When I began teaching German some 48 years ago, I envisioned being able to connect my students to native speakers in Germany. It would take technology some time to catch up to my dreams of what a classroom should look like. Today, the technology has been perfected so that it seems as if we are both in the same room speaking to one another across the table instead of being separated by the Atlantic Ocean and many miles. When I began the exchange almost twenty years ago, I decided to name it Hands Across the Ocean.
During the exchanges between US and German schools, I had students write pen pal letters, and we shared many class projects with one another. Before we installed the current video conference equipment at the high school in Central New York, my students boarded yellow school busses with chaperones to drive to the local BOCES center where a dedicated video conference room awaited us. This was the highlight of many weeks of preparation so that we could meet one another and have conversations. Simply put: friends meeting friends again.
This time excitement filled the video conference room below the library of the high school. About 60 students and guests awaited the start of the two-hour conference . At 9:00 AM the chorus led by our chorus director entered the room with 50+ voices singing a Czech song, Stodola Pumpa, and a surprise song in German, Die Gedanken sind frei, for the guests across the Atlantic. In past video conferences between the schools, students prepared questions to ask their pen pals during the conference. They sang songs and sometimes danced, but this conference marked the beginning of a promising new era in the exchanges: students worked in groups to share specifics about their towns and communities. There were ten groups on the US side with subjects such as food, history, school clubs and activities, winter sports, and grading systems. Because the students had a vested interest in the projects and developed them over the course of a few weeks, they were able to compile photos and props during the video conference.
Since one of the groups wanted to present food and junk food, the table was set with assorted chips, fluff, peanut butter, bread, marshmallows and chocolate. A peanut butter and fluff sandwich was made, and one of the teachers on the German side asked if my students could pass the sandwich through the screen! One young man eagerly polished off the sandwich and gave a thumbs up.
Being able to use video conference technology has definitely enhanced the German classroom. Students learned so much about the language and culture by sharing in groups. Reflections from the students in Germany and in the US are practically mirror images of how much they benefitted from this group approach and presentations. They are thirsty for more. There is a renewed passion in learning the language. Students were self-motivated and practiced extensively. It was evident from the laughter, questions, applause and concerted efforts that this was very much a student-centered activity.
Sometimes when reflecting upon the past with nostalgia, I can’t help but think that my students today have more relevant and interesting topics when they meet their counterparts in Germany. It is so much more alive than in the flat textbook or even videos in class. We all benefit from the eagerness to share knowledge of our towns and schools and lives. While I enjoyed my classroom experiences in Massachusetts and in Colorado, they simply cannot compare to the wonder and awe I experience as I watch my students in action speaking in another language, being understood and understanding the students in Germany both in English and in German. It is gratifying beyond words to witness these video conferences first-hand. I know that most of my students will not have the opportunity to travel abroad, but when they remember their past video conferences in German class, I hope it is with fond memories and pride.