Sunday, February 9, 2020

Thoughts About the Gymnasium Uberlingen Exchange — Part V

For this last article about the trip to Germany, I am shifting back to an educational topic, and am posing the question as to whether American schools are becoming more like German schools, or is it the opposite.  Are German schools moving toward what we have for public schools in our country?  Actually, I think a better question is “should” either one of them make a shift.  The reality, at least from my experience, is that there are shifts in both countries, and whether those are right or wrong will not be resolved for some time.

In the United States, most  of the high schools (at least the public ones) are considered to be comprehensiveschools.  In essence, the schools provide educational programs for all students, whether they plan to go on to college or chose a path that is more technical in nature.  All students are educated under the same roof, regardless of their ability, background, socioeconomic status, proficiency, or vocation.  Public schools in the United States are set up to educate all of the youth in the community.  

In Germany, and many other countries in Europe, they have a tiered system or a dual system of education for high school age students.  At the elementary level, children go to the same schools, but then around the age of 10 or 11, they take a series of exams that will determine what school they go on to the next five to ten years of their life.  For those who perform at a high level, they will be allowed to attend a professional Gymnasium or a general-education Gymnasium, depending on their career aspirations.  In essence, they are the top students academically who are planning to attend a college or university.  Students who do not score as well, are able to go to a Hauptschule or Gesamtschule, which teach many of the same subjects as at a Gymnasium, but at a slower pace.  And, the students who attend these schools at some point will most likely move on to a full-time vocational school, enter into an apprenticeship, or start work in the public service at 15 to 17 years of age.

Most of us, particularly due to the presence of the exchange in our school community, have at least a bit of knowledge about this system.  For example, we know that the students who come from Uberlingen Gymnasium are those who are very bright, scored well on their exams, and intend to pursue a professional career by first attending college.  And, after getting to know a number of these students over the years, yes, they are very intelligent young people that seem to have a solid grasp of what they want to do with their life.  We also know that if a young person has a desire to work with their hands or pursue a job that involves more technical skills, they are going to attend a different school.  Perhaps many of us were not aware that they actually finish formal school at a younger age than our students, and most of them complete some kind of an apprenticeship.  What we do know is that by common American definition, students in Germany (and many other European countries) are “tracked" and attend secondary schools that have a much more specific focus.

Tracking has been somewhat of a four-letter word in American education because it implies that there is inequity.  The common belief is that every child should have access to the same educational opportunities.  There are multiple reasons for this, among them the American value of equality and that just because a student learns a little different from others they should not be denied a chance to pursue their dreams.  Kids are told they can be whatever they want to be, and people do not want to close doors to their future.

Exam scores are not used by public schools in our country to determine where students go to school.  It is only at the college level where exam scores are used to sort students out.  However, even in Iowa, we are starting to see a bit of a shift away from the traditional comprehensive model.  In recent years there has been a strong effort by the Department of Education, political leaders, as well as business and industry to move students toward an education that prepares them for highly skilled trades.  Do not mix that up with what what at one time was called vocational programs.  Today, it involves much more technical skills, though there is a huge need for people to be electricians, plumbers, and the like.  There is pressure being placed on school districts to “regionalize” their efforts and work closely with area employers to create programs to meet the future demand.  There are efforts to start with students in middle school to more clearly identify what career they are interested in, so that their high school educational program can be tailored to that path.  In some areas, new “high tech” high schools with a focus on career preparation are being created.

In Germany, the change that is moving fairly quick is parents being able to choose the school their child attends, with those rigid exam scores being a guide, rather than a way definitive way to assign students to particular schools.  This is basically a federal requirement, and like many top down decisions, the cart has been put in front of the horse.  As I spoke to teachers at Uberlingen Gymnasium, a common concern was that they now were getting students who were in no way able to perform at the high standards in place, some with disabilities.  More important, those teachers were never trained to provide supports like tiered interventions or academic supports.  A student with a disability did not attend these schools, and some of the teachers feel totally unequipped to teach them.  For decades, teachers in American public schools have been given a full toolbox of strategies to work with students of all ability levels because since the inception of public education in our country, our doors have been open to all.

