Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Sunday afternoons, so far, turn out to be a good time to write: I sit on my couch, throw a polar-fleece blanket over my lap (it's 20 degrees here this afternoon), and fire up the computer. Today, I'm nearly falling asleep into the bargain. Last night, the high school students celebrated their Winter Banquet, and we teachers dressed up and enjoyed the evening too; the only downside was waiting for Bus 119 in a knee-length dress and summer flats. My tights just weren't thick enough to keep out the cold night air. I've included a picture, just to prove that I changed my jeans to a dress for this affair:

Between the Winter Banquet and various extracurricular activities, school is going well. This Tuesday marks the first day that I will have the 11th grade students (in addition to the 9th, 10th, and 12th graders). An 11th grade student caught me at the banquet last night & told me that she was 'looking forward to having me as a teacher'. I hope she really is looking forward to it, and not simply buttering me up for an A!


For the past week, I've been regularly grossing out the 12th grade students as we read Oedipus Rex in class. It's been tricky to get past the serious ick factor involved in the Theban King's curse. Once past that, though, we've into a philosophical gold mine. All week, the students have piecing together the classical belief on fate: that the gods doomed Oedipus to kill his father, and so they are primarily responsible for his fate; that his personal flaws simply contribute to this fate, and so he cannot escape this evil. One of my students wrote in her journal that 'the gods created Oedipus evil' - which, in the classical tradition, is absolutely true. They are not 'nice guys', these Greek gods.

Lest you wonder what I'm teaching these poor kids at a Christian school, rest assured we look at the alternative side of things too: this week, we'll discuss the contemporary view of fate, but on Friday, we talked about the biblical view of fate. For this, we turned to my favourite Psalm:
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
Based on this quote, the students concluded that something like fate still exists, but in this case it is good. This is no classical doom, meted out by an avenging Apollo or an impersonal Fate. This is a beneficial one, a fate that comforts David as he thinks about it. The story of Oedipus Rex is (for my 12th grade class, at least) a channel of sorts: As we read about Oedipus, we come to understand other people better, to recognize the ingredients of a classical worldview (or, coming up next week, a modern one). And we come to understand the Bible better, to appreciate the intricacies of our own faith.


Many of you knew me when I traveled to Germany, and if you received my 'Deutschland Saga' from Germany, you remember that I included notes on that culture (with a focus on food and chocolate, of course!). Here, I thought I'd do the same thing, starting with public transportation.

Let me say this first: I love public transportation. Every morning, I head out the door and (after a vigorous ten-minute hike to the Hradcanska Metro station) I'm on my way to school; the entire process, start to finish, takes about half an hour. It's perhaps the most comfortable form of travelling ever: never do I have to stand freezing in the cold to spend a small fortune on gas, nor do I have to scrape ice off my windshield (and then off my fingers). It's also one of the most interesting forms of travel: Last night, I took public transportation all the way to the airport for the winter banquet: the Metro from Hradcanska to Dejvicka, and then the bus from Dejvicka to the airport. All along the bus route, I gazed out at the northwestern fringe of Prague - the Ferrari / Maserati dealership, the towering Communist-style apartment buildings, a McDonald's drive-through, and a little Czech countryside.

Any transportation system, of course, has its challenges, and European public transportation is no different. A normal tram sign looks something this:

The arrows indicate which direction the tram is headed: straight ahead (wherever that goes), or the right-ish. Hopefully, you already know what part of the city is 'straight head thataway'; otherwise, the arrows do you no earthly good. Even harder are the times of arrival: everything is posted in Czech, and so I guess a lot . By "Nedele" there is a little cross, and so I figure it must be Sunday; the whole list starts off with "Pondeli" and so that must be Monday. Get it wrong, and I'll miss a tram or be stuck on the platform for an extra fifteen minutes in below-freezing temperatures.

A few other challenges involve people. First, there are the ticket-checkers, making sure people are actually paying for their rides. Get caught by a ticket-checker without a fare for the train, and you'll be shelling out about $40 in fines. To the uninitiated, the ticket-checkers look like someone to avoid: Periodically, people will hawk magazines and food in the Metro stations, and the ticket-checkers simply blend in with the crowd. My first time being stopped, I simply waved my hand at the man and said "Ne, no." And then, he thrust his official ring in my face, with the Prague public transportation device on it:

A sidelong glance at this device showed a red snake, and I thought perhaps he was from a cult. I made a second attempt to escape. At that point, the checker person finally asked - in English! - for my ticket.

