In School in Germany: Picture Games

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To start off this article, I would like to offer a word of advice to teachers whose passion also includes photography: Take as many pictures as you can and keep as many as you can. You may never know when and how you will need them- especially if you find the best ones for an activity (or several) for your class. 🙂  This principle I’ve followed for years which has led to not only successful activities but also successful articles.

This applies to vacation time, as two thirds of the population of German children are starting school now, with the remaining third still out until September. The same trend applies in the US, where half the schools start in mid-August; the rest after Labor Day. Children gather vast amounts of experiences through travel, summer camps, visits to long-distant relatives and friends, work and other events that add experience and enrich their knowledge of what’s around them. And at the beginning of the school year, they would like to share that experience with other classmates and especially their teacher.

After all, as we would like to look at their interests and get to know them, we can help them along so they can be what they want to be, right?  Be all that you can be, like in the US Army commercial. 😉

 

If you, as a teacher, have some problems coming up with activities to encourage the students to use their language skills and share their experiences with others, there are some activities that can help. Using a collection of photos, you can introduce the following exercises to them to motivate them to speak and be creative. These activities are not only meant to break the ice in terms of establishing communication between the teacher and the students, it is meant to unlock the knowledge that has been sitting in the freezer inside the students’ heads and it just needs to be thawed out. For the first exercise, photos from the teacher are required for use, whereas the second and third activities one can also use the photos from the students, if requested. In the fourth and final exercise, the students should present their photos and images, even if through Powerpoint or a slideshow.

Here’s a look at the photo activities you can use in the classroom (suitable for all ages and language levels):

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Picture This:

Based on an exercise in Baron’s TOEIC Preparatory Book, the object of this game is to look at a picture provided by the presenter to the group, and identify what is seen in there. How students view it and express themselves depends on what the picture has. The picture can be a landscape, a certain scene with people doing activities, a phenomenon, or something totally different. What is seen is what is to be identified. Some people may feel restricted because they have to focus on the picture itself and therefore may have some difficulties finding the right vocabulary for the pictures. Yet by the same token, especially if the activity is done in groups, one can take advantage of learning new words from this game or even refreshing the vocabulary that had been sitting unused for some time.  There are two ways of doing this activity: one is in a large group where each student can find what is in the picture and make a statement on it. The other is in pairs or small groups, where each one receives a picture, analyses it and can present it to the rest of the class. With the second variant, five minutes of preparing and five to ten minutes of presentation total will suffice, pending on the number of students in class.

As a trial run, use the picture above and find out what you see in there. You’ll be amazed at what you will find happening at a place like the Westerhever Lighthouse at the moment of the pic. 😉

 

Finish the Story: 

This activity comes from the film, Out of Africa with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Originally in the film (produced and directed by the late Sidney Pollack), the character Karen Dinesen (played by Streep) is a story-teller and in a conversation with Denys Hatton (played by Redford) and others, she explains the concept, where one starts the story with a sentence, where the other finishes the story the way it is seen fit. Like in this example:

While one could adopt this concept in the classroom, if it was a one-to-one training session, in larger groups, it would not be as exciting as it is when each student adds a sentence to the first one given by the teacher, and going through a couple rounds until the entire class feels the story is complete. This concept helps students become creative while at the same time refresh their knowledge of sentence structure and a bit of grammar. While one can try this without pictures, more challenging but exciting would be with pictures, especially from summer break, like the ones presented below. Try these with the following sentences below and complete your own story……. 🙂

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It was afternoon on the North Sea coast and a storm is approaching. It is windy and perfect weather for kite-flying………   

 

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It is high tide, and the beach is underwater. Two people sitting in Strandkörbe are taken by surprise……..

