Reflections on a Week in German Schools

Late on Friday evening, weary Roundtable participants gathered to discuss what they had seen and heard and to make sense of the week. In a vigorous two-hour discussion we wrestled a lot of challenges to the ground.

Thanking Aidan Bartley. The first order of business was to thank our indefatigable guide Aidan Bartley for his contributions to the Roundtable in 2012 and 2019. Aidan, a gifted musician, has led the Roundtable through Finland, France, England, Germany, and the Czech Republic with great good humor, in-depth historical knowledge, and scarcely a hitch. He got a rousing ovation from the assembled members, along with a special plaque thanking him for his contributions. He also made off with the last bag of “swag” from the Roundtable, including a used clock.

Aidan Bartley (l) receives plaque from James Harvey on behalf of Roundtable

Then it was on to discussing the events of the week. There was a lot to sort through. We had visited three different schools in two different states (Saxony and Bavaria.). We had visited VET schools specializing in construction trades and media and a gymnasium serving high-achieving students. And we had received extensive briefings on apprenticeship development from large firms (Siemens in Berlin) and the Bavarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which offers apprenticeship programs open to all 350,000 small- and medium-sized companies in the state.

Beyond these experiences we had a lot of information to chew over. What to make of the fact that about two percent of American secondary school students attend vocational schools, compared to 50% of German students graduating from VET programs? Can we make use of Siemens’ concept of “handlungskompetenz”—the ability to transfer what you’ve learned from one system to another?

The tracking of students at the end of 10th grade troubled a lot of our members, despite what we were told is a lot of flexibility tin the system. The committed involvement of the business community and it’s willingness to pay significant amounts to apprentices impressed all. The emphasis on individual development and passing on the attributes of “decent” and principled business leaders resonated well with many. This latter point was underscored by the quote from Israeli psychiatrist Haim Ginott, the death camp survivor. Ginott had witnessed appalling atrocities by well educated engineers, physicians, nurses, and school and college graduates. He urged educators to focus on making their students more human.

James Harvey leads debriefing and asks members to identify three big lessons from the week-long experience in Germany

Against that backdrop, we focused on a vision of schooling in the United States, coupled with several conclusions about what aspects of the German system might apply in the United States and how we might move forward to encourage stronger CTE programs and partnerships with the business community.

A Vision. We concluded that three principles could stand as goals for American education as we move forward:

  • Modify the role of teachers and increase respect for teachers.
  • Change the culture of Career and Technical Education (CTE) so that it becomes a desirable goal in itself.
  • Encourage the business community to organize itself in different ways around schools.

With respect to each of these points, it does seem that respect for teachers among parents is higher than it is among many leaders of the conventional wisdom. That certainly seems true if the most recent PDK Poll of Public Perceptions of Public Schools is any guide. The troubling aspect of the latest PDK poll is that although the public respects teachers, parents report they do not want to encourage their children to enter the profession. The well-being of our schools and our society requires reversing that trend.

There seems also to be some recent evidence that new entrants into CTE programs are markedly different from traditional vocational education students. They are interested in careers in engineering and medicine, not manufacturing or agriculture; they have higher GPAs and test scores; their parents are more likely to be college graduates; and they themselves are more likely to both like school and plan on attending college.

Finally, no analog exists in the United States to the German legal framework undergirding the VET program and the commitment of corporations to apprenticeships. The German legal structure does more than merely encourage corporate collaboration with schools, it practically requires it. If we are to encourage collaboration it might better be done through local organizations such as the Lions or Rotary.

Conclusions.  Within that vision we thought three “big things” needed to be accomplished:

  • Develop partnerships with local businesses to do high-quality internships. That might happen in the last quarter of the senior year, but we also need to find ways for sophomores and juniors to gain a real concept of how to approach different careers.
  • Focus on developing more practice in the classroom so that every class in every subject (at least in middle and secondary schools) offers an opportunity to apply the theory students are learning.
  • Get serious about the individual development of students so as to help young people maximize their potential, improve their social skills, and develop, in Ginott’s terms as human beings committed to democratic institutions.

