Saturday, 11 July 2009


We made it.

The boys are speaking both Swiss and High German.

C can do maths. He hasn’t needed to go back to the educational psychiatrist once, and is back to the mischevious, affectionate and lovable little boy that he was before the move.

They have friends in the village with whom they play on a daily basis. They walk themselves to school – and I miss the school run like a hole in the head. They can independently get themselves to where they want to go, within reason.

It’s been an exhausting rollercoaster of a ride. OH’s job takes him away on business a good 70% of the time. When he is working in Winterthur he is often not back until 7.30pm, having left at 6.45am - so I have been mostly on my own during the week, often all week, with 3 voluntary jobs to juggle around the school times. There’ve been times when I’ve laughed in amazement and bewilderment, and times when I’ve sobbed and sobbed in frustration. I’ve marvelled at Swiss practicality and the common sense of their approach, and wondered at the beautiful handwork which they value so highly in education for so many valid reasons.

I honestly think that the children have been more needy and demanding of me this year than they ever were when they were in nappies: sometimes I feel I have been homeschooling, with the amount of support they have needed – combined with clockwatching continuously because of them coming home every day for lunch. But I have tried to look up at the big picture rather than worry about what I’m stumbling over that particular day.

I have had to be very, very tough with the children, which hasn’t always been easy. In the first term in particular, the children were visibly sinking with exhaustion from the language immersion, so I had to insist on bedtime being stuck to strictly – sometimes that meant that by the time homework was finished, there was very little time to unwind before bed. By Christmas, getting out of bed in the morning was a desperate struggle for them, and when they sat at the table at mealtimes looking as if they were too tired to bother feeding themselves, I seriously wondered if we had done the right thing. But they recovered.

I have gone out of my way to foster good relations with all the teachers so that they know we are on their side and supportive parents, but without interfering. The Swiss teachers know what they are doing – so I have refused to take issue with them about anything such as homework volume, marks for tests etc. If the teacher has said that something must be redone, then so be it, even if privately I have wanted to scream.

I am mentally drained, but also strangely exhilarated. This year has taken all my inner reserves and energy, but the children have come to the end of it with local friends, extremely happy, increasingly independent, and with language skills being developed at an amazing rate of knots. So it’s been worth it, even if there have been times when the gin bottle has taken a bit of a bashing.

It’s been what the British term good character building stuff.

The sun is out, the summer holidays are here. Pimms on the lawn, anyone ?

Final week of the year

Well, we’ve made it to the last week of the first year in Swiss school. Where has the year gone ? No, seriously, where HAVE the last 6 months gone ? Time has not so much flown by as rocketed out of orbit.

Private conversations

This week, for the first time, I overhear the boys having a conversation between themselves in Swiss German. I don’t think this is done with a view to impress me – it appears completely unselfconscious – but is this the shape of things to come ? On the one hand I’m enormously proud of them – and on the other hand panicking about what if they start using secret language to make plans and plots to overthrow the parents and lock the wine cellar ?

Holiday homework

J is set homework for the holidays – the vast tracts of vocabulary of which I wrote in the last blog entry, along with continuing his second reading book, which, again, he is plodding through 5 pages at a time.

C is also set homework – they have to borrow 4 books out of the school library and read them in the holidays. No problem. He is an avid little reader, and chooses 4 Asterix books in German. As I write, he’s already finished one of them - but then, he does have a book available in each bathroom.

They both play out after school each day, calling for their friends, sometimes confidently making phone calls in Swiss German to arrange playdates. Their German phone skills are better than mine – mainly because they have had to stand on their own two feet rather than rely on me, although I can now make a phone call to arrange a doctor’s appointment, and next year I plan to work on improving my own German significantly.

They are both extremely tired, but the homework lessens as the week progresses.

School reports

On Thursday we receive their reports, and are pleased to see that they are both doing well. Neither has been given a mark for German, although J appears to have been marked as if he were a Swiss child, but without being given an overall number 1-6. I have to sign the reports and send them back into school for safekeeping.