For education geeks, debates over the purpose and structures of school could go deep into the night.  There are certainly pros and cons to both systems, and from my perspective, it will be interesting what public schools in the United States look like in twenty years.  My personal opinion is that they will look similar to what we have today unless there is some major economic shakeup in our country that forces change.  Our schools have changed quite a bit over the years, but the fundamental structure and purpose of school has not.  I believe a high percentage of high schools will still be comprehensive, providing programs for all.  In metropolitan areas we will see some high tech schools, but unless there is a huge infusion of money in rural areas and consolidation of small districts, twenty years from now I would predict things will be quite similar to what they are now.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dealing With Entitlement

It has been a while since I have fallen back on Tim Elmore of Growing Leaders: Ready for Real Life for an article.  The one that I am sharing with you today is one that came to my email the last week of the first semester, and shed a lot of light on some of the issues that we are dealing with now that some students have recognized they have not done enough to satisfactorily pass a class.  This generation of students in high school right now may turn out to be one of the most influential in our nation’s history.  As a group, they are going to face incredible challenges left by the mess that we boomers are leaving them.  At the same time, never have we had the level of entitlement among such a large segment of the student population.  Give this a read and ask yourself if you see this in your kids, and if so, imagine how you can take steps to reign them back in so that they recognize that they have to earn what they get.

Five Steps to Reverse a Sense of Entitlement

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Kids Retiring From Youth Sports

In a report from the Aspen Institute that was released as part of their Project Play research, some very disturbing numbers where shared about the declining percentage of students who play sports.  I’m not talking about high school students; I’m talking about those in elementary schools!  Here is a statistic to give you a picture of what I am referring to.  According to the Aspen Institute, the average child in our country spends less than three years playing a sport, and quitting by age 11, because it just is not fun anymore.

This study has sent a major warning shot across the bow of sports organizations from youth to professional.  Professional sports leagues have responded quickly with a marketing campaign put together encourage kids to stick with playing sports.  They have called it #DONTRETIREKID.  Kind of interesting when you think about it as retirement is generally associated in sports when an athlete can no longer compete.  We have seen some athletes agonize over that decision, and for others, they really do not have a choice because they have exhausted their opportunities to play a game they love because they do not have the skills to move to the next level.  Now, many 11-year olds are making that decision!  In 2018, only 38% of children from the age 6 to 12 played team sports on a regular basis.  That is down from 45% ten years earlier.

Another reason cited by the study that kids are quitting at a young age is because of the economics.  While parents report that the primary thing they are looking for with youth sports is that their kids have fun, it can cost a lot for their child to play.  To that end, many parents pay upwards of a few thousand dollars each season for their child to play.  Hockey has the highest average price tag at $2583.00 per year, with track and field having the lowest average at $191.00 annually.  The average cost across the board for all youth sports participation in the country was $698.00 a year.  But, keep in mind that these are averages.  Even the least expensive sports saw some parents spending in excess of $9000.00 per year per child, taking into consideration private coaching, travel, uniforms, and other costs.  

It goes without saying that because of the cost, kids are left out.  Even nominal fees to participate can be an obstacle for some low-income families, and certainly, in some areas public and non-profit organizations do not provide the same opportunities as in the past because of cutbacks that have been made over the years.  Another phenomenon is that for those families that can afford it, their kids play on travel or “select” teams, depleting numbers for local leagues and lowering the level of competition,.  Whereas for previous generations sports were a way for kids living in poverty to “get out,” without opportunity that is not as readily available.  Leagues sponsored by Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA, and city recreational departments are the ones most likely to be free or at a low cost for kids, but in many areas of the country, it has become increasingly difficult for these programs to find funding.

