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?

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