By Laura Hunt
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #8, 1995.
Homeschool lessons from those who learn abroad and in unusual settings.
Homeschoolers are professional teachers. We may not be paid for our
labors, except in the joy of seeing our children blossom, but we put
true love and care into our work. Since we are not confined by politics
into doing school “the way it has always been done,” we are free to see
how children have been taught in schools around the world and throughout
different ages. From this we can learn what works and what does NOT
work, and get more perspective on our own efforts.
In the last issue, we carried a feature on One-Room Schoolhouses. This
time we look at school in two European countries and an American school
for the blind, as carried out between 10 and 20 years ago.
School in Austria
I went to school in Austria from 1967–81. I began kindergarten (which
was more like a play group) at age four.
After kindergarten (which had boys and girls together), I was in an
all-girl environment, which I found very beneficial.
Our school hours from first through fourth grade were limited to before
noon Monday through Saturday. In third and fourth grade we had one or
two days of classes until 1:00 p.m. There were 30 or more children in
class with one teacher. We had homework every day.
We learned to read phonetically. From first to second grade we were
allowed to recite the (German) alphabet phonetically only.
After fourth grade, we had to chose between high school, which had an A
and B branch (“track” in America), and middle school, which had a
Language branch, Sports branch, and Home Economics branch.
High school was easier than middle school. The A branch required English
study; the B branch didn’t.
To get into middle school, your grades had to be good. School hours were
8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sometimes there were afternoon
classes. Homework was given every day. The education department set up
curricula, so we had no choice about classes.
To progress to the next grade you had to pass all classes. A make-up
oral and written exam was allowed two weeks before the new school year
started. This exam covered all the material from the school year. If
that exam was passed, you were allowed to progress.
In seventh grade we had to decide which branch to go into. I chose home
economics. This meant that I would have 16 hours of home ec classes per
week (sewing, knitting, etc.—no cooking or childcare until eleventh
grade). The Sports branch had 16 hours of P.E. The Language branch had
an extra foreign language (English, French, Latin).
In ninth grade we in the Home Ec and Sports branches had to choose our
second foreign language (French or Latin). English study began in fifth
After ninth grade, you could stop formal schooling and become an
apprentice or switch to a vocational school. High school ended after
ninth grade. Middle school went to twelfth grade and ended with a
“Matura,” which is an oral and written exam of all eight years of middle
school covering six subjects. In order to get into University, you have
to pass “Matura.”
We only had written exams in math, German, and foreign language. There
were never any true/false or multiple choice questions. German exams
always involved writing an essay. Exams for other subjects were oral.
In 1982, I came to the U.S. to attend college which I found extremely
easy and consequently got very lazy. I don’t remember ever seriously
studying for an exam. In Austria I usually began to study for an exam
one week in advance.
—Judith Morris, Arlington, TX
School for the Blind
I attended school away from home from the age of 8 through 16. I am
visually impaired and attended the State School for the Blind in
Berkeley, California from 1951–60.
I entered the blind school at the age of eight, not realizing that I
would not see my parents until Christmas. They had told me all along
that the school was really far from home and that I would not see them
for a long time, but I didn’t care because I knew no one would make fun
of me at the new school. For some reason, I must not have really
understood that this was a blind school because on the day we arrived, I
kept asking my parents what was wrong with all the kids. I couldn’t
quite understand it all, but I was at a place where no one would make
fun of me, and I guess it was an okay place. Actually, it was a very
good school, no complaints. But I got very homesick. I didn’t realize
the bit about not getting to go home. (My home was in San Bernardino and
the school was in Berkeley near San Francisco, California.)
Academically, it was a great school. There were no blackboards,
naturally. Today the public school kids don’t seem to understand
anything unless it’s written down for them on a blackboard. Our class
did just fine without them!
From first grade right on through, every child was expected to have
homework. It was a must! Time was always set aside for it. A bell would
ring, and the first graders would study reading, spelling, or recite
their pluses in math for about 15 minutes. Depending on your grade, the
study time was longer because more classes and homework were expected.
