Friday, September 30, 2016

September Highs and Lows 2016

For the first time since I started this routine of ending each month with this post, I'm ending on a low. I probably shouldn't write this post today; we'll see if I publish or scrap it.


  • dinner at Straub's Krone is always a high, and I think we might have dined there three times this month. One spontaneous visit was because of this weekend special (lamb):

  • despite the lengthy low you'll see below, I still enjoy teaching German in Germany!

  • beginning to interview another refugee from Syria for my local project. His story has been hard to hear at times - I cannot imagine going through what he experienced last year - but I feel genuinely privileged that he has been willing to share it with me. I'll be spending some time this weekend putting my notes into text.

  • my new home office arrangement. M set me up with a double-screen system with two obnoxiously large screens, and I'm somewhat afraid that I'll never be satisfied with just my laptop (which is tucked under the screen on the right in a docking station) again. Now I can have my Wörterbuch open on the left while typing a text on the right.


  • several days of unexplained and annoying shoulder pain that mutated overnight (last night) to pain that prevents me from moving and using my arm normally without whimpering. It's my right shoulder, so I'm trying to do most things with my left hand now. That doesn't work for writing on the board, and I can't lift my hand/arm above shoulder-height without shooting pain. I jokingly posted on Facebook a few days ago that I should start riding again, since my hip pain got much better only after I started riding. As of today I wouldn't be able to lift the saddle onto the horse's back. Ibuprofen has been as helpful as TicTacs, and I'm feeling old and broken.

  • the big one: doubting my ability to teach well enough. I've told the director of the language program at the VHS that I am available to teach a full Integrationskurs (600 hours of language instruction + 60 hours of Orientation Course) starting sometime this fall. Today I'm full of self-doubt.

    The thing that's been troubling me lately is that approximately half of my students come 1-2 hours late to class and/or leave an hour early, and many of those same students concentrate on their Handys while they're there. They are adults, and I don't feel right treating them like children (i.e. telling them to put their phones away, scolding them for being late, etc.). I enjoy teaching, and I am passionate about teaching German. I love the language, despite - and sometimes even because of - its complexities! I surely understand it's not easy to learn, but foreigners (like me!) living in Germany need to learn it in order to work and thrive in the community,

    When someone is focusing on his Handy during my class, that is a loud and clear message to me that he (or she) is not interested in what I am trying to teach him. It's the electronic version of flipping me the Stinkefinger, as the Germans call it. Imagine a student sitting in a class for an hour just showing his middle finger to the teacher and doing nothing else (occasionally putting the finger down to read a few sentences when called upon). That's what smartphone use in class is to me.

    I'm not talking about checking the meaning of a word or googling something connected to what we're learning. I'm talking about students completely blocking me out. Eye contact from the students who give it has become a warm fuzzy for me.

    The other thing I assume is that they don't care whether they learn enough to pass the final test or not. I can't force them to care. They're old enough to realize that if they don't learn, they're not going to pass the test.

    Obviously if I were a better and more interesting teacher, my students wouldn't be so focused on their Handys and Facebook during the 3 1/2 hours of class. One of my students told me today that it was definitely not like that with their former teacher. Everyone came and left punctually, and Handys were used at most for looking up words. This student seemed as baffled as I am. Clearly I am doing something wrong.

    I throughly enjoy the interaction with the students who are engaged. I like to see them learn and progress, and I will continue to spend hours every afternoon and evening - gladly! - planning lessons, creating activities, writing worksheets and practice quizzes for them. I am fully there for the students who are willing to do whatever they need to do to learn. I am sad about the other ones.

  • frankly, I miss my "Dream Team" - my first group of students at the Hermann-Hesse-Kolleg. When that class ended, I considered giving up teaching (again), because I knew it could never be that good with any other group. My next ever-changing group at the HHK went well, too, but I fear I've made a mistake in continuing. 

  • my failed attempt to drive to Esslingen earlier this week

  • the disappearance of the "Blogs I Read" thingy (gadget?) in the margin. WTH, Blogger?!?

That's all. I'm going to curl up on the sofa with my bum shoulder and a light-weight book and try to think about something else.

Have a beautiful October!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Driving in Germany 11: Next Time I'll Take the Train

For those of you who do not live in Germany but have heard that there are no speed limits on the Autobahn and think, "Wow, that must be SOOO fun!!!!", I've got news for you.

It's true there are stretches here and there without speed limits where the nutcases drive like bats out of hell flashing their lights and waving their arms like maniacs when they have to slow down to 120 mph because you started passing a semi before they appeared in your rearview mirror. On my drive from home to Esslingen there are two such stretches. I go about 76 mph (120km/h) and sometimes creep up to 80 mph because there's just no blinking reason to drive faster than that. I regularly have cars flying past me in the left lane, which I avoid like the plague.

