“I think we need to look at ourselves more as a facilitator of the language and the culture, and then take [students] on the journey. And if they feel comfortable and they know you care, which is so important I think for students, they will stick to whatever you’re trying to present them, and they will try to do as well as they can. And just step back and just let things organically happen and then respond to those things as they come up and guide them.”
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Why do we choose to be interested? What language invites us, what culture sustains us, to be engaged in an activity or in a learning experience at all? When or why would we agree to let someone else’s interest also become our own? in this insightful conversation with my guest, Linda Zins-Adams (bio), we hear some reasons why and how we choose to be engaged, learn, grow, and stay on the path to understanding.
These are important considerations for those of us who are engaged in the language and culture enterprise, the central identity of humanity. More than ever before, individuals can choose what fragment of the world they wish to focus on. And they can choose to change their focus so rapidly that they might potentially be considered to not be on a true path — a journey of growth — at all. With whom do they share language that can lead to connections? With whom do they share a culture that gives meaning to their own lives and can provide insights to others?
In her educational setting, Linda Zins-Adams points out that skimming is the way students tackle information-gathering. Such behavior makes sense: the constant presence of the cell phone, the connected watch, and the drumbeat of social media with thousands of “friends” and “followers” make for a stimulating environment and a gigantic tower of glittering facts. Like the beloved movie dog, our brains and eyes are always startling us with “squirrel!”
But what are we building with these glittering facts? Humankind has for millennia searched for meaning, for patterns, for purpose. Language itself is built not only from the “glittering pile of words” we call vocabulary, but also the pattern of how we arrange the words to make meaning, what we call syntax. But vocabulary and syntax exist only because the unique role of human language is not only to warn, attract, or guard, but to make sense of the world’s larger purpose and call. Without Why, the heap points out no path, builds no home for us to live in.
So conversations like this one need to take place. We need to learn — or learn again — how patterns and sequences lead us to deeper lives and understanding, how asking each other and ourselves questions based on deeper observation and analysis lead to common purpose and directions. How asking Why now, right in the midst of global challenges that cannot be addressed by any one individual, or solved by any one “word” out of the pile, is critical for a life fully lived, and for the survival of humanity as a whole.
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[Introduction: Language allows us to express why we are doing something. It allows us to set up a series of steps so that we can train others to do what needs to be done, and language gives us that third part, which is to give them the power to then begin the process over again of discerning why and developing the competencies needed to accomplish objectives. My podcast guest, Linda Zins-Adams, brings those three steps into her work in educational setting, specifically training students in learning the German language, German culture, and how to become global citizens through what they discover about themselves and about those languages and cultures that they have learned. But her work and those processes that she follows have impact, have meaning, and have purpose no matter what we are doing in our lives. We use the language of why, we learn the language of how, and we learn the language of you now do it for your life’s purpose. Enjoy this podcast with my guest, Linda Zins-Adams.
Hi, I’m Norah Jones. Welcome to It’s About Language. This podcast connects language and culture to life, learning, and hope. You’ll experience insightful conversations with creative leaders in the fields of education, business, arts, and science. My guests shed light on the impact of language and culture on individuals and society as they share their stories and experiences. You’ll be informed and inspired as we explore how language and culture make us human and bring hope in the midst of a challenging world.]
Norah Jones: Hello, and it’s great to welcome you to this conversation with my friend, colleague and an amazing educator, Linda Zins-Adams. Hi, Linda.
Linda Zins-Adams: Hello, I’m excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Norah Jones: Well, I’m excited to be talking with you because I remember, well, many conversations and many opportunities to see each other in conferences, but I remember sitting, I think you might remember this too, in one of your presentations, using technology in the classroom and how you had taken this brand-new concept and brought it immediately in to the communication needs of your students in the world language classroom and turned it into a powerhouse experience rather than a interesting new toy. You work right now as the Department Chair and Global Scholars Coordinator at your high school in Cincinnati, Archbishop Moeller, and you serve at the College Board Advisor for the AP, that is to say Advanced Placement German Development. You’re embedded in developing language experiences. Why and how is that? What happens when you are in the midst of thinking about how language is prepared to be taught and shared with students?
Linda Zins-Adams: I’m approaching 30 years and I never imagined, when I received my degree in German studies, that I would be teaching German full-time for 30 years because being one of those small elective languages, you just never knew if you had to pivot and do something else and wear a different hat, so I have a background also. My master’s is in special education, so I think that taught me how to look at learners differently and just how the decoding works, especially my paper, my master thesis was on the learning disabilities, having that child that is struggling, and they accomplished something and then they get into world languages, which has been a huge improvement than when I started. Because it’s not always going to be focusing on that advanced placement student, but I have to, in my program, I have to have all types of learners, and so I have to think about all their needs and lead them through and what problems they’ll have.
