Kaiserslautern: A Place to Learn
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“Kaiserslautern: A Place to Learn,” New Era, Sept. 1979, 24

A Place to Learn

School days start early for Melanie Howells, because there’s a lot to do before school. While the farmers who live near her family’s home in Rodenbach, West Germany (a suburb of Kaiserslautern), are still eating breakfast, Melanie is already pedaling her bike across the cobblestones to deliver the newspapers on her route.

The 16-year-old doesn’t worry much about the chill in the air—the rising sun will soon trim it away. Besides, there are too many morning images to capture in mental snapshots: chickens poking and scratching in soft barnyard dirt, dew caressing windowbox flowers, the baker’s wife opening the shop’s shutters, early buses rifling commuters to the city.

But Melanie does worry about getting back home in time to finish writing a chemistry assignment (in German), to have breakfast and family prayers, and to join her sister Jackie, 14, so they can go to early morning seminary together.

Though Melanie and Jackie were both born in Los Angeles, California, Germany is now their home. They lived here for seven years when they were younger, returned to the U.S. for four years, and then moved to Kaiserslautern in 1975.

Their father is sales manager for an insurance company, so they don’t attend the U.S. military schools. They go to the local German high school instead.

“Attending the German schools is probably the most challenging part of living here,” Melanie says. “All of our classes are in German, our textbooks are in German, and hardly any of our classmates feel confident speaking to us in English. I think living here has made me appreciate the struggle a new missionary must go through when he has to come out and learn to do everything, even speak, in a new way. But I can’t think of a better way to understand another society and it’s people than to actually live among them.”

“We still have a lot of American friends,” Jackie explains. “But that’s mostly because of our activity in the Church.” The Howells family attends the Kaiserslautern Second Ward, Kaiserslautern Germany Servicemen Stake, and both Jackie and Melanie have callings in the Young Women organization and the Sunday School. “We go to English-speaking meetings and have all the regular Church activities. It’s a nice break to do things with the LDS kids our own age. We spend a lot of time with them.”

But although both young ladies are active in the ward and with their LDS friends, they are also keenly aware that they are enrolled in the German educational system and expected to perform on the same level as their fellow students.

“We go to the Staatliche Integrierte Gesamtschule,” Jackie says. “It’s considered a fairly progressive school over here (see accompanying story for an explanation of education in Germany), which makes it a lot like the high schools in America. It’s less structured than traditional German high schools.”

“For example,” Melanie continues, “students at our school often have a lot longer lunch break than U.S. students, so they arrange with teachers to hold extra classes, just for fun, after they eat. They learn a little about cooking, photography, dancing, or other subjects. There’s no pressure for scores like there is in the regular classes. Posters around the school advertise what’s available during the lunch period. Those who come do it because they’re excited about learning.”

Jackie notes, however, that regular classroom discipline is fairly strict, with emphasis on academic achievement. There are no official school teams, no junior and senior proms, no homecoming festivities or cheerleaders. “We do have a school festival in the summer, and they had a school party one time,” Jackie says. “But the academic side is a lot more important here. Students know that their school work will determine their future. Failure can keep them out of college and force them into a less desirable job. They probably take things more seriously because of that.”

“I think we work harder and learn more in the German schools than we did in the States,” Melanie adds. “When we moved back to California, we were way ahead of everyone. We had studied more subjects, we had looked into more background material, and we had moved a lot faster. When we returned to Germany four years later, we were behind the German students again.”

Though the school Melanie and Jackie attend is close to downtown Kaiserslautern, within walking distance of the main train station, it is isolated on a wooded hillside that provides both privacy and scenery. The buildings are modern. Abstract sculptures adorn the patios. Some areas near doorways are painted in bright, bold designs, and in many of the classrooms, desks are bright orange. As at almost any high school, friends meet between class periods, stand in cafeteria lines, and wear just about every style of clothing.

On Wednesdays, Melanie’s first class is wood shop, where she’s making a chess set. “Sometimes shop students get to choose what they want to make,” Melanie says, “but this time we’re all making the same thing.” The class is about half female, and the instructor is a woman.

Each class period is 45 minutes long. “We have both required and optional classes,” Melanie notes. “At our school, students must have 39 hours of classes per week. At most other schools, it’s 36.” Her schedule includes religion (Protestant or Catholic), German, sewing (she could have taken cooking instead), art (where she is currently studying three-dimensional drawing), social studies (where the teacher is comparing the USA and the USSR historically and politically), math, PE (including an optional class in jazz gymnastics), biology, chemistry, physics, geography (she could have taken history or biochemistry instead), and English. Computers help plot out class sequences, and each student’s schedule varies from day to day.

“Religion classes are required,” Jackie explains. “One day in my brother’s class the teacher asked how many believed in God. He was the only one of 35 students to raise his hand. As a result, the teacher asked him to invite the missionaries to make a presentation to the class about the Church. Most of the kids were interested in what the elders had to say.”

