Education

Ceska Skola rolls on: Program teaching Czech heritage, traditions nears 150th anniversary

Elaine Samek leads a class for young students during Czech School at Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, June 21, 2018. The annual multi-week school introduces students to the Czech language, culture and history. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Elaine Samek leads a class for young students during Czech School at Wilson Middle School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, June 21, 2018. The annual multi-week school introduces students to the Czech language, culture and history. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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One by one, the students in Elaine Samek’s Czech School class, ages 6 to 10, identify themselves with precision and confidence.

“Jmenuji se Danika.” (“My name is Danika.”)

“Jmenuji se Gwen.”

“Jmenuji se Frantisek.”

“That’s your Czech name,” Samek interjects. “What’s your real name?”

“Jmenuji se Grant.”

Just a week earlier, many of the same students likely would have treated Czech as a truly foreign language. After just five days, they could easily recite basic phrases and pronounce the 42-letter Czech alphabet with nary a stumble.

“Once you know the sounds of the letters,” Samek said, “you can read virtually everything in Czech.”

The goals of Czech School are to educate and reinforce Czech language, culture, heritage, music, traditions and holiday celebrations.

As part of the three-week curriculum, for example, students — ages 6 to 14 — greet each other each day, introduce themselves and how they are feeling (all in Czech). Then they review the alphabet (abeceda), numbers (cisla) and what they learned in past lessons. Next up is music and work on songs for the final Czech School program set for 7 p.m. June 29 at Kosek Bandstand in Czech Village.

A new lesson with two letters of the alphabet and corresponding words is introduced. Then a category of items is taught, such as fruit (ovoce), animals (zvirata) or colors (barvy). Samek speaks the word in Czech to the students; then they repeat it back. Students use word games or small sentences (in Czech) to reinforce the words they have learned, such as “What is that?” (Co je to?), followed by the answer: “It is ...” (To Je ...).

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To introduce Czech culture and traditions, students discuss Vanoce (Christmas) and Velikonoce (Easter). For Vanoce, students have traditional Christmas cookies and make Svaty Mikulas (St. Nicholas) decorations; for Easter they decorate kraslice (eggs).

Sokol of Cedar Rapids will teach the students an exercise routine, and polka dancers will teach the students to polka.

This year marks the 149th consecutive year of Czech School instruction in Cedar Rapids. The program first was taught here in 1870. A celebration is planned for the 150th anniversary next year, but details still are being worked out, Samek said.

For Samek, a Czech School Board member, it’s not difficult to explain her teaching motivations. Her father is 100 percent Czech and her mother is 50 percent Czech, “so that makes me 75 percent, I guess,” she said. “We just have it flowing through our blood.”

It wasn’t until she was older, Samek said, that she realized Czech traditions weren’t necessarily shared by others.

“I always heard my grandparents speaking Czech,” she said. “I just assumed it was part of life.”

Parents of Czech School students are largely of Czech descent, passionate about their cultural traditions and eager to pass them through the generations.

But it can be challenging for students to attend classes four days a week for three straight weeks. Most parents have work commitments, and there are other activities to draw potential students’ attention.

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“For them (kids) to be here every day is really hard,” Samek said. “Trying to balance your life is more difficult now. But parents just want to instill that Czech heritage in their children.”

The students themselves are eager learners and enjoy the program’s less rigorous structure, Samek said.

“It’s amazing what they pick up in a short period of time,” she said. “And they ask really good questions.”

Still, the program can be challenging to maintain — as new generations are further removed from the original immigrants, there are worries that some traditions could be lost.

In 1956, local Czech leaders estimated that 50 percent of Cedar Rapids residents could claim some type of Czech heritage. Today, that estimate is down to 20 percent.

And attendance in the Czech School program has declined somewhat, from 35 students in 2016 to 30 in 2017 and 21 this year.

Still, the program has strong local support. A separate Czech School program for adults on Thursday nights at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church began about a decade ago. Both schools are staffed entirely by volunteers, and many local Czech organizations and social groups provide needed resources.

The future of Czech School is assessed regularly, Samek said. But is it possible that a program that celebrates its sesquicentennial next year could consider ceasing operations?

Not if Samek can help it.

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“It’s always something we have in the back of our minds,” she said, “but we just don’t want to put it to rest. There’s too much to teach, too much to learn.”

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