In learning a foreign language or world language in America, especially German, it’s not around everywhere, it’s not ubiquitous in the sense that they have it, and so my role and my job as a facilitator is to build those relationships, build that community. It’s one thing to be an educator and work collaboratively with professionals outside the school, within the school, but to include the students, and I think that’s been one of the things that I’ve developed over the years, that building the relations and the experience because we also can’t, like I said, with German, it’s not all around music and television. It’s gotten better with Netflix. I mean, those students are tapping into those things in the Internet, but you have to guide them in what they have to think about and get from the information, and then what communication piece there is.
I think when I first started, it was all about leading with structure and filling out worksheets and conjugation. Some went abroad and were successful and could develop their communication skills, but that was all about being immersed. So, I had to create that experience within the classroom, and if I could take them abroad and they got exposed to authentic things, real things there, that was fantastic, but not everyone could do that. So, I wanted to include the student and build that community, and then we approach communication through authentic materials and just explaining to them, “Why are we doing this?”
Norah Jones: Why are we doing this? You’re talking there about the fact that historically speaking, we were leading with grammar and structure, and you and I are among the ones that actually survived that. We’re able to almost thrive in it, right? But so many-
Linda Zins-Adams: Yes.
Norah Jones: … indeed dropped off, and I do want to return to that need to include all in the community, but if you’re not leading with grammar and structure, what are you leading with now?
Linda Zins-Adams: There’s something that I developed through the years, which was the Schöner, runder Kreis concept that I spiral the themes, the concepts, the things that could be stories, and we can build upon that and giving our perspective and understanding, why maybe someone in a German-speaking region do what they do and how it maybe can apply to their world and think differently. Those are things that with language, yes, the structures and functions help them in understanding and communicate ideas, but first, I want to… I like the stories as far as what I can get from authentic materials. If you look at my program, the first year, we start with the very basic ways of expressing opinions, things that they can identify with, the school system or classes.
We had really a fun time with the Music Madness, a lot of German teachers shared a playlist, and we kind of tapped into that Music Madness of March like basketball brackets, and we had these songs that played off against each other and the kids loved it, and they got to say in a butting way they liked this song better than that one, and then we went through and we picked that top winner. Those are very basic things and then exposed them in a very, very sneaky way to authentic things and saying, “Look, German speakers look different than what you may be taught a stereotypical German speaker looks like, and they have this multicultural flare to their music,” and that just kind of gets things started.
My second year, I really love… I teach an all-boys Catholic school, and so I want them to see, as a young man, who could potentially be a caregiver, leader, whatever, what that looks like, and so we do a series of movies where they get to see a divorced father, and we start talking about perspectives, and I tie that in with the story of the brothers, Adidas and Puma, and the fight that they had and how it developed these two gigantic companies because that’s incredible and what history played in there. So we built that and it’s wrapped into that.
And then third year, we kind of go into different topics, and when I want them to now think about, they know how to express opinions, we did all that, and we see that it’s different. Perspectives are different in the world and why. What happens to one’s thinking and what brings them to that historically and different things that can affect them personally? And we get into living in the country and living in the city and why Germany has the type of living arrangements they have or Switzerland or Austria? I try to bring in the whole German-speaking region and we debate. I get them in the very early stages to think about opinions, and then I start bringing them together in third year where they debate, pro and contra living in the city versus living in the country, and they have fun with that because they’ve been learning how to express their thoughts and the perspectives as far as what they’ve been exposed to that are a little bit different than in a German-speaking world versus their own, and I start pulling these things out, and they think, “Oh, this is fun.”
And we’re watching movies. Yeah, we’re watching movies, but trying to sneak in some of those different perspectives and getting them to analyze, and then they’re seeing it in the target language. I try to step back as much as I can to just facilitate the language and just kind of share with them, “We’re going to present this idea, and I want you to think about it this way.” And then I give them the tools, and then we play around with it.
Early on, another thing that I do, and with COVID I didn’t get to do it, was the Play-Doh. Very early on, we take Play-Doh and I give them a cognate, and they get to see how similar German and English are. They look at the cognate on the card, the word and they try to create it at a Play-Doh, and then we talk about that and they present it, and say, “This is…” whatever, it could be die Maus, and so they see that mouse sounds like, spelled a little bit different, but we look at Play-Doh like language. You can shape it, you can form it and you can get creative with it, and so with the whole Schöner, runder Kreis concept that I have, I kind of spiral, like I said, these thoughts, these ideas, these concepts. And language, as far as structures, those are just little tool things that we bring out and we play with, and maybe we put them back, and then we see what we can do to create and get better and better.