 

Make a Story:

 Going further into talking about vacations and things to do in the summer is creating your own story, using a pic provided by the teacher. In groups of two or three, students have five minutes (for those on the beginner or pre-intermediate levels, 7-10 minutes should suffice) to create a story to present to the class. The advantage of this exercise, is that students are able to exchange ideas and knowledge to create a fantastic, rather interesting story to share with the rest of the class. In small groups of six or less, the exercise can also be done individually.  Even when you have pics like these below, which are rather simple, one can create great stories out of it. The whitest and plainest of canvases make for world-class pictures with this game.  Word to the wise  from my former uncle, who was a world-class painter. 😉

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Mini-Presentation:

With time constraints being the thorn in the side of teachers, one has to go by the principle of “Less Means More,” and optimize your class, in order to make learning as effective as possible. Mini-presentations are the best way for students to talk about their vacation in the shortest time possible. With a couple pics as support, each student has 2-3 minutes to talk about their trip.  The downside to this activity is that the student does not have much to talk about. It is possible though to choose one aspect of the vacation that you love the most and would like to talk about. The best aspect always receives the best attention. How it is presented depends on the student’s creative talents. One can focus on a sport the student tried, a wonderful place the student visited, a local food the student tried and loved, or a local event that took place during vacation. It can also include a summer job, summer camp, talent show or even a local festival, such as a parade, county fair or city market. Whatever event was the highlight, the student should have a chance to present it- as long as it does not overlap with another presenter.  🙂

 

There are several more activities which require the use of photos, while an increasing number of them require the use of 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and other interactive platforms, yet these four exercises do not require the use of technology (minus the Powerpoint aspect), but more with your language skills and your creative talents.  While these four activities can be used at any time, with even different themes, such as Christmas or school-related events for example, for the purpose of reactivating their language knowledge and getting (re-)acquainted with the students and teacher, are they perfect for the occasion. By implementing one or more successfully, the class will become so involved, it will appear that the first day in school never happened, and that the class will pick up where it left off before break, without missing a beat.

Even more so, when using photos for classroom use, a teacher can do a lot with them, while the students can benefit from them through their own stories. Therefore, take a lot of pictures and be prepared to use them for your future classes. Your students will thank you for it. 🙂

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Genre of the Week: What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali

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Typical one-room school house and church in Iowa. 

Teaching:  A profession that is undervalued, underappreciated and underloved. Teachers: People who enter the classroom with one thing in mind: to teach people the basics for real life and skills for their dream job. To teach people means to show them not just how to communicate and obey the structures of our society, but also how to be decent to others, how to be tolerant towards people from different backgrounds, and lastly, how to understand the feelings and reactions of others as well as adapt to different backgrounds.  Some people perceive teachers as travellers with a backpack full of books going from place to place to teach students. Others, like Pestalozzi, taught in empty buildings, where not even the basic necessities, such as a chair or table, or even a chalk board existed, and therefore they were forced to be creative and vocal in teaching their students.  In either case, the teacher brings out the best in each and every student, by finding and developing their talents, showing them how life works and people should be treated, namely, with decency and respect.

Many people enter the profession with high expectations, only to quit the profession after 10 years for the following reasons: lack of pay and benefits, lack of available resources (esp. with regards to technology), lack of respect from the students or other members of the faculty, but most importantly, lack of support from family and friends, claiming that teaching is a “loser job” that pays “Hungerlohn!” (German for salary that is barely enough to support even one person). This explains the reason behind schools closing down due to too many students, too few teachers and too little pay.  This goes beyond the bureaucracy, test guidelines and the political talk that makes a person want to write a novel series about this topic.

And for the record, coming from a family of teachers and having taught English since 2001 (all in Germany), I have experienced enough to justify even a mystery series in a form of Tatort, exploiting the ways to anger students, teachers and even parents. 😉

But what we all don’t know is why we teachers choose this profession to begin with, let alone stay in this profession for as long as the generations before us. From a personal point of view, if it has to do with money, you would best be a lawyer, lawmaker or litigator. You’re best needed there. If it has to do with status, you would best work in a corporation. If it has to do with family, you would best be a scientist, like Albert Einstein.

