A conversation with Jim Ekdahl (pictured right), German teacher at L’Anse Creuse High School — North in Macomb Township, about his partnership with Jan Hambsch (pictured left), English teacher at the Josef-Durler-Schule in Rastatt, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Also featured are Kellie Kahl, LCHS-N teacher who has accompanied Ekdahl and students on Germany trips; and Emily Coach, former student of Ekdahl’s and current student at Bowling Green State University
How did you end up teaching in Germany?
JIM EKDAHL: It’s kind of a longer story. Back in 2012 or so, L’Anse Creuse sent me to a conference called the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning. It’s a Michigan group and they focus on how to use technology in the classroom, what do you do with your kids as far as using those tools that are available. It’s kind of a funny story because it was this session about how to use Twitter as a teacher, to use it for professional development. The only reason I went in there was because I needed a spot to sit to have my lunch. It was the only one where there were some seats open, so I went in and the guy starts talking. I thought, wouldn’t this be a great way to contact some teachers in Germany? That has always been one of my goals.
So after a long period of time I found out that they have a hashtag they use in German education, it’s #EdChatDE (for Deutschland), and all the teachers when they tweet, they put that on there. So I just randomly started sending messages to teachers, it didn’t really work too well, and then all of a sudden a woman answered me, a very sweet woman who does IQ testing in Frankfurt. So the next year she sends me a message and she said, do you live anywhere near I-94 between Boston and Chicago, we’re gonna be coming through Detroit. Like, that’s where we are. So she came here to our school. She had a giant camera, she was taking pictures of everything. Her English was okay, but to try to explain to a German why we do homecoming, it was a real hard conversation.
After talking, I said, ‘do you know any teachers who teach English in Germany,’ and she said, ‘yeah, I know a whole bunch.’ So she set me up with a guy [named] Jan Hambsch, he’s an English teacher. So we were on a student trip and he and I met up for coffee and we came up with this idea, wouldn’t it be great if his students of English and my students of German worked together to do some things? So they would send us videos in English that our kids could comment and help them with, our kids could send them videos in German back. How great is that, right? So the kids just thought that was the best. We tried to do a few live video sessions but with the time change, we had to get here at like 7:00 in the morning and they had to stay late and so it didn’t really work out too well. Putting videos up there was great. The kids just thought it was fantastic.
So after doing that for several years, on this last trip, we had a trip where, along with L’Anse Creuse High School, we brought 40 people to Germany. So I sent the chaperones and the students back without me on the flight and I stayed behind by myself. And I took the train to Stuttgart and kind of hung out there for the day and he picked me up. He’s got a wife and two young children and they just let me into their home for a week and let me stay with them.
And so I got to go to the same school where those students were who made those videos for us, and I felt like I knew these kids already because we had seen them in all these different videos throughout the years, we saw where they lived, and the school. So we get there, and oh! Did they just think that was great. I’ve never taught English before in another country, and to be part of the lesson that he was presenting, they were doing a lesson on the American Dream, what does it mean to have the American Dream. And to see that from a German perspective, that they were learning about how there’s this optimism in the United States and they were very interested in the United States and very interested in communicating with our students. That was something where it really gave them the motivation to learn English, and for my students a huge motivation to learn German.
Kind of a long story, but it starts with one little thing and now I feel like I have this direct connection to a whole group of people where if we have questions, how great is that? So the next trip, just from this school, we have 44 people signed up for 2020 already. And what we’re gonna try to do is the same thing, but I’m gonna bring a smaller group of those kids with me to stay for a week with homes of kids.
Wouldn’t it be great if they do this video project with a student and at the end of the year they stay with that student?
It’s really not that hard to do because they’re there anyway on this German trip, we just have to get a train ticket for them for Frankfurt to Karlsruhe.
One of the coolest things, I have a student who went to the University of Michigan this fall, one of my best students, and she has a German class there and she’s doing really good but she had all these questions. Instead of contacting me, she contacted her German.
I told her, you’re not just leaving with German, you’re gonna be leaving with your own German connection for life.
This young lady’s gonna be her age forever, and so wouldn’t it be great if they met up some day, and they’re certainly gonna stay in contact — she said this young lady in Germany helped her for four hours on her classwork. Isn’t that a sweet thing to see how people help each other out like that.
What was it like teaching the German kids?
