Teaching the younger crowd

Generating enthusiasm and bolstering confidence

How do you get ten wiggly second-graders, released from their loosely supervised after-school care and put back in the classroom, to stop poking their neighbor in the side or fiddling with their locker keys, to sit up straight, listen closely and speak clearly? Short of standing on my head or announcing a fire drill, I haven’t really found the ticket yet. There’s a popular classroom management tongue-twister where the teacher says, “1,2,3…eyes on me,” and the students respond, “1,2…eyes on you.” It worked to quiet down my restless first-graders last year. However, those students had the benefit of a Czech-speaking assistant who was able to step in to help clarify rules and discipline issues. They also had textbooks, an established curriculum and English lessons before lunchtime. Regardless, I still need to channel my class’s enthusiasm for horsing around into enthusiasm for learning English.

Keeping and maintaining my 30 second-graders’ interest has proven to require a tremendous effort. But it’s not the only change I’ve experienced this year. Rather than return to the English program in the state school where I taught last year, this September, due to changing Czech educational requirements for foreign language teachers, as well as a desire to be my own “boss,” I’ve started my own business teaching English.

I finally took a big step and applied for a trade business license, a procedure which seemed in theory a lot more daunting than in reality. I’ve had to broaden my thinking beyond questions of classroom management, standards and curriculum and ongoing skills assessment to include the nuts-and-bolts questions of running my own business. I needed to communicate effectively and professionally in Czech and English, to set my course rates and policy, to pay my own insurance and social benefits.

As I’ve muddled through my first few weeks as a business woman, setting up my own business bank account and learning how to issue invoices. I’ve wondered if it would have been easier to find a reputable language school and start teaching there. I knew I wouldn’t have the freedom that I have now, but I probably wouldn’t feel the pressure either. When I feel discouraged, luckily, it doesn’t take long before I teach another class, and I remember again why I chose to branch out on my own. Marketing my courses as speaking-focused, I am encouraging both my young children and my adult students to actively “own” their English language education.

Generating enthusiasm and interest in learning English, I think, is often the first step toward making significant linguistic progress. With this attitude, I believe that a 45-minute well-organized English “club” with songs, role-play and practical question/answer sessions can do a lot to supplement the more traditional English language instruction in a Czech state school. Once children have the desire to improve their own English, progress can come quickly. Likewise, without self-motivation, students tend get through their English classes without ever really knowing what’s going on.

Over the years, I’ve heard complaints from Czech parents saying that their adolescent children don’t actually know anything once they are put into a situation where they are required to interact in English with native speakers. Despite having attended (per Czech state requirements) at least three hours of mandatory English language instruction a week from the 3rd grade onward and often making all “A’s”, many teenage Czech students aren’t prepared to actively use their English. Czech schools commonly offer school trips abroad to England for students in the upper grades of elementary school. It is during such trips that children often discover they aren’t able to manage basic communication in English. Of course, this situation becomes upsetting, both for the parents back at home who’ve paid for their child to have a good first-hand experience in a native-English setting, and for the child who doesn’t have the adequate skills.

While parents assume that the children don’t know “anything,” and that all the years of mandatory English have been a waste, I saw it differently last year in the conversational classes that I taught to 9th graders. Many students knew more than they thought. However, perhaps because they were embarrassed about their pronunciation or didn’t know how to put a complete sentence together or how to make practical conversation, it took a huge effort just to communicate basic information. Being persistent and showing a genuine interest in my students paid off. Even though my students figured out that I understood Czech, I spoke only English in the classroom, and I tried to show them that speaking with mistakes is an important part of learning. Correcting their spoken mistakes in a respectful, but consistent manner and using magazines and online material from real teenage life helped. At the end of the year, even my non-talkative students were eager to share their post-elementary school plans with me. Although I only saw them once a week for 45-minutes, I could tell that they had made progress, particularly in their confidence.

I didn’t intend to teach lessons in a school setting this year. Instead, I planned to lead some private and small-group lessons in my home, mostly to adults, although I promised a few of the mothers that I was teaching that I’d try to set up small groups for their children as well. Then, in the back-to-school parents’ meeting, a few of the parents in my son Oliver’s second-grade classroom expressed their dissatisfaction with the school’s English program. My name was suggested as a potential native speaker teacher, and with the parents’ endorsement, Oliver’s classroom teacher went to the principal and asked about the possibility of opening an English club after-school activity. I was granted permission to rent a space from the school, and to offer optional after-school English classes. The second-grade teachers offered the optional “extra” English class to their students, and in the end I created three groups of ten students each.

