A couple of weeks ago, I submitted an article to the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board’s (FFSB) annual report, a publication put forth by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Since I use this blog in part to share things I’ve written for publication purposes, I thought I’d post it here. (If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, some sentiments might seem familiar, as I pulled from here when crafting the article!)

Natalie Lampert // 2012-2013 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, Sri Lanka

Reflections on teaching American literature vis-a-vis American culture in Sri Lanka

I teach a course called “Academic Reading and Writing” to first and second year students at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, just outside of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Most of our class discussions revolve around the novels I’ve assigned my students to read; MLA format; presentation skills; and why plagiarizing is not okay. Lately, though, my students have become increasingly curious about American culture, and I spend afternoons doing my best to answer their questions. What is Black Friday, they ask. What is the American Dream, they want to know. Like many of my fellow ETAs, I am not a teaching assistant but instead have my own classroom, office hours, and syllabus. At the South & Central Asia Fulbright ETA Enrichment Seminar this past December in Kathmandu, I learned I was one of the few ETAs in this region placed in a university. Professionally, teaching at this level as a twenty-something is an incredible opportunity. Personally, I do not always feel like the most qualified cultural ambassador, but I do my best to wear my many hats in this teaching environment – native English speaker, university lecturer, American woman. I am here as a Fulbrighter to teach in an educational system quite different from the kind I am used to, but that’s what this is about – as a culturally aware American, to integrate some of what I know works with what works in Sri Lanka, and to encourage my students to step out of their comfort zones but not push them into an academic setting that looks nothing like what they’re used to. It’s a constant balancing act, but when challenges arise, I’m armed with a smile, a head bobble, and a refreshing dose of ‘island mentality.’

I recently completed my first semester of teaching, and the definite highlight was the poetry unit I did with my students. As I took students through a reading and analysis of Stephen Dobyns’ “How to Like It,” we dissected lines and contemplated journeys and I explained how American fridges are indeed big enough to stick one’s head in. Standing in front of the classroom, I had my lecture notes printed out and in my hands, but somewhere around answering questions about what autumn feels like, I tossed my notes aside and taught some of America’s finest poets to the best of my ability, from that place inside me that could talk about literature all day, every day. I was teaching, I guess, but I was really just having a good discussion about the power of words with students who were happily grappling with the bigger questions presented by the pages of poems in front of them. That was an incredible Fulbright moment – an incredible life moment – for me, and as I helped to facilitate discussions about culture and language, the impact of the Fulbright program took on a very visceral meaning.

“Anything is neither totally white nor totally black,” one of my students recently wrote in an essay, reflecting on the ways in which different governments respond to natural disasters. We were studying Zeitoun by Dave Eggers at the time, and my students had been asking me about the impact of Hurricane Katrina and how it compared to that of Hurricane Sandy that had recently hit the East Coast. The discussion then turned to the 2004 tsunami that struck Sri Lanka so severely, and my students began comparing these very different storms: what evacuation systems were or were not in place, how people perished but persevered, how the human spirit overcomes. It is classroom discussions like these that always make me pause and reflect on what I’m doing here and what my students are teaching me. There is much more to my experience as a Fulbrighter in Sri Lanka than lesson planning and time in the classroom – I’m constantly humbled by my students and others I meet and talk with who share with me so many more parts of Sri Lanka than I could ever discover on my own. Slowly but surely, this country is getting under my skin and settling into me, its stories and pieces of history percolating and making it hard for me to imagine being anywhere but here.

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