Wednesday, 18 July 2012

July 2012. 2011-2012: the latchkey kids.

17th July 2012

I made a psychological commitment to keep going with this blog, but only once a year, so I plan to stick to that. In fact for the last 2 years I have sat down one July evening, stared at the screen and wondered what on earth happened during the year, then I remember some notes I scribbled along the way and it all comes flooding back.

So. Get yourself something sip…..

………now, are you sitting comfortably ? Then I’ll begin.

We have now completed 4 years in Swiss school, and 5 years in Switzerland. We are the proud possessors of C permits, and marginally more Deutsch than last year. OH’s hair is no less than last year, and I am still no thinner. The boys are marked at school as if they were Swiss; after J was signed off “DAZ” (Deutsch als Zweitesprach – German as Second Language) half way through Klasse 6, 18 months ago, it took a further year for C to be signed off. I’m still not sure whether that’s because he had come to the end of his official funding as a DAZ student or whether he was genuinely signed off, but his marks have steadily improved, and are now the same as J’s for German.

I am now a qualified teacher, having come to terms with my mid life crisis and completed a British PGCE online-distance-learning course during the year, with a teaching placement at one of the local international, English speaking schools. This has meant that for 2-3 and sometimes 4 days a week, the boys have been on their own at lunchtime, with a prepared (un)packed lunch, and the responsibility of locking the house and getting themselves back to school afterwards. They have coped with this admirably, with no apparent fires, fighting nor locking each other in, nor out. I have occasionally found plates in front of the TV – a strictly verboten place to eat in our house - after an unsupervised lunch, but that’s the depth of their sin on that front, so I’m not losing any sleep over that.

Let’s recap. For the year just ended, J has been in Oberstufe 1 – Sek A, year 1 – equivalent to Year 8 (UK) or Grade 7 (US / International). C has been in Grade 5 (Year 6 – UK or Grade 5 – US / International) equivalent, but in the Swiss system, he has one more year of Primarstufe to go before transferring to Oberstufe (that’s big, scary, secondary school in my language).

J’s year has seen an introduction to the life of school children who leave the house at 7am for a 7.25am start 4 days a week (from next year it will be 5 days a week). Naturally, he finds this very tiring; after about 6 months he was clearly exhausted, and I was fed up with him being vile to me first thing in the morning, as if the early starts were all my fault. We managed to sort that one out and he’s recovered his good humour a bit now. He is back to only Wednesday afternoons off, and twice a week school finishes at 4.05pm rather than 3.15pm.

The year began with an “Introduction to Sek” evening for all the parents in the year group (A, B & C), which, frankly, made me want to rip out my own fingernails. Everything about it was dreadful, and so unlike our experience of Primarstufe that I felt really despondent. The school director gave a “speech” which revealed him to be a totally charisma free zone; the school “Sozialarbeit” woman gave a presentation so appalling it was embarrassing - everyone was staring at the ceiling or round the room: apart from addressing the parents as if they were all half wits, she then gave a long presentation about “working together to help the youth” using the overhead projector with the projection not even on the wall, with not a single slide in focus, nor displayed on the screen straight. None of her colleagues helped. Both of these speeches were given in Swiss German. The teachers were all introduced, and then sat down – they didn’t say anything in the group meeting. Neither did they smile. We then went to the school rooms to meet our childrens’ teachers.

In a similar way to Primarstufe, J will have two main teachers for 3 years (or 2 if he leaves before that) – one, his class teacher, teaching maths, sciences and sport, to his and the “parallel class”. The teacher of the “parallel class” teaches both classes languages (German and French), humanities, and religion and culture. There are specialist teachers for English, cookery, Handarbeit and art. The main class teacher is quite young. The parallel class teacher is in his late 50s, and is “old school” – to say the least. I have no problem with strictness, and I have no problem with zero tolerance of no work effort, both of which are driven home in spades with this teacher. However, at the “Introduction to Sek” evening, we had an hour’s lecture about his teaching style, how important it was, his approach to teaching - basically an hour of him lecturing us about himself - and this on top of warnings that we had already had about his political views, which appear to be somewhat to the right of Christophe Blocher – hardly reconciliatory in a Gemeinde with a massive Balkan/Turkish, Muslim population. Not that I’m suggesting that being reconciliatory is necessary – unlike the British, the Swiss don’t have an imperial guilt complex and are very straight down the line: there is no room for political correctness for the sake of it here, and in many ways I appreciate that. But, rather than just giving all the school speeches in Hochdeutsch - “the language of education”, those who “preferred Hochdeutsch" were asked to show themselves, which felt like a thinly veiled attempt to identify the Auslandern, immediately making me feel singled out, threatened and vulnerable. Yes, I am an Auslander. Yes, my Swiss German is poor, but I do understand a good deal of Hochdeutsch. I do make an effort. Don’t pick on me please. Nor my son.