We, of course, did all of our assignments in Braille. We had to know the
spelling for the Braille contractions, plus the spelling for the regular
words, because in fourth grade we would start typing class—this was our
way to the sighted word. By the end of eighth grade I knew how to write
footnotes and give credit to authors on typewritten assignments without
really knowing why I had to do it.
In third grade we started learning to knit, crochet, and sew. I remember
learning to sew and making my own straight skirt, set-in sleeve blouse,
handmade sweater, and crocheted collar. By the end of eighth grade, we
had to cook an entire meal without help for a final exam.
All of my teachers were blind for the most part. I had piano lessons,
voice lessons, typing, English, algebra, geography, science, history,
and reading. French, Spanish, and German were also taught in seventh and
When I did go to public school I was at least a half-year ahead of the
public school in lots of things. Good thing, because I surely had lots
of adjusting to do with the sighted world, but school-wise I was just
—Diana Kleyensteuber, via Compuserve
School in Belgium
My family (Mom, Dad, brother David (6), sister Amy (3) moved to Belgium
when I was 8. My parents made the decision to put us into the Belgian
school system. I had been skipped ahead a grade and was supposed to
start fourth grade. The Belgian principal wanted to put me in second
grade since I spoke no French, but Mom convinced her to at least put me
in third, so that’s where I ended up.
At first it was really pretty horrendous. I was a very, very shy girl.
It was very frightening to have to spend the day with people I couldn’t
communicate with. I was always afraid of making mistakes and being
laughed at and, of course, since I couldn’t understand what was going
on, I was bound to make mistakes.
I survived, though, and learned French. I used to tell people that by
Christmas I could understand it, and by the end of the year I was
speaking it. That’s probably about right.
I remember for spelling we had dictations. There would be a couple of
sentences on the board, and we had to study them. (An example,
translated: “René got a present from his dad. He thanks his father with
all his heart.”) Then the teacher would cover them up and dictate them
to us. She would then uncover them, and we had to correct our work.
I don’t remember how long we had to study. When I go through my old
schoolbooks, one was a composite of science and social studies. We had
to copy from the board a page or two about topics like: the kings of
Belgium (only five—lots easier than the presidents!), how wine is made
(!), the sugar beet (source of sugar and major Belgian crop), how sugar
is carbonized (the teacher demonstrated), the Middle Ages, and many
others. We were graded on neatness and got extra credit for any pictures
we could cut out of magazines to illustrate the topics. (Stores used to
sell, instead of baseball cards and Lion King cards, geography and
history cards. Sometimes we used those to illustrate our books.)
Another class we had was sewing (it was a girls’ school just turned
co-ed—we didn’t have boys until sixth grade and then only two). We
learned to knit, crochet, sew, and do some special decorative stitches.
I remember a scarf that had to be a least a meter long and Mom finally
staying up late one night to finish it for me so I would get a good
grade. But I’ve often said that of all the things I learned, I may have
used knitting, crocheting, and sewing the most as an adult!
In third and fourth grades we were graded on a scale of 1 to 10. Our
classes were religion, reading, writing, maternal language (like English
class), arithmetic, observation and use of surroundings and related
activities, needlework, drawing, gym, music, and something called
Education which I think was related to behavior. By sixth grade we had
switched to “modern education” and our grades were Excellent, Very Good,
Good, OK, and Insufficient. Grades were given in maternal language
(including reading, expression, and grammar/conjugation/spelling),
arithmetic, attitudes (including effort/attention/social sense and
education/conduct/neatness), physical education, religion/morality,
awakening disciplines (I’m not kidding that’s what my report card
says—it included artistic initiation and scientific, historical, and
geographical initiation) and second language (that was Flemish, sort of
a slang Dutch).
