Monday, May 30, 2011

Monday (today) marks the start of the last official week of school. Next week, we have exams; the week after that, staff clean-up and pack-up; the week after that, summer break. Modern education has a myth that teachers are somehow depressed by summer break, that they spend each hot day wandering through the school halls and each night dreaming up monster tests and projects come September.

This is not true. All of us teachers are just as excited as the students for summer break, just as ready to spend every day chilling with family and friends and indulging hobbies, just as ready to sleep longer every night. And so, these last ten days are crammed with efforts to lighten the mood. Danae, our 10th grade biology teacher, created a 'Spirit Week' for the students: everyone dressed as a 'geek or mad scientist today' and watched a science show during lunch. Note to self: I must think of a way to reproduce the Wow! factor of a science show with literature and writing classes.

As I have come up with no English class version of the science show, I stuck with telling jokes. Jokes make for easy (and fun) lesson preparation: this morning, I spent 45 minutes clicking the 'Random Joke' button on the Good Clean Funnies List. (Please note: GCFL would like me to inform you that their email address is, as the condition for reprinting a bunch of jokes.)

Reading through the joke site was delightful. Periodically, I would keel over in my chair in silent laughter (I probably shouldn't do this in the staff room; my fellow teachers may be asking me over the next day or two whether I'm feeling okay.) Every time this happened, I copied the joke to a document which I later printed.

After lunch, I brought a wad of jokes (about 6, on 3 pieces of paper) into my 9th grade class and told them at intervals throughout the 80-minute period. Don't worry, we did real work too: reviewed grammar and language for the final exam, prepped for the essay questions, reviewed how to write an essay question, worked on an end-of-quarter project, and reviewed the events of the novel. But the jokes were wonderful, a refreshingly laid-back moment in the last few days of May.

Here are a few of my students' favourites, for your enjoyment:

A Blonde Joke (the 9th graders really liked this one):

A blonde went to the appliance store sale and found a bargain. "I would like to buy this TV," she told the salesman.

"Sorry, we don't sell to blondes," he replied.She hurried home and dyed her hair, then came back and again told the salesman, "I would like to buy this TV."

"Sorry, we don't sell to blondes," he replied.

"Darn, he recognized me," she thought.

She went for a complete disguise this time; haircut and new color, new outfit, big sunglasses, then waited a few days before she again approached the salesman. "I would like to buy this TV."

"Sorry, we don't sell to blondes," he replied.

Frustrated, she exclaimed, "How do you know I'm a blonde?"

"Because that's a microwave," he replied.

A Few One-Liners (the 10th graders loved these):

I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather. Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a workstation.

Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but always check when you say the paint is wet? (Or, for you Kansans, why do we people inhale when someone says, Smell that skunk?)

Women will never be equal to men until they can walk down the street with a bald head and a beer gut and still think they are sexy. (this was a 10th grade favourite.)

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory.

You do not need a parachute to skydive. You definitely need a parachute to skydive twice.

To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

A bus is a vehicle that runs twice as fast when you are after it as when you are in it.

Longer Short Jokes (also beloved by the 10th graders):

Driving down the highway, I saw this slogan on the back of a well-known trucking company's vehicle: "We Always Go the Extra Mile." In the grime beneath it, someone had scrawled, "That's Because We Missed the Last exit."

Proper attire is required in the cafeteria at the University of Maine. To enforce that rule, the management posted this notice: "Shoes are required to eat in this cafeteria." Next to it, a student added, "Socks can eat wherever they want."

And a Czech Pun (which the 9th graders liked):

A Russian scientist and a Czech scientist had spent their whole lives studying the majestic grizzly bear. Each year they petitioned their respective governments to allow them to go to Yellowstone to study these wondrous beasts.

Finally, their request was granted and they immediately flew to NY and then on West to Yellowstone. They reported to the local ranger station and were told that it was the grizzly mating season and it was much too dangerous to go out and study the animals.

They pleaded that this was their only chance. Finally the ranger relented. The Russian and the Czech were given cell phones and told to report in each and every day.

