longed for. No school sports teams, no homecoming dance, no honor roll, no feeling all grown up. I am now crying as I write this.

She is still popular, but has also felt the sting of some bitter teen girl drama (a global phenomenon). Despite being very smart, she struggles in a school system that teaches and tests very differently from what she grew up with and is at risk of failing. Yet she is too old to move to the alternate school system her brother attends. I don't know what choices there are for her. It seems all I can tell her is "You'll catch up. It'll be OK. Your German is improving and you just need a little more time." But this doesn't feel like enough. And I am sure she thinks its not enough either. The middle child, left to just make it on her own. Another life ruined. Only this time, I don't even have an answer for how to help her succeed. I can't write some happy ending here.

So if anyone out there has some advice for this Expat Mom, I'm all ears. How did you help your teen transition to school in Germany?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Roots and Wings: Giving children the freedom to roam

When I lived in suburban Maryland, concerned neighbors warned me I shouldn't let my kids go to the neighborhood park alone. It could be unsafe. Other kids were not allowed to ride their bikes out of our cul-de-sac. All sorts of trouble might lurk around the swings and basketball courts in the park up the hill, out of sight from our street. "Unsavory characters" may prey on unattended children. I appreciated their worries, but sent my kids off anyway.

How could I?! As good parents, it is our responsibility to protect our children from potential harm. I understand this. But there are many kinds of harm we need to protect our children from. And one of them is the psychological damage we can inflict when we over-protect them. When we warn them not to wander too far, because the world is a big, unsafe place, we teach them fear. Fear can be crippling and dangerous, too. We must weigh the risks of both kinds of danger: physical and emotional harm.

I grew up in suburban New York. As children, my brothers and I wandered as far as our bikes would take us. We played in the woods behind our house for hours. We walked 2 miles to the town deli to buy candy with our spare change. We followed a few basic rules: Stay in pairs (at least). Keep a quarter in your pocket for a pay phone. Don't talk to strangers. Be home before dark. Otherwise, we were free to roam, exploring our world with confidence. I treasure the sense of freedom and adventure this imparted on me and believe it is part of what gave me the courage to travel abroad as a high school student.

And this is what I feel is important to give my children: carefree confidence. Not to be confused with carelessness. My kids follow the same rules I was taught, with the added bonus that they can carry a cell phone along. They've been taught to be aware of their surroundings: be safe, but do not be afraid! They need to check in more frequently than I ever did as a kid. But otherwise, they are encouraged to get outside, discover their world, and have fun!

So this is one thing I really love about our new life in Germany. The attitude of allowing kids to explore untethered is much more prevalent. Whereas my children were often the only ones in our American neighborhood who could go to the park without an adult, here my nine-year old gathers his friends from around the block and takes off to climb trees or build forts in the woods.

There's a saying (often attributed to Goethe, but not sure this is accurate): "Give your children roots and wings." Teach them responsibility, give them a firm foundation, a loving and safe home, and them set them free to fly. These lessons need to start when they are young in small steps. One day the neighborhood park; later, a cross-country trip to relatives; eventually, maybe, backpacking across several continents. Children  should be empowered to take on the world, exploring, learning, growing.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Power Playlist for Women

"I am Woman, Hear Me Roar" - this is the title of the new playlist I'm assembling for my collection of running/workout music. The criteria: songs sung by women that reflect their strength and beauty. Here are some of the titles I have so far.

  • A Woman’s Worth, Alicia Keys
  • Beautiful, Christina Aguilera
  • Bitch, Meredith Brooks
  • Fighter, Christina Aguilera
  • Firework, Katy Perry
  • I Am Woman, Helen Reddy
  • I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor
  • I'm a Woman, Reba McEntire
  • Independent Women, Destiny's Child
  • Irreplaceable, Beyonce
  • Love Song, Sara Bareillis
  • Man I Feel Like a Woman, Shania Twain
  • Respect, Aretha Franklin
  • Stronger, Kelly Clarkson
  • Survivor, Destiny's Child
  • Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield

These tunes make me feel powerful and motivate me to work harder - at whatever I am doing.
I'd love suggestions of more female power anthems. One note, I'd like to avoid tunes that are explicitly man-hating, because, well, I sort of like men ;)

Have a great day! 

Friday, April 20, 2012

My Six-Word Memoir: Have Lipstick and Laptop, Will Travel

Have Lipstick and Laptop, Will Travel

Several years ago, Smith magazine launched  their Six-Word Memoir project and a series of subsequent books. I first heard of it on a radio broadcast early one morning the week before I was heading to Italy for a  short business trip. All through the week, I pondered the challenge: what is my story in six words? What 6-word phrase would represent important details or values in my life? Wow - a pretty tough challenge! It nagged at me all that week.

