Like every other self-respecting German city, Dresden has a large and active adult education center, called the Volkshochschule (VHS). My lead photo shows their old building at Schilfweg 3, in the Dresden district of Seidnitz. This is where they had their main office and some of their classrooms for many years, and I’m proud to say that I was invited three times during those years to come and lead workshops here for the English teachers.
My first workshop in this building was in January 1998. The topic was “Reading Skills”, which sounds innocent enough, but I’ve just been looking through my planning for that session, and what strikes me now, twenty-two years later, is that several of the classroom activities I did on that afternoon would be inadvisable or even forbidden during the current coronavirus pandemic.
For one of the first activities, I asked them to think of (and write down) something they liked reading about that started with the first letter of their first name. My example was: “My name is Don and I like reading about discoveries.” Then I asked them to stand up, walk around the room and introduce themselves in this way to each of the other participants. “Try to remember each person’s name and what they like reading about, because there will be a test.”
The test consisted of walking around again, shaking each person’s hand (!), greeting each person by name (“to prove you remember the name”) and asking a confirmation question to prove they remembered what the person likes reading about. Example: “Hi Don, you like reading about discoveries, don’t you?” For this phase, I had a big yellow card in my left hand with the words “don’t you?” written on it, in case anyone forgot to use the tag question.
This is an activity that I have used (with numerous variations) for many years, not only as a warm-up and ice-breaker, but also as a demonstration of the role of connections in memory, showing that it is easier to remember two connected items together than one of them alone. But today I wouldn’t dare ask a group to do this, as it would be the ultimate super-spreader activity.
In September 2004 I returned to Dresden to lead another workshop, this time with the title “Pairwork Whys and Hows”. As I wrote shortly afterwards (on the now-defunct website VirtualTourist):
“Here they recently held a ‘Language Day’ for teachers of foreign languages from all over this end of Sachsen. I was one of about a dozen workshop leaders on that day, and I was very satisfied because there were nearly sixty English teachers at my workshop and they were all very cooperative, asked lots of good questions, did all the crazy things I asked them to do and even laughed at (most of) my jokes. What more can one ask on a rainy Saturday afternoon?”
In September 2008 I went back to Dresden to lead a third workshop, this time on the topic “Basic Conversation”, which was about ways of getting learners to start conversing in English even at the lower course levels.
When I have a smaller group I usually have them sit in a semi-circle of chairs, but this time (as in 2004) the group of teachers was too large so they had to sit in rows. But I still got them up on their feet and talking at appropriate times. It was a workshop, after all, not a lecture.
One way of organizing this was to number the rows and ask the people in the odd- numbered rows (1, 3 and 5) to stand up and turn around, and then ask the people in the even-numbered rows (2, 4 and 6) to stand up and not turn around. Then they could introduce themselves to the person they were facing and start talking in English. (Of course this only works if you have an even number of rows, which I did.)
For this kind of activity, or indeed whenever I was teaching English, I always had a small yellow card in my shirt pocket with the words “Please speak English” that I could pull out in case someone reverted to German or some other language. The card of course had to be yellow (they often asked if I also had a red card, which I didn’t) and it had to be DIN A 7 size to fit in my shirt pocket.
Since the old VHS building in Dresden was seven km from the city center, I checked out a NextBike for the afternoon to ride over there and back.
In 2016 the VHS Dresden finally moved out of its old building in Seidnitz and into a larger and more modern-looking building in the city center, at Annenstraße 10.
Like everything else in Germany, the VHS Dresden was closed down in the spring of 2020 for two months because of the coronavirus pandemic. During this time they expanded their online program, and when they cautiously resumed their in-person classes they instituted strict rules to avoid infections, such as one-way corridors, social distancing, wearing face masks and of course no pair or group activities and no walking around in the classroom.
So, for the foreseeable future, the teachers can forget about all the activities I taught them in my workshops, and revert to frontal teaching or whatever.
Like many other educational institutions in Germany, the VHS Dresden now displays the slogan: Bei uns lernen Sie mit Abstand am besten! This is a play on words, because it can mean either “With us you learn best by far” or “With us you learn best with (social) distancing.”
My photos in this post are from 2004 and 2008. I revised the text in 2020.