With regard to these conclusions, we felt strongly that a distinct American approach to local businesses is required, that there is no reason not to include practice in American classrooms, and that issues of individual development need to be approached in a culturally sensitive manner.

Harvey summarizes discussion

Commentary. The implications of the vision and our conclusions for school leaders were fairly clear. They need to take leadership to re-mobilize the business community, itself perhaps disillusioned by the lack of progress on standards-based reform. School board governance needs attention so that board members worry less about lunch menus and more about interacting with the business community and local community agencies.

Everyone involved in the school enterprise, it was noted, needs to be prepared to give something up. Win-win solutions on behalf of students cannot be developed if each of the stakeholders won’t budge from traditional postures and inherited positions.

Alongside the conviction that U.S. chambers do not have the capacity to do what the chambers in Germany do was a very strong sense that we are doing some things right. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. High tech skills centers, vocational offerings in regional agencies such as New York’s BOCES, and partnerships with community colleges are all promising avenues to explore and expand. With 40% of recent college graduates under-employed and many struggling with high levels of student debt, it is not acceptable that just two percent of American high school students are in vocational education. Our national discussion encouraging everyone to aim for a four-year college has gone badly off track. In turning the ocean liner of American public education around, the first step should be to strengthen what is already in place.

Community colleges are key partners in all of this. We need to break down the silos between K-12 and community colleges.

Perhaps the best summary of all of these issues can be found in quotes from John Gardner, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and founder of Common Cause. In his book “On Leadership,” Gardner said that “Excellence consists of doing ordinary things extremely well.” And he added

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

As a matter of fact, the pipes in older American cities are losing large amounts of water and the theory that everyone should go to a four-year college is rapidly following suit. It is time policymakers paid attention.


Dachau: Germany’s first community of death became grim viewing for Roundtable members late one afternoon. The original Nazi concentration camp, it opened in 1933 shortly after Hitler’s ascension to power and long before the “final solution” was put into practice. Dachau’s first prisoners included artists, intellectuals, homosexuals, and individuals with mental and physical handicaps. Jewish prisoners were added later. Dachau records suggest that 206,000 prisoners went through the camp’s infamous gate with its cynical motto “Arbeit macht frei ” (Work sets you free). Some 32,000 died of malnutrition, disease, and overwork.

As German citizens were arrested without charges and imprisoned without trial, as journalists were silenced and Jews were demonized by the regime, most Germans remained silent. The quote from the Lutheran theologian Martin Niemoller comes to mind:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Some Dachau prisoners were executed, how many is unknown. What is clear from the testimony of survivors is that many suffered brutal interrogations under torture.

Interrogation room

One painful torture technique memorialized by an inmate’s sketch involved hanging prisoners by the wrists for hours for infractions as minor as improperly made beds.

Many able-bodied Dachau prisoners were worked to death as slave laborers to manufacture weapons and war materials for Germany. Additionally, some Dachau detainees were subjected to brutal medical experiments. To escape these appalling conditions, some prisoners committed suicide by entering the forbidden zone (made up of a ditch and wire fence overlooked by guard towers). Guards had orders to shoot prisoners in this zone on sight. Some prisoners climbed the fence and threw themselves on the barbed wire topping it before death came to relieve their misery.

Reconstructed forbidden zone of ditch and wire fence

Although gas chambers and incinerators, along with disrobing rooms and fake showers, were constructed at Dachau, it is unlikely they were used for mass murder. They may, however, have been used for smaller-scale experiments in murder and incineration, experiments that were later deployed on a large scale in other infamous death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Roundtable members examine incinerators at Dachau

The Dachau experience has a lesson for educators. Israeli educational psychologist Haim Ginott wrote:

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates.

So, I am suspicious of education.

My request is this: Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.

Munich Technical School

Friday offered a full day in Munich as Herr Christian Baumann organized a very full morning at his Munich Vocational School for Media Professionals, one that involved a briefing from Herr Jorg Engelmann on the role of German Chambers of Commerce in apprenticeship training, meetings with students, a tour of the school, lunch, and a visit to the Olympic Park, site of the 1972 Munich Olympics. All of these events are described in earlier posts.

