Breathe In, Breathe Out — Week 19

Croatian Yoga

One of the best ways I relieve stress is through exercise. I love to run and get lost in a podcast or great playlist (our daughters send me great musical selections), but group exercise really appeals to me. The practice yields so many benefits. I like the commradarie, the sense of encouragement and routine in taking a spot. In fact, my friends at LifeTime Fitness used to save me a matt every week for our Warrior Sculpt class, a frenetic hour of loud music, jumping and stretching. When I walked into the studio, I liked seeing my “gym buddies” and taking my usual place toward the left corner in the back. After a few months in Croatia, I started asking about local exercise classes. I live in the Old Town and thankfully most things are within walking distance. My colleague told me about an evening class offered at the Maritime High School for $40 kuna per session (about $7 US). I recognized the name, as it’s on the corner in a building not far from my apartment.

Maritime High School was the first vocational school in Croatia to adopt English as the only language of instruction starting in the spring of 2018. It was appropriate to the curriculum, as English is the official language used in international maritime affairs and aviation. While English is a required course in most high schools throughout Croatia, it is rarely used as the sole language of instruction. According to my colleague, “Naturally, teachers wouldn’t grade students on their English speaking abilities, but just interact and achieve the best possible means of communication that’s reasonable to expect.”

Croatia has a long maritime tradition and seafaring is one of the most prominent professions in coastal areas. The number of active seafarers in Croatia is estimated at 20,000.

I walked into the high school gym and was immediately greeted by the teacher who threw up her hands and proclaimed, “Dah-knee-zah! Welcome!” She told me she was a retired French teacher who also taught at University of Zadar. Her mother was one of the founding members at the university in the 1950s. Her husband also taught at the university and her son is currently attending the university – it runs in the family. She had transformed the gym into a cocoon of meditation, plugging in her own soft lighting against the stone walls, placing a candle in the center of the room and positioning each rubber yoga matt in a circle. She went out of her way to introduce me to all 7 yogis and told everyone that tonight she was going to instruct the class in English, “For our morning star” (that is the meaning of my name in Slavic, “the morning star”). I got choked up because she made me feel so welcome in the class. I usually wear shorts in exercise classes and in Zadar during this time of year the “bad wind” (Hugo) was blowing strong. After class, the women were all pointing to my bare legs and speaking quickly in Croatian. The yoga teacher explained that they were worried I would catch cold walking home and next time I really should wear pants. It was endearing and made me feel like I had a spot – an international yoga matt for health, fellowship and overall wellbeing here in the Adriatic. Namaste!

That’s Not Right!

In contrast to my yoga evenings full of soft music, meditation and listening to my yoga teacher talk about the full moon and putting someone you love into the circle to dance in the light, I can describe my weekly teaching schedule as a rewarding grind. I start my days early and end late, but I am fully immersed in learning as much as I can about Croatian higher education. The best part of the process is interacting with students.

My students have become more conversational as the weeks progressed and one of my colleagues commented, “Well, they’re used to you now, so they are more free.”

In practicing elements of the writing process, I have assigned homework to all 200 of my students and collect their homework each time we meet. I provide feedback and often share patterns of excellence and areas of improvement. On one particular assignment, I transcribed 20 of the students’ introductions (randomly and anonymously) to share as a group activity in a peer critique session. Each group had 4 student introductions to read and provide constructive criticism based on a rubric we reviewed during class.

When the class started to talk about how they rated each introduction based on the rubric on a scale of 1-4, one of my students unexpectedly protested. She complained that the assignment was a summary assignment and rating introductions was not possible, as it was “only a summary.” I was confused, so I attempted to clarify the meaning behind summary. I explained a summary begins with an introductory sentence that states the text’s title, author and main point of the text as you see it. A summary is written in your own words and contains only  ideas from the original text, not your opinion. I went on to share that summarizing includes disseminating what is important and can be a tool for college success.

The student did not agree with my explanation and continued, “But you didn’t tell us we would be sharing it.” And I responded, “Your names are not on the introductions, but writing is meant to be shared with an audience.” I continued to discuss ideas related to audience in reading and awareness of language, allowing the reader to focus, understand and assess meaning. I returned to the importance of an introduction as a template for writing in presenting the thesis statement, defining a purpose and including major supporting details. In a short summary, a full introduction is not necessary, but nonetheless, an introduction should be a condensed version of the entire document you were assigned to summarize, presenting the salient aspects of the document and why it is relevant.  

The student persisted, “But that’s not a real introduction. Only in our academic essays do we include real introductions.” I welcomed the dialogue, but was concerned as to why the student was so visibly upset. I did not have access to students’ grades at University of Zadar and was told not to evaluate their homework (my colleagues told me just check homework if you have time), but there were higher stakes unfolding here. It was a tangle of peer review, past instruction and a sense of vulnerability.

Unfortunately we ran out of time to continue this important discussion during that class, but I thought a lot about this student’s reaction and response. Until now, much of her writing had focused on constructing an essay that followed a strict format in which she developed an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion – a formulaic approach she was comfortable with. Although this may have helped her recognize sections of an essay and awareness of a thesis statement, it didn’t prepare her for writing an introduction in an executive report, full-length research article or a cover letter. This was a new task I assigned and she was now facing what she had been taught and trained for during the past 12 years in the Croatian school system.

Again, I am the faculty visitor – a foreigner who is telling her not that she is wrong, but exposing her to a different way of writing. I am asking her to transfer the idea of an introduction into a variety of genres to trace connections between each part and see a sequence or pattern in which information can be presented to a reader. This bridge of understanding is what the Fulbright Program is all about. Introducing different teaching methods and alternative ways of knowing can be rewarding and terrifying for students. It rocks our collective boats of knowledge before we can try to accept learning different ways in context. I will always remember this student and her passion for what she has learned, what she is learning and what she will learn in the future.

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