This summer 26 Wilmette middle-school students said “tschüss” to their hometown for two weeks.
Sixth- through eighth-graders at Wilmette Junior High School and Highcrest Middle School participated in a German exchange program for the first time since 2019. Although District 39 students had traveled to Germany every other year from 1996-2019, the trip was postponed for the past three years because of COVID-19 concerns.
The trip aims to allow students to apply their German language skills while also learning about German culture, said Erin Kaminsky, the district’s German language teacher.
“Oftentimes when students are learning a language here in the United States, because our country is so large, we lose context for why learning other languages is so important,” Kaminsky said. “This gives my students a real life experience where they see ‘A-ha, the language that I’m learning is spoken somewhere and I can actually use this language to communicate.’ It gives them a real sense of purpose for learning the language and it really broadens their horizons.”
The trip included a nine-day homestay with a German host family and a four-day trip after, Kaminsky said.
Students visited cities and sites around the country. Kaminsky said they traveled to the cities of Münster, Telgte and Cologne (Köln), where they climbed to the top of the cathedral.
They also visited a chocolate museum and the porsche museum and spent the night in a fortress, which has been turned into a youth hostel on the top of a mountain in the city of Koblenz. On a boat trip around the Rhine River, students saw castles and sites along the river, in addition to visiting one of the best preserved castles in Germany: Burg Eltz.
Students were paired with a host family who had a child around their age and attended three days of school at Maria-Sibylle-Merian Gymnasium with the German student, Kaminsky said.
Nate Butkus, a rising eighth-grader at Wilmette Junior High, said his stay with his host family was the highlight of his trip.
He enjoyed building a relationship with the family before and during the trip, and said that his German skills improved because of his conversations with them and other people he met on the trip.
“Once I was actually able to go there and have a sustained conversation with a German speaker, with me understanding most of what they were saying, that was pretty fun and encouraging,” Butkus said. “It’s gonna be fun to then push through the language even further in the future and get even better knowing that you are able to accomplish something right now and be in Germany for this period of time and get by.”
Max Adam, a rising ninth-grader, also said his German skills improved during the trip. He said that he has taken German for three years, and that reading books in German for class was one of the most helpful things to learn the language before the trip.
Adam said going to a German public pool with his classmates and German friends was one of his favorite parts of the trip. He said he would recommend the trip to prospective students.
“I would say definitely do it because your German will improve so much and you’ll have the most fun you’ve ever had in Europe,” Adam said.
Wilmette District 39 students who participated in this year’s program plan to host the German students from their host families in Wilmette next school year. The German students who hosted rising ninth-graders will stay with other families who have middle school students.
Butkus said he has kept in touch with his host family and is excited to host a German student next year. He highly recommends the trip for German language students in Wilmette.
“It’s a really fun language. You have an awesome teacher, I’d say one of the best world language teachers in the district,” Butkus said. “And then you also get to be immersed in the country, in the language, on this trip if you’re interested. It’s an incredible opportunity to be an exchange student during the point where your brain is good at learning languages.”
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Rosie Newmark is a 2023 Record intern and an incoming senior studying journalism and history at Northwestern University. Rosie has written for multiple campus publications in addition to the Hyde Park Herald and American Libraries Magazine.