Baumann proved to be a delightful. gracious, and and informative host as he described his school, one of five on the site, and outlined his philosophy.

Christian Baumann briefs the Roundtable

Munich, said Baumann, is an ancient city, founded in 1158 and the city in which vocational education was invented. In 1900 George Kerschensteiner founded the first vocational program in the world; today some 36 municipal schools participate in the VET system, providing education and training in 130 different professions. In addition there are 49 municipal schools for further vocational education offering specialty training in occupations as varied as IT specialists, carpenters, and mechatronics. All told, 40,000 students are in the VET system, with another 10,000 students in further education, all served by 2,600 full time teachers.

Christian Baumann

Our school, said Baumann, Stadische Berufsschule fur Medienberufe (City Vocational School for Media Professionals) is in the media business. It includes about 1,200 students with 41 teachers offering programs to prepare assistants in marketing and communication, audiovisual materials, digital and print media, media and information services, booksellers, and specialists in event management. It is one of five schools on the site, enrolling in toto some 5,500 students. The others include schools focused on office management, the retail sector, information technology (the largest with 2,000 students), and tax accountancy.

Elsewhere in Bavaria, he noted, the state pays for personnel costs and the municipality covers costs for buildings. In Munich, however, the state overall covers 60% of costs, while the city contributes 40%. What is unusual is that Munich is contributing €100 million toward personnel costs annually, a contribution that greatly impresses the business community and encourages commitment from the corporate world.

In developing apprenticeship programs, he said, the school partners with publishers of books, music, and magazines; media hosts, including television studios and online enterprises; bookstores; advertising companies; libraries; archives, and event technology specialists.

Roundtable at technical school focused on media

The apprenticeships follow the model described earlier — a two- to three-year experience in which 60 days a year are spent in school, with a program emphasizing professional subjects, and a core curriculum, amplified with nine “elective” courses.

A highlight of the morning was an opportunity to meet and interact with ten students, aged 20-22 years of age. They represented programs in event technology, marketing, print and video media, audio-visual aids, movie production, public libraries, and booksellers. With remarkable composure in front of a room full of American strangers, these young people impressed the Roundtable with their poise and ability to describe what they were doing and what they hoped to accomplish in polished English. Their English was so good, almost all of them could have passed for native English speakers. One actually spoke with an accent from the Six Counties of the north of Ireland, betraying the origins of her English teacher!

Asked about difficulties finding apprenticeship programs, the students reported few challenges. Most seemed to have found opportunities while serving earlier as interns (see post on the role of Chambers of Commerce), or with advice of family of faculty members.

Ten students meet with the Roundtable.

Next, executive director James Harvey was invited to describe American education to our German hosts. He described an American system that is large (some 50 million students) administered with a Rube Goldberg system of 56 states and territories presiding over some 13,000 school districts, each overseen by a school board and a superintendent, ranging in size from less than 100 students to more than one million. A diverse system, he said, it has been transformed in recent decades from one in which just 12% of enrollment was made up of students of color in 1950 to one in which by 2016 fully 52% of enrollment consisted of students of color, many of them from low-income families.

Harvey describes American education to German audience

An informative part of the morning was the opportunity to visit the school facilities, to the obvious pride of Herr Baumann, including a stop at the impressive facilities for training students in event management.

Event management facilities

Finally, Noell Schmidt of Virginia Schools in Minnesota presented Herr Baumann and Herr Engelmann with gift bags loaded down with “swag” from Roundtable districts, including a memorial clock from the Roundtable. Noell brought the house down with the comment, “I’ve been asked to do this because my name is Schmidt!”

Noell Schmidt (r) presents gift bags to Jorg Engelmann and Christian Baumann

Apprenticeships and German Chambers of Commerce

Friday offered us another extremely valuable day. Hosted by Christian Baumann, headmaster of Stadische Berufsschule fur Medienberufe (City Vocational School for Media Professionals), we learned about this excellent vocational school. To accommodate the Roundtable in the face of major traffic problems in Munich, Herr Baumann was joined by Jorg Engelmann, director of vocational education projects and international vocational education programs for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry for Munich and Upper Bavaria (CCI). Herr Engelmann led the way with a detailed and informative presentation on the role of CCI’s in apprenticeship training.

