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First-grader John Chaidez, right, teams up with German student Kevin Urisch for an art project. Students from Wetzel Elementary were guests Tuesday at Westrich Grund-und Hauptschule in Baumholder, where they learned about German traditions.
First-grader John Chaidez, right, teams up with German student Kevin Urisch for an art project. Students from Wetzel Elementary were guests Tuesday at Westrich Grund-und Hauptschule in Baumholder, where they learned about German traditions. (John Vandiver / S&S)
First-grader John Chaidez, right, teams up with German student Kevin Urisch for an art project. Students from Wetzel Elementary were guests Tuesday at Westrich Grund-und Hauptschule in Baumholder, where they learned about German traditions.
First-grader John Chaidez, right, teams up with German student Kevin Urisch for an art project. Students from Wetzel Elementary were guests Tuesday at Westrich Grund-und Hauptschule in Baumholder, where they learned about German traditions. (John Vandiver / S&S)
Wetzel Elementary students listen to the German fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." The first graders visited the local German elementary school in Baumholder as part of a culture exchange between the two classes.
Wetzel Elementary students listen to the German fairy tale "Hansel and Gretel." The first graders visited the local German elementary school in Baumholder as part of a culture exchange between the two classes. (John Vandiver / S&S)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — The Wetzel Elementary School students, wrapped in their winter coats, stepped outside their garrison-gated comfort zones Tuesday morning for an encounter with the unfamiliar.

The first-graders, led by teacher Loretta Hooks, trekked from their classroom to downtown Baumholder and the local German elementary school.

The purpose of the excursion was to give the young Wetzel students a glimpse into the lives of their German counterparts and learn something about their traditions and culture. Too often, students are stuck in the Army installation cocoon and miss opportunities to explore their surroundings, Hooks said.

“If you’re in this country, you might as well learn something about it,” she said, while guiding the children along the half-mile walk.

At Westrich Grund-und Hauptschule, the first-graders were greeted by enthusiastic German youngsters, who a month earlier had made a visit to Wetzel to learn about American Thanksgiving traditions.

The students sang songs, learned about Advent, listened to the story “Hansel and Gretel” — told in both English and German — and then paired up to do artwork.

The mini-culture exchange is something teachers are hoping to expand on in the future.

“We just started this in November and it’s going great,” said Chris Niegisch, host nation teacher at Wetzel.

Niegisch, who serves as a liaison between the school and the German community, said it’s important for students to take advantage of their time in a foreign country.

“In particular, I think to meet children from other cultures and learn something new takes their fear away,” she said. “It’s best to start when they’re young.”

While the children worked together on an art project by cutting different shapes to build a gingerbread house, the language barrier wasn’t too much of an obstacle.

John Chaidez, a wound up Wetzel first-grader and his German friend Kevin Urisch, pointed their way through the exercise.

“They have two hands, two feet,” said Niegisch, extolling the effectiveness of body language.

As the class was winding down, John’s eye turned to the spread of German cakes and treats waiting to be sampled.

“Are we going to eat the cookies with the Germans?” he wanted to know.

“Sure,” Niegisch told him.

“Awesome,” John said.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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