German American Day – Celebrate 336 Years of German American History

By Sabrina Völz

Photo credit: “Herr und Frau” by Phil Davis NY

Although the United States has greatly impacted politics and popular culture around the world, it should not be forgotten that German immigrants have also influenced American culture since the founding of Germantown, now part of Philadelphia, 336 years ago. October 6, 1683, marks the first German settlement in North America. Instead of celebrating the popular holidays familiar to most students, such as Halloween or Christmas, perhaps it is now more than ever important to remember the close ties between our two nations. I have put together a few ideas for a lesson on German American Day.

If your curriculum is tight, perhaps you might just introduce a few fun facts in the form of a quiz. As a warm up, ask students if they are familiar with any German culture in the United States. Then give them the attached quiz. Afterwards have students briefly research the facts they are not familiar with and then report back to the class.

Although there are a number of interesting video clips that might be used to complement the quiz, the 2017 Super Bowl commercial, “Born the Hard Way,” is my current favorite. It celebrates the contribution of one German immigrant.

To work on media awareness, after showing the commercial twice, have the class discuss the following questions in a think, pair, share format:

  1. How did the commercial make you feel? Does the commercial appeal primarily to emotion, logic, credibility, or character?
  2. What story does the commercial tell? Describe the storyline.
  3. How are viewers’ attention drawn to particular images? How are particular visual elements used as symbols or metaphors?
  4. How does sound or music contribute to the message?
  5. What exactly is the commercial selling? Just a product or something else? Explain.
  6. What do you know about Super Bowl commercials? Why do you think this ad was shown to that particular audience?

If time allows, take some of the one- to two-page entries on famous German Americans from Alexander Emmerich’s popular history book, Die Geschichte der Deutschen in Amerika von 1680 bis zur Gegenwart (Köln: Fackelträger, 2010) and have pairs of students turn the information from those pages into a roleplay which they perform for the class. If students do not speak German, there are also websites in English that can provide similar information. In this activity, students use their mediation and creative writing skills to tell the stories of people, such as John Jacob Astor (the first American millionaire), Henry John Heinz (the maker of Heinz Ketchup), Thomas Nast (the famous political cartoonist who popularized the dollar sign and the symbols of the Democratic and Republican Parties), Johann August Röbling (the civil engineer who designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge), and Margarethe Meyer-Schurz (the founder of American kindergarten). In a later step, the information can be transferred to a poster which can be hung in the classrooms or in areas around school.

In any event, enjoy German American Day 2019! I know I will.