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The Lifeline

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Featured Photo from CZECHlist

Local teachers are back from a whirlwind tour of the Czech Republic, where they picked up a number of new insights to share with their peers

Nazi occupation. The Prague Spring. The Velvet Revolution. The Czech Republic is a nation rich in tumultuous history, and some Seminole County teachers got a first-hand look this summer – an experience that will pay dividends in classrooms throughout the district.

Brian and Ashley Furgione of Milwee Middle School and Jackson Heights Middle, respectively,  were among a group of educators who spent much of their summer in the Eastern European nation, where ancient castles, chateaux, and Western fast-food joints coexist. During the Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad program, the couple not only absorbed the friendly and open Czech culture but also learned lessons they can share with other SCPS social studies teachers.

“It is steeped in history,” says Ashley, who spent almost a month in the capital city of Prague and some of the country’s less Westernized rural areas. “We were so busy and learning so much, a month felt like a week.”

What makes the Czech Republic so valuable for history buffs is that, unlike in much of Europe, its historic buildings remained relatively unscathed during World War II, when Nazi forces held domain. But the country is far from somber and self-important. Travel books describe the Czech people  as lovers of holidays, concerts, and their ubiquitous pivo, or beer.

“I love the Czech people,” says Scott Waring, organizer of the trip and professor and coordinator of social science education at the University of Central Florida. “They are very welcoming, and they appreciate Americans.”

Today the Czech Republic is a thriving democracy, but its destiny was not always so clear. As Czechoslovakia, the nation emerged from World War II under firm Soviet rule. During the Prague Spring of 1968, its people experimented with a liberalization of speech, press, and travel, until Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed the momentum.

Because of the Prague Spring, Ashley notes, many Czechs today share an affinity for years that end in the number 8 and the time when their elders got a taste of more freedom. That taste would never go away. In 1989 came the Velvet Revolution, the nonviolent transition from a one-party communist state to democracy.

The influence of Western culture – including frequent sightings of McDonald’s and KFC restaurants – is clearly present in the capital, says Ashley. But in the more remote cities and countryside, that is not the case at all.

“You are waking up to farmlands and hot air balloons,” says Ashley. “We tried not to be tourists, though you do stand out. We tried to be good learners.”

Although Ashley and Brian, Seminole County’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, did their best to prepare for the trip, the Czech language is incredibly difficult to master, they say. Fortunately, translators were frequently at hand, and English was commonly spoken at schools and universities.

Brian and Ashley will relay their experiences to other social studies teachers in the county to help them add color to lessons about medieval social hierarchy, the emergence of feudalism, the use of mass terror during World War II, and the factors that led to the decline and fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

For Brian, what struck him most about his adventure was that he met Czechs who lived through the Prague Spring and other momentous events, and he can share their insights with his students.

“You had people who were college students when they watched the [Soviet] tanks roll down the streets,” he says. “It’s emotional.”

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