JE: It was strange just speaking in English. Their English is fantastic. They’ve generally had seven or eight years already so for most of them their English is very good. Some of them were a little bit apprehensive about speaking German to me at first, and then they certainly opened up and then they had tons of questions.
There’s a huge Mercedes Benz factory in their town so their school is very much focused on engineering and auto manufacturing, so they were fascinated [that] we were from the Detroit area. They all knew that city, they knew about the automotive industry here. And so it felt a little bit strange talking about the United States to a larger group where there were no other Americans there. I got the general sense that they were fond of the United States, enamored with American culture, had lots of questions about the Detroit area and what we do here, and they had seen a lot of how the students live. There was a video where the students had to show their homes and their neighborhoods, and what it looked like every day. They took some videos at 7-11 getting Slurpees. And they had lots of questions about, what does the average American kid do during the day? They also had a lot of deeper questions about economics and things like that, they had a lot of questions about our healthcare system, and they wanted to know about healthcare subsidies.
They had lots of questions about why we do things the way we do. A lot of it was just talking about where we live and how life is different.
And they had lots of questions about how Americans perceive Germans. Generally I think Americans are fond of Germans even though there’s a long history that goes back to a lot of things. I think you always see yourself a little differently than other people do.
As far as teaching day to day, it was a lot of fun. I must admit that I really enjoyed myself, it was kind of a treat for me because as a German teacher, you can imagine it doesn’t get much better than that, right?
Was there anything that really surprised you about the experience?
KELLIE KAHL: Their struggles with technology that you were really proficient with, like when they were using some of the iPads and things like that, you were quickly able to be like ‘oh, just this, this and this’ and I think you were surprised at their limits with some of that technology. Like you sat in on their PD.
JE: Yeah, so [Jan Hamsch is] kind of an advanced teacher over there. Not every teacher is like that. And so he had a group of English teachers that one day where they were on a more basic level. So part of me is proud [that] in our school system, we educate everybody in that same building. Their education system is a little bit different where they have tiered education and smaller schools, and it’s a little more serious sometimes. I think she is right that we do a pretty great job here too. So sometimes people shortchange the American education system, but again, when you go and you see that, you think, okay, maybe we are doing a good job of keeping up.
Even though L’Anse Creuse is just local, we have a whole group of Germans who the only school they know is L’Anse Creuse. Think about that. There is a group in Baden-Württemberg where when they think of the United States, they think of L’Anse Creuse first.
So if you say, what do you know about the United States, they would say, ‘well, I know a lot about this one little spot.’ And I guarantee you some of those kids will come here at some point. What I thought was strange is that we’ve all been to Germany (my students), but very few of them had come to the United States.
Why do you think it is that way?
JE: Well, I think a lot of it is expense for them, and that they can get their English speaking if they go to England – it’s right there. They have this fascination with the United States but part of it is that it’s so big that if you want to see the United States what do you go do, you almost have to pick a spot, whereas Germany you can see almost the whole country of Germany in a couple weeks. I asked their students, how many of you have been to the United States, only a couple out of those 20 or 25 kids had been to the United States and it was New York or [other big cities].
What’s funny is they had all heard of Detroit, which kind of surprised me. Sometimes I guess you take your own home for granted a little bit, and then it’s maybe a little more famous than you [thought]. In their textbook, in one of the chapters, there’s a page on Detroit. That’s like the study of that chapter. We have the same thing in our German books: here’s a page about Austria, here’s a page about Berlin, but to see your own page… and it’s got a picture of the Renaissance Center and it’s got Comerica Park in there, and it talks about the bankruptcy. And what’s great is that for them to realize when that book had been written it was a tough period of Detroit’s history, but in the greater Metropolitan area and in the downtown area, are all these great things too. So it gives us a chance to kind of highlight some good things too.
Would Jan Hamsch ever be interested in coming here to teach your students?
JE: Oh, for sure. So I have asked him and of course he would love to come. The issue is, we get to go because we go on these Germany trips where for us the expense is minimal because we’re already there. They don’t do a lot of group travel like that, and so for me I’ve always thought about doing something where we find a way to get him, because he does have a lot of skills he could share, he would love to do that. And so it’s just a matter of, if I ever just got enough money to get an airline ticket to get him here, how great would that be.
Was it easy for the students to make connections with each other?
JE: Oh yeah. They related very well to each other.
What I love about that is that speaking German with me is fun for a little while, but to speak German to a peer who’s very excited to communicate to you [is more fun].