And then, the fun really happens when we get to fourth year, and we get into Socratic seminars, and I start trying to push them where I can step back and then we go into conversation. And the why part is that they need to exchange information and support their ideas and their thoughts, and it can be their own and can talk about this, but I really want them to have something that’s anchoring them and it could be a text. I like to use this section in Dein Spiegel, it’s a German magazine, and what’s really cool about it is they often have two perspectives and it’s Ja oder Nein, and so I often use that. And then we go into where they’ll have those documents say that, or maybe something on the school system. We did one on e-voting, but it wasn’t about America’s e-voting, it was about Germany. What different things are occurring in Germany so they could connect that because that was such a big thing in the last election cycle.
And so I try to pick things they can relate to personally, but then I want them to see the German perspective and understand why, but as far as language goes. The why part is, Can you look at it from a different mindset and then talk about it in the target language, and then kind of keep a conversation going? I always use the thought, a conversation is like a tennis match. You serve the ball, you hit the ball back, so that’s sort of like the question, answer, question, answer. You’ve been able to hold this conversation, and like a tennis match, I saw the ball go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and so that they’re able to cite information, and then they get heated. They did the debate of the city or living in the country in third year, and that’s always like ah, the boys get very excited about that, got to express their opinion. And it’s sort of disjointed in a way in the beginning, but then it becomes a whole conversation.
And then I can take them to his topics like community service because as a Catholic school, so many of them have to serve the community, and so we look at it from the German mindset Sozial Arbeit and what that means and how it used to be and developed over time. And like I said that we tap into maybe with that Schöner, runder Kreis concept that we talked about those role models, whether it’s the soldier, the teacher, or the athlete. In second year, we saw in the movies and we talked about, and then we bring that back.
In fourth year, we talked about what is a hero? Who is a hero to you? Because then we can look at topics like political figures that Germany has with Merkel or anyone else that we are looking and reading about. We do a lot of the daily news. And so I try to wrap it but be mindful of the fact of what’s been our journey since day one? Whether it started with Play-Doh’s, cognates, or Play-Doh concept of building the cognate and seeing how closely related the language are or similarities to looking at something more global about how Germany’s community service is similar or different than ours and why they may be serve a community versus they, as a Catholic young man, and what they could do later as a global leader, when we look at the heroes and tap in whether it’s an athlete or a political figure or a pop star. We’d look at the music from the Germans or the Austrians.
Norah Jones: Well, asking questions takes us to a whole different level of the way that students, or adults for that matter, feel that they control the language in the room, whether it’s a person sitting in a business meeting or a student sitting in a class being asked to develop and provide good quality questions.
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Norah Jones: And to take a moment and step back, give us a bit of a, just a short visual of what it looks like in a classroom when you say, “Today, we’re doing our Socratic seminar.” How do you set it up? What are the students doing literally, as in give us some examples, and why it is, although I think that the answer to why language is being learned is in there, but help us to see how come this Socratic seminar is a tool that you use to really deepen this experience.
Linda Zins-Adams: You mentioned earlier that I’ve been a big part of the AP community as far as a developer, and so being a department chair, we have now AP in all our languages that we offer at Moeller. And so, of course, it’s going to be our natural default of backward design. We have to look and see, but I do not want my colleagues to think we’re going to be just doing test prep because that’s not going to create that lifelong learner.
And as far as building those relationships and those experiences and that creation of that lifelong learner, it’s not just about the end goal of succeeding on that AP exam, but there’s some natural things to it. We have some wonderful themes, so I pick and choose from the six themes that we have and what we’ve done in the past, and I’ll pick something of the level that we’re at AP, whether it be B1 or B2 in that language, which is just difficult. And they maybe don’t know every word but hopefully the things that we’ve done along our journey in getting there, and I know that, of course, for AP they have an essay, they have to write, and they have to cite, and they have to integrate the information, they have to express an opinion, but that’s writing.
And then I want to build a speaker. So the speaker, the person that has to present information, say on the culture comparison. What do they have to do? They have to analyze culture, they have to have it internalized and understand the Germans or the Austrians or the Swiss. They do something different than we do. And so whether it be getting ready for that, everything on the AP, when we look at what they have to do and reading materials on the multiple choice section and analyze and answering questions, and then with the email, they have to ask questions, they kind of have to keep that exchange going, and they have to answer questions in the email and then ask questions. That, we found, is somewhat difficult for students and we recommend it this year, coming out of the reading, that teachers need to go back and have students review how to ask questions because we really want to see if they understand the stimulus and go beyond it.