You should be a teacher because you have the creative talents, ideas, character, dedication and most importantly, the heart to make a difference in the lives of others. Plus you should be a story-teller, an example for others, funny, chaotic, crazy with ideas but cool under pressure and able to handle the stress like nerves of steel.  And lastly, learning from my father (who was a teacher), you have to strategize like you are playing chess- and actually have played chess. 😉

If you are looking for more reasons, then you should take a look at this Genre of the Week entitled “What Teachers Make,” by Taylor Mali. A 12th generation of the original Dutch immigrants of New York City, Mali once taught in the classroom, having instructed English, History and test preparatory classes before finding a niché as a writer, a slam poet and a commedian. He has written six anthologies full of poems and narratives, several audio CDs and three books, one of which is entitled What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the Worldpublished in 2012. The poem presented here comes from this book. Mali nowadays offers seminars and lectures to teachers and other professionals, providing them with an insight into the profession that is sometimes highly disregarded, yet one that is highly needed and, if one does make a difference in the lives of others, most loved.

So watch this audio by Mali and look at the comic strip provided by Zen Pencils, and then ask yourself this question:

  1. Why do you want to be a teacher?
  2. What aspects of teaching do you like?
  3. As a teacher, what difference can you make for the students? Yourself? Your institution?
  4. If people play down your profession, how would you convey and convince them that you love your job and the reasons behind it?
  5. Do many students come back to you years after you taught them? Why?

For nr. 5, it is very important for if you are in touch with them even today or come to you for a visit/help, then you definitely belong to this profession because you are doing a damn fine job.  🙂

And if you have the urge to write about it in your later life, then you really should stay in that profession until Jesus Christ tells you otherwise. That will definitely be my destination and my advice to all teachers out there, young and old. 😉

 

Link to Taylor Mali’s website you can find here as well as via youtube.

Video with soundbyte from Mali:

 

Image courtesy of Zen Pencils:

124. TAYLOR MALI: What Teachers Make

 

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In School in Germany: The Characteristics of Being a Great Teacher of English (as a Foreign Language)

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A few months back, I was approached by a colleague of mine, who runs a pair of online columns devoted to English writing, wanting to know from me some of the things that are important for teaching English as a foreign language.  After some thoughtful consideration and looking back at what I’ve experienced in the 15+ years I’ve been teaching here in Germany, dealing with everything in the sun, I decided to compile a list of ideas that are especially useful for those entering the field or are struggling in their first year on the job. The characteristics I mention here do not necessarily mean that if you don’t have them, you will never be a great teacher. It just simply means that if something goes wrong, you may want to think about them and ask yourself if it is useful to try them, at least. After all, each teacher has his/her way of teaching English language and culture.

