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Don't substitute computer coding for foreign language class

Don't substitute computer coding for foreign language class
Legislation in Maryland would allow high school students to take computer coding classes in lieu of foreign languages. (Jen Rynda / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

I never thought that I would learn a foreign language, and I had no intention of ever doing so. If you would have told me in high school that I was going to be a National Foreign Language teacher of the year and that I would win another national award for innovation in teaching a foreign language for my work with STEM, I would have told you that you were nuts. I stopped taking science and math classes because I knew that I would never use them, and I was a mediocre language student who was often told that I had the lowest scores on tests. Let’s be honest, I took German courses in high school and college because I wanted to study abroad and have a little fun. Learning German while on a study abroad semester was a complete accident.

I can understand why people would support HB 1211, which would give students the option of taking computer science courses instead of a foreign language. I thought I wasn’t capable of learning languages and didn’t realize we all learn in our own time. I also didn’t realize what my German courses were teaching me.

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I now know that I don’t have to teach my students the way I was taught and that I had no idea what was going to be useful to me in the future. I graduated with a degree in international politics. Now, I’ve been teaching 18 years at North County High School in Glen Burnie. I can tell you which of my students are absent due to chronic illnesses, who is homeless, in foster care, or emancipated and trying to make it on their own. So many of my students will be the first in their families to graduate high school, and still others will be the first to attend college. When they complain that they don’t understand why they need to learn a foreign language, I can empathize. They are working so hard just to graduate.

Because life can take you to many places you never expected to be, it pays for my students to be prepared for things outside of what they think will be their lot in life. Furthermore, language — how we say what we want to say in an effective and understandable manner — is connected to everything. I try to make as many interdisciplinary connections as possible to help make my students successful in their other courses. Using language as a medium, I can teach them virtually anything. It isn’t a surprise when the history teacher tells me that my German students understand the content that he is teaching better than the other students in his course. And I am not surprised when a student asks for extra copies of his writing resources to take to his friends in English class.

I was so excited to become a STEM teacher when the opportunity arose. What better way to make interdisciplinary connections and make language applicable than by incorporating science, technology, engineering and math. And the real essence of STEM is that it is bound together by soft skills, project-based learning, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. These are the 21st century tools that all students need to be successful right now and in the future. I knew I was on the right track when my first-year German students started to bemoan the fact that “we are doing math in here,” as they started working with budgets to plan events.

I have seen first-hand how learning a language is helping my at-risk students succeed at school. There is Kevin, who spent an entire year in truancy court, but who on a cold Saturday in February showed up at 8:30 am to do science experiments — all in German. Kids are coming to school even when they don’t have to. Take Amanda who tried to quit my class three times. She texted me to tell me that I am the only teacher who helped her feel prepared for college because she can think critically about her assignments. Then there are the students like Alexis, who as a freshman told me that she hated me as I pushed her to her limits. She is the first in her family to attend college and just came back from studying international relations in Germany, something she certainly never saw for herself. Change can and does happen through exposure to foreign language.

The language classroom is the only classroom where we teach our students how to communicate. It is the only place where they are assessed on their ability to communicate inter-personally with another human being. Whether our students decide to become mechanics, doctors or linguists, they will need to know how to effectively communicate with one another, how to problem-solve, how to think critically and how to collaborate. The language classroom is a sacred place for reinforcing content and teaching the 21st century skills that students need to be successful, and we need to secure this for all students. We don’t need to choose between languages or computer science. We need to choose them both.

Delegates, please vote “no” on House Bill 1211!

Katrina Griffin, Glen Burnie

The writer is the 2017 National Foreign Language Teacher of the Year and 2016 Anne Arundel County Teacher of the Year.

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