While a majority of parents state that their primary hope for their child that participates in sports is to have fun, many of them are also looking for extrinsic rewards for their kids as well.  Many parents rank admission advantages to college, athletic scholarships, and professional sports opportunities very high as to why they want their kids to play sports.  For many of these kids, the level of stress becomes very high, and “burnout” is something that is often the result.  In addition, many families are under the impression that if their child is going to get a scholarship, they need to focus on one sport, which obviously results in a decline in overall participation.  An increasing problem with sport specialization, according to medical professionals, is overuse injuries.  Dr. James Andrews, the foremost orthopedic surgeon in the country working with professional and college athletes, reports an alarming increase in the number of young, pre-teen athletes coming to him to repair injuries.  This is quite scary when you think that an athletic career could be finished before a child starts high school due to injuries!

According to the Aspen Institute study, kids are cycling out of sports relatively quick.  On average, kids quit playing a sport after 2.86 years.  At first look, this is not a good sign, especially if the kids move to the couch or end up spending their time on something other than sports.  If they are in fact leaving, then there truly is a problem and people need to figure out why.  It is critically important for their long-term health that children do remain active and get the recommended level of one-hour of physical activity a day.  It does not have to be in organized sports, but it needs to take place somewhere!

Referenced earlier is the growing issue at a young age of kids specializing in one sport.  According to the report, 45% of children play only one sport.  The multi-sport athlete — the life blood of small high school athletic programs — is declining.  We see it at NFVHS as fewer students are participating in three or four sports.  In some cases, students play a sport at the high school and then move on to a club program, opting not to play another sport with a school team.  Specialization is also something that college level coaches caution against.  Many of them have been very outspoken in their desire to recruit multi-sport athletes.  Coach Kirk Ferentz at Iowa has a number of offensive linemen that were outstanding wrestlers in high school.  Coach John Cook at Nebraska loves to recruit volleyball players that have competed in other sports as well.  

There is certainly a bias here from the perspective of a high school activity director wanting to see a high level of participation playing at a competitive level.  It is concerning that fewer young kids are playing sports, and more so, they are quitting at a young age before they get to high school.  Yes, there is an obsession in this country with sports, and certainly some people taken them a lot more serious than they should.  However, they can have very positive benefits for young people that participate, and they are something a community places an emphasis on.  Let’s take some time and figure out how to give more access to kids and create an environment where they want to continue playing as long as they can.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Rewards and Recognition: What Works

As I begin this article, I want to fully disclose that I have never been a fan of rewards for participation, motivation, or self-esteem.  The “everyone gets a trophy” mentality has been detrimental for years, doing more harm than good, and the spillover continues to damage the development of young people, and in turn, have a negative impact on a number of things we do in high schools.  I have written about this same topic previously on this site, and after recently reading a bit more on the topic, and am going to discuss it a little further.

In a recent Harvard study led by Carly Robinson, it was found that attendance awards, generally used to motivate students to come to school, can actually lead students to miss more days of school.  This study included 14,000 students in California in schools that gave out awards to students for school attendance.  Many of the students, once they received an award, started attending school less often.  The question then becomes, why?  We will get to that in a few minutes.

Rewards are a very big deal in American culture.  They have been used in all aspects of society to motivate performance.  Whether it is Employee of the Month in a department store, or the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, rewards permeate our society.  We have organizations that spend huge amounts of money to publicly recognize people.  The CMA Awards are just one example of a major television production, and each year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame puts on an incredible program.  At the local level, you can most likely put together a list of rewards people are given pretty quick!  Just check out the local newspaper and someone is being recognized.

So, why am I bringing this up, and why is it a negative for kids?  Well, research is showing that rewards do not necessarily do what we want them to do.  They do not motivate people the way there were necessarily intended. 

There is a sense that there is a saturation of rewards.  Everyone is giving them.  In a school, look around a lot of classrooms and hallways and you will see stars for this, names on the wall for that, and any number of ways kids can be recognized. The volume of rewards has increased dramatically, and in some instances, you do not have to do much to get one.  Today, many of our students have figured out the game that they have to play in order to get the reward, and some simply do not want to play the game.  

To the casual observer, one would think it works because there are kids with stars and names on the wall, right?  Wrong.  If it worked, wouldn’t all kids have a star and all kids have their name on the wall?  Youth wrestling tournaments give medals to any youngster that  pays an entry fee and shows up, so why aren't youth wrestling tournaments turning kids away?  Go to some schools and get your picture on a banner when you are a senior.  Why don’t all seniors go out for athletic teams to get their banner on the wall?

