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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The Six-Year Rule: Why A Job in German Academia is Fatal for your Teaching Career

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Wiley Campus of Hochschule Neu-Ulm in Bavaria. Photo taken in 2015

Starting off this article there is a word of advice to anyone wishing to start their career in teaching English as a foreign language, let alone in general as a professor: German Academia is the place where teachers’ careers end- after six years, that is!  If one wishes to continue as a teacher, one has to take the mentality that a person goes where the jobs are, even if it means working as a freelancer until retirement. This mentality goes along the lines of a quote by the late Paul Gruchow: “You go where the good people go. We raise our best so that they can develop a sense of home and eventually come back.”

Teachers in Germany are the highest in demand, especially in the area of foreign languages, yet barriers are standing high and tall in the path to a prosperous career that many of them decide to call it a career and find another profession. This applies not only to German laws for recognizing education degrees for schools from other countries, but this one: The Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (known in English as the Limited Contract Laws for Academics in Germany or LAG for short). Enacted in 1999, the LAG aims at limiting contracts for those wishing to work at a German university in an attempt to reduce the number of employees, including professors, receiving permanent posts and encourage competition by hiring new people every 2-3 years, pending on which German state you live in and which “Hochschule” (German university or college) you wish to work for. In a nutshell, people wishing to work at a Hochschule are given a limited contract, most of the time two years, and are allowed to work a total of six years without pursuing a doctorate. With a doctorate (PhD), one receives another six years, totaling 12 years of work. For those studying medicine, the rule is nine years before and six years after getting a PhD, thus totaling 15 years.  Once the time runs out, there is the “Berufsverbot,” which means you are not allowed to work at a German university anymore for the rest of your life.

Yet there are some exceptions to the rule which could help manuever around LAG and prolong your stay in academia. Some of which I learned most recently during an interview at a university in the state of Hesse.  The first involves having children while working at a German university. If one has a child, then the limit of the number of years allowed to work full time is extended by two years per child- a major benefit since Germany has one of the lowest birthrates of all industrialized countries in the world.  Another way of extending your life at academia is through Drittmittel- German for funding from the private sector. According to news reports from the newspaper Die Zeit, more and more academics are applying for this type of funding as a way of prolonging their careers at the German university. Basically, the funding applied for and received is what the academics have to live off from. Most of the time, the funding is barely enough to make ends meet, limited to 2-3 years- meaning another limited contract- and it comes with strings attached, which means one has to work on a project in addition to teaching. Project-hopping is another concept that is practiced at German universities, where people hop from one project to another in an attempt to stay at one university.  Then there is the Publish-or-Perish mentality, where people working at academia are expected to contribute to the university by publishing as many works as possible, while getting a meager amount of money in return. A way of staying on, yet at the cost of your teaching career because most of the time is spent on writing instead of interacting and helping students.  Getting a professorship is possible in Germany, but one needs at least 10 years to complete that, and there are several titles one needs to go through, such as PD, Junior Professor, Professor Doctor, Professor Doctor Doctor, Professor Doctor Doctor Doctor……. (You get the hint 😉  ). If one is not quick enough to obtain such a professorship, let alone follow the publish or perish mentality, then one can call it a career well before the retirement age.

All these options are doable, but in comparison with American universities and colleges, where they provide tenure tracks for those wishing to pursue a permanent form of employment (both as a professor as well as an employee), the hurdles are numerous and high- high enough for a person to a point where if one wants to race the 300 meter hurdles in track and field, it is required to practice triple jump and high jump in order to “jump the hurdles” without stumbling and eventually finish the race a winner.  In fact, only 14% of all positions at an American university have limited contracts. In Germany, the rate is 68%, one of the highest in the world! The trend is ongoing and increasing and for a good reason: budget cuts from the state, which is the main source of financing, combined with less funding possibilities from Drittmittel, is forcing institutions to lay off personnel and cut certain programs deemed as “not financially suitable for students.” Protests have taken place in many German states calling for more state and federal involvement in financing for academia but with partial success. Those who stay on have to deal with funding that is barely enough for even a single person to survive. Others, especially those fearing for their career, opt for places outside Germany, including the US, Canada and Great Britain, as working conditions and better, and  more permanent contracts are guaranteed.

