Beginning at age 10, when she and her family fled East Germany, Barbara Carvill has often felt like the new person in a strange place. But at most stops along the way she was made to feel welcome, and she’s never forgotten what that was like.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that her teaching career at Calvin College has been marked by a passion to create community in her classrooms, to make all of her students feel welcome.
And now that passion has earned her Calvin’s highest faculty honor — the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching. The award includes a one-of-a-kind medallion and provides the winner with a significant financial stipend thanks to the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund, set up at Calvin by an anonymous donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin Board of Trustees.
Carvill says her teaching philosophy is tied pretty closely to the arc of her life, a story that had its first upheaval in 1950 when, as a young girl, she fled the Communist-controlled eastern part of Germany for the U.S.-controlled west. It was there Carvill had the one experience in her life where she, as a newcomer, was not made to feel welcome.
“They [the Germans in the west] had very little,” Carvill recalled, “and disliked all the refugees from the east. We definitely did not feel welcome there. I remember feeling very estranged and forlorn.”
Carvill contrasts that experience with the welcome she felt when she came to Calvin in 1978 as a recent widow and mother of a four-year-old daughter. Carvill had been teaching at Toronto District Christian High School and working on a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto while also involved, with her husband, Robert, in a myriad of activities at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS). After the birth of their daughter in 1973, the Carvill family joined the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). That chain of events led to an offer to come to Calvin.
“I was invited by Calvin to apply for a job in the German department,” she said, “because they wanted a native German speaker and preferably a person from the CRC. We had joined the CRC, and I was a native speaker, so I was probably the only person on the whole continent with these qualifications,” she said with a chuckle.
“Not only did I learn to read and interpret German literature, but I also learned to perceive the literature through the eyes of faith. Faith was not something that was left outside the classroom door in Frau Carvill’s class.” — Former Student
Regardless of the circumstances, the move from Toronto to Grand Rapids proved a good fit for both Calvin and Carvill, especially after the death of Robert from leukemia in 1975.
“I was well received here,” she said. “People took me in right from the beginning. I never felt an outsider here. I came to a good department with wonderful, talented and appreciative colleagues. I was truly welcomed as a stranger.”
Almost a quarter of a century later, Carvill and colleague David Smith would write a ground-breaking book on foreign-language instruction called The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning.
Coincidence? Not according to Carvill.
“Having been welcomed into this community,” she said, “I wanted to give something back, to show how important the virtue of hospitality is in life.”
In the book, Smith and Carvill propose that foreign language education prepares students for two related callings: to be a blessing as strangers in a foreign land and to be hospitable strangers in their own homeland.
Nothing there, said Carvill with another smile, about verb tenses and endings.
“In the last 20 years,” she said, “a lot has changed in our field [foreign language instruction]. The stress is not so much on the mastery of grammar, but on understanding culture in its different dimensions and to develop intercultural competency.”
Carvill thinks that’s a good thing. But what she didn’t like about the shift was the content of the culture in most foreign language textbooks. These books, she said, are covering politically correct issues in an often boring and sanitized fashion.
“Since these are secular textbooks,” she said, “they ignore, for instance, the religious dimension of human life.”
Carvill wants more for her students. She wants what she calls “the real stuff of life.”
And so she likes to lead her students to a deeper understanding of human life and of faith. She looks for language materials that are potentially life-changing and life-giving. Bringing students to those “a-ha moments,” she is convinced, is what makes studying a foreign language worthwhile, for both student and teacher.
This thinking, she said, comes from her engagement with Reformed thought, an engagement she credits to her husband. Barbara and Robert met at Northwestern University in Illinois in the late 1960s, where Barbara was a teaching assistant on a Fulbright scholarship. Robert, a native of Maine, had done his undergraduate work at Gordon College in Massachusetts and had become captivated by the Reformed tradition. Soon, Barbara, too, became attracted to this intellectual Christian tradition, which she did not find in American evangelicalism at that time.
In 1969, the pair married and moved to Toronto to work and learn more about the Reformed worldview as it was practiced at the Institute for Christian Studies.
“There, at ICS,” Barbara recalled, “I became convinced that we had to rethink the whole foreign-language enterprise from a Christian perspective.”
At Calvin, however, she soon began to realize that she couldn’t solve this task just theoretically. But, she said, over time the spiritual and intellectual climate of Calvin, particularly of the German department, clarified more and more what teaching foreign languages from a Christian perspective should look like.
The Gift of the Stranger, she said, is an embodiment of almost 25 years of teaching at Calvin, a small flowering of the seeds that were planted in the early 1970s at ICS and nurtured during a quarter century of practice at Calvin.
In the book, and in her teaching, she calls on people to practice two kinds of foreign language hospitality. The first is to be a blessing as strangers in other lands — not just to be polite, although, says Carvill, that’s important, too — but to ask good, informed questions that can be a gift to one’s foreign host. The second is to develop the Christian virtue of hospitality toward the foreign culture and its people.
Jim Lamse, a former colleague of Carvill’s, recalls a vivid demonstration of her commitment to this ideal.
Carvill had been asked to speak at the closing banquet in Chengdu, China, as part of a summer workshop for Chinese English teachers sponsored by the English Language Institute-China. She first wrote out her speech in English, but with great deference to the Chinese style of speechmaking, which she had taken the time to study. But when it was her turn to speak, the audience was astounded to hear her present her thoughts in their language. She had the speech translated and recorded for her in Mandarin Chinese so that she could memorize it with the correct pronunciation.
Said Lamse: “It was a speech and an evening those in attendance would never forget. She honored their traditions and took the trouble to learn their language. But that’s Barbara, at home or abroad, living out lovingly and with delight the hospitable message of Scripture and the loving ethos of our department.”
Former students of Carvill echo Lamse’s benediction.
In writing to support Carvill’s nomination for the teaching award, one former student said: “Not only did I learn to read and interpret German literature, but I also learned to perceive the literature through the eyes of faith.” She added: “Faith was not something that was left outside the classroom door in Frau Carvill’s class.”
Such words warm Carvill’s heart because they reflect her teaching philosophy.
“I like creating a classroom atmosphere,” she said, “in which I want to give my best. If the students have my best, they will learn best.”
Carvill admits that some learners are tougher to reach than others, adding that early in her career she was too quick to dismiss such students. Now, she said, she works harder to connect with them, to get through the façades students sometimes erect and to find hidden gifts that they may bring to the classroom. Usually, she said, she is successful in this attempt.
And then both she and her students share an important gift: a classroom where connections are made and learning is not a stranger.
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