I have had enough teaching experience to know that activities that work well for one class often don’t transition to another class. Still, I was surprised to discover that the lesson plans that I’d planned for the three classes worked in the first class, but not in the second two. Or they worked in the first two classes, but not in the third. The classes were on different days and at different times; the students had a mixed range of abilities but they were all in the second-grade. After a few weeks I realized that I was beginning to see some trends. While my Monday class liked to read and to be read to, my Tuesday class wanted to play fiercely competitive games, most preferably team games with football names like Sparta and Dukla. My third class had a few students who wandered away from the carpet to look around the room at the crafts or out the window. In order to capture my wanderers’ interests, I taught them a chant. We made it through 11 rotations of our “what’s missing” chant guessing the missing vocabulary word before they wanted to change games.

Because many of these students know that I’m Oliver’s mom, they expect me to speak English and they do their best to answer me in English when I give them instructions or ask them questions. Although I can sense a high level of frustration when they don’t know what I’m asking them to do, I’m trying to read their clues and keep my instructions and my expectations as low-key as possible. Generating enthusiasm and interest in the English language is my primary goal. I’m not trying to replace their classroom teachers; I’d just like a chance to make their English language experience a bit more fun and hopefully more productive as time goes on.

I don’t have all the wrinkles ironed out of my English program yet. In fact, I doubt that I will anytime soon. Still, I’m grateful that I’ve taken the challenge.

To balance out my new professional life, I’ve started taking piano lessons, too. My teacher, Irina, is a young, talented pianist with little tolerance for sloppy hand position or improperly played scales. I’ve had three lessons so far, and in my last one I was intimidated near to tears because my pinkie finger kept flying off the piano, and I couldn’t get the proper curve in my hand when I played ascending and descending notes.

I’ve got a ways to go with my piano, but when I put myself in the role of a student I see how important it is to be a good teacher. I’m determined to find a way to get my wiggly second graders to focus and have fun learning English. It’s got to be easier than practicing my scales.


Ups and downs

Keeping cool while navigating life’s bureaucratic moments

Overall, I’m happy that my family lives in the Czech Republic. I can list the reasons why, and I often do, usually when prompted by a Czech friend or a visiting foreigner. The other day while cycling in the woods near Roztoky, I unexpectedly came upon a fellow group of cyclists from Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC. I’m not certain whether I was more surprised to find this group of tourists so far from the downtown area, or if they were more surprised to find a fellow North American who spoke some Czech and knew the local ferry schedule.

During our fifteen-minute wait for the ferry, they peppered me with questions about what I was doing living in the Czech Republic. Being parents and grandparents themselves, they were curious about everything from my children’s ages and linguistic abilities to whether I filed my taxes with the IRS. One particularly wry gentleman even asked me half-jokingly if I was still with the same Czech man who’d gotten me into this life in the first place. Another man from Seattle told me that he had grandchildren in Alaska whom he seldom gets to see. He asked me how often I make it back to the States and if my family comes here to visit. We talked about Skyping with our far-away family members. We chatted, as people typically do during chance meetings, and then waved cheerful best wishes and goodbyes. From Prague, they were heading on to bike in Vienna.

Unlike many expat families who relocate for their jobs, my husband and I made the choice to return to live long-term in the Czech Republic before either of us had jobs. We both had had the experience of living and working in Prague before we moved to America together. Returning married and with a one-year old, we found our lives in Prague, and Prague itself, different than how we’d remembered it. Adjusting to Czech parenting culture took some getting used to. Now it seems normal for my children to wear tights under their pants in the winter, to eat soup every day at school before their main course, to dress in slippers at school, to beg for salami sandwiches in their snacks, and to attend after-school courses in nearly every subject imaginable because Czech school ends by lunchtime.

In the beginning, I didn’t realize how comfortable I’d feel living here, nearly ten years later, speaking the language and adapting to the culture. The benefits of having more time for family life, weekend leisure time largely spent outdoors, longer vacations, the chance to stay home with my children until they were three and later to create a flexible working schedule were just some of the reasons we decided to stay. Feeling the responsibility of exposing our children to both their Czech and American heritage and taking the opportunity to raise our children bilingually, lent itself naturally to living for some extended time in the Czech Republic.

Yet, there are some things about Czech culture that I still don’t understand. I am surprised by the independence children are given at a young age, being trusted to walk to and from school by themselves or to go with friends to the neighborhood playground after school. I’m equally shocked by the legacy Communism has left on some organizations like the kid’s club in a village near our house.

