Berlin Map

WHS teacher Allison Graves poses next to models of Berlin depicting the changes in the city before and after the Berlin Wall.

Washington High School social studies teacher Allison Graves has heard news reports and read articles about the refugee crisis in Europe, but this summer she learned about it from a new source — student-age refugees living in Germany and the German teachers who are helping to educate them.

Graves was one of 15 American and Canadian teachers who were given fellowships to travel to Germany for two weeks in July as part of the Transatlantic Outreach Program (TOP), a public/private partnership of the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Goethe-Institut, Deutsche Bank, Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Siemens Corporation.

Based at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, D.C., TOP “promotes education, dialogue and experience on topics such as the German school system, German and EU politics, sustainability projects and corporate social responsibility, as well as culture, history and geography.”

TOP organizes study tours to Germany, providing teachers with firsthand knowledge of the country.

Graves, a 2010 graduate of Washington High School, who is starting her third year as a teacher at WHS, said she learned of the program while searching for teacher-focused travel opportunities that she could take part in during the summer break.

She had been to Europe before as a tourist, but was interested in finding something that offered more specific lessons she could bring into her classroom. Graves teaches U.S. history, which covers post-Civil War to the present, and Contemporary Issues, a class open to sophomores, juniors and seniors.

For the application process, Graves had to submit a unit of instruction that included something about modern Germany, an essay and two letters of reference. In her essay, Graves outlined Washington’s close relationship with its German sister city, Marbach am Neckar, and how her participating in TOPS would be another good fit.

Each of the several tours TOPS organizes each year has a focus that caters to the specific educators on the trip, said Graves. All of the teachers in her group teach social studies, so their focus was on German history post-World War II, with a major focus on contemporary Germany.

Graves’ tour included visits to five cities — Munich, Nuremberg, Geisa, Leipzig and Berlin. The group also went to Buchenwald Concentration Camp outside of Leipzig and to a couple of smaller towns to visit the schools, including one with students who are refugees.

Learning About Refugee Students

They visited three schools, two of which were vocational schools and one which was a gymnasium, or college prep-type school. Although it was mid-July when the group arrived, students were still in session. Their summer break starts in late July, said Graves.

The American and Canadian teachers were there to observe the way lessons are taught in Germany, to compare the differences with their own countries, but they found it especially interesting to see how the German educators are handling a large number of refugee students, who often come into their classrooms not being able to speak the language and not having the resources and support of native students.

“That was really interesting just to see how this small community, which in a lot of ways is a lot like Washington, how they are dealing with this really large refugee population,” said Graves, noting it was a vocational school where students were being taught skill-based lessons to prepare them for the workforce.

“We learned a lot of things I really had not considered before about Germany and the refugee situation . . . we hear about it so much in the news so it was really interesting to hear about it from an education standpoint,” she said. “What is the school doing? In a lot of cases the school is taking this as an opportunity: ‘We have a decreasing workforce in Germany, so here is an incoming population that we can train to be part of what we are lacking in skilled workers.’ ”

Volunteers and retired teachers in the community have stepped forward to work with the refugee students, helping them learn the language and provide other needs as well.

For Graves, one of the most beneficial aspects of visiting the school with refugee students was the contact she made there, people she can put in touch with her students through email and Skype to hear about the refugee situation firsthand.

“We here are very isolated, it feels like. We hear a lot about the refugee crisis, but we don’t know a lot about it because those aren’t people we see on a daily basis,” she said. “So just having that contact for students to possibly be able to ask questions that I can’t answer myself.”

Those contacts may be teachers, students or people in the community, and by allowing the students to connect with them, it gives them a chance to ask their own questions and get their own answers, said Graves.

Another benefit to that visit was talking with the German teachers about how they deal with the language barrier for the refugee students. That is something American teachers also face.

“We do here, in the United States, have a growing number of ESL (English as Second Language) students, so that was beneficial to talk to teachers about how they deal with language barriers in the classroom, what are some things I can bring back to my classroom for those language barriers and cultural barriers that are sometimes hard to get over,” said Graves.

Different Approach to Education

The education system in Germany is very different from America. In Germany, when students are in fourth grade, teachers decide what track they are going to be on for their future — vocational or college prep. There are ways for students who are placed on one track to change if they feel strongly about it, but it’s difficult to do, said Graves, who sees pros and cons to both approaches.

“(Tracking) creates a very different atmosphere for teaching, I think. If you have one type of student in your classroom, that totally changes the way you teach,” she said.

“Here in the United States, students have a much more diverse experience. They are in the classroom with kids of all different abilities and backgrounds, and there is some good to that. They experience different things that they might not if they had been tracked at a young age,” she said.

“It’s also great if you know at a young age what you want to do, to start preparing for that,” which tracking approach allows for, Graves noted.

