What I Learned While Spending the Holidays in Germany

In the depths of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

I just spent two weeks with my family visiting friends and relatives in Germany for the holidays. This was a celebration of my recovery from cancer one year ago. I knew I was taking a chance by traveling abroad while still in recovery, but cancer teaches you that you must live every day to its fullest.

Today, the first day back home, my head was swirling with sights and sounds of Germany, so I decided to take a walk to ground myself. While walking along the beach, I thought about what I had learned during my visit. These are the thoughts I want to share today.

Travel: Everyone who can should travel to an unfamiliar place whenever possible. It does wonders for the spirit to have all one’s senses on high alert while taking in the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar locale. What everyone is doing, the language that is being spoken, the unfamiliar routines, the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar place all become very vivid in comparison to our familiar everyday life at home. Comparisons are inevitable, but the real joy in traveling is allowing oneself to become part of the flow and engage with the new venue as much as possible. It made me feel very alive to be somewhere new and different.

Language: For me so much of the flavor of a place depends on the language spoken there. I really wanted to make an effort to begin to learn German so I could communicate better with friends and family. My experience was so much richer for the efforts I made to do so. Everyone appreciated my “baby German” and was very kind and helpful. I felt like much less of an observer and more like a participant in my new surroundings. I was excited about each new word or phrase I mastered.

Commonalities and differences: I read a very touching article in the New York Times today written by a Turkish immigrant speaking about his first impressions of America. When he first arrived, he thought the little red flag on everyone’s mailbox indicated an unusual degree of patriotism, until he figured out that those who had mailboxes with raised flags were actually able to send their letters without even leaving home. To him this was a revelation and a sure sign that America is an amazing place to live! As I compared small details in everyday life, I, too, was amazed by how ordinary things like doing the laundry could be so different. It is refreshing to learn that we do not have the final word on ingenuity; there are many ways to make a pot of coffee.

National character: Stereotypes prevail, it is said, because they are somewhat true. I have lived abroad in two countries, France and Germany, and in both cases found the people to live up to their reputations to a certain extent. The French are smug and stylish and not always friendly to Americans. The Germans are less vain and more serious. They, too, do not always find Americans to be charming as you will learn in the next paragraph.

We had just entered a charming bar and were “borrowing ” an unused chair from another table to accommodate our party of five. This invoked the wrath of the manager. My son, who spent a year living in Germany explained that we should have politely asked if this was permissible. Lesson learned. There are differences to be understood and respected. After all, as Americans we have our own idiosyncrasies, don’t we?

National shame and pride: For most of my adolescence and young adulthood I felt shame about my German heritage because of the events of WWII. I even avoided visiting Germany the first two or three times I went to Europe. Then my son, who studied German at Georgetown University, decided to spend his year abroad studying in German at Humboldt University in the heart of Berlin. When we visited him there we got to know the family he lived with which completely changed my feelings about being Of German descent. The family members were well educated and well informed and they acknowledged their tainted history with humility. But they were committed to the idea that the German people, who had also suffered a great deal during WWII, were trying to remember the past while rebuilding their future. Their current leader, Angela Merkel, who was born and raised behind “the iron curtain,” insists on a compassionate approach to the refugees from the Mideast now arriving daily by the thousands. Many young Germans, including two daughters of the family we stayed with and my son who is spending an extra week with them, are volunteering in the Syrian refugee camps in Berlin.

Cafe culture: What I knew I would miss most upon my return home is the cafe culture of Europe. Everywhere we visited in Germany, whether a small town or big city, there is always a bar or cafe you can stop in for some respite, conversation, and food and drinks. And no one chases you out! You are welcome to stay as long as you like, provided, of course that you are behaving appropriately. My German friends explain that this is part of their culture and they even have a word for it: gemütlichkeit. This means being comfortable and cozy in your immediate surroundings. In these cafes and bars people were not glued to their IPhones; instead, they were talking to each other animatedly, young and old, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I think we here in America would benefit from less technology, which is driving us apart, and more opportunities to relax together and share our interests.

All in all, I did feel rejuvenated by my travel experience, even in the dead of winter. I promise to share photos of our trip next week!


The Clock is Ticking…

H  ow did the holidays get here so fast?

A  few weeks ago we were eating turkey

P  retty soon the stores were filled with Christmas

P  iles of gift catalogs throughout the house

Y  esterday we hung the lights outside


H  ow will we ever be ready in time for Christmas?

