Czech Prom: It Takes A Village

The crowd was animated. Classic rock filtered through the loudspeakers, friends hoisted posters and signs, and glasses were filled, drained, and then filled again. Students strode down the red carpet, wearing stunning dresses and striking suits, in full view of their parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends, all cheering them on with hearts filled with pride. As the night went on and everyone flocked to the dance floor, suits were swapped for shorts and heels exchanged for sneakers. Sophistication and grace gave way to the comfort of celebrating just as you are with those you love.

Czech proms were something I had been eagerly awaiting since the start of my Fulbright grant. In considering what to pack, past ETAs had recommended fancier attire and added a good-hearted warning that Czech proms are quite different from American ones. 

In the United States, the end of senior year brings with it an air of bittersweet melancholy tinged with celebration. The anticipation builds with prom and graduation around the corner. Everyone buzzes with the excitement of dresses and tuxedos and promposals and corsages. The murmurs in the hallways grow louder each day as thoughts of schoolwork and tests fade into the shadow of prom. In this regard, Czech proms are remarkably similar to American ones.

The difference comes in the preparation as well as the execution of the event. As soon as Czech students enter high school (whether in a six year or a four year program), they immediately begin the process of fundraising for their prom. They must decide on a theme and pay for the venue, band, food, decorations, and all the other details that make for a worthwhile event. They also take ballroom dancing lessons with their peers at the age of 15 so that they may properly dance with their parents and teachers at their senior prom. This is a long-standing tradition in the Czech Republic and when I was invited to one of these dance lessons earlier in the year, I noticed parents fondly watching their children learn the same steps in the same room where they had learned decades prior.

I attended two proms this year— one for the graduating class of the four year program (4A) and one for the graduating class of the six year program (6B). Their proms were originally scheduled for January, but were moved to later in the year because of COVID-19 concerns. By April, the excitement for the proms had reached a fever pitch.

On the day of the first prom, I rushed home from our Fulbright Mid-Year Conference in Liblice so that I could get ready. I attended with a couple of the teachers from my school, walking the quick five minutes to the main event hall in our town. Right as I walked in, I met a few of the graduating students. They were dressed to the nines, bowties perfectly straight, not a strand of hair out of place. But, the most spectacular parts of their ensembles were the smiles that lit up their faces and the twinkle in their eyes.

One of the central features of a Czech prom is a video with all of the graduating students, highlighting the theme of the event. For 4A, the theme was GymplStar, a play on the Czech version of American Idol. Students and teachers were featured in the video as contestants and judges. They had filmed scenes all over town, and the culmination was a beautiful video that, at its heart, focused on the friendships they had forged and the memories they had made. I had the great honor of being asked to star in a few scenes for the video, and it felt like such a privilege to be a part of something that was so important to them.

The most important part of the prom was the introduction of the graduating class. As each name was called, the corresponding student would make their way down the red carpet toward the stage, surrounded by their classmates on either side, like a parting of the Red Sea. With a class of 30 students, they were as tight-knit a group as could be and I witnessed that in the hugs and handshakes they each exchanged while walking toward the stage. Each student’s walk to the stage was complemented by a song of their own choosing, from American rock or rap to traditional Czech folk songs. The student’s interests and accomplishments were then read out as they accepted a Maturant sash from their class teacher and a rose from the headmaster, signifying their status as a graduate of the school.

Having had the opportunity to teach these students for eight months, getting to see them enjoy and celebrate one of their most momentous occasions was extremely rewarding. While at school, I tend to think of the classes as single entities, a byproduct of teaching 300 students and needing a way to group them in my mind. But, at the prom, I got to see each student’s individual personality shine through. From the outfits they wore to the songs they chose, I got to appreciate the full breadth of who they are outside of the walls of our gymnázium.

Part of this was also seeing them interact with their family members.

Following the introduction of the students and after the speeches, the graduates have a first dance with family. For some, this may be with a parent, a sibling, or a grandparent. For others, it may simply be someone important to them. For the second dance of the night, the graduates ask the teachers for a dance. These traditions are a lovely homage to those who have helped the students reach this milestone in their lives. The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” came to my mind more than once while attending these proms.

In my opinion, this is also one of the most noticeable differences between Czech proms and American proms.

American proms are for the students. Czech proms are for the community.

After the traditional first two dances were complete, everyone else filed onto the dance floor, swaying and singing the lyrics of popular Czech and American songs. It was during this time that I connected with students from other grade levels too. Younger students go to the proms to celebrate their peers, but also to get a better sense of what they want their own proms to look like in the future. It was with some of these students that I had one of the most memorable experiences of my Fulbright grant.

I was dancing in a group with various students from 5B, a class of juniors who are a year away from having their own prom. A slow song starts and one of the students invites me to dance. As we are swaying back and forth, he mentions that he would like me to teach a lesson on the topic of race in the United States. I should note that the students at this school have shown to me time and time again a genuine interest in understanding the world better, so a request like this was not surprising, but the timing of it certainly caught me off-guard. We started talking about the concept of identity, whether national or racial in nature, and discussing generational differences in ideology, both in the United States and the Czech Republic. Before either of us knew it, an hour had passed and I was being tapped on the shoulder by another student inviting me to dance. This impromptu conversation led to a series of lessons I prepared focusing on Race and Racism in America, as well as one on Personal Identity, to allow the students to reflect on who they are and how they fit into the world.

I often look back on that moment with wonder. In the midst of this celebratory event, in the center of a crowded dance floor, to have a nuanced and intellectual discussion about Czech and American identity— to me, there is no greater example of cultural exchange.

This is the true spirit of Fulbright. The moments when you feel so connected to the town and to the students and you get to just live in the happiness of the moment with them, like with the graduating students at their prom. But the hidden brilliance of Fulbright is in the unexpected moments: the ones often outside of the classroom, when a student or a teacher or a member of the community surprises you with something that leaves you feeling equally gratified and grateful.