 

But all is not so bad these day. Some universities in Germany are laxing their regulations by either providing permanent employment right away or after a limited contract. In a couple cases in Bavaria, the tenure track has been introduced to allow people to stay on beyond the permanent contract. Yet as it is always the case when dealing with bureaucracy in Germany, it comes with strings attached. Requirements of a degree in the respective field, like a language degree at a university for a job at a language institute is becoming the norm and not the exception. This includes Master’s degrees but also Lehramt (teaching degrees), which includes 7-8 years of studies, student teaching and two state exams (see an article posted here). Even then, the pressure to stay on when hired is enormous and one needs a lot of luck and aggression, let alone some great connections to stay on beyond the contract- preferably permanently.  But even then, when you have established these connections and a great career, chances are likely that you are shown the door when the contract is up.

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This was what happened to yours truly in Bayreuth. I worked at the University’s Language Institute teaching English for two years, from 2008 until 2010. Prior to me being hired, I was told that I would be allowed to work there for two years with no further contract, then I would be banned from teaching in Bavaria. This was customary at that time.  In fact, three of my colleagues had left when I arrived; two more left after the first semester alone, and two more were offered two-year contracts under the same conditions during my time there, but they declined as the move from North-Rhine Westphalia to Bayreuth for two years was not worth the move. While the regulations, in place since 2007,  have somewhat laxed because of successful attempts to keep at least some of the teachers on (many of them had worked there for over a decade before I came), they came after I left, leaving a mark in the classroom and many positive stories and experiences to share among my student colleagues, many of whom I’m still in contact with (and are probably following this column). Despite Bayreuth’s attempts, other Bavarian universities are having a hard time copying their successful attempts so that their staff members can stay on with a permanent contract. But realizing the mentality that not everyone is that mobile and would like to settle down, the winds of change will eventually come to them and the rest of Germany as well.  For me, after another two-year contract at another Hochschule, I decided to pursue my teaching degree for the German Gymnasium, for teaching in schools are more guaranteed than in academia, yet the workload is more than in adacemia- the only caveat. 😉

To end this article, I have a word of advice to those wishing to teach in Germany: If teaching is what you want, you have to cross seven bridges to get there. Many of them are old and rickety, but they are worth crossing. Yet make sure a plan B is in place if you decide to leave it behind. After all, we have more than one talent in our lives to share with others and be successful in. 🙂

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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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In School in Germany: Lehramt Studies at the University

The Library is your Home: Carnegie Library in Little Falls, Minnesota, built in 1909. Photo taken in 2011

This is a throwback article dating back to my experiences with the Praxissemester at a German Gymnasium in 2014. None of the facts are still in dispute since then and if you still think Lehramt is a stroll in the park on a Sunday afternoon, read below…. 🙂

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Before going into the topic of teaching degrees, here is a question for you, which you can share in the Forum:

  1. How did you obtain your teaching degree at the university of your country? And for which subjects?
  2. What classes did you have to take, including the pedagogical courses?
  3. How many months of student teaching did you do, and did you do this under supervision or without?
  4. How long does it take to obtain your teaching degree in your country?
  5. If applicable to those teaching in Germany, were there any difficulties in having your teaching degree accredited?

There are many ways to teach at a German school, pending on which level (primary or secondary) and which type of secondary school (Realschule, Hauptschule or Gymnasium). The most traditional way to obtain a teaching degree, known to Germans as the Lehramt, is at a German university.  Yet this way of obtaining a degree can take 5-6 years and is a painstaking task, which if you decide to pursue the degree, it has to be all the way or none at all. Before starting, you have to ask yourself whether it is worth the trouble or if there is another way of doing it. Since the reforms of the German university system in 2007, in accordance to the Bologna Process, it is more difficult than ever to obtain any degree in Germany, which leads to the question of how student friendly or even how family friendly (if students have children) the university really is. From the writer’s point of view, as he is going through the process even as this article is posted, this is how a typical Lehramt program functions on average, using the subject of English and History:

 

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1.  Lehramt in two subjects of studies. Unlike the teaching program in the US, where you have the choice between primary and secondary education, as well as one subject to choose from (for example, music education, health and physical education,  or English), you have the choice of two subjects you can do your Lehramt degree in while at the university in Germany.  Yet, you have to be very careful as to which subjects the university can allow you to study, let alone the Numerus Klausus, which means that only a limited number of students are allowed in the program based on grades obtained in high school through the Abitur or your previous studies. Some exceptions may apply, such as language knowledge, work experience or close connections.

