An English Teacher Abroad: Coming Home
After a trip abroad with students, it is useful to reflect on what was learned and how to improve for next time. Here, Jessica Keigan, a secondary language arts teacher at Horizon High School in Thornton, CO, does just that with some lessons for all of us.
By Jessica Keigan
This past summer and spring, my school participated in a German American Partnership Program exchange. It has been nearly three months since I (along with ten high school students and the German teacher from my school) returned from our month of study and cultural immersion in Mühldorf am Inn in Bavaria.
While the friendships and memories (and, thankfully, chocolate) remain, it has yet to be seen how we'll ensure that our learning doesn't disappear.
Here are some strategies I've been trying out.
When I was a student, I studied Spanish and Latin. I am fluent in neither and struggle with the idea that I only know my own language well. As I hope to return to Germany someday, I have taken it upon myself to learn as much of the language as possible. With the help of textbooks and podcasts, I have built my vocabulary and feel much more confident understanding simple phrases or questions.
My best method, though, has been auditing the German class at my school. On Friday afternoons, I join the 8th hour German students in speaking and written activities.
Jason Herrman, the teacher who organizes our exchange program, is suffering from large class sizes and lack of collaborative opportunities as the only German teacher in the school. By being in his class as a teacher/student, I am able to help with crowd control and planning. In return, I get to model for students in my building what struggling with a language looks like and how to persevere.
My favorite moment of success with this strategy came when we were walking outside for a fire drill and the young lady I was walking next to turned to her friend and said, "She's in my 8th hour German class." I was able to respond by asking her a question in German.
One of the commonalities that I see among teachers is that we like to learn. Even if it can't be regular, why not seek to partner with a peer to audit a class or subject that you'd like to learn more about? It's a great way to build camaraderie in your building and to earn some elusive street cred with students.
Having established friendships with teachers in Germany, it is hard not to be excited about the possibility of sharing ideas and "classroom" space with each other. Given the thousands of miles and eight-hour time change that make collaboration difficult, it has been a struggle to create this classroom space. Thank goodness for the internet.
Google has a host of free tools that make virtual collaboration possible. With Google Docs, it is easy for students to collaborate on written work. With Blogger, it is easy to share literature reviews and created threaded discussions. If you want to hear voices, then creating podcasts is another option. All of these free tools make it possible for teachers to share content and students.
We have struggled quite a bit with the scheduling conflicts inherent in this kind of collaboration, but are currently having our students create podcasts to share with each other. We are eager to find more active learning options to continue this global classroom model next semester.
Social Media Connections
Before our trip, we set up a Facebook group to share photos and stories with the parents back home. We required each of our American students to write about at least one day-trip or activity that they experienced and had great interactions with friends and family both in Germany and at home.
Now that we are back, our page has been dormant—until this weekend, when my colleague and I posted pictures from our homecoming parade and game. We have received several page views, but are still working on ways to inspire more active interactions. Our hope is that this will provide a venue for continued conversation among students and even a place where we can post joint projects or academically related discussion topics.
In an era of social media overload, there is no better way to engage our students then asking them to use the tools they use already. If your school doesn't allow Facebook, Edmodo is a nice alternative that is school friendly.
Plan for Your Next Trip—What Could We Do Better Next Time?
The beauty of the GAPP exchange is that it fosters ongoing relationships between schools. The point is to create a connection that lasts for many years. This means that every other year, as long as we are able, we will take a group of American students to the Ruperti Gymnasium and a group of German students will visit our school in Colorado.
The challenge is making this experience relevant and meaningful rather than letting it become the same trip over and over again.
This was my first time on the exchange. When I return in the summer of 2014, I hope to know the language better and to have specific learning structures in place for my students and for the German students visiting us. As Jason and I reflect and collaborate on future trips, we hope to take what we have learned about cross-continental collaboration, social media, and language studies to create a project that the students will work on over the six weeks of exchange time as well as before and after the trip is complete.
As has been the case with most of my international travel, my trip to Germany was a life-changing experience. I am excited for the opportunities to grow professionally that are yet to come as our efforts and experiments take shape. I look forward to sharing how it all goes. In the meantime, viel Glück mit Ihren Schülern!
Jessica Keigan is a secondary language arts teacher at Horizon High School in Thornton, CO, and a teacher leader for the Center for Teaching Quality's Denver New Millennium Initiative. To read more about her adventures in Germany, please visit transformEd.