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  1. Image is Everything- This was the slogan that tennis great André Agassi used for his Nikon camera commercials in the late 1980s and 90s. As a teacher, you have to market yourself to the students in a way that they will respect you from the first day on. This goes beyond your outer appearance. It even outguns the knowledge of your native language. It has to do with being on the level with your students and finding ways to get them to follow you. Sometimes you and your students find the right chemistry right away and you have a productive and successful class. Other times there is a wall that you cannot overcome, even if you try. Then it is like the love affair between man and woman, or in my case, the beamer and the laptop as stated in an earlier article.
  2. Your Students are your Audience; your Friends. Treat them with Care- I was once told that teaching is a business and the students are your customers. If you have students who “hate” you and your teaching and decide to annoy you at their convenience, then that is where the German formal “Sie” and the business-like relationship comes in. However, not all of them are like that. Many of them stay with you as long as you are working at their institution and even become your friends for life. To give you a hint: In my last semester teaching in Bayreuth in 2009, I had a class where all but three of the 20 people had been in my previous classes. All of them are still in contact. If you have this experience, then it is because you did something right, by listening to what they want, customizing your classes to make them interesting and you are integrated into their “culture” and they into yours. Almost all of them are eager to learn from you, and not just for the sake of languages.
  3. You need Structure; You need Discipline- A Frank Fitts from American Beauty quote that definitely applies to teaching, especially English. As Germans, especially in the eastern half, are obsessed with a structured form of teaching, you should structure the teaching to cater to their needs. It’s like a presentation: you have the introduction, the key points, the summary and time for questions and clarity. Then you make sure that they are kept in line with what they learned. Entertainment only serves as a frosting to the cake. This was a lesson I learned from a colleague at a private institution recently.
  4. Less is More- Too much of everything in an English classroom, even worksheets, are never a good thing. If you find yourself having a complaint where there were too much print materials to work with, you may want to reduce it and alternate your teaching methods. Sometimes some help from another source will help a great deal.
  5. Back-up your stuff in the classroom: Stewart Tunnicliff, who runs a couple Leipzig-based websites and a translation/proofreading business once said this when he presented the WordPress presentation at the Intercultural Blogger Conference in March. I have to say it also applies to teaching as well. Despite the careful planning that Germans are famous for, a back-up plan must always be in store, should your original plan fail in the classroom due to the students’ lack of interest, some technical glitches, missing elements because you were in a hurry, etc. While some teachers believe that Plan B is non-existent, they haven’t seen some situations, including those I experienced, where it was warranted. So have a Back-up plan ready, and ……
  6. Plan for technical doomsday- Your computer will crash, its relationship with the beamer will fail, the files will not open, the speakers will not operate, anything will happen. It has happened with the best teachers and they have dealt with them. Almost all of those who experienced a technical “Panne” have learned to do this one important item next time they work a technical equipment: check to make sure everything is in order before entering the stage with eager students awaiting to watch something “educational.” 😉
  7. Creativity and spontaneity are bread and butter- If there is a characteristic a teacher must have, there are two of them: being creative and spontaneous. A creative person comes up with activities on paper, through brainstorming and best of all, in the classroom in a spontaneous manner. A spontaneous person foregoes a planned session because of cock-ups along the way, presents a new strategy out of the blue, and gives it to the group for them to do. 99 times out of 100, that works every time. Teachers must have the brains to do both if they wish to continue with their career in the long term.
  8. Be a great storyteller- Storytelling not only provides students with a sense of entertainment, but also lessons for them to learn from, both in a moral and philosophical manner as well as when learning a foreign language. The stories told don’t have to be very personal ones, but they should be ones that are related to reality, and students can relate to. Even the tiniest story, including a person and a chain-smoker, who disregards the no smoking sign, getting into a debate on smoking, brings value to the students as some of them are smokers wanting to quit but don’t know how. Think about it. 🙂
  9. Slow and easy always wins friends- Especially for Americans teaching foreign languages, teachers love to speak at their tempo, which is for the non-native speakers of English, too fast. Sometimes a problem with dialect can hinder the success in the classroom. Slow down. Speak high English (with a Chicago dialect), have someone listen to you if you feel it is necessary. No student will mob you if you speak extra slowly and clearly, or did one student do that?
  10. Make sure your exits are covered- If a student complains about a bad grade, explain to him/her why and what can be done to improve it. If students become a smart-ass, surprise them with a quiz to test their knowledge. If a person wikiing his assignment says his grandma helped him with English, invite her to class unannounced. If lectures are needed, give it to them. Students will respect you if you keep pace with their learning but will love you if you are ahead of the game. A lesson I learned after dealing with the unbelieveable. 🙂
  11. Finally, be decent. Teaching students goes beyond the subject or the basic skills needed for the job. The main goal of a teacher is to show students how to be decent. Decency is a commodity that is well underrated but one we need so that we can love our neighbors and friends and respect their rights and wishes. It also means that teachers learn by example, by being professional and kind to others. A video with a lecture of how decency and justice goes together, shows us how important our job is, which is to teach our future generation how to be decent.