I should clarify. I had had to go straight from my teaching placement to the meeting, and I hadn’t had time to eat. I was tired, and very grumpy. It was now 9.30pm. The evening ended with the most gigantic thunderstorm of the month – we get a lot of these in Switzerland in summer - and I am utterly terrified of thunderstorms, for reasons too complicated to go into here. OH and I cycled home in the storm. I was scared, drenched, tired, very grumpy, very hungry and VERY cross. It all appeared to be going horribly wrong.

School began, and we had all the usual “new teacher, new place, new routine” stuff to get through, which we did. J couldn’t work out how to access his locker, and was too shy (yes, really) to ask his teacher for help. After a few arguments along the lines of “you’re in Sek now. Do you really want me to come to school to help ? Won’t that make things bad for you in the playground, to “need” to have your mum there ?” he finally asked his teacher for help. The answer was, “it’s your problem, go and ask the Hauswart”. Great. More arguments. In the end J did it, and evicted all the previous student’s rubbish – which should have already been disposed of. Job done, and his confidence increased.

Just as in Gymi, they had Probezeit – ie the probationary time in their stream. Most of the class passed, and there were one or two in the year who moved stream.

J started cookery – which I think he only does for a year, as I think he has chosen woodwork (or whatever it’s called these days, in German) next year. He really enjoyed this, and has started to cook a bit independently at home.

On the marks front, he dipped to start with, with his French taking a serious bashing at one point, with several unbelievably poor marks. More arguments. He’s pulled his socks up now, I’m glad to say. Because it really was just that – they do a lot of rote learning, and if you don’t do the learning, you get poor marks. Simple. But many people will testify that there is no other way to learn language vocabulary, and my own personal philosophy is that if that’s the system, there’s no point fighting it.

And he’s now more or less back to where he was, marks wise. Which is amazing really. Because I think his homework takes him the same amount of time that it did in Klasse 6,  his day is longer and more strenuous, and because he is now in the top level of the Zurich Boys Choir, rehearsing in central Zurich 3 times a week, meaning an hour’s journey there and an hour’s journey back, and an hour’s rehearsal. So overall he has increased his school hours and his workload and is out of the house for an additional 9-10 hours per week. I don’t take him to rehearsal. He takes himself, navigating through the HB at rush hour.

Late in May, they had the “Maifest” – which appeared to be a whole school party (prom ?) held at school, and lasting from 6.30pm to 11.15pm. They had a theme, which was “elegant” and to which they had to dress up – so we managed to find J something which looked like a suit. I also managed to persuade him that he really would look like 007 if he agreed to a haircut (having refused one since August 2011). He acquiesced - and looked very smart for the evening. Attendance at the Maifest from 7.00pm to 9.30pm was obligatory, and the whole thing ended with fireworks – at 11.00pm. So obviously no-one wanted to leave before that. I got him home at 11.30pm. It was a Thursday night. Were they allowed a lie in the next morning ? No, normal start, 07.25am.

In early June the whole school year went away on sports camp, to a place on Walensee – not too far away. This was another league of scariness. Some students weren’t allowed to go, due to behavioural issues in the weeks running up to the camp. Two girls were sent home after self harm (cutting). One student was sent home for smoking and /or drinking. J came home in one piece. Phew.

What else ? His main teacher went off to do further training at the beginning of Mai, so he had a trainee teacher for the last few weeks of school.

With regard to the parallel class teacher. After the dreadful “Introduction to Sek” evening I spent the whole year thinking “good grief, what is going on” but I couldn’t help but think that J was actively engaging in interesting discussion, and is genuinely very excited about the world around him. The teacher pushes him, and clearly fires his enthusiasm for life, history and culture. I don’t agree with some of the stuff he comes out with, but a teacher who inspires the kids is worth his weight in gold. At the end of the year, OH and I decided to make an appointment to see this teacher to discuss J’s progress, and so we can start to consider the options after Sek. So we saw him, and I was actually very impressed in a one-to-one environment. The whole thing was conducted in Hochdeutsch (we know he speaks English, but we didn’t ask for him to) and he spoke a good deal of sense, both as a parent himself and as a teacher. I might not agree with his political views, but he didn’t try to ram them down my throat, and both OH and I felt that he offered us a very fair and sensible picture of the future options.

The question now remains – does J want to go for Kurzgymi to gain a Matura to enable university entrance at 18, or would he be better off going for a Berufsmatura (apprenticeship) which would enable him to train to work and earn a living, and then decide what he wants to do, meaning potential university entrance later ? The teacher was clear - as we feel ourselves - that the only person who can successfully deal with Gymi is a student who wants to be there themselves - rather than as a result of parental pressure. It’s a very flexible system, and with each passing year, we become less blinkered.

C has had a more straightforward, consolidation year. After the initial trauma of Klasse 4, he temporarily fell off the homework wagon at the beginning of Klasse 5, when I started my work placement, but we quickly got him back on it, and he has coped, mostly very well. He fell off it again in April, but, again, we clambered back on. He’s not been away on camp, but will go the second week of term in August, in Klasse 6. He has started French – and – despite my misgivings last year - has done very well. In fact, it’s his second highest mark, and is higher than his German mark. I shouldn’t underestimate him.

