Yukon’s sole German program on shaky ground

Every year since 2000, Whitehorse has sent a group of teenagers to Germany to learn about the country's culture and history, and to flex their linguistic muscles.

Every year since 2000, Whitehorse has sent a group of teenagers to Germany to learn about the country’s culture and history, and to flex their linguistic muscles.

And since 2003, the city has hosted a group of German teens in exchange, who get to hike the Chilkoot Trail, canoe down the Yukon River, or maybe bask in the Takhini hot springs.

This year’s Canadian and German exchange students held an assembly at Porter Creek Secondary School this week to share photos and stories of their time in both countries.

The Canadian teens talked about visiting Buchenwald, one of the largest German concentration camps from the Second World War. They showed photos of the bike tour they took and a youth hostel where they stayed. They mentioned how different it was to walk along narrow, cobblestone streets instead of pavement.

For their part, the German students talked about the wilderness and the open spaces.

“Here everything is so much bigger,” said 14-year-old Anna Wiertel. “The houses are bigger, the cars are bigger. Everything is bigger and flatter. You don’t have skyscrapers… and Germany is full of them.” She said her favourite part of the trip was going quad-riding. “We don’t do this in Germany.”

This annual trip is the brainchild of Renate Schmidt, who became the territory’s only German teacher in 1997. But now that Schmidt has retired, she worries that the language program and the German exchange may lose some of their momentum.

“German is a very valuable language for the Yukon,” she said. “More kids should learn it, if possible.” She pointed out that Condor Airlines hosts a direct flight between Whitehorse and Frankfurt in the summer season.

Schmidt used to be a teacher in Germany. When she moved to the Yukon, she took on work as a math tutor at Porter Creek Secondary, but had a hard time finding a full teaching position.

Eventually, she suggested the school might want a German language class – something only she could offer.

In its first year, the class attracted 30 students. Soon after, Schmidt was offering three levels of German, which students could take beginning in Grade 9.

In 2000, she organized the first trip to Germany, so that her students could have a chance to see the place they were learning about.

Schmidt said her students know enough German by the time they graduate to communicate a bit with the many German tourists that visit the territory.

“In the service industry, it’s a definite asset if you at least can say a few words in German. It makes them feel more at ease or more welcome. It’s just a little more friendly.”

But Schmidt ran the classes largely by herself, and said she didn’t always get a lot of support from the school. Class sizes have dropped over the years – the upper two levels are now combined into one class.

After she retired in 2014, her daughter took up the torch for one semester. But she said the Department of Education has refused to create a full-time position for a German teacher. That leaves the future of the classes on shaky ground.

“Not to teach German at a school here I think is ridiculous,” she said. “You should actually promote it and extend it. Germans are the ones who are travelling, who are attracted by the wilderness.”

And at the moment, the German courses may be the only thing keeping some students in a second-language class.

Grade 11 student Mia Greenough, 16, said she found French really difficult to learn. Friends told her she should try German instead.

“So I took it when I was in Grade 9,” she said. “And in Grade 10, I took it again because I liked it so much.”

She said she was able to use a bit of her German during this year’s exchange trip, and hopes to go back again.

For now, Porter Creek Secondary School plans to maintain the program. Schmidt said the school wants the Spanish instructor to teach the German classes, since she also speaks some German. Schmidt called this a “Band-Aid solution,” since the teacher isn’t fluent, but said it’s better than nothing.

She also hopes to keep organizing the German trip, even during her retirement.

“I’m teaching the culture as well, at the same time. Kids here, they have never seen cathedrals. It’s good for the kids to see.”

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