There are many more, but these eleven are the most important elements of a teacher, in my opinion. Each teacher has his/her style of teaching which works in some cases and fails in others. Even more so, teachers have different personalities that can work out or cause conflicts. In either case, what is important is making sure the students get a proper education so that they can go out, see the world and experience it themselves. How it is done is solely up to the teacher, yet if something fails, they should take a different approach. In either case, in the end, if students walk out of the halls of school or university with a great sense of satisfaction, then it is a sure-fire sign that they will leave footprints in your hearts forever,

let alone pairs of sneakers on the line outside your home. 🙂

 

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Schuleinführung: Entering Elementary School in Germany

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In the past 2-3 weeks, we’ve seen scenes similar to this one at a German elementary school: children, parents and grandparents dressing up for a big event, marking the end of life in Kindergarten and the start of life in elementary school (in German: Grundschule). The children are introduced by the principal, have their books and other goodies loaded up in their back packs by their homeroom teacher, and finally, receive their Zuckertüte, as seen below:

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As mentioned previously in an earlier article, the Zuckertüte is a very big thing for children leaving Kindergarten and entering school. They receive one during both occasions, even though the creme de la creme they receive on the day of the Schuleinführung. 🙂  Known in English as Orientation Day, Schuleinführung is on par with graduation from college, high school and even Kindergarten in the United States: speeches and dancing during the festivities in school, followed by receiving the Zuckertüte, which is the same as receiving the diploma for the hard work leading to graduating to the next level. Receiving the Zuckertüte closes the ceremony, but the celebrations continue through the evening, with family and close friends. It is not surprising if a child received not only one Zuckertüte from the parents and one from the grandparents, but as many as a couple dozen!  😀

As we do not have something as formal and festive as the Schuleinführung for kids entering American elementary schools- we just have informational meetings and open houses- it does lead to a question for the forum as graduation from a school in Germany (especially from high school (or Gymnasium)) is not as dressed up and sassy as in the US.

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Which of the celebrations would you prefer for your child: orientation (Schuleinführung) or graduation (Abschluss) and why?

Share your thoughts here or on the Files’ facebook pages.

To end this article, I would like to close with a comment mentioned by the principal of my daughter’s elementary school, which she is attending in the coming days. She had a wonderful Schuleinführung celebration, and as for me as a parent, it was a once in a lifetime event to watch her enter the next stage in life. But this quote definitely serves as a reminder of what is yet to come: “You kids are no longer playing, but you will be learning; learning to read and write, learning to do math, learning to be independent. Parents, don’t be afraid if they say I can do this myself. They’re growing up.”  So true it is, so true it is (sniff, sniff!) 🙂

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In School in Germany: The Devil’s Advocate in the Classroom

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To start off this article, let’s play a bit of Truth or Dare, looking at the three scenarios below and daring you to do the following:

  1. You have your students find a newspaper article and write a brief summary to be presented in a social studies class. One of them finds an article on the recent shooting of nine African Americans in a South Carolina and the plans of the southern states to retire the Confederate flag. After presenting the summary, you as the teacher, in an attempt to spark a discussion in class, jump in to speak about the importance of the Confederate flag in American history and the need to keep it flying, unaware of the fact that half of your class consist of African Americans plus one of your pupils comes from a white supremist family…..
  1. You start off a debate about the question of wearing headscarves in the classroom of a predominantly Catholic school because of a debate in the Bavarian parliament about banning them in schools. This despite the fact that you have three Muslims and two Indians out of a total of 25 pupils in the classroom…..
  1. You and your class just finished reading the book and watching the film “The Perils of Being a Wallflower,” and start a question for discussion about the question of homosexuality, stating the benefits of being gay. The catch: Three of your pupils are homosexual, four pupils are opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons, five pupils find the topic too sensitive to talk about and keep mum, while the rest of the 20 pupils in your group…..

It is really hard to start a discussion about controversial topics, like the ones mentioned above. This especially holds true in a foreign language classroom, like English.  However, to play the Devil’s Advocate and state an argument in an attempt to start a discussion is like playing with matches. If you don’t strike it properly or near something flammable, and it produces a flame that you don’t want, you better hope you and your house are both properly insured. In other words, to start off a discussion by stating an opinion to the students in order to start a conversation could possibly result in you (as the teacher) coming under intense fire and later scrutiny by students, parents, and even the school principal.

