Teaching the Next Generation – A German Saturday School in the U.S.

By Christoph Strobel

It’s Sat­ur­day morn­ing ten after nine. After a half hour dri­ve, my two daugh­ters and I pull into the park­ing lot out­side a school that is sit­u­at­ed in an afflu­ent Boston sub­urb. We are among over 400 stu­dents (rang­ing from age 4 to 17), their par­ents, and about 40 fac­ul­ty and staff mem­bers. Every Sat­ur­day morn­ing, this build­ing serves as the Ger­man Sat­ur­day School Boston (GSSB), found­ed in 1874 by the Boyl­ston Schul-Vere­in.

Fol­low­ing our usu­al rou­tine, my kids grab our library mate­ri­als and drop off our home­made cake for the Kaf­feeecke. The sale of Kaf­fee und Kuchen rais­es funds to sup­port the school library. The woman behind the counter says danke fuer den Kuchen. Moth­er of 3, work­ing full-time, mem­ber of the school board, she has been in the build­ing for a while, mak­ing cof­fee, accept­ing cake dona­tions, and help­ing with the set­up of the library. It is the hard work and ded­i­ca­tion of indi­vid­u­als like her that make this school pos­si­ble. The GSSB also ben­e­fits from car­ing and qual­i­fied teach­ers, many of whom have or had kids in the school. More­over, there is a capa­ble admin­is­tra­tion, sev­er­al very hard-work­ing board mem­bers, and par­ent vol­un­teers. All these peo­ple help to cre­ate a week­end lan­guage school that serves pre­dom­i­nant­ly, though not exclu­sive­ly, fam­i­lies in New Eng­land that have at least some roots in a Ger­man-speak­ing country.

My kids and I pro­ceed to the mobile library set up in the cafe­te­ria to drop off and check out new Ger­man lan­guage books, DVDs, and audio­books. At 9:30, my daugh­ters start their lessons in which they not only learn how to read and write in Ger­man, but they also engage with Ger­man-speak­ing cul­ture and music. As the room par­ent for my younger daughter’s class, among some oth­er duties, I cov­er the 20-minute snack time while their instruc­tor teach­es an addi­tion­al music class. The week­ly chal­lenge of get­ting 14 first graders through the hall­ways of the school and super­vise their snack renews my appre­ci­a­tion of the tough job teach­ers have. My ‘par­ent job’ is a small way to let my chil­dren know that I appre­ci­ate their hard work. For now at least, they like Ger­man school “viel bess­er als amerikanis­che Schule.”

Through my work as an aca­d­e­m­ic, I’ve gained a first-hand glimpse into how for­tu­nate my fam­i­ly is to have the GSSB in rel­a­tive prox­im­i­ty to our home. Hav­ing col­lect­ed many oral his­to­ries of recent immi­grants in the city of Low­ell, the top­ic of lan­guage preser­va­tion was an often dis­cussed issue. I’ve talked to immi­grant par­ents who feel guilty that they had ‘failed’ to teach their chil­dren their lan­guage. I’ve also heard from the chil­dren of immi­grants, who have shared their regrets that they nev­er learned the lan­guage spo­ken by their moth­ers and/or fathers. More­over, I still remem­ber vivid­ly an inter­view ten years ago with a Viet­namese Amer­i­can who came to the U.S. as a refugee and who, with the help of a group of friends, start­ed a Viet­namese lan­guage school in the base­ment of a Catholic church. He report­ed in detail about the strug­gles of the com­mu­ni­ty to cre­ate cur­ricu­lum and to find resources to start and oper­ate their lan­guage school. Dur­ing field work, I’ve also come across such schools in many unex­pect­ed places, for instance church­es, tem­ples, and swami­narayans. Through these expe­ri­ences, I’ve gained some appre­ci­a­tion of how hard it is to run and main­tain an insti­tu­tion of this kind. I feel priv­i­leged and grate­ful to have the GSSB in my family’s life.

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Christoph Stro­bel is Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Low­ell. He is the author of books, such as The Glob­al Atlantic: 1400–1900 and The Test­ing Grounds of Mod­ern Empire. With Alice Nash he co-authored Dai­ly Life of Native Amer­i­cans from Post-Columbian through Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Strobel’s essays appear, among oth­ers, in World His­to­ry Con­nect­ed, Safun­di: The Jour­nal of South African and Amer­i­can Studies and The North Car­oli­na His­tor­i­cal Reviews. In his free time, Christoph loves to spend time out­doors, explor­ing the many beau­ti­ful sites of New Eng­land with his family.