by Kate Sonka
I recently returned from a month spent in Lithuania working with Lithuanian K-12 English as a foreign language teachers. Let me begin by saying that I never really was sure what the students would be like before I left, so it was my best guess that they would like the lessons I prepared. The information I received before my departure indicated that they were very interested in learning what we do in the U.S. and they wanted ideas on what they could do with their students in the classroom. Since I believe writing is such a beneficial and crucial part of language learning, I knew I wanted to include it in a significant way.
My first lesson was a mash up of personal introductions and then a brief introduction to the U.S. linguistic landscape, focusing exclusively on what it looks like for English language learners (I couldn’t help it – that’s what I’ve been talking about in grad school for the past 2.5 years). At any rate, I chalked up students’ apparent aversion to that lesson as “they just don’t know me yet and will warm up.” This is mostly true. The more I saw my homeroom group, the more cordial and even jovial we became with one another. Some of the classes were more talkative than others, which is normal in any school.
For my second lesson I wanted to talk about short stories and segue into some creative writing. I had them read a story called The Dinner Party that is quite short and entertaining. They all seemed to like it and when discussing it afterward, most were engaged. Then the true test began: I asked them to rewrite a specific paragraph from the point of view of a different character. It took quite a bit of convincing to get them to do it but they did eventually give in and most of them really enjoyed it. After that I had them write their own short stories in a series of steps focusing on parts of a story (i.e. character, setting, plot, etc.). You would have thought I asked them to build me a rocket and fly me to the moon!
After discussing this with my first class I was able to glean that creative writing is just not done there. After probing this issue a bit more I was told it was because it’s not on the test their students take. Oh boy. I think most of you will identify with my immediate disgust and annoyance that it appeared standardized tests would be plaguing me there and ruining what was supposed to be a fun English summer camp. I listened to their concerns over why I was having them do that and had to remind them that 1) they want to know different activities we have in our curriculum, 2) all of the benefits creative writing can provide for language learners, and 3) this was supposed to be fun. Most of them eventually gave in and later told me they liked doing it and would find ways to incorporate it into their own classrooms.
But of course my creative writing crusade didn’t end there and for my third lesson I had them write This I Believe personal essays (modeled after the NPR program of the same name). It was a challenge to convince the teachers to write an essay, but those that did presented me with an interesting mix of essays. There were some that missed the mark a little, but they did share some sort of personal idea so I counted it (in fact I was positive about each essay no matter what the topic, because personal essays are such a foreign idea to them that I didn’t want to discourage them at all).
One in particular was really fantastic. Download my student’s This I Believe, essay if you’d like to read it. To give some context to the essay, we were told that in May 4,000 young people left Lithuania for other parts of Western Europe to pursue employment. It is an epidemic there and the youth are continuing to leave the country in search of better opportunities. I was told the divorce rate is on the rise and less people are getting married (opting instead to just live together). Even though the Soviets left Lithuania 20 years ago, the country still has a lot to overcome but it is people like Ruta who believe in the country and will do everything they can to prevent it from failing.
The road to creative writing with the Lithuanian teachers was certainly a little bit bumpier than I had anticipated, but the teachers were really wonderful people. I was lucky to have a mix of young and old, so during discussions I was able to learn about what it was like to live under Soviet times, and at the same time see how those who didn’t spend most of their life under Soviet rule think and act in comparison. All in all I had the experience of a lifetime. I learned more than I ever could have imagined, and most of it had nothing to do with the actual practice of teaching. Cultural exchanges are always a fantastic way to be reminded of just how fortunate we are to live in the U.S., and give us pause to be thankful for what we have.