Mohamed Esa fights for Germany once a week at William Winchester Elementary school in Westminster.
The German professor at Western Maryland College lurched into action after he thought he was detecting a trend: Young children rarely learned foreign languages or about foreign cultures. And when they did, Esa believed, it was never, ever German.
"Schools, whenever they start anything new," he said, "they always think of Spanish or French."
Well, puff went that trend at William Winchester.
In November, with the blessing of parents and school administrators, Esa launched a "German Enrichment Program."
Meeting in the cafeteria each Thursday after school, Esa teaches about 40 pupils German language (the words for colors, numbers, months, seasons, body parts), German culture (songs, fairy tales, folk dances) and what he dubs German "fun activities" (they built a Berlin Wall out of chocolate cookies).
Assistant Principal Christina Sparr said the program -- which will continue in the spring -- has won rave reviews from pupils. She said it passed the ultimate test of any after-school session, which is entirely voluntary.
"They never forget their permission slips," Sparr said.
For last week's session, pupils -- who range from ages 7 to 10 -- piled into the cafeteria with the spunky energy of teen-agers at a Britney Spears concert. Before they could even take their seats, many were bouncing, grinning and spouting out words in German that they had learned in previous weeks.
Ten-year-old Erin Yuhas rattled off the numbers one to 20.
"My [college] students don't know that after three or four weeks," Esa told her. "Do you have anyone at home who speaks German?"
"No," Erin said.
Erin was getting her practice during the school day, gabbing in German with friend and fellow German student Theresa Wolf.
"The others think it's very cool," Theresa explained.
Esa places enormous value in understanding a range of cultures, perhaps due to his diverse background. The professor is Palestinian by descent, Israeli and Palestinian by citizenship and a German expert by accident.
"I went to Germany to study medicine," said Esa. "But I wasn't able to get into medical school."
He said students have more open minds when they are young, so elementary school is a perfect time to feed them knowledge about other places and peoples. He said he is also concerned that even as children grow older, they might never learn in depth about German culture because, he said, many teachers avoid talking about the country when they can.
"If it has to do with German history, a lot of people don't want to think about it because there is a bad connotation," he said. "But it is not only the history of the Holocaust, and Nazi Germany, and all of these horrible things. That would be like coming here and presenting the U.S. as slavery, and nothing else. And that's not fair."
Julia Wiederholt, a visiting student from Germany who assists Esa with several of his courses and helps teach the enrichment program, agreed.
"I'm asked, `when you go for history at your university or high school, is there anything you learn about but the Holocaust and World War II?' " she said. "I say yes. We actually have a longer history than the United States."
At the session last week, Esa and Wiederholt helped pupils construct German holiday cards for parents or teachers. The children used greetings such as Frohe Feiertage ("Happy Holidays"), Frohe Weihnachten ("Merry Christmas"), or `n guten rutsch ("slide into the New Year").
Seven-year-old Ben Taylor, a second-grader, was nearly finished with his card when he became distracted, leaving his seat to visit nearby friends. Esa escorted him back. "Mach das fertig," Esa said.
Ben stared blankly.
"Mach das fertig," Esa said.
Ben was definitely confused.
"Finish that up," Esa said in English. Ben got back to work, and Esa was satisfied the youngster had picked up a new German phrase.
"Even if they don't understand something, you should speak to them in the language," Esa said.
His strategy certainly seems to have broadened vocabularies around Winchester Elementary. Across the table from Ben, 10-year-old Nevin Smith had finished his holiday card and was passing the time showing off his German. "Tomorrow is Freitag," Nevin said to nobody in particular.
Freitag means "Friday." And he was right.
Pub Date: 12/24/99