Jorg Engelmann briefs Roundtable

Significance of VET. Engelman reinforced what we had heard earlier at Siemens and the German Ministry of Education and Research about the central role of the dual Vocational Education Training system (VET) in developing apprentices in Germany. About 50% of secondary students in Munich leave school with a VET certification in 327 different occupations, he said. They break out as follows:

  • Industry and commerce: 60% of VET recipients
  • Handicrafts: 27%
  • Agriculture: 3%
  • Public Service: 2%
  • Liberal professions: 8%

Membership in the CCI is compulsory for all companies, large and small.  Even a small home-based firm producing post cards must belong to the CCI, even if it is not required to pay membership fees. “Our task,” said Engelmann, “is to represent all firms, large and small, with one vote apiece.” The CCI system in Germany is comprehensive, we were told, with 79 CCIs across the nation and 130 offices in 90 foreign countries.

Within the CCI there are voluntary groups organized by business function. These deal with issues such as wage and relationships with labor unions. Said Engelmann, “The Chamber considers itself to be a ‘social partner’ with public agencies. We are linked with companies, and our partner, the school, is linked to the German ministry.” A particular obligation of the business community, he said, resides in the obligation to transmit the “decent values” of “honorable” business leaders.

Responsibilities between schools and CCI are divided as follows: companies offering training provide work experience, develop necessary skills, and encourage character development. The vocational school offers general education, theory, and an award of achievement. It is, he emphasized a true partnership in which German companies are willing to invest resources in return for the ability to influence training and apprenticeship opportunities.

A true partnership with opportunities and responsibilities for each partner

As with other presentations, Engelmann and Baumann emphasized that there are numerous opportunities as students as students progress through their postsecondary education to revisit earlier decisions and move from apprenticeship training to universities or vice versa. We heard from several students in the school that, in order to gain some practical experience, they had returned to the VET system after a year of more in university. Several of the faculty members in the school also observed that they had moved from working industry to university teacher training programs in order to be able to bring the benefit of their practical experience to younger people.

Options for moving from schooling to apprenticeship and vice versa

Academy for Vocational Training. The Munich CCI is made up of 390,000 companies and it maintains an academy for vocational training for small- and medium-sized companies. Large corporations such as Siemens and BMW can offer their own apprenticeship training programs, but it is much more difficult for smaller enterprises to do so.

A National Qualifications Framework defines the efforts of the CCI around vocational training and apprenticeship, noted Engelmann (see below). Levels 1-7 involve VET efforts; those at level 8 and above are headed toward university teaching.

Strikingly, students themselves are supposed to find the company that wants to be part of their training. The companies know which schools are capable of providing the theoretical knowledge. It appeared that typically around 8th or 9th grade, schools offered students internship opportunities with a variety of companies — and students, parents, and school officials use the relationships formed during these internships to identify potential apprenticeship opportunities. The CCI helps out in this process by providing three-week summer camps for weaker students finishing Grade 10, supporting partnerships between schools and companies, funding the “House of Little Explorers” to introduce elementary school students to STEM subjects, and funding “Vocational Training Scouts” to bring apprentices currently in training back to their schools to encourage younger student.

An important consideration, concluded Engelmann, is that if companies want to be responsible for training (and they do) they have to invest money in the system. This seems to be a given in Germany, a real partnership exists when both school and company contribute to the outcome.

The Bavarian Mountains

Sunday found us with free time to visit the Bavarian mountains, about two hours from Munich. The day was quite cold and as we climbed the foothills sleet and snow made an appearance. Even so, we were able to see glimpses of the Alps in the distance.

Neuschwanstein Castle. On our final Sunday, we had an opportunity to visit “Mad King Ludwig’s castle” (see earlier blog on Munich). In mid-May we were greeted with freezing temperatures and snow mixed with sleet. Undaunted, our intrepid band made it up a steep hill, perhaps half a mile in length, to take a tour of the castle, in which photographs are not permitted.

En route we stopped to see the fantastically elaborate interiors of Ettal Abbey, a magnificent church belonging to the Roman Catholic Benedictine Order, and to Altoetting, a church dedicated to a special religious pilgrimage.