There have to be reasons why.  Let’s take a look at a few possibilities, some of which have already been alluded to.  Tim Elmore provides a number of possibilities, and in my opinion, the biggest mistake people have made when it comes to giving rewards is that they have done it for behaviors that are expected.  I have had a number of colleagues question why are we rewarding students for doing what we expect them to do?  That has bothered me for a long time, and I suppose I get criticized because of my lack acknowledgment of kids.  I’ve done some of this, but I have a hard time handing out praise or rewards for things students, or anyone else, should be doing.  Rewards should be given to those who exceed expectations.  I will never apologize for having high expectations, and neither should anyone else!  Exceeding those expectations is what should get recognized.

Elmore points out that we must make sure that we understand how the reward is perceived by those who receive it, as well as their peers.  I remember a classmate of mine, Bruce Feigenbutz, who did not miss a day of school from Kindergarten through his senior year in high school!  That is impressive, and goes beyond anyone’s expectations.  As an educator, I am impressed and would certainly agree that giving a reward to someone for that kind of accomplishment is warranted.  That said, for the majority of high school students, consistent school attendance is not seen as something cool at all.  In some school cultures, really good grades are not cool either, at least for some members of the student body.  How much influence they have will often determine how a reward is perceived.  Some students will resent the recognition if they believe they are going to be mocked for their success.  Thus, a reward for attendance may in fact be something kids do not want.

I’ve already pointed out that too many rewards reduces the meaning.  Here is a real quick example.  Compared to a lot of high schools, we have a high standard for admission into the National Honor Society.  To even be considered, a student must have a 3.5 GPA, which is actually higher than the national recommendation.  For the most current induction, there were 30 students eligible to apply, and through the selection process, fourteen were inducted.  Our NHS Chapter has 29 current members.  We have another school almost exactly the same size in our area that had 100 students eligible this year, and over thirty were selected.  Their GPA requirement is 3.25.  Which one of these is the greater honor?  How about schools that have an overwhelming number of valedictorians?  How much an honor is it when 20% of the senior class is recognized as a valedictorian?  The rarer the reward, the higher the value.  For something to be motivating, it has to be valued.

What do students value?  What kinds of rewards do motivate?  That is something that those giving the reward need to find out.  In some communities with high poverty levels, the reward of a free college education paid for by wealthy benefactors has had a huge impact on academic performance.  I’m not so sure that would have the same impact in wealthy communities.  In some schools, access to free computer time has been an attractive reward.  For many, finding ways to reward excellence or exceeding expectations can be quite difficult.  What researchers have shown time again is that to be most effective, the reward must have intrinsic value.  The individual must have a high level of personal satisfaction and sense of personal accomplishment for the reward to have value, regardless of what it is.  

I have to admit that the hair stands up on the back of my neck when I am with various groups and we are talking about students and the topic of rewards come up.  In most instances as soon as that happens, I ask “What are our expectations?” and generally follow with “If kids meet the expectations, why is it necessary to reward?”  Other than a “thank you” or “good job” do we really need to give more?

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Legal Age for Cell Phones and Social Media?

What does the ping or buzz of a cell phone have in common with drinking alcohol, smoking a cigarette, and gambling?  All of them result in the brain releasing dopamine, and that makes us feel good!  Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that affects your emotions, movements and your sensations of pleasure and pain.  It functions as a neurotransmitter that sends signals to other nerve cells and is a major component in reward-motivated behavior.  Dopamine motivates one to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them.  It is important to note that while this chemical is released by the above mentioned acts, along with endorphins and serotonin, dopamine is also released when exercising.  In reality, your body craves physical movement and even though a person may not like to exercise, when they do, the chemicals are released and the person feels good.

