Tuesday, February 3, 2015

School Update: German & French

snuck a photo in James' classroom
We're well overdue for a school update.  I don't think I've done one since the first day of school this year!  As a former teacher, I endlessly geek out over the nitty-gritty of curriculum and pedegogy, so bear with me or feel free to skip this one.

Daphne is in 3rd grade (Cycle 3.1) and James is in 1st grade (Cycle 2.1).  They each have new-to-our-school, young male teachers this year.  Both kids like their teachers, and our general impression is that they are good ones; passionate about doing their jobs well and caring toward their students.  If all goes to plan, our kids will each have the same teachers next year too.

James and Daphne's teachers - we took it as a good sign that they were the only two teachers to stick around and help with crafts at the school Christmas party.
James is our second child to go through 1st grade in Luxembourgish school, so we were quite curious how his experience would compare to Daphne's.  
Letter from the new 1st grade teacher at the end of kindergarten.  He seemed friendly.
Well, as you might expect, some things are the same and some are different!

1st day of school, same classroom Daphne had the last 2 years.
A couple main differences are 1) this teacher is having the students learn to write in cursive from the get-go, whereas Daphne didn't begin cursive until well into 2nd grade.  Children here learn to print capital letters in kindergarten, but James is now doing a mixture, adding new cursive letters in upper and lowercase as they learn them.

vowels - the "King" letters.  More sneaky classroom photos.  I'm assuming it's frowned upon as no other parents seem to do it!  Or, they're just not big nerds who take pictures of vowels.

And 2) this teacher appears to be easing the kids into learning German much more slowly than Daphne's 1st/2nd grade teacher.  There are fewer word lists, fewer tests, and each word list has fewer words to know than Daphne's did.

the first few word lists had less than 20 words
has recently ramped up to a few more at a time.
Overall, this teacher's philosophy feels more "modern" or "international" and less "old-school," even though Daphne's teacher was young as well.  We actually really liked Daphne's teacher too, but it's interesting to see that this variety exists.  James' teacher seems more concerned that his students build on a foundation of enjoying school and equating learning with fun before things get too heavy; the kind of stuff we softy-Americans can relate to.  

Case in point: several weeks ago I was talking to a Luxembourgish parent in the school yard and he asked me if James' teacher is good.  I replied, "Well, I don't know, but he seems pretty good to me.  He cares a lot about his students and is dedicated to his work.  He makes learning fun.  The kids seem to like him a lot." He was clearly a bit puzzled by my response.  I inquired about his child's 2nd grade teacher, and he said, "Yes, she is good. She gives lots of homework and tests.  The most important thing to us is that our children are well prepared for the upper grades!"

Anyway, he's surely not speaking for all Luxembourgers everywhere, but our conversation illustrates a cultural difference for which we've encountered anecdotal evidence on many occasions.  We'll just have to see if James will be ill-prepared for the upper grades!

With two full years of Luxembourgish already under his belt, James is taking to German quite well so far.  In fact, for the end-of-school party/talent show in which his class will be performing excerpts from The Lion King in German, guess who's been asked to play Simba?

Yep!  His teacher said he's adept at memorizing words and sentences in German so he thought James would be good for the lead role.   You're all invited!

The kids get to take Mila home on a rotating basis.  She helps James study.
Daphne, on the other hand, has no shortage of tests and quizzes this year, at least three per week.  The main exam at the end of the week rotates between German, French and math, and takes two or more hours to complete.  You can kind of see what that Luxembourgish dad was getting at!

In German they've been writing longer sentences and paragraphs, and conjugating lots of verbs.

present tense
some irregular verbs
They've also begun delving into some of the aspects of German that make it difficult, like articles for the same noun changing between der/die/das depending on the context.

Meanwhile, the French studies that began last year have also picked up steam in 3rd grade.  She continues to enjoy it so far.

she drew this just for fun last semester
The teacher gradually speaks more French to them as the year progresses.  I think right now they're alternating weeks - this week he's speaking mostly in French, so next week will be German.

conjugating verbs
This constant conjugating of verbs in various languages is a bit mind-blowing, I must say.  If you grew up in American schools, what grade were you in when you first had to conjugate a verb in any language (or were aware you were doing it)?  I think I was in high school.  And I certainly never thought about conjugating verbs in English.  I often hear Daphne conjugating words to herself in English: "I am, you are, he is, she is, they are…Hey, Mom, in English, how do you know if you're talking to one person or more than one person when you conjugate the "you" verb?"  File that under "Thoughts I Never Had as a 9-Year-Old."

And it wasn't long before full sentences were starting to flow.

