Saturday, August 31, 2013

An unexpected result

When I first heard about the Fund for Teachers grant, I instantly began to imagine ways that I could utilize those kind of resources. I did some research and before I knew it, I was writing this intense grant proposal to attend a two-week long seminar in Austria. While preparing myself for the grant-writing process, I read and reread the materials provided. I found the mission statement of Fund for Teachers to be very helpful.
"Fund for Teachers enriches the personal and professional growth of teachers by recognizing and supporting them as they identify and pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their practice, the academic lives of their students and on their school communities."
Professional growth is something that I actively pursue. I have attended many professional development workshops, seminars, and conferences. I always gain insight on my profession as a world language teacher and increased creative flow of ideas and best practices for when I return to the classroom and greater school community.

But this time it was different. For the first time in a long time, I expanded on a personal level. The previous school year had been a particularly challenging one. I experienced many changes and conflicts from big to small. By the time May rolled to an end, I was wiped. Really and truly squeezed dry. I felt thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Then, in June with an awesome colleague of mine, I took a group of students to Europe for ten days. It was great. We had lots of fun and several times along the journey, I even think the kids were gently surprised by how much they had learned.

Bavarian dancing lessons, Munich 2013
After the trip with students, I came home for a few days and then was off again. During the seminar time, I was completely immersed in Austrian culture and life. As we traveled from city to city, I learned so much about Austrian...


symbol of the Hapsburg Empire, Vienna, 2013
Recreated portion of the Beethovenfries, The Secession, 2013
Schnitzel with a tart berry sauce, Innsbruck, 2013
Vienna, 2013
Ethnic food market in Vienna, 2013
Garden at Castle Eggenberg, Graz, 2013
...language, music, economics, politics, and the list goes on and on. My brain and my bookshelves are now crammed with information, images, artifacts, and experiences that I am incorporating into lessons and activities for my students. Did I mention how great it was?

I literally ended my grant trip on a mountaintop!
I don't know if it can get any better than that.

And then reality set in. My initial work days began with meetings and never-ending lists of emails and syllabi and unit plans and unpacking of boxes and ordering of books and supplies and ....and ..... and.....

And then something whispered inside of me, "Even though you aren't physically there on the mountaintop, you can still be on the mountaintop. Peaceful, blissful, stress-free and ready to tackle whatever bumps come on your road."

So, thank you from the bottom of my heart, Fund for Teachers, for giving me my mountaintop, my coffeehouse, my orchestra concert, my gardens, my Klimt, my castles, and....and....and....

When the going gets tough, the tough go to their mountaintop.
Garden in Innsbruck, 2013


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Implementing my summer experience: round 1

Well, I was about to leave for home, but with the torrential downpour we are experiencing right now, I think that I'll stay at school a bit longer...

I am happy to report that this past Tuesday on Day Two of school I was able to implement my first Austria-centered lesson. I used one of the resource books that was given to us at the seminar called "Das neue Österreich Quiz" (The New Austria Quiz).

front cover of the resource book
It was suggested to us that rather than starting off a language class with your typical "Hello, my name is...., I live in ..." stuff, we could use culture as a vehicle to teach language instead.

This lit up a gigantic light bulb in my head! The students naturally expect conversational basics at the beginning of a language course, but why not present instead them with the chance to participate right away with what they really love anyway? Most of my students tell me that it's the CULTURE of a particular country that interests them the most when they choose a language to study.

Why hadn't I thought of this before? Well, I suppose like many teachers, my tendency is to teach like I was taught, to present content in the order in which I experienced it myself. It requires a certain level of intentionality to do something different, to deviate from the norm. Innovation, experimentation, and creation all are a lot of work, let's be honest! The great thing is that when it works, when it clicks during a class, it is the most rewarding thing. I strive all the time to do the unexpected, when I am teaching language. Creating a bit of mystery and suspense in a class is always a successful tactic.

Using this lesson about preconceived notions regarding Austria, we were able to weave together language, history (both modern and old), ethnic diversity and cultural products. My students, on only their second day of German class, learned the words Monarchie, Moschee, Mozartkugel, Skifahren, and Kaffeehaus. It was a great activity, and I am already looking forward to next week's lesson that presents a method for examining Austrian perspectives on their national identity. Stay posted!
Mozartkugel (Austrian chocolate confection)

Friday, August 16, 2013

lingua austria

Student question #7:  What makes Austria different and unique compared to other European nations?

There were times when I was in Austria, when I felt like speaking German was not necessarily so helpful to me. One night in Innsbruck, for example, we were treated to a live performance by Lydia Hermann, local musician and songwriter.