Besides the ticket-checkers, there are also the people on the Metro. Generally, I really like people-watching when I ride the train, but there are some people you need to be cautious of. Prague has a lot of pickpockets, and so I keep a tight grip on my purse or bag whenever I travel. Also, there are people who make out on the train, and there's not much you can do to avoid them. A few nights ago, I found myself stranded next to one of these couples. It started with just a little kiss. And then they had to kiss again. And again, wet little pecks on the lips in full sight of every other traveler in the Mustek station. I'd think that the crowds of people who file through the Metro every day would be enough to stifle these long, drawn-out kissing sessions, but apparently not. Perhaps I should start wearing sunglasses on the Metro.

Tomorrow, we all pick ourselves up from a restful Sunday and start back to school and begin a new unit. Please pray that the unit will go well, that the students will profit both academically and spiritually from their studies. Pray too for the relationships between myself and the students, that it won't simply be a professional one but will be one of love and respect, one where Christ is ever-present. This week, I was excited to tie Psalm 139 into Oedipus Rex (I know, what a connection!) and I'm excited to teach students to find God's truth in the coming weeks, as we start into Lord of the Flies (9th graders), Romantic poetry (10th graders), and Huckleberry Finn (11th graders). Each of these teaches kids something about God, and our relationship with Him; pray that the truth will be evident in every class and in my own life too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It's a quiet Sunday afternoon here in my apartment in north Prague. Looking out my window, I can see the American residency, a hazy grey sky, and large flakes floating lazily downwards. Very restful and quiet, very appropriate for a Sunday afternoon.

This post should be shorter than most. As I've taken on my new duties here at CISP and taken stock of the new environment, one verse in particular has taken on new importance. It is a verse that has always challenged me, particularly given my tendency towards a no-nonsense, perfectionist work ethic. It is also a verse that has generally lain dormant in the back of my mind, too easily forgotten in the secular classrooms of my university. It is a verse that I am sure every one of you is familiar with:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. (I Cor. 13:1)
Much of the time, good teaching requires good speaking. First of all, I have to know what to say. My 10th grader, for example, are about to begin a unit on Romantic poetry. As I plan for that unit, I need to decide what I will say about Romantic poetry - their social criticism, their retreat into rural life, their preference for emotion over reason. Second, I have to know how to talk about Romantic poetry. My 10th graders will probably not appreciate an extended series of lectures that draw on what I learned in graduate school, and so I need to plan activities, games, and artwork that will help students learn the basics of Romantic writers. All this I need to plan, but it is not enough.

All the good teaching in the world is not enough, if my students do not know that I love them and (through me) that God loves them. It doesn't matter if students answer every question correct on the upcoming exam, or only a few questions correct; it doesn't matter if they bomb their Romantic Poetry project or ace it. It doesn't even matter if I am well-planned and poised before my class, or if I am a little disorganized and scatterbrained (and I am totally a scatterbrained person). What matters is that my students experience in my class the love of God.

For me, this is perhaps the most challenging thing of all, but one of the most important. My students here at CISP have a supportive, Christian environment; many are missionary kids and have strong families, but they are not exempt from the normal problems that students face. Like high schoolers in the US, these students face stress on a daily basis: the stress of grades and college plans, the stress of a changing body and eating disorders, the stress of a first boyfriend or girlfriend (or a first break-up), the stress of friends who are moving away as their parents return to the USA for furlough. They don't necessarily care about Romantic Poets. Nor do they particularly need, in the grand scheme of things, to learn about the Romantic Poets. They need to learn about the love of Christ.

I ask you to pray with me for all my students, that they will know the everlasting love of God, that they will experience His love on a day-to-day basis and that they will experience this love in my class. Please pray that, as I teacher, I will plan not only for the academic unit but also for the spiritual health of my students, that I will love my students and will not be simply so much noise at the front of the classroom.

As I end this post, I would like to wrap up on a light-hearted note. I'm finally starting to add photos, and since Facebook has most of the photos of my cultural / touristy adventures here, I thought I'd share some photos of day-to-day life in Prague. Today, I have photos of the Metro. Every morning, I take the Metro to school: I go down the escalators (pictured), towards Depo Hostivar, and sit in the crowded underground train. The church is at the Metro station Namesti Miru, and in Europe, is a fairly normal sight. I love living in Prague.

The Metro:

Towards Depo Hostivar:

The Metro train:

In a Station of the Metro:

The church at Namesti Miru:

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nearly ten days ago, I updated this blog with some thoughts on my church here in Prague. Since then, my Czech adventure continues: I have been wrangling with my apartment landlord, experimenting with the local cuisine, and writing exams for my 9th and 10th grade class.

Among the many cultural lessons I've learned has been "Apartment Landlord 101". I always disliked having to deal with the rental agencies in the States. For two years I used a stove with only one working burner, just because I did not want people dragging heavy equipment in and out of my apartment while I was trying to write a paper and plan lessons. Here in the Czech Republic, the tenant-landlord relationship is even crazier. Ten days ago, I moved into my new apartment in the castle district. Nine days ago, I discovered that apparently neither dishwasher nor the washing machine worked, and the door opened only after a good thirty seconds of sustained pulling and jiggling. I emailed the landlord, and three days ago, he came.

Meeting with the landlord is a challenging process, because the tenant is usually required to be there, and so I juggled my school schedule and arrived home about 11 A.M. on a Friday. The landlord arrived at 11:10, and with him came another fellow that he introduced as a "friend", who spoke no English and zipped into the living room and began installing light bulbs in the fixtures there. Meanwhile, the landlord tackled larger projects: he confirmed that the washing machine was in fact broken, demonstrated how to work the dishwasher, brought in a grungy toaster oven the size of a large cat carrier, brought it right back out again when I asked for a larger one, and promised to call on the Internet. By the time he left, the door was fixed, the living room was shining brightly, and we faced a new challenge: connecting to the Internet. On Wednesday, I will juggle school schedules again to meet with the Internet company that morning; if they are as efficient as the landlord, I will be Skyping my parents within ninety minutes.

Perhaps the most lighthearted of my cultural adventures has been the food. Czechs do not eat what we Americans call a "balanced diet"; their favourite national foods include meat, cheese, potatoes, and bread - very heavy on the carbs, and very light on the green stuff. A typical Czech supper might be one that I enjoyed Friday night, relaxing with a couple of teachers. First, the waiter brought out an appetizer: a basket filled with three different kinds of bread and a pork spread with onions. As always in Europe, the bread was delicious, and we dug in before the main meal came. Next, the waiter brought out the dishes we'd ordered: for me, onion soup, and shared between three of us, fried cheese - yes, fried cheese. Imagine a giant-sized mozzarella stick: a block of white cheese (about twice the size of an ordinary Stateside block of Cheddar) is dipped in batter and deep-fried, giving it a crusty coating similar to fried chicken. Alongside the plate was a pile of creamy-white boiled potatoes, and in a small tribute to healthy eating, a few translucent strips of carrot and sprigs of onion. Lest my next FB profile picture show extra weight along the jowls, I went light on the fried cheese; the onion soup was delicious. Perhaps next for my Czech food experience, I will try the duck or the pancakes on the dessert menu.

As I bring this post to an end, I want to focus on the central thread to all my adventures - all the teaching done since I've been here. I won't actually share with you about writing the exams, lest a student discover the blog and, with it, an exam key. But I do want to share with you a funny story from the 10th grade, about the perils of reading Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a classic, right? His tragedies something every student should read? My 10th graders are discovering the Bard's comic side, right in the middle of the deeply tragic Romeo and Juliet. A few days ago, the 16th century language in characters' mouths sounded, to 21st century ears, as though one character called another 'hot', and so the class dissolved into laughter. Today my students pointed out how many inanimate objects these 16th century characters talked to - to a bottle of potion, of poison, and to a tomb. As a graduated graduate student, I could perhaps wish we were talking about the idea of Fate in Shakespeare and the medieval Fortunes, but I am discovering that high school students do not operate on the same plane as graduate students do, nor should they. At this point, in fact, to observe how often characters address inanimate object demonstrates attention to detail and patterns that will serve them well as we move into later weeks.

Along this line, I want to ask for prayer specifically for each of my classes over the next few weeks. First, pray for me that I will consistently and effectively integrate biblical truth into each lesson. Primarily because of the two years spent at a secular university, my ability to weave biblical truth into every lesson plan, every handout, and every activity is a tad rusty. And yet, it is the kernel of truth in each lesson that makes it worthwhile; if we do not learn truth (and all truth is God's truth), then there is no point to learning about the Romantic poets or about dystopian novels or about classical Greek drama. Within the next few weeks, the 10th graders will begin their study of Romanticism, the 9th graders a study of Lord of the Flies, and the 12th graders a study of Oedipus Rex, and in each of these I pray for skill not only in presenting the material but also teaching the students the truth about Christ.

Pray too that the apartment will come together. I am very thankful for a working door and a working stove (it's a hand-light gas stove, by the way, which is always an adventure), but there are still a few things lacking. I am still lacking Internet, which makes it difficult to communicate with friends and family back home. Also, we are lacking an oven and a working washing machine. Please pray that all of these will come in over the next few days. I will keep you posted, literally, on each of these requests through the blog, over the next few days and weeks.

