Volume 22, Number 19 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 18 - 24, 2009

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Dutch teacher Alex Bakker showed P.S. 89 third graders pictures of Holland last week as part of a one-week exchange program. He said a school in Harlem he visited had more in common with his school in a poor section of Amsterdam than the Uptown school has with P.S. 89.

Dutch teacher finds Nirvana and class differences in N.Y.C.

By Julie Shapiro

Alex Bakker discovered last week that if there’s one word that transcends cultural boundaries, it’s “iPod.”

Bakker, an assistant principal in Amsterdam, uttered the magic word while he was guest-teaching Michael Parrish’s third-grade class at P.S. 89 last Friday, and he immediately got the kids’ attention. Bakker was telling them about his teenage son, who plays electric guitar and worships Nirvana (“I love Nirvana!” a couple of 8-year-olds called out). Bakker added that his son asked him to bring a new iPod home as a souvenir, and the kids burst out with endorsements of Apple’s products, telling Bakker about the ones they owned.

Bakker visited New York as part of a job swap in honor of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson discovering Manhattan. Eleven Dutch professionals, including a firefighter, bartender and midwife, spent last week in New York shadowing an American in their profession. The guests and hosts will then switch places, with the Americans visitng the Netherlands within the next month.

Bakker, 49, spent most of his swap week with Parrish at P.S. 89 in Battery Park City. He said the biggest difference between 89 and his school in a much poorer section of Amsterdam is not in culture or educational philosophy — it’s in the population they serve.

“These are privileged students,” Bakker said, watching Parrish’s students draw pictures. “There’s no way the kids at my school have so much attention and focus.”

Bakker liked that Parrish had the students sit together on a rug in the back of the classroom for some of the lessons, and he hoped to try that at his school, though he wasn’t sure his kids would sit still long enough. Bakker also visited a school in Harlem (a neighborhood named for a Dutch town), and he said he found more familiar challenges there, and that his school had more in common with the Harlem school than the Harlem school had in common with P.S. 89.

Parrish’s students had many questions for Bakker: Does Amsterdam have skyscrapers? What kind of sports do the kids play? Have they ever eaten American candy?

Bakker replied that most buildings in Amsterdam are much shorter than those in New York; soccer is the most important sport; and while Dutch children can find M&Ms to eat, they do not have chocolate with peanut butter in it, like Reese’s.

Bakker also told the students about a section of northern Amsterdam that used to have abandoned factories but is now turning residential, with lots of new buildings under construction.

“Just like here,” Parrish said, “they’re putting up buildings where people want to live.”

Elisha Beh, 8, said it was interesting to learn about Bakker’s life.

“I like that he’s able to show us what he’s used to at home, and we can show him what we’re used to,” she said. As for the biggest differences, she added, “Their schools are more flat — our schools are taller and skinnier.”

To 7-year-old Julie Schoenmaker, the pictures Bakker showed looked familiar. She visited her grandparents in Holland over the summer and last year took Dutch lessons, so she can name farm animals in Dutch.

“It was a surprise that he came,” Julie said. “It was funny.”

Angelique Vandervis, mother of another Dutch student in Parrish’s class, said she was excited for her daughter Nia to meet Bakker.

“She really liked it,” Vandervis said. “She knows a little bit of Dutch, so she felt she could show it off.”

Vandervis was born in Holland and returns with her husband and children twice a year. While all schools in the Netherlands are free — even schools with a religious focus — Vandervis said she prefers New York schools because they integrate students with physical or learning disabilities into the classrooms.

“I love for my children to see that this is life, people in all shapes and forms,” Vandervis said. “I really like that they grow up seeing that.”

Bakker said one of the most interesting parts of his visit was seeing integrated C.T.T. (collaborative team teaching) classrooms with special education students.

The swap program has gotten little coverage on this side of the Atlantic, but Dutch television stations have aired clips of Bakker and Parrish teaching at P.S. 89, and the Web site jobswap.org has blogs from all the participants.

Parrish, 35, said he was thrilled to be selected for the swap program and looks forward to teaching English in Amsterdam when he visits for one week next month. He will take many photos and incorporate his experiences into lessons for his P.S. 89 class, including their upcoming unit on bridges. But Parrish said the question he is most curious to answer is, “Are 8-year-olds just 8-year-olds no matter where you are?”




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