“Their college system is so much different than ours. It’s state provided; it’s funded by the state, but they also have a lot less students who go to college, because it’s harder to get into the college-prep high school,” said Graves. “You have to take a college entrance exam to even get accepted, and then by that point, they know it’s just the highest caliber of students who are going to college.”

Compare that to America, where the philosophy is everyone should have the opportunity or chance to go to college; it’s their decision, not one made by a teacher or the state.

Lessons From Nuremberg

In addition to the three schools the group visited, they toured numerous historic sites around Germany. For Graves, one of the most interesting was the Nuremberg Courthouse, which is still a functioning courthouse and also a museum of international criminal law.

“Inside the four windows at the top center is Court Room 600, where leaders of the Nazi Party were tried for crimes against humanity by an international military tribunal,” said Graves, pointing out a photo of the courthouse.

“Most people when they hear Nuremberg, they think of Nuremberg laws, Nuremberg trials, all these things associated with World War II and the Holocaust, so it was really interesting to go to this city that has all of this remaining Nazi history and find out, what do they do with it? It was pretty much designated by Hitler to be the Nazi rallying grounds, pre-World War II, and they still have these immense structures left,” said Graves.

“What do you do with this Nazi architecture that’s just left here? Do you tear it down? That’s going to cost billions of euros. What they’ve decided to do with a lot of these structures is turn them into museums or documentation centers of some kind, to turn it around into something that can be used for an educational purpose, to show ‘How did we get from this place to that place?’ ” she said. “They have left the structures there basically to decay as a reminder of ‘This is what happened and this is how it happened, so let’s remember not to let it happen again.’ It’s really interesting.”

At what is left of the Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg, where Hitler gave speeches to huge crowds, Graves was able to see the platform area where he would have stood. It was “eerie,” she said.

“I didn’t stand there . . . but just to imagine the number of people who would have been there. It was made to house 100,000 people at once,” she said.

The group also walked along the old Iron Curtain line that once separated East and West Germany and met people who lived through the Cold War in East Germany. Those contacts could be helpful to Graves’ American history students at WHS as they study the Cold War in the second semester.

Again, the two sides could connect through email and Skype, or possibly old-fashioned letter writing for Germans who are in their 80s or older.

Contemporary Germany

Along with Germany’s post-World War II history, the group also were briefed on contemporary issues facing the country.

“We did visit with a diplomat from the state department, from the German Federal Foreign Office. He helps represent Germany in the G7. We had a dinner conference about current economic policy in Germany, Brexit, what that means for Germany and how we can bring that up in our classroom with students,” said Graves.

“We met with a number of people — sociologists, college professors, people who study various aspects of society in Germany who gave us a really blunt interpretation of what’s going on in modern Germany,” she said. “We had a meeting with a sociologist from the university in Leipzig who just studies specifically right-wing extremism in Germany today and a lot of things I did not expect to be still going on in Germany, are definitely still going on.

“From the statistics he gave us, it appears that even the younger generation of Germans have just as much racial bias as the older generation, which is something I hadn’t been aware of before. So we definitely got a blunt interpretation of this is where Germany is,” said Graves.

On a positive note, the group toured a small German town that is completely energy independent, using wind turbines and biomass energy, “so much so that they sell an excess back to the grid,” said Graves.

Bringing These Lessons Into Her Classroom

Many people whom Graves met in Germany have been following news of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and she found that a lot of German students were interested in how Americans vote and their voting practices.

So this fall she is planning a partnership with a German school to track the U.S. elections.

Through her new contacts, Graves will make arrangements for her students to communicate with German students about voting patterns here, how their parents vote, how their community votes, so they can track the way they think Missouri will vote in November.

“It’s a learning tool for both schools,” said Graves.

She also sees an opportunity for discussion in her visit to the Nuremberg historic sites associated with the Nazi party.

“We have a lot of things in the United States that many would consider remnants of an ugly time — the Civil War, things like that. How do we deal with it? Should we leave it, remember it? Should we praise these people for whatever merit they did have? Or should we tear it down?” asked Graves.

“I think that will be an interesting study as far as what do we do with our dark history here? How do we commemorate it in an appropriate way?”

Next Summer, Japan?

Graves’ summer fellowship to Germany was so successful and helpful to her that she’s already looking for a similar opportunity for next summer. She’s found one in Japan that looks promising.

“I feel that the best educators are those who keep learning and have a passion to keep doing that and actively searching for ways to learn,” said Graves.

Flags from the many countries she has already visited are hanging around her classroom, not just for decoration, but as a reminder.

“Teaching American history is often very centered on the United States, and that’s kind of one of my goals is to teach it through a lens of how does this affect not only people in the United States, but how does it affect the rest of the world?” said Graves. “What are the things we do here in this country and our political ideals and the wars that we fight, in a global perspective, what does that mean?”