Still no pictures under 10 MP, but you should be able to access a Facebook album here.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

As I sit down to write this update, I begin in much the same place as always – wondering which story, out of all the stories from the past ten days, to share with you.

I could tell about my first days of school, which included subbing for another high school teacher with about twenty minutes’ advance notice, or I could tell about getting yelled at in Czech today at the store, because I didn’t have the back of my debit card signed. I could talk about sharing salad and bread and personal goals at the Bible study last Wednesday, or my first pilgrimage through the rain to the Prague castle on Saturday. My goal, however, is to share a story that captures three things for you: the Czech experience, the school community, and the spiritual life here, and so I have chosen to share about my second Sunday here in Prague.

Like many teachers at the school, I attend the International Church of Prague (ICP), and in many ways, my church here reminds me of the various churches I attend back home. This morning, the service opened with a variety of songs, continued with a confessional prayer and then the sermon, and concluded with the Lord’s Supper. Also like many U.S. churches, ICP finishes the service with a time of fellowship and coffee, which is a good chance for newbies like me to meet new people and hang out with brand-new friends. Incidentally, it was also a good place for me to get coffee today: I just moved into my apartment and, with no microwave, electric kettle, or working stove, had no hot drinks for the previous forty-eight hours.

However similar to an American church, however, any international church has a few key differences which make the experience particularly special. Perhaps the most superficial was simply the ride to church. Much as I like Kansas, the trip in from my country home to church cannot compare with the one here in Prague: from the Metro station near my home, I took a tram down the hill towards church, winding along the narrow cobblestone roads and looked out over the red roofs and church spires that have stood there for hundreds of years.

Later, I discovered something else special about this church community: they take to heart the concept of community – a concept that I believe is too easily overlooked in Stateside churches. After the service, a couple from the school invited several other teachers over for pancakes (taking to heart the pastor’s encouragement to celebrate the Sabbath with yummy food!). My original plan for the day had been to return home for a little lesson planning and unpacking, but who can resist pancakes? And so, a friend and I made a brief stop at Tesco and picked up an electric kettle (which I just now used to make a cup of tea!), and then we trekked on over to Kate and Garrett’s for a really late lunch.

Normally, my Sunday afternoons during the school year include a fair amount of work. As a freshman in college, I once resolved not to study at all on Sunday. That resolve lasted about two weeks, until all the homework hit. This afternoon, however, I took a rare break from my solitary place in front of the computer and spent the day with fellow believers. Kate made chocolate-chip pancakes, seriously good with little pieces of melting European chocolate in them, and we spread peanut butter and bananas on the top. Later, we played ‘King and Scum’ for an hour, and much later, we sat and discussed the various forms of worship in the church today. So far, most of the work I’ve done today has been writing this blog, and most of the time I’ve saved from work has been spent in the company of fellow believers.

This sort of company is under-appreciated (or at least, I didn’t appreciate it enough) in Stateside churches. Part of the reason, of course, is the sheer number of English-speaking people in the States: When everybody speaks your language, it is not quite so necessary to hang out with church people. Here, very nearly the only English speakers I know are people who attend my church, and so I am thrown together with them by necessity. Still, I think perhaps that the community I have by necessity here is just as necessary in the States, simply more easily overlooked.

Here, we draw together because of our unique similarities in a foreign country. Each of us speaks English in a Czech-speaking nation; each of us is a Christian in materialistic Europe. What this boils down to in the end is that each of us is a stranger in a strange land. Essentially, this is exactly what a Christian anywhere is: Christ tells us that we believers are ‘strangers in a strange land’ – people temporarily living in a material world, tied eternally to a spiritual home. In reality, the States is just as foreign to us as the Czech Republic is to me right now; it’s just easier to forget how foreign America really is because of all the signs in readable English. And yet, each of us – even in Kansas, or in the Bible Belt of the South – is just as much as foreigner as I am here, and just as much in need of regular fellowship with believers. My new resolve is to work less on Sundays, to spend more time with believers while I am here, a resolve that I hope will both better prepare me to build relationships with students and also one rub off on fellow believers.

Speaking of students, I do have a few new prayer requests for you all. I’ve begun teaching 9th and 10th grade English, and I’ve discovered how different the academic needs of high schoolers are from those of college students. Please pray that I will adjust quickly to my new responsibilities. Also, please pray I will be able to establish strong relationships with the students: I am impressed with these students and excited about getting to know each one of them.

A final note: I discovered this morning that pictures need to be 8 megapixels or less to post on the blog. Most of my pictures are 10 mp, and so no pictures quite yet. There are some on Facebook, so you can check there or send me an email to get photos.