Editor’s note: Carolyn Stevens spent a month in Albania to sing in the premiere of the opera “Tann-hhäuser” by Richard Wagner.
I was having a strange sense of déjà vu. Where had I seen that chart before? It was bothering me so much that I could barely concentrate as my math teacher explained how to find the critical points of a function.
Then it hit me. I’d seen it before, exactly one week previously, in another school, on another continent.
You see, I recently returned from spending a month in Albania, and on the day before I came home, I had the opportunity to attend part of a day of Albanian school.
One of the best parts about my trip was the time I spent with my Albanian friend, Najada (pronounced ny-AH-dah). She lived in the United States for several years as a child and speaks English like a native, and she gave me a glimpse of what life is like in Albania for someone my age.
To be honest, I always feel a bit embarrassed and inadequate when trying to describe the American school system to someone from Europe. How do I explain to someone who takes 16 different courses each week (none of which are extracurriculars) that my course load this year consists of six classes, which leaves me with time to do things like write for The Modesto Bee? That chart I recognized was from the required senior math class in her high school, whereas I saw it in my AP calculus class, which has a total of four students in it. Najada studies four to five hours per day on top of her 51/2-hour school day, in order to maintain a high enough GPA to be admitted into college.
Speaking of college, did you think the SATs were hard? Because in Albania, students take a series of four 25-question tests at the end of their senior year and the results from those, along with the GPA, make up their entire college application. Simpler, but far more stressful. Learning about their system actually made me appreciate the hours of essays, résumés and interviews I have gone through this year.
The classroom atmosphere I experienced at Najada’s school was definitely different. Her class of 35 students stays in one tiny room all day, and the teachers come to them, as opposed to the other way around. It all just felt a lot more formal. For example, students are required to stand up when they wish to speak or any time a teacher enters the room.
Overall, I have come to the conclusion that the school systems of European countries, such as Germany and Albania, target the smartest students and try to really give them a comprehensive and challenging educational experience, while our American schools try to ensure that the bottom percentage also gets a decent education. Both philosophies have advantages and disadvantages, and I am not going to try to debate which is better. It is, however, interesting to observe their differences.
But for all that, there also were many things that felt familiar to me. I recognized in those students the types of people I interact with on a daily basis at my school. The outgoing one, the class clown, the boyfriend-girlfriend pair, the quiet intellectual – I could see any of them fitting in in an American high school without a problem.
Maybe we are not so different after all.