In German schools, steep learn­ing curve for refugees and teach­ers

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

For 15-year-old Mustafa, the trick­i­est part about learn­ing German is know­ing when to use the ar­ti­cles der, die or das. “And the um­laut,” his class­mate Majd re­minds him, send­ing both Syr­ian teens groan­ing in mock frus­tra­tion at the vowel al­ter­ation, one of the quirks of German gram­mar. But they’re not re­ally com­plain­ing. Hav­ing es­caped the fight­ing at home and sur­vived the har­row­ing jour­ney to Europe, they are glad to be back in school. For them, as for young refugees ev­ery­where, it’s the first step back to a nor­mal life.

But they are fast learn­ing that the hard work is only just be­gin­ning-for pupils and teach­ers alike. Mustafa, Majd and their fam­i­lies were among the nearly 900,000 mi­grants who streamed into Ger­many last year. Around a third of them were mi­nors, and the coun­try now faces the Her­culean task of ab­sorb­ing the new­com­ers into its school sys­tem. The ob­sta­cles are for­mi­da­ble. Most of the young­sters don’t speak a word of German on ar­rival and have usu­ally missed months, if not years, of school. Many are also scarred by the ex­pe­ri­ences that led them to flee their homes in the first place. “It’s a huge chal­lenge,” said Ilka Hoff­mann, a board mem­ber of the GEW, Ger­many’s largest teach­ers’ union.

She es­ti­mates Ger­many will have to hire some 24,000 new teach­ers to cope with the in­flux, and that’s with­out in­clud­ing the ur­gent need for more psy­chol­o­gists and coun­selors in schools. “Trauma man­i­fests it­self in dif­fer­ent ways,” Hoff­mann said. “We’re ill-pre­pared in that re­gard.” The Kul­tus­min­is­terkon­ferenz, a group­ing of the na­tion’s state ed­u­ca­tion min­istries, has cal­cu­lated that ed­u­cat­ing the child refugees will cost an ex­tra 2.3 bil­lion eu­ros ($2.5 bil­lion) a year.


In German class­rooms to­day, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s “Wir schaf­fen das” (We can do it) motto about in­te­grat­ing the mi­grants is more than just a catch­phrase. It’s a daily as­sign­ment. Mustafa and Majd are en­rolled in the Hein­richvon-Brentano school in Hochheim, a pic­turesque town west of Frank­furt. To cope with the refugee ar­rivals, the school has set up two so­called “in­ten­sive classes” for 22 pupils where the im­me­di­ate fo­cus is on learn­ing German, the same ap­proach that has been taken na­tion­wide.

In Mustafa’s small class­room, where most of the stu­dents are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the at­mos­phere is jovial, but their teacher Michael Smi­raglia says there’s no deny­ing the daily dif­fi­cul­ties. With pupils rang­ing from the gifted to those who are still learn­ing the Latin al­pha­bet, Smi­raglia has to tai­lor his lessons to a range of lev­els and come up with sev­eral ap­proaches to the same ex­er­cises. Then there’s the added chal­lenge of work­ing with teens who have lived through trau­matic events, which can trig­ger dis­rup­tive or an­ti­so­cial be­hav­ior.

“I quickly found that the name ‘in­ten­sive class’ also meant it would be in­tense for me as a teacher,” Smi­raglia said, while his pupils, in halt­ing German, read out a di­a­logue about or­der­ing le­mon­ade and ice cream. He says his back­ground as a fam­ily coun­selor, which saw him work with trau­ma­tized youths, has proved “im­mensely help­ful” in bond­ing with the class. “I have pupils aged 12 to 15 who have feared for their lives,” the be­spec­ta­cled, soft-spo­ken teacher says, stress­ing the im­por­tance of giv­ing the teens a safe place to share their stories. “It’s a gift for me when they open up to me be­cause it helps me un­der­stand them bet­ter and deal with things like in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior.”

Break­ing the ice

For the stu­dents the real test of their progress will come when they move on from the co­coon of the in­ten­sive class to reg­u­lar classes, where teach­ers have a cur­ricu­lum to fol­low and may not have the time or tools to fo­cus on their in­di­vid­ual needs. To ease the tran­si­tion, the Brentano school’s refugee pupils al­ready spend sev­eral hours a week with their German peers for lessons such as English, maths or sports.

The re­sults are mixed, with Mustafa point­ing out that lan­guage re­mains a bar­rier. “The teach­ers speak so fast, I don’t un­der­stand much.” But the min­gling has helped break the ice be­tween the new­com­ers and their German school­mates, as has play­ing foot­ball dur­ing break times. “We play to­gether and then we also learn a bit more German,” says Mustafa. Gen­er­ally though, the teens in the in­ten­sive classes ad­mit they tend to stick to­gether in their free time, speak­ing in their na­tive tongues. “I don’t have a lot of con­tact yet with the German kids,” says 14-year-old Mar­jan from Afghanistan. “But ev­ery­one is very friendly.” — AFP

HOCHHEIM AM MAIN: Refugee stu­dents at­tend a les­son in their class­room at the Hein­richvon-Brentano-School in Hochheim am Main. — AFP

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