These are the moments that will stay with me.

School Ski Trip in the Austrian Alps

In March, I went on a one-week school ski trip in the Austrian Alps. This was my first time in Austria and my fourth time skiing. School trips like these are fairly common in Europe. Some schools decide to take their students to Italy while others prefer the slopes in Austria, but regardless of where you go, it is an exceptionally fun time and the highlight of many students’ high school experience.

I was thoroughly excited to have been invited to come along. In a normal year, teachers would accompany two classes, but since last year’s ski trip had been cancelled, we had students from across four classes—1A, 2A, 3B, and 4B. This meant that there were almost 80 students being accompanied by five teachers. However, we also had others who tagged along— students from other years, alumni of the school, and friends of some of the teachers. This is surely a difference between American and Czech school trips. I cannot imagine being invited back by my high school to come on a school trip with current students and teachers, but here, there is a real sense of community and connection that extends beyond the walls of the classroom.

We traveled to the region near Salzburg, Austria with two full buses of students. The journey took about four hours, a reminder of just how easy international travel can be in Europe. It takes the same amount of time to travel from Houston to Dallas as it does from Sobeslav to Salzburg. We spent nearly every day trying a new ski resort in the Ski Amade resort complex, allowing us to see breathtaking views and a variety of slopes.

Here is where I offer my disclaimer. I have been on just a few ski trips. I remember vividly a ski trip to Colorado and another to Utah and receiving ski lessons at the young age of nine years old. However, coming from Texas, there are not many opportunities to go skiing unless you are going on a trip to another state. Last year, I went skiing for a day with some friends in New Mexico and with my brother in Colorado. This was the first time I had been skiing in nearly ten years and while I had tremendous fun, I recognized that I needed more practice.

Fast forward to now. The culture of skiing in the Czech Republic is ingrained in everyone from a young age. It seems like they learn to ski at the same time as they learn to walk. Suffice it to say, I felt behind the learning curve, but I knew I did not want to pass up this opportunity to connect with students and teachers and also view the majestic beauty of the Austrian Alps. One of the common themes of my Fulbright experience has been to not let myself be deterred from experiences simply because they are new. Though it can be difficult at times, I have learned to accept that while I may not be the best at everything I try, I will improve each day and I will have an absolute blast while learning!

This proved to be true on the ski trip as well. Each teacher had their own group of students that they would supervise on the slopes every day. These groups were determined by skill level. I was with the beginner group and each day, we would make our way down the blue slopes and I would practice that which Fanda, David, and Marta taught me. My previous skiing knowledge was limited to “pizza” to stop and “french fries” to go, and imagine my surprise when I learned skiing was marginally more complicated than that. I was showed the basics of parallel skiing and maintaining control when moving down a steeper slope, and as the hours passed under the bright sun and blinding snow, I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of speeding down a slope, surrounded by mountains on all sides.

For the week, our large group was staying at one of the many cottages that dotted the mountainside. Each morning, we would come together for breakfast in the dining room and then depart for the slope of the day. We skied at Zauchensee, Radstadt-Altenmarkt, Flachau, and St. Johann ski resorts over the course of the week. Each had its own unique appeal and every day, we joined the throng of skiers looking to enjoy the slopes before spring arrived. We piled onto the bus and made our way to the resorts, arriving and immediately gathering the various requisite equipment. Boots and skis and poles and helmets and googles and gloves and even a spinal plate, the experience felt like donning armor before heading off to battle. After a few hours of skiing, I joined either Fanda’s beginner group or David’s more advanced group for lunch somewhere on the slope. Following some more skiing in the afternoon, we would return back to the cottage for a shower and some lovely dinner. My evenings were filled by table tennis games, watching students play their own version of billiards, playing Czech card games with the teachers, and even watching the Czech soccer team playing a World Cup Qualifier.

I must, once again, show my appreciation for the grace and kindness I received on this trip. No matter my questions or my confusion, I had many people willing to help and show me the proper ski technique. It was a lovely experience and it made me more eager to go to ski resorts when I return to the United States!

Spring Break Across Europe Off to an Eventful Start

It is certainly an interesting experience writing this blog post while hopping on and off trains with the ultimate goal of reaching Berlin.

Germany has been at the top of my list of countries to visit for the spring, especially with my college roommate, Olivia, completing her Fulbright grant there. Our school’s Spring Break offered the perfect opportunity to make this journey. However, the actual plans for when and where I would go in Germany came together pretty last minute.

I had a busy week with school and planning a Valentine’s Day lesson for all the classes, and did not have the time to hammer out the details of this trip. So in a manner that was very atypical for me, I did not actually buy the tickets, book my hotel, or pack any luggage until the day before I was set to leave. And yet, it all came together! I would be spending the first weekend of the break in Berlin, after which I would head to Hannover and spend the week there with Olivia, before heading back to the Czech Republic for the restart of the school term.

Things were going according to plan, my first train to Prague was smooth, and just as I was feeling rather smug about my abilities to plan at the last minute, the universe unfortunately intervened. There has been an unusual amount of heavy wind swirling through Europe these past few days and as a result, there have been disruptions to the train system. In my smugness, did I believe that my train, and as an extension, my life, would get disrupted? No. But that it did.

My second train unexpectedly terminated its journey in Dresden at which point I hopped off along with my fellow bewildered passengers and overran the information center. By the time I got to the front and started asking in English about my alternative route to Berlin, the woman at the desk barely glanced up before pointing vaguely to her left and declaring “Leipzig. Platform 7,” naturally causing me to wonder just what I had asked her. Nevertheless, I took her guidance and hopped on the train to Leipzig, quickly pulling up the Deutsche Bahn website on my phone and seeing multiple long distance train closures between basically everywhere and Berlin.

