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Professor energizes growing German program

Making mistakes might not seem like the best idea for students looking to impress their professor but it's a winning strategy in Dr. Josh Brown's German classes.

"Mistakes are part of the learning process," says Brown, an assistant professor of German and affiliate faculty member in women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "I like to hear students trying to add to what they already know, and they can't do that if they're worried about making mistakes. I want them to experiment with language. I'm thrilled if they recognize that a verb needs an ending even if they don't always get the ending right — it shows they are developing Sprachgefühl, a feel for the language."

Brown, who strives to make every class "an experience" for students, uses everything from German written regalia to German soap operas to help his students not only master the German language but also to understand the diversity of the people and cultures where German is spoken.

Multiple ethnic groups speak German, a fact that often goes unnoticed by learners of the German language, Brown says. By taking a more holistic approach to teaching German, he is preparing students to better appreciate different cultures, he says.

For example, Brown's language students study Turkish Germans, the largest minority population in Germany. He wants them to understand that population's history, social and political status, how Turkish Germans interact with other Germans, and how they're represented in popular media.

"Yes, it's important to be grammatically correct so that others can understand your message, but it's also important to understand the cultural aspects of these diverse groups so you can successfully interact with them," says Brown, whose passion for languages began when he was a boy living in Pennsylvania with a grandmother whose native language was Pennsylvania Dutch. "Many of our students come from rural areas where they haven't been exposed to a lot of diversity. They need to understand what might be considered impolite or what's expected in certain cultures and not to treat their own culture as the global standard. There is more to navigating a place than just being able to speak the language."

Brown's innovative and successful teaching style earned him national recognition this fall when he was selected as one of three national 2014 German Embassy Teacher of Excellence Award winners, an honor that recognizes outstanding young university faculty members and schoolteachers who are engaged in innovative teaching and successful program building and reform.

The German Embassy and the American Association of Teachers of German will honor Brown during the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages' November annual convention in Texas. As an award winner, Brown also will travel to Germany in the summer to participate in a professional development seminar for German faculty.

While the national accolades are appreciated, Brown is most excited about the growing attention UW-Eau Claire's German program is getting from current and prospective students. In the three years Brown has been at UW-Eau Claire, the number of German majors and minors has increased by 50 percent. With nearly 90 majors or minors, UW-Eau Claire's German program is now one of the largest in the Midwest, rivaling programs at much larger universities.

"I was fortunate enough to land in a program with amazing professors of German," Brown says of coming to UW-Eau Claire. "They were conscious about the need for growth when I arrived and I was swept up by their fervor."

Seeing more students choosing to study a language is encouraging since graduates with proficient language skills and an ability to negotiate different cultures are highly sought after by employers in all businesses and industries, says Brown.

"Good communication skills is the No. 1 skill employers in all fields tell us they want in their employees," says Brown. "They are even more impressed if our graduates can communicate well in another language and demonstrate they can navigate different cultures. Employers love to see those things on resumes so it opens up more opportunities for our graduates."

Expanding her career options is among the reasons freshman chemistry major Emily Watkins is adding a German minor to her academic program.

"I'm hoping that I can use my German minor to expand my opportunities in the chemical field internationally, such as working for a German company like Siemens," says Watkins of Eau Claire. "It's always been a dream of mine to travel or live abroad, and with the things I've gained from Dr. Brown, I'm one step closer to achieving that dream."

Watkins studied German at North High School but was uncertain if she wanted to continue it in college. A visit last spring to UW-Eau Claire, organized by Brown, convinced her to give it a try.

"Last year, I took a field trip to UW-Eau Claire to see the White Rose Nazi rebellion group exhibit," Watkins said. "Dr. Brown gave a preface to the whole thing and talked about what it would be like to take German here. It seemed manageable enough and sounded like something I would be interested in.

"Now, I'm a freshman in Dr. Brown's German 202 class and I'm so glad I signed up for it. It's truly one of the best classes I've ever taken. I love how enthusiastic and knowledgeable Dr. Brown is and I love the way he teaches. I will be adding a German minor to my program this semester."

The White Rose exhibit that first brought Watkins in touch with UW-Eau Claire's German program is an example of the kind of outreach that Brown and other German faculty are doing to raise the program's profile, says Dr. Carter Smith, chair of the languages department.

The traveling international display recounts the actions of the famous non-violent student resistance movement in Nazi Germany. University students distributed leaflets calling for the overthrow of Hitler and his government. After being discovered, the core members — six young students and one professor — were executed by the Nazi terror regime.

Since the White Rose was a group of university students, although separated by decades, their legacy of social justice resonates with today's university students, Brown says of why he brought the exhibit to the UW-Eau Claire campus.

In addition to sharing the exhibit with the campus community and incorporating it into his own teaching, he also used it as opportunity to bring high school language teachers and students to campus.

When 15 high school teachers came to campus to view the exhibit, Brown co-led a workshop to help them identify strategies for incorporating the resistance movement and social justice into their curriculum.

"A lot of people think that language classrooms are just for learning the language, but there is so much more going on," Brown says. "This is just one example of how we create social awareness in the classroom."

Brown then invited the high school teachers to return to campus with their German language students so they also could view the exhibit.

The hundreds of high school students who came watched a movie that helped put the exhibit in context, and then studied the exhibit using worksheets and other tools Brown had created for them. He also brought his university students together with the high school students to discuss the exhibit.

"While this kind of outreach is important to students in our program, it also is a way for us to support high school language programs that face yearly budgetary pressures," Smith says. "It helps high school teachers show their students the opportunities for further language studies that exist at the university level, and what skills they will acquire if they continue their language studies in college."

Many high school language teachers in Wisconsin and Minnesota are Blugolds, making it all the more important to strengthen the relationships they have with the university, Brown says.

"Many of these teachers became proficient in the language while going to school here," Brown says. "They do a great job of teaching our current and future students so we try to let them know that we recognize and appreciate the work they do. Each semester, I send thank you notes to the high school teachers who taught students who are now enrolled in my classes."

While many graduates of the German program do go into teaching, others find jobs in all kinds of businesses and industries, Brown says, noting that a growing number of students are combining their German studies with degrees in disciplines ranging from business to music to nursing to political science.

Given the varying interests of the German language students, Brown says he and his colleagues are working to build relationships and partnerships with faculty across the campus so they can better support student success.

For example, as more of German language students have expressed an interest in pursuing careers in international business, the German faculty have made German professional communications a priority and introduced a proficiency certificate option, Brown says.

"I arrived on campus at a time when German faculty were revamping the curriculum and the program, making it much more seamless for students to major or minor in German while also pursuing other academic interests," Brown says. "Not only are we helping students enhance their resumes, we are nurturing the study of languages and cultures for developing greater social responsibility. We're finding ways to partner with students and faculty across campus so we can help our students graduate with the kinds of communication and other skills that will help them succeed in today's workplace and world."