This past weekend marked my official halfway point of this amazing Fulbright year. As my fellow ETAs and I kicked off our Mid-Year conference weekend reminiscing about great and terrible bands of the 90s and early 00s I figured this would be an appropriate title for this blog post (“All Downhill From Here” is the title of a song by the band New Found Glory). The big holidays are over, we’re all settled in, and the next 5 months are going to fly by!
Our Mid-Year conference was in Olomouc, Czech Republic this weekend and was a gathering of both the Czech and Slovak Fulbrighters this year. If you don’t know too much about the Fulbright program, there are different scholarships under the heading “Fulbright.” Therefore we were a mix of student English teaching assistants, student researchers, adult high school exchange teachers, adult professors scholars, some of their family members, in addition to the Fulbright Czech and Slovak staff members, and U.S. Embassy employees from both countries. Everyone was required to present their work in their respective countries and it was really cool to hear about the different experiences and projects everyone is working on. For example, the wide array of research projects included dissecting rat brains to study the effect of Diazepam on fetuses of epileptic mothers, the Slovak National Uprising, the relocation of Germans from the Czech Republic post-WWII, child portraiture and memory from Terezín, Czech linguistics, Slovak ceramics, public relations, sociology… It was pretty cool to hear about all of the little passions of such a diverse group of people.
While we all predicted boring each other with our repetitive English teaching assistant tales of lessons and cultural experiences, it was really special to hear the other Fulbrighters repeat over and over how authentic and important all of our work really is. First of all, by living and immersing ourselves in smaller communities we are truly having an impact on the lives of the people we are meeting here. We are gaining a comprehensive understanding of the cultures of these countries and our experiences inform the research many of the other Fulbrighters are engaged in at higher education levels. In addition, we have a crucial role in representing the United States, as many people we meet have never directly met an American before. Secondly, by having such a unique experience at the beginning of our careers, this Fulbright experience has the power to shape what many of us will go on to do in the future. It was really encouraging to talk to people with so many different backgrounds and points of view, in order to learn about the different paths that lie ahead.
One of the biggest problems many of us have faced here is how to handle the attitude of the Czech population toward the Roma population, living in the Czech Republic. There is a long history of prejudice and unfair treatment towards this group, with no real solutions on the horizon. While I have not encountered any issues directly, I have heard many stories from my friends about racist comments from students and friends, and seeing some of the terrible conditions and treatment towards these people. At our conference we had a speaker from the Czech non-profit, People In Need, come speak to us about the existing social exclusion and cycle of poverty of the Roma, in the Czech Republic. Interestingly, a lot of the problems seem to echo those of the immigrant Hispanic populations that come to the United States and face barriers to education, housing, and cultural life due to the social construction of “otherness.” I have been out of the academic mindset for a few months now, but I hope to look further into drawing more connections between these two situations using my experience from visiting the U.S.-Mexico border last year.
It was convenient that every American I knew in this country happened to be congregating on Super Bowl Weekend! Most of us stayed up until 12:30am to watch the game, which we screened using someone’s laptop and a projector in a conference room in our hotel. After going this whole season without watching a single football game, I must say I was strangely excited to watch, even though the score was truly terrible. I made it until the half-time show and something about Bruno Mars, the fireworks, which could probably be seen from my house in NJ, and being very tired made me super nostalgic for the super-size nature of American traditions and celebrations. This week I showed some students parts of the game at my after-school club. However, through their eyes the hype seemed a little more ridiculous. I think the best part of this American Culture Club meeting was making (and eating) nachos, which were delicious! 🙂
For another cool thing of this week, today I was an examiner at our school’s English Language Conversation Competition. Czechs (and I think Europeans in general) appear to be more into titles and therefore they have certificates, awards, and competitions for a lot of things. First, the students did a listening exercise and those who received a certain number of points moved onto the conversation round. Each entered the room where Jana and I were sitting and then picked a topic out of the bunch we laid in front of them. Then, for a few minutes, we talked about anything that happened to come up, related to that topic. Finally, the student had to describe one picture we set in front of them.
I was really confused at first with how to actually score these conversations, but it ended up being a mix of fluency, grammar, pronunciation, use of Czenglish, depth of conversation, and breadth of vocabulary. The winner of today will compete in a local round next week and then could even make it to the regional and national levels in the coming months. Having never encountered anything like this in the US, I think it’s great that students are rewarded and recognized for foreign language proficiency. Perhaps, American students would have a larger interest in foreign languages if there were a form of competition involved.
Coming Up this Week: My first friend from home visitor to Znojmo, a trip to Prague, and sharing the wonder of commercialized Valentine’s Day with my students