School is different here

May 27, 2015 § Leave a comment


Sebastian recently returned from his second weeklong trip away with his class. Compared with last year’s hand-wringing, this year it felt almost normal. Why shouldn’t a group of first- and second-graders go off to spend four nights in a dorm, exploring forests and caves, going fishing, and having dance parties? Before arriving in Belgium, we spent a fair amount of time wondering about the language-immersion aspect of the kids starting school here. But now with nearly two years of school under our belts, I find myself reflecting on some of the (admittedly subjective) things that have nothing to do with language that have surprised us—or made us anxious or crazy or just plain confused.

The school experience here has been an education for all of us. It has pushed us to be patient and to trust in a system that feels very different from what we are used to in more ways than I ever expected. Though it hasn’t been easy, I am grateful for the glimpse of something truly different. It is so easy nowadays to pick up and live somewhere else and yet effortlessly keep up with so much from home. (I can often tell you the New York weather forecast thanks to Morning Edition on WNYC.) In the end, though, it’s been our kids who have lived this different life for two years—who have done most of the hard work and, hopefully, gained from this unique time in their lives.

The basics. Let’s start with a biggie: preschool is free! There is still grumbling about the expense and waiting lists of crèches, or day care for babies and very small children. But from the age of two-and-a-half, all kids are guaranteed a spot in generally high-quality maternelles, the equivalent of preschool.

Most schools in Brussels are French-language. In third grade, Dutch-language instruction begins. There are certain schools that emphasize Dutch more than others, and these schools seem to be highly sought after by families who hope to ensure their children are fluent in the country’s two main languages.

Schedule. Lunchtime is an hour and a half. All kids eat around 12:30. They can either bring their lunch, or if they choose to take hot lunch they board a bus to go to the cantine not far from school. Our kids have never wanted to do that (even when I begged). Both before and after they eat they have time to run around and play. School lets out at noon every Wednesday.

Old-fashioned approaches. The last year of preschool here would be considered kindergarten in the U.S. This is an important distinction, because the year before first grade is not seen as being “academic” in any way—kind of like when I was a kid. The idea of giving homework to kindergarteners is seen as totally unreasonable.

Cursive is still a big part of the curriculum here. It is taught beginning in first grade. If there is a movement afoot to replace penmanship in favor of keyboards, I haven’t heard of it. Sebastian writes with a fountain pen in second grade. They also seem to need to take slippers to school at least three times a year (for some reason this nod to propriety strikes me as old-fashioned).

No soap! If you really want to get a group of parents here—expat and Belgian alike—riled up, bring up the state of school bathrooms. More specifically, the subject of soap in the bathrooms. And by this I mean no soap. This does not seem to be a good school versus bad school thing, it’s not about PTA funding. I honestly don’t know what it is. They use regular towels (rags, really) instead of paper towels. While perhaps enlightened from an environmental point of view, the visual is somewhat less inspiring.IMG_8713

Religion. One afternoon a week, each child takes part in a religion class. You can choose from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or—like we did—morale, which is the secular option. Interestingly, I recently received a letter about a push to end this segregating of kids by religion, and instead have one class that teaches more generally about religion and morality.

Our kids go to a “communal” school, meaning it is organized by the commune we live in, but there are religiously affiliated public schools too. In fact, these schools (at least the Catholic ones), are often regarded as being stronger academically, and I have yet to meet a person who says they are actually religious in any practical way.

Diversity. Schools in Brussels are incredibly diverse. Our school recently held its annual international festival. Each class put on a little performance. Each first grader wore a hat with their country’s flag on it, and we realized that only two kids were wearing the Belgian flag!IMG_8741

Field trips. In addition to the longer classe verte trip, like schools everywhere, classes here take their share of daylong field trips. There is no request for parents to join these trips, and I don’t remember ever signing a permission slip. Sometimes these outings aren’t announced and sometime in the afternoon your child tells you they went to the police station that day to learn about road safety. Even in first grade, trips may involve walking nearly a mile to reach the destination (and then home, too, of course). Weather is not a deterrent. If the plan is to spend a day in the forest, the only instructions are to watch the forecast closely and dress accordingly.

Parents? What parents?  There is little to no parental involvement in the day-to-day operation of schools here. There are still the twice-yearly fêtes to plan and a few other things organized throughout the year. But there is no monthly coffee with the principal, no First Friday when parents stay and play a game in class, no elaborate fundraising schemes. Parents kiss their kids goodbye at the gate and leave.

No real art or music… I’ve been surprised (dismayed) at the total lack of art or music instruction offered during the regular school day. You can sign up for extracurriculars during lunchtime or after school, and while there are a few art classes included, the offerings are more likely to be table tennis, crafts, or Dutch. The few art projects I’ve seen have tended to be rather uncreative, color-in-the-lines affairs, even in preschool. I don’t think it’s that the arts aren’t valued here, my feeling is just that it’s not seen as the school’s responsibility to nurture them.

…but certain life skills. While I lament the lack of art in school, they do take the kids to swimming lessons once a week, starting in kindergarten. I think it’s great that this is treated as a necessary skill, and that kids who might not otherwise have a chance to be in the water regularly get that through school.

It’s practically impossible to say you really get an entire system after just two years, and in the end no one approach is necessarily perfect. I have a feeling that somewhere down the line we will wish for some kind of hybrid approach that takes the best aspects—practical instruction, an emphasis on independence, appreciation of the arts, a strong community—from different styles of learning.

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