Two hours later, I arrived in Leipzig only to find out that the folks at this information desk did not speak English. I stumbled upon some other Americans who were also making their way to Berlin and found out that there was one potential direct train that would be going to Berlin, but that it was leaving in 15 minutes. Naturally, I, along with some three hundred people whose trains were also cancelled, crowded onto the platform. Luckily, I grabbed a seat on the train and let my pounding heartbeat settle from the uncertainty and chaos of the day, but there were people who simply sat on the floor between carriages, determined to get to Berlin at an acceptable hour. Side note: I have seen and talked to many more Americans since arriving in Germany, and I have truly missed the casual friendliness that accompanies the American demeanor. I had no qualms about walking up to an American woman talking about trains to Berlin and asking for guidance, and just as importantly, she had no reservations in offering any and all the help that she could provide me as a fellow traveler.

Ten hours of transit and four trains later, I made it to Berlin! Just another day of going with the flow and adapting to life traveling through Europe!

Spending the Holidays So Far From Home

One of the most difficult parts of living abroad for a year has been spending the holidays so far from my family and my friends. On an ordinary day, when there is lesson planning to do, crocheting to learn, and soccer to play, it is easy to forget how much I miss the beautiful city of Houston. But, for example, when Thanksgiving passes for the first time without much fanfare, the absence of loved ones nearby hits harder.

And yet, despite that, I have gotten to participate in new traditions with new friends who have done absolutely everything to make sure this holiday season is properly celebrated.

Starting with Halloween, I wanted to fully bring the spirit of candy, costumes, and creepiness into the classroom. I planned a lesson, the first of many that I would get to lead on my own, and it was a tremendous success (by my own internal standards of how the class reacts to the content and how effective the balance is between information and interaction). I asked the students to dress up in costumes when it came time for my lesson with their class, and I was pleasantly surprised as they arrived in their creative outfits.

These are just some of the few classes that dressed up in preparation for the Halloween lesson. I naturally plied them with Halloween candy to reward them for their participation, but hey, eating candy is an important part of the Halloween experience! The main feature of the lesson, in addition to funny Halloween YouTube videos, was doing a themed Scattergories game with the students. For those who don’t know the rules, there are categories of words listed on a worksheet and the goal is to put a word down for every category that starts with the chosen letter for that round. I put them into teams, set a timer, and allow their natural competitiveness to take over. While I missed the tradition of trick-or-treating, I was glad to be able to share in the laughter that accompanied silly games and sugar highs.

For Thanksgiving, I planned another themed lesson with the focus being a Jeopardy game composed of American Thanksgiving trivia questions. I indulged my festive nature by encouraging students to decorate hand turkeys and to write letters of gratitude to their loved ones. In creating lessons like these, I am reminded to think deeper about the meaning of Thanksgiving rather than just eating large amounts of food and watching football. It’s about being with family and appreciating all that we have in our lives, because even when things seem bleak or uninspired, there are still things in life to be grateful for. My wonderful family also organized a Zoom Thanksgiving call to bring us together across state lines and even country borders, bringing some semblance of normal to my Thanksgiving dinner.

The Czech Fulbright Commission also organized a brilliant meetup for all of the Fulbright recipients to come together in Prague the day after Thanksgiving for workshops and a nice Thanksgiving dinner, which I didn’t realize I necessarily wanted or needed until I was there in the moment. We all stayed in a botel, a boat converted into a hotel, which was certainly a first for me and exchanged gifts for our Fulbright Secret Santa. These smaller moments help to meet my rather mercurial need for American traditions.

For Christmas, I intend to celebrate at home with my family in Houston, but in the weeks leading up to it, I have been missing the colossal American Christmas consumerist complex. While I understand that we tend to spend too much on decorations and gifts and parties and lights, I still enjoy being surrounded by the joyful holiday spirit that refuses to let you travel two steps without being pleasantly assaulted by Christmas carols, trees, wreaths, and all that accompanies Christmas time.

But, at the same time, it has been really nice to understand and appreciate how other countries and cultures celebrate Christmas in their own unique ways. For example, I was invited to come participate in the Czech Mikulaš tradition on December 5. On this evening, people dress up as demons and angels and venture out into their respective towns. Parents invite these groups to come to their house and speak to their children. It is a little reminiscent of the idea of Elf on the Shelf: the demons are there to make sure that the kids do not misbehave in the coming year lest they be dragged off to hell. For about two and a half hours, we walked through the streets of Sudomeřice, often frightening children to tears, but there were also very sweet moments of children saying poems or singing carols to send the demons away and Mikulaš coming to the rescue with gifts as well. It was a thoroughly unique custom that I had never heard about before coming here!

I have also gotten to make and decorate traditional Czech Christmas cookies, spending an entire day with one of the English teachers, Petra, and her daughter, Tereza. They patiently showed me how to make certain shapes or use particular molds while traditional Czech carols set the mood in the background.

Spending much of the holiday season in another country is difficult, but the warmth and hospitality I have experienced here has kept my spirits lifted. I’m looking forward to spending Christmas with my family, and returning in time to ring in the New Year in the Czech Republic!

See you in the next one.

Who said High School Musical can’t be educational?

It has been a few weeks since I’ve written a blog and it feels like so much has happened already. I visited Italy and Romania, my parents came and visited me for a week, and I celebrated Thanksgiving with my fellow ETAs in Prague. That’s not even mentioning the everyday cultural events and activities that I have been invited to, the very lovely evenings I spend learning to knit and crochet, and my foray into the large variety of sports available to me here.