For several days they called in, and then nothing was heard from the two scientists. The rangers mounted a search party and found the scientists' camp completely ravaged. No sign of the missing men.

They then followed the trail of a male and a female bear. They found the female and decided they must kill the animal to find out if she had eaten the scientists because they feared an international incident.

They killed the female and cut open the bear's stomach... only to find the remains of the Russian.

One ranger turned to the other and said, "You know what this means, don't you?"

"Of course," the other ranger nodded. "The Czech is in the male."

More Pictures

I know I've talked about how parks are really a Czech cultural thing, but I want to clarify. When I say that parks are important in Prague, please do not imagine a few trees with monkey bars and a picnic table off to the side (and, if you're lucky, an artificial pond with a tiny fountain in the middle).

I will probably miss the Czech parks very badly next year, when I am at home sitting beside artificial ponds.

Czech parks are like the Garden of Eden.

Near my apartment is Stromovka Park. In the park is a little outside restaurant, benches for sitting and reading or sitting and talking or sitting and kissing, a wildflower garden, long concrete paths for rollerblading, and a Planetarium. I took my camera out yesterday evening, and here is what I came home with:

A bridge:

Friday, May 27, 2011

As of today, we have one regular week left of school, two weeks if you include exams and graduation and the end-of-year picnic. What this means is my time with the students is almost finished, a semester radically different from my last five semesters at a secular university.

Thoughts on Friendships

At my state school, I had good students generally (there were always a few that never turned in their work, but that's standard at any school), and I enjoyed getting to know them and their concerns: the student distancing himself from a Mormon childhood, the girl who tried to balance her concern for gay rights with the importance of courteous audience-based reasoning, students taking on leadership responsibilities in their Greek socieities, a biology major trying to indulge her love of English and still keep her scholarship.

My state school limited me as to how well I could get to know the students: I rarely spoke openly of my faith (I followed what I've heard referred to as a don't-ask-don't-tell policy at a secular school) and was very careful to never touch the students. I avoided too many one-on-one encounters. My state school was fun, but like any other state school, it was too public and too large for personal encounters.

Here in Prague, school is different: more personal, more relational; teachers do not simply dispense information and challenge thought but also befriend the students, support them, counsel them. More challenging, the relational orientation also knits a school together, helps teachers - helps me - better instruct and appreciate and guide their students.

Personally, I do not consider myself relationally oriented (too academic, too used to creating intensive papers about DeLillo and not used to the give-and-take of conversation). But as I look back on the last year, I think perhaps I have developed a few relationships, the buds of relationships at least, and have learned how to develop them more in the future. Let me share a few of these, from the last six months, with you:


A month back, I taught my 11th graders 'Little Gidding' - the fourth part of Eliot's Four Quartets. Two days later, my student Jessica posted the final five lines as her Facebook status, and I instantly 'liked' the status. It's thrilling to see my students find personal meaning and beauty in poems that have meant a lot to me, to 'geek out' about Eliot and Dante with my students.

A day ago, I caught my student Wendy on YouTube during study hall. Turns out, she wasn't watching Justin Beiber or some other random Internet video; she was researching an ethics project on body image and plastic surgery. I directed her to a page featuring the life-sized Barbie (skinny waist, enormous chest) and shared her frustration over all unrealistic expectations of beauty, and of elective surgery.

Periodically, my 11th grade students came in to class freezing cold and hungry (11th grade meets from 11:35 till 12:55, right through the lunch period). I turned on the hot water maker and brought in extra tea bags, and we drank tea (or instant coffee or hot chocolate) right through class, staving off hunger and cold. Usually this merited me a hug from one of my girl students; it generally made class way more fun.

Back in April, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to attend a concert that several CISP kids were performing in; a bunch of other students were attending the concert. The music was loud (I inched my way toward the back slowly through the space of 90 minutes to spare my ears), and it was impossible to talk over the noise. But showing up at least earned me another hug (from the same student)!

And throughout the semester, I've enjoyed getting to know students at lunch - hearing about their SAT projects, their plans for the summer; I've 'friended' them on Facebook and admired their photos.