Giving directions from one point to another. 
And the most mind-blowing part for her functionally-mono-lingual parents:  When she does her French work, the language she's translating from, the language that makes sense to her, is German.  German!

German to French vocab and sentences.
Bravo, indeed.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Cologne (Köln), Germany

Call it Köln or Cologne, it's where we went last weekend.

about 2.5 hours drive from home
Daphne's teacher has encouraged his students to ask their parents to take them to Deutschland when they go on holiday so they can practice their German.  Well, we Ts are nothing but a bunch of people-pleasing teacher's pets, so off to Germany we went on our weekend off from church music!

Daphne was our trusty interpreter.  She did a wonderful job ordering all our food, asking loads of questions for us, and even scheduling a museum tour over the phone.

The main attraction in Cologne has to be its impressive gothic cathedral.  It was very crowded and quite loud inside, but gorgeous nonetheless.
sunlight through the stained glass was creating rainbows on the walls, but a photo can't do it justice
I learned about the heavy bombing of Cologne in WWII.  Many postcards in the tourist shops depicted photos such as these.
source: wikipedia
The city center has a large pedestrian-only area (which we always appreciate) and the architecture is "modern," as most of the city was rebuilt after the war.

We visited Cologne's modern art museum, Museum Ludwig

There were quite a few Picassos.  James likes audio guides more than the rest of us.
We also saw a very disturbing exhibit with videos of pianos being violently destroyed.
Here's one being beaten and one falling off a building.  Ah, art.
On a lighter note, Daphne's been reading a book in school called "Moritz in der Litfaßsäule."  A Litfaßsäule, we learned, is a type of advertising pillar covered with event posters that was invented in Germany.  In the book, Moritz runs away from home, taking up residence inside one of these hollow structures.

Daphne was soon spotting Litfaßsäule-s (Litfaßsäulen??) all around the city.

We took photos and sent them to the teacher.  A family of teacher's pets, I'm tellin' ya!
Another highlight from the trip was tracking down some pretty darn good burritos.
So far Germany gets the best score for burritos in our travels to our neighboring countries.
And the last place we went before heading back to Luxembourg was the fragrance museum.

Eau de Cologne, to be precise
The museum is actually a guided tour of the original shop and factory site, given by an actor dressed up as the 18th century perfume maker, who was originally from Italy but settled in Cologne.  Our tour was in English, very interactive, and definitely worth the 10€ total admission for our family.
we were only permitted to take photos and the beginning and end
You can watch a short video about it here:

Free sample of the original formula for each of us.  Accept no imitations!  By the way, Eau de Cologne is gender- neutral

And they threw in this book.  What a steal!
It seems like we packed a lot into our one night stay, but really I probably just take too many pictures.

my 3

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Ghost of Cochem Castle

Driving into Cochem on a very misty-gray-brown day.  Warning: you're in for a lot of misty-gray-brown photos of a castle.
Back in November, when my mom was still in Luxembourg, Pete and I took an overnight trip to Cochem, Germany.

about a 1.5 hour drive from Lux
The small town features a castle on a hill overlooking the Moselle river.
classic Cochem postcard shot, maybe a little more misty-gray-brown than usual
our hotel...
...with castle mini-view
...and next to the town square.  Note the "Mario mushroom" centerpiece; it comes into play later.
The first order of business was to climb to the castle.

looking back down at the river from the castle
We decided to pass on the castle tour (most of them in German and with a wait), because we were still itching to walk around and explore a bit more.  We knew there was a chairlift we could take up one of the other nearby hills, affording a view of the castle from yet another angle.  Plus, as we looked out from the castle, we saw something interesting.

Now what could that be?  An abandoned roller coaster?  (the chairlift takes you to the little white building you can see in the photo above the question marks)
So we walked back down and over to the chairlift.

this was taken going down the lift, but you get the idea
We reached the top, and this produced--you guessed it--another misty-gray-brown photo of the same castle.  Enjoy.

you can also see a little cross and a viewpoint out on the bluff (middle/left of photo, overlooking river)

So we walked out to that.  There were some drunk people who advised Pete to jump.
As we headed back to the chairlift, we noticed a path continuing up the hill, so thought we'd see if we could find that mysterious structure at the top of the hill.  And sure enough, we eventually found it.

abandoned roller coaster AND abandoned water ride?? (photo taken through a fence)
We continued around the fence to try to find the entrance.  And sure enough, we found it.
Wild and Free Park! (note the Mario mushroom diaper on the bear)

Closed cafe inside.  But what exactly is it?
It's a wildlife and amusement combo park!  Still totally in business, not permanently abandoned, just closed for the off season.  I looked it up later on Tripadvisor - it could be fun to take the kids sometime when it's not all creepy and closed.
And look what else we found nearby!
a real one

misty-gray-brown view from the park
And then we went back down and had a nice (and cheap!) Italian dinner.
you sometimes forget how expensive Lux is!
The end.

