Hermantown student receives German language award, trip

Isabel Kirkeby worked through several hurdles to receive the award and a free trip to Germany this summer.

Hermantown sophomore Isabel Kirkeby, left, pictured with teacher Katie Engevik, won an award from the American Association of Teachers of German. She is one of 48 German language students in the U.S. to receive a study trip to Germany.
Contributed / Katie Engevik

HERMANTOWN — When was the last time a high school test earned you a free trip to Germany? Probably never.

That's not what happened with Hermantown sophomore Isabel Kirkeby, either. It was multiple language tests, an interview entirely in German, a handful of essay questions and a recommendation from her German teacher, Katie Engevik, that earned Kirkeby one of the 48 spots for an all-expenses-paid two-week trip this summer.

It all started with a classroom test. Engevik gave all of her Level 2 and higher German high school students the 100-question Level 2 National German Exam, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of German. Engevik is the vice president of the Minnesota chapter of the AATG.

"I really wanted to give my kids the opportunity," Engevik said. "And it gives me diagnostic feedback about my program. I can see where my students are strong and where they can improve."

The online test can tell if students use outside translation tools to answer questions or if they navigate away from the page. The 100-question test includes 50 questions where students watch and listen to authentic German speakers and respond to questions about what they hear. The second half focuses on reading and writing.


Engevik gave her students a pretest to help them prepare. Kirkeby said preparing for the test helped her get through it easily.

"When you know what to expect, the questions aren't too hard, so you should at least prepare a little bit before you take the test," Kirkeby said. "And you have to manage your time too because some of them are timed."

Kirkeby scored within the 90th percentile on her initial exam.

"I knew right away that she did really well. There was a tool we could use to see their scores right away, but I didn't know how she compared nationally," Kirkeby said. "And I have to say a lot of the credit here goes to Isabel because she's a very driven and accomplished young person who works very hard. And credit also goes to her former German teacher, Rebecca Waterhouse, who was kind of a legendary teacher in the community."

Engevik took over the German language instructor position after Waterhouse retired in May. Some of Kirkeby's classmates also scored highly and received silver or bronze statuses: Malea Redinger, silver, Lexi Redinger, bronze, and Cormac Maguire, bronze.

Following the first test, Engevik wrote a recommendation letter on behalf of Kirkeby, who prepared for an interview with members of the testing staff entirely in German.

"It was really hard to try and get my point across," Kirkeby said. "I couldn't say a lot of the things that I wanted to say. Like when they asked me what I did for fun and I couldn't say, like, 'I like to go skiing on the weekends.' It wasn't easy. I had to settle for short answers that I could say."

Nevertheless, Kirkeby moved on to the next round, which involved a four-part German exam. Each component has a 40-minute time limit. Kirkeby worked through them under proctoring by Engevik after school for two days after studying advanced German grammar and vocabulary.


After passing this final level, Kirkeby became one of 48 students accepted to the two-week study trip. Over 12,300 students participated in the program. The trip is in its 62nd year and is made possible through a grant from the Federal Republic of Germany.

“This year’s prize winners are some of the finest students in the U.S.,” Michael Shaughnessy, executive director of the AATG, said in a press release. “The prize is a great reward for excellence in learning German — and the best way to better get to know a fascinating language and culture through firsthand experiences living with a German family and attending school.”

The deadline to file the proper paperwork is 4 p.m. Tuesday, May 30.
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“This is one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said following his appointment. “My family has prospered because of this system, but we can’t rest until every family can say that.”

This will be Kirkeby's first trip out of the country on her own. She will live with a host family, attend classes at a gymnasium or high school, and participate in trips to places of cultural and historical significance.

"I'm excited to travel and experience culture for an extended period of time," Kirkeby said.

"The part I'm really excited for with Isabel is her opportunity to stay with a family and go to a German school," Engevik said. "I think she'll come back with lots to share with her classmates. That's one of the great things about learning German: the German government does a lot to fund education and for those interested in learning about the language and culture. It's a cool opportunity for one of my students to receive."

And in case you're curious, after having learned so much language, grammar and vocabulary, what is Kirkeby's favorite phrase to say in German?

"I don't know why, but I say this to myself a lot: 'ich muss mir die Zähne putzen,'" Kirkeby said. "That means 'I have to brush my teeth.' I don't know why, but I like it."

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Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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