I have 10 classes every three days that I’m here. Generally, I prepare the same questions and same lesson for all of them, with slight improvements as I go on and with some modifications for the relative levels and dispositions of the classes. The absolutely fascinating thing about it is that even when I ask them the same questions, every group has either 1) completely different answers or 2) a different way of telling me.
The teacher-people reading this probably already know this, and are perhaps amused by how novel everything is to me. There’s a student teacher who started today, and her supervising teacher is already so impressed with how good she is, how dynamic she is and how great she is at discipline (let’s say ‘classroom management,’ ok?). The difference between her and everyone else and me is that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing most of the time (nor is there anyone supervising me to know how dynamic I am in the classroom ;) ). I have no clue if they’re actually learning anything, and I have to pull the English out of them sometimes. Today I had some classroom management issues, with a class that is actually quite good at speaking English but who was unusually awake and rowdy for a Monday morning. They’re not bad, it’s just highly annoying for 14 year olds to be throwing God knows what around a classroom, and if they have enough discipline to stand when I walk in, then they can wait until their break to throw things and wrestle and do whatever it is that they do. Alas. On the other hand, they’re quite normal and very nice kids from good families. My colleagues are so helpful and supportive too, and keep telling me how happy they are that I’m here. It’s really quite excellent to be doing this.
The drill this week was that I show them a rather cartoony map of Pittsburgh (made to advertise the Great Allegheny Passage – and US Steel’s support of it – they all recognize the logo) and explain what various places are. Pointing to the Civic / Mellon Arena and explaining that this is where hockey is played invariably gets the response ‘Marián Hossa’ who of course is unfortunately no longer with us. Then, we unroll this great aerial or satellite photographic map of Ružomberok, which they all absolutely love.
Some of the questions/some of the answers:
• What is the tallest building? – interesting answers included ‘Tesco,’ which I have not actually seen but tend to doubt is the tallest building in Ružomberok. There are apartment buildings that are 14 stories – those are the tallest buildings. I think some were confusing tallest with biggest, because the words sound very similar in Slovak.
• Where do you go to have fun? – Evidently there is somewhere that they go to dance, and also an indoor sports center. One kid likes to bike along the river. Excellent. Further, as I learned this summer, ‘the River Váh (which goes through Ružomberok) is the longest in Slovakia.” On the other hand, my favorite group of 9th graders (they are joyfully full of angst and very into punk – I love them) said, “there is nowhere in Ružomberok to go have fun” and described the place for dancing as full of ‘kindermafia.’
• Where do you play sports?
• Where do you shop for food? / clothes? – Tesco, Billa, Lidl, Kaufland. / Everyone shops for clothes at the ‘Činský obchod’ – the Chinese store. Everyone also laments their ubiquitousness, but they’re actually pretty fascinating places and I have been known to patronize them myself.
• What is the first place someone should go when they come to Ružomberok? / Where should tourists go in Ružomberok? – This elicited some interesting responses, including the suggestion of walking in the hills. I was happy to hear this, because it tells me at least some of them recognize the sublime beauty in which they live.
• Where is a good place to eat?
• What is a historic place? – (Interestingly for the ommipresent museum geek in me,) the museum was a common answer, to see pictures and animals. However, I don’t think the building itself is particularly historic -- I think they heard historic and thought about somewhere where you could go to see it. Also, across the river there’s a castle and a 13th century church. I was really happy with the kid who was able to say thirteenth century. There's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby, and one group thought it was funny to suggest that Hypernova, a large supermarket chain, was also UNESCO. By speaking with one of my colleagues, I learned that Ružomberok has a really nice founding legend: a knight was trying to shoot a deer, and instead hit the middle of a rose. As a result, the main square has a rose growing in it, and there is a street named after the knight.
The question that really didn’t work well (either because they are prematurely pragmatic or the concept of WeirdNJ does not exist here) was “is there somewhere haunted?”
After we got done with the above questions, I asked them to describe their neighborhoods. This was met with such an unbelievable amount of difficulty that I have trouble understanding. It is possible that 1) they didn’t understand the question well, even with a dictionary, 2) they don’t think of where they live in terms of a neighborhood the way we tend to in Pittsburgh / America, or 3) I am expecting them to create language beyond their skill level, which I doubt because I know where they are in their books. The best answers came from one of the ‘silent-but-deadlies,’ who described her house, yard, fruit trees and two dogs so well and yet only after me practically having to beg the class. Anyway, Silent-but-deadly’s very coherent, multi-sentence answer rather shocked me, and definitely floored her classmates, if I can judge from the looks on their faces. In another class, after quite a few minutes with a dictionary, one girl came up with “Ružomberok smells.” This sounds quite funny, but a lot of people have mentioned it though I have yet to experience it. Evidently the paper factory creates a bad smell, which doesn’t go anywhere because the whole city is surrounded by hills, which makes the clouds stay put.
Quite a few people here have told me, “Slovaks won’t speak unless they have something clever to say and they know they’ll say it without making mistakes.” This is a really interesting comment from the inside about mentality, but it’s frustrating when I’m trying to encourage students to speak English. And obviously, it’s not like I bite or anything when they make mistakes. ;) But on a rather serious note, after school no one ever tests you on grammar; the goal is to be able to speak. The question is not “How well do you know English grammar?” but rather “Do you speak English?”
With my favorite group, they asked me for the umpteenth time if I spoke Slovak, and then said the (highly annoying but annoyingly common) phrase, “Na Slovensko, po slovensky” – “In Slovakia, in Slovak.” At which point I said, “But that is fascist!” They understood this, and laughed. With another group, when they said this, I said, “Na Slovensko, po anglicky” which then made them laugh and then be like, “wait, do you speak Slovak?” But my point about all of this nationalism surrounding language is true! Cf. the lecture I went to last summer in Vienna about linguistic economy, in which the man discussed the importance of maintaining these little-spoken languages (circa 5 million Slovak speakers worldwide) versus the current global imperative for being multilingual – all of my students also study German – it’s all about moderation. I’m happy to speak Slovak in Slovakia and I definitely don’t expect everyone to speak English, but I also know the reality. Most of these kids will end up working outside of Slovakia for at least part of their lives, and 5 million speakers of a language out of +6 billion humans is a drop in the bucket – I won’t even get into Rusyn here. But I rest my case.