2.  Einführungspraktikum before Praxissemester. Almost all universities have adopted a policy, where students are expected to provide proof of doing an introductory internship (Einführungspraktikum), totaling 320 hours, before doing the six-month practical training (Praxissemester). This can be done by being involved in children’s organizations, tutoring, or even teaching. For those who taught before entering the Lehramt program, be disappointed as the people whom you taught have to be ages 18 years and younger. The purpose: to force the students to get acquainted to working with children and consider whether the profession is suitable for them.

3. Modules, Modules and More Modules. All courses are made up of modules, where there are certain classes pro module, pending on subject and the university.  There are obligatory modules that need to be completed before taking the state exam, as well as electives where you can select certain courses as long as you have sufficient credits in order to register for exams.  Example: English and Sprachpraxis (practical speaking). At the university in Jena for example, one is required to take a year of Linguistics and Grammar, plus a semester of translation, and two electives in order to fulfill the module. For literature, it is two obligatory introductory seminars plus two electives.  And then there is the cultural studies course, which is one semester. As you are expected to take the minimal requirements per semester, which is usually 7-8 classes, you are expected to take your classes seriously and almost literally put your private life on the wayside for the duration of the semester- an act that is sometimes worth it if you’re single and 20, but almost impossible if you have a family.

4. Your library is your home. Like in the Bachelor’s and Master’s programs, you will be loaded with readings and assignments you need to do every day for eight hours straight. And this in addition to the classes you have to attend.  If you are fresh out of high school and can handle the pressure, it is possible to pass all the courses. If you are older, pursuing a different path, and have a family, it can be a struggle to balance school and family life, especially if you need to earn some money to help your partner out.  In this case, sometimes studying part-time while working full time makes the best sense.  Therefore, try to balance, but take care of yourself and your loved ones, as they need you more than your studies. If the workload is too much, reduce or look for alternatives.

5. Two strikes and you’re out!  Since 2007, most German universities have centralized themselves, which includes the examiners offices taking full control over the administration of exams,  papers, and courses accredited from previous studies.  A relief for teachers who had had problems finding a place and time for exams, as well as dealing with students with conflicts that interfere with their exam dates. However it can be a nightmare if you are hanging by a string regarding subject you are studying.  Students, who want to take exams, have to register with the examiner’s office, and are obliged to keep to the scheduled exam dates. They have two attempts to pass an exam in the subject of studies. Failure to pass it on the two attempt means expulsion from the program and even the university. At some universities, a student has only one try and that’s it. There is the third attempt, but that has to be approved by the examiner’s office before it can be done.  Yet if all attempts are exhausted, that’s it.   Worse is if they are expelled from the program, students are automatically blacklisted, which means that they cannot study the same subject at another university in Germany for as long as they live.  A rather draconian policy (as it is impossible to enforce in the US and other countries), yet one with a purpose: to reduce the number of eternal students at the German university, which consists of only 3%  of the student population.

6. The student teaching semester is like doing your full-time studies. While students are required to do an average of five hours a day for 5-6 months at a school, assisting in preparing the materials and teaching the classes, that is not the only thing that is required. Students also have to take seminars dealing with teaching methods in the fields of study pursued, psychology, empirical research, and school life. The workload in terms of writing reports and preparing presentations is enormous- sometimes overexaggerated- yet the curriculum of the seminar teachers is different. Some love to communicate directly with the students and are open, others are closed and prefer the paper form.  While some universities’ policies regarding the Praxissemester are transparent, others are not, and it can frustrate the ordinary student who is already overly burdened with work being done at the school.

7. Take what’s assigned and be thankful for it. It is almost certain that students are assigned to certain groups and to a certain school for the duration of the semester. While there are some exceptions which can influence the office of student-teachers (Praktikumsamt für Lehrämter), like family and location preferences, for the most part, students are expected to take what is given and plan accordingly. After all, one can learn a lot from teaching at an assigned school, like I have done to date.

8. Praxis is of the essence. Prepare for the unexpected. Universities and schools have a fragile relationship regarding what the university and the students expect and what it really is in the school climate. Each teacher has a different method that works, but also the students, especially those who have taught. The theories provided on the academic front is totally different than in the praxis at school.  Therefore, compromise is the key. While it is expected that one has to learn more than ever before- a statement made by a university professor  recently, practical experience as a teacher in an educational environment is the only way to learn how to become a great teacher.

9. Big Teacher is Watching You. Students teaching a class during the Praxissemester will have a teacher watching them. This “babysitting” service can be annoying at first, but there are two reasons for it: 1. To keep the class in line and 2. To offer suggestions to better teach the class. Not a bad service, isn’t it?

10. Not working hard enough? If one thinks that teachers are not doing their work hard enough (the mentality that work requires physical force), then perhaps you can show him/her this link.  Speaking from experience, teaching is the most undervalued position in the job market food chain. This is especially clear in schools here in Germany, where the work is much harder than in academia. Therefore teachers are open to suggestions on the part of the intern. Work with them.

11. Will trumps Must. Students have quit their studies or switched programs after the Praxissemester at the school. There are many internal and external factors influencing their decision, but this fact has echoed in the lecture halls here in Germany.  Success as a teacher does not depend on whether it’s a must to complete your studies. It is based on your will to teach them something new every day, and put up with the elements that you do NOT see every day at the university. This includes the health aspect, which I’ll mention later in the series.

12. When you are down and almost out from your studies and Praxissemester, smile. The best is yet to come when you have your state exam under your belt and you have a chance to teach on your own for two years, before doing the second state exam. The first one will take you a year worth of writing and communicating with 6-8 different exams, pending on the subjects you want to teach. This includes that of education and psychology. But once you’re finished with your year in the exam torture chamber, you’ll be free with a diploma in your hand.  The two-year Referendariat will allow you to teach on your own for two years, while taking seminars at the same time. In the end, you have your exams based on your practical experience. Before you know it, despite a potential of waiting time, you will become a certified teacher, being allowed to teach at a state-financed school in a German state, a post that is considered a job for life, if all goes well as planned.

In the last 2-4 years, many universities have started introducing the Bachelor’s and Master’s programs in education,  which last 3 and 2 years respectively. Yet the program serves as a title dressing for the workload and requirements are similar to that of the Lehramt degree.  But is it really necessary to get a Lehramt degree and become a teacher?  Some sources claim that you can do a 2-year Referendariat without such the hassle if you have done a Bachelor’s, Master’s and other studies beforehand- ideal for the Quereinsteiger, a person who comes from different fields of work despite not obtaining a degree in it. Other (private) institutions have taken on teachers with many years of experience without going through the Lehramt.

 

But really, for those who are teachers in Germany and had the opportunity to avoid the Lehramt studies, how did you do that? Did you obtain your degree at a university outside of Germany? Did you find a back door through a program as Quereinsteiger?  Let’s hear about it. Place your comments here or send me an e-mail at Flensburg.bridgehunter.av@googlemail.com. Some examples will be added as articles separately with some details added.

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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English Roundtable at the Irish Pub

The Venue of the English Roundtable: Irish Pub on a cold foggy night. Photo taken in November 2011

Author’s Note: This is a throwback article taking us back to November 2011 and dealing with a topic on learning English and the English Roundtable. There are many advantages of having such a Stammtisch, many of which us English teachers don’t know about. This leads to a question to many expatriates and non-Natives wanting to learn English of whether your community in Germany has such a roundtable. If so, what is offered there and is it beneficial. If there is none, what are the reasons for NOT having one. Place your comments below but not before reading about my experiences of having one while in Erfurt as an English lecturer. 🙂

7:30pm and after a long day in the classroom, what wonderful opportunity does a teacher have but to meet with the most dedicated students at a beloved bar in town, to practice some English in terms of small talk and to hear about their private lives, both as students as well as people. The English Roundtable (in German it would be called the Englisch Stammtisch) at an Irish Pub, like the Dubliner just minutes from the old town was just the place gather just for that occasion.

I never understand why teachers never have such events for students. After all there are many advantages that bring students together to have small talk with the native speaker of English. First and foremost, there are not many opportunities to practice English except in the classroom, but that is rather pathetic if you only have the opportunity to do that for 90 minutes once a week. Contrary to the beliefs of those who think that it is not necessary, there are a select few who want extra lessons from someone who can be reached easily for help, but cannot because of- well lack of opportunity to do it due to time and other commitments.  Having a Roundtable like this also creates a bond among the students and with the teacher, guaranteeing them that whenever there is a problem, they can turn to each other for help. It makes a distinction between who is your real friend and who is not. It provides a student with a wide array of topics worth talking about, whether they are culturally related, in connection with current events, or anything that is on one’s mind and is worth talking about, which is food for thought for those who may be interested in this. And last but not least, it produces some events that are worth remembering, whether they are funny or embarrassing, and whether they are in connection with rituals started or anything that is just out of the ordinary.

It is a Tuesday night and I am drinking a pint of Snake Bite at the Irish Pub. The night was horrible as one feels like walking through pea stew while at the same time, freezing to a point where one could turn into an ice cube in minutes!. There is a soccer match going on between Barcelona and Pilsen with the former cutting the latter into pieces. But I could not think but the memories that I had with this place and how it reinforces the idea of having more of the English Roundtables in places where universities are numerous and English is needed, for many businesses communicate in this lingua franca language.  I remember the reunion with some of my former students, three of which gave me the nickname of “Headband” as I wore it to class and pronounced it like “Head bäääääännnddd!” as one mispronounced it as “Headbahnd.” Another three and I went on a Glühwein drinking spree at a Christmas market, trying every sort of the spiced wine with all kinds of flavors, such as pear liquor and tequila (the latter really packed a punch and gave me the hangover of the century the next morning), and then rooting for the home team in a basketball game. They lost a heartbreaker thanks to a last second basket, but it was fun to cheer them on while intoxicated. Then we had another heartbreaker of the game we all watched here at the Irish Pub, where we were crying over the Pittsburgh Steelers losing by only a few points to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl- dressed up in Steelers jerseys and staying up until the wee hours of the next morning, despite having to write the exam the next day- and me having to administer it! Then we had the women waitresses serving us and many male students staring at them because of their looks, and me rolling my eyes and wondering when they will finally get it done and date one for Christ’s sake.

Each of us had their own purpose for coming to the English Roundtable- to get help with getting a job or internship in America, to ask for ways on how to convince a non-native speaker of English to teach English the proper way, to learn more about American culture and the differences between them and us (the Germans), or just to sit, relax, enjoy a Guiness and do some small talk in English. Mine was and still is to help the students learn and send them on their way, no matter what endeavor they are pursuing. I have my regular customers and those who come and go at their convenience, yet still each one leaves their mark when they leave the Roundtable, whether it is in spirit or in writing. For mine it is almost always the latter, as each time we meet, we would take a post card, sign our names on the back and write down the topics we discuss before stashing it into the drawers of the tables for the waitresses and guests to see and awe in amazement what we discussed.

One makes me wonder why there should not be more of these Roundtables. If it is because of family commitments, I balk at it as the argument is considered null and void; especially since I have a wife and daughter who do not mind me having one as long as I stay out of trouble (that’s what spouses and children are there for). If it is because of having enough English in class, let me tell you that one can never have enough of a foreign language as it takes time and efforts. If it is because of the fear of closer student-teacher relationships, firstly a Roundtable is a meeting place for all who are interested and there are better places to meet to get to know someone further. Besides, almost all teachers (say 99.5%) over here fall into the category of married with children or have a relationship, so there is no fear of being paranoid. All the excuses that are made against a Roundtable are considered politics and counterproductive to the goal of teaching students the importance of a foreign language and how it gets them from point A to point B. The organization may be difficult and not many students will come in the beginning. But as the semester goes along and the word gets around, more will come and in the end, it will be a double victory for the teacher- for collecting valuable experience to share with future employers and with the family and for making a difference in the lives of the students.  One should give it a shot and see how it blossoms into a really popular group for all students to attend.

As I finish my last drink, I decided to look ahead to the next Roundtable for me in Erfurt. It was too foggy for the students to go to the meeting and many were just too busy to come. But looking at the Christmas market, which is about to start in a couple weeks, I can tell that many will take advantage of the opportunity and come to the next Roundtable as we will have some wonderful experiences there, in English and over spiced wine. And while most of my students from last year have left for future endeavors, there are new students who will benefit from some additional English and laughter, meeting new people and learning a little bit every day. That is what a Roundtable should be.

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