Ettal Abbey
Altoetting Altar

Munich: Fascinating History

The final weekend, with schools and offices closed, offered us the opportunity for traditional sightseeing. Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria, has a fascinating history.  Prior to the much-maligned Munich agreement consigning Czechoslovakia to German rule (see the entry on the Nuremberg Document Center), the most interesting part of that history involves the salacious gossip around two kings: Ludwg I and Ludwig II (known as “Mad King Ludwig”)

Nymphenberg Palace
Grand Hall in Nymphenberg Palace

Ludwig I. Ensconced in the magnificent Nymphenberg Palace, Ludwig I (ruled from 1825 to 1848) was a notorious womanizer. Part of his seductive technique was an offer to have the court painter render his paramours in oil – a promise that produced some three dozen portraits of beautiful young women ranging from maids in the castle to noblemen’s wives.

Mistresses of Ludwig I

Ludwig was forced to abdicate in 1848 in part because he refused to reign as a constitutional monarch amidst the revolutions that wracked Europe that year and in part because of his notorious affair with an actress and prostitute, Lola Montez. Apparently discrete affairs on the side were acceptable, but public scandal was not. His son Maximilian ascended to the throne.

Ludwig II. “Mad King Ludwig,” a tragic figure, succeeded his father Maximilian in 1864. He reigned for only two years. Ludwig II had no interest in marriage or children but loved to read and design new palaces on which he spent a fortune. Among his masterpieces was Neuschwanstein Castle, built in 1869. This model for Disney’s castles in California and Florida was completed on the outside, but Ludwig was arrested and imprisoned (on the grounds that he was deemed mad) when the interior was only one-third complete.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Within days of his arrest, Ludwig was permitted to take a walk near a lake with his doctor. A man over six feet tall and an excellent swimmer, Ludwig along with his doctor were found “drowned” in two feet of water later that day. The following day, construction on the castle came to a halt, never to be resumed. Suspicion runs high that poor Ludwig was murdered because he was gay, would not produce an heir, and was burning up the royal family’s fortune on castles at a prodigious rate.

University of Munich. Ludwig Maximilian University better known as the University of Munich, founded in 1472, is one of Europe’s premier research universities. Students at the university put up one of the few public demonstrations against Hitler and fascism during the war. They published leaflets and wrote graffiti on public buildings. In February 1943 they were arrested for tossing leaflets denouncing the regime from a balcony in one of the main halls at the university. These brave young men and women, members of what was known as the “White Rose Society” were guillotined within days for their defiance of the regime. Their story is memorialized in the movie “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.”

Great Hall of University of Munich with balcony from which White Rose students tossed their leaflets

The Olympic Park & BMW

Following our Friday morning visit with the technical school and the CCI, we enjoyed the opportunity to walk through the Olympic Park built for the 1972 Olympics. It remains today very much the way it sat at the conclusion of the Olympics, a national park commemorating the assassination of eleven Israeli athletes and a policeman by Palestinian terrorists in the middle of the Olympic festivities. The pictures below show Roundtable members approaching the park and viewing the special memorial to the Israeli athletes, many of them members of the Israeli wrestling team. Some of the coaches had survived the Nazi death camps.

Approaching Olympic Park
Memorial to Murdered Israeli Athletes

BMW Tour.  Then it was on to the tour of the BMW facility. Unlike the tour of the VW plant (see the earlier post on the VW Transparent Factory), this tour was a celebration of BMW’s history.

BMW Museum

BMW, we were told, began as an aircraft manufacturer during World War I. Prohibited from building airplanes by the Versailles Treaty that ended the war, it began building motorcycles and small automobiles. Today, the BMW marque also includes the British icons Rolls Royce and Minis. Its products range from small automobiles for entry-level owners to luxury limousines. Our tour began with a lengthy exposure to what can only be understood as monuments to conspicuous consumption, Rolls Royce SUV’s and sedans, with starting prices at around $250,000. We then moved systematically through the history of BMW’s production line.

