Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Total Erschöpft

In the past week I have:

1. Moved most of my stuff from the fire station in Hamm to a WG (co-op apartment) in Münster.
2. Started four university classes (Beginning Dutch, German-Speaking Minorities Abroad, History of the German Language from the Late Middle Ages through Early Modern Times, and Northwest Low German Dialects).
3. Changed from observing 12 lessons a week at my host school to actually teaching nine lessons a week and being on-call for 5 others-- with all the accompanying planning, etc.
4. Been getting up at around 6 am every day to catch the train (and then the bus) to work.
5. Been sleeping on an air mattress.

And in the next few days, I still have to:
1. Start two other uni classes (both in intermediate Italian).
2. Move the rest of my belongings from Hamm to Münster.
3. Coordinate the delivery of my furniture (most of which is on loan from colleagues).
4. Get moving on grad school applications.
5. Purchase a pillow (I don't have one at the moment).

I need a cup of coffee. And I don't even drink coffee! Maybe I should just inject the caffeine intravenously; that would probably work faster.

A more intresting post will follow when I actually have time to write. I'm to tired to attempt to be witty right now.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Tale of the C-Test Troll

(With apologies to the Brothers Grimm.)

Long ago and far away in the land of Münster there was a large university where many students attended classes. One of these students was named 'Ada.' Ada was from a far-away country called 'America' where people spoke a strange language called 'English.' This meant that Ada spoke German with a peculiar intonation and had difficulty pronouncing the word 'rechts.' However, she understood German very well. Despite the fact that she was a foreigner, she could read Goethe in the original German without trouble. Despite the fact that she was an American, she did not eat hamburgers or carry a gun on her person.

The Uni-Münster had a Sprachenzentrum (Language Center) where its students could take classes in any of several foreign languages, including English, German as a second language, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Turkish, and Arabic. Ada thought that it might be fun to pick up Italian again. So she journeyed over many cobblestone streets through the land of Münster, past many strange creatures in designer clothes (chiefly civil servants on their lunch breaks, but also the occasional unicorn or talking pig-- this is a fairy tale, after all), and wended her way to the Sprachenzentrum for a C-Test. The C-Test was a test of will that Uni-Münster subjected its students to before they could register for language classes. It involved computers and hand-to-hand combat with a troll.

The university in Münster employed many trolls. There was a troll in the library who barked at Ada for omitting her postal code on her library card application form, and who insisted on addressing her in 'Auslanderdeutsch'* even though she understood normal German. There was the office worker in the Dutch department who called Ada 'du' and gave her the third degree when she asked whether all the places in the Dutch I course had been filled yet. It seemed that Uni-Münster believed that dealing with trolls built students' character.

The most fearsome troll of all administered the C-Test.

It was a small troll, only about five feet tall. It had brown hair and wore a cross pendant, and looked like it might have been around 25 years old. The troll's appearance was not ugly, but its personality was hideous.

Ada huddled with the other students in a corridor outside the C-Test Chamber. She waited until the troll beckoned her into the chamber, along with four other students.

The first test was to produce a student ID card and register for the test. Ada did not have an ID card-- the university hadn't sent it to her yet. 'If you don't have an ID card, then that means you aren't registered at the university and you don't have a student number yet!' barked the troll (in German). 'My student number is here,' said Ada, producing her registration papers. The troll glowered and pointed Ada to a computer where she was to sit and insert Italian words into newspaper articles. As she did so, she kept one ear on the C-Test troll, who ritually humiliated each of the other students in turn.

Ada received 49 out of 100 points on her Italian test. The troll's human assistant printed a certificate for her and said 'Go next door, where my colleague can advise you further.' Ada was sent on to the Second Chamber of C-Test Torture, where she met...

The original troll from the other room. (It appears that Uni-Münster is rather short-staffed.) The troll pointed her to another computer. But Ada didn't know which course she should sign up for.

'I need to register, and...'

'You don't need to register! You've already taken the test,' snapped the troll.

'I meant to register for classes, and I don't know which level to sign up for. The lady next door said you could provide advice.'

The troll glared. 'I don't do academic advising here. Everything you need to know is on the website.'

So Ada sat down and scanned through the web site. Try as she might, she couldn't find anything that told her what kind of class someone who had scored 49 points should sign up for.

Meanwhile, another student had entered the Second Chamber of C-Test Torture. This young woman had very short hair and a friendly countenance. Unsuspecting, she bent down to whisper a question to the C-Test Troll. Said troll recoiled as if the young woman was a poisonous snake, and made a disgusted face.

Ada decided it was better not to ask the troll how to use the website. So she whispered her question to a law student who had made conversation with her in the hall.

'I already told you,' shouted the troll, 'that you don't need to register for the test, you've already taken it!'

'I know,' said Ada. Ada raised her voice and spoke slowly, as if to a mentally handicapped toddler. 'I want to know how to determine which level I should sign up for. I can't find the information on the web site.'