Grades are distributed twice each year, in February and just before summer vacation in July. They are based on a scale from one to six, with two equal to an A and six equal to an F. “Ones are very rare,” Jackie says. “They mean you’ve done a perfect job.”

A quick glance around the hallways and into the classrooms shows a few typical German schooling customs. Students eager to reply to a teacher’s question snap their fingers to gain attention. Lunch tickets have to be punched at a time clock each morning so cooks can get a head count—and it costs both to buy the ticket and to have it punched, a total expense of about $1.15 per day. In the math class, two young men are assigned to wipe down the chalkboard with a wet sponge before the lecture begins. Most students carry their own small pencil sharpeners and use them regularly at their desks.

Each person has his own wooden hall locker, just large enough for books and a looseleaf. A single large locker is provided for each row of small lockers, and it must accommodate the coats of several people. “Most German high schools don’t have lockers at all,” Melanie says. “Ours is newer so they’re trying them out.” A chime that sounds more like a doorbell than a school bell signals the end and beginning of each class. And students “press their thumb,” rather than cross their fingers, when hoping for good luck on a test.

But students cramming in the library, breaking pencil leads during an exam, complaining that gym periods are too short, or only half-listening to announcements over the intercom issue a quick reminder that a high school is basically a high school, no matter where it may be located.

In her English class Melanie must speak slowly and distinctly, with a heavy British accent, or she might be misunderstood. “They teach British English here, not American English,” she chuckles. “They tell me Americans speak too fast and swallow their words.”

Kirsten Rhau, 16, one of Melanie’s friends, chats with her following the class. “Melanie is just like any other student,” Kirsten says. “She understands well, and if she makes a mistake in grammar, we correct her nicely. She does the same for us in English. We’ve formed a ‘mutual aid society.’” The two friends often meet between classes and usually spend lunch together.

Across campus, Jackie is talking to another close friend, Petra Bäcker, 15. Petra is German, but she was raised in Saudi Arabia and learned to speak fluent English by attending international schools in which English is the classroom language. She has lived in several countries and came to Kaiserslautern in 1976. “I was glad to make friends with Melanie and Jackie,” she says. “I was interested at first because they spoke English, and I wanted to keep in practice. But now they are my best friends.”

In fact, Petra spends so much time in the Howells’ home and with Jackie and Melanie at school and church that some people think all three are sisters and that Petra is LDS. “The Howells have been great friends and good examples to me,” Petra continues. “They are just like sisters to me. We go to Mutual together, we went to youth conference together, and we do something together almost every day.”

Later in the afternoon, after classes, Melanie, Jackie, and Petra go downtown to meet Sister Howells. They wander by the Spinrädl (the Spinning Wheel Inn), a Gasthaus that is one of Kaiserslautern’s oldest buildings. They look at the original city walls, the Stiftskirche (the biggest church downtown), the cars, and the people. Jackie stops at the Bundespost office and mails a letter.

This is another kind of learning—after-school learning, cultural assimilation. “There are so many things to see. I get excited just walking and looking,” Jackie says. “There is history everywhere you turn.” Melanie adds, “I want to remember the people, the way they dress and walk, the way they sell things, the open-air markets, the way they drive their cars and honk their horns, the posters plastered on every wall. When I go away to college in two years, I want to take part of Germany with me, at least in my mind.”

Sister Howells pulls up just as rain is starting to pour. Everyone’s a little bit wet and glad to be warm and drying out together inside the car. At home they change clothes, dry their hair, have dinner and family prayers, and talk over the day’s activities. Grandmother joins the group—in fact, she fixed the meal. Petra is invited to stay. On the front door and one of the walls Brother Howells had taped inspirational thoughts and reminders about home evening assignments. Some of the children read them as they respond to the call to eat. One of them notices a letter from John, 18, a sophomore at BYU, and brings it to the table to read to the family. They listen, even though they’ve already read it themselves. Somehow, they don’t mind the repetition.

This is another kind of learning—learning about family love and closeness, about the importance of building eternal ties.

After the meal, Melanie and Jackie’s younger brother, Romney, 13, joins his sisters and Petra as they catch a bus to Mutual. They arrive early and take time to talk with their friends—in English. Everyone meets in the chapel for opening exercises and to rehearse a musical number; then they separate for classes.

In the combined Laurel and Mia Maid class, the young women join in a lesson about supporting the priesthood through proper dating standards. Lots of girls have questions, and all of them realize the pressure they face, or will face, as they start going out. The discussion deals with relevant problems and leads to some firm commitments in the heart of each class member. It is yet another kind of learning—learning the laws of the kingdom of God, the same learning that continues in other Church meetings and callings.

Living in Germany has helped Melanie and Jackie to gain an appreciation of both their U.S. homeland and their adopted country, an understanding of different life-styles and customs. It has also helped them see the importance of the gospel in their lives. They appreciate their education, and they continue learning daily in a variety of ways. But through it all runs the thread of spiritual living, and that’s perhaps the most important learning motivation of all.