What I've Learned

Right now, I would not consider myself perfectly comfortable with relationally-oriented education; there are other people around me, and perhaps always will be, who can more effortlessly strike up a conversation and a friendship with students. But I do think that I've learned something this semester, that I've transitioned from a purely professional relationship to a more personal one. Here's what I've learned:

  1. It's not important to have deep conversations (or even any conversations) with students all the time; it is important to spend time with them, doing what is important to them. I'm always glad that I went to the concert with students, that I paid attention to their other school project.

  2. Let people share their life with you, other important stuff besides what's going on in your class. And share your own life with other people, with other students. It's so fun to hand over my favourite texts to students: Four Quartets, The Great Gatsby, Dante, and to see these works catch on. It's super-cool to share my interests with students, and to learn about their interests myself.

  3. If possible, share food with people. In any case, do relaxing things together. Tea with 11th graders ranks as one of my best memories from this semester (and I hope that my students will also remember it fondly). I'm not sure how often I'll be able to do this in the future (we only had four 11th graders), but food - and fun - is always a good bonding experience.

I still have so much to learn. But this is what I've learned this semester.

Czech Stuff

Czech people love to go on hikes. Every weekend, the city empties out as the Czechs head for the country (Note: do not plan on driving out of Prague on Friday between 3 and 8. The roads are packed). Last Saturday, I played the Czech myself and went for a long hike in a nature area about 30 kilometers south of Prague. I took an 8-kilometer trail up towards a medieval monastery, and it turned into a 2 1/2 hour hike through the woods - across streams, up and down hills, over rocks. Fortunately I did not get a tick. What I did get are tons of beautiful photos. Here are two:

Friday, May 20, 2011

I don't usually post about my various personal adventures - a weekend trip to Vienna in late March, a spring break trip to Spain: Fascinating as these were, my work at the Christian International School of Prague is more noteworthy in terms of spiritual progress. But today, I want to break my tradition and share with you about my trip to Rome - a trip also noteworthy for spiritual richness and depth.

Note #1

In Rome, history is commonplace. Just walking down the street, you're likely to stumble upon an old monument or artifact; often enough, the monument itself is barely kept in any kind of repair. The ancient Circus Maximus (think Ben-Hur) is marked only by an extensive gravel circle, tucked a way between the Metro station and a busy street.

A monument to Marcus Aurelius sits on the square in front of the current government office, just standing there with no name plate or any historical marker. And these sites are the norm: few historical markers are privileged (the Colosseum is excepted); they are instead treated as a way of life.

The effect of such treatment is a leveling of sorts, an equalizing. Marcus Aurelius, remembered by a column with armies marching up it, is briefly forgotten as the great statesman and author (and even as the subject of a Hollywood film); he is simply another man, part of the Roman scenery and no more important than any other part of the Roman scenery. Walk through Julius Caesar's house, and he becomes a man like any other - one who was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, one who invented the idea of a 'rec room':

Even the Colosseum contributes to such leveling: Walking through its cavernous halls, I realized that it was simply the sports arena of the ancient world. Archeologists today do not even find evidence to indicate martyrdom in the actual Colosseum, making the structure - as vast and beautiful as it is - simply the Roman version of today's Fenway Park.

Perhaps Paul too felt this whisper of equality in ancient Rome, and then found it realized in Christ: In Galatians he reminds readers that "[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). A visit to Rome reminds us that even the great emperors, once exalted like gods, were people like ourselves who worked and played sports. Paul turns the tapestry and reminds us of the other side of this same democratic truth: that even the lowliest slave has a soul, that in Christ they too can find spiritual blessing.

Note #2

As you might expect, monuments are everywhere in Rome: the city teems with buildings and statues and columns and fountains erected by the ancient Romans, by the Catholic Popes, by the Renaissance artists, and even by modern-day craftsman. All of these structures are in various states of repair. The Forum has crumbled, leaving red brick walls that testify to a once-bustling marketplace and white marble columns to
mark the temple of Vestus filled with the ritual virgins (Perhaps someday I will write about the treatment of virginity throughout history, which is itself an interesting phenomenon.)

