When you ask Stephanie Schmid about her motivation to create German classes for refugees without getting paid for it, her answer is simple: “The people wanted to learn and we did not have any material to help them.” That was in early 2015. Meanwhile her programme deutsch.fit has spread beyond country borders - also with the help of LearnChamp.
Together with other volunteers you wanted to welcome refugees who were brought to the army barracks in Klosterneuburg. How did this turn into a German class?
There was a so-called Get Together to get to know each other over coffee and cake in a school. And suddenly there was this rumour that there will also be a German class. All wanted to learn the language from the illiterates to those who were already fluent in English.
How do you start to teach someone German, especially if you are not trained to do it?
You start with “Ich heiße Stephanie. Wie heißt du?” and from this you get to the pronouns “er, sie, wir, etc.” Then the days, so that every participant knows, when the next class will be. But very soon the different levels of literacy showed. We also noticed that women need a different, more quiet learning environment. After separating the people the problem was that teachers at each table changed frequently and did not quite know what had been done the day before. So I started to compile my notes in Word and hand them out if needed.
That is how Level 1 started, followed by Level 2 for fast learners, complemented by an ABC for those who still had to gain literacy. Soon we noticed that we had to separate them into proficiency levels to ensure they get the teaching they need - but also to make it easier for teachers.
Level 3 and 4 followed almost automatically. Some students were able to learn German in four months.
Learning material or school books were not available?
Yes of course. Some teachers brought along books and notes. But it was really difficult to find suitable material because refugees need quite different language skills. They have to learn to communicate. Games and small competitions can help them with that. For example you can use dice to fit the right form of verb to the correct pronoun. It is also important to find words they might already know, e.g. Auto or even Volkswagen.
The “sheets with notes” turned into the website deutsch.fit with structured learning material, interactive instruments and spoken text – was this the logic next step?
Almost all refugees have a smartphone and access to the internet. Therefore my husband, Laurin Herlt, who works in the IT-sector, and I had the idea to put the documents online. This way the students could learn at home and also continue learning when they were no longer in Klosterneuburg.
Then there was the idea to read texts to help them with pronunciation. And we wanted interactive elements like completion texts, etc. –this is when LearnChamp came into the picture with their expertise in digitalising learning material.
The major challenge was to design the website and buttons in such a simple way that students without any German and particularly also illiterate people were able to use it. We developed this together with LearnChamp and it has turned out great!
Through the website deutsch.fit the “Deutschkurs Klosterneburg” has quickly spread. Did you actively promote it?
Initially a beautiful coincidence made me aware of the fact that it has spread: A young asylum seeker came from Traiskirchen to Klosterneuburg and when I asked him about his knowledge of German he proudly answered: “I am already level 3.”
Since then I love to use Google Analytics to track who is using the website in which country at the moment. But there are also a lot of direct mails with questions and mainly heartfelt thanks. This kind of direct feedback is amazing. Especially for me because as “a voice on TV and in commercials” I usually do not get anything like it.
Meanwhile we have practically turned into a social start-up, that’s the term a journalist for the Austrian daily “Kurier” used. In fact we have added an online-shop where you can directly request the teaching material from a printing shop.
The Austrian broadcaster ORF has integrated us into their website helfenwiewir.at. Of great significance is the recognition by language schools: Someone who finished level 2 of deutsch.fit together with a supervisor will in future be able to get a fast and cheaper lane to achieving the A1 German language certificate. This will also ease the burden on language schools.
Together with LearnChamp we have just added more interactive elements to the website including an online version of the word memory. In our special learning situation, games have proven to be one of the best motivations.