He has continued with the Antolin reading scheme, this year coming 3rd in his Klasse (another 10 CHF gift voucher from Ex Libris), and it has clearly massively helped his Leseverständnis (read understanding) – it’s a good thing for him, as he does just love to read, and likes to take himself off to the Gemeinde library to get out a pile of books. He usually tempers this with a similarly big pile of Asterix books, but I don’t care. Any reading is better than no reading, as far as I’m concerned. And Asterix is very funny.

His – very sporty – teacher has been out of action, sportwise, for several months, and, after 3 months of the class being taught by student teachers under his watchful eye, he then had to disappear for another 3 weeks for a knee operation, meaning that the class had a substitute teacher at the point where they should have been going out on their bikes each week preparing for the bike test (Veloprüfung). Here I would like to indulge my love of  the common sense approach to life skills teaching that I appreciate so much about the Swiss education system, and explain further about the Veloprüfung, since I knew very little when J undertook it in Klasse 5.

Like swimming, learning to cycle, in our Gemeinde (very probably Kanton ZH) is compulsory. They have to do it. The Veloprüfung consists of three parts: a practical test, where they have to check over the bike with the police and prove that they understand how it works, and the parts that they maintain; a theory test – for which they have to learn the cycling parts of the Swiss Highway Code and then sit a written test; and a practical test – for which they have to do a bike parcours, and a marshaled independent cycle round the Gemeinde, being marked on things like – indicating and moving out into the middle of the road accurately, cycling round a roundabout, crossing a pedestrian crossing accurately, following road signs etc. I make no apology for thinking this is brilliant, and I mentally dismiss anyone who doesn’t think this is a useful skill (and, believe it or not, I’ve met a few).

I offered to help with the preparation for this – with some trepidation, I must admit. On the first morning, I discovered that my “task” was to cycle the students, in pairs, to the cycle shop, where the staff there checked everything over on each student’s bike, and gave a list of what needed fixing, for the student to get repaired before the police official check. So that was a morning of cycling back and forth between school and the cycle shop – and a pleasant morning it was too. What impressed me was that one of the mothers on the parents’ association had enlisted the help of fellow members of the Gemeinde cycle club to help teach the students the parcours, which was an area within the school playground that had been specially marked out as such. The parcours was hard – a lot of very exact balance to be achieved. The members of the velo club (mostly retired men) were clear and in agreement with the teacher: there is no option. The students must learn to cycle. But they were kind, and very helpful to the students. A real community effort.

On the day of the Veloprüfung itself, I marshaled at one roundabout, with another local mother (who, praise be, spoke fluent English – although I would like to point out, with some pride, that 95% of the conversation was auf Deutsch). We had to make sure that the students could use the pedestrian /cycling crossings accurately, and, though we had to speak to a couple of students (“there is a cycle crossing – why are you using the roundabout instead ???!”) we failed no-one, I’m glad to say. Over the whole three parts of the test, they are allowed to “fail” six things – and if they fail more than six things, they re-do the Prüfung in Klasse 6. Until they have passed it, they are not allowed on the road, and must only use the cycle paths.

I also helped during the year with the lunch club – not the Gemeinde-provided child care, but a club run by the parents to allow the kids to stay at school, have a packed lunch and then supervised play or reading in the library. This is an Elternverein (“Parents’ Club”) initiative, which I’ve been happy to help with, though there have been times when my lack of Swiss German has been a major problem – usually discipline issues. I think I was on the rota about 6 times in the year in total – hardly a vast amount of time to give up. Students had to bring a packed lunch, and it cost 2 CHF per week – unless the student’s parent(s) helped on the rota, in which case it was free. Money raised went to the school, and my understanding is that it’s been spent on playground equipment. The club was very well organized, but the kids didn’t half try it on – knowing that we were parent helpers rather than teaching staff. However that’s another story.

What else ? Their final Mensch und Umwelt (humanities) unit for the year was learning how to use the ZVV – the public transport system – so as to teach them how to get around independently. The Klasse were split into groups of 3 or 4, and had to learn how to use the ZVV – the Kanton Zurich public transport system, learning to understand the signs, and how to plan an excursion using the timetable. The culmination of this was their own day out, when they had planned their own (seemingly unfeasibly complicated) trip. C’s group planned a trip which had me exhausted just thinking about it. They had to leave in a certain time window, and return in a certain time window. They went north, back to the ZH, west, back to the ZH, down to Horgen and the Tierpark, across the lake by boat, further east and then back to our Gemeinde, with a valid ticket, a mobile phone, a packed lunch, 2 chums and no accompanying adult. Needless to say, I was mighty relieved when they arrived back – but they had a grand day out, and only one or two minor hiccups.

And so, we wait to see what next year brings. Given how much has been going on this year, and how much I’ve not been there for them, they are doing very well, and I’m a very proud mother. I’m conscious that that’s a blessing, a grace and a privilege. See you next year. Insha'Allah.