What does a 20-plus-year career in language teaching look like? How do you keep from getting bored? Chris Overstreet’s answer is: be part of the conversation. The answer has led her to a Ph.D. and to a remarkable expertise in using technology in, or as, a classroom. When I ask her about her mentors, name after name comes forth… but perhaps even more language teachers might name her as a mentor. She has been a great resource for me, in the language lab, with her interest in new methods and tools. She never forgets that what counts is not the tool but the student’s progress.
Christina Overstreet was born and spent her childhood in a tiny Bavarian village: “I’m really a Southerner!” She graduated from a Gymnasium near Stuttgart, and went on to a teacher’s college, studying English and physical education. At the age of 21 she married an American and moved permanently to the U.S. For the next ten years or so, she was busy as a stepmother, though she served as a substitute teacher of English and German in the local high schools. When family demands slackened, she returned to school. In 1987-89 she was working on a master’s in German literature at UF—her local university—and she began teaching as a TA. When she received her degree, she was invited to apply for a lecturer position in the department.
Chris’s classroom has changed a lot in 25 years. When she began, Professor Helga Kraft was training the UF German language instructors in the Rassias or “direct” method, which suited Chris’s energetic personality; some instructors rejected this provocative and dramatic teaching style, “but I adapted it to me… I may have shocked some students, but they came out at the end saying, I can speak German.” New teaching philosophies, and new tools, were coming along, though, and Chris was interested in them all: “I pay attention to what the experts say, and I don’t just have one approach; I choose the method that I know will work best in teaching a certain skill. [Nowadays] I try to be a facilitator, rather than the force in the classroom, always dominating everything and controlling everything. That’s been very difficult for me to give up. Technology helps me to do that.”
Technology. In the late 90s, Chris brought her pedagogical savvy to Professor Franz Futterknecht’s Discover German project—online textbooks which exploited the authentic materials suddenly available on the internet for teaching elementary (and, eventually, intermediate and advanced) language courses. Students facing the website for the town of Mannheim in the first week of class may have been daunted, but Chris’s lively presence was reassuring and her results good. Eventually she piloted hybrid and completely online versions of first-year Discover German. That’s as far as one can get from the dramatic, teacher-centered Rassias method, but Chris’s understanding of how to create a community in the classroom underlies her web teaching methods, too. “I love hybrid…. There’s a lot of investment in delivery at first, and then it gets a little easier—but you still have to interact—you just interact differently.”
Chris was not satisfied just listening to her own voice and those of her students. Early on, she realized “I knew nothing about teaching a foreign language” and began planning to pursue a Ph.D. in language education. She began by becoming certified in TESOL through the Linguistics department; she continued her association with them by minoring in sociolinguistics when she embarked on her doctorate. In 2006 she took her Ph.D. in UF’s College of Education with a dissertation on Reading authentic text in the hypermedia environment. She enjoyed attending conferences—a dozen in the decade of the 2000s—and making friends across the country who were working on the same problems.
Chris serves in several special programs at UF. The long-established summer program in Mannheim has been a favorite since 1993, and she has served off and on as director, co-director, or academic advisor. She looks forward to returning to Mannheim next year—“my second home.” Another program to which Chris’s expertise is important is the Language Teacher Summer Institute for middle and high school teachers.Recently the department appointed her to supervise the TAs who teach elementary German.
As courses across UF drift towards hybrid and online versions, Chris can speak to all the language teachers and graduate students because of her remarkable experience with the web, course management systems, and internet tools. A recent spate of problems with delivery reminded her to remind herself, “Hey, I’m not the idiot here—it’s the program!” She commented on how badly we now need course and instructor evaluations which are appropriate for online courses, so that students and the university administration can understand what is working and what is not.