General observations

One observation of the school that struck me last week when I was “facebooking” with an old friend in the UK, is that the state funded school here in CH does not continuously ask for money from parents for trips, donations, equipment and so on. It’s well funded by the government. The camp that J will go on in September will cost 85 CHF per child – for 5 days of survival skills training.

Another observation is that there are no school assemblies to which parents are invited – the only time we’ve seen the children do any kind of performance has been either through the Musikschule – ie separately from main school, or the school production last week, which I wrote about in the previous blog entry. So yes, there have been fewer opportunities for me to see for myself exactly what they are doing in school, but then there have been the 2 Besuchermorgens and the various parents evenings. It’s just different, that’s all - I have plenty to occupy myself with, without needing parental involvement in school life to fill my time.

Friday is party day. C’s class were supposed to go up into the forest to the adventure park and then cook sausages for lunch, but the weather is pants all week so they have a day of sports at school followed by a packed lunch. J’s class start at 9am (a true lie-in) and then have breakfast, games and lunch together.

They’re home by 2pm.

And then they’re both out again by 2.45pm, off to play with their mates.


Monday, 6 July 2009

Week 37: shooting competition, school production, forgotten homework

Shooting competition

OH takes J to the shooting competition that he had been invited to take part in a couple of weeks previously. The results are, apparently, fairly dire but then what do you expect from a 10 year old who is the size of a 7 year old, trying to handle a full size rifle ?

Apparently it’s a one-off competition, and I’m still not sure of the reason for it. But he has great fun, and it’s conducted in a completely safe environment at the local shooting club. I don’t think there are any plans for a replay so I can breathe easy again.

School production.

All the letters about this production, named “Catwalk Barbie Mix” had baffled me (plus ca change). J had told us that his class were doing a couple of raps. C claimed not to be taking part in it at all, but was instead doing a winter show. ?

It’s certainly nothing like any school production I ever took part in. Co-ordinated by the Handarbeit teacher, it comprises approximately 12 very short sketches, involving different parts of all the classes, and with a finale involving all of them. It’s staged in the foyer of the school rather than the hall, and C is right – he is in a winter scene, which is basically one of his friends dressed as a snowman (poor thing – it’s a boiling hot evening) and all of them dressed up as if in winter and dancing round. J’s class do 2 raps. The other classes do a mixture of catwalk, parading, dance and mime to music. There is very little live music and no singing.

No matter, it’s intriguing, and clearly a lot of work has gone into it, and the children all thoroughly enjoy themselves.

J forgets his homework.

Friday morning J is very distressed to realise that he has handed in the book he was reading that he is to give a presentation on this morning, and from which he had to read aloud to the whole class a short paragraph and the back cover blurb. He is exhausted and in tears with worry – his Friday teacher is a tough cookie.

He had been set this German reading book of about 150 pages to read and then tell the class about on a specific day in the future, some 2-3 months ago. We had set about this overwhelmingly huge task in a way that would make Flylady proud: we worked out how many pages there were to read and how many days he had to complete it in, and then factored in a few less days to allow for occasional slip ups in the routine. And then he had set about reading it, 5 pages per day. At the end of each reading session, he wrote a single sentence (in German) précising what had happened in those pages. Somehow, he finished the book 2 weeks early. Woo hoo !

But without remembering that he would need the book for his presentation, he had handed it in, and it had then been taken by another class member. So I suggest that he rings the school friend and asks her to bring the book in. She does. Thank Goodness for the phone tree. But I also tell him that he needs to go and find his teacher first thing and explain what has happened so that she knows.

Test cancelled.

After all that last week, this week’s vocab test is cancelled due to the entire class being absolutely shattered after their production.

But instead they will have summer holiday homework of learning vast tracts of vocabulary. Deep breath………. And exhale…………

Vocabulary aaargggggggghhhhhh

I’m laughing a great deal less, however, on the Friday, when J is sent home with a German test to repeat despite him having achieved a 4 (out of 6). I’m pleased with the result, but if the teacher isn’t and he has to repeat it, then he has to repeat it. Punkt. In fact, I’m furious, not with school, but with him, as we have had a specific argument about vocabulary learning approximately every 6 weeks this year, which has done nothing for my blood pressure and caused a great deal of ill feeling on both parts.

