Focus on both language and culture at weekly Czech school in Queens

Bohemian Hall

Every Friday evening during the school year, children from all over New York (and sometimes even further afