[Photo 1: At the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin during my time living in Rostock. Photo by Mary Lawrence]
My name is Samantha Shipeck and I presently teach German 6th-8th grade, coordinate the Munich exchange program for 8th graders, and serve as faculty advisor for the Rainbow Alliance (a club for LGBTQIA+ students and their allies) at Strath Haven Middle School in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. I have been at SHMS since fall 2018.
As a Jeff Maltz Undergraduate Studies in German fellow, German is what directly brought me to Pitt! As an undergraduate (class of 2015), I was a double major in German Language and Cultural Studies and Russian, as well as a minor in Linguistics. I pursued honors in both of my majors: my German honors thesis related to the concept of Geist in Goethe’s Faust, while my Russian honors thesis explored the relationship between the “New Man” of early Soviet modernism and later Socialist Realism. Through the support of the German department’s funding, I studied abroad in Augsburg, Germany for a summer semester, as well as for five weeks in Moscow, Russia through the Summer Language Institute and with the support of the Nationality Rooms Scholarship program. As a first-generation college student, the guidance toward opportunities for financial support and encouragement from both of my major departments greatly facilitated my success. Without the German department in particular, I am certain that I would not have had the enriching experience at Pitt that I did. I was also privileged to work in the department as a Student Worker, which also helped me to feel more deeply connected to my instructors and classmates.
Following my bachelor’s degree, I continued to Pitt’s School of Education (15-16), where I completed an MAT in Foreign Language Teaching and earned my state certification in German. I was privileged to serve my year-long teaching internship at the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies under Gary Harger, who is also a Pitt German alumnus!
In Fall 2016, I headed to Rostock, Germany, as a recipient of a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (16-17). There I assistant taught English, as well as supported instruction of German as a Second Language and Russian at the IGS Borwinschule. My placement was such a good fit that I applied to stay a second year and was granted this opportunity through the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst (17-18). Following my tenure in Rostock, I sought teaching [Text Box: 2 An action shot from one of my 6th grade German classes. On April Fool's Day, I 'pranked' the class by conducting it in Russian! Photo by Deirdre Abrahamsson of Wallingford Swarthmore School District.] opportunities back in the United States, which is how I ended up at Strath Haven Middle School. The timing could not have been more serendipitous!
My own German learning experience has its roots in my middle school self, though it actually began in high school. I started 9th grade at Pine-Richland High School in Allegheny county, having come from a smaller private school. I was star-struck by all of the opportunities at my new school, which included being able to choose a world language. As an 8th grader, I had become interested in learning German one day, so I seized the opportunity to give it a try, following and inkling that it would be enjoyable and challenging.
I certainly had no idea then that I was pivoting the course of the rest of my life! At PRHS, I had the great privilege of having two German teachers who made the language come alive for me. I was also lucky in my second year of study to be placed into a big class of 9th graders who had started learning German in middle school. Though I entered their group as an “outsider,” I was quickly embraced, and that space became the quintessential classroom to me: a hub for authenticity, communication, and connection. German felt like our “secret language” that we used even as we passed each other in the halls. And while I had studied and enjoyed other languages at various points in my life, German was the first one to take root in my mind. I still remember the first moment I left my German class and organically thought something in my own head – not in English, but in German! While the thought was certainly not a deep revelation, the ability to do so – so expertly fostered by my teachers who endeavored to facilitate language acquisition – was.
Now, as a German teacher myself, I seek to encourage my students to find that ‘thing’ that clicks for them the way German did for me. Middle schoolers are at an exciting (and occasionally terrifying) point in the development of their self-perception and understanding of the world around them. This is a rich playing field for working with a new language, exploring one’s own culture(s), and investigating the way people live in culture(s) outside of one’s own. Through their dynamic engagement in German, and whether they are conscious of it or not, I watch my students grow into critical thinkers, creators, and advocates – of course also laughing along the way. Even if they do not all grow up into future German teachers themselves (imagine that!), I hope that they find their own roots and branches – the aspects of their lives that connect them to their selves and to the world.
[Photo 2: An action shot from one of my 6th grade German classes. On April Fool's Day, I 'pranked' the class by conducting it in Russian! Photo by Deirdre Abrahamsson of Wallingford Swarthmore School District.]
Ultimately, what I hope for my students is what German has granted me. German has helped shape me into a person capable of being at home in the world and at home with myself. I am grateful for all of the opportunities and connections I have in eastern and western Pennsylvania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Bavaria, and I am most grateful to Pitt German for playing such a formative role in my life so far.
Samantha Shipeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, should any prospective or current student have questions about what to do with German or how to keep their language growing.