The thing I want to tell you about today, however, is not about racing on the Autobahn. It's the reason why it so often doesn't make any different that there are sections without speed limits. I'm talking about Staus. Traffic jams.

Tonight I had a meeting to attend in Esslingen for our exchange program. Knowing how problematic traffic can be, especially during rush hour, I left at 15:00 for the 19:00 meeting. I did this last week also - though with fewer problems than today - and spent the extra time at my Schwiegermutter's home, where I talked her ear off as usual and then we had a light dinner together.

The drive is 46 miles (75 km) and should take about an hour. When I'm driving it takes about an hour and 10 minutes.

Today after 90 minutes of driving, I was 2 km beyond halfway. I bailed in Sindelfingen, pulled into some bus parking lot near the Mercedes Benz Customer Center, called my Schwiegermutter and said I was turning around - after several failed attempts at figuring out how to make a call with my damn smartphone while shouting profanities at it.

Part of the reason I quit was because despite having driven 25 miles (40 km) in 90 minutes, the GPS was telling me my estimated time of arrival was still 80 minutes away. The Stau that I had been sitting in for about an hour already was not going to dissipate. And looking ahead I could see another on ramp with cars and semis creeping along at a child's pace merging onto the Autobahn where I was.

Poor Katja (that's our GPS) had been trying repeatedly since before I got onto the Autobahn to lead me on other routes, but I know only one way to get to Esslingen and hate driving on unfamiliar roads. Keeping my attention on the road, other wild drivers, and Katja because I don't know where I am or where I'm going is just too much. So I took my chances with whatever she was trying to steer me away from.

When I finally took Katja's "This is your third and final last chance" advice to exit at Sindelfingen, she was telling me I still had more than an hour to go. That was no problem really, because M had filled the tank on Sunday and I still had plenty of time before the start of the meeting. But then she started asking me questions. I'm driving in unfamiliar territory into what is rapidly becoming rush hour traffic, and now I'm supposed to accept or reject multiple suggestions from Katja?? Just give me ONE route and shut up! But no, she had to ask me if I wanted to cut 9 minutes off my new route. It is hugely unwise to take one's eyes off the road to discuss options with the GPS, but I clicked the "ja" button hoping she'd just carry on. Silly me. She recalculated and told me to do a U-turn.

Nope. I'm done.

After I called my Schwiegermutter and calmed down, I got back in the car and told Katja to get me home. Thirty minutes later, I started typing this blog post.

Yep, driving on the Autobahn is loads of fun. A real blast. I wonder if it is a bad sign that, as I left our house and locked the front door, I actually said aloud but quietly, "Please let this not be the end."

Trains. 'Nuf said.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Reader Issues

I love to read. I go stir crazy when I have to wait somewhere and don't have a book with me. I've even taken a book to the grocery store on Saturdays, knowing the lines at the check out can be really long and slow. Last week I was stuck in town for a few hours because my plans didn't pan out, and I was cursing myself for having decided to leave my book at home, thinking I wouldn't have time to read anyway. I wrote a letter to my daughter instead, and then after three hours remembered that I have a Kindle app on my phone. I should mention that I'm an old-fashioned reader who likes real live books - not machine versions of books (though I admit those are handy for traveling).

I have a problem, though, or maybe an illness or defect. I have rarely read a book in which I did not at some point find a mistake - sometimes in information, but usually in language. "Lay" instead of "lie,"misspellings, missing or wrong words ("the" instead of "they")... I swear, I'm not looking for mistakes - I just notice them. Last year I read a print version of the ebook* of Little Women, and it was so riddled with errors I nearly threw it in the trash. I wondered if the person doing the typing or transcribing knew English. I think that's one reason why I am steering away from ebooks. I'm assuming someone has to type the text for all those ebooks unless they're scanned by some fancy text-reading machine, but either way mistakes creep in that weren't in the original.

  *I don't actually know if it is "ebook," "E-Book," "eBook" or something else. I've seen all versions.

Don't get me wrong - I make mistakes, too. Countless times I have come back to a recent or old blog post of mine and found errors while rereading. I always fix them and I also appreciate my readers who let me know when they find a mistake (mainly M, my daughter, and my mom do this). I don't think making mistakes makes someone an idiot, but my own mistakes really bother me.

Sometimes I wish I weren't so "good" at spotting mistakes, because they annoy and distract me, especially when I'm in a grumbly mood. I read enough in German these days to find this happening to me with German books as well. I suppose part of this comes from years of teaching writing (in both English and German). I truly enjoy editing. but why is it so much easier to spot mistakes in other people's writing than in one's own??

Just yesterday I came across a pretty significant error in a book whose purpose is to teach foreigners about life and living in Germany. I begin teaching the orientation course part of this integration course on Monday, and I'm learning one step ahead of my students. The book is new to me, the subject is new to me, and the course is new to me. I need to be prepared!