O  n December 17th we are leaving for Germany

L  ots of things to prepare for our trip

I   f only the next few days would slow down

D  estinations: Berlin, Dresden, Weimar

A  lot of miles to travel to see people we love

Y  es, it’s the trip of a lifetime

S  ee you in 2016!

Beachcombing for the Holidays

Yesterday our family was getting anxious about our plans to go to Germany for the holidays.  Mind you, one of the reasons for taking this holiday trip  abroad was to avoid the usual holiday tensions: the decorating, cleaning the house, getting the right gifts, making plans and so on. But the joke is on us. Instead, we are dealing with endless details like booking flights and getting the right seats (two of us have special circumstances), renting a car for part of our trip, contacting and recontacting the friends and relatives we’ll be visiting, trying to coordinate everyone’s needs and parameters; and getting appropriate gifts that won’t weigh us down.

It was a beautiful Saturday, so my daughter suggested that she and I go for a walk,  one of our favorite things to do.  We drove toward the beach about two miles away to walk on the “causeway,” a stretch of land with a straight path along the Long Island Sound on one side and on the other side of the road a beautiful wetlands area fed by the Sound.  The walk itself is about a mile and a half roundtrip and usually offers some form of nature to enjoy whatever the season.

That day was remarkably quiet.  For a place that can be quite windy, there was barely a breeze.  It was 3 o’clock; the sun was already beginning to set and the colors were beautiful fall colors, though somewhat muted by the time of day. We both remarked on the lack of bird activity.  In Spring and Fall we are often rewarded by the activities of the osprey who build their nests on very tall poles, and care for their single (most often) offspring diligently through the early fall.  It’s an absolute joy to watch the parents soar overhead as they hunt for fish to feed their baby; hence, their common name fishhawk.

The winter ducks hadn’t yet arrived so we couldn’t engage in one of our other favorite pastimes of spotting them riding the crests of the waves in small flocks, diving for food and making their unique calls to each other.  No osprey; no breeze; no winter ducks.  Just a remarkably golden sunset streaking the surface of the waters of the Sound.

Meanwhile, we had wandered onto the beach. We usually stay on the path for the duration of our walk, but neither of us was in a hurry to get home and face more stressful travel planning. Within minutes I noticed a  heap of very white sun- bleached bones lying askew at the high tide line. I called my daughter over to see; she is an amateur physical anthropolist and loves nothing more than an abandoned skull or skeleon or animal shell that she will make great efforts to identify.She was very pleased with my discovery; it turned out to be a bird synsacrum (pelvis and sacrum) and sternum.

Not long after, I found another much smaller bone artifact and again she identified it.  It turned out to be part of the skull of a sea robin, also a rare find.  This was turning out to be quite an adventure.  For the next half hour we combed the beach gathering all kinds of local shells: oyster, mussel, channel whelk, clam and numerous others.  She had discovered a couple of small pieces of sea sponge and was delighted since she had never encountered them on the local beaches.  By the end of our hour of beachcombing we had quite a treasure trove of found objects and had forgotten all about the anxieties that had driven us out of the house.

We drove home refreshed and very proud of ourselves. We will carefully pack our treasures in tissue and place them in a special box to bring to one of our landlocked relatives in Weimar, Central Germany. She is also a nature lover, her particular passion being fossils and stones.  Oddly enough, this is the “gift” I am most excited about bringing to Germany.  These are real treasures that are reminders of our life here by the sea, and soon they will become the treasures that will remind her of us, so far away.



Part Two: How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting

This week’s post is a continuation of a discussion from last week of how I used Eve Bunting’s book,  How Many Days to America?, to teach my students some important lessons about the immigrant experience in America.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  The picture shown above,  I think you’ll agree, has a lot to say. The photo, taken by New York Times photographer Sergey Ponomarevev,  bears a striking resemblance to last week’s picture  of the book cover showing a small boat filled with people making a perilous journey by sea to what they hope will be a better life.  This week’s photo appeared in the Thanksgiving  Day issue of The New York Times on page A12 of the News section.  This photo is of a group of Syrian immigrants fleeing by boat to the island of Lesbos, Greece, and shows that even though it is more than four centuries later, the immigration experience for many has hardly changed at all.

The Common Core Standards for Social Studies stress the need for a student to be able to compare two pieces of authentic text or evidence and write about the comparison.  Comparing the cover of How Many Days to America? with this New York Times photo presents an ideal opportunity for students to compare the experiences of today’s immigrants fleeing Syria with those fleeing the unknown Caribbean island of the picture book. The discussion can be easily scaffolded with a Venn diagram that will compare what is the same or different about the two different situations.  The chunks of information  recorded by the instructor or the students on Venn diagrams can then be used as the basis for an essay.  If necessary, the instructor can provide sentence starters for those who are not yet comfortable with forming whole sentences in English.

