In School in Germany: Bilingual Teaching in the Classroom: An Author’s Perspective

Teaching History in the English Language: Teacher’s Task

 

This is a throwback article dating back to 17 July, 2014 on bilingual education in German schools, this time from an author’s perspective.

This is a continuation of the series of Bilingual Teaching, the introduction of which can be viewed here.

Books closed. Exams completed. Chapter closed.  A sigh of relief for the pupils in the Gymnasium. Now moving onto the next chapter- but this time in your native tongues, please.

Having taught history in English, it is easy to tell who enjoyed learning in English and who was happy to see the camel be sent packing and speak German again. Yet to be that concrete and judgmental would not benefit anyone, even the teacher. In fact, since the US is too monolingual, this statement would be “too American,” for even my taste.

As mentioned in the introduction, bilingual modules were introduced slowly but surely beginning in 2009 in many parts of Germany. This includes Thuringia, which started teaching bilingual modules this school year.   The Gymnasium where I’m doing my practical training has had the module since the beginning of the school year, yet it had offered classes in English for upper grades years before the state passed the bill in 2009. There, courses in English, French, Spanish and other foreign languages have been offered in classes dealing with humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. History was one of the classes that has the module and has been completed. As I have indicated in my previous column entries, my theme deals with the USA in the 1920s and 30s and how it returned to isolation after World War I and watched the events unfold in Europe while it lived the lifestyle of the Roaring 20s. Apart from frontal teaching and providing materials and handouts, experiments were conducted to ensure that the students learn not only the history of the US but also improve on their foreign language skills, the concept better known as Content Language and Integrated Learning (CLIL), where foreign languages are introduced in the curriculum with the goal of students picking up skills in their respective areas of study. Such experiments included mini-presentations, using literature and video and mock debates, which best fits the subject of study in history.

And the results?

Looking at the results, one has to divide it into input (in terms of materials and teaching methods) and output (the reception of the audience). As there were no books available in the Gymnasium on history in the English language most of the activities had to be developed by the teacher himself, using the books at home (as well as one borrowed by another history teacher), as well as some creative ideas to garner the students’ attention. While Germany is conservative in many aspects, going by Konrad Adenauer’s “No Experiments” campaign, used in the 1957 elections for chancellorship, for bilingual teaching, it is important as a teacher to be creative and experiment with things, but make sure that the worksheets and activities to be presented to the students must be appropriate in terms of content and language (especially vocabulary). More important is that the students are able to retain the knowledge, which can be done orally, written, or both but at regular intervals. Highly recommended is a summary sheet with all the facts and vocabulary words for the class to learn and remember, especially when exams come up, and they will need them.

Apart from what I had mentioned earlier, in terms of Guessing Quizzes, The Mock Debate, Mini-Presentations and literature for analyzing, what was useful was using video and audio examples, like recordings of Roosevelt’s Fireside Speeches or the first radio broadcast in 1926. This way, students would have the opportunity to listen, analyze and interpret them in connection with the topic presented by the teacher.  Yet the preparation time is immense and it was not surprising that I, like many other teachers in the Gymnasium, had several late nighters in the row in order to produce the perfect task for the students in the coming session. While this is only a practical training semester (Praxissemester), and a future teacher can afford such experiments, it becomes even tougher when you are a full-time teacher. During an interview conducted with teachers, many of them feel that having worksheets and the book could cut down the time to prepare for classes effectively. The question is, how to order the right book without going broke? Many schools, especially in the eastern and northern parts of Germany cannot afford the luxury of ordering books for bilingual teaching, due to a lack of funding by the state. The problem has been ongoing for over 15 years now, and unless the German government and the private sector can step in to help, the budget will be thinner. This includes the availability of (interactive) technology, which is making strides in many countries, including the US, but Germany is lagging behind in many areas. Therefore we are left with being creative in producing our own worksheets and activities, in order for the bilingual class to work at all. From my experience, if there are no print materials available in the school,  get some from the internet and plan to prepare early, as one page of worksheet- produced from scratch- will take you an hour. A summary,  30-minutes per page.

As far as the students were concerned, the results were mixed. There was a wide correlation between those having basic knowledge of English, those having sufficient enough knowledge of English to start a conversation and those who are fluent and have excellent knowledge of English, which makes finding the medium rather difficult. Yet once found, the next step was garnering their attention and involving them. Apart from the fact that the target group were 9th graders, many of whom are going through or have finished “growing up,” the key problem found in the group was being intimidated by the fact that the teacher was a native speaker of English, and even more so from America, which means they had to be acquainted with an American accent instead of the British one that they were used to hearing before. But as mentioned in a previous article, the trend a shifting towards an international form of English, where American and British English were being divulged into one with no accent and words from different regions.    In either case, after a pair of sessions, many of them became more forthcoming with communication and learning vocabulary, which was done through chalk and board and pronunciation (the latter was important to ensure that they are spoken correctly).  In some cases, when only a fraction of the group is not forthcoming with English, one could call on them to speak in a given situation. Yet many of them fell back to German to better explain their answers and opinions, a clause that exists in the curriculum provided by the state, but can also hinder their attempts to better themselves in a foreign language, like English.  Despite being active in discussions and learning new subjects through various methods, one of the factors that makes bilingual teaching ineffective, if looking at it from the student’s perspective, is the time factor. Two sessions of bilingual History in English a week with 45 minutes per session may be a lot for students, but not enough to better understand the subject material and reflect on the importance of the theme with the subject, like History.  This holds true if a teacher plans a session only to find that half of the session was covered due to external factors. Therefore, when planning your sessions in another language, look at your students and their language knowledge. Test their knowledge in the first session before planning your curriculum. Choose wisely when working with a subject like this one I did. Do not be afraid to experiment as long as your students are able to follow. But make sure your time is divided in a way that you complete your task, but the students can profit from it, especially when working within the confines of time.

From the teacher’s perspective after experimenting with bilingual teaching (History in English), one can summarize that it is possible to teaching subjects in a foreign language if and only if one follows the guidelines:

  1. Know your group and their language level
  2. Know the time you have for the module as well as per session
  3. Know what materials you need to make in connection with the given topic
  4. Know that it is ok to experiment if no materials are available in the school and you need to develop some
  5. Know that the students will need to adapt to the language, regardless if you are a native speaker or not
  6. Know that some students, who either lack the knowledge or are shy, need a push from you and some help with vocabulary in order for them to improve their foreign language skills
  7. Know that the students will be happy to have a summary at the end of the topic so that they have something as reference.

As there is an expectation that there are no books and other materials available, you need to know that time and efforts are needed, preferably before beginning the topic as it will enable you to make the adjustments along the way. And lastly, if you are teaching a subject in a foreign language for the first time, don’t be afraid to leave a copy of your materials for your colleagues for future use. You will do them a big favor.

Now that the teacher’s aspect has been spoken, we’ll have a look at what the other teacher colleagues and students have to say, as a questionnaire and an interview was carried out in connection with the topic. More on that later in the series on bilingual teaching in the German school.

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