In School in Germany: Mini-presentations

Question for teachers of foreign languages, history, social studies and even classes dealing with religion and culture: when preparing a topic that is complex and difficult to handle, how do you approach it? Do you divide them up into subpoints and provide them with materials and activities or do you provide a question-answer session pertaining to the subpoints discussed in class? What about having students presenting their subpoints as part of the topic?

One of the experiments I tried with my history classes was the Mini-presentation. An open form of frontal teaching, students are assigned a subpoint in connection with the topic to be presented, to be prepare at home, finding the most important and relevant information supporting it. They then conduct a 5-minute presentation on their points, while the remaining class (as well as the teacher) take notes. The teacher can exercise the right to add and correct the information to ensure that the facts fit to the points.

An example to present was the topic of the USA in the 1920s and its return to normalcy, where the Americans wanted nothing to do with international affairs and live the life they had before being dragged into World War I in 1917. With a group of 20+ students in grade 9, each one was given a theme for them to research. The points belonged to the categories of domestic policies, international relations, and accomplishments and inventions. Each student had up to 5 minutes to present his/her findings to the rest of the class, with questions and discussion to follow. The themes belonging to the Roaring 20s included: jazz music, Washington Conference, the radio, Prohibition, Women’s Right to Vote, Dawes Act, Fordney-McCumber Act, farming, the US highway system, and airplanes, just to name a few.

Advantages of a mini-presentation is students have a chance to know about the important points, let alone be encouraged to dig deeper in the research. For foreign language teaching, they have the chance to improve their language skills and acquire vocabulary relevant to the topic discussed in class. Two major disadvantages are the time factor and the fact that many students can forget the information mentioned if they do not write it down or have problems in communicating. For the first part, it is difficult if a session is between 45 and 60 minutes, pending on which school you are teaching, as mentioned in an earlier article. It is perhaps more effective if these presentations are done over the course of two sessions, or in a block session, as many Gymnasien in Germany have. To avoid problems with the second part, it is the easiest if a handout with a summary of the points are presented at the end of the topic so that the students have something on a sheet of paper.

But speaking from experience, mini-presentations are perhaps the most effective but also interesting way to lead the class through the subject without having difficulties in understanding the themes. This is because the students have the opportunity to do the frontal teaching, while the teacher can moderate to help them with their language, presentation and knowledge skills. On the school level, the students will get a whiff of what is expected of them when graduating: presentations of 10-30 minutes at the university and in their jobs. As our society has become more communicative, presentations are becoming the key requirement skills needed for the job, even more so if in a foreign language.

So for teachers of the aforementioned courses, now is the time to do the students a favor. And believe me, they will benefit from it-double! 😉

In School in Germany: History and Literature DO Mix.


Historic Fiction- a term that many people should know about when becoming teachers. This type of genre features a fictitious story with characters that do not exist in real life, but whose background and setting exists in reality. Tens of thousands of such literary works, published in the past 15 years, can be found on the shelves of libraries and book stores, waiting for people to purchase them. One of which is the focus of this article: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Published in 1925, the Great Gatsby features four main characters and three other characters that have supporting roles:  Nick Caraway (the bonds salesman and narrator), Tom and Daisy Buchanan (Nick’s college friend and cousin respectively) and Jay Gatsby (Nick’s neighbor who has a love affair with Daisy) are the main four; Jordan Baker (Daisy’s friend and Nick’s love interest), and George and Myrtle Wilson (the former,  a gas station owner, the latter, his wife who has an affair with Tom) as supporting characters.  These fictional characters find themselves on Long Island with Tom and Daisy living in a mansion at East Egg, the rest are at West Egg. The story presents the two polar sides of the Roaring 20s that made the era rather gilded. There was the rather rich and extravagant side of society, featuring parties, flappers and utter carelessness. There was also the poor and desperate side of society, where people struggling to survive would do anything just to make a buck.  The book was converted into a Hollywood film twice, and regardless of which version of Gatsby you watched or like (I prefer the Robert Redford 1974 version clearly over the DiCaprio version), we all know what happens when rich and poor collide in the story.
But Gatsby is only a fraction of the point that I’m getting to, which is the fact that one can use literature in history class as a way of providing the students with an inside look at certain periods of time and what society looked like. Part of the reason for such literature has to do with what the author himself experienced in his life. Fitzgerald himself was involved in the scene during his visit on Long Island prior to his book and saw some of the things that were typical of that time, both good and bad. Another part has to do with author’s observing the immorals and even talking to people about them, then writing about it in a different form. In either case, one could consider both of them a form of muckraking. By looking at the literature, one can actually get into the story and try and understand the situation in relation to the historical events of the period from one’s own point of view. By doing so, students will have an opportunity to share their views in class, pending on how the teacher poses the questions in connection with the literature and its historic context.