So why this little mini-lesson on dopamine and the “pleasure release?”  Because we often become addicted to things that give us pleasure.  As mentioned above, our bodies crave the release of this chemical, and to get that we often develop both a physical and mental addiction to it.  In the case of cigarettes, manufacturers have added other chemicals, like nicotine, to reinforce addiction.  And even with exercise, there are people that one could argue go too far, causing their bodies to break down.  And now, we have people, particularly young ones, who get that rush of pleasure when they hear that phone ping or feel it buzz.  The natural consequence of this is that they cannot put their phone away or get away from it.  In our classrooms we see this all the time, and when it becomes a disruption and I take a phone away from a student, it often looks like an addict giving up their drugs.  It is very difficult for them, and when they return to the classroom they are highly distracted because they are wondering what they are missing out on because they do not have that phone in hand.  They even become a bit agitated because they do not get that dopamine release without hearing the ping.  I am not making this up!  We see it happen with some of our students!

Here’s something else we know about young people and their devices.  According to a recent study published in January 2019 edition of the Journal of Applied Biobehavioural Research, spending too much time on “social media” sites like Facebook is not only making people miserable, it is also making them depressed.  In a study that involved 504 millennials that are active users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and/or Snapchat, who met the criteria for a major depressive disorder also scored higher on the “Social Media Addiction” scale and exhibited other behaviors that are associated with major depression.

In another study conducted by psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, they concluded that for those subjects who drastically cut back their use of sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, they often saw marked improvement in their mood and how they felt about their lives.  One of the researchers, Melissa Hunt, stated “It was striking.  What we found over the course of three weeks was that rates of depression and loneliness went down significantly for people who limited their (social media) use.” 

Simon Sinek, a British-American author, motivational speaker, and organizational consultant, who once worked in advertising, makes it very clear about the addictive nature of cell phones, and most important, how relationships are impacted.  When people go to meetings or out to dinner, and they pull out their phone and lay it on the table, they have sent the message that the people around them are not important to them.  They have told everyone else at the table that the phone is more important than the people in the room.  They are much more interested in what is going to happen on their phone than what is being said across the table.  Think of what people do when they are waiting for an appointment, whether it is at the dentist’s office or for a meeting with the principal.  They pull out their phones.  There may very well be other people in the room and instead of talking to other people, they are running through their phones.  When this is done at conferences or meetings, relationships suffer.  People get to know one another in the in-between times, and they cannot do that when they are checking out their phones.  This is not just an issue with teens; it is an issue with all of us!  However, teenagers have grown up with these devices and have not learned how to talk to each other, face-to-face, and socialize with each other.

Sinek also talks about the fact that young people are not learning to talk to people and have no idea how to develop meaningful relationships.  They have grown up in a world of immediate satisfaction, in large part supported by their smart phone.  They have the world at their fingertips!  They have developed what Sinek calls “systemic impatience,” and if they do not experience success right away, they consider that failure.  Relationships take hard work to develop, and young people do not have experience talking with people and working through difficulties.  In many instances, they are afraid to talk to people because they haven’t had to in order to communicate.  

Addiction.  Depression.  Damaged relationships.  Is it time to step in legally to prohibit use by our youngest and most vulnerable?  In the summer of 2019 there was a bill  in Congress to raise the age to use vapes, e-cigarettes, and tobacco products to 21.  Yes, serious health conditions result from their use over time, but I believe we can same about the emotional, mental, and physical health of those addicted to their electronic devises and what they can access.  For a very long time I have made the comment that we are putting incredibly powerful devices — smart phones — in the hands of kids that are not developmental mature enough to handle them.  It’s like putting a six-year old behind the wheel of a race car.  Kids do not need them.  They were fine before these things came about, and they will most likely be better if they could not use them until they are mature enough to handle them.  Yes, there is no doubt that there are positive uses for this technology.  But there needs to be balance, and for many of our young people, that does not exist.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Thoughts About the Gymnasium Uberlingen Exchange — Part IV

Upon my return from the trip to Germany, I have had a number of people ask the typical questions of “What was your favorite part of the trip?” or “What was the one thing that really stood out?”  Generally my reply was along the line of “There were many things; too many to pick just one!”  Then I would tell about how all of my mental images of the country I had developed over the years were confirmed, and how beautiful the place was.  Of course I shared about the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, as well as a couple of side-trips Tammy and I took to Oberstdorf and Dachau.  However, as I reviewed the journal I kept on the trip, and have thought back to different things we did, there were a number of “smaller” things, those that were not necessarily in the travel guide, that made a significant impression on me.