The error appeared in a paragraph about the Bundestag, which is the German parliament. If I knew more about my own government, I could confidently say it's equivalent to the U.S. senate - but I don't know and it doesn't matter (because my students don't need to compare it to the U.S. government).

Anyway, here's the problem text followed by my translation:
"Der Bundespräsident leitet die Sitzungen des Bundestages. Er ist in der Regel ein Abgeordneter der stärksten Fraktion. Nach dem Bundespräsidenten hat er das zweithöchste Staatsamt."

"The federal president leads the sessions of the Bundestag. He is usually a delegate of the strongest faction. After the federal president he has the second highest office in the government."

There are several things that don't mesh here. I know that the Bundespräsident is not a delegate of the strongest faction in the Bundestag. And how can he have the second highest office after himself?

Since I need to be certain before I go questioning the information in a textbook, I waited for the Formula-1 qualifying to be over (Go Nico!!) and asked M. Sure enough, where the writer wrote "Bundespräsident," he should have written "Bundestagspräsident."

I then checked out the book on Amazon and found only one review. The reviewer also mentioned mistakes. Crap! What other ones are there? This is not good. But in general, I like the book! It's quite straight forward and just includes the facts. Another book I looked at was thicker and longer because it included lots of puzzles, games, a cartoon or two, unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming activities... Since this phase of the Integrationskurs is only 12 days long (60 hours), there's no way we could get through all that. The Cornelsen book above may be imperfect as most textbooks are, but it presents the most important information concisely. I think my adult students will agree - just tell me what I need to know to pass the test. Whatever else I want to learn I'll do on my own time.

Am I alone here? If you're a reader too, do you regularly find mistakes in the books and novels you read?

P.S. Let me know if you spot any mistakes in this post! ;-)

Friday, September 9, 2016

I was like...STOP IT!!

I overheard a conversation at dinner the other day, mainly because I cannot block out American English like I can block out German. That probably has something to do with one's native language versus a second language. Even though I can understand German, I still need to concentrate and pay attention, so it's easy not to eavesdrop. When I hear American English, especially over here where it's not entirely common, it's unfortunately harder to ignore.

I do believe the speaker is a college student who is here for an intensive German immersion experience, although the only German I heard her use was "Hallo" and "Tschüß." Every time she stepped away, the people she was talking with spoke German to each other. When the American returned, the conversation switched back to English. I have no doubt she's very nice, and what follows is not a personal attack on her. Hearing her reminded me of conversations I have not been able to block out on airplanes, in restaurants, and in school in Wisconsin.

This is what part of the conversation would have sounded like in German (I'm making up the actual content of what was said; the point is how she spoke):

"Ich war wie, 'Du bist, wie, in meiner Klasse und weißt, wie, nicht mehr als mich [sic], weißt du?' Und sie war wie, 'oh, es tut mir leid. Ich wollte nur helfen,' und ich war wie, 'verbessere mich nicht mehr, ok?'  Das war, wie, SO nervig! Und die Lehrerin war wie, 'Was ist los?' und ich war wie, 'Nichts, alles klar.'"

The American-English original:
"I was like, 'You're like in the same class as me, and like, you don't know more than me, you know?' And she was like, "Oh, sorry. I was just trying to help,' and I was like, 'Just don't correct me anymore, ok?' That was like, SO annoying! And the teacher was like, 'What's wrong?' and I was like, 'Nothing, it's all good.'"

I realize the whole "I was like" (meaning "I said" or "I thought") thing is just a habit, and if I'm being honest I'm sure I use it too when I am with native English speakers (hopefully only occasionally). But Americans (I don't know if Brits do this, too) need to be aware of this little quirk and not use it with people who are translating into their own language.

The German translation of that little speech sounds absolutely stupid (as do most other grammatical mistakes native English speakers make if you translate them into German - case in point, "Mich und mein Freund fahren nach New York" - Me and my friend..." - and "Ich bin diese Woche schon 2 Kilometer lief" - "I have already ran 2 km this week"), but the English original does too, especially to an outsider who is sitting close enough that it's impossible not to overhear.

The thing that bothers me most when native speakers of English speak like this in a foreign country or to foreigners in America is that it is teaching or spreading crappy English. I do not want exchange students spending six months in America to return to their home country inserting "like" three times into every statement. "I stayed in like a really nice house with like a super nice family and was like the best time of my life!"

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it is creeping into students' writing assignments. They use it on Twitter and probably in text messages (SMSs) as well, so it should come as no surprise that I saw this in high school essays. I typically drew a dark circle around the word (though in happy purple, not red) and wrote "Seriously?!?" in the margin - because "WTF" wasn't appropriate - with an arrow pointing to the word. It started happening more and more frequently, so I fled the country.

Someone needs to figure out how to surgically remove that word from the English language. Or develop a pill that stops its use.

"Knock. It. OFF!!!"