And that’s the other trick is getting students to go beyond a text rather than being rooted in this information and just reading from it. I’m reading here, the text, it says this, okay, yeah. So is that, but why are you presenting that information? And then what language are you going to use to convey that thought? Socratic seminar takes all that together what the exam is. In eight minutes, I usually have a timer for eight minutes, and I just have them going. And I have usually about 8 to 10 sitting across from each other. And initially, they think, “Oh, we’re going to debate.” No, no, no. Think about this, like a conversation.
And of course, in Germany, when I would always go and I would travel and meet up with friends, very natural thing to do was to maybe go to a friend’s house and we sit at a table, drink coffee, eat some cake, and we converse. So the Socratic seminar is putting that student in what they probably will experience if they go abroad. And when they socialize with a native, you’re going to sit across the table from someone and have a conversation, listen, and respond. And so they’re filling out sort of a rubric positives, as far as do they bring someone else into the conversation or they might take off something negative, like they interrupted another speaker or they’re engaged in a side conversation, and we talked about that, which doesn’t happen too often. We, as a German teacher community, we share these things. So when the exam changed in 2012, we looked at different ways we can bring the authentic materials in and make it natural, keep it natural.
And so this was a concept that was shared by a variety of German teachers, develop rubric from English teachers and German, and then we use them in our classroom. It’s been shared multiple times. And we can put a chair at the end of the Socratic seminar, say, you got the guys kind of facing off and then you got the row of people behind them. The observer is standing behind one student sitting, but he’s observing that student across from the student speaking. And so, the observation is happening sort of like a fishbowl, and they love that. It took a while to get them to use that hot seat because they just think, “Oh.” They’re speaking, they’re going along, but then you started seeing because one of the harder things on the essay part on the AP is integrating information. It’s one thing to summarize what a text says and just say, “This is what the text says, this is, this is…” But it’s another thing to get them to integrate the information into their argument, and that’s what I’m trying to bring them to.
We had a variety, like I said, with the community service, the heroes. We do the school system. I like to do the one… I have a set where it’s about private schools and immediately they want to talk about their experiences in a private school, and I said, “No, no, you have to use what’s in this text. What’s the trend in Germany? What are these three sources telling you about the trend in Germany as far as private schools?” Getting them to look at the material to use it because they can speak at fourth year, but it’s one thing to analyze and get them to use that.
And being a teacher for 30 years, we’ve seen the digital age and what it’s done to our learners. They are skimmers now, they have so much information coming to them, and so what are they doing now? They’re just getting the highlights, they’re just pulling and skimming out the very basic thoughts. So what I’m trying to do is take them away. I do love technology. And then you’ll still have one kid just kind of go in a silly way to sit in the hot seat and who asks a question already been asked. Everyone looks at him, going, “We already established that.” Because then, you know who’s comprehending and who’s going to that next level.
And many of them take an alternate assessment in February to get the Global Seal, and so the Seal of Biliteracy is something we work towards and getting them to understand that it’s important. Like I said, I don’t want this to be about test prep and I want it to be as natural. Like I said, when you go to a German-speaking country, you’re going to probably sit down with people and talk, but we have to do things to get them ready for testing. And so when they took the test, we got feedback on that as support and elaborate your thoughts and say more and try to say in a way that’s connected to what you’re being asked to do.
And so I have to share that process. And I even did a Socratic seminar with my department because I took over a department that it was one of these things that I had to have my administration understand. Yes, we are all different languages, and they saw us as a separate entity. Like, “No, we could be one voice. Yes, multiple languages, but we could be one voice.” And so it was one thing to have… If you plan things in isolation, you’re not going to speak up especially with my languages that there are multiple teachers trying to get them to that end, whether it’s AP, or we have an exchange where the students go for five weeks to Zaragoza, Spain. And those students are going to have a different experience than what the students are in the class, so we kind of have to look at everything.
And so I put my department members in Socratic seminars to talk about what do we want the learners to learn? And I had to kind of battle them understanding what backward design is. I was like, “I don’t want to be test prep.” And then some are so loyal to the whole grammar approach and the structures, and trying to say, “We can still do this.” But we need to think about it in a different way, that we develop these rubrics and look at language holistically. And if they have the strong linguistic resources, yes, they’re going to be better communicators. But if we don’t communicate with them and share the purpose, the why part of it, we’re not going to get them there. And I teach on a block schedule and I used to teach on a traditional schedule and I calculate it. My brain works like that, and going, “I’m no longer getting truly four or five years in preparing these students for AP.