It does not mean that you cannot play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom. In fact, stating an opinion, be it your own or that taken from a source can provoke some form of discussion from the classroom, bringing out some ideas and thoughts from your fellow students and maybe even producing a few questions for further consideration. If you choose the right topic for the right audience, you may end up having one of the most productive sessions with your group. The right topics could include the ones mentioned above, the first of which is a current event that happened just recently. Current events would be the best brain food for such an activity. Yet a controversial topic based on a film or book, as mentioned in the third example would also be a good platform to take a side and spurn a discussion.

The caveats involved in being the Devil’s Advocate include these key elements:

1. The students: Your class will have a heterogeneous mixture of people coming from different ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds as well as those who have certain preferences.  You cannot introduce an activity like this without having gotten to know your group for a long period of time. And even then, you need to make a very careful judgement as to which topic you wish to provoke a discussion with, keeping the risk of a possible fall-out in mind. Therefore, as a teacher, I would wait a few months before even trying this activity out on them.

2. The environment: What is meant by environment is the school, the policies that are in place and the “unwritten” rules that you do not see on paper but that you have to be aware of. This ranges from the way teachers teach and discipline their students, to the apparel to be worn, to the mentality of both parties- meaning their views on topics deemed sensitive to the school. It is possible that there is a sense of inflexibility as to what topics should be talked about in the classroom. Sometimes conformity is the safest way to avoid confrontation, so choosing a topic and deciding whether the Devil’s Advocate is appropriate is one to be taken quite seriously.

3. The materials available for use: This is even trickier, especially if you are teaching in an American school, because of a wide array of ever-growing number of books and films that have made it to the Red List- namely those not to be used in the classroom. While it is sometimes necessary to use certain materials to cover a topic before trying to be the Devil’s Advocate, you as the teacher have to be careful as to using the materials that are approved by the school. Sometimes in order to play it safe, I go by the rule of  “When in doubt, check it out.” That means ask your colleagues if the materials you plan to use for this particular exercise is ok or not.

4. You as the teacher: There are two types of passion to be aware of while standing in front of the board presenting new topics. There is the passionate type, where the teacher loves to work with the topic and the students. Then there’s the passionate type where the teacher has an opinionated topic to enforce on the class. This is the danger of playin the Devil’s Advocate- one gets too carried away with the topic. This has been seen too many times in school and even at the university. When you force your ideas onto someone, you will certainly have a stampede on your hands when the majority opposes it forcefully. In my humble opinion, playing the Devil’s Advocate is not suitable for these types of teachers if they cannot keep their passionate opinions to themselves.

To make it short and concise, being the Devil’s Advocate in order to start a conversation on a controversial topic is possible to do, but it takes a balance of a good student-teacher relationship, a good multi-cultural environment, a good but controversial topic to discuss, a good piece of literature and/or film (if necessary) and a good enough information about the school and its sets of guidelines- written and non-written, in order to pull it off. Even if you don’t play the Devil’s Advocate and state two different arguments to a controversial theme while allowing the students in groups to discuss among themselves, you are also running the risk of having some heated debates in the staff room.  The risks are high, but the risks are even higher if you don’t try this in your classroom.

Why?

Because school is a place for personal development, allowing students to grow beyond their limits. If we are obsessed with manual learning, testing them constantly, students will become robots as adults- programmed to do what was taught in school. We should allow the students to progress at their own pace, think for themselves and allow them to be creative in their own environment, challenge what is not right and what they think is in the right, and lastly, be themselves. Activities like these should serve as thought-provoking and challenging. Not to enforce one’s opinion on another.  To to close, I would like to ask the teachers when they should play the Devil’s Advocate in the classroom and which topic is suitable for this activity. If they have done this already, what were the results and why?

Any stories, place them here or in the Files’ facebook pages.

