In my fourth-semester (intermediate ii) German language & culture course, I am integrating sections of the young adult novel Die Abenteuer der "schwarzen Hand" (1965) into a unit on the perils of communication. The course itself is organized around different themes relating to the broad theme of communication, which is, for different reasons, very important for students at the intermediate level.
My goal was to use this text and offer students first and foremost an opportunity for structured reading practice in the target language. Die Abenteuer is structured by one-page chapters, which end with a question, one that is in turn to be answered by consulting an image on the following page. The book itself contains four stories. I selected the third story for my students: "Der Schmuggler-Tunnel." Since each story can stand alone for the most part, the format allows for relatively easy entry into any single one of the stories without much background about the plot. The compactness of the chapter itself makes for rather varied textual material available on two pages.
I began the lesson with a brief introduction that covered the title of the book and its main cast of characters. Since each of the chapters does a great job summarizing in the first paragraph what had happened previously in the story, students needed only minor background information before starting reading a later section of the book.
I asked students to come up with ideas about what the book could be about given its title before confirming that it is indeed a detective novel for children and about children. More importantly, the idea that there are pieces of information that belong to a broader narrative--the clue-driven suspense plot central to detective fiction--seemed particularly interesting for students at a stage of their language and culture studies at which they are asked to decipher a lot of information based on small linguistic clues.
Armed with the idea that there will be a lot of clues that the gang of characters pursue in the text, students were positioned well to discuss the cognate-heavy title of the book. Was ist ein Schmuggler? Was macht ein Schmuggler in einem Tunnel? The subtitle additionally offered a brief pause in the lesson during which I could swiftly review expressing time (a notion with which some students struggle even in later semesters).
The first longer exercise was to read the text aloud for their partner, switching up after each paragraph. As they are reading, they are to underline words with which they are not familiar. Since my students are developing healthier relationships to their dictionaries, I asked them in a second step to define the words they underlined and to create their own glossary for the reading.
After reassuring students that deconstructive work with the text will help them develop a better understanding of the text, I divided the text into three parts (conveniently the three paragraphs of the chapter). Students were placed into groups and were asked to re-read each of the parts, writing three points of interest about that part (a summary of sorts) on the board.
This exercise served well to offer students time to deconstruct collaboratively a sophisticated German text, offering them plenty of time to ask questions about individual language structures, which other students in their group generally answered.
What Die Abenteuer offered us was a way to pause in a semester and review some of the basic tenants of the simple past (a review they completed before the exercise using UT Austin's wonderful Grimm Grammar). During the deconstruction of the text, I stopped at the three stations in class and asked students to pay attention to the irregular verbs in the simple past. The fourth semester is primarily a review of the basic structures and for this reason warrants brief explicit discussions of structure.
Once finished, students were standing in their groups by the board and were tasked to offer a brief summary of the paragraph they deconstructed. I asked follow-up questions about individual paragraphs to offer them a chance to speak about sections that did not make it into their summary.
Once the exercise was completed, I asked students to read the question at the bottom of the page, which asks readers to consult the graphic on the following page and interact with the prose to come up with an answer. Almost all students immediately found the clue, an explicit answer for which they also receive in the next chapter of the story.
In this blog I have described one 50-minute lesson, which was followed by the next chapter of the story and which focused not only on structured reading, but also discussion points that allowed students to speculate outcomes of the story. An alternative approach would be to have students read longer portions of a given story, asking them to pay attention to the broader plot and not its details. Such an emphasis on structured reading--which I integrate regularly throughout the semester--prepares students well to work with prose in future units and by extension upper division courses.
Ervin Malakaj, Ph.D.