An Elementary School Experience in Munich – Observations from an American Parent and Educator

By David Di Gregorio as published in Northern Valley Press – 19 September 2016

I am a school administrator and father living in the suburbs of New York City with my wife and son.  My purpose in this writing is to describe the Bavarian elementary school experience as I have come to know it this past July.   In the following paragraphs I will write about my son and what I learned about elementary education as delivered in the school he attended; Boschetsrieder Strasse Schule, in Munich, Bavaria, Germany.

When my son was just a year old, I decided my language ability was good enough to teach my son German.  Fast-forward to this past July, my son, now 8 years old, has fluency in German, and we planned to spend a month in Munich.  I was aware that schools in the state of Bavaria are open through July so I contacted the principal of an elementary school near to where we would be living in Munich, just south of the city center.  To my delight, Frau Kienzerle, the school leader, agreed to welcome my son as a guest student for the month.  My son was placed in a third grade class.   During this month, I began to see a huge difference in our systems of education of which I would like to describe.

My first surprise was to find school days are shorter – school began at 8:00 a.m. and ended on average at 12:30 for grades 1-4.  Within this time there are two breaks. Two after-care programs were offered within the school, one run by the school, and one privately run.  In both, students were served lunch, played, and were given homework time and assistance.  I signed my son on for the latter.  It ran until 4:00 p.m.   Lunch was served on tables set up with real plates, knives and forks – no plastic.  The day’s lunch menu was attractively written on a freestanding tent blackboard.

It was surprising for me to see nearly all students walking and riding bikes to school – some only in the first grade walking without a parent, some children were walking alone, others walking in groups, and some others accompanied by a parent.   The school was on a busy road and there were crossing guards on the corners near the school.  The school had bike racks to accommodate the many scooters and bikes.  Every student crossed at the green – a strict rule for all.  I also noticed brochures for parents entitled “Your Child’s Way to School” giving parents guidance and information.

On day one, I accompanied my son to his classroom.  There were no computers or Smart board.  The classroom was not cluttered or overly decorated.  There were some charts and maps.  There was a real blackboard.  On the entrance door there was a photo of every student in in the class.

I learned from my son I needed to purchase a few things to equip him for third grade in Germany.   Here is the list:

– Most every student has a “Scout” backpack made by a local German company.  They are called “Schulranzen.”  They are made with hard plastic sides and sleeves inside to protect books and papers.    Outside there are pouches for water and snack and plenty of reflective fabric for safety.  They are designed to minimize strain on the back.

– The Schulranzen comes with two types of pencil cases – a highly orderly one with rulers, erasers, a set of color pencils and other items.   There is also a pouch – where students can have glue, extra pencils, and other items.

–  Within the orderly pencil case each student is required to have a child’s fountain pen with replacement cartridges.  The most popular are made by Lamy, a German company.  Students use the fountain pen for writing – and there is a lot of copying from the board.  I noticed a marked improvement in my son’s handwriting during our stay.

One of the textbooks used, entitled Denken und Rechnen (Thinking and Numeracy) published by Westerman, had “Bavaria” as an edition printed on the cover.   Upon closer inspection I noticed maps, buildings, and other exercises reflective of the state of Bavaria.   While the elementary students are learning math, they are also learning about local geography to include neighboring towns and special buildings.  The book appeared denser, with information and exercises laid out thoroughly on each page.  A variety of exercises to include word problems and puzzles looked very interesting – one might say that some exercises employed “coding” challenges.   The pages were subtlety colorized – where needed.

One day my son came home and told me the class was going to have bicycle training.  A small trailer supplied by the municipality was filled with bikes.  Each student, with helmet, rode through a series of cones.  Students also received a lesson in bicycle safety.

During the month my son attended, he watched a total of 2 videos – one of which was a traditional televised story shown in Germany for years, Pippi Langstrumpf, and another on energy.  As this was the last month of school this was more than usual.  I also learned there were many opportunities for “basteln” or tinkering where students work with their hands.  This took place in art class and in the after school program.  One day the teacher asked me about my son’s religion and if he could attend such a class.  I was surprised that this was taught in a public school.  I later found out that schools in Germany will teach students about religion, or offer a class about ethics.

In every school and public playground I never saw plastic or artificial turf or cushioning.  Instead, a thick bed of washed small river pebbles provided cushioning.  Each playground I found different – most build from wood and other natural materials.  Soccer fields are common as are sand pits for jumping and playing.  Munich has an abundance of beer gardens – most have an accompanying playground for children.  During the month my son attended school in Munich, he had a fabulous experience and learned a great deal.  He learned not only in class, but through the abundant opportunities for social interaction with the other children within the school setting.

An American educator might call this school quaint.  I think there is a place for “quaint” especially in our American elementary schools.  The absence of computer technology along with an efficient way of delivering instruction to elementary school students – the basics – seems to work very well in a land that produces some of the finest products in the world.  In the United States, I feel we need to take a good look and return to deeply thought out basics in the elementary classroom. I would call such an elementary school in our country a “boutique” school.  It is the type of school I would want my son to attend.


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