Foreign language effort goes global

German exchange students enjoy visiting Menasha Nov. 15, 2011

German exchange student Sebastian Dallinger

MENASHA — For German student Sebastian Dallinger, spending time in the Fox Valley has been both enlightening and entertaining.

"The Green Bay Packer stadium, that was one of the highlights," said the 14-year-old. "I don't know that football is played in such a big stadium. The tour guide brought us in one of the suites (luxury boxes) where you can see the whole stadium. It's just cool there."

While the visit to Lambeau Field was memorable for Dallinger, he also was keenly interested in becoming acquainted with the highly acclaimed world languages program in the Menasha Joint School District. He was part of a contingent of students from Germany participating in a three-week home stay under the German American Partnership Program (GAPP).

Julia Sager, 15, one of 21 students from Germany who are taking part in the program, was impressed with the language skills and curiosity of the Jefferson Elementary School second-graders she spent some time with on Nov. 3 — conversing in both English and German.

She said they asked, "What my favorite sport is? What's my favorite color? What do I like at school? What's my favorite subject?"

Like most of her fellow students from Germany, Sager was visiting the U.S., and Wisconsin, for the first time.

"It's good," she said. "It's different from Germany. Here it so much bigger — the streets, the shopping malls."

Sabrina Kurz, 15, said learning languages at an early age makes it easier.

"In Germany, we also learn many languages, like Latin or French and English, of course. You learn about other countries. I think that's important."

Kurz, who said she wants to be an elementary teacher, received hugs from two students that she had visited with for about 15 minutes, alternating between German and English to help them better understand.

"It's very great (visiting) but I'm looking forward to (going back to) Germany to my parents because I miss them and all my friends," said Kurz. "This was my first flight and it was very exciting and this is my first time in the USA."

Accompanying the German students on their trip to Jefferson school was Kari Flenz, a middle school and elementary German teacher who comes to teacher Kay Gahr's classroom three times a week to help her students work on their German language skills.

"This is an outstanding opportunity for our students of German to interact in small groups with a German student," Flenz said. "Our elementary students are quite insightful and have asked questions ranging Halloween traditions in Germany to types of cars being driven in Germany and why they drive smaller cars."

Flenz was a student in Menasha in 1979 when she participated in a trip to Germany.

"We're living in a global society and I tell my students at the middle school that they have to be able to compete globally," she said. "To be able to do that they have to be able to understand and communicate with other people, other cultures and look at other perspectives. We need that just living here in Menasha. We have to look at someone else's perspective and accept it for what it is and not always think that our way is the only way.

"Having those experiences to draw upon I think is going to make a more well-rounded employee for the future. Someone who is able to look at things from different perspectives."

"GAPP opens the door to the big wide world for my students," said Sharon Geurts, middle school and high school German teacher in the district for 12 years. "They make friends with people from across the ocean — sometimes for life. They make real connections to another culture, learn how things are done somewhere else. It really opens their minds."

Participating in a foreign exchange trip will improve a student's German language fluency.

"This program also gets them excited about learning the language," Geurts said. "One of my students once said, 'It's the best thing I've ever done in my life.'"

Host parent Di Popelka of Menasha took some French classes in middle school years ago but never followed through to learn the language or use it in any meaningful way, except, for occasionally translating restaurant menu items or her husband's Facebook posts from a friend.

"I'm not fluent, obviously, but remember enough to get by," she said.

Popelka is thrilled that her two sons are learning German in Menasha schools.

"I don't really remember it being as crucial back then, maybe because we didn't live in such a globally oriented world at that time," Popelka said.

For a few weeks, Popelka's family has opened its doors and their hearts to a teen-ager from Germany for a second time. Two years ago, her son Jason Kitkowski, now a Menasha High School junior, traveled to Germany and her youngest, John Kitkowski, an eighth-grader, wants to go as soon as he can, she said.

"Now many of my kids' friends are from bilingual homes, and a lot of them have parents who don't speak much English, if any," she said. "It's really changed the focus, I think, of how our kids need to be educated, and programs like German-American Partnership Program are a great way of doing that for both the host families and the visiting students.

"The district's language program overall is pretty amazing. There are kids that graduate high school and have 13 years of education in a specific language in addition to English, and have traveled overseas, and/or hosted kids who also speak that language. It's really a jewel in Menasha's educational crown."

Ben Adams, a Menasha school board member, said both of his daughters have made visits to Germany so they opened their home as a host family again after doing it in 2009.

"Our daughters have enjoyed and been challenged by learning German," he said.

Abby Adams went on a GAPP exchange a few years ago and Rachel Adams, now a freshman, went to Germany in 2010 accompanied by her mother Debbie as a chaperone.

Next June, MHS German students will travel to Weinheim, Germany, for a 3½ week visit.

Gahr, a 20-year veteran teacher, said foreign language teachers in the district "piggyback on our goals in the regular classroom. For example, if they're learning time, telling time to the nearest five minutes, they do that in German as well. There's a partnership."

She knows the students are learning because she overhears their conversations in the hallways and outside school.

"They get started early and they're very motivated by it," she said. "They love it. I notice that they utilize it too outside of the classroom. They'll bring German words into other things that they're doing."