Creative Writing in the Czech Classroom

By Hallie O’Neill, Gymnázium Cheb

When I applied for my Fulbright teaching assistantship, I said that I wanted to implement creative writing into my lessons. I wasn’t sure how feasible this goal would be, because I didn’t know if my students’ English would be at a high enough level to do so.

Luckily, I’m teaching in a pretty advanced gymnázium, and the level of ability I see in my students quite often astounds me. They are more than capable of writing creatively, and some of them even write in their free time. That isn’t to say they’re totally receptive to the idea, though.

Creative writing isn’t for everyone. Even when I was in high school, there were always students in my writing classes who just didn’t “get” the fun of it, or didn’t find any enjoyment in writing stories and using imagination in that way. It’s no different here. While there are some secret poets or the occasional student who wants to be a writer herself, there are many others who have no interest in attempting it, perhaps thinking they don’t even have the ability to write creatively in the first place.

Sometimes when I tell a class that “we’re going to do some writing today,” I get a few eye rolls and sighs of dread. I’ve consistently seen a lack of confidence when it comes to expressing creativity, and I’ve come to learn that it’s because they don’t get many chances to create in their regular classes.

It’s taken a lot of trial and error, but I’m lucky I’ve had the ability to test-drive all kinds of writing types to see what works well. We’ve written opinion paragraphs, journal entries, emails, short stories, nonfiction, and more. I’ve found that in order to fully engage everyone, small group or partner writing works extremely well, because all members share the role of storyteller and there’s less pressure to create something monumental all on your own — instead, it’s just fun.

One activity that worked incredibly well was something a little nonconventional. I had them write a story about me. The kicker was that it had to be based off of real facts, which they were required to obtain from me by writing specific questions (with correct grammar and punctuation) on small pieces of paper. Like passing notes, I’d write my answer and hand the paper back to them, and with these facts they could piece together their story. Quite a bit of vulnerability was required on my part, but that’s actually what made the activity function as successfully as it did. There was some kind of special thrill for them — suddenly having immediate access to whatever in the world they wanted to ask me about, and I had to tell the truth — that engaged truly every student involved, even the ones who sigh when I say that it’s a writing day.

Another one of my favorite lessons was one about Valentine’s Day, which I paired with a recycled ETA lesson about metaphors and similes. At the end of the class, I had them try to write their own little love poems, and since I’ve gotten to know the Czechs’ dark sense of humor a little more intimately, I wasn’t too surprised by some of their sarcastic quips.

We’ve also done circle storytelling, where the students sit in small groups and begin writing a story for about two minutes. Once that time is up, they pass their papers clockwise around the small circle, and they write for another two minutes in continuation of the new story in front of them. By the time the stories have been passed around completely and returned back to their original writers, each story’s trajectory is likely much different than they first imagined it would be. There’s all kinds of circle and group storytelling tools out there — I get a lot of my ideas from the British Council, lesson sharing websites, and my fellow ETAs.

One of my most recent classroom endeavors was comic writing. After reading some American comic strips and practicing writing new ones together, I tasked them with creating their own small comic strip, preparing the narrative first with a story map and then drawing the illustrations and filling in the speech bubbles. Again, I was impressed that even the quietest students had something to show at the end of the class period, many of their creations funny enough to stand next to the Peanuts and Family Circus strips I showed them beforehand (but of course keeping that very unique sense of humor).

It’s rewarding and always entertaining to see the creative work they produce. Even more rewarding is to hear from them personally that they are grateful for the opportunities I’ve given them to create. Most of them are completely open-minded to the ideas I throw at them, and I’m so lucky I’ve been placed at a school like this one where I have the ability to do these types of activities. As you can see, they certainly have all sorts of untapped imagination.