I had asked him every single day of the week whether he had any vocabulary to learn for a test (as we have devised an effective but traditional method for learning it in our household, crafted out of a great deal of struggle and frustration as the year has progressed) – and the answer had been no. So when he comes home having had a vocab test that he had avoided telling me about, there is an almighty explosion from me, as I feel he has, once again, tried to learn it his way, ie the ineffective way, and in so doing has again doubled his work load by having to repeat it. And he has been dishonest with me, in saying that he didn’t have any vocab to learn when he did.

So, blunt (and loud, and angry) words are spoken on the topics of honesty, ineffective learning methods, wasting my time and his etc. He finally admits that he was trying to get away with it.

I stomp out of the house for a girls night out feeling thoroughly fed up and absolutely not in the mood for partying. I’ve had enough of this wretched struggle.

Week 36 - Parents Evening.

OH and I attend a compulsory parents’ evening at school for J’s class, which will be class 5 next year.

There are two topics:

French which they will start next year, taking their language quota, at the age of 11, to 4: Swiss German (spoken only), High German, English and French; and

Class camp ("lager"), which will be Stein Zeit Lager, ie Stone Age camp. More to follow.

The French bit is all very straightforward and basically is just an explanation of how they introduce the language, and the books and other resources they will use. I reassure myself that even though my own French is now worse than my German (hard to imagine, but pathetically true), I should at least be able to help J with this subject. I can still read and understand French, even if the limited powers of French speech that I once possessed left me when I started learning German.

The bit about Stein Zeit Lager is far, far funnier though. Class camp is a regular part of Swiss school life. It happens once a year after they reach a certain age, which varies according to the region, and my understanding was that they went away to a hostel (owned by the Gemeinde) and did outdoor activities.

However, J’s class really are going on camp, in the forest, in tents, with no running water and a bucket as a WC, in September. If they can’t light a fire, they won’t eat. The shower is a bucket, though a different one to the WC I hope. They’re not allowed to hunt (phew) so I imagine they will be taking the food with them, but it is basically an introduction to survival skills. Brilliant - in exactly the same vein as the way that, on the children’s second day at Kindergarten, they get a policeman showing them how to cross the road safely. Never mind all that reading and writing and Key Stage this and that fuss: at the age of 6, they are expected to walk to Kindergarten independently and be in one piece when they get there – so the first thing they are taught is how to cross the road. I digress.

There is a list of equipment that each child will need, which includes things like waterproof walking boots, penknife, warm sleeping bag, ONE (yes, just one) set of underclothes for the entire week (eugh) including long johns, etc etc. The risk of tick infection is high in the forest during the warmer months, so they wear one set of underclothes all week to reduce skin exposure. The temperature might reach -5 at night. The grand cost of this, to each family, is 85 CHF – around £45.00 – which is the cost of sending the teacher. The camp itself is funded by the school.

There is a very funny point when the teacher giving the presentation asks for questions, and gets one extremely irate Swiss mother ranting at her about the camp being dangerous, this is the first we have heard of it, the ticks are rife in the forest etc etc. It's less of a question than a 5 minute shout, during which time OH and I sit trying to stifle our laughter. I indulge in a bit of people watching and observe all the other parents in the room gradually starting to either stare out of the window or at the floor or cringe visibly. The teacher waits until the parent has finally finished, and then calmly states that if a parent doesn't want his or her child to go on camp then the child can stay and go to school normally but in someone else's class. And they've been running this camp for Class 5 for 12 years without any problems.

It sounds just like the guide camps I used to go on nearly 30 years ago – apart from the risk of tick infection and only one set of underwear and it possibly reaching -5 at night. But we had those horrible camping loos and had to dig a sewage hole for them to be emptied into, we had no running water and had to light the kitchen fire 3 times a day. And it was fantastic.

So when we get home I tell J that his holiday reading needs to be the Dangerous Book for Boys. He’ll have a whale of a time.