Friday, July 19, 2013

In Which I Discover that Austrians are Aus-some.

As are, of course, French, German and Chinese.

Yesterday, I started my summer job, teaching English to visiting students from the four above-mentioned countries. They're on a whirlwind three-week experience, taking English classes, seeing as much of California as possible, and staying with host families to take in how real suburban American families live.

They arrived on Wednesday, after long flights--the shortest traveling I've heard of was for the Germans, who flew direct from Frankfurt to San Francisco. The rest had stops and layovers in places like Toronto. The Chinese, of course, had the longest trip of all.

Still, they came to school bright and early on Thursday ready to learn and have new experiences. The select few are apprehensive or homesick, but for the most part, they are eager, excited, and ready to get to know California. You know me, I love this place. I'll be delighted if they enjoy it.

Yesterday was the usual first-day chaos, but I managed to share my pumpkin pies with a large group of students. Some liked it, some did not. We (my co-teacher and I) told them that the point is not liking it or disliking it but trying something new, something you haven't had before. They were game.

Today, we got our main groups. My co-teacher and I are teaching the Level 5 students, the highest-proficiency English speakers. I had a grand time with my group of 14, discussing our lessons and finding they can--and want to--delve deeper into a topic because they are confident in their speaking skills. Today, for example, we discussed a lesson that speaks of the artist Frank Turrell being sued because a lady tried to lean against a "wall" at one of his exhibits--only to find the wall was actually a trick of the light he had created. She broke her wrist. I asked the students a question directly from the book: "Was she right to sue him? Why or why not?" They had varied opinions, and I bluntly informed them that the stereotype of my home country is often true--we are lawsuit-happy. A hand went up, and one of my Austrian girls told me she had seen a picture of the packaging for a Superman costume for children...which had the warning, "This costume will not make you fly." After the laughter subsided, I told them of the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit, and why now, if they buy a cup of coffee just about anywhere, they will see that the cup says, "Caution: Hot." Ridiculous? Yes.

At the end of the day, all five teachers gathered our classes into one room to listen to some music--well, guess who coordinated that lesson? I picked "California Girls," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," and "Lights" by Journey.

Because...of course. "Lights" is awesome.

All this explains how I found myself singing it to a karaoke track in front of a large group of foreign teenagers, then making them sing along. All in a day's work.

Their afternoon activity today was a trip to the local mall--they were excited to get to shops like Hollister, Victoria's Secret (yup), American Eagle Outfitters, and others they've heard of. I told them to try the Jelly Belly store, and mentioned to the girls they might love Claires, Icing, and Bath & Body Works. My co-teacher put together a brilliant lesson on sales tax (which often surprises foreign visitors) and we had mall maps to give each student.

(Even funnier--they're all really excited to go shopping at Target!)

Because my group is super-quick, I did a small writing assignment, and asked them three main questions:

  1. What has surprised you about California, so far?
  2. What are you excited about?
  3. Has anything confused you, or have you felt homesick?
No one copped to feeling homesick, but the class discussion we had about surprises was fantastic. They're surprised by how wide the streets are, how large the houses are. "They have swimming pools!" exclaimed my Chinese girl. "Only very rich people have big houses and pools in China." One student remarked that he hadn't seen any countryside, that in Austria, there is large space between cities. I told him he'd see plenty of that on the drive to Los Angeles when they go--that California is huge, but much of it from San Francisco to Roseville is very urban and suburban.

Other surprises included one observation from a German boy about how he expected his family to be very conservative, church-going people, but they explained to him that they don't attend church and are actually quite liberal. It's fun breaking down the stereotypes and showing these students that Americans are not the sum of their government or their media, just as they are not the sum of what we see of them from the outside looking in.

Yesterday, my co-teacher and I showed this TED Talk about assumptions and stereotypes--"The Danger of the Single Story." It's 20 minutes, but worth listening to. Ms. Adichie is a compelling speaker. As we plug along through our upcoming lessons, I hope to expose these students to more than the "single story" they've heard about the United States and the American people...just as I hope to take away many stories of their countries and cultures.

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