Czech Prom Season: A Story of a Feathered Raffle Win

Authors: Griffin Trau, Katie Winner, Alanna Powers (current Fulbright ETAs)

If you’re an American, chances are we all had similar prom experiences in high school. Usually a few weeks before graduation, boys ask girls to the prom. Girls buy a fancy dress, and boys a nice suit with a matching tie. Prom night consists of about an hour of picture taking with your date and friend group, followed by a ride to prom in a nice car or a limo. The dance itself is about three hours long, and the only people in attendance are typically students at the school with a handful of teacher chaperones. After prom ends, around 10 or 11 p.m., all the students leave and go their separate ways for the night, usually to a post-prom hang out.

After attending six (and counting!) Czech proms, I can confidently state that Czech proms are nothing like American proms. At all.

My school, Střední Škola Informatiky a Služeb, is a technical school with seven different concentrations of study. Of these seven, six of them take the Maturita exam at the end of their fourth year, the passing of which allows the students to graduate from high school. Each of these six concentrations has its own prom that takes place sometime between January and February. The point of the Czech prom is less of a symbolic ending of times the way it is in America, and is more like a ceremony, acknowledging the hard work that the students have done and encouraging them for this final step of Maturita that lies ahead in a few months. Although American prom is a symbol for the end of high school, Czech prom is more like a ceremony that acknowledges the hard work that the students have done and encourages them for their future, specifically their Maturita exam. Basically, it is a night of dancing and fun before the fourth year students get serious about studying for their exams.

I was lucky enough to go to three of my own secondary school’s proms, and two with another Fulbright ETA in the town of Rakovník. All five of these proms were organized entirely by the students — they were responsible for finding a venue, selling tickets, providing music and anything else that was included in the night. The first big difference that I noticed was the crowd. Czech prom is a family affair. Moms, dads, grandparents and young children were in attendance. Other attendees included friends of the students and alumni of the school. All of the students’ former teachers and their spouses were also invited to the affair.. However, there is no real need for the students to give an invitation to anyone, because the proms are open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket.

The night usually starts around 7 or 8 p.m. with some kind of show. My cosmetology students put on their own hip-hop routine, complete with matching camo outfits. The students in Rakovník hired a woman and her dog to do agility tricks on the dance floor. After this opening performance, there was time to find a seat and get a drink. Since the drinking age in the Czech Republic is 18, prom would not be complete without a bar. As the prom is a night of celebration, many of my students invited me to take a shot with them, something that is perfectly acceptable here. 

The next big event of the evening is the sash ceremony. Each member of the class lined up in the middle of the dance floor, and one by one the students’ names were called. When each name was called, the student would walk down the dancefloor to a favorite song, kind of like a walk-up song in baseball. Some of the most popular songs from this year were “Dance Monkey” and “Old Town Road,” which is exactly what I would have expected if this were an American event. As the students walk down the dance floor, friends and loved ones throw coins at them as a symbol of good luck. Although this can be quite a profitable experience, it can be rather painful as well—I witnessed at least three students get bopped in the head by a Koruna. Once the students reach the end of their walk, their head teacher gives them sashes with their names and the year on it. This ceremony is the biggest part of the evening, as each student is officially deemed ready to take the Maturita exam. 

After this ceremony, there is a lot of dancing. It is not the dancing you would see at an American prom. Almost all Czech students take formal ballroom dancing lessons for at least a year, and many Czech people continue to take these lessons as a hobby. Because of this, there are many formal dances with traditional Czech songs, such as “Srdce nehasnou,” by Karel Gott, who is one of the most successful Czech singers of all time. However, the prom is still an event for the teenagers, so these types of dances are mixed in with today’s top hits.

After many hours of dancing and drinking, the clock strikes midnight, which means it is time for the midnight surprise. This is a performance planned, like everything else, by the students. The performance is more free-spirited than anything else in the evening. Most of the midnight surprises I saw included scantily clad students dancing to pop songs. As an American, it’s hard to imagine my 18-year-old self (or my 22-year-old self) doing something like a strip tease in front of all of my teachers and my entire family, but it is nothing short of the norm in the Czech Republic. At the end of this performance, the students gather together, take off their sashes, and stomp on them as a symbol of good luck.