Then it dawned on me at the start of my trip. A pilot waiting with me in the terminal commented on how lightly I was packed for a woman - I only had a small carry-on with my laptop and a couple changes of clothes, and a tiny hand-held purse that fit my wallet, passport, and lipstick. This is when it came to me. I jokingly replied to the pilot that all I needed was my lipstick and laptop. And as I thought about that, I realized those two things really did sum up most everything I needed and valued - life need not be weighed down with heavy luggage. Travel light, focus on the important things, live in the moment and have a free spirit and an open mind!

Here is what the items represent to me:

Lipstick stands for all things beautiful and polished, as well as simplicity. It is the notion that we should be beautiful inside and out and pay attention to simple details in life, like the extra sparkle a touch of lip gloss can give to a woman's smile. I believe that beauty can be found in many ways and that what is most important is the beauty we find inside people - kindness, compassion, honesty. But I also believe in being healthy, physically fit, eating right and trying to present the physical gifts God gave us in the most flattering light. So yes, attention to nice clothes and a clean, polished appearance is important to me as well.

The laptop is a connection to the world, a tool for communication, a source of news and education, an essential part of a busy professional's life and highly complex. It represents "brains" to complement the beauty; form and substance to balance the aesthetic. For it is not enough to be beautiful and simple, it is important to be smart and interesting as well. Yet, the laptop is portable and lightweight - offering access to an incredible and diverse world in the palm of your hand.

So lipstick and a laptop are symbiotic for an amazing life of adventure. With the ideas represented by these two items, one can travel the world, meet new people, explore exciting places. Experience the beauty and wonder of life!

But "Will Travel" doesn't have to mean flying around the world. You can immerse yourself in a great book from the comfort of your sofa to explore new worlds - and then, ideally, discuss it with a friend! You can meet and interact with people in your community from diverse cultures. You can go to the theater to experience dance or music from far away lands. Being willing to travel is about having an adventurous spirit and an open mind - if your adventures take you down the street or across the ocean, you just need to be willing to learn and grow from them!

So grab your lipstick and your laptop and travel!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Candy-coated Celebrations: KitKat Cake

Baking for other people is one of my favorite ways to celebrate life and express love. When my kids were little, I marked each birthday with a creative cake - staying up late the night before their special day to sculpt and decorate an elaborate choo-choo train cake, or an erupting volcano cake with dinosaurs for my boys and grand princess castles, sparkly rainbow fish, or barbie-doll cakes for the girls. When I went back to an office-job, I brought a cake each month in to celebrate colleagues' birthdays. And for the kids' school auction, I donated a cake-of-the-month club annually for many years. I love to be imaginative with flavors, styles, and shapes.

KitKat Cake
But one of the most requested cakes I make now is a ridiculously simple candy-coated cake that I privately dub the "Mike Kenney Memorial Cake." I first made this as a birthday present for my colleague, Mike, who had a KitKat addiction. My office mates were a fun-loving, friendly bunch who, on Mike's birthday, dumped about a hundred KitKat candy bars on his desk. And I found a cake design to match.

Since that time, it has become a favorite among my family and friends. Each of my boys asked for it on recent birthdays and on a trip back to the US this spring, my old colleagues begged for it as well. Frankly, I'm sick of making it :) But, because it is popular and so simple that anyone can make it with little time or effort, I'll share the concept here.
  1. Bake your favorite chocolate cake in round cake pans - any recipe, even a box mix if you are so inclined. I prefer two 9-inch rounds I can stack with a layer of frosting in the middle, but if you are really short on time, go for a single deep spring-form.
  2. Frost generously with your favorite chocolate frosting. Again, I won't judge - if you want, pull out a can of the pre-made stuff (but I strongly encourage you to try homemade, it's worth it! Here's a great one Chocolate Buttercream Frosting).
  3. Next, press KitKat candy wafer bars into the frosting around the sides. (Break the bars of 4 thin sticks in half so you are pressing pairs of sticks). To help hold them together, tie a ribbon around the cake (even paper curling ribbon will do).
  4. Finally, fill the top of the cake with small candies. I usually use Reese's Pieces, but have also made variations with M&Ms or Smarties. Wa-la - you have a candy-coated cake that will please almost any sugar-junkie.
Sadly, a couple years ago, Mike suddenly passed away of natural causes at a rather young age. Since then, each time I make this cake, I offer a little prayer for kind-hearted Mike and his family. May he rest in peace.

And may you and your family remember that life is a precious gift and every opportunity to celebrate it should be embraced!