Mona Eikel-Pohen, Assistant Professor of Teaching German in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics (LLL), has been selected as the recipient of the Outstanding German Program Development and Advocacy Award by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages 2021 Small Undergraduate German Program Special Interest Group.
Eikel-Pohen, who taught at Syracuse University for seven years, embraces the practice of experiential learning. She’s been a leader from the start, says associate professor of German Karina von Tippelskirch, who nominated her for the award and whom Eikel-Pohen acknowledges for her support.
Rather than focusing on the sentence diagrams so common in classrooms a few decades ago — although “we’re doing some of that too,” she says — Eikel-Pohen fosters a classroom experience that could be better. described as holistic.
Ruth Xing, a graduate student in medieval studies, appreciated how Eikel-Pohen could use physical activities to help students internalize language (and inject a dose of fun).
“She asked us to stand up and pretend that a ball of paint was rolling inside our bodies for unity on the body parts,” Xing explains. “We had to let it roll until it painted all the parts as we named them.”
In addition to practices like this, in some classes lessons are tailored to each student’s major or key interests, but always related to German culture, social issues, history, and current events.
“From the beginning of my time in Syracuse, I tried to bring guest speakers to the class,” says Eikel-Pohen. At first she focused on German speakers, native and non-native, who lived in the Syracuse area, but with the advent of the pandemic and the sudden prominence of Zoom, Eikel-Pohen immediately saw the endless expansion new opportunities for a host of different speakers.
At the heart of its mission is to emphasize the diversity of contemporary German-speaking countries. Speakers include international learners of German. For example, “A theater director who, during the refugee crisis in Germany, created a theater troupe for local people and refugees who came to Germany,” says Eikel-Pohen. “They were writing and performing plays and sharing their scripts with us. As a result, one of my current students is currently researching the intersection of integration, language learning, and theater in a SOURCE grant-funded project.
Other speakers include those relating to German history.
“Professor von Tippelskirch invited a Ritchie Boy, Guy Stern,” says Eikel-Pohen, who also invited his senior students to attend. Stern is a native German speaker who worked with the United States Army at the end of World War II to interrogate and interrogate German POWs. Stern, who recently turned 100, joined von Tippelskirch’s class via Zoom with his wife Susanna Piontek to talk about his autobiography.
“I contacted a historian from the city of Bochum, Germany, who does research on local Holocaust victims and their relatives,” says Eikel-Pohen. He uses this information to have “stumbling blocks” installed, engraved with a victim’s names and dates, and raised slightly above the ground where they lived before they were deported to serve as reminders of the past. His class helped him connect with a family member of a Holocaust victim in the United States. “It’s an intense experience for everyone involved.” She is currently working to make this collaboration a regular feature of the German program.
Speakers also come from various industries. “In Germany, many people have a smartphone in a case with a string that you can carry like a shoulder bag,” says Eikel-Pohen. “Company founder Ramin Schultz joined a class via Zoom and talked about considerations for new startups – potential customers, advertising. The students loved it.”
Finally, a key characteristic of Eikel-Pohen’s class is the adaptation to the majors of its students. “Tell me what your major is and what you want to do after college,” she says. “I will look for a partner for an informal information meeting with you.” The list includes journalists, actors, scientists, teachers, etc. These interviews can also lead to more than just an academic exercise. “It happened that my students were invited to do an internship, only on the basis of their interviews,” explains Eikel-Pohen.
Ruth Xing says that in the intimate setting of a classroom where dialogue is a daily activity, Eikel-Pohen’s care for each student, as well as his sensitivity, are always evident. “She was always very careful to respect our boundaries in class,” says Xing. “She put a lot of thought and empathy into her assignments.”
LLL President Emma Ticio Quesada applauds the innovation her colleague is bringing to the department.
“We want all our language courses to go a little further in opening up the class to different realities,” she says. “We did this partly because of [Mona]. She has been generous with her time and shares her vision through professional development. Mona has turned the pandemic and virtual learning into a wonderful benefit for everyone. She showed us that with technology, the world is there. You open your laptop and you have the world.