I am now well-settled into the routine of teaching and co-teaching, developing lesson plans, and building interesting activities that I hope provides value to the students. I have created lessons on topics like American popular culture, American food, Halloween festivities, Regional American accents, Diwali, Environmental Activism, Thanksgiving, and most recently, American history. I have used materials like clips of past James Bond actors, High School Musical dance scenes, and Taylor Swift song lyrics to spark conversations and illustrate examples of the topics at hand.

I have tried to think of ways in which the material can be engaging and the approach different each time. Some lessons have been resounding successes (from my own internal metric). For example, I built a lesson around the idea of Stereotypes after one of the teaching magazines had an article about The Insincere American Stereotype. This is generally how I start lesson planning. I will sit with one of my co-teachers and look at what the students are reading in educational magazines, Bridge and Gate, that month and if there is a topic that I can shed more light on, I run with it.

For the Stereotypes lesson, I wanted to find a way to get the students to really discuss and contemplate why stereotypes are problematic and detrimental to society. The lesson plan was as follows:

  1. I started by going over the article with the students— going into detail why some Americans may come across as insincere and how that relates to the level of service received at restaurants and cafes. Basically, servers + needing tips due to a lack of a living wage = lots of friendliness and care
  2. I then moved on to asking the students to define exactly what a stereotype is (in English, of course) and then encouraging them to think of the different categories of stereotypes, the different ways that we can judge and put people into boxes. Ex: nationality, gender, race, religion, jobs, hobbies, socioeconomic status, age, etc. They provided examples of common stereotypes (“Women are bad drivers,” “Politicians are corrupt,” “Young people are irresponsible”). I asked them to think of why stereotypes are problematic, giving the example of why it would be bad if I were to believe all stereotypes of Czech people before visiting the country, and then letting any experience I had simply reinforce my prejudgement.
  3. Now comes the most interesting part of the lesson: the Sinking Boat Activity. I wrote on the board 13 professions: nurse, doctor, lawyer, scientist, firefighter, college student, child, babysitter, taxi driver, migrant worker, senator, unemployed person, teacher. The activity goes as follows: You, along with these 13 people, are on a boat. The boat is sinking and you are all going to die. But, there is a lifeboat! However, the lifeboat only has five seats. Which five people will you save?
  4. The students have to choose individually the five people they would choose. I then put them into groups where they have to discuss, argue, and come to a common conclusion of which five people to save. I asked one representative from each group to write their five choices on the board.
  5. Then I put together the classes’ final list of five. Naturally, there are some opposition arguments as to why some people should be on the boat over others. But I have the class vote on the remaining choices and ultimately, we decide on our final five.
  6. Now, I break down the lesson. I ask the students why no one chose to save people like the unemployed person, the migrant worker, the babysitter, and the taxi driver. Why the doctor and the firefighter are “more important” or “deserve” to be on the lifeboat more than the others. Why we automatically made assumptions about how the unemployed person is probably “lazy,” “an alcoholic,” or “homeless” despite the fact that he may be actively out looking for a job? Or that the unemployed person could be a housewife too? Why the people who were left behind (migrant worker, unemployed person, taxi driver, babysitter) are arguably of the lowest social status, make the least amount of money, have the least education, work replaceable jobs, or have unflattering job reputations (lawyer and senator)?
  7. It comes down to “Who do we value in society?” What was interesting to me was comparing the final five people chosen in every class. I even began to incorporate the results into my lesson— asking the students how in 13 classes that I had done this exercise in, the final five choices were largely the same and how that could be possible considering the students are of different age groups, backgrounds, and life experiences. The answer: Stereotypes. How many movies or TV shows have you seen where the doctor or the firefighter is the hero? And how many have you seen where the unemployed person or the migrant worker is the hero or even has redeeming qualities at all? Society has taught us from an early age who is worth saving and if all of us were on the boat, we would choose the same people to save.
  8. Bottom line and main takeaway: the premise of the exercise is innately flawed. We shouldn’t be making determinations about who should live and who should die based on someone’s job. If you felt weird or conflicted about making these decisions with such limited information, that’s good. That’s how it should be. Because the whole point of this is to WANT more information, to not be satisfied with assigning a stereotype to someone based on how they look or dress or talk. Don’t let the first impression or judgement of someone be your last. Understand that stereotyping is very difficult to escape from, but it requires intentional thought and work to make sure that you are keeping your mind open to learning something new and changing your perspective as you interact with people in your life.

Safe to say that this the most successful lesson I’ve done thus far. It kept students engaged and active, built vocabulary related to jobs, and left them with a meaningful message. I did this lesson with thirteen classes, and somehow, it was successful each time.

The results of each class are as follows.

Class 1: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, Nurse
Class 2: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, College Student
Class 3: Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, Nurse, College Student
Class 4: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Babysitter, College Student
Class 5: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, College Student
Class 6: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, College Student
Class 7: Child, Doctor, Nurse, Scientist, College Student
Class 8: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Nurse, College Student
Class 9: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, College Student
Class 10: Doctor, Firefighter, Nurse, Scientist, College Student
Class 11: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, College Student
Class 12: Child, Doctor, Firefighter, Scientist, College Student
Class 13: Child, Doctor, Teacher, Scientist, College Student

Not all lessons have been as successful as this one, but there is something to be said for learning from experience. With each class that passed by, I noticed how I could adapt and improve the lesson to be more efficient or more meaningful for the next group.

I like to experiment to see which activities have the potential to become mainstays in lesson planning— Kahoot, Jeopardy, Board Relays, Buzzfeed Quizzes have all been fun to implement and seem to be good to encourage some healthy competition. Confession: Beer Pong (without the beer but with grammar review exercises) theoretically sounded like I could make it fun and interesting and I was really excited about it. But I underestimated the difficulty threshold; instead of having a fun activity filled with review, I had students trying (and failing) to throw the ping pong balls into the cups. Murphy’s Law was naturally on my side on that one.