After getting a tip that the club had good, affordable music lessons, I submitted a pre-registration form at the beginning of September for Oliver’s guitar lessons with preferred times. Per instruction, I arrived at 2 pm on October 1, the day of registration, to wait on the street in front of the school until the opening ceremony finished and official registration began. After the director made a speech, about 40 other parents and I pushed and jostled our way to get into the center, up to the first floor to another line. By the time my friend got near the front of this line, she told me we were standing in the wrong line for guitar and needed to get in the back of the other line. In the end, when it was our turn, there were no spots left on any day that Oliver had free. The price for the course was 50 CZK for a 30 minute music lesson, so I don’t blame the crowds who showed up. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that this was the accepted system. I heard grumbling from other Czech parents who left without getting their children into the classes they’d hoped to, even from those who had children that had been enrolled in the lessons in years past.

I knew I wasn’t alone in finding the system antiquated. However, I didn’t see anyone trying to reason with the director. According to other parents, at this particular school this system had been in place for years and wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. Back in September, I had tried to ask the director what would happen if I couldn’t show up right at 2pm on October 1, and he had told me if I wanted a spot for my son, then I needed to send someone else to stand in my place. When I tried to explain that I didn’t have any relatives here, he challenged me retorting, “You’re not alone here in the Czech Republic. Find a friend to stand in line for you.”

When he made the comment, at first, my blood boiled. I thought who was he to assume that I had friends who would stand in line for me. I couldn’t imagine asking anyone to do it. Of course, he was right; one of my friends did offer to stand in line for me since she was going for her daughter. I didn’t even have to ask her. Whether waiting in line to get a music lesson or to see the doctor, Czechs seem to take it all in stride. Similar to the way my friend from Los Angeles doesn’t seem to be bothered about traffic jams; it’s just a part of life.

Often the people who work behind the desks at doctor’s offices or town halls are not the most accommodating. Yet, I watch person after person waiting in line and calmly absorbing often disappointing information. For instance, despite your efforts to read the signs and listen to the rules, in fact, you’ve been waiting in the wrong line. There is no recourse, but to now find the correct line and wait at the back of it. It is not uncommon to be sent to wait by a closed door, which usually has a sign up that says “no knocking.” More than once I’ve waited for what seemed like a very long time at such a door only to be reprimanded for not knocking because they didn’t know I was there.

Dealing with minor inconveniences is a part of daily life no matter where you live, but sometimes I am surprised by how difficult little things seem. I recently learned that the orthopedic division of the hospital doesn’t take walk-in-patients, even if it’s an emergency, and that the emergency room of the same hospital will then refer you to an orthopedic doctor, but can’t tell you where to find one. This I learned after I fell and dislocated my knee this past week while jogging in Stromovka Park. As I lay on the ground, several people passed me, although no one offered to help. I have been in a similar situation before, having fallen while running in the woods near our house. Even though I was bleeding, no one that I passed questioned what had happened or stopped to see if I needed help. While it seems strange, I know that if I had asked someone specifically for help, I would have found a willing hand (or two or three). Still, the passiveness of the culture as a collective sometimes unnerves me.

Although we’ve bantered back and forth about the possibility of moving to the States one day, neither Radek nor I is in any way ready for a change of scene yet. My children might argue differently, but I know their vision of America is as a land of plenty (plenty of family, plenty of space in my parents’ large suburban house, plenty of refills at the soda machine). But I am sure this would change once they lived there long-term.

I remind myself of my deliberate, conscious decision to live in the Czech Republic. However, on bad days, I long to pack a suitcase and to grab the first (preferably non-stop) flight back to my roots. Where, on a routine trip to the grocery store, I might run into my former third-grade elementary school teacher who stills calls me by name. She remembers more about me as an eight-year-old than I think I know now about my own daughter. Where my grandmother, at age 93, still lives by herself with the help of several kind women who get her dressed to go out and take her to the local drive-through for a vanilla milkshake.

Recently, when I was feeling out of sorts with the world, I went into the Prague 6 town hall to apply for Anna Lee’s permanent Czech passport. Upon getting to the window, the officer asked for her birth certificate. Realizing in dread that I’d forgotten the certificate at home, I turned to explain that we’d have to come back another day. Unflustered, the officer asked me for my identification and carefully matched my information with the information on Anna Lee’s temporary passport. It’s all here, he told me, don’t worry. Snapping Anna Lee’s picture with a semi-smile, he told us to come back in three weeks.

Step by step. There are ups, and there are downs. And certainly together, it makes for a more interesting ride.