by Virginia Palmer- Fuechsel
While preparing for one of our school’s first international exchange trips, I thought a lot about the nature of communication and friendship in today’s world wide web. Social networks are bringing more people together than ever. The internet is flooded with personal photos, memes, videos, news, gossip, games, covers, profiles, and selfies. Some people seem to practically live their lives on the internet. They share, post, comment, twitter, chat, skype, log, blog, vlog, reshare, and overshare. And what would we do without YouTube? The biggest social network by far is Facebook, and that brings me back to the possibilities and limitations of online exchanges.
Three years ago, when I was challenged with the task of re-starting a German language program at The New School, I spent a lot of time searching for up-to-date, teen-friendly internet content to supplement the otherwise excellent Langenscheidt immersion curriculum. It didn’t take long before I stumbled on a YouTube channel called “Easy German” (you know, that European language that has the reputation of being really hard to learn). Easy German started in 2006 at the Schillergymnasium (a college prep school) in Münster, where, under the leadership of a creative, global thinking media instructor, students have been producing increasingly professional, very cool street interviews, language lessons, and cultural exchange videos. Through watching their episodes, my students learned loads of new vocabulary, but even more, enjoyed glimpses of different cultures, dialects, concepts, places, and faces. Some faces became familiar over time. But they were still just faces on the screen. So when Easy German created a Facebook group, I joined, hoping to learn more through participating in this international language learning and sharing community.
One day last summer, I noticed that the English subtitles on one of the recent uploads were a bit wonky; obviously, someone had taken the Google translator short cut. I made a friendly comment and gently corrected the text. This led to an offer to help out with more episodes. Before long, Janusz Jamerski (Schillergymnasium’s media guru), Carina Schmid (manager of the affiliated non-profit, The Global Experience), and I were busily exchanging notes and subtitle scripts back and forth, and while doing this, getting to know each other. Finally, I plucked up courage to ask the question on my mind, “Would it be possible to bring some of our students over to your school, to work with and learn from you and the German students in your media classes?” The answer that came back was, “Ja! Let’s figure out how to do it!”
So, to make a long story short, after months of preparation we assembled an exchange group of five students who were totally excited about spending face-to-face time in Münster, Hamburg, and Cologne with their new Facebook and E-mail buddies. Nine days were just too short for everything we wanted to do, but we packed in as much as we could. It was wonderful to finally hug our exchange hosts and Easy German friends! We came back stuffed with faces, places, exchanges, experiences, digital footage, and skills that will help us produce our first Easy English-American Edition videos.
But let’s hear from the students themselves, for this is their trip, and they have been involved from the get-go in making this exchange a reality. And, because it was a media workshop trip, their contributions to this blog are in video form. Here is a friendly video in which some of our Schillergymnasium Münster student hosts are inviting us to visit their school:
This was our students’ video response about themselves and The New School:
But it’s easier to tell you about our trip with excerpts from my daily iphone log and two of our first videos for the Easy Languages channel:
Our day in Cologne (Sunday, April 6)
We arrived at the Köln Hauptbahnhof with German punctuality at 11:29 AM. After finding a comfortable café for today’s home base (Starbucks, in the hopes of better wifi access), we talked through the day’s schedule and video shoot assignments. Our team of 5 American and 4 German students then left our gear with Janusz Hamerski, our Video Meister, to see the sights around the Kölner Dom. After a brief glimpse inside the cathedral (we couldn’t go in, due to Sunday services), we walked to the train bridge over the Rhine. I don’t know when this “locks of love” fashion became the vogue, but we found the high, heavy-duty wire fence separating the pedestrian walk-way from the train tracks completely covered with every sort of decorated padlock that you can imagine. All colors and shapes, inscribed with countless names. We inspected them closely as we walked across, then under, back up, and over on the other side of the bridge spanning the Rhein. The views of Cologne and the river were simply splendid on this fine day. Before heading back, we decided to attempt the climb up the cathedral tower. Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one who needed occasional breathers while struggling up the 533 (!!!) steps to the observation gallery around the pinnacle’s base. The views were incredible! When ready, we walked carefully down the seemingly endless steep, narrow and stony, spiral stairs. As I later told the kids, we’ll have memories and bragging rights for life.
Once back at our Starbucks base, we packed up our gear and got to work. Today we split into 3 teams. Janusz took Brian and Nikolai to finish our political Easy-German video, asking passersby, “What should Obama do?” The girls (Käte with a local friend joining her for the day, Vi, Valentina, and Queenie) shot imaginative footage for a “Verbs in Aktion” video. Lennard and Anil had a great time working together under Vince’s camera direction on a very funny but instructional video, “Doing Verbs in Köln.” I followed the boys and sometimes Janusz, capturing images of them at work on camera and “film.” It was good to see how much they learned from our video shoot in Hamburg yesterday and how well the German and American students are working together.
Here’s one of the first results from that day (including footage from our shoot in Hamburg):
But, as we learned during the next few school days, video production is a time consuming and tricky business. Four days were impossibly short for the amount of footage we had to process.
Video Workshop with Janusz Hamerski, Day 1.
Yesterday’s session started later than planned, because we couldn’t get in the media lab. So we hung out in a corner bakery and enjoyed German breakfast pastries. TD #1. What? No phone signal? Argh. Once we were all there, Janusz gave us his standard introductory lecture: relax, have fun, stay focused, be professional, and don’t forget Murphy’s Law. Prima.
First off, he got Queenie and Vi going on their project. Anil was next. Brian worked on storyboarding a mini Film Noir spoof for Janusz’ pet project, a local video contest for students. I was frustrated with TD #2; I can’t open my video footage with iMovie, as planned, which means that I’ll have to try out Adobe Premiere, which I bought in January, but haven’t had time to use yet. Poor Vince. He didn’t just have TD#3, it was a Total Fail. His video files from the Köln shoot just wouldn’t read. We tried all kinds of decoding solutions, but nada. Janusz said that’s the main difference between the amateur and a pro. The pro’s been burned badly like this before, and is very careful to make sure that it never happens again.
Despite numerous glitches, Queenie, Vi, and Anil were able to make the first raw cuts. The next phase went to the German students, who pitched in after lunch together. Vince took a crew out to the park and a playground to re-shoot their video, “Doing Verbs.” We continued cutting, with breaks for silly YouTubing and making music with Janusz’ guitar and keyboard. The girls swapped hosts for the night; little by little tired students left for home.
Enjoy the video that Vince, Lennard, Anil, and Brian made that day:
There’s so much more that we could tell from our jam-packed trip. Our students also enjoyed visiting their friends’ English classes and sharing common teenage activies, such going out for lunches in nearby bakeries and pizzerias, getting snacks in a corner grocery, taking walks in the park, singing favorite songs, exchanging selfies, playing video games, and shopping downtown. Münster is known as the bicycling capital of Germany (with easily three bikes per car), so on Wednesday I took a group out for a tour of the former city wall, which is now a beautiful park and promenade.
Our time went by swiftly, and there were a lot of tearful farewells at the train platform that Thursday evening. Now we’re back to e-mails and Facebook posts, and hoping that everything works out for the next phase of our exchange. We’re really looking forward to introducing our new German friends to our school, DC, and NYC in the fall!