Worldview, a public service program at UNC-Chapel Hill, allows educators to expand their horizons as they experience the culture, educational systems, students, and history of a country. My experience with Worldview this past summer was an exciting opportunity to examine Germany as we explored the country’s schools and historical sights. As a middle school librarian, I found my goal to reaffirm the global influence of education inspired by this enlightening experience.
Our eight school visits were memorable and enlightening as we observed students, many of them refugees, in their English classes. At the first school visit in Munich, Mittleschule Munchen Sendling (grades 5-9) we spoke with students who were refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Croatia, and the Republic of the Congo. They were preparing for exams and practicing English. The students must pass three rigorous exams in ninth, tenth, and twelfth grades in order to qualify for higher educational opportunities. At the Carl-Benz Vocational school (grades 10-12), students pair academic study with technical apprenticeships that usually lead to job offers upon graduation. One of their administrators proudly introduced our group to a young man who had recently graduated and was now employed. This young man had moved to Germany by himself as a refugee from Syria.When we visited Walter Gropius School in Berlin, a secondary school where approximately 80% of the 1,300 students were immigrants, the staff gave us insight into their challenges. For example, teachers sometimes have to rely on the students as interpreters during parent conferences. The class we observed had children from Poland, Macedonia, and the spokesperson for the students’ group was an intelligent, friendly 13 year old girl from Saudi Arabia.
In discussions after the school visits, we all realized how much these students reminded us of our students. The faces of global education in Germany look similar to the faces in our classrooms in the U.S. I believe all over the world students have a right to education and deserve the opportunity to have access to it regardless of race, gender, or financial background. Whether we were visiting the Carl-Benz Vocational school in Baden-Baden or urban schools in Berlin, these students were all pursuing a career with optimism and hope.
We also gained a different perspective on aspects of education compared to the schools in the U.S. Most of the schools we observed did not have 1-to-1 technology programs and did not prioritize school computers, according to the staff we interviewed. (The exceptions were the two technical schools we visited). Furthermore, most of the middle schools did not have sports programs. Likewise, I was surprised that no school included a school library; instead, they relied on classroom libraries to supply reading materials. In addition, student artwork decorated most of the school buildings we visited, very much setting the atmosphere for the schools.
Historical visits enlightened my teaching and global perspective as well. Visiting the Dachau concentration camp was one of the most memorable historical sites near Munich, Germany. Dachau was the first concentration camp the Nazis created in 1933. The legacy of terror and annihilation are permeable as you walk through the ominous gates saying “Work liberates.” The experience of walking through the barracks and the roll call area caused my heart to hurt as I imagined all the lives that were destroyed where we were standing. Then, walking into the section of the camp where the crematoriums stand, I felt my tears begin to fall down my cheeks. Reading about the Holocaust and studying the events of WWII does not prepare you to face a machine that was a part of the engine of genocide. My father is Jewish and I have always read about the Holocaust with the thought that Hitler would have included my family in the deportations. Nothing can prepare you for standing next to the mass grave of more than 188,000 prisoners who were incarcerated at Dachau from 1933-1945.
This fall, I had the opportunity to share my experience in Dachau with my eighth grade students, who study Night by Elie Wiesel. This connection gave us the ability to discuss the history of concentration camps and why we must oppose all forms of hatred and genocide so that we can never forget the victims and the survivors.
Visiting the Berlin Wall and discussing with our guide, Sylvia, her memories of the night the wall “fell” was one of my favorite experiences from the trip. Sylvia lived in East Berlin her whole life. When the wall fell on November 9, 1989, she did not believe it would occur so quickly. According to Sylvia, the confusion of the opening the travel restrictions announcement created chaos up the chain of command; the wall’s gates opened that very night because no one in the government of East Germany had made any preparations. Sylvia’s world history story was very different from the one I learned in high school in the US! She also showed us the East Side art gallery—a portion of the Berlin Wall that has been transformed into art by various artists from around the world. This symbol of oppression and Communism has become works of art celebrating diversity and expression!
This journey through Germany gave me the opportunity to enhance my teaching by walking in the footsteps of world history and examining Germany’s current educational system. I believe enlightening experiences like this one allow educators to renew their spirits, expand their horizons, and affirm their commitment to global education. These memories will always influence my teaching by reminding me of our collective humanity and our duty to preserve the right to education for all students.
Megan P. Fink is a middle school librarian and advisor to the Middle School Model United Nations club at Charlotte Country Day Middle School. She began her career in children’s book publishing, but fell in love with libraries while working for the New York Public Library. She is an active member of YALSA and has served on YALSA’s Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults, Teen Read Week and Best Books for Young Adults committees. Megan has written for VOYA, YALS and BOOKLINKS magazines and she has written TEEN SERVICES 101 (2015) with the American Library Association