Going to School in Germany

Any student who has grumbled about taking tests in a U.S. high school should have a chat with John Howells, Melanie and Jackie’s brother who is now a sophomore at BYU. He would explain that in West Germany, in order to graduate, a student has to take a final exam covering all the material he learned in high school—an examination that lasts about three months!

“The Abitur is like taking a comprehensive, complicated ACT test,” John says. “Most students try to study for it, but it covers so much that it’s hard to know what to review. Anything you have studied while in high school could be included on the test, which includes both oral and written examinations.”

The Abitur, which is typical of similar tests given in most European countries, is not the only difference between U.S. and German school systems that John noticed. “Important decisions about what type of studies a student is going to pursue can be made as early as the end of the fourth grade,” he says. “Not only that, but it’s a lot more complex system than here in the States. You don’t just progress automatically from grade school to junior high to high school. There are a lot of decisions to make and tests at some levels to see if you qualify to continue in school.”

The West German educational system varies from one Land (state) to the next, but John’s experience is typical of many areas. “School is mandatory only from first grade to ninth grade (ages 6–16). Kindergarten, or nursery school, is optional but usually attended. For grades 1–4, everyone goes to the Grundschule, similar to elementary school in the U.S. Most of these schools are within the neighborhood or village, close to home.” (The two youngest Howells children, Jeffrey, 8, and Stephanie, 6, attend a Grundschule just blocks from the family home in Rodenbach.)

It’s following Grundschule that the complications begin. A student has a choice of attending one of four basic types of school, depending upon his or her eventual professional or vocational goal. In the Rhineland-Pfalz region where the Howells live, the schools carry the following names:

1. The Gymnasium, traditionally the highest level of secondary education, is training in preparation for college. Studies proceed at a more rapid rate than in most other types of schools. A student normally remains in Gymnasium until grade 13, takes the Abitur, and goes on to college or specialized training.

2. The Hauptschule is oriented to students who plan to leave school at the end of the ninth or tenth grade. “Students who don’t do well to begin with may have to go to Hauptschule,” John says. Studies are less rapid, more practical than abstract. Usually Hauptschule lasts from grades 5–9, at which time students receive a ninth grade graduation diploma, the HauptschulabschluB. Those who want a little bit more education and a chance to get a better job can transfer to a different Hauptschule where tenth grade is offered and receive a tenth grade diploma, the Mittlere Reife, or they can transfer to a Realschule.

3. Realschule (grades 5–10) is similar to Hauptschule, but more academically than vocationally oriented. The Realschule accepts transfer students from the Hauptschule or the Gymnasium and graduates all of its students and the end of the tenth grade with a diploma called the Realschulabschluß.

4. Experimental schools are adapting to needs of students who want more freedom in their studies or who begin in one school and want to transfer to another. The Aufbaugymnasium features accelerated study for students who begin in the Hauptschule and then decide to continue past ninth or tenth grade (and have qualifying academic records). “In one year at the Aufbaugymnasium I attended, we went through algebra one and two, and two books of geometry,” John says. “They try to build you up quickly, to get you back up to the level of the Gymnasium students so you can pass the Abitur and go on to college.”

The Gesamtschule (grades 5–10), which is the type of school Melanie and Jackie attend (along with Romney and another brother, Ike, 11), is also an experimental school. “It’s a bit easier, a little bit more fun than the older types of schools,” John says, “and it stresses learning-by-doing activities along with academic goals.”

Outside of Rhineland-Pfalz, school systems may vary, and schools may be known by other names. In many places, an older, traditional system is entrenched, and schools are known as: Volkschule (elementary school, for ages 6–10 or 6–14); Mittelschule (for ages 10–16, then students quit and go to work); Fortbildungsschule (vocational school, ages 14–17, then work); and Lyzeum (for females) and Gymnasium (for males), ages 10–16 or 18, which is the old-style college preparation system, often with separate campuses for boys’ and girls’ schools.

Photos by Richard M. Romney

A simple stroll through downtown Kaiserslautern is a sociology lesson in itself. It’s easy to observe architecture, shopping habits, and clothing styles

Studying is serious business in German high schools, and even though they’re foreigners, Melanie (left) and Jackie (right) are expected to keep up

Each day brings challenges but also offers moments to share the special joy of being sisters

The Howells sisters first made friends with Petra when she wanted to practice English. Now she spends so much time with them it’s hard not to think of her as one of the family

The campus is modern and clean, the courses similar to those offered in America, and the students are usually eager to be friends

“The first time I went on my paper route the street names and addresses were confusing,” Melanie says. “But I’ve got the hang of it now”

There’s a morning feeling nearly all paper carriers know. It’s the excitement of discovering colors and sounds on near-vacant streets, of pedaling along the road while the rest of the world is still yawning

Rodenbach, the small town where the Howells live, is typical of lots of German communities. To Melanie and Jackie, however, it will be fondly remembered as one place they call home