Another of my favorite activities with this story is to use post-its to introduce question words as we make our way through the story together in a shared reading.  Who are these people might be the first question for them to answer on their individual post-its.  Where do you think they are going?  Why do you think they are leaving their home? How will they get there?  What will happen to them along the way?  Students love to respond in short bits of language on post-its because the smaller size of the post-its makes the writing experience less daunting.  They can later compile their post-its in sequential order to create a response to the story from their own point of view.

This is also a great book for teaching point of view.  Ask the students how they feel the children in the story might feel at various points along the way and compare those responses with how they think the parents might be feeling at those same points.  I have extended the activity to also ask the students to imagine themselves as passengers on the journey and asked them to write about the experience from their own point of view.

The last time I taught the book I added an activity I had never used before.  I asked the students to write about what they thought had happened to the family after they arrived at their destination.  Being able to synthesize the events of the story and then make a prediction based on the characters’ responses to those events is a wonderful opportunity for higher-order thinking and making a reasonable prediction based on the text.  The responses were varied and some were even surprising.

These are just some ideas I’ve used for presenting a mentor book to my ESL students that might be slightly beyond their reading level but which will inspire them to “reach” for an understanding of the story.  The relevance of the story to their lives is so powerful it will engender a response from them based on their personal experience as immigrants, or as the children of immigrants, that will make them want to share their own stories. I highly recommend Eve Bunting’s books for ESL teachers and/or collaborative teachers searching for excellent mentor texts.




How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting

“…viewed as a symbolic tale of oppressed people seeking liberty, the story, clothed in contemporary dress, echoes the voyages mad by many throughout the years in search of liberty.  Peck’s deepened chalk colors and misty backgrounds bolster the fragile facial expressions and fearful body postures, lending suspense and believability to the saga. A discussion starter on several levels.”  Booklist, November 1, 1988

Eve Bunting’s emotionally powerful story of a family fleeing oppression from their island nation by taking a dangerous journey to their new destination which they hope will become their new home has a lot of resemblance to the diaspora of people fleeing war and oppression in the Middle East, many of them  risking their lives at sea and too many of them dying on the way.  Although she does not write specifically for English Language Learners, Ms. Bunting was always a favorite author of mine when I taught English as New Language students because of her compassion and empathy for those who are facing what often seem like the insurmountable hurdles  of estrangement from their cultures and isolation in their new culture. In addition, she writes in a simple yet eloquent style that is not condescending to her readers but instead invites them to want to know more about her topic

How Many Days to America? is a book I often taught around Thanksgiving because it in some ways resembles the story of the first European immigrants, the Pilgrims, arriving on our shores with nothing but what they could carry.  But there are also noticeable differences in that Eve Bunting’s story  is about more contemporary immigrants who face different dangers on their journey, including thieves who come on board their boat and rejection by the inhabitants of another island nation. In spite of the differences there are enough common threads for most immigrant students to find  some commonality between their migration  story and that of the family in the book.


The first time I used the book, in a middle-school ESL class of 7th and 8th grade students, there was one student whose reaction was so poignant and powerful it taught me an important lesson as a new teacher.  He had been put on a boat by his family with his brother to escape the violence taking place during the Vietnam War.  They were taken a perilous journey to a nearby island nation where they were stuck in a refugee camp until they were able to join an uncle living in the U. S.   When I met my student he was clearly quite traumatized and was living in a foster family without his brother.

While perusing the very  illustrations in the book with my students, we came across a two-page spread of the family in this story in a tiny, crowded boat in the middle of the ocean surrounded by whales!  When my student saw this picture,  he leapt out of his chair and began shouting that he had experienced the same thing on his journey. He had clearly been very afraid since he was still quite young when it happened. I learned to become much more attuned to how sensitive some instructional materials can be for students who have been traumatized.

My favorite way to begin teaching the book was to ask the students to examine the illustration on the first page of the story, looking for any details they could find that might give them a clue as to who the characters are and where the story is taking place.  Since the author deliberately does not identify the place where the story begins, this  allows the students to fantasize about and , in some cases, to identify with the setting of the story.  This kind of close reading for evidence is something English Language Learners are good at since they often must rely on visual cues for survival when their language skills are far from proficient.

Needless to say focusing so intently on a text promotes lively discussions which become the basis for word study. As the discussions evolve I chart the new vocabulary provided in the book as well as the new words we need to learn to carry on a meaningful discussion.  Learning new vocabulary in the context of a discussion that students are  committed to is the best way I know to assure that the new vocabulary will stick.

(Due to technical difficulties, the remainder of this blog will be posted on next week’s SOL.)












Teaching and Terrorism

Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in the 70’s in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit.

I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago. This was not the Paris I first experienced. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. These outsiders burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger.  Eventually things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten.

This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech.”

But this past weekend’s events, in which local terrorists took the lives of over 100 Parisians, remind us again that this hatred is not dead. More extreme and widespread violence has just begun, and we are now wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.


This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; moreso than ever. In the United States teachers are the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.

This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that building a wall is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma.  Supporting the assimilation of immigrant children and their families into our culture is how our nation will continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.


I have often questioned my own beliefs as a teacher of English to immigrant students over the past several decades. But I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated and assimilated, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.

I am particularly proud of my fellow English as a Second Language teachers.  We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the controversial work we do, but we are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children have equal access to a good education. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.

The Real Significance of the First Thanksgiving

I know it’s a bit early, but I wanted to give teachers ample time to think about how they will present the first Thanksgiving in their classrooms this year.  When I taught English as a Second Language, it was one of my favorite times of the year because of its relevance to English as a New Language (ENL)  learners.  It was exciting to watch them learn about this important American holiday and how relevant it may be to their own origins.

I don’t know about you, but it took a long time for me to become aware of the fact that Native Americans were people who had traveled from eastern Asia, across the frozen Bering Strait to the North American continent during the Ice Age, to hunt for food. I was taught, or thought, that the Native Americans were always here…part of the landscape. (Excellent material for a Common Core Social Studies lesson or unit.)  Then the Pilgrims arrived, suffered a disastrous first winter during which many died, and were saved in Spring by the Native Americans who taught them to plant corn, beans and squash, now known as “the three sisters.” The first Thanksgiving was actually a celebration of the Pilgrims’ survival, thanks to the Native Americans. The eventual genocide of most Native Americans that later took place is better left for middle or high school discussions.

I think most cultures are ethnocentric.  They like to think that everything that happens in their history is positive and have little interest in the perceptions of other cultures. But this version of history is changing. Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, borders have become more porous and what happens elsewhere can easily impact others in farflung places.  There are no more secrets; the truth will emerge thanks to all our social media outlets.

Even before the worldwide phenomenon of the digital revolution, I enjoyed teaching my English Language Learners that many of them came from countries where Native Americans were their ancestors, particularly in Central and South America. This has been a revelation to most of my students. The Asian students are amazed to learn that their ancestors walked across the land bridge from Asia to the new world  for their survival and then dispersed throughout the Americas. Most of my students (grades 1 to 8) had never had these conversations with their families, and those who were born here had even less connection to their roots. Latino students are amazed to learn of the great migrations that brought The First Nations to our land and how they steadily moved through the two continents of what we now know as North and South America to become their ancestors,

Because English Language Learners often feel like “outliers,”  they are often  amazed to learn that their ancestors were actually on this continent long before any of the European settlers arrived.  In fact, learning that the Europeans immigrants arrived long after the Native Americans turns the whole story around. I remember how enlightening this perspective was when I first learned about it. It made the world seem like a  place with people constantly on the move looking for a better place to live, just as our new immigrants are doing today.

This open-ended perspective lends itself to teaching so many wonderful lessons about the interconnectedness of people. It presents immigration as a dynamic process that is as old as mankind itself, and it empowers those who don’t yet feel part of American culture to learn that their ancestors may have actually been the first Americans. In my classroom there was always palpable excitement as my students and I looked at the globe together and followed their families’ migrations with a finger across continents and oceans. For many of my students, these discussion are doubly empowering as many of them don’t even know about their family roots. I patiently explain to them that they are not only Dominicans, or Chinese, or Mexican if they were born in the United States; they are, in fact, our newest Americans.

My intention is not to diminish their connection to their heritage, but to give them the bigger picture of what immigration is all about. To me, it’s about learning about where your family came from and then learning to embrace the reality of where you were born or brought to start a new life. I wish that the curriculum would emphasize this perspective more in elementary, middle and high school because I think it would open some fresh discussions about where we all came from and would help our more recent arrivals to feel more welcome. We would learn together  that we are all part of this ever changing world in which we live.

Next week, I will share a mentor text that I have used in my classes to demonstrate the ideas I have discussed here today. This text will generate lively discussions in both mainstream and integrated classrooms.