There are two ways of handling literature in connection with history. One would be to go through the book, chapter by chapter, providing questions and exercises along the way. Traditional and good for those with a good command of the language, yet if the language level is lower because the working language is foreign, some rewriting and adaptation may be needed, or one can go further by taking out some excerpts and integrating them into the theme.

The other is using the film based on the book, but choosing the scenes that are appropriate to the theme presented in class. This was the approach I chose while discussing about the Roaring 20s and including the scenes at the beginning of The Great Gatsby: East Egg and its richness in the literal sense and West Egg, where Nick’s small hut and the run down gas station are overshadowed by Gatsby’s Mansion.  Can you tell the difference in the following clips? And do they fit the image of the Roaring 20s?



When choosing this approach, one has to carefully choose the film that best fits the theme to be discussed in history. The 1974 version of Gatsby best fits the image of the 1920s and is not as overdone as the remade version of last year. But more importantly is the fact that one has to choose the scenes that best fits the topic and where you can ask the students some questions. This one will require more time as you will need to watch the film and pick the scenes that best fit. Painstaking it is, but it is worth it, especially if you have family members who are willing to play along. 😉

How you use literature in history or even social studies classes depends on the group you are teaching. Students in grades 9-12 as well as college students will more likely read the novel you choose than those from grade 8 down. But it also depends on their learning level, their language skills (especially if you teach a bilingual class), and their willingness to learn new things but in a way that it does not require the traditional form of Frontalunterricht (frontal teaching where the teacher is the center of attention and the blackboard is used almost exclusively).  It is a question of how you, as the teacher, prepare your class and how you try and integrate the literature, let alone the film based on the literary piece.  If you feel the students are up to the challenge, try it. You will be amazed with the results. This was the case with my experiment, and if you have the right calculations, like I did, you can have a really productive session with discussion and fun.


Author’s Note: Many German universities are introducing interdisciplinary studies where literature, politics, culture and history are mixed together and offered to students, who are interested in such studies. Over 20 universities are offering North American studies (or similar), and counting. What a student can do with such a degree will be discussed later in the Files.





In School in Germany: Teaching Method- The Chalkboard

Here’s a question I have for all those learning a foreign language, in particular those teaching English in Germany:
Apart from the teaching book (German: Lehrbuch), what type of medium do you use for teaching foreign language classes, and for each medium, how do you use it?
As part of the series on my practical experience in a German Gymnasium, I will present some media that I and others have used, plus all the advantages and disadvantages that go along with each one.
I’ll start with our traditional use for the classroom: the good old fashion blackboard
Dating back to the stone age, the chalk and board was the earliest form of communication, as cave people drew pictures and used hieroglyphics on small tablets and rocks with certain forms of chalk or stick to explain stories and provide information that was important to them in their time. Many of these hieroglyphics still exists today- withstanding the test of time- and have been protected as historical sites.
Over 200 years ago the chalkboard was the only medium used in the one-room school houses and institutions of education, with many pupils having their own tablets to use for their assignments, whether it was for arithmetic, spelling or the like. When looking at the scene from the TV-series Little House, you can imagine what school life was like back then in comparison with right now.
Despite the advances in technology, with the white board (with text marker), the Smart Board (with electronic pens), TV and internet and other forms of 2.0 technology, schools nowadays still stick to the chalkboard as the main medium for teaching, especially when it comes to teaching foreign languages.  From the teacher’s point of view, there are many benefits and drawbacks to using this form of medium, many of which I’ve seen so far despite being in Gymnasium for a few days now:
Drawing diagrams, mind maps and pictures:  Many Americans know John Madden, the former sportscaster and commentator whose signature for all American football games for four decades was the usage of the electronic TV board, where his scribbling and descriptions could be seen on TV.  For those who don’t know him, here are a couple examples:

His source of inspiration: the chalkboard. For teachers who love to draw, the chalkboard for them is a lover’s paradise. You can make use of drawing diagrams, images and the like and still manage to capture the attention of the students and have them learn something.
Vocabulary:  This is useful, especially if you are teaching a foreign language class, like I am doing with English. There are two benefits of doing this: 1. To provide the students with information about the word’s meaning and 2. To help them with their pronunciation. In this case, I usually write the word down, have the students pronounce it and, if necessary, place accents on the syllables that are stressed in these words. This way, it helps students know how to speak it correctly, esp. as in some languages, like French and German, the way of pronouncing it is different than that of English.
Facts and points about theme:  For subjects like history, social studies and natural sciences, having these facts on the board provides a students with an opportunity to learn about the theme, let alone write them down in their notes to use for their exams. A classic example of how this works is with the Potsdamer Conference, where the key points would include the participants and their views on the future of Germany after the Fall of Hitler, a plan for the country (which was partitioning it into four sectors), and the Start of the Cold War, where Truman and Stalin had their first of many altercations to come in the 40-year conflict, using Germany as the chessboard.
Organization: Through mind-maps and outlines, organizing can help guide students through the agenda without getting lost.  Sometimes it serves as a complement to a presentation.
Games and interaction: I find this one to be the liveliest as far as the use of the chalkboard is concerned.  Whether it’s Pictionary, Hangman and Wheel of Fortune for foreign languages, Jeopardy for other subjects and other activities, one can make a session  an enjoyable experience with this method as it encourages students to test their skills and learn new things that are considered useful in the future.
In spite of the advantages of the chalkboard, there are some drawbacks to using this traditional method, some of which I’ve observed so far in my observation of the classes so far, others from my own experience.  For example:
Handwriting: While doctors lead the pack when it comes to sloppy handwriting that is illegible, teachers and sometimes students are in a distant second place. While the advantage of practicing their writing is clear, sometimes the handwriting can be difficult to read. Whenever the student asks you what it is on the board or says that he/she cannot read it, then it is not a good sign.
Time consumption:  The biggest critique to using the board is the time consumption, both on the part of the teacher as well as the students having to copy the info on the board. Unless you integrate it into your Frontalunterricht, writing down the info to allow students to copy can take vast amounts of time away, unless you leave some space aside to write down some more topics.
Space: While the chalkboard may be big enough to write down everything you want, making sure you have enough space to write is something the teacher to take in mind. There may be lots to write down for the students, but if the teacher runs out of space and has to erase some information from the board, it might put some students at a disadvantage if they had not taken down the notes from the board prior to it being taken off.

Balancing out the positives and negatives, there are many ways that the chalkboard is being used in the classroom in my observations. One is for writing down facts and allowing students to copy the information. Another is for the purpose of providing questions in connection with the reading materials. Then you have the vocabulary words and grammar, which is useful, even when you give the students the chance to write down the answers.  And some diagrams and outlines have also been used in connection with the lessons in the class.  However, despite the chalkboard being the “sole medium” for teaching, there are other forms of media that can be used to make teaching more effective, and even enjoyable too.  There’s the overhead projector- useful for outlines, diagrams and questions and vocabulary lists. There’s the computer with various programs that are useful for learning.  And sometimes when your students don’t like writing and copying down info, there is the old-fashioned worksheet that has everything the student needs for the next subject.  How a teacher plans his courses depends on the subject, what forms of media he/she is comfortable with, and how interesting can a topic be with any sort of media.  The chalkboard will never die off and will be used many times, but with the advancement of technology in the classroom, we’ll most likely see this traditional form of media become a complement instead of the norm.
How so?  In my case, I use the chalkboard for gaming purposes, such as what I’ve mentioned earlier in the article. However, even more useful are the vocabulary words not only for defining words but also for pronunciation, all written in a small box reserved exclusively for that purpose. And yes, one should add some grammar examples to help students with their exercises they are doing to better their knowledge of foreign languages.  There are other ways of using the chalkboard for complementary purposes, but these are some that can be tried. Yet if one needs to write extensively on the board, put some time aside before class, so that more time is needed to interact with the students. Only then will it will be effective and useful.




What is understood by Frontalunterricht?
a. The teacher stands in front of the group and talks to them about a topic.
b. The students listen and write down the info presented by the teacher.
c. There is a presentation involved
d. There is little room for discussion, only question and answer sessions.
e. All of the above.

Place your answers down in the comment section here or on the Files‘ facebook page. In addition to that, how do you use the chalkboard in class, and do you agree with the author‘s suggestions? Add your comments as well and we hope to have a discussion going. 🙂