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In School in Germany: Teaching Geography

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is a throwback to an article written last year on Geography and how it should be introduced in American schools, as part of the series on In School In Germany. Before introducing you to the answers to the quiz provided, I figured you as the reader should try this and challenge yourself.

OMT: The Flensburg Files has updated its German-American-Multicultural Page to include articles from this and other series. It’s an ongoing process but click here to see what is being added and have a look at the articles. Many of them may be useful for you. 🙂

This class is the first of many in the series on topics that should be taught in US schools from the point of view of the teacher observing classes at a German school. The first topic deals with Geography.

OK fellow Americans (and especially fellow Iowans and Minnesotans), before we get started with the subject of classes that should be taught, here are a few questions that you should try and answer.

1. Peaches are an important commodity in Egypt. True or False? If false, what crops grow there?

2. __________, ____________, ____________, ______________and ___________ are the  minerals that can be found in Minnesota. Of which, _______________ is still being mined there in the ___________________ Iron Range

3. What is the capital of Palau?  aPonce          b. Melekeok      c. Koror                               d. Kauai               e. Kuala Lumpur

4. Honey is produced in Canada. True or False? If false, what is produced there?

T/F   False: ____________________________

5. Which country has the highest crime rate in the world? Why?

a. Mexico        b. Germany       c.  USA                 d. Russia              e. China               f. Poland

6. Which province in the Ukraine joined the Russian Federation earlier this year and which ones want to join?

a.: __________________; b.: ______________________________________________

7. The Rust Belt, consisting of the states of O___________,W___________V _____________, P____________________, and I______________ and the cities of I______________, P__________________,P _____________________,C ________________,C _____________ received its name because of what industry that existed between 1860 and ca. 1970?

a. Steel             b. Tobacco          c. Iron                   d. corn                 e. wood               f. both a&c

8. Rice is grown in Iowa. True or False? If false, which US state grows rice?    T/F, If false, ________________________________

9. Which Eastern European Countries became part of the Warsaw Pact in 1955? Hint: there are seven countries not counting Yugoslavia?

10. Catholicism is the predominant religion in which German states?

11. Albert Lea, Minnesota was named after an explorer who founded the region. True or False?    T/F

Do not look up the answers, but try and guess at them, either on your own or in the Comment section. The answers will be provided in a different article. Yet if you cannot answer any of the questions, then chances are you should have either visited or paid attention in Geography.  Geography is part of the curriculum in the German classroom, yet it is one of core classes that is often ignored in the classroom in other countries, or are included as a tiny fraction of the curriculum of social studies, together with history, politics, and independent living. Yet one goes by the assumption that Geography is about maps, countries and capitals. In Germany, it goes much deeper than that, as I observed in the classroom during the Praxissemester. This is what a person can expect from a Geography class:

Using a student’s guide, in this case, Diercke’s Geography book, whose volumes consists of regions, the class has an opportunity to focus on a country and its profile based on the following aspects: landscape, population, industry/economy, resources, geology, culture, societal issues, environmental issues, places of interest, and politics (governmental system and its function and flaws).  Each aspect has its own set of vocabulary words pupils need to learn, both in German as well as in English. Each one has its own graphs and diagrams, as well as certain skills pupils are expected to learn, such as presenting an aspect, analysis, comparisons of certain aspects, as well as research and presenting facts, just to name a few.  While some of these skills can be taught in other subjects, such as foreign languages as and natural and social science classes, the advantages of geography are numerous. Apart from knowing the vocabulary and the places, pupils are supposed to be prepared to know about the regions, for they can be useful for travel, any projects involving these countries, and cultural encounters with people from these countries profiled in the classroom.