My traveling partner Danae pointed out these broken buildings as evidence of the ultimate frailty of human effort, "all the works which [human] hands had done . . . was vanity and grasping for the wind" (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

Very true, that observation, but so many of the works were still standing intact and imposing. The Colosseum has suffered some damage; its innerds are worn down and nearly gone in many places. But from the outside, it still stands four stories high, each arch and each column still intact. More imposing still is the Pantheon, with the Latin inscription across its entrance and the heavy columns.

In the ceiling of the Pantheon is a hole, one that baffles modern architects: According to the guidebook, the Pantheon should not still be standing with that hole in its center, but it is still there, nearly two thousand years after it was built. In the movie Gladiator, the central character cries, 'What we do in life echoes in eternity!" - and certainly what the ancient Romans did still resonates today.

As believers, this is especially true for us. Where the Roman monuments endure for a thousand years, our own actions truly do 'echo in eternity'. Hebrews, likely enough written by an author familiar with all these enduring Roman monuments, encourages believers to an attitude that looks forward to eternity: just as Christ "endured the cross" specifically "[f]or the joy set before Him", so we believers are to live for the 'joy set before us' - for the heavenly reward, for those pleasures which will endure forever. Certainly the Roman monuments are ancient; they have endured for two thousand years and more, and (unless the world ends) will endure for
another two thousand years. What we believers do in this life, though, will echo in an eternity with God.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is learning - simply observing the world around me, the creation of people who lived long before (whether artistic or architectural), and drawing conclusions about my own life and about my God. And although I cannot always live in Rome, or even in Prague, it is a pleasure that I want to cultivate: the sort of intense observation that helps me (and those around me) to learn and grow, every day, wherever I am. And it is a pleasure that I hope you too, whether you are reading from Spain or from Canada or from Kansas, can develop.

What we do in life echoes in eternity.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Ladek Zdroj is a tiny village, nestled here into the rolling hills and mountains in the south of Poland. It boasts a spa with mineral waters, hiking paths up through rock formations and (if desired) back across the Czech boarder, and a fortress dating from the 1700s. It was also the site of last week's SEND conference.

Prior to the SEND conference, I am afraid I did not think particularly charitably about going: I struggled to find subs (the last few subs were all last-minute volunteers) and to create sub plans, so all the SEND conference was to me was a big hassle. Actually, I was wrong: the conference was a delightful time to meet other missionaries, to learn with them and to have fun.

Here are some things I learned this week:

Life (and the God who directs it) can be incredibly unexpected.

As time-bound human beings, we can be incredibly mundane about our lives. As a graduating high-school senior, I was pretty sure that I would go to college and then teach in a rural Christian school for the rest of my life (and perhaps get married somewhere in there). By the time I was a graduating college senior, I thought I'd be teaching graduate-level English at a university somewhere for the rest of my life. Neither option was true, just like most of the plans we come up with for our lives.

At the conference, this point was vividly illustrated for me by the speakers and then also by some of the attendees. The speakers were Gary and Terri Vincelette, both former missionaries (he to Germany, and she as part of the SEND home office), but for many years, they had lived Stateside and worked in a local church.

Now seniors, they are raising support to return to the field - an entirely unexpected (and commendable) field. Another missionary worked as a professional speech pathologist for quite a number of years before joining the Poland church planting team.

In Christian circles, we tend to think of missions as something you have to get into when you're young - or not at all. Also, we tend to think that whatever we do when we're young sets the stage for the rest of our lives. Neither is true. The truth is that God likes to surprise us, giving us opportunities and leading us down new paths throughout life.

The Lord is my Shepherd . . . .

Gary Vincelette's topic this week was 'shepherding': how God shepherds us, and how we should reach out to other people. My goal on my blog is not to rehash each observation he made, just to touch on two of the most important.

