This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go and participate in a professional development meeting at GVSU for language teachers between the High School and University levels. It was really quite interesting to meet with various teachers and compare and contrast our various teaching methods across the language spectrum. As usual, I was in the minority as a German teacher, but I couldn't help but enjoy learning and connecting with some of the Spanish usage in the room, as well as witness some of the learning and teaching strategies employed in the Arabic classrooms.
We often forget, within our small departments, how similar and interconnected all language classrooms are. Many language teachers, departments and professors all work together, but they often hold a silent, and sometimes overt, competition between one another for students. The heavy-hitting goliath, which is Spanish, often dwarfs French and German classrooms, causing us alternative language teachers to feel as if we are trapped against our will in attempting to break out of the role of "minority languages." What this meeting did, in fact, was instill how similar we all are, and helped develop a more cohesive idea about what it means to be a language teacher.
When considering building language communities, ethnic and language clumping exists. It is a normal human behavior, in which individuals choose to spend time with those similar to their own ideals, interests and personality. This is often the case with foreign language. Although I have several friends in other languages, and we get along very well, during academic processes, we typically tend to stick with those within our language, even when working on projects in English. What this workshop taught me, above all else, is not necessarily HOW to go out into the community and use the language, but how to instill a love for the language, and possibly even connect with other languages.
Keeping a German department alive and functioning is often a challenge. Many school districts are focusing on turning over to being Spanish only, and as a result, German departments are shrinking all over the country. In an effort to curb this, rather than sitting around and complaining about low-student number counts, or focusing on cultural events like Oktoberfest, why not attempt to host a culture night at the school between ALL foreign language classes? Cultural foods could be put on display and offered to attendees, students could present several stories on histories or historical figures from their language's past, and families would be offered a time to see what the students are doing, and possibly consider sending siblings into different language classes in the future.
As one speaker noted, it is important to never underestimate the power of the family. If all language classrooms worked together, they could potentially help one another build up stronger ties, as well as keep each other alive. When hosting large, after school events, like a culture night, students could gain an understanding and appreciation for the other languages and the small, insular communities next door. Building a classroom community is always important, but building a departmental community is far more beneficial, and can be all the more rewarding.
In my honest opinion, I learned many great teaching strategies within the conference, but this was what struck me the hardest. No student group should ever go without interaction with other language learning classrooms, and students could only benefit from one another, when all foreign language teachers work together and promote one another. The worst that could happen, is that everyone loses a night they won't get back, and can simply never do it again. But by learning and presenting together, perhaps then, students, families, teachers and administrators will be able to finally come together and settle how to build a stronger foreign language community within their school system.