Something that I have come back to a number of times since the trip was a very brief, but memorable encounter we had with a gentleman that stacks stones and sells photographs of his natural sculptures to make a living.  His name was Sepp Bogle, a tanned, burly man with long white hair and a matching, bushy beard that wore a blue t-shirt and blue shorts.  We had about a half-hour wait for a train at a village called Radolfzell, located along Lake Constance, and we decided to walk a little ways down a pier to enjoy the beautiful day.  I saw these stones that were stacked on a concrete ledge, and Bogle standing near by when we found a bench to sit on facing the lake.  Shortly after, a large swan came out of the lake right in front of us, walked toward and then past us, headed toward the stone sculptures.  This burly man then proceeded to “shoo” him away, and at that point we struck up a conversation.  

He shared with us that he spends six months in Radolfzell, staying in a room at a hotel or on the pier when the weather permits.  The other six months he goes to one of the Canary Islands, where he basically lives the same life as he does on the shore of Lake Constance.  He provided an English copy of an article that was written about him, and talked to us a bit as well.  He was soft-spoken and very nice, and we discovered he was a very successful business man earlier in his life, acquiring great wealth and living that fast-paced lifestyle.  However, that was not what he wanted, and after his marriage fell apart, he opted to leave all of that behind and get in touch with what he believes is much more important in life.  In fact, in addition to stacking stones and selling pictures, he often counsels people who seek him out, as well as others who are referred to him by people he has gotten to know over the years.  I wish we had spent more time talking with him as there are times that I wonder if I could actually live a similar life.  

Another one of the little things I enjoyed was a visit to the small village of Birnau, about ten miles from Uberlingen, where we saw perhaps the most incredible church I have ever seen.  The Birnau Abbey Church was decorated in the Baroque style, and included beautiful ornamentation, sculptures, and paintings.  While I have not seen some of the great churches, cathedrals, or basilicas in Rome and elsewhere, I have visited a number of them in other places, and I have to say that nothing has struck me the way this small little church did on the Bodensee.  It was amazing!

Coming from an agricultural family, I was particularly interested in farming in Germany, and since we spent the majority of our time in Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria, there was a lot to see.  These are the two primary agricultural states in the country.  Though nearly all of my observations were from the road, it was none the less very interesting to me.  For one thing, the farms were very small compared to what we have in Iowa, and in some respects, it seemed that everything was on a smaller scale.  Their tractors and machinery looked the same as what we have, but were about two-thirds the size.  The same with hay bales.  Dairy barns were constructed of wood rather than metal, and smaller because at most a farmer may have had twenty cows.  What was fascinating to me was that there were many places with fruit trees that were a hybrid that grew up instead of out and were planted very close together.  And, they had netting over the top to protect them from birds and hail.  They also had taller nets that covered hops that were growing, climbing over cables that were stretched the length of the nets.  Fascinating!

We also experienced a number of different things in their culture.  To no surprise a lot of people ride bicycles, and ride them significant distances.  There is no place in the towns and cities to park cars, so bikes make a lot of sense.  Of course you can take a train about anywhere, and people do.  It is a very popular type of transportation.  Some of our kids stayed with families outside of Uberlingen and rode the train every time they needed to come for an event or departure.  We rode a train quite a few times, and I have to say that it is a shame we do not have that kind of transportation more available to us in our country.  

One thing that was a surprise to many of us is that bottled water had “gas” in it, and you could buy it with different levels of gas.  Gas means carbonation, and most of our kids really did not care for it.  In a few places you could find water without gas, but that was the exception rather than the rule.  Along the food line, I expected different cuisine and was able to try traditional German food.  However, just like in our country, there were ethnic restaurants every where we traveled.  Pizza places were all over the place and it wasn’t hard to find a Chinese or Italian restaurant.  McDonalds was interesting as it lacked many of the traditional choices we have, and had quite a few different ones.  While we were there they were promoting a number of items with jalapeƱos.  Most satisfying were the ice cream stores!  In downtown Uberlingen there must have been at least ten ice cream shops, all of them featuring very elaborate treats.  I believe I ate ice cream every evening!