First, he stressed the difference between 'sheep herding' and 'shepherding' - in other words, between forcing conformity and obedience in those you minister to, and gently leading them through love and spiritual care. All too often I know I am guilty of sheep herding, of demanding performance rather than inspiring it, of telling people how they should behave instead of showing them Christ. (Of course, sometimes student have to be told how to behave: I reminded my 12th grade boys on Thursday that it is unacceptable to flex your muscles in class.) But in general, we as ministers should show people Christ and show them love, and behaviour will follow.

Additionally, he encouraged us to consider God as the Good Shepherd for us - in other words, as a caretaker who will always lead us beside 'green pastures' and 'still waters', who will always provide for us that which is good. Particularly, God does not send life circumstances meant to teach us a lesson or punish us for a character flaw. I did not have a 'Roommate from Hell' my final semester of college, for example, because God wanted to 'teach me a lesson' about some flaw in my own roommate situation. Even that hellish situation was instead a green pasture from the Good Shepherd, good in itself. From those four months I emerged with a clearer appreciation of praising God continually, even in difficult circumstances, and from that perspective, I can look back and say it was good - and not just a lesson. God is just this sort of good Shepherd for each one of us.

Have fun.

Life is good: Have fun. Five days in the mountains at a resort with other missionaries induced us to lay aside lesson planning and church planting stuff for a while and chill. Among other things, we played multiple rounds of Dutch Blitz (yes, even I the Dutch Blitz Queen lost a few), Farkle, and King and Scum (I spent a solid 2-3 rounds as the Scum, unfortunately). The final night, we had a massive off-board game of Clue. Without the board, the game culminates in three rounds of skits from each time, each skit making a different accusation.
The participants got creative, from introducing the murderer . . . .

and introducing the murdered . . .

At the end of the game, Danae revealed the answer: It was Mr. Grey in the Gazebo with the horseshoe.

90 centimeters is VERY short.

Halfway through the week, the entire SEND team packed up and went to a Polish fortress dating from the 1700s. The chief attraction of the fortress was the underground labyrinth, which connected the massive building and which offered shooting galleries for the defending soldiers to fire on enemies. Within the labyrinth was a tunnel which measured only 90 centimeters from top to bottom; anyone who couldn't handle the 90 centimeters was left outside.

Even before the 90-centimeter tunnel, the labyrinth was a thing of beauty. Most of my pictures are blurry because we were moving fast, hunched down like some kind of modern-day Minotaur.

As we ran, we passed other tunnels which stretched down into an endless darkness; some were filled with lights, and others not. The old stone-and-dirt floors were made slippery in the mud.

Great echoing booms could be heard faintly from the outside (we learned later that this sound was caused by the cannons firing above us, as an exhibition of the original firepower of the fortress.) At times, the lights flickered off and left us in the dark - once for several minutes. In the pitch-blackness, we groped around for the back of each other's jackets and joked about how long we could survive down there on the little muddy pools of water (turns out, you can survive for 7 days in the labyrinth.

Partway through the tour, we reached the 90-centimeter tunnel. To get inside, I crouched into a sort of squat, shifted my bag onto my lap, and shuffled inside (Please note: this is not me in the picture; it's a SEND person who works in Poland. I include this picture to give you an idea of the size of the 90-centimeter tunnel).

It got dark. Very dark. Very fast. I clutched at the guy's jacket in front of me and someone else grabbed onto my jacket from behind. I could only move forward inch by inch, not even taking my feet off the floor. About halfway through, we ran into water and started shuffling through that. About two-thirds of the way through, I heard a sploosh and discovered that my bag had turned upside down. Lying in the mud at my feet was a library book and my cellphone; from behind, I heard someone ask "Who's hairbrush is this?" Oops. They kindly picked up the hairbrush for me; I picked up my book and shuffled the rest of the way through with the book plopped on my lap. Turns out, 90 centimeters is about 34 inches. That's small! The book survived with slight mud stains, and everything else (including the hairbrush and cellphone) came out unscathed.

Afterwards, we climbed up around the rest of the fortress, exploring the military stronghold at the top:

Poland is beautiful.

I loved it. I'd love to go back sometime. But most of all, I want to carry these lessons with me: to treat each other with love and to demonstrate love for Christ, to celebrate God's good gifts, and to have fun with each other.