This part of the night signifies a change of pace for the rest of the evening. The music changes to almost exclusively pop, and prom turns into more of a club atmosphere. One of the proms I went to even hired a DJ from Prague for the post-midnight hours. Judging by the students’ reactions, he seemed to be a pretty big deal.

The partying rages on until 2 in the morning, when the students’ night in the spotlight comes to an end. Their job is not quite done, however, because the next morning they will all wake up, get dressed and go back to the dance floor—this time to clean up the mess from the night before. 

Although the bulk of my formal season consisted of attending my fourth-year students’ proms, the kids are not the only ones that like to dress up and have a good time. The majority of Czech towns, villages, and even community clubs also have their own winter formal events. I was lucky enough to receive an invitation from my mentor to the Dubenec Hunters’ Ball. Dubenec is a village with a population just under 700 people, located about 10 kilometers from my “home”town, Dvůr Králové nad Labem.

At first, the ball didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. I had another Fulbright ETA visiting me for the weekend, and the two of us got beers and found seats near my mentor and her husband. Eventually my mentor asked us if we wanted to check out the “tombola,” which is Czech for raffle. All of the secondary school proms have a tombola, so I wasn’t surprised that the Hunters’ Ball would have one as well. My mentor told us that the prizes were in the basement, and led us downstairs to see what they were. 

I have never had so many pairs of eyes stare at me at once. There, hanging on strings from the ceiling, were at least 30 dead pheasants. Across from them were another 15 dead ducks, and propped up on the wall were the grand prizes: four dead deer and two dead wild boars. My mentor, seeing the obvious shock on our faces, explained that this was a completely normal tradition. A village hunter kills a deer and raffles it off at the ball a week or so later. Besides the multiple animal corpses in the room, there was also the chance to win homemade salamis, cakes, flowers and other smaller prizes. We were told we could purchase tickets later that night. We joked about how funny it would be to win one of the animals, although neither of us have much experience skinning game, or even a place in our flats to store the meat.

Back upstairs, we had the option to eat a dinner of the hunter’s meat, prepared by their wives. The menu included deer medallions with raisins, wild boar with mushrooms, and gulaš. Although I wasn’t hungry, my friend ordered the venison, which was very fresh and tasty.

During our meal, the tombola ticket seller came by, and we bought our first round of tickets. It was 10kc for a ticket, which is about 0.40 USD each. We bought 10, and as we started to open them up we both had the same thought: “How funny would it be if we won a pheasant?”

With a new goal in mind, we ripped through all 10 tickets. To our dismay, each ticket was blank, indicating that we hadn’t won anything. However, we were determined. We could see the tombola man in the other room, still selling tickets. We ran to him, held out ten fingers and said “Deset, prosím!” (“ten, please!”) as we handed him another 100kc.

We tore through the tickets with even greater fervor, and this time, we won twice. We had two cards with numbers written on them, one said “152” and the other said “203.” My mentor told us that since our numbers were higher, we would not be getting any of the huge prizes, but we may have gotten some pretty decent ones.

After about another hour of dancing, it was time for the tombola ceremony. Since there were about 300 prizes, only the grand prize winners (the boars and the deer winners) participated in the ceremony. The boar and deer corpses were laid out on the dancefloor, and the people who had drawn the lucky numbers were called up to claim their prizes. The winners stood by their animals, and shook hands with the hunters who killed them and took shots, the animals officially changing hands.

After this experience, the people who had won smaller items could go down into the basement to claim their prizes. As we pushed through the crowd, we searched to see which prize matched the number on our ticket. When we finally saw it, we couldn’t believe our eyes! A pheasant! We had actually done it! My mentor was quite confused as to why we were excited. “There’s barely any meat in that,” she told us. We didn’t care, because for two kids from the East coast of the United States, winning any sort of game bird at a hunters’ ball in the northeast Czech Republic was a pretty big deal. 

Proud of our bird, whom I lovingly named František before being told you shouldn’t name something you plan to eat, we took some beautiful photos together before he was taken away to the trunk of my mentors car.

In the following days, our František would become a soup. But I know that no matter where life takes me, I will always remember my party fowl.