(My video of her singing did not record so well, but this one is much better.)

Lydia sings not in German, not in Austrian German, but rather in her own Mundart or dialect known as Steierisch. Just sitting and listening is a stretch for me. Having the lyrics in front of me helps. It is so elegant the way she tells her stories, once you figure them out.

And here is a story of Austria. In 1282, the first Hapsburg prince came to be in charge of things in this part of the world. His descendants then continued to reign for the next 600 plus years! It wasn't until the end of World War I in 1918 that the empire was dissolved. While the monarchy held the lands of the Austria-Hungarian Empire together in a unified block, the people, however, hailed from many different ethnic backgrounds.

In Austria, the official language is German, but there are several other languages spoken by its people still today: Turkish, Serbian, Croatian, Romany, Slovakian, Slovenian, Czech, Hungarian, Kurdish, and Bosnian, just to name a few. In Vienna, the capital of Austria, over half of the students in schools speak a language other than German as a native language. Over half (53.8%, 2011-12)! To give you some perspective on this densely packed Schmelztiegel, Austria is roughly the size of South Carolina, but due to its topography, is only actually inhabited in about half of that space.

See all that white space running through Austria? That's basically all mountain goats and sweet little Alpine flora.

Innsbruck mountain area, 2013
Austria is (to an American) a tiny place with an incredible variety of voices. Language diversity is recognized and valued. I would even say, treasured.
In the school in which I teach, an average student gets 10 months of foreign language instruction during an academic year. If we're lucky, an above average student will stick around for another 10 months the following year, and then that's more or less das Ende. In Austria, students begin learning a foreign language in the first grade and continue on until they graduate. (Source: Austrian Federal Ministry of Teaching, Art and Culture). Do the math. That equals 11 YEARS of foreign language study, or 120 months compared with our 10 maybe 20.

Lucky for me and a sprinkling of other school districts across the nation, elementary schools are beginning to hear the call of foreign language education. Support your school's foreign language programs. We need every voice we can get.

Austria is unique from other speaking countries in part because of its intense ethnic diversity. It's been a melting pot for centuries. Austria officially is a German-speaking country, and at the same time a nation of polyglots and people proud of their diverse heritage.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Hare With Amber Eyes

Frau Boynton's Book Review
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
by Edmund de Waal
Vintage Books, 2010

A few days into my time in Austria, I realized with regret that I had neglected to pack a book to read for those moments when I needed a diversion for my mind away from my task at hand of speaking German and exploring Austria. My brain needs easy stuff sometimes to take a break from all the work it is normally doing: a magazine to flip, a movie to watch, and when I'm in German-speaking 24/7 mode, a book in English to read. It's kind of like hiding Snickers bars under your bed, when you're supposed to be dieting, but if I don't get brief opportunities to read in my own language now and then, I burn out and get grumpy. So to keep the world a more peaceful place, I made my way that afternoon to the Morawa bookstore near St. Stephan's cathedral.

In my experience, bookstores in mainland Europe have limited and somewhat eclectic English-language selections, but I was ready for the challenge. Besides, it offers me the choice to pick up a book that I might normally have passed over for something more familiar. Desperate times often call for desperate measures. Red pill, blue pill.

So, there I was on the second floor skimming titles when this bunny rabbit waved to me from the cover of this book!

my copy, 2010
Mental checklist when I am book-shopping:
  1. author? Unknown
  2. title? It's about wealthy rabbits? Like Watership Down or something?
  3. Biography award? I don't really read biographies as a general rule. They're too focused on the individual, kinda like blogs. Eh-hem.
  4. (flip book over for back cover synopsis) Japanese art carvings...inheritance...from Odessa (embarrassed to say I didn't know where that is) to Tokyo...trace the journey, blah blah generic buzzwords here...
Well, it's this or a Jennifer Weiner paperback about high-heel shoes. Off to the Kassa I go with the bunny leading the way.

"...,als plötzlich ein weißes Kaninchen mit rothen Augen dicht an ihr vorbeirannte." (German version of Alice in Wonderland)
"...,when suddenly a white rabbit with red eyes ran right by her.

Or in my case, amber eyes.

I knew within the first few pages that I was hooked to this book. In just the preface of the book, de Waal orchestrates his words and phrasing in such a way that you feel a melody begin to rise that carries you along to the last page. This book isn't a genealogical report. It isn't a history lesson. It is a story of his family and a reflection on his connections to his physical inheritance, the netsuke collection, and his psychological/emotional inheritance, his understanding of his identity in relationship to his family history.