When I break this down on a A/B block at best because I’m losing a quarter now every year because of how things are structured. I have to get my students ready. Curriculum, when we have all our teachers coming together and planning curriculum collaboratively, it’s going to be better. But then it’s also going to be that if we share this with the students, it’s going to be powerful, that they’re going to score better, they’re going to feel better. And so we have those that believe in the grammar, the structures, and that’s what they need to lead with, and so we have to kind of break that down. Then you have the purest that’s all a hundred percent target language. But if you’re just speaking, speaking, speaking, and the students don’t understand what… They may understand what you’re saying but they may not understand the purpose of what you’re presenting them, you’re going to lose some of them, and there’s going to be frustration.
And so this is something, in my department, I kind of had to bring everyone together and say, “I know this is what you value, but we kind of need to share this process as a department, as a school, this is our vision, and then what we need our students to understand why we’re doing this and they can own it.” And like I said, when we did that Socratic seminar in that process and the students were, “Wow, that was really good.” They saw their development, they had feedback, and then they started sharing information with each other going, “That was really good what you said. I like that. That was excellent. You’re awesome.” And that praise, like I said, I just stepped back. And they see my notes and they chuckle because it’s all over the place. It’s just kind of… just kind of moving through and saying, “I need to kind of comment on that. That was so good.”
At the end, it’s just that affirmation, just giving that affirmation and having them understand the feedback. It’s a positive. Don’t take it… don’t get sensitive that if we keep saying, “You need to correct this.” And there’ll be one that’ll commonly make the same mistake and we just look at them, and they’re like, “Oh, I did that,” and they’re like, “Why did I do that?” It’s just there, but we work together and then we kind of get to that place we need to be when they leave me. And like I said, we have most of our students who will stay on for three years. I have 14 students in AP, and I think in that group, I retained about 50% through the journey.
So it’s one of these things that they become… You’ve built this relationship and you want them to understand you care. “It’s not just about the test. I care about you.” And we want them to go, whether they do something in German, I don’t know. But what did they learn from the experience? The different caregivers, and what that looks like and what the German man has developed? And like I said, in level two, I love doing that because that’s the early part two. In the feedback they’ve given me, they’ve talked about they love to learn about history. And so I present those, like I said, those movies, so they can look at how the man has developed in military, the soldier, the things that we saw in the movies. And we look at the German man as far as today versus earlier, and why there’s been this change, but at least I’m getting them to critically think, like I said, and really analyze a text and take note because they are bombarded with information.
Norah Jones: They certainly are.
Linda Zins-Adams: And they need to learn to piece it together.
Norah Jones: It’s fascinating to be able to address the real experiences of young people these days. Well, Linda, when you look out as it were virtually here on the listeners to this podcast today, what do you want to be sure that you exhort them about, warn them about, invite them to do, what’s that last thing that you say, “I can’t leave today without making sure that I told people this.”
Linda Zins-Adams: I think early on, we would have say an administrator come in to observe us, and we thought, “Oh, we have to use so much target language,” but if you’re the only one speaking the target language and not sharing that with your students and not putting them in a spot, in an embarrassing way, and always being presentational, “Look what my guys can do. Look at all the German.” But if you are building that environment, that is a community and you’re sharing it because we’re all in this together and uniting. And it’s not about the teacher versus the students, it’s we are in this experience together, and it can be a truly wonderful experience and it may not be easy. And for some young people, if they get embarrassed and put on the spot, and that’s what I like about the Socratic seminar is that it’s a comfortable thing, they’re sitting down, they have maybe some notes and they have each other that they can feed off of rather than putting them on the spot.
I think we need to look at ourselves more as a facilitator of the language and the culture, and then take them on the journey. And if they feel comfortable and they know you care, which is so important I think for students, they will stick to whatever you’re trying to present them, and they will try to do as well as they can. And just step back and just let things organically happen and then respond to those things as they come up and guide them.
Norah Jones: That’s great. Thank you, Linda. That’s really neat. The community of learners and you’ve brought their sensitivity and your background in special education to really provide pathways for that comfort in community. That’s been exciting to listen to all of the pathways that you’ve provided today. It’s been fun to just listen to and feel your energy at everything that you do. Thanks, Linda.
Linda Zins-Adams: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Norah Jones: It’s been fun. And just take a look, folks, at what Linda can provide with regard to how she shares the skillsets of Socratic seminars and other approaches to communication with everybody. And I hope we can get folks to continue to realize how big of a role that plays in making sure that we are real participants in society. Right, Linda?
Linda Zins-Adams: Very much.
Norah Jones: Yeah. All right. Let’s make it happen. Thank you again.
Linda Zins-Adams: Thank you.
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