What is American?

My File of Homemade Teaching Materials
My File of Homemade Teaching Materials

While my official title and Fulbright grant say that I am an “English teaching assistant,” I think a more accurate description of my activities, as a teacher is an “American culture specialist.” Almost one of my three to four lessons each day involves giving an overview of some topic as it relates to American life.  I have been asked to describe general topics in the United States, such as food, advertising, mass media, transportation etc. and also more specific institutional components of America like the political, education, and healthcare systems. Each time I am asked to explain one of these things to a class my mind begins humming with the hundreds of ways I can present America through the lens of a specific topic. Usually my approach differs based on the language level of the class or the similarity between that aspect of American culture and Czech culture. Here are some of my strategies so far:

  • Elementary School Regression: How do you explain a topic that is so utterly different and from Czech culture and involves a new vocabulary system? Pull out the activities Americans do when they are in elementary school.  With Halloween coming up, I have been asked to explain this novel American tradition in numerous classes of differing English levels. Czechs do not celebrate Halloween so my lessons involve showing pictures of Halloween symbols, activities, and decorations, doing a reading exercise about the history of Halloween, and this week I will carve pumpkins with my American Culture Club (an activity I have not actually done since I was a little child)
  • My Humble Life Example: A lesson I particularly enjoy giving is about the American education system.  In this area I feel like I can at least pretend to be an expert after being a student all of my life until now.  In addition to giving the general timeline of an American students’ education I also talk a lot about good ol’ Glen Ridge High School as an example of a “stereotypical” American public high school.  I show them the bell schedule, typical lunch menu, and athletics program. This expands into a comparison with Czech schools’ curriculum, cafeteria offerings, and extracurricular vibe—all of which are very different.
  • Videos, pictures, and more pictures: Almost all of my lessons and presentations involve using pictures and videos to show and spark dialogue about American life.  Today I gave a really fun presentation about the Academy Awards as part of a unit on film.  We watched Hugh Jackman’s musical opening of the 2009 Oscar’s and also some red carpet interviews.  Most Czechs have never watched the Oscars even though many of them are connoisseurs of American film and television. When I studied in Prague I watched the Oscars with my Czech roommate for her first time.  She was amazed since she is a film student and has probably seen more American films than most Americans themselves.  Today I watched my students’ eyes widen at the luxury and decadence displayed in this event (even though Jackman’s opening tried to look handmade due to the recession).

One of the strangest realizations is that if I were not here to talk and show these subjects, who would be? The teachers here get their information from books and some of them have never strayed far from the Czech Republic, let alone traveled across the Atlantic Ocean. So while I might not be a technical expert, my small amount of life experiences at least gives me some authority about subjects such as New York City and Washington D.C. or even Prague. Last week I was asked to give a lesson about Prague and realized that many of my students have only been to there several times in their lives. It was a weird feeling that even though I am a foreigner in this country I was explaining about the capital of these students’ own country after I only lived there for four months. All of this definitely makes me value how lucky I am to have had these experiences so far.

Besides just learning about Czech life and the differences between the Czech Republic and America, I also feel I am getting a small lesson in British culture as well.  Many English teachers here tend to have one big preference for either the United States or the United Kingdom.  This usually lends itself to different cultural interests and also a different accent for the “Czenglish.”  All the textbooks for the students that are used here come from British publishers so they teach British grammatical structures and vocabulary. Sometimes this is quite funny for me (did you know that a windbreaker is called a kagoul??) and also presents a challenge when being asked to edit essays.  Teachers can get a little defensive when I try and explain the American way.  This has shown me how learning a language and learning the culture surrounding that language can be entirely different things.  The English textbooks teach the language and then try to throw in a reading about American life here or a listening exercise about Australian life there.  Yet, it seems students enjoy lessons most when the vocabulary, grammar, etc. is taught through or tied to some cultural explanation.

All in all, being here and talking about America so much means that I have never felt more American than when I am now living in a foreign country. I find this pretty ironic that I voluntarily chose not to live in the United States in a year, yet am currently representing the United States and feel more American than ever. Effectively, I am learning more about what it means to be American through living in another place. Somehow this seems backwards to me.  Does this mean that expatriates are really the most “American” of all?  Foreign service officers and diplomats give up the comforts of American life because they prefer international travel and immersion, yet they are the ones who end up with the most apparent American identities. I’m still trying to work this all out in my head…

Up this week: A long weekend  “holiday” from school (note my new British-Czech-English) during which I will be traveling to Florence, Italy!!!!

Also if you just can’t get enough of hearing about my trip, I am volunteering as a blogger for an organization called Reach the World.  According to their website, “Reach the World’s mission is to help elementary and secondary school students and teachers to develop the knowledge, attitudes, values and thinking skills needed for responsible citizenship in a complex, culturally diverse and rapidly changing world.” They do this by connecting classrooms of students in the United States with travelers like me.  I will be sharing my journey with a class of elementary school students in Queens, NY.  If you want to check out my posts for them you can read along too at: http://www.reachtheworld.org/mariels-journey-czech-republic

4 thoughts on “What is American?

  1. What an interesting question you pose about whether travelers abroad feel their “home” nationality more, the farther away they travel. I think you’re like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, realizing — once she traveled over the rainbow — that everything she needed was right there in her own backyard! Maybe that would be a good movie to watch with your students! As always, I love your posts. XOXO – Mom

  2. I Hope when you read this you’re in Florence – one of our favorite cities. You know that I went there to study cooking twice. It is so mellow and beautiful. I think I feel most American when I’m away in a different place; it’s most fun to tell people that we’re from BROOKLYN. This seems to be very impressive. At one time it was almost embarrassing to admit such a thing. Love you gma…recommend a very interesting book The Dark Star by Alan Furst which is set in Europe, Prague and Russia before WWII. Full of intrigue and history.

  3. Interesting! I’m making a paper on the influence it has cross-culture competence in english language teaching. Culture and language go hand in hand, we dont really stop and think about it’s connections and how it affects and reflects one another. You are doing a great job! i wish to learn more about your work 🙂

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