There are a number of things I am sure I will remember from this trip; some that I had never seen before.  There was also quite a bit that was familiar.  All of that said, I think two of the things that will remain with me as they took me back to the days of my youth were that every vehicle I rode in had a manual transmission, and I saw many of the old cigarette machines that used to be by the exit of restaurants years ago.  It was kind of strange to once again see those things as I had not thought about them in years.  I guess in some respects, the more things change, the more they stay the same!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Thoughts About the Gymnasium Uberlingen Exchange — Part III

Over the years I have talked to a number of people who have participated in the exchange, either as a student or as a parent of student.  I have to admit that I am still digging into the history as bit, trying to learn more about it, so my knowledge of who has been involved over the years is still quite limited.  What continues to impress me is the friendships that have endured over time.  Certainly that has not happened in all cases, as I know not everyone has continued to stay in touch.  But that said, I am impressed with those who have built relationships over the years.

To no surprise, one of the founders of the exchange, former principal Steve Story, has maintained relationships with Lothar Fritz, a former educator at Uberlingen, who was integral in starting the exchange.  They visited each other over the years and have continued correspondence far beyond their time working at their respective schools.  I know that Mr. Story often communicates with Herr Fritz in regard to their mutual interest in football, or as we call it, soccer.  In addition, I have talked with a number of parents of former students who have visited their former exchange students in their travels to Germany, some attending weddings and other big events that have taken place over the years.  

Earlier this year I had conversation with Judy Heyer, who has remained in contact with her exchange partner, Thomas Lailach, over the years since they first met each other in 1985.  They have become very good fiends, visiting each other countless times, including attendance at the recent wedding of Judy’s son. She remarked, “What an awesome experience the exchange was and I cannot express what it has meant for me!  So glad it is still an option for our students.”  Thomas’s son Nik came for a visit this fall at the start of the school year and spent a couple of days at school.  Perhaps in the future he will be part of the exchange as well!

While we were in Uberlingen I had the opportunity to meet Joerg Burghardt, a retired teacher who participated in a number of previous exchanges.  He traveled more than once with students, and developed a very strong relationship with former North Fayette teacher, Aaron Bicknese.  Over the course of a number of years, Herr Burghardt has made a number of visits to West Union to visit his friend Aaron, as well as others he has met over the years.  The reality is that in the big picture friendship can extend beyond oceans and continents, and because of this exchange, some friendships have endured for years.  When you think about it, having that friend that you are willing to get on a plane and fly ten hours to see is a pretty special friend!

In recent years, at least in the time that I have been at NFV, I have seen siblings come on the exchange, and I have seen one of our families host seven exchange students, with all five of their daughters traveling to Germany.  The Brian Gibson family has been all in on the exchange, and in talking with Linda, mother of the five girls who have participated, it has been an incredible experience.  We have had a number of conversations over the years and being able to meet students from Germany and travel to their home has certainly been a highlight of the educational experience for their family at NFV.

One of our most recent students who was involved in the exchange, Rezner Buhr, has traveled back to Uberlingen, spending time with a number of people that she met when she took her initial trip in 2017.  We have had students who have from Uberlingen on the exchange, and then their sibling has come over after the fact.  A few years back, Janika Merkle was on the exchange and stayed with the David Pleggenkuhle family, and then the next year, younger sister Hanna spent the entire school year at NFV, staying with the Tim Feldman family.

When we were in Germany on this last trip, I was informed by Hans-Juergen Borde that according to GAPP, the German American Partnership Program, this is the longest continuous running exchange between two schools that currently exists.  When you think about a chance meeting that took place almost forty years ago between two teachers who thought it would be a great idea to have an exchange, and the friendships that have been established, it is truly incredible!