Learning by doing, eating, touring

Language: A teacher looks into the community for ways to improve her students' German skills.

December 07, 2003|By Amanda Angel | Amanda Angel,SUN STAFF

Harford Christian School senior Amanda Seymour says that she can identify a German accent pretty easily these days.

That's because she's had a lot of practice.

"I can usually tell if someone has a German accent," said Seymour, who has been studying the German language since she was in the ninth grade. "I let them know that I've been taking German at school."

When she strikes up a conversation with natives of Germany, she winds up inviting them to the school's annual Kaffee und Kuchen ("coffee and cake"), an event started by her language teacher, Peggy Nickson.

Nickson and her students frequently invite German natives from the area to participate in the school's language program. Seymour, who also is senior class president, believes that two or three of the Germans she has met came to Kaffee und Kuchen.

"We search them out," Nickson said. "If I hear a German accent anywhere in town I corner them and invite them to our Kaffee and Kuchen."

During her six years teaching at Harford Christian in Dublin, Nickson has cultivated a small community of German speakers - mostly women - who attend school events. Several also substitute for Nickson when she's not in class and others offer to sponsor field trips for the students. Recently, the third- and fourth-year students in the German program were invited on a tour of a Pennsylvania dairy farm.

Kerstin Otte of Brogue, Pa., first read about the school's Kaffee und Kuchen in a local newspaper. Otte, her husband, Thomas, and their four children emigrated from Germany about a year ago and settled in the area. Thomas Otte works at Hope Acres dairy farm and the Brown Cow, the farm's store.

Employees at the dairy farm give tours of the fully automated facility. For Harford Christian students, Kerstin Otte gave the tour in German. She explained in her native language how the automated milking and herding processes work and answered questions as students practiced their German skills.

"I talked to the manager and she gave me the text of what she said in her tours," Otte said. She said she then translated it into German and sent Nickson a list of the vocabulary words she would be using. Otte wanted the students to understand what she was saying, so she sent words such as cow, robot and grain.

Senior Sarah Swehla, 17, a fourth-year German student, said it is beneficial to speak with German natives as well as with her teacher. She said the native Germans teach the students idioms and help them improve their conversational skills.

"When Frau Nickson talks to us, she sometimes helps us with the language. A native speaker talks as they would normally speak in German," she said.

Nickson began teaching at the Harford Christian School in 1998 after moving to Harford County. She formerly taught German at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., and at the University of South Carolina in Spartanburg.

Sabine Smith heard about Nickson's German program from her son's baby sitter, who sends her children to the Harford Christian School. Smith, a native of Fulda, Germany, has attended the Kaffee und Kuchen where she was introduced to other native Germans living in the area.

Smith left Germany in 1985. She lives with her husband and two sons in Hickory. After attending the Kaffee und Kuchen, she started volunteering during the summer with the school's language camp.

"It's nice of Peggy to get all of us together and get us to talk," Smith said of the local German community. "At the coffee and cake, I met maybe 10 women so far."

Otte, Smith and other native Germans bring more to Harford Christian School than their language. Both Swehla and Seymour, who said they would like to continue to study German in college, said the native speakers teach students about German culture and history. The school begins its German program in ninth grade.

"There are probably four different people who come in to substitute and we hear stories about when they lived in Germany," Swehla said. "One of them even told us about the Holocaust."

Nickson is organizing a trip to Germany this summer for her students. For the time being, she tries to expose them to German culture through field trips, substitutes and Kaffee und Kuchen.

"If you can get the students into a social-linguistic situation when they are speaking German with a native, they learn so much more," Nickson said.

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