It’s been wildly interesting seeing how classes interact with the materials or the lessons that I put together. Most days, it feels like a puzzle that my brain is constantly trying to rearrange to insure that everyone is getting the most out of what I have to offer.

Here’s to seeing what comes next!

Start of the School Year in Soběslav

As I write this, I am sitting in an office that I share with two other English teachers, Romana and David. I have four massive floor to ceiling windows that bracket my desk and offer up a glimpse of the elementary school next door. The sky may be cloudy and grey, but my experience in Gymnasium Soběslav has been replete with sunshine! The teachers and the students have all been extraordinarily welcoming and kind.

Before school officially started, I went in a few days early and met the English teachers— Romana, David, Petra, and Vladka. We set up my schedule, the office space, and I got to meet all the other teachers in the school as well.

The start of the school year for all Czech primary and secondary students is September 1st, no matter what day of the week it is. This year, that date fell on a Wednesday. The first day is rather different than an American first day of school. Students here only attend for a few hours, meeting their “class teacher,” a mentor who looks out for the students and resolves conflicts as they come up, and then leaving for the day.

On the first day of school, Romana and I took advantage of the shortened school day to take a day trip to České Budějovice, the capital of Southern Bohemia consisting of nearly 100,000 inhabitants and a popular regional university. We walked around the square, one of the largest in the Czech Republic, and took in the sights! I would definitely recommend coming to visit this city; there is lots to do from eating at great restaurants to shopping in the large stores. We saw the hockey arena, large churches and gardens, ate lunch at a cute cafe, and then headed back to Soběslav.

The second day of school was really my first day actually seeing and interacting with students in classes. I had worked out my schedule with the English teachers the previous week so I carried that paper with me as I attempted to find my classes. In between classes, we also took a group picture of all the teachers in the school!

Some differences between Czech and American schools that confused me at first: the teachers do not have a classroom of their own, they have offices instead. What this means is that the teachers are rotating between classrooms and the students are too. There is also not a standard schedule of classes. For example, I have 5 classes on Monday, but only two on Thursday and while my schedule is unique in some ways, it is typical for teachers to have different starting and ending times every day. One more added element of confusion is that my school has two parallel programs running: a six year program and a four year program. For the six year program, the students start at this grammar school at age 13 and finish at 19. For the four year program, the students start at age 15 and finish at 19. The four year program is denoted by the letter A (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A) and the six year program is denoted by the letter B (1B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B). Each of these classes is split into two groups for the English lessons and if you’re still following along, that means that there are 20 groups for English classes.

It took me awhile to realize and understand these key points, but now that I have, it all feels very natural. Every week, I attend 20 lessons and see all 300 students studying at the grammar school. As a native speaker of English, the goal is for me to be able to help students with speaking and listening practice, while also sharing my own experiences of living in the States. While it can be overwhelming at times for me to see so many students and learn so many names, I know that my schedule was created with equity in mind: so that every student in the school has the opportunity to interact with me once a week.

For lunches, I had been told that the school canteen may have some vegetarian lunches, maybe once a week. However, the women at the canteen have been extraordinary in being able to find ways to replace the meat in the menu most days for some vegetarian alternative— whether that is using soy products or vegetables or eggs, I have been able to eat at the canteen nearly every day for lunch. The canteen is actually operated by the elementary school, but students and teachers from both the elementary and secondary schools come there for lunches every day. It is only a 2-3 minute walk from the school, and we have electronic chips that we scan whenever we get lunch that day so that our accounts are charged. It looks basically like an American school cafeteria, but much smaller and more intimate.

The first two weeks of the school year were marked by me observing the English teachers and participating in the lessons they had created. This meant that I spoke to lots of students in smaller groups, helped out in group speaking activities, and worked with individual students for extra speaking and pronunciation practice. It was nice to get a feel for the various classes’ English levels and see how typical classes are structured. Each teacher I work with has a different teaching style, and it is fun for me to see how the students respond.

More recently, I have had the chance to start building my own lesson plans and activities. The first lesson plan I created was on teaching about the September 11th attacks, as the 20th anniversary passed by. While the topic is sobering, I knew it was important for me to have a conversation with the students about the impact that the attacks had in America in 2001, but also what the legacy has been 20 years later. We discussed what they already knew about 9/11 from social media and the Internet, and I helped fill in the gaps with pictures and information. I showed a video of Jon Stewart returning to his late night show after 9/11, and his emotional monologue to highlight just how visceral the memory of that day was. But after, we dug into the aftermath: the Patriot Act, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, increased discrimination of minorities in America. As an ETA, I feel it is my responsibility to teach them about America in a way that is objective and encourages critical thinking. I want them to understand the rationale for specific actions, but allow them to have the proper information to come to their own conclusions.

Since then, I have created lessons on Texas, the American education system, and American housing trends. For each of these, I have tried to find different ways to keep the students engaged while also giving them relevant and useful information. As someone who doesn’t come from a teaching background, I was a little concerned about leading classes on my own, but after these lessons, I feel much more confident and even excited to be creative in the ways that I can present the information and knowledge I have!

See you in the next one.

Orientation Week in Liblice

So I’m a little late in writing this blog post, which I attribute to getting caught up in the start of the Czech school year! However, before the start of school, I spent some time in Liblice, a literal castle located about an hour from Prague, with the rest of the Czech Fulbright ETAs for our four day in-country orientation. We all met at the train station Praha Hlavni Nadrazi (Praha hln) where a bus drove us to the castle.

Some planning beforehand was required to figure out how each of us would get from our towns to the Prague station. For me, there usually is a direct train that runs from Soběslav to Praha hln. However, there has been some construction work being done on the tracks right now so the goal was to take one train to Benešov and then switch trains there.

This was going to be my first attempt at navigating the Czech public transportation, but luckily, I was not the only ETA taking this particular train to Prague. Michaela and Hunter are the closest ETAs to me, with Michaela only a fifteen minute train ride away.

