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:

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