Introduction

In contrast to traditional methods of EFL instruction including grammar-translation and audio-lingual method, which were dominant in the pre-communicative era of EFL pedagogy before the 1980s, these (still relatively new) approaches provide many opportunities for EFL learners to engage in more authentic, challenging, and meaningful learning activities. This issue of the American Studies Journal will mainly focus on a teaching project, the U.S. Embassy School Election Project 2012, which combined elements of the aforementioned teaching methods. It was both innovative in how it approached the theme of teaching democratic participation, and in how it applied e-learning tools to creative and substantive classroom work: It exemplified the idea that there are, indeed, “new ways of teaching English.” And it proved that these new methodological approaches are highly efficient and motivating. The participants would certainly agree that language learning can be fun!

If Germans had been able to vote in the most recent U.S. presidential elections, the majority would have voted for Barack Obama, the candidate of the Democratic Party in 2008 and the incumbent in 2012. As in previous years, coverage of the U.S. elections in the German media was extensive. Interest was very high, especially after the first African-American President had been voted into office four years earlier. The whole process, from the primaries to the actual race, resembled a sports event which people around the globe followed with great excitement, or, at least, interest.

The challenge of the U.S. Embassy School Election Project 2012 was to take the emphasis away from the candidates and call attention to the process and the motivation and engagement of the American voters in the fifty states. Students were encouraged to dive deeper into the matter, go beyond their own preference (for Obama) and develop a better understanding of the 2012 presidential race, and, most of all, of how “America ticks.” This was no easy task.

A number of partners were engaged in the project: the Leuphana University Lüneburg team led by Torben Schmidt and Joannis Kaliampos, and supported by Christine Junghanns of LISUM Berlin-Brandenburg (Landesinstitut für Unterricht und Medien) developed a teaching methodology to tackle this vast subject. Students in Lüneburg developed materials for the e-learning classroom library. Karin Ernst and Katja Krüger of LIVE e.V., an institution which maintains the eXplorarium e-learning website (http://www.explorarium.de) brought technical expertise to the project, built a custom-made Moodle platform, and organized Moodle workshops for teachers. Leading up to the actual school phase of the project, the U.S. Embassy invited American experts to brief teachers on election processes, issues, candidates, and campaigns. Finally, in the fall of 2012, some 1400 students and 100 teachers from all over Germany worked intensively in a two-week period on an individual state. They explored its economic, cultural, and political framework, inquired about past voting behavior and, based on their intensive studies, predicted how the “adopted” state would vote in the 2012 U.S. presidential election. The day before the actual election, representatives of participating schools cast their votes in a culminating event at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Berlin. The students’ predictions regarding the results of the presidential election turned out to be closer than most professional polls. The creativity of the students’ contributions was simply astounding. Examples can be found in the final chapter of this journal.

ASJ no. 58 captures research results that have come out of this extensive project, but it also features articles by two scholars who provided background on the elections for the participating teachers prior to the actual classroom work. David Goldfield, one of the speakers for the teacher seminars and virtual expert throughout the active classroom work, reviews the 2012 election and analyzes the issues and platforms. This article will, no doubt, become an important resource should we engage in a U.S. Embassy Election Project 2016. Christianna Stavroudis, a doctoral candidate from Greifswald University, introduced the use of political cartoons in the preparatory teacher seminars. Her analytical approach and humorous selection of political cartoons provides a great teaching tool for the EFL classroom and can easily be applied to other political subjects as well.

The centerpiece of this publication is a major review of the actual classroom work performed by students in the fall of 2012. Joannis Kaliampos and Torben Schmidt explore the general educational potential of such projects in the context of computer-assisted language learning (CALL), intercultural learning, and learning in a task-based project environment. Through the data gathered during the classroom phase of the project, we were able to add a research focus from which numerous conclusions for similar creative classroom work can be drawn.

The final contribution, “New Ways of Teaching English,” goes beyond the election project. In their article “Racing to Reform in the United States and Germany,” Shana Kennedy-Salchow and Rita Nikolai from the Humboldt University Berlin provide a comparative study of recent school reforms focusing on at-risk students. Teachers in both countries often complain about “reformitis” and are looking for reliable and inspiring ways to improve their classroom work. This article illustrates how their efforts are not in vain and that the so-called PISA shock can productively be addressed.

The largely positive trends in both countries might encourage educators to try out new ways of teaching. Two factors have inspired the election team to continue with a new web 2.0 project and not to wait until the 2016 U.S. election: One is the excitement shared by all the committed teachers and their students. The other is the conferment in 2013 of the distinguished Hans-Eberhard-Piepho-Award for the project’s exemplary cooperative structure, its creativity, and quality of teaching materials. In a new project, we will be “Going Green.” But that is another story, possibly to be presented in another issue of the American Studies Journal.

The U.S. Embassy Election 2012 team wishes you inspired readings.

Dr. Martina Kohl

Prof. Dr. Torben Schmidt

Editors

Suggested Citation

Kohl, Martina and Torben Schmidt. “Introduction.” American Studies Journal 58 (2014). Web. 19 Aug. 2019. DOI 10.18422/58-01.

 

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