Dr. McDermott’s road trip to Bosnia! 9/15/08 report

Dr. Peter McDermott, professor of Education, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to teach at a university in Bosnia. He has been sending regular postings of his experiences, with some beautiful pictures and interesting video. If you would like to contact him with your comments or questions, his email address is mcderp@sage.edu. He will return to the US in mid-December.

What is it like to be a Fulbrighter in Bosnia? From my first week here I have learned that one needs to be independent and flexible on a Fulbright. On my arrival my host from the U.S. Embassy picked me up at the airport and drove me to the apartment that I previously agreed to rent. My host explained how to use the cell phone that the Embassy had provided me, and left after introducing me to the landlady.

Thank goodness the landlady spoke English! She graciously showed me how to lock the apartment door and gate to the property, turn the kitchen’s hot water tank on and off, and showed me how to walk to the downtown cathedral area where taxis waited for riders. I was invited that night to attend a dinner with Embassy staff at a restaurant on the other side of town, but I was expected to cab it there and back. It proved to be no problem because most people speak some English. In fact, many young people are pretty fluent in English because since the war the schools have been teaching it from second grade onward.

Pete's neighborhood in SarajevoI quickly learned to feel comfortable in the city because it was very safe. The landlady told me I should feel free to walk around in day or night because Bosnians love to walk and I would see many people walking. She also cautioned me about cars because many of the streets in the old neighborhoods are very old and narrow with little room for pedestrians. I quickly learned she was correct because the very next day another Fulbrighter was hit by a car, broke his foot and is now on crutches.

In the first week I participated in a number of orientations and meetings given by the Embassy staff and faculty at the University of Sarajevo. The Embassy orientation pertained to safety and protocols for contacting their staff in case of emergency. The University orientations provided me opportunity to meet faculty and students, learn about their programs and curriculum, and begin to understand what they would like of me.

View of SarajevoMy Fulbright grant proposal pertained to democratic methods of teaching. I proposed to share interactive teaching strategies in which cooperative learning, critical thinking, discussion, and debates would be used. I had previously learned that teachers in former communist/socialist countries tend to lecture and use teacher-centered instruction. My grant proposal argued that schools should model the kinds of societies we would like to see. For this reason I ordered 30 copies of the textbook, A Reason to Teach: Creating Classrooms of Dignity and Hope (Beane, 2005), because it discussed why our classrooms should foster discussion, debate, and analysis of ideas. This book seemed to fit well in what I wanted to do in Sarajevo. In addition, I prepared 30 copies of a bound booklet of teaching strategies from my own coursework at Sage; examples of these strategies are Gallery Tour (an activity for small group brainstorming and movement), Corners (a classroom debate strategy), and Guided Lecture (a strategy to actively involve students in critical thinking activities during teacher presentations). Although I did not develop the specifics of the course before coming, I planned to teach a course in democratic methods.

University of Sarajevo, Faculty of Philosophy buildingDuring one of my meetings at the University I was told that I might be teaching anywhere from 30 to 300 students. A few days later I learned that I would not have classes of my own, but rather I would be a guest lecturer in the courses that they already offer. I was told to examine their curriculum and construct ideas of where I might contribute.

Everyone at the university has been very collegial and friendly toward me. I have learned that ideas developed in New York need to be adapted to fit the educational context here in Sarajevo. I look forward to teaching here and know that I am very fortunate to have this opportunity.

Finally, some personal notes: The city is beautiful. It has been wonderful walking throughout. A few blocks down the hill from my apartment is an area of the city that is over 1000 years old. On the other side of the river is an Islamic cemetery where I learned a little about the Bosnian war. When I entered the cemetery grounds a worker, who was cleaning tombstones, came over to me and explained the significance of the cemetery. The first thing he said was that “Bill Clinton is very good” and that Bush, pointing his thumb down was bad. He motioned with his foot as if he were crushing something and said, “Bush crushing Muslims.” The man pointed to the hotel across the city and said, “Richard Holbrook.” I wasn’t entirely sure but I think he meant that Holbrook met with the Serbs in that hotel prior to the Dayton Peace Accord. Then he told me about Richard Gere, who was in a movie, The Hunter, that was filmed on this very spot in the cemetery. Later I looked on the web and saw that it was an action-suspense movie that was originally titled, Spring Break in Sarajevo.

Bosnian food: Cerapcici is pita bread stuffed with small sausages and accompanied with raw onions and a red pepper spread. It is good, although pretty heavy on the cholesterol count. The Bosnians love pastries and there are pekaras throughout the city where inexpensive and delicious sweets can be bought. Baklava is made in most of the pekaras, and I love it! Most people do their shopping in the open-air produce market. There is one located in the city center, not far from me. Tomatoes are in season and they are very reasonable, ripe and fresh. The grocery stores are small and most of the food is produce and dairy products. It is difficult to find processed foods such as cereals or Hamburger Helper.

Cultural missteps: The other day I was gently told that I wasn’t saying “thank you” as I thought was when interacting with people. What I was actually saying was “pistachio candy.” The word for thank you in Bosnia is “Hvala,” with the stress on the first syllable. I tried my best to pronounce it correctly, but it always came-out as havalah, which is a pistachio candy that can also be bought in the States. People were polite but I now wonder what they were thinking.

Today I narrowly escaped an altercation on the city tram. I was sitting on the tram on my way to the university when a tall man came up to me and rubbed his thumb and forefinger at me. I interpreted him as a beggar, and I gently say, “Neh.” He persisted, so I said “Neh” again. He looked annoyed and stared at me. So I tried to project displeasure about his behavior by turning my body toward the tram window to remove him from my view. He gave-up and moved-on to the next passenger. I figured he was an exception to the otherwise very polite and gracious people I had met throughout the week. It was a moment later that I realized he was the tram’s ticket collector who was only asking for my paid ticket! So, slowly I am learning.

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