There were parent-teacher conferences, but your parents were only
supposed to come if you weren’t doing well. Then the teacher would give
you a note to take home requesting that your parent come to the
Besides Belgian hopscotch (a little different from American), Chinese
jump rope (isn’t that what it’s called, with the long elastic?), regular
jump rope, and those hand-slapping games, there was another game we
played, I think in sixth grade. I don’t remember all the rules, but it
was a little like “Mother May I,” except that “Mother” would think of
the capital of a country. Everybody else would guess letters and you
advanced depending on how many steps “Mother” told you, and whether you
guessed a letter in her chosen capital. When somebody figured out what
the capital was, you shouted it out and everybody ran like crazy to tag
“Mother.” The first who did got to be the next “Mother.” It was fun for
awhile. Then kids started going home and pouring over atlases and globes
and bringing the most obscure capitals they could find. One girl
especially, Dominique, knew tons of capitals no one else had ever heard
of. She wrote out a whole little notebook of them and kept it in her
pocket to use when we played. After several weeks of her always being
“Mother” because no one could ever guess her capitals, we got tired of
it and played other things. But I’m sure it was educational for us all
while it lasted!
Oh, we also had religion class. Most of Belgium is Catholic so most of
the kids were either in the Catholic class or a class called Morals
where they talked about making good decisions and seemed to have a lot
of fun. There were about 3–5 of us in the Protestant class taught by the
local pastor’s wife. (I remember breaking her up one day when I asked
curiously if Popes succeeded each other from father to son like kings!
Other elementary school memories include St. Nicholas Day, the local
Saint’s Day (St. Gertrude), and the special loaf of bread given out
I don’t know who paid for the schools, by the way—probably taxes—but
there were no districts. Any child could go to any school they wanted to
as long as they could get there. There were no school buses. Kids
walked, parents drove, and kids took buses and trains to get to school.
The transportation system was fantastic.
There was just one secondary school, not divided into Junior High and
High School. Grades started counting down from sixth—after finishing
sixth elementary you went on to sixth secondary then fifth, fourth and
graduated after first.
In secondary school, the system started to divide the kids into career
tracks. The first choice was whether or not you would take Latin.
Basically, the kids who got good grades in elementary school, or who
expected to go on to college, went into the Latin section. Everyone else
went into the section called Moderne. The two sections had basically no
contact with each other since we had no classes together and tended to
stay apart at recess.
Memorization was emphasized. We continued copying pages from the board
in most classes. Then in geography and history class we pretty much had
to memorize everything. Especially in history, our teacher had us keep a
dictionary where we had to write her word-for-word definitions for
certain key words. We had to know the definitions word-for-word and
could be asked any word throughout the year on any test. One word out of
place made the definition wrong.
Science was similar. We did experiments like dissecting a rabbit. We had
a female teacher and when we got to human reproductive anatomy, after
studying the female half, she told us we didn’t have time to study the
male and that we’d come back to it at the end of the year if we had
time. (I bought it at the time!)
This was the ninth grade curriculum for a student in the Belguim school system.
We had to choose a second language that first year. The choice was
between Dutch and English, so I took Dutch. In ninth grade we had to
pick a third language. There weren’t enough kids who wanted to learn
German, so I had to take English. That was so-o-o-o boring, having to
sit in class and learn English. Sometimes the teacher would have me
correct the papers.
The pressure to get good grades was immense. Cheating was normal. I
compromised by never looking at other kids’ papers, but allowed others
to look at mine as long as they were discreet. It was hard to believe
that the teachers didn’t know—when I corrected the English spelling
tests, the mistakes were grouped two by two, just like the desks.
Some of the teachers were awful. I remember a really great French
teacher (remember that was more like our English classes, with
literature and writing) and a math teacher who drilled formulae so I
really knew them. But we had a Latin teacher who ridiculed anyone who
didn’t know the answers. His son was in our class, and if he made a
mistake his father would make fun of him until he was almost in tears. I
had nightmares of that teacher until a couple of years ago. Many other
teachers were totally apathetic. Some of my friends had a Latin teacher
just a couple of years from retirement. They used to be able to turn
around in their seats and copy answers off the kids sitting behind them
during tests! I had a chemistry teacher whom I suspected of memorizing
the text of the lesson the night before. We would come into class and he
would recite the day’s lesson. If anyone asked a question, he would get
upset and repeat (almost word for word) that section of his speech. Of
course, if the student hadn’t gotten it the first time, chances are when
it was explained again the same way he or she still wouldn’t get it.
