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The art of teaching German to the young

Robert Self '11 applies communication studies to the grade-school classroom

November  17, 2010

"Ticky Tacky, Ticky Tacky!" "Ou, Ou, Ou, Eins, Zwei, Drei!"

Thus begins the Wednesday after-school German Club at the Rock Island Center for Math and Science, led by Augustana senior Robert Self. The group of mostly third-graders has just finished a regular day of classes, and though two or three sit quietly with devoted eyes on Herr Self, most bounce down and up out of their chairs. Self quiets and readies them by calling out "Ticky, Tacky, Ticky Tacky...," and the students yell back the rest. It works.

Robert Self with his German club students at the Rock Island Center for Math and Science. (Augustana Photo Bureau/Marla Alvarado Neuerburg)

Self is constantly ready to use little tricks to catch their attention. When he started the club, he wanted to make sure they were learning at all times, yet knew it was going to be difficult and he'd overplan. "Even though I've taught before, I had never taught little kids," Self says. "I knew they already had a foreign language all their own, and I didn't know how to tackle that."

His Monday after-school club is the same setting but a different story. Composed mostly of sixth-graders, the group already speaks in German phrases and sentences. They can ask Herr Self simple questions and are showing a lot of promise.

"There's a big debate in teaching language," Self says, "about whether to teach by focusing on the culture or on the language." He now believes it depends on the age group. "I've learned that I have to change my style and focus on cultural studies with the younger group, such as playing popular German games... When kids are getting rambunctious, we'll play a game like ‘Hans sagt' (‘Simon Says'). You can't teach at people, and you can't hold too much pride. You have to adjust to your audience."

Self's knowledge of communicating with groups extends from both his majors at Augustana: German and communication studies. As a matter of fact, the German Club he started at the Rock Island Center is his senior inquiry project for his civic engagement class, which he proposed at the end of his junior year. Dr. Wendy Hilton-Morrow is his advisor.

"By getting hands-on experience in teaching German and doing communication research, I'm combining two loves," Self says.

German was his first. When Self was in sixth grade, a new family moved into his neighborhood, and the mother was from Germany. With his own German/Prussian background, he was interested in her language and wanted to learn. So she taught him some German to begin, he picked it up later in high school, and became proficient in college.

He decided to try communication studies during a 2009 fall term in Wittenberg, Germany, with Dr. Kim Vivian and 12 other students. One of his favorite Augustana classes has been the history of broadcasting with Dr. Hilton-Morrow. Currently he is assisting her with research on the original "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast by conducting primary research through his own interviews with area veterans of World War II.

Looking ahead

Even if his two academic fields line up well at the present, Self doesn't know exactly how he will maintain the alignment into the future. He's applied for a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Germany after graduating from Augustana. If he gets the award, it will buy him some valuable time to continue his studies and figure out his life's work.

Meanwhile, his civic engagement class concludes after winter term, but he'll lead the elementary-school German club through spring term before wrapping up his senior inquiry project. He plans to hold a Parents' Night for his students' families at the end of the year, so they can "perform" for their parents and enjoy German conversation and music or movies together.

"If my students get a spark of interest in the language, maybe they will continue it later," he says.

It's a reasonable goal for any elementary student -- after all, that's what happened with him.