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Katharina Barbe Honored for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching

Katharina Barbe

What separates the great teachers from the good?

It is a question that can be debated endlessly without ever arriving at a definitive answer. However, examining the careers of the professors and instructors singled out for honors by NIU undergraduate students this year offers a pretty good outline for any such discussion.

While this year's winners teach very dissimilar topics, comments from their students and colleagues indicate that they have much in common. In addition to mastery of their chosen subject areas, they share in common the ability to challenge and engage students; they possess a willingness to work with students beyond the walls of the classroom; and last, but not least, they share a sincere love of the work that is teaching.

Students in Katharina Barbe's German 202 classes not only can carry on a conversation in German; they can also bop along to the latest hip hop hit in Berlin.

“German 202 is the last course they are required to take (to fulfill their language requirement), so I try to keep it especially interesting, hoping to convince them to major or minor in German,” Barbe says of her unusual teaching tactic of having students translate hip hop tunes.

When those students are not rapping, Barbe has them watch German movies (tracing the history of the country since World War II), read German newspapers, read German literature and tells them stories of her childhood growing up in Berlin.

The result is a unique class that not only has students often coming back for more, but consistently giving Barbe some of the highest teaching marks in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, despite labeling her as a “tough grader.”

“I haven't found a textbook that meets my needs,” she says of the unusual conglomeration of teaching materials she employs in her classes (she teaches the full range of upper and lower division classes), admitting that her constantly shifting syllabi are due in part to her need to keep material fresh and challenging for herself. “If I get bored with material I can't teach it, so I am continually changing.”

Her goal, says Barbe, is to move students beyond conjugating verbs and submerge themselves not only in the language, but also in the culture from which it emerges.

“For lower-level students, I try to find a balance between perfect grammar and what you actually use,” she says. “The most important thing about learning a language is that it exposes you to another culture and shows you that there are many different ways of doing things.” To further reinforce that lesson, Barbe also is a strong advocate of students spending a semester overseas, sometimes helping them land Fulbright scholarships or internships to make the experience more affordable.

“She embodies the nurturing, yet demanding, professor that undergraduates seek in order to negotiate successfully the confusing world of requirements, deadlines and options,” says student Kathy Love who served on the language department's nominating committee. Barbe's dedication extends well beyond class hours.

She has directed three Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program projects, acts as division coordinator for German, Classics, Asian and Slavic, and is an active participant in the Foreign Language Residence Program. She also occasionally conducts programs to introduce elementary school students to foreign languages, and works with the Goethe-Institut Chicago to help support teachers of German in 13 Midwestern states.

“She is a passionate teacher whose work both inside and outside the classroom is an inspiration for students and colleagues alike,” says Anne Birberick, chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

Despite those many commitments, Barbe still finds time to make annual visits to Berlin (along with her daughters, whom she is teaching German at home), where she spends time with nieces and nephews, immersing herself in the German culture just as she demands of her students. To do any less would be unfair to those students and to herself, she says.

“My teaching philosophy is borrowed from (the Czech writer and former president of the Czech Republic ) Vaclav Havel, who said, ‘Join the people who are looking for the truth and avoid those who have found it.' It means that you should always look for knowledge – you never should really stop – and that's what I try to do.”

Greg Ross Wins Dolby Award

Greg Ross

In May of 2006, Gregory Ross, coordinator of the Foreign Language Residence Program, was handed the Dolby Award for the Enhancement of Racial and Ethnic Diversity by the Division of Student Affairs. This award demonstrates the high regard fellow colleagues shared for Greg’s contributions to university camaraderie.

Spanish Instructor Lands Fulbright Teacher Exchange Grant

Kerry Chermel

Spanish instructor Kerry Chermel in NIU’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures is saying adios to the flat cornfields of DeKalb.

Chermel has received a prestigious Fulbright Teacher Exchange grant and will spend the fall semester at Universidad Nacional de Cuyo, located at the foot of the Andes in the busy and beautiful city of Mendoza, Argentina. She will teach two sections of American literature at the university.

“I had lived in Spain before and really wanted to have the experience again of living in another culture,” Chermel said. “For a Spanish teacher, it’s essential to have these kinds of experiences. They broaden your knowledge of the language and of the culture.”

The Fulbright Teacher Exchange program is highly competitive. About 170 U.S. citizens will travel abroad through the program during the coming school year.

“We’ve had student exchanges before but this is the first teacher exchange that I’m aware of in our department,” said Anne Birberick, chair of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

“Kerry wanted to pursue this, and she had the full support and backing of the department,” Birberick added. “These grants aren’t easy to get because applicants must be highly qualified and also must find someone who’s willing to swap schedules and is a good match.”

As part of the exchange, Professor Amparo Argerich of the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo will arrive at NIU next month and assume Chermel’s teaching responsibilities, which include four sections of Spanish.

Argerich will have her family in tow. She will take up residence with her husband and their two children in International House, a wing of Douglas Hall that houses the Foreign Language Residence Program, the political science/public service floor and a wide array of international students and domestic students with international interests.

“She’ll be right in the thick of the International House activities,” Birberick said. “It’s nice to have someone who is from another country come to NIU and teach our students because native speakers add cultural depth and breadth to our programs.”

Students benefit in other ways as well, she said.

“These exchanges improve our teachers’ linguistic ability and deepen their cultural knowledge,” Birberick added. “The teachers can bring back authentic materials for the classroom that enrich the learning experience. And we also get the opportunity to learn about a different educational system with different approaches to teaching.”

The Fulbright Program, America’s flagship international educational exchange, is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program operates in more than 150 countries worldwide.

by Tom Parisi

Awards Recognize NIU Faculty and Departments for Contributions

Outstanding International Educator Award

The Division of International Programs presents an Outstanding International Educator Award annually to NIU faculty members who have contributed significantly to international education through teaching, research, public service and student service.

The award winners were announced Wednesday, November 16, 2005, during the annual International Recognition Reception.

This year several special awards also were given out during the International Recognition Reception, and we are pleased to report that the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures was honored for its contributions to the internationalization of the NIU campus.

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