Imagine 14 action-packed days with 12 other social studies teachers, accompanied by 5 local guides, exploring 4 incredible cities in Germany. This scenario became a reality for me this past summer when I participated in one of this year’s Transatlantic Outreach Program (TOP)
These annual professional development trips are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Canadian and American social science and STEM educators. The best part? Each tour is tailored to the interests of the lucky participants. In my case, our journey took us to Frankfurt, Würzburg, Leipzig, and Berlin, and our itinerary went far beyond your typical tour. We had walking tours, museum visits, and all the usual group travel activities, but TOP also offers unique experiences the average tourist, or even local, would be unable to access. In fact, our second walking tour in Frankfurt, which focused on the rise of the parliamentary movement in Germany, may very well have been designed just for our little group of history fans!
One of the TOP tour's special features was a series of meetings arranged with municipal departments. Our first rendezvous was with AmkA
, the Office of Multicultural Affairs in Frankfurt, where we heard a presentation about how the city supports minorities and promotes diversity. (This critical task is further complicated by the fact that Germany doesn't collect data on people's race or ethnicity, thanks to its troubling era of National Socialism.) We also sat down with Leipzig's Department of Culture to learn about their eco-friendly initiatives in cultural institutions, such as encouraging spectators to take greener transportation to the local classical music festival. These meetings got me thinking about how I could spice up my classes: for example, would my students be interested in connecting with local officials to learn how we’re trying to make our own festivals more environmentally friendly?
Our itinerary also included several schools, so we could see the difference between the three types of high schools in Germany (Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium). At Jakob-Stoll Realschule in Würzburg, students from various grades impressed us with their presentations in English, toured us around their school grounds, and explained how they chose their post-secondary paths. While I knew Realschulen have a greater emphasis on career orientation, I was amazed to hear that ninth graders participate in week-long internships they set up themselves. In a community-minded place like Germany, employers are more than willing to host students, thereby providing the whole country with long-term benefits.
As a complement to Jakob-Stoll Realschule, we headed to Koenig and Bauer the next day. While we got to see a massive, state-of-the-art $9 billion printing press, the real draw was learning about the company’s apprenticeship program, a dual vocational training for students who have completed grade 10. The apprentices, many of whom come straight from Realschulen, attend school part-time on-site while working for the company the rest of the week. Once selected for the program, the company provides individualized support to help them pass their professional exams. (This reminded me a lot of Traf’s approach of giving students the personalized care and attention they need to reach their full potential.) Upon completion, Koenig and Bauer offers each graduate a job – though they're free to explore other options. One of my takeaways was that Germany’s emphasis on vocational training facilitates students’ entry into the workforce: Realschulen inform students of the range of career options so, like the recent grads of Würzburg’s Jakob-Stoll, they can pick the direction that best suits their interests.
In addition to coordinating the school visits, TOP introduced us to some remarkable community members. How often do tourists get to meet an activist who played a role in the Peaceful Revolution? Journalist and author Kathrin Ähnlich fielded our many questions about writing for a subversive independent newspaper while under authoritarian rule. She even walked us around Leipzig, pointing out significant locations in the fight for freedom and took us on a tour of the former Stasi headquarters, the “Round Corner”. How often do tourists, educators, or even locals, get to chat with a Syrian woman living in exile in Germany who runs workshops to empower migrant women to write down their stories of fleeing their homeland and adapting to a new country? Yasmin Merei, the founder of Women for Common Spaces, warmly welcomed us into her shared office space and told us about the journal series Female Voices in Exile
and the Young Leadership Program
, which assists young adults in cultivating their own projects that reflect the values and needs of their community. Meeting these everyday heroes who fight to improve their society prompted me to think about my own potential contributions to society and how sharing these stories with my students could ignite their passion for social action too.
I was similarly inspired by the professionalism of my fellow group members. I loved hearing my peers raise questions I had yet to consider and approach issues through the lens of their own backgrounds and teaching experiences. As well, whether on train rides, leisurely walks, or over delicious meals, we engaged in lively discussions about the day’s sights, German culture, and the profession that brought us together: teaching. These collective and one-on-one conversations generated a special energy and enthusiasm among us. Connecting with a diverse group of dedicated, engaged and, let’s be honest, very fun educators from all over Canada and the United States was a real highlight.
By the end of the trip, my heart was full, my brain buzzed with new insight, and I felt invigorated to tackle the new school year ahead.
I am very grateful to Traf's leadership team for their ongoing encouragement and for fostering lifelong learning and creative freedom among our teaching staff. And I owe TOP and our local Göethe guides a huge danke schöen
for an unforgettable experience.
I’m excited to see how our CoLab partnership with McGill University will continue to champion peer-educator enrichment and innovative professional development. As I witnessed first-hand in Germany, we can enhance both teaching and learning by leveraging the community around us.