Interview with Meike Thomsen: Leading by Example Series

This series is dedicated to highlighting the impact made by exemplary literacy and language professionals who lead by example. They share their inspirational tips and stories. This week I’m delighted to showcase a teacher in a German bilingual program, who inspires young learners to study German, and also mentors her fellow teachers as part of her professional practice.

What is your name, affiliation, and connection to language learning?
My name is Meike Thomsen and I’m the learning leader for the first German Bilingual Junior High Program within the public Calgary Board of Education. The program welcomes its first students in September 2010. Previously, you could find me in the same capacity in the German Bilingual elementary school of the CBE. In a bilingual school, mathematics is taught in the target language. It is my luck (and the students’)  that I love mathematics and have been working with teachers on improving math pedagogy for the past 2 years before ‘rejoining’ the German Bilingual program at the Junior High level; ordering all their resources, library collection and determining which German Math book suits our Alberta curriculum best.

What are your thoughts about leadership and language learning?
It is my strong belief that every person should speak at least two languages and should have travelled at least once for an extended period of time to a country where the language is spoken. If we are looking at gaining world peace, we need to be able to understand each other. In order to understand another culture, we have to be able to communicate in their language and need to have lived within the culture for at least a year to truly understand it.

This is the reason why all European countries encouraged the exchange of youth between cities after World War II. The city I grew up in had a ‘sister city’ in England. Every year teenagers from my city went to visit there for 2 weeks and then the British youth would come and visit us for 2 weeks. The reasoning behind? You don’t fear what you know  You also don’t want to fight a war with a nation you have visited.

Here is an example that struck me when I learned of it: During World War II an American General was ordered to bomb one of the oldest German cities (Rothenburg op de Tauber). He couldn’t bring himself to do this, because he had visited this city as a young man and new of its historical importance. This city still has original parts dating back to the 11th century. Thanks to this general, this part of German history is alive today, because he had a personal connection to Rothenburg and knew what it would mean to destroy a city like that.

In your opinion, what’s the most important aspect of a language teacher’s job?
Engagement! People who learn a second language need to be engaged and they need to understand the importance of learning a second language. In the literature review of my thesis, I have a whole section on what the benefits of second language learning are.

While adult learners usually have a very specific reason for learning a second language, children and youth need to have fun doing it. Singing, puppet plays, watching German movies and having a German pen pal (email pal) are just a few things that will engage them in learning.

The second important aspect of a language teacher is the ability to teach the culture of the other country in a way that shows children/adults that our cultures do share some commonalities, but that there are distinct differences and… this is what they are. Personal space is a major one. Our personal bubble is much bigger here in Canada than in a lot of other countries. What is considered rude or polite? What is considered harassment? To teach cultural awareness is important and can be a lot of fun.

What are some of the projects you’ve been involved with that you would like to share?
The biggest project was my research in regards to my thesis: “The Sustainability of the German Bilingual Program in Calgary”. One of the most interesting (and frustrating) experiences was that parents had complained to me about not having a voice and not getting input … yet when I was looking for research participants (a survey and a focus group) not many were forthcoming. It took me 3 different attempts and approaches to get a sufficient numbers of parents to complete the initial survey.

What do you see as three new directions in language learning?
Thanks to the evolution in technology, the interactive part of language learning has become much easier. Teachers can find teachers in the target language’s country, connect, and then connect their students. Skype is free and kids can talk to each other, using the language they are learning. It makes the language come alive and removes it from the sterility of the classroom and the textbook. Using Skype also allows the students to use their hands, body and signs to help with communications – a phone call relies exclusively on words, which is much harder for beginners.

Today, we encourage students to speak – no matter how bad the grammar might be. This is a change in attitude and is still hard for the students to do. When I learned English, our instructors encouraged us to write down the sentence and ‘get it perfect’ before trying to speak … which resulted in very stilted and not natural conversations.


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