(Photos by Klára Horáčková and Griffin Trau)


Šoky kulturní a jiné

autorka: Ida Vohryzková, učitelka angličtiny na VOŠ zdravotnické a SŠ zdravotnické Ústí nad Labem

Ida Vohryzková na konci ledna odletěla do amerického Ohia na šestitýdenní školení o posilování kritického myšlení a mediální gramotnosti na středních školách. Spolu s další českou kolegyní z Gymnázia Tišnov a asi 30 účastníky z celého světa se nyní účastní workshopů i přednášek na univerzitě Kent State. Ve druhé části pobytu všechny čeká praxe na americké střední škole a závěrečný týden ve Washingtonu, D.C. Ida a další tři středoškolští učitelé z různých koutů České republiky před rokem zvítězili ve výběrovém řízení do programu Fulbright Teaching Excellence and Achievemnt (TEA). Podrobnosti o programu najdete zde.   

únor 2020

Vezměte si dvě ale úplně stejný letadla - jedno je evropský, jedno americký, který si vyberu? Vůbec bych tomu nevěřila, ale ty americký přistávají asi jinak - moje uši byly v pohodě. A přede mnou bylo mimino a taky nic, takže mám svědka. Malýho, ale přece. A znáte moje uši - po tom prvním letu do Amstru mi odlehly až po dvou hodinách. Zkrátka jedu právě na špici vlny kulturního šoku - všechno je obrovský (auta, sloupy, odpadkový koše, borůvky, toastovej chleba, postele, mezery mezi slovy (asi bych se tady mohla zpomalit) dokonce i zářivky - ráda bych věřila, že jsou úsporný.

I popelnice jsou velký - odpadu je spousta - neustále dostáváme plastové či jiné jednorázové nádoby - i u snídaně jsou smetánky do kafe ty malinký plastový kelímky, případně si můžu vzít malou krabičku mlíka. V budovách kampusu se třídí, to je pravda.

A klimatizace jede všude naplno - teplý vzduch ohřívá místnost a jakmile je dosažena teplota, zase se chladí. Okna z bezpečnostních důvodů nelze otevřít, takže mám v plicích poušť a můj environmetální žal neutichá. Teď jsme zaháněly chmury promýšlením programu na čtyři volné dny, které jsou před námi - zaletíme si do New Yorku.

Takže vyrývám ekologickou ne stopu, ale brázdu. To samé je to se stopou digitální - neustále někam zadáváme osobní údaje, fotíme se... Takže jeden blog k tomu mě už nerozhází.

Říká se, že Američani jsou milí, ale je to přetvářka. Tak milí jsou, neuvěřitelně. A nevěřím tomu, že to není opradvový. Opět mám důkazy, tentokrát mnoho a velký. Organizátoři vkládají do přípravy nejen spoustu energie, ale myslím, že i kus srdce, jsem ohromená. Naposledy včera - byli jsme pozvaní na party k Dr. Lindě Robertson, které ale všichni říkáme vesele Linda. Je to anděl v lidské podobě. Cestou tam v busíku navrhla Dragana (Severní Makedonie), že každá země něco zazpívá. Ona sama znala snad všechny zpívané písně a byl to kouzelnej zážitek.

Zaplnili jsme Lindin dům a přenesli se na celý večer na Havaj. Na chodbě měla perokresby evropských staveb a obrázek Týnského chrámu mě trochu dojal :-) Myslím, že bych Lindu přirovnala k Heini, jen je asi o 75 cm menší. Její dům je taky pohádkový (až jsem z toho začala být způsobně spisovná).

Na dnešek nám objednali i slunce, abychom si užili výlet. Keith (náš mediální lektor) nás odvezl, povozil po krásách a zas dovezl zpět. Svačinku v biokvalitě a skořicový chewing gums průběžně nabízel všem a v kufru měl hromadu čepic, rukavic, bund a dalšího jídla pro nás. Takže - vidíte tu nějakou hranou zdvořilost?

Líbil se Vám tento příspěvek? Sledujte blog Idy Vohryzkové na: https://idavohiu.blogspot.com/