Fulbrighters in Ostrava

The Longest Month

Even back in June when I was pondering about what this year would bring, I knew to watch out for January. I knew the Christmas season would be over, my visitors would have left, it would still be cold and gloomy, and I still would not have reached the half way mark. Surprisingly, after 22 days of this full 31-day month, January really has not been so bad.  I’m actually pretty shocked at how fast it has gone and that the official halfway mark is only 1.5 weeks away. I realized I had not posted in 2 weeks now, and I think one of the main reasons is that my life here has finally become routine. The things and activities and interactions that seemed so novel a few months ago now seem normal and not-so-blog-worthy. However, the past few weeks have had some pretty cool moments so here is my update:

  • New Years Resolutions: I am a big fan of making goals for the calendar year and academic year. As a tradition, my lovely college roommate and I always come up with a list of resolutions surrounding all of the topics of life (health, work, love-life, budget, future etc.). While my list this year is pretty long, I have been particularly focusing on three this month. The first is training for my half-marathon in Vienna this April. So far, I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with a schedule called “From Couch to Half Marathon.” I wasn’t totally on my couch before so I figure I can do it! The second is really trying to learn Czech. I’m planning to take the A1 Language Exam before leaving and finally feel like I’m beginning to follow the tricky Czech grammar patterns. The third is to actually learn all of my student’s names. This may seem shocking that it has taken me so long, but teaching over 100 students, seeing some classes only once a week, and trying to manage the nicknames of the Czech language is definitely challenging. With 5 months to go, the struggle will definitely be worth it to better connect with them in the time I have here.
  • Pancakes: The most fun meeting I’ve had with my American Culture Club this month was last week when I taught them to make American pancakes. It was my first time making pancakes from scratch and my student’s first time ever tasting them (or maple syrup). Actually, I was lucky to find maple syrup—there was only one kind in the big grocery store and it cost more than all the other ingredients combined! When Czechs think of pancakes they think of palačinky (similar to our crepes) or lívance (more like pancakes but with sour cream and more sugar and egg in the batter and usually eaten with jam and tvaroh). I think the biggest difference in our pancakes is the larger amount of baking powder—an uncommon ingredient in Czech cooking.We the pancakes them with bananas, chocolate chips, and candy cane pieces and they were a big hit. I sometimes forget my students are in high school and have never really cooked on their own before. They’re usually hesitant to help when we cook together and are afraid to mess it up. A Facebook message I received from one of my 15-year-old boy students a week later put the biggest smile on my face. He sent me a picture of American pancakes he had made at home with maple syrup on the side and a message that his Dad had loved them 🙂
  • Ostrava: This past weekend I traveled to the third-largest Czech city to visit 3 of my Fulbright friends. It was so great to be reunited and to see a new place in the Czech Republic. Ostrava is in the Northeast corner near the Polish and Slovakian borders. It is stereotyped as the industrial and mining center of the population and has a reputation for a large Roma population and for being smoggy and smelly. No matter, I had a great time! We explored Ostrava: on Friday night we danced and karaoke-ed until 3am on the famous Stodolní Street and on Saturday we visited the city center. We ate great food: never have I ever been so excited to eat a cheeseburger or make hummus with tahini my friend brought back from the USA. And in general, we had a great time just being with each other; given the lack of American contact we all have in our small towns.
  • University System Debate: One of my most interesting classes this month was this week where I gave a lesson about writing an opinion essay. Czech students receive very little instruction about how to write, even in their Czech classes. Since arriving I have tried to teach them even basic strategies like hooking your reader with an exciting opening sentence, the magic of a Venn Diagram, and the necessity and meaning of a thesis statement. As our class example for an opinion essay I posed the question: Should high school graduates have to select a course of study to enter university? Like many European countries, Czech students apply directly to a specific “faculty” of a university, and take classes solely related to that subject for the course of their often combined Bachelor’s and Master’s program of study. And until I explained our American system of well-rounded learning and undecided entry, many of them thought this was the only way. Some students got particularly defensive of their system, saying that spending time to learn other subjects would be a waste of time and would be of no use for gaining expertise for a future job, and that high school students should know already what this chosen career path should be (something that definitely does not seem to be the case for many of my students). Reasons that I find ironic since Czech students do not have to pay for their university study, while American students must pay to “waste” this time and energy. In all honesty, I asked them the question because I don’t know what is the best answer to my initial question. However, I think that different opinions stem from a difference in societal values of education. Is the most accomplished person specialized with advanced expertise or a renaissance person with well-rounded knowledge? Is the purpose of higher education to prepare for a career or to learn for the sake of learning? Is diversity of knowledge an asset or a distraction? Is education a means to an end or an end in itself?

And now for the rest of January…

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3 thoughts on “The Longest Month

  1. Hey Mariel,
    I wonder where you plan to take the A1 language test. I am also planning to do so, but could not decide for a university yet…

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