What.  What?

The end.


You're still here.

Ohhhh!!!  You wanted to hear about the GHOST!!  The Ghost of Cochem Castle!  Okay, okay.


The hotel staff had recommend a wine festival in town as something to do that evening.   We went down and checked it out, but decided it wasn't really our scene, and that we wanted to walk around more instead.

just getting started
We opted to make our way back up to the castle to take in the night view.  We arrived to find no one at the top besides us, and one empty car parked near the entrance, well past the empty parking lot below.  We looked down at the town again, the loud, drunken strains of German folk songs wafting up to us form the wine festival tent (reaffirming our decision to pass on that, thank you very much).  As Pete looked over the castle wall and down the hill, I ventured up closer to the castle doors.

here, you can see the closed castle doors through the archway.
It was then I began to notice a creaking, rattling metal sort of sound.  At first, I thought it must be coming from a house below us on the hillside.  But as it continued, I thought it might actually be coming from the castle.  Still, there was almost no wind at the time; nothing strong enough to blow around anything made of metal.

So I walked a bit closer to investigate.  As I approached the stone archway, my suspicions were confirmed.  The sound was coming from the castle doors.

I was starting to get just a tiny bit scared.

Now, I don't believe in ghosts.  Mostly don't.  You see, for most of my life, there've been many times when I've woken up in the middle of the night to feel the presence of, and then discover, a "figure" in the room, standing there, looking at me.

Often, this "figure" could be explained by a lamp or door or plant or some other object that I basically had hallucinated into a more person-ghost-like object.  I used to wake up and scream.  Then, over the years I learned to tell it to leave.  I squint-stare at it and instruct it go away, and after several (long) seconds, it goes (sometimes turns and slowly walks) away.  This (mostly) works.

So I don't believe in ghosts (mostly).

But then, as I looked closer at the castle doors, I noticed a pair of boots through the crack at the bottom.

The boots stayed perfectly still, but the creaking, rattling sound continued.  Soon, there was a more wooden, shoving sound to accompany the creaking, rattling sound.

Someone was clearly trapped inside castle.

I ran back down the path to inform Pete:  There's a GHOST in the castle and it's trying to GET OUT!!

Okay, side note: Have you ever seen the TV show "Castle" (the name is just a coincidence)?  It's about a homicide detective, Kate Beckett, and a mystery novelist, Richard Castle, who team up to solve murders.   Castle jumps at any chance to concoct supernatural theories to explain the murders--ghosts, witchcraft, time travel--and Beckett always brings him back to reality with perfectly logical explanations.  

Well, picture me as Castle and Pete as Beckett at this point.  But with no murder.  Yet.

And Beckett's usually right. (Usually).

We both slowly approached the castle again, and Pete saw the feet.  The shoving sounds were growing more forceful.  I think it was around this point that he suggested we leave.

And then suddenly, the doors burst open.

And a very large, very drunk man stumbled through the opening and toward us, vaguely registering our presence as he continued down the path.  He reached the castle wall and wretched over the side, as we contemplated the fact that this was probably not the first time that has happened in that exact spot over the centuries.

We soon put it together that this guy must be a security guard, or at least and employee of the castle, or at least not a ghost (and Beckett's right yet again).  Pete again suggested we leave, before we got mixed up with this guy or involved in an angry German conversation we couldn't understand.  But I wanted to stay and make sure he didn't get in that car and drive down the hill.

So we watched him amble over to a vending machine, purchase a Coke (a minor miracle in his state) and then disappear back into the castle through a side door.

Do we stay or do we go?  The front doors of the castle were still wide open.

But he soon came back out the side doors, walked past the car, and continued down the hill.  We took one last look at the open doors, very tempted for a moment to sneak in for a look, but thought better of it, and followed the guy down the hill.

See, now the doors are open.  You kind of want to go sneak in, don't you?
Once satisfied that our friend was headed home or down to the wine festival on foot, and not planning to get into another car further down the hill, we parted ways.  We wonder if he got in trouble when the gates were found open in the morning.  Or, maybe it's his job to open for business too.  

We'll never know, because we followed our good sense and didn't sneak into the castle and get ourselves locked in with the other ghosts for the night.

Anyway, muwah ha ha.
Pete in creepy castle lights