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CHS students who take German and like it
- They're even making German friends -

About two months ago, 22 students from Maximilian Kolbe Gymnasium, a high school in Wegberg, Germany, traveled to Manchester Boston Regional Airport to meet their exchange partners from Concord High School. The German students were whisked to their host homes, where they got cleaned up and fed, and were taken directly to Concord High's homecoming dance. There's no time for jet lag on this trip.

The students (German and American) living it up in New York City. (Foto: Bev Tilley)

The students were visiting as part of the German American Partnership Program. Every other year, Concord High students taking German have the opportunity to apply for the program, which involves writing three essays, getting letters of recommendation and a four-page application. Only 22 are selected for the yearlong program. Those students are matched with a partner from the German school, whom they will be in contact with over the year. They will also stay with one another when they visit each other's respective country.

The German students go first, arriving in September and staying for the month. The Concord students will return the visit in June.

The program started nationally in 1972, and has been at Concord High since 1981. Laura Ernst, German teacher, runs the show with fellow teacher Marnix van Steenbergen and Harriett Kraybill, a math teacher, along with their counterparts in Germany, Michael Bleich and Ralf Zöller.

To help raise money for the trip in June, Concord GAPPers are holding monthly dough-raisers at Uno Chicago Grill. I sat down with a few of the students and Laura before the start of November's dough-raiser. Erin Demers, Melissa Tilley and Cadence Giles (or Renate, Till-Ü and Moni, as they're known in German class), told me a little bit about the visit from the German students, but first, I wanted to know what possessed them to take German. They said they get that question all the time. Erin said she was looking for something different. Melissa said she was attracted to the language partially by heritage but also because of Laura, who she said is crazy ­ but in a good way. Being married to a high school history teacher myself, I can say that being called crazy is high praise indeed. It translates roughly to, "you're an interesting teacher and that makes me pay attention in your class." (Nice work, Laura.)

As further proof of their hard work in German, Cadence added that it takes her about 10 minutes to snap out of German-mode after class and adjust to speaking English again. (Oh, the trials and tribulations of teenagers. How I do not miss it.)

The German students, they said, were surprisingly fluent in English during their visit, though there was a funny moment when an American student pointed out a giant puddle ­ the Germans hadn't learned that word yet, and not only was it fun explaining the word to then, but equally fun making them say it.

The German students got their day, too, making the American students say hard-to-pronounce German words. It was all in good fun, and that's part of the draw of the program. Certainly it's difficult learning a foreign language, particularly when you have the pressure of actually having to use it, but no one's going to judge you for mispronouncing something or using the wrong word. The learning experience is fun and supportive, even if the Germans accused Americans of mumbling too much.

It sounds weird meeting complete strangers and having them stay in your house, but the students said they bonded pretty quickly. All 44 students took a trip to New York City together, and Laura said they traveled through the city like one big amoeba. The friendships started on the bus, Melissa said. They were sitting with their partners for the first 10 minutes, but after that, everyone got up and mingled.

From then on, it was one big party, noted Laura. Melissa said a text would go around during the day about where people would be hanging out ­ usually Friendly's ­ and a big group would show up. No cliques ­ just a bunch of German and American teens having a good time.

Gappers also went hiking together, had birthday parties, attended potluck dinners, had a bonfire and even took the German students glow bowling.

Though the German students are home now, everyone still keeps in touch via Skype ­ which allows you to make voice calls over the internet ­ instant messenger and even through a German version of Facebook.

This should make for an easier transition when the Concord students head to Germany. They'll attend school each day (the German summer vacation doesn't start until mid-July) and will also present to a class of German students on the topic of their choice, though they'll have to use their newfound language skills. Laura said projects like this raise the bar for learning the language by giving students a large, learned audience.

They'll also go on excursions to Cologne, Aachen, Düsseldorf, and Bonn, the former capital of Germany. All 44 students will visit Berlin together for a week, with plan of seeing the German parliament and remnants of the Berlin Wall, with trips to the Jewish and history museums and Museum at Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known Berlin Wall crossing point.

Now, Concord High Gappers are putting together a scrapbook that they'll take with them on their trip to Germany. It's to show their host families what life is like back in the United States. The girls groaned thinking about turning in their captions, in German, for the following week. "That's what today is for," observed Laura, since the students had Veterans Day off. "And the weekend," added Erin.

GAPP is financially supported by the New Hampshire Charitable Fund and Elektrisola Inc., in Boscawen, and with grants from the U.S. State Department and the German government. UNO Chicago Grill is assisting in fundraising with partial proceeds being donated to the program after monthly dinners at the Fort Eddy Road location.

Von Katie MacKenzie
The Concord Insider, 17.11.2009