Keeping this in mind, let’s look at the example of the session I sat in, with Japan.  Some of us have some knowledge about the country, apart from the Fukushima Triple Disaster of 2011 (Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Meltdown) that the Japanese have been recovering from ever since. And for some of the older generations, Japan was the champion in the electronics industry in the 1970s and 80s, mastering the Americans and Europeans before the economy took a double nosedive in the 1990s and in the mid-2000s. Yet in the session, pupils became acquainted with the Japanese industry and its ironic environmental policies, looking at the competition of the automobile industry between the Japanese and the Americans in the form of presenting a comparison and a profile of each of the automobile companies in Japan. In addition, a discussion of Japan’s secret problem of environmental pollution was presented, using the facts from Diercke and some additional materials deemed useful for the discussion. With 127 million inhabitants on a small island, whose topography comprises of 80% mountains and 20% flatlands, it is really no surprise that the country has suffered from its overpopulation, yet the topic was brand new to the students, even though it was covered previously when discussing about China, Japan’s archrival.

The class is required in the Gymnasium, yet the curriculum varies from state to state. In Thuringia, it is one year with one region, beginning with Europe. The American aspect is usually covered in the 11th grade and, pending on the Gymnasium, some aspects are offered in English, with the goal of getting the pupils acquainted with the English vocabulary. While English has become the lingua franca and is used everywhere, one could consider adding Spanish, French, and a couple Asian languages (in vocabulary terms) into the curriculum as much of the world also have countries that have at least one of the above-mentioned languages, including Latin America and Spain, where Spanish is predominant.  This way, pupils have an opportunity to be acquainted with terms rarely seen in the primary language unless translated, which loses its meaning.

This leads to the question of why geography is not offered either solely in American schools, or maybe they are being offered but only rarely. Speaking from personal experience, many schools have different sets of curriculum where Geography is placed at the bottom of the food chain, especially with regards to it being integrated into social studies. And its focus: Only North America and in particular, the United States, where the country’s history, social aspects and political systems are discussed. Current events and presenting them in writing and orally are found in these social studies classes, thus encouraging pupils to research and present their topics, yet most of the events are found in the US and Europe, and there is rarely any mentioning of countries outside the regions.  Some schools had the opportunity to be hooked up to Channel One, where news stories were presented for 20 minutes in the morning, during its heyday in the 1990s. Yet too many commercials and controversies have prompted many schools to protest or even break ties with the network, even though it still exists today after a decade of changing hands.  By introducing a year or two of Geography at least on the high school level, plus tea spoons on the lower level, it will enable pupils in American schools to be acquainted with the rest of the world and the key areas that are worth knowing about. It will save the embarrassment of not knowing some places outside the US, as I witnessed in a pair of stories worth noting:

1. A professor of political science at a college in Minnesota draws a map of Europe, placing the Czech Republic above Poland and Hungary in the area where Austria was located- in front of a pair of foreign exchange students from Germany who were grinning in the process. Of course this was the same professor who chose Munich and Berchtesgaden over Berlin and Interlaken over Geneva and Berne for a month-long seminar tour on Public Policy, where every capital of Europe was visited except for Austria, Poland, the Iberia region and Benelux. But that’s a side note in itself.

2. My best friend and his (now ex-) girlfriend meet me and my fiancée (now wife) at that time at a restaurant, where she boasted about going to Europe for a music concert. Yet when asked where exactly (which country and city), she could not answer that question- only proudly responded with “But we’re going to Europe!”

3. Then we had many questions and assumptions that East Germany and the Berlin Wall existed. One was wise enough to mention during a phone conversation that the reason he could not reach a relative in eastern Germany was that the East German Housing Development had blocked telephone access from America. And this was 10 years ago, I should add.

There are enough reasons for me (and others) to add that justify the need to offer a compulsory Geography class in American schools. While the core requirements are being introduced in the American school system, it is unknown whether Geography is part of the core. If not, then it is recommended, for the class does have its advantages, as mentioned here.  While geography contests and individual work will be stressed by those opposing the idea of teaching Geography, the main question to be asked to these people are “Are you willing to learn something about another region and the culture before encountering them, or are you willing to be ignorant and be foolish in your attempts to encounter other cultures without learning about them first?” Speaking from experience, I would rather take the safe path than one unknown and fall into several traps in the process. But that’s my opinion.