Then the teacher would just get frustrated and mad.
We took a lot more classes than there were periods in a day. We would
have different classes in a different order every day. Even classes like
geometry and algebra were taught during the same year, sometimes by the
same teacher but on different days. Sometimes, two French or Latin
classes would fall together and you’d have two hours of that class.
In ninth grade, along with choosing a third language, there was another
major division. The Latin Section was divided into Latin-Greek and
Latin-Math. It was never exactly explained to me what careers the
different sections headed towards, but because I was a good student, the
principal convinced my mother to talk me into taking Greek, even though
I loved math, since for ninth grade the math was the same anyway. So I
took Greek for a year (I only did well in that class because I was the
teacher’s pet!) and then switched to Latin-Math.
Grades were never kept secret and no one worried about hurting the
feelings of the kids who did poorly. At the end of every year, a little
booklet was given out with the grades of every child in the school in
every class, along with their cumulative grade. I remember everyone
scrambling to see what everyone else got, and who was first, second,
etc. in the class.
There was lots of homework. I remember coming home from school, working
until dinner, going back and working until bedtime many nights.
The pressure was intense, and there was no room for error. I failed the
first semester of Latin and only ended the year with a 5/10 (barely
passing) in ninth grade because I started my period the day of the first
semester final, tried to take the exam anyway, and had to leave in the
middle because I was in too much pain to finish. Once I left, the
teacher had to grade what I had done and I couldn’t retake it because I
had already seen it.
Every student had an assignment book. We had to keep them up, and a
teacher could ask to see it at any time. If notes were sent home, the
teacher or principal would dictate a short note that you had to have
signed by your parent saying that they had received the note. Some
grades (like on quizzes) were written in the assignment book, too, and
had to be signed by your parent. At the end of the book was the section
for behavior. Everyone started with 8/10. If you were exceptionally good
(which happened rarely) a teacher would add a point to your book. If you
were bad, the teacher would request your book and subtract a point. I
remember holding my breath when a teacher requested a friend’s book —it
was a big deal.
After tenth grade, I switched to an English-speaking school where many
Americans went so I could get used to Americans and take PSATs, SATs,
etc. It was quite a shock. I was used to getting looked up to for
knowing all the answers and all of a sudden I was ostracized for it.
Many of the classes were very easy for me. On the other hand, when I was
assigned an essay and had to choose my own topic I was petrified. I had
always been told exactly what to do. The teacher was always right and
knew everything, and I just had to learn what I was told and repeat it
back to them. My English teacher told my mother that he watched me
blossom that year; take the knowledge that up until then had been
profound but linear, and watch it expand and broaden.
From that experience I have taken many things. I value America’s
emphasis on individuality and personal expression. I also know that vast
amounts of memorization are possible. I don’t think the amount I did was
helpful (I remember almost no geography but I sure know my algebra
formulas!) but I also believe that some is necessary and valuable and
know it can be done! I’m not as amazed by foreign countries’ fantastic
scores on tests—I know the kids pay a price for that knowledge. I think
we need to push our students more, or maybe expect more from them would
be a better way of expressing it, but I’m not willing to put my kids
through what I went through.
—Laura Hunt, via Compuserve
If you have studied or taught in another country, or an unusual school
situation, such as a military academy or boarding school, we would love
to hear your experiences and your thoughts on what was good and bad
about those experiences. Please send your story to the Home Life mail or
e-mail address listed at the end of the Letters to the Editor section.
All such stories become the property of Home Life and may be published
in any medium we think will help others profit from your experience.
Thank you so much!