German Schools: Student Life

If you read my first school post, you now have some idea of what the German school system looks like.  There are several kinds of schools in Germany, and, just like anywhere, there are many kinds of students.  I would like to tell you about the life of a Gymnasiast, or Gymnasium student.

Gymnasium Damme, front entrance

Let’s start with organization.  The Gymnasium consists of grades 5-12.  During grades 5-10, students are divided into classes, which usually consist of 25-30 students.  Each class gets a letter.  For example, if there are six 8th grade classes, then the school has 8a, 8b, 8c, 8d, 8e and 8f.  The students stay with the same class from grades 5-10.  They have the same schedule and stay in the same classroom.  The teachers come to them.  Since they are together for so long, there is a lot of emphasis on team-building and trust within each class.

How are the students divided?  This may be interesting for the American audience.  When parents enroll their students in school, they choose which language will be their child’s second foreign language (French or Latin; everyone takes English).  They also choose which religion course their child will take (protestant or Catholic).  Of course, it doesn’t always work perfectly, but one of the classes I am in consists entirely of Catholic students who take Latin.  What if you aren’t religious or practice a non-Christian religion?  You could either choose one for your child, or they will be placed in one.

The American in me is wary of this system, but the teacher in me knows that you can’t teach a subject without a licensed teacher.  Teachers get licensure in their subjects through their university, which is accredited by the state.  Some states have universities with licensure in Islam, but you still have to rely on getting a job.  As with everything else, it comes down to funding.  Some schools also offer Philosophy/Ethics as an option to a religion class, but, again, money.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the schedule.  Our schedule looks like this:

  • 8:00 – 8:45 1st Period
  • 8:45 – 9:30 2nd Period
  • 9:30 – 9:55 First Break (25 minutes)
  • 9:55 – 10:40 3rd Period
  • 10:40 – 11:25 4th Period
  • 11:25 – 11:50 Second Break (25 minutes)
  • 11:50 – 12:35 5th Period
  • 12:35 – 1:20 6th Period
  • 1:20 – 1:50 Lunch Break (30 minutes)
  • 1:50 – 2:35 7th Period
  • 2:35 – 3:20 8th Period

Each period is 45 minutes.  Some of the periods are doubled, so you the students have 90 minutes of the same class.  You probably noticed the nice, long breaks.  The kids can run around outside, sit inside, eat, smoke, whatever. (They aren’t supposed to smoke on school grounds, so they cross the street and smoke 15 feet away from the school.)  The kids have a different schedule every day.  Here is an example of a 6th grade schedule.  They only have 6 periods every day:

Here is a 7th grade schedule.  You can see that they have 8 periods only two days a week:

And another 7th grade, this time with bilingual (in English) geography:

In the 7th grade, the students can choose to take a 3rd foreign language if they wish.  Our school has English (required), French, Latin, and Spanish.  Here is a list of some of the other subjects with their translations:

  • Deutsch – German
  • Geschichte – History
  • Mathe – Math
  • Politik – Politics
  • Religion (Reli) – Religion
  • Bili – Bilingual Geography
  • Erdkunde – Geography
  • Chemie – Chemistry
  • Physik – Physics
  • Biologie – Biology
  • Französisch – French
  • Englisch – English
  • Spanisch – Spanish
  • Kunst – Art
  • Musik – Music
  • Sport – Gym/PE

The kids all seem to keep meticulous calendars to keep track of which class they have on which day, and which homework is due when.  They also color-code things with their well-stocked pencil cases.  Every student has a pencil, a fountain pen, an eraser, pencil sharpener, ruler, compass and any number of colored pens, pencils and markers in that case, and that pencil-case is with them at all times.  If you say “underline X,” it will be immediately followed by the rustling sounds of students digging out their rulers so that they can orderly underline something in their notes.  The first time this happened, I was shocked.  At home, I am pretty happy when a student shows up with anything to write with.

In addition to the difference in subjects and intensity, grading is also different.  The scale is 1-6, with 1 being the best and 6 being the worst, although 5 is also more or less considered failing.  The students also have other demands placed upon them in the classroom.  At the end of each period, the students with Tafeldienst (board duty) clean and squeegee the blackboard.  At the end of the day, the students with Ordnungsdienst (something along the lines of neatness duty) sweep the room with a broom and dustpan.

As I said, students are together from grades 5-10.  After 10th grade, students enter the Oberstufe, or upper level.  At this point, students choose a profile, with is sort of like a major in college.  Your profile comes with five required courses, and you fill the rest of your time with other subjects.  If, for example, you choose the social sciences profile, you might have history, politics, geography, German and philosophy as your five main courses.  These five courses will last for two years, and at the end of the two-year period, you will take a VERY long exam called the Abitur, or Abi for short, on each of these five courses.  Since the Abitur exams start at the beginning of May, the courses end for the 12th grade students a few weeks beforehand so that they can prepare.  Of the five exams, some will be written and others will be oral, and they can last between 3 and 6 hours per subject.  You have to pass the Abitur to study at a university.

All in all, Gymnasium students are very serious, especially relative to the average American student.  Their schedules and curriculum are quite demanding, but they still do normal kid things: school clubs, rec sports (There are no school-sponsored sports teams in Germany.), bands, choirs, riding bikes, Facebook, playing video games, reading and watching TV.  In order to keep everything straight, they have to learn time management and organization, which they seem to do with success.

And now for some photos of the school and classrooms:

side stairwell to the front entrance. The ramp on the side of the stairs is for rolling your bike up and down the stairs.

typical classroom

and another classroom

front of a typical classroom


About heidihefeweizen

I am a 29 year-old American woman who has received a Fulbright scholarship to work as an English teaching assistant in a German high school.
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6 Responses to German Schools: Student Life

  1. Sascha says:

    Good post! Always interesting to see my former occupation (so to speak) from a foreigner’s perspective! Let me just add two things…
    The choice of religion v. non-religion (or within Christian denominations) is one of the big divides between West and East Germany. I went to an East German gymnasium, in which we had the choice between ethics class and religion (just “religion”: in Saxony-Anhalt, there are few, if any, catholics; so “religion” will inevitably be protestant – but the difference is negligible, it’s not as if you are taught the fineries of church [or non-church] dogmatics, so far as I know). I took neither, since I moved there only after you had the choice to drop your first subject.
    Also, in East German schools, you will frequently find Russian and French offered as third languages, instead of French and Latin. One classmate of mine even did his Abitur in Russian (he was the only one, leading to the somewhat ridiculous result of him being taught in Russian alone in the second half of 13th grade).

  2. roosiegoosie says:

    My German teacher at school has explained the school system in Germany to us, but never in this much detail. I’d really love to study abroad to Germany after high school so I take any information I can get very seriously.

  3. Do you really Lhink latin is only for tthe religion? O tempora, o mores!!!

    • Not at all. I was just explaining the different options available here and how students get separated into a class. As far as what I am writing about, the language and the religion have nothing to do with each other outside of the purposes of placing kids in a class. Of course Latin is valuable in and of itself.

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