Long story short, the first train was slightly delayed and as such, we were collectively concerned that we would miss our connection in Benešov. We decided to stay on the first train, taking it as far as it would go to Praha Holešovice, and then getting on the metro in Prague for three stops. Oh, and the kicker? We had to reach Praha hln by 1:15pm or we would miss the Fulbright bus to Liblice. Definitely stressful for a bit there, but we reached there on time (hallelujah!) and I feel more reassured in the concept that most things generally work themselves out.

We arrived in Liblice to find out that the chateau we would be staying at was an ornate and beautiful castle. We composed the majority of the guests staying there, so it’s safe to say that we had the run of the place. The castle was bordered by a garden and a park that more than a few ETAs, including myself, took advantage of for walks and runs.

We all arrived on Sunday, August 22 and stayed till Thursday, August 26. On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, we had long days of programming and training that filled the days. From security plans to teaching tips to mental health seminars, there was a lot of information that was covered. As someone who does not come from a teaching background, I found the trainings helpful in providing guidance as it relates to teaching with lesson plans and learning different co-teaching models. We had fantastic people leading the trainings— with Tomaš, Bara, and Iva from Charles University— who offered insightful bits of wisdom that I will certainly take with me as I go into the school year.

We had our meals in an ornate dining room or in the outdoor patio, and the Fulbright Commission had taken special note of those of us with dietary restrictions. There were some great vegetarian meals even with traditional Czech cuisine!

The evenings were marked by time that the ETAs got to spend with one another, chatting, playing card games, and just letting loose. It was nice to hear that most of the concerns I had about moving to a country where I did not speak the language were shared by others too. Over the course of the orientation, I was grateful to learn that the other ETAs are grounded, well-intentioned people with interesting backgrounds and life stories. It seemed like everyone I talked to was accomplished, eloquent, and brought a breadth of diverse experience to the program. The ETAs I met are teachers, athletes, intellectuals, musicians, and much more. We even have an ETA this year who has done Peace Corps in West Africa, has teaching experience in Thailand, and is now with us in the Czech Republic!

On Tuesday, we also experienced my favorite part of the orientation: an 8-mile round trip bike ride to a Jan Palach memorial. We split into two groups and rode through varied terrain— through fields, mud, rocks— we really got to experience it all. The memorial itself was sobering and impactful, learning about how a 20 year old had set himself on fire in Prague as an act of protest to wake the Czech people up to the Soviet invasion in 1968. Even with the serious and saddening history, it was still nice to be able to do something active and in nature, after having long hours seated in lecture halls and conference rooms.

On Wednesday, all of our mentors joined us at the chateau in Liblice. We had separate programming throughout the afternoon, but dinner was a nice opportunity to meet the other mentors in the area. For example, I had pleasant conversations with Michaela’s mentor, Martina, and Hunter’s mentor, Luboš.

Thursday, we went our separate ways with our mentors, and there was a certain melancholy in the air about going back to being the only American in our respective towns. But there was also an anticipation seeping through as well; we had been preparing for teaching and getting to know our communities for so many months and the moment had finally arrived. The only thing to do now was to dive in and start!

See you guys in the next one.

Acts of Kindness and the Czech Triangle

(Romana, Jitka, and I eating ice cream in Tabor)

As I write this, I am sitting in the middle of the Soběslav square, as the sun sinks lower in the sky. The middle of the town sits a mere 12 steps from my apartment, making me feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be living in such an accessible place. I am sitting on a dark grey bench made of a solid sort of wood that gives off the impression that it has been here for centuries. In fact, the whole town gives off the same sort of vibe. There are brightly colored shops, from pharmacies and grocery stores to restaurants, surrounding the square in every direction. Next to me, there is a couple enjoying a late afternoon snack, another couple having a conversation in the shade, and a family just taking in the fresh air. Children run across the cobblestones, screaming for their parents to lift them up into the air. In a sense, this could be any small town in America, but in some of the most important ways, it really couldn’t. Besides the obvious difference of everyone speaking in Czech, there is rich history here that underlies not just the architecture and visual elements of the town, but also the attitude of its people. It is difficult to not sit here and imagine what the town must have looked like centuries ago, what sort of stories lay hidden, as the clock tower rings out. But I know that with each person I meet and each new place I visit, I am even more intrigued and interested to learn more.

I have been in the Czech Republic for four full days, and just in this sort period of time, I have experienced the full embrace of Czech hospitality. This started when I was met at baggage claim at the airport by my mentor, Romana, with a sign in her hands and a smile on her face. We had spoken numerous times over the summer to hammer out details of my journey, but this was the first time we had met in-person. She was and has been lovelier than I could have expected. She has an infectious energy and excitement about her, and you can’t help but smile when you’re around her. She has been absolutely invaluable, and there are not enough words for me to express my gratitude to her.

The second person to welcome me to Czechia was Adéla, my landlady. The details of my housing had been coordinated over the summer through WhatsApp, and Romana sending pictures as she went apartment hunting. The apartment we chose is located right on the square and is the perfect space for me to come home to after teaching. Adéla reassured me that she and her sons lived in the flat downstairs and that if I needed anything at all, she was just a call away. She suggested that if I wanted to go for a walk or was coming back from somewhere after dark, that she was happy to come get me to make sure I got home safe. Living in a different country, away from everyone you know, inherently feels a little scary, but Adéla has helped me feel safer. She brought me tomatoes from her garden yesterday, and it is these casual acts of kindness that really warm my heart.

