Siggi Piwek, MGIS Teacher awarded the 2016 Wisconsin Foreign Language Teacher of the Year.

2016 Piwek SiggiSiggi Piwek
Milwaukee German Immersion School

My personal statement on the value of learning language and culture

My daily interaction with students is shaped by my general beliefs about teaching and learning, and my philosophy of teaching a World language is a refinement of these general beliefs. Among my most valued general beliefs are:

  • Even though students learn concepts and skills in a variety of academic areas in my classroom, I am first and foremost a teacher of children, and not of subjects.
  • Every student can learn although they have different talents, and progress at their own pace. It is my responsibility as their teacher to make knowledge useful to my learners by helping them make connections between what they already know, new concepts and skills, and the world around them.
  • While a scope and sequence is important for me to keep in mind, so that I teach what I am supposed to and pace instruction accordingly, I have to also make the curriculum for my students’ needs and interests.
  • I will only be successful as a teacher, if my students are successful as learners. Thus, I am responsible to create learning experiences at which they can be successful.
  • My students will only put forth their best efforts, if they know the purpose of learning something, how it helps them make sense of the world, and if they know that I am invested in their learning and success.

Among the specific beliefs about World language teaching that I hold dear are:

  • Learning at least one foreign language is no longer a nice add-on for affluent school districts and their students, but a necessity for all students, since they are increasingly competing for the jobs of the future with highly qualified and well-rounded peers from around the world.
  • Developing language proficiency and cultural competence need to go hand in hand. Thus, whenever feasible, I incorporate topics and methods in my instructions that go beyond learning about language concepts and the target culture’s products, such as foods, but instead try to create learning experiences that help my students understand the reasons for certain cultural practices, and the perspectives underlying these practices.
  • Learning a foreign language at any age is possible and beneficial. However, students have the greatest chance to develop native-like communication skills in another language, if they begin their foreign language studies in early childhood and continue them through high school and beyond. I have been raising awareness of our quality foreign language programs through presentations to the business community. I also encourage students to continue their German studies beyond minimum foreign language requirements. For this purpose, I have created and organizing exhibits related to Women’s soccer, and German history for middle and high school students to interact with, so that students experience their language and cultural education as both useful and relevant.
  • As the concept of national identity has become less meaningful due to people from many different language and cultural backgrounds living and working together in many European countries, I have found more and more opportunities to relate the target culture and that “human experience” to my own students’ diverse backgrounds. Based on my classroom experience, even students at a young age have the capacity to understand the challenges of belonging to a minority culture. Topics like this address their interests, and provide a rich and authentic context for learning a World language.
  • Finally, learning a foreign language is a worthwhile pursuit for the joy of being able to relate to people from different cultures. However, students are often motivated to learn it for pragmatic reasons, such as furthering one’s career prospects. Thus, I have been very interested in integrating the so-called STE(A)M subjects in my German language instruction, and have even co-authored a AATG publication on integrating German and the environmental sciences for middle/high school teachers.

In my opinion, learning any foreign language is critical to any young individual, since the problem-solving and other skills developed in learning it, make it easier to learn additional ones, and the skills acquired also transfer to other academic disciplines. Apart from the benefits accruing to individual students, there is also an often forgotten benefit to our society and the larger world. When thinking about that, a quote from Nelson Mandela comes to my mind: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Learning a foreign language is a great opportunity that should be available to all to engage in a heart-to-heart talk to create a more peaceful world.