Sunday, February 5, 2012

We Welcome Fulbright Scholar Martin Leimser to CSB/SJU in 2012-2013

Editor's note:  Each year we are blessed with Fulbright Scholars/ Teaching Assistants who invigorate our German Studies program and classrooms in many ways -- making friends with CSB/SJU students, speaking German with you and teaching you about things European.  The following are Martin Leimser's thoughts about teaching and about his academic path so far.

Dear Students and Professors at Saint Ben's and Saint John's,
   Since I come from the very west of Austria, Vorarlberg, I grew up speaking a very distinctive dialect similar to Swiss-German. The Vorarlberg dialect is not usually intelligible at all to other German-speaking people in Austria or Germany. However, as my mother is from Upper-Austria, I was used to also speaking standard German from early youth on, and because I have many relatives in Upper-Austria I also learned the differences that arise from these different dialects. The fact that I grew up speaking both the Vorarlberg dialect and standard German actually set me apart from my peers. The dialectical diversity is a fact I would definitely like to point out about Austria.
   The different regional cultures and especially dialects might seem surprising due to the country’s size, however after from an historical point of view they are easily explained due to the country's various native inhabitants. A number of different Germanic tribes lived in the different areas of Austria and next to them.

   Being born into a family of teachers, which both my mother and my father teaching at secondary schools and many aunts and uncles in the same profession, my plan had always been to not just follow in their footsteps but to shape my own future and do something different in life. This idea was even reinforced as many of my friends and colleagues at this time told me I would inevitably become a teacher one day as they thought this profession just really suited me.
   However since my early childhood I have been fascinated by nature, the outdoors and particularly animals, so that I soon had a lot of different pets at home, some of which I also started to breed, and to my friends' delight and their parents' displeasure gave to them as pets.
   One of my uncles on my mother's side of the family, who happens to be a veterinary practitioner always strongly encouraged me to follow this passion and upon my particular desire to learn more about animals, let me watch him at work, and once I grew a little older even let me help him sometimes. As one can imagine his work seemed fascinating to me, and I soon came to the conclusion that becoming a vet was my vocation. As a consequence biology was always one of my favorite subjects in secondary school, a fascination that could only be matched by English and maybe Latin.
   After living in Vienna, 500 miles away from my hometown, for a while however, and thus being surrounded by a completely different dialect, my passion for languages, that I had already had in secondary school became renewed again too. As my cousin was studying English at that time, I took advantage of the classes she attended and started reading the books she had to read voluntarily, and in consequence got exposed to many classics of the British literature.
   Soon after, my interest began to shift gradually from veterinary medicine towards English literature and languages in general, however admitting this change of interests to myself was more painful to me than I was able to handle at this time. After all, since I had started to think about possible professions I had been convinced that veterinary medicine was my vocation and future. After two years of studying veterinary medicine I eventually decided to change my careers, as it became obvious to me that i was not meant to be a vet, but that animals and nature should rather remain to me what they had been for so many years: a wonderful hobby and responsibility. So, although I kept breeding tortoises, I moved from Vienna to Innsbruck and only knowing that I wanted to work with languages decided to consult a careers advisory service. There my advisor confirmed to me, what people had always told me already in my past: I was best suited to become a teacher.
   So I enrolled in the college of education in Innsbruck and started by studying English and Latin, as I had already loved these two subjects in secondary school. Although I liked both subjects, I came across multilingual class in the course of my didactic education one year later, and first discovered Spanish. I was immediately fascinated by this language, even more than by Latin and although I still like this language a lot, I changed my career one ore time to English and Spanish one year later. Ever since I have been fascinated by this career, and really appreciate the different fields we study in the course of this program, and the possibility of being fluent in two foreign languages offer. Consequently I have been going abroad and attending different colleges in Spain and America regularly for the last four years.

   As a future teacher I want to make sure that my students feel like individuals in the classroom and that their contribution to classroom activity is appreciated. Judging from my experience while studying abroad, I feel that this is a principle that is already carried out at American universities and I would love to work with professors that share this ideal. Another principle that matters a lot to me in my future career is for students to understand and possibly share the passion for foreign languages and cultures that I have always felt myself, and have them realize the possibilities that each language brings with it. I feel that working as a teaching assistant in my native language would be the best opportunity to convey this sentiment, as I am also a student and thus still a motivated learner myself. However, I can still act as an expert in the students' area of study.
   As I have already completed the last course of my pedagogical training at the University of Innsbruck last semester and have had the opportunity to practice various teaching methods in the course of the different internships, methodology in teaching has become of particular relevance to me.
   Although I have tried out different approaches to teaching, and am still excited to learn about new ones, I still think that one of the best techniques for a teacher to introduce a new topic is direct instruction, or frontal teaching. I feel that this is especially true when it comes to grammatical structure like the passive voice that can sometimes be hard to understand when first introduced. In this situation the best way for students to learn, is to profit from the teacher's knowledge, and have him or her explain the topic. Of course I am also convinced that it is always necessary to encourage the students to ask questions and talk about possible doubts or problems which are likely to arise.
   When it comes to communication on the other hand, I think the students' active involvement in the classroom activity is necessary to make sure that learning and progress takes place. The possibilities I can offer in this area as a native speaker are of course of considerable use, as I would definitely include open discussions with my students about various topics, and they would be exposed to authentic German.
   During my internships, however, I experienced that many students opened up significantly more when working in smaller groups, when they did not have to speak out loud in front of the whole classroom. I have thus become really fond of having my students elaborate and talk about topics in groups while I move from one group to the next one to participate in their discussion and/or listen to them for a while and possibly give them further input before moving to the next one.
   During my last internship I was also exposed to "Open Learning" for the first time, where students are given tasks and work all on their own and the teacher merely acts as a counselor that can be consulted when needed. I would definitely also like to try out this method, as I think it could probably create greater intrinsic motivation to learn on the students' behalf.