Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The General State of Affairs and Minor Victories at the 2-Month Mark

**While walking along the main shopping street in Graz, I saw a window display in a clothing store being changed. The box full of random mannequin arms was delightfully random and struck me as pictureworthy!

I've officially been in Austria for 2 months and 2 days. I thought now would be a good time to check in with you, maybe revisit some of my older thoughts and posts, and let you know where I stand thus far!

  • My first week of teaching, I reported my schedule of teaching 12 hours a week only 3 days a week--Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. As relaxing as this sounds, I've discovered that it's surprisingly tiring to teach "so much"! It's a really active job to stand in front of a group of teenage boys and attempt to enage them and capture their attention for 50 long minutes at a time. It requires being prepared...like dogs, I'm convinced that students can smell fear. If I'm not comfortable in my topic, they'll know it. I spend an average of 5-8 hours preparing my lessons (3-4 hours on a good day); then, I will study the finished lesson plan and learn any new information or facts by heart--in this way, teaching a lesson on a new subject is much like giving an oral report. The only way to really keep them engaged is to speak directly to them--not to read from a sheet or keep checking my notes. In my class, I am the expert on everything. It has to be this way, I've learned, for a successful lesson. Talking so much is also tiring--by the end of the school day I am totally ready to disengage. My schedule has just changed again for the end of the semester...I now work a highly desirable Monday-Wednesday block, giving me a 4-day weekend every week from now until Christmas. Ahhhhh.....

  • Attentive readers of my blog may recall my reference to Frank McCourt's Teacher Man and my aspirations to be that teacher who gets by (and ends up teaching the students something along the way) by telling stories. Today I gave a lesson on Thanksgiving to a class of 16-year-olds. We started with the history of Thanksgiving and an explanation of the Pilgrims, etc., and then we moved on to a narrated slide show showing everything prototypically Thankgiving-y: all of the Thanksgiving foods, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thanksgiving Day football, Black Friday, and even the Simpsons Thanksgiving special. I ended with an explanation of my own family's Thanksgiving Day traditions--a huge feast with all of the extended family, the rigid table manners enforced at my grandmother's house, and the annual weight-gaining competition. Every family has their oddities, and the weight-gaining competition, taken quite seriously by some, happens to be one of ours. I described how one cousin, whose strategy was to drink uncomfortable amounts of water, usually won the contest. One year my grandmother decided to help me win. She took my grandfather's velcro wrist weights (for power walking) and strapped them around my legs under my dress. When I got onto the scale, there was a general outcry of shock as it was discovered that 10-year-old Rebecca had somehow gained an impressive 12 pounds! As I was revelling in the certainty of my victory, I felt one of the weights loosen and start to slip down my leg. I tried to keep my legs tight together, but as I stepped off the scale, the weight slid to the floor and betrayed me. I was naturally banned from the contest and my cousin the water-drinker won again that year. As we were leaving class, the teacher told me, "You really are such a good storyteller! The kids were hanging on every word--you tell stories really well!" ...Perhaps I'll make Frank McCourt proud after all...

  • You may also recall how my German has good days and bad days. This is still the case, but things are getting brighter. Well, perhaps. When my German is good, it's really really good; when it's bad, it's just embarassing. (See previous post!) While I still struggle with something I call Morgen-Deutsch (morning German, a term applied to any German before 12 noon), occassionally I do reach the point where (like in a previous blog) I can be mistaken--if only for a little while--for a native. Recently I was speaking to a teacher, and he was asking about how I learned German. He complemented me on my German and said that I had "a 0.1% accent...No! Actually a 0.01% accent." I also went to see "Ratatouille" in German not too long ago, and there were a couple of girls giving out free coffee samples from a new Nescafe coffee machine. As I was asking for my particular type of coffee, one of the people I was with addressed me in English. The girls, unusually outgoing for Austrians, started a conversation with me, asking me where I was from and noting that I spoke exceptional German. This led to another conversation on how and where I learned German. These girls were from Vienna and thought it was funny that I learned the local German; I explained to them that I didn't know any better, since Graz is really where I learned German in the first place, so I don't necessarily know which words are local and which are not. This led to a long and interesting conversation about their take on the Styrian dialect and my experience with it as a foreigner that lasted until I was literally dragged into the movie. All in all, my German is going really well. Aside from the absolutely terrifying incident of playing a game of "Telephone" in a circle full of Austrian teenagers at a birthday party--irrationally fearful that whatever was whispered in my ear would be either in dialect or words I don't know, causing great embarrassment and a suddent halt to the game--I'd say I'm doing pretty well.

  • My lessons are still pretty darn awesome, and amazingly enough the kids are actually retaining information! It was a really big moment for me last week when one of the teachers told me how the kids corrected her in class: for some activity or other, she declared, "I'll be the referee, and I'll decide what's right or wrong." Then the students spoke up and said, "But we had Rebecca earlier today and she told us about baseball--it's not called a referee, it's called an umpire!" None of the students had heard of the word "umpire" until they had the baseball lesson...they actually learned something!

  • I can also check off one item on the list of things I wanted to accomplish in my free time: learning ballroom dancing! I've started taking private dance lessons with another language assistant in preparation for the ball season. The balls (just to remind you, these are balls in the fairy tale sense of the word) have already begun and will continue for the next few months. We've decided to tackle some of the typical dances one would find at a ball--slow waltz, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, cha cha cha, and other random assortments of ballroom dance. So far we've done the cha cha cha (a ballroom favorite, since it does not require much space on the dancefloor) and tomorrow we begin with the waltz! It feels really good to be dancing again (as there is no swing dancing in all of Austria it seems, it's nice to get out dancing again) and I'm already looking forward to showing off at a ball!

And just to reiterate, I love love love getting your comments. Thanks so much for taking the time to read the blog--even if it's a one-sided activity, it makes me feel more connected to everyone so far away!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Bruce said...

Do you suppose my "Sara Lee stories" were of any inspiration out of all the multitude of factors that made you such a good story teller? Of course, you can make me feel good and say, "Yes, DAD." If you don't, then I'll just have to tell you another one of those old stories until you cry "Uncle!" And, I found that term is not totally outdated yet. A movie came out in the 1970's called, "Cry Uncle" also see: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-say1.htm

Anonymous said...

Rebecca, I love your posts! They make my work week of doom just a little bit brighter! I attempted to convince Meagan this past week while I was visiting that she needs to read your blog... Glad things are going well--it all sounds so charming and unfamiliar!

Stephen said...

Hi Rebecca,
I'm finally reading your blog! Sounds like you're having a good time. We got back from seeing Jess about mid Oct. and had the two week recovery to pay for it. How close are you to Dresden? I'm lousy on geography! There's a pair of silly medieval pants in the museum there I want to see with my very own eyeballs and wouldn't mind seeing you either. Your family has weird Thanksgiving traditons! I'm usually try NOT to gain weight but usually losing the battle.