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Keuka Students, Teachers Embrace Eastern Europe

After almost two years of modern-day “pen pal” communication via Skype, a number of Keuka College education majors finally met – in person – the Slovakian high school students they previously saw on the computer screen.

Vrable high school students meet their American online "pen pals"

This group Field Period included education majors, taught by Dr. Denise Love and Dr. Klaudia Lorinczova, both assistant professors of education, and other Keuka students, including several visual and verbal art majors taught by Melissa Newcomb, assistant professor of art. The Keuka Field Period is a required annual internship or exploratory study of 140 hours.

Clock Tower by Michael Fisher

Seventeen students, two faculty members and two parent chaperones traveled overseas in early June to visit the cities of Prague, Nitra, Bratislava and Vienna. Over 11 days, Newcomb directed students in photographic study of architecture and culture while Lorinczova led an exploration of Slovakian education and other unique social, political and cultural traditions of her home country and its European neighbors. Students had already gone through weeks of “pre-teaching” in advance of the trip, learning from Lorinczova a number of cultural anomalies to expect and reviewing a manual on basic digital photography with Newcomb, as well as gaining a basic understanding of architectural styles such as Baroque, Gothic or Rococo.

A last-minute foot injury kept Love confined at home, but ultimately, she was able to coordinate from the couch, helping the two professors “on the ground” navigate unexpected challenges almost as soon as they cropped up. The first biggie: severe flooding in many portions of Prague – the first stop on the trip –shortly after the group arrived. Love offered advice and assistance with the travel agency as the group moved around Prague and then on to other cities, and communicated with Newcomb and Lorinczova via daily Skype sessions.

Floods by Sarah Hillman

All three professors recommended “an anchor” back home, given the benefits gleaned in this experience. The three professors had previously structured the trip to include student reflections in words and images, utilizing online blogs as electronic journals. The blogs proved a saving grace for worried parents back home who heard news reports of the flooding much earlier than the students themselves. And while students did post a few photos of flooded streets and commentary on dealing with nonstop rains, images of cathedrals, statues, gardens, public squares, restaurants and cafes far outnumbered them.

Keuka Group on tour by Melissa Newcomb

In the words of Sarah Hillman ‘13, a final, rainy day in Prague was salvaged with a spur-of-the-moment museum tour, where the whole group saw “paintings, sculptures, and other works from Alfons Mucha and Salvador Dali. They were great!”

Cathedral by Melissa Newcomb

Newcomb said classroom lectures on photography techniques could not rival the hands-on learning when the group visited a cathedral where use of flash is forbidden. Several students came up to her asking for advice how to best capture images within that limitation.

“It was exciting to see their faces when they captured that moment and piece of architecture,” Newcomb said. Further, as a teacher of art history, the transition from a photo in a textbook to a three-dimensional visit to St. Vitus Cathedral in person was “incredible. It was like touching history,” she said.

In Love’s opinion, the student blogs and Skype sessions truly “kept me there. Every morning I’d go in and see what they’d done and I knew who to go to first, to see where they were, and I could read and respond. I felt like I was there. You could see what they learned and what they got out of it as a group. Even from far away, I could feel it,” she said.

Castle Guards by Courtney Lasher

For example, students Ayuko Sakurai ’14 and Courtney Lasher ‘16 posted images and descriptions of the Observation Tower, Prague’s 299-step version of the Eiffel Tower. Others, such as Chloe Zaengle ‘15 and Haley Jordan ‘15, captured the Funicular railcar system, and even soldiers on guard outside castles. According to Tyler Kroon ‘14, one afternoon visit along city streets was filled with “people-watching, pigeon-chasing and picture-taking” among other activities. And like many students, Samantha Lane ‘14 wrote in detail about new meals, including one traditional Slovak dish she had for dinner, plum dumplings covered in poppyseeds, otherwise known as “Slivkove Knedle.”

From Prague, the students traveled to Nitra, Lorinczova’s hometown, and the high school in Vrable, just outside Nitra, with which Keuka education majors have been conducting

Traditional welcome with bread and salt by Reaghan Wirley

Skype sessions. The bus transporting Keuka’s group was welcomed by a number of the Vrable high school student body, including a boy and girl dressed in traditional costume bearing bread and salt, which represents life and health, respectively, in Slovak culture. When used in a formal welcome, Lorinczova said the bread and salt symbolize hospitality, friendship, and sincerity. According to the professors, the Vrable schoolmates rolled out the red carpet, with a presentation on the history of Slovakian culture and the school history, including traditional folk songs and dances.

The Keuka group was escorted to an auditorium where the students were seated in rows of chairs before a crowd of high schoolers who bravely approached the front to ask questions about American culture and education – in English. Every Keuka student received a gift whether handmade ornaments, bracelets, printed maps or booklets.

Seated for the Quiz by Reaghan Wirley

After sharing “an abundance of food,” Lorinczova said, eight Keuka students – including three females who compete on Keuka’s soccer teams – played a friendly match against a Vrable team. In fitting irony, the Vrable students presented green clothing – a Keuka color – for the Keuka team to wear.

“Up until the school visits, [students experienced] a visit to an art gallery, castle, new food etc. and suddenly the country was represented by people,” said Lorinczova. Some of the Vrable high schoolers even begged to go out to dinner with their new friends from Keuka, and “they took us out on the town.”

Friendly Competition by Reaghan Wirley

“It was AMAZING!!” raved Reghan Wirley ‘14 in a blog post after the visit. “… I cannot explain the feelings I felt when we entered the school and how welcomed we felt within this community. I am sad to leave tomorrow. I wish I could just stay here for the rest of the summer. I know I will keep in touch with many of the students I met today and learn as much Slovak as I can even if they make fun of how I say the words …”

A common note in student blogs was how different the education system was in Slovakia. Many Keuka students were impressed with the advanced learning demonstrated by elementary students they had met a day earlier.

Elementary Classroom by Melissa Whipple

“… those kids are so smart!,” wrote Tyler Kroon ‘14. “They’re doing double-digit addition in their heads in second grade, and even beat us college students at a math game we were playing!”

Newcomb said that on the last night of the trip, the group gathered and Skyped with Dr. Love back home, each one sharing their favorite memories. In addition to some heart-felt emotions, several commented on the “family” feeling that had come from the experience, she said. For those still on campus, that will continue to connect them this fall, she said.

Old Town Prague Panorama by Michael Fisher

“I was really excited I got to share Slovakia with my students,” Lorinczova said. “I could never have planned the situations the students came up with or fell into and those made the memories for them.”

According to Love, as students relayed stories about what happened, “I could see the excitement grow. We’ve made a big connection and touched hearts.”

For other unique Field Period profiles, click here.

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