On page 9 of my copy, de Waal is describing a conversation that he is having with his uncle Iggy trying to get him to talk about his early life in Vienna,
"Actually, he resumes, after a pause, Papa always said that he'd put me up for his club when I was old enough. It met on Thursdays somewhere near the Opera, with all of his friends, his Jewish friends. He came back so cheerful on Thursdays. The Wiener Club. I always wanted to go there with him, but he never took me. I left for Paris and the New York, you see, and then there was the war. I miss that. I missed that."
That section I read over and over. As a German teacher, I have encountered many narratives and reflections on the European experience as a result of World War II. Reading this novel gave me a fresh perspective not only in a poetic way, but also because it tells an Austrian story.

The Vienna section of the book is, however, only one part of the story. The novel begins in Paris and talks about art, lots and lots of art. I read about so many paintings, painters, sculptures, architectural styles and art movements, I feel like I now have an minor in art history or something. What was amazing to me was that while reading this book I was simultaneously experiencing art masters on a daily basis. I visited and enjoyed many art museums while in Austria, but you don't have to go into an art museum to enjoy art in Austria. The buildings are like art pieces. There are sculptures in parks and in plazas and scattered all around the place really.

University building in Vienna, 2013

Detail of a war memorial in Vienna, 2013
Otto Wagner apartment house, 2013
It was a happy coincidence that I read The Hare With Amber Eyes during my Austria travels. I couldn't have asked for a better find. For a former French major turned German major with Japanese minor, reading about a family whose lives played out in Paris, Vienna, and Tokyo made me wonder if de Waal had written his book just for me when I needed it most.

"Don't mistake coincidence for fate," Mr. Eko so wisely once said.


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Via Austria

Student question #6: What are some of their {Austrian} cultural habits?
Answer: Austrians see their past deeply connected with their future.

During my freshman year of college, I began learning German with Herr (Dr.) Ronald Warner. Having spent five years already as a Latin scholar, as we were named by our Latin teacher in high school, I was ready to tackle German grammar systems and to cope with the challenge of acquiring a new set of vocabulary. When it came to culture and history, I soaked it all up, too. Currently, the more that I read and witness in regards to European and Austrian history and culture, the more I realize that understanding ancient Roman history and culture makes it all that much more connected in my mind.

While in Austria this summer, I saw Latin words and Roman images everywhere I went: buildings, monuments, works of art, etc. Why do Austrians bother to utilize so many Latin statements in their cities and towns? Why do they choose to employ so many Roman-themed images and stories? Why is it all still so meaningful to them?

I. Being surrounded by Roman/Greek heroes improves your looks.

Mural from the Spanischer Saal at Castle Ambras in Innsbruck, Austria, 2013
While renovating Castle Ambras in the 16th century, Archduke Ferdinand II integrated a 43 meter long ballroom. When it came time for the artistic design of the hall, he chose to include along with the 27 portraits of Tyrolean princes all twelve labors of Hercules. If you came to an event here, you would be mightily impressed and you might even begin to associate the archduke with heroic deeds he never personally accomplished. Regardless, the message is: Hercules had godlike powers, and so do I. Maybe I should rethink my poster choices for my classroom walls this fall...

II. Latin lasts forever!
Latin text from one section of the Plague Column on the Graben in Vienna, 2013
If you would like to say something to the world and want it to be read forever, compose your sentiment in Latin! In Vienna just steps away from St. Stephan's cathedral stands the Pestsäule (plague column). In 1679, the emperor, while running as fast as he could out of the city, promised to God to erect this monument, if he would rescue the city and himself from a plague that was ravaging its residents. A bit over 300 years later, one can still palpably feel the emperor's anxiety about what had happened in his hometown with his words, "I devote most subserviently this monument, just a small eternal token, is all."

III. Latin is where all the cool kids hide their secret messages.
Base of a column in Graz, 2013

Underneath the Goldenes Dachl in Innsbruck, 2013
Take a close look at those two pictures. What do you see? Notice how some of the letters are larger than the others? Why those letters, do you think? Let's list them out:
  • V M I I V D I I I I I V I I L V
  • V D I C I V V L M V
Now they look familiar! Roman numerals, which are actually letters. These are examples of cryptograms. The creator of these inscriptions used the words of the text to imbed an important number. That's what I call multi-purposing!

Bonus question for the nerds in the audience: what dates are represented with each cryptogram shown here?

So many centuries later, we still think about the Romans, imagine ourselves in their myths, and use their language, because in spite of all of its awkwardness and challenges, it works. It communicates. It makes itself understood. It unchangeably defies change. To know myself, I have to know where I have been.
This one's for you, Mr. Tannas. Maximas gratias tibi ago