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!