I had a young man who was a reluctant learner of German, and then he did this project and he turned in a video for these Germans that was the best in the class. I thought to myself, that’s fantastic. He goes, ‘yeah, I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of the Germans.’ But if it were just for me, he wouldn’t maybe put as much time into it. There’s something different maybe when it’s seen from the outside like that. And I think there was that charm a little bit where, you know how teenagers are when they meet other teenagers, they have that connection. It was great because they could communicate. Their German skills impressed them that they could communicate in German with these people pretty easily.
Did you get an inkling of what the German students took away from the experience?
JE: It’s a tough one, because they’re a serious group of people who are on this tight curriculum schedule and they made time to do this as part of the lessons they were doing, but I think what they were interested in is, they don’t really know that many Americans.
When they leave their school, they have this permanent connection to these Americans all the time.
So these kids have found each other on social media. What’s interesting about that is that [some of] our kids have graduated now, [and] for a long, long time they will have left here with that connection, and it depends on what they end up doing with it, even if it’s just saying hello once in a while.
Do you still have a connection with them?
EMILY COACH: I have a little over ten of them on social media, so a few of them still talk to me sometimes.
What were some of the differences between the classroom here and the classroom there?
JE: What’s funny is that a teacher doesn’t have one classroom there. A lot of the time the students will stay in the classroom and the teachers will move around, so that’s odd. Or you’ll go into the classroom and it’s completely bare. There’s no posters, there’s no pictures, there’s no personal effects, where our rooms are filled with that stuff. It’s a very professional, very serious environment which is good to a certain extent but they still like to have their fun.
Their school is very modern, architecture-wise (…) they had a school dog. The school dog could go around the school and made the kids feel good, when they needed to pet a dog, the dog was there. They had this wonderful little bakery where they had these fresh baked German rolls they would sell to the kids in the school. They were very technology focused, and so they were doing these virtual reality projects online, one kid showed me this video he filmed with his drone that he had added special effects to, and these kids were pretty far along with their skills.
They also do a lot of manufacturing training, so they did machining of parts and so they had a tremendous interest in someday finding some way to make that connection between auto manufacturing and visiting here. Because they have that Mercedes Benz plant that’s right outside the school… I think to myself, because we have CTE combined with MST, if we did bring some German kids here that would be what they were drawn to. It reminded me of [the Mechatronics program] because when we walked down the halls of their school they had major sections of the school that had 3D printing and all these things that I don’t know how to use. A major portion of the day was focused on job training, and taking all the science that they had learned. But again, English is such an important skill as part of that, and their motivator is that we really are an easy way for them to study English. You could understand their English pretty well, their English is pretty good.
EC: You could have a full-on conversation with them understanding completely everything you were saying.
Did it surprise you how similar they were to you?
EC: I was kind of expecting it, because a teenager is a teenager.
They have different experiences and they had different interests, but overall they were just kids just like us.
[Ekdahl] would say, ‘oh this is the Anton or the Monica of our class.’
JE: I compared some of them to some of the kids in the class, because you could tell there were certain kids that would just get along. Then it was funny, when I met them, I was right about their personalities! You can tell a lot from a five minute video about a person. And then the Germans had a lot of questions about you guys.
KK: I think they were really interested because you guys showed a lot of what your homes were like, and our middle class homes are so much bigger than German homes and there’s so much difference in just the size of our refrigerators.
JE: Well, their homes tend to be smaller, they tend to live closer together, whereas our kids show their giant yards… People just think it’s amazing that all our kids have cars. A few of them showed up on motorcycles to school! They did have lots of questions about, ‘oh, you have a car,’ that’s something that for an American is great but it’s not that unusual. And for them, I don’t think any of those students, maybe a few of them have their own car.
Did you get to see what their houses look like?
EC: A lot of my class, we didn’t do a tour of the inside of our house, they did the tour about the inside of their houses, and we did the tour of our town, which is a lot different than where they live, because it’s a town, not a village.
JE: There’s one girl that goes, my home was built in 1790!
KK: We barely even had a United States then.
JE: So I think their sense of history is different. It’s right outside the Black Forest where they all live, right on the border of France. Right along the Rhine River is this town called Rastatt, and so you can look across the Rhine River and see France, which is pretty great. Beautiful area. It’s called Baden-Württemberg, southwestern Germany.