Early roadster

Nuremberg: Nazi Documentation Center

Immediately after our visit to Martin Behaim Gymnasium, the Roundtable had an opportunity to visit the Nuremberg Documentation Center, a sobering history of the growth of what historian Hannah Arendt once called the “banality of evil” under the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler. Despite the recent re-emergence of right wing, neo-Nazi groups in Germany (and elsewhere in Europe), Germany seems to be dealing with this shocking history in a forthright way.

The center abuts the old Nuremberg rally grounds, memorial grounds, memorialized in Leni Riefenstahl’s movie, “Triumph of the Will.” The rallies were designed to solidify the cult of Hitler and make the Fuehrer synonymous with Germany itself.

Nuremberg Rally

The documentation center traces the history of the growth of fascism in Germany and describes how Hitler used democratic methods to seize control of the nation during a period of economic stagnation and rampant inflations.

Nuremberg Documentation Center

The documentation center highlights:

192 3
Munich “beer hall putsch.” Attempted coup. Hitler jailed. Writes “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle).
July 1932 Nazi party gained 37.4% of the vote in the Reichstag elections.
Hitler appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg
The Reichstag Fire. Fire destroys German parliament. Nazis blame on Communists.
March 1933 Enabling Act gives Hitler power to make laws for four years
without consulting Reichstag.
The Gestapo, Nazi secret police, formed. Nazis take over local government.
Trade Unions banned
25,000 ‘un-German’ burned, encouraged by Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda.
All political parties except the Nazis were banned
Nuremburg Laws defined German citizenship. Relationships between Jews and Aryans banned.
Hitler sent German troops to re-occupy the Rhineland, a move that violates Versailles Treaty ending World War I.
Hitler seizes Austria, his homeland, claiming to re-united the
Germans in Austria with those in Germany (Anschluss).
Munich Agreement – Allies agreed that Germany could have the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in return for peace
Kristallnacht – Jewish shops and synagogues destroyed.
Hitler occupies Czechoslovakia, and ignores Munich
Nazi-Soviet Pact – Alliance between Hitler and Stalin
agrees to divide Poland between the two countries.
Wannsee Conference approved plans for the ‘Final Solution’.
1942-1945Six million Jews and other undesirables murdered in
concentration camps
Hitler commits suicide
May 7
Armistice ends Allies war with Germany, with hostilities to cease
on May 8.
The documentation center is located in the buildings beside the lake; the Nuremberg ralies were held in the stadium attached to the center.

A Gymnasium: For Academic High-Flyers

At the heart of this study mission to Europe were the visits to schools, corporations, and apprenticeship training programs. The final two days provided us with new insights in each of these areas.

After Grade 10, German students are divided into those attending Realschules and Gymnasia. The former are designed for those planning on attending apprenticeship training programs (about half of all students) the latter for those preparing for university admission. In the final days of our tour, we had an opportunity for in-depth examinations of both.

First up was the Martin Behaim Gymnasium in Nuremberg, located in the state of Bavaria, which enjoys a reputation for administering the most demanding university-admission examinations, the abitur. Asked about selectivity, assistant principal Christoph Wagner explained that the school is not permitted to select but must accept any student in the top 33% of students finishing their elementary schooling at Grade four. The school specializes in what we would think of as STEM education — mathematics, chemistry, physics, and information technology.

The school enrolls about 830 students, with plans for a new building and expansion of enrollment by 50% in the next five years. Just about all students in Germany learn English, plus another language. In Grade 7 at this school, students decide whether to focus on science and mathematics or on languages — where they begin to learn a third language. That is to say, they learn a third foreign language. In addition to their native German, they are expected to study English, and another two languages selected from Franch, Italian, Spanish, and Latin.

Christoph Wagner briefs Roundtable

Then it was off to visit two classrooms — a sixth-grade class in mathematics and a tenth-grade class in chemistry. In the sixth-grade class, an effervescent young teacher was clearly master the class and admired by the students. Arranged at desks in pairs, the students collaborated to complete worksheets on fractions, with varying levels of diligence and focus, while she checked in with several to coach, praise, and joke with them. The students were eager to try out their English on visiting Americans and many answered questions about their interests and the school with a fair amount of detail. Gloria Davis made it a point to visit each pair of students.

We noticed there were only 7 or 8 girls out of a class of 25, a proportion that was reflected in the school’s overall enrollment and that the assistant headmaster ascribed to girls’ having less interest in science and math generally. We were told during our visit that the school year is about 190 days, running from 8:00-1:00 generally, although the day might run longer, until 2:30 if students enroll in additional classes. The school year is broken into manageable segments, with a shorter summer vacation that is typical in American schools and two weeks off Christmas, Easter, Passover, and one-week breaks in the Fall and Spring.

Sixth-graders strut their stuff in math
Gloria Davis makes sure students are on top of assignment. Teacher in background checks with another table.

Another group visited a tenth-grade chemistry class, where the instructor Matthew Beinhofer was introducing students to offered a relatively brief lecture on chemical reactions — particularly the interactions of various substances with acids. The curriculum called for his lecture to be followed by a hands-on test of the theory in a small lab, followed by presentation and discussion of the chemical structure of the two elements interacting.

Matthew Beinhofer

Attached to the class of about 24 students was a small laboratory at which half of the students could work at a time, with small portable bunsen burners, which Chris Cross thought might be safer than the bunsen burners older Americans remember from high school. Beinhofer acknowledged that leaving half the students in the lecture room while half worked at the experiment was a bit of a challenge. He is obviously looking forward to the new facility with a promise of a more up–to-date lab.

Students work in lab, holding test tube over portable bunsen burner
The chemistry of the interactions

Meanwhile, English teacher Lukas van Doren was a font of information on German schooling generally, responding knowledgeably to questions from Chris Cross of Four Points Education and Susan Givens, now at Masconomet schools in Massachusetts, destined shortly to take over as superintendent in SAU 31 in New Market, New Hampshire.

Luka van Doren (l) chats with Chris Cross and Susan Givens

Then it was back to the briefing room, where Christopher Wagner was joined by principal Gabriel Kuehn (and physics teachers Donath Wolfgang and Dremel Wolfgang) to respond to our more general questions. At the conclusion of the visit, Susan Enfield (Highline, Washington) put her excellent public presentations on display by providing Herr Wagner and Frau Kuehn with gift bags, including school “swag” and memorial clocks from the Roundtable.

(l to r) Wagner, Enfield, and Kuen at conclusion of school visit.

Historic Prague

Prague, a community dating back to 880, is a stunningly beautiful and impressive city. It served as a movie set standing in for Vienna for “Amadeus” and “Mission Impossible.” Unfortunately we visited on May 8, a national holiday commemorating the Czech Republic’s liberation from the Nazi regime, when government offices and schools were closed.

But we took advantage of the opportunity to tour the city and learn a little of the fantastic history of the Czech Republic. Just in the 20th century alone it witnessed control by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, independence as part of Czechoslovakia, German occupation, communism, capitalism, and the amicable splitting of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics.

The earlier history is likewise convoluted and too dense to summarize here. One of the most famous incidents in its history was the “defenestration of Prague” when rival officials were thrown out of castle windows (fenestre), an event that precipitated the Thirty Years War (1618-48) between Catholic and Protestant states in the Holy Roman Empire.

Suffice it to say, the foundations for Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral (below) were laid in the 10th century. Among the cathedral’s remarkable collection of altars and artifacts is the silver mausoleum to St. John Nepomuk, tortured to death by King Wenceslaus in the 14th century for refusing to reveal the names of the queen’s lovers.

St.Vitus Cathedral
Magnificent soaring interior of cathedral
St. John Nepomuk’s Tomb

Then it was on for a quick Cook’s tour of the city, including, below, views of the Vitava River, the historic Charles Bridge, built in the 14th century, with impressive statuary of Christian saints added subsequently, and a wonderful glockenspiel, (the Prague Astronomical Clock). Installed in 1410 and the oldest glockenspiel still functioning, each hour, on the hour, it displays the position of the sun and moon in the sky, provides a variety of astronomical details, and offers the “walk of the Apostles,” as death, represented by a skeleton, tolls the time.

Charles Bridge

Next stop: Nuremberg and the Martin Behaim Gymnasium, a selective high school.