'I can't tell you which level to register for!'


The law student gave Ada the 'thumbs-up' sign behind the troll's back.

Cowed, the troll sat down and calmly showed Ada to the pertinent information.

Having vanquished the evil C-Test-Troll, Ada left the Sprachenzentrum and went back into Münster, where she bought some cheese at the market and lived happily ever after. And the troll went back where she belonged. (Under a bridge near the Open Air Museum, where she subsists on billy goats and lost tourists.)

*A kind of pidgin-German chiefly spoken by those native speakers of German who assume that all foreigners are stupid. It involves calling people 'du' (a form of address usually reserved for close friends, children, and animals) and putting all verbs in the infinitive.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Oh! So this is what a NORMAL school is like!

Hello readers. Please excuse my long absence from my blog. In the past few weeks, I've been taking care of various burocratic hassles related to the university, my visa (the kind that goes in your passport, not the little plastic card!), and my bank account; tracking down a new place to live in Münster (once I start attending classes I don't want to be commuting from the fire station in Hamm every day!); and, most importantly, getting to know my new host school.

Let me tell you, this school is fantastic. There's really no comparison between this school and the last one. Everything about it so much more pleasant.

I suppose I should stop talking in generalities and give you some specifics. Here goes:

The colleagues are great. The teachers here are actually friendly! People talk to me in the staff room just to make conversation, not just when I'm standing in their way or they want something done. They take me out to lunch, invite me over for coffee and cake, lend me well-equipped bicycles, and show me around Münster. I've even made a friend! One of the younger teachers and I have a lot in common, and we've started hanging out. It's really nice to have a social life and to be friendly with people at work. Most of the teachers at the last school didn't pay much attention to me, and none of them wanted to see me socially-- although the Sorbian teacher did take me out on occasional cultural excursions. To be fair, almost all of them were pretty old-- the median age for teachers at that school was about 50, and the youngest was in her late thirties. This school has a mix of all different ages, from Referendare (trainee teachers) who are only a couple years older than me to oldsters getting ready to retire. But then, the middle-aged teachers here are friendly, too.

The kids are smart! Well, yes, this a Gymnasium (public college-preparatory school); of course the kids are smart. But working with Gymnasiasten is really worlds different from working with Haupt- and Realschüler (remedial and comprehensive-track kids)-- especially from working with Hauptschüler! The main difference may not be actual level of intelligence, but rather motivation-- these kids want to learn, and many of them are actually interested in the subject matter. My eighth-grade girls are pressing me to start an after-school English club! Another difference-- there are hardly any kids here with severe behavioral problems. Not that they're all little angels all the time-- they aren't!-- but I haven't seen anyone swear at teachers yet or heard of anybody plundering the school cafeteria's cash box.

This school is multicultural. In a way it's kind of ironic that I need to bring this up, since in theory the school that I worked at last year was multicultural, too-- after all, it was located in one of the few areas of Germany with an indigenous ethnic minority (the Sorbs). But that school didn't feel multicultural-- the Sorbs and their traditions were hardly ever mentioned, and there were no non-white kids, kids for whom German was the second language, or kids of non-German citizenship. At this school, I have students who are (among other things): Black, Korean, Russian, Yugoslav, Thai, Turkish, English, South Asian, and Welsh (really!). The best thing about this is that no one makes a big deal of this-- in a negative way, I mean. At my old school, teachers routinely made racist comments. If something looked messy, the principal would say 'Es sieht hier wie in Korea aus!' ('It looks like Korea in here!')* I have yet to hear any racism from teachers here-- or from students, for that matter.

The classroom environment is so much nicer. My old school was, well, very Eastern Bloc. The kids sat in rows and were not allowed to speak unless spoken to. Lessons were teacher-centered: I was pressured to design lessons in which I did most of the talking-- a big no-no for language teachers, actually. Group work was discouraged because it resulted in 'too much chit-chat.' (Funny, I thought that learning a foreign language required conversing in it!) Students received deportment grades for Ordnung (orderliness, punctuality), Fleiß (being hard-working), Mitarbeit (participation and cooperation), and Betragen (not swearing at teachers, towing the line). There was no grade for creativity-- which, except maybe in art class, definitely was not encouraged. Here, some teachers seat their kids in 'table' arrangements, facing each other, like in American middle schools. The kids are allowed to talk during seat work-- even loudly!-- as long as they stay on-task and quiet down when the teacher needs to say something. It's much livelier and friendlier. And the best thing is that I'll get to have some more independence in designing my lessons. I don't have to just teach from the textbook. Bringing in outside materials (and even introducing topics not covered in the text) is ok, too.

Did I mention that I'm really happy here? :)

More soon, I hope!

*Note: Like many prejudiced comments, this statement is really stupid. Everyone I know who has been to Korea says that it is a very clean, orderly country. Not unlike, oh... Germany!