I spent most of Wednesday in a fog of jet lag, but Thursday, I felt much better. I went on my first run here, following a trail that Romana had recommended, and only getting lost once! Baby steps for the win. I then went on a guided tour of Soběslav that Romana and Adéla had coordinated for me. My tour guide was Michal, an enthusiastic history buff and recent graduate of the secondary school that I will be teaching at in a few weeks. He provided me with some much needed historical and cultural context, walking me through the two main churches in the town and the castle. We dove deeper into the conflicts between Catholics and the Hussites, the patronage of the Rosenbergs in Southern Bohemia, and the impact of World War II. Suffice to say, I had a grand time and emerged from the tour with a better understanding of the town I will call home for the next ten months.

Friday was a long day. It was the day for the “Czech Triangle.” This was the name that Romana had come up with to describe the geographic relationship of the towns Soběslav, Bechyně, and Tabor. These towns are all about 20km from one another in a somewhat triangular shape on the map. I spent early morning in Soběslav, the afternoon in Tabor, and the evening in Bechyně. First item on the agenda was to meet with Petr, the school’s headmaster, and David, an English teacher at the school. It was great to see the inside of the school for the first time and to meet Petr and David. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised by just how open, welcoming, and kind everyone is. David, as the hockey coach for the local youth teams, offered to show me and Romana the ice hockey stadium. I had seen the rest of the sports complex— massive soccer field, track, sand volleyball court, two small sided soccer courts, basketball court, and numerous tennis courts— the day before on a walk with Romana. Walking inside the hockey center and hearing David proudly talk about his daughter who plays with the local boys team, I was reminded of a book I read a few years back called Beartown by Fredrik Backman about a small hockey town in Sweden. I watched the last 10 minutes of the ongoing match, found myself thrilled to be watching live sports again, and knew this was absolutely the right town for me to indulge my love of both playing and watching sports.

(Romana, Me, and David at the Ice Hockey Arena)

From there, Romana and I drove to Tabor to figure out if we could set up a Czech bank account where my stipends would be direct deposited and to also purchase a Czech SIM card. The bank account was being opened by one of Romana’s friends, Pavla, who worked really patiently with us, because opening a Czech bank account as a foreigner is no cakewalk. After two hours, Pavla told us the processing of the account could take awhile, recommended that we go ahead with lunch, and promised to call with updates. From there, Romana and I walked through Tabor first seeking out an O2 shop to buy a SIM card before looking for a place to eat. Tabor is larger than Soběslav, with more shops and restaurants as well as more vegan/vegetarian options. We chose a nice bistro that agreed to remove the meat from their penne for me, and met one of Romana’s friends, Jitka. She is an English teacher in Tabor and had actually hosted a Fulbright ETA there in 2020. Note another casual act of kindness: Jitka brought Romana and I each jars of black currant marmalade fresh from her garden. She also had a lot of good advice and recommendations for visiting Tabor in the future. We explored for awhile, traversing the info center and bookstore, before stopping to get some ice cream from a place that Romana insisted had “the best ice cream ever!” I got mango sorbet, and I’ll admit that it was fantastic! We then made our way to a coffee shop that had a really great aesthetic appearance, with lots of plants and bar tables and colorful couches. From here, we split ways with Jitka, and headed back to the bank to pick up Pavla and drive to Bechyně, where both Romana and Pavla live.

Reaching Bechyně, we stopped at Romana’s house so that I could meet her boyfriend, Vojtěch, before we headed out for a walk around town. Bechyně was really beautiful, with these large bridges overlooking the river Lužnice, and a lively town square with many restaurants and outdoor dining. I also loved getting to know Romana’s dog, Amy, and her lively and playful demeanor. Before soon, the sun was setting, and Romana brought me back to Soběslav to finish out the day of the Czech Triangle.

(Me and Romana’s dog, Amy)

It has been a busy few days, but I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to explore and find my bearings. Everyone I have met has been lovely and welcoming, and there is so much natural beauty around me to admire. Tomorrow morning, I head off for orientation with the other Fulbright ETAs where I will spend four days, getting to know them better and also receiving some preparation for the start of the school year.

The sun has slid lower and live acoustic guitar has started to echo through the square. Time to go pack my duffel for the orientation!

See you in the next one.

Packing for Ten Months

As I write this, I am flying high above the clouds, crossing over the length of the United States and the vast Atlantic Ocean. I am on a 9 hour flight to Amsterdam where I will have a 2.5 hour layover, and then connect to a 1.5 hour flight to Prague, my final destination.

My last few days and weeks in Houston were marked by spending time with friends and family, but also packing basically everything I owned into two checked bags, a duffel carry-on, and a backpack.

The first decision I had to make in regards to packing was whether I wanted to bring one or two checked bags. I will freely admit to having an overpacking tendency, but honestly, packing for ten months in a foreign country seemed to call for bringing lots of items. From previous ETAs I had heard the refrain that packing light is generally better, and that I could buy whatever I needed either in my Czech town or in one of the bigger Czech cities. While that method seemed reasonable, the decision to buy or pack is really dependent on each person. Personally, I preferred to pay slightly more for an extra checked bag than have to buy entire wardrobe pieces abroad.

After having made the decision to take two bags, my mom and I began laying out potential shirts, sweaters, pants, dresses, and shoes that I may take with me to the Czech Republic.

Here is where I mention how instrumental my parents were in this packing process. My mom started about two weeks ago— laying out clothes and other essentials in the guest bedroom so that I would have a better idea of what I had and what I needed. Both my parents and I were running around different stores trying to find last-minute items, and there were long days put into fitting everything into these suitcases. So a massive thanks to the two of them— I couldn’t have done it without them!

My packing list, which I have attached a picture of below, was split into multiple categories— Tops, Bottoms, Sweatshirts, Shoes, Backpack, Documents, Toiletries, and Miscellaneous. I then added an extra category— Things to Buy. I would recommend trying to figure out what you do not have in the house and may need to take with you— power adapters, sunglasses, winter jacket, etc. That way, you have some time to have your items shipped to you before departure.

Space and weight saving tips: I did my best to spread the weight of the heaviest items— jeans and sweaters mainly— across both bags. I rolled all of my t-shirts, I packed most of my shoes into the duffel carry-on to avoid that weight in my checked bag, and I stuffed socks into all of my shoes. In my duffel, I also kept an extra set of clothes, in case my checked bags were misplaced or temporarily lost.

The biggest factor in choosing what clothes I should bring was versatility. I needed to choose tops that would work in both casual and professional settings, on top of jeans, on joggers, and on slacks too. The same went for jackets and dresses— I wanted to toe the line between professional and casual to avoid bringing single-use clothing items.

My backpack consisted of all of my electronic devices— I was bringing a laptop, a tablet, a camera, and all of the related chargers and accessories. One of my more exciting purchases was actually a camera clip that would sit on my backpack strap and would allow me quick access if there was a shot I wanted to grab. I intend to create some vlogs while I am in the Czech Republic, and just from my time at the Houston airport, I have already seen how useful this clip has been!

When it came time to weigh the bags, I used a bag scale we have had for years. It loops onto the handle of the suitcase and then as you lift the suitcase, the handheld scale calculates how heavy the bag is. I was right around the 48-49 lbs mark for both bags, and the scale proved rather accurate, with no major troubles when checking in the bags at the airport.

For my travel day outfit, I chose clothes that were loose and comfortable, but also super functional. My jacket has 4-6 good pockets for easy access for my passport, chapstick, and phone. My pants also had lots of zipper pockets to help me make sure nothing important fell out as I made my way from airport to airport.

Packing for ten months was daunting, because it felt like no matter how much I took with me, it would still never be enough to recreate my home. Maybe the key is in realizing and recognizing that my apartment in Soběslav will be a home away from home, and as such, will be different. I am sure there was maybe some part of me that thought if I took enough things from home, I would not miss it as much. Truth is that I am going to miss Houston, my parents, my brother, my home, and my friends immensely, but I am also excited for what will certainly be a transformative and incredible life experience.

The most important item that I packed is a set of nine pictures— pictures of my family, of my friends, of some of my most enjoyable memories of the last year. This is my way of bringing Houston and the people I care about with me to the Czech Republic and paying homage to all they have taught me, as I journey forward in life.

See you in the next one.

Mluvíte česky?

Dobrý den! This past week, I started my formal Czech language learning. Lots of people have been asking me if I know how to speak Czech since I will be living there for ten months. The answer is quite simply no— but I am learning! Some countries have a language knowledge requirement in order to apply to be a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ie. most South American countries, Spain, and Germany, to name a few), but the Czech Republic does not require applicants to know Czech. Most ETAs are not fluent in Czech, and because of that, it is generally a good idea to at least educate yourself on the basics to make the whole experience just a little easier.

So I signed up to participate in a 2-week immersive Czech language course offered through Charles University in Prague. In normal years, the course would be in-person with students flying in from all over the world to learn Czech and stay in dormitories. However, with COVID-19 ever present, the course is being offered online through Microsoft Teams.

The Czech Fulbright Commission offered a $500 stipend for any of the ETAs who wanted to take a language course over the summer, and I decided to take them up on the offer.

The course, Czech for Compatriots, is offered Monday through Friday for two weeks. Every day, I sit for three 90-minute blocks of Czech lectures and lessons. There are thirty-five students who are participating in this course, but the very first day, we were split into three classes— Beginner, Medium, and Advanced. Safe to say, I was happily in the Beginner class with my only Czech exposure happening through my 150 day Duolingo streak.

On the first day, the course director, Marika, explained the outline of the course and introduced the three instructors as well. A few students offered up reasons for why they were learning Czech, and I was amazed at their stories. There was a middle-aged architect from Brazil who had started learning Czech to better understand his favorite Czech designer. There was an Eastern European woman in her 30s who had married a Czech man, and wanted to improve her Czech fluency. A neuroscientist from Montevideo, a grandmother from Buenos Aires, the list goes on and on.

In my beginner class, I have met the most incredible people. There are seven of us— three from Argentina, one from Uruguay, one from Burma, one from Serbia, and me, from the States. All of my classmates have relatives, usually grandparents or parents, who are Czech, and it is super enjoyable to have such an international, multicultural class.

Each day, we go a little further in the textbook, Czech Step by Step, learning greetings, numbers, and practicing dialogues and phonetics. Our teacher, Helena, informed us on the first day that Czech is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, but for us to make a real go at it, her number one rule was to not be shy. It can feel awkward and embarrassing at first to relearn alphabets and force your mouth and tongue to create the necessary pronunciations, but that initial discomfort has to be set aside when learning a foreign language.

It has really been the little things that have made this course so worth it. Technically, sure, I could have bought the textbook on my own, and attempted to learn Czech by myself. However, when it comes to pronunciation, having a teacher has been useful in getting realtime feedback and intensive practice. It had never even crossed my mind that the stress on words would be different in Czech. In English, the stress is often on the first syllable, but can also be quite varied. In Czech, the stress is always on the second syllable, a discovery I likely would not have made without a teacher.

There have also been very fun and silly moments together— to practice our phonetics, we sang verses of a Czech song. People singing at different pitches and speeds plus the added delay of a video call; if you have never sung foreign language songs with others over Zoom, I would recommend it for a good laugh!

I am currently halfway through the course, and I am absolutely positive that I made the right choice in signing up. I have met fantastic and interesting people, learned Czech vocabulary and grammar, and gained a better understanding of Czech culture.

One of the first phrases we learned was “Mluvíte česky?” which means “Do you speak Czech?” Before this week, my answer would have been an unequivocal no, but now, I can say maybe just a little bit, and who knows what my answer will be in ten months!