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German school visits: Independence and bilingualism

Today was our first adventure into a German school! We spent the morning at the John F. Kennedy Community School in Berlin, a school serving English-speaking American-born students (primarily children of diplomats), as well as German-speaking German students.

We were very fortunate because we not only got to speak with a principal from the elementary school and a principal from the high school, but we also got to visit and observe in some of the elementary and high school classrooms. It was truly an incredible experience.

There were many, many differences between the JFK School and our North Carolina schools. One thing that really stood out to me was how independent the children are, even in the elementary school.

The students go between classes on their own, they go to recess on their own, and they clean up after lunch on their own. When a teacher is out of school for some reason, rather than having a dedicated substitute, other teachers absorb the absent teacher’s students, or the teacher can just cancel class, and the children will occupy themselves for that class period. One teacher even told us that kids in as young as first grade take the S-Bahn (train) to school on their own. Based on my experience with how our society in the United States thinks about children, it just blows my mind how much German society values (and expects) independence and responsibility in their children.

Finally, as a teacher in a Spanish/English Dual-Language (DL) school, I was surprised by how differently the JFK School’s bilingual program is set up from those in my district.

During their first year in the school (entrance class, like our kindergarten), students learn in English and German simultaneously so that they can quickly pick up conversational fluency in their new language.

In first and second grade, students only develop literacy skills in their “mother tongue.” It isn’t until third grade, when students are expected to have developed a strong foundation in their mother tongue, that students begin literacy in their “partner tongue.”

In the DL program at my school, students learn in 50 percent English/50 percent Spanish right from kindergarten. Many students, particularly our Spanish-speaking students, don’t come into kindergarten with that strong foundation in their “mother tongue,” and this has a huge impact on their literacy development.

After leaving the JFK School, we visited Humboldt University, where we had several incredible speakers who talked with us about German schools and the work being done to integrate refugees and other immigrants into the school system.

We made a surprising number of connections to our own experiences with immigrant students. Although the countries of origin may be different (e.g., Syrian immigrants to Germany vs Mexican immigrants to the U.S.), we discussed how many of our students face a similar fear of deportation, lack of access to resources, struggle with bureaucracy, etc.

Note: Amanda Soldner is traveling with the GoGlobal teacher program to Germany. Follow their experiences at To learn more about the program, visit

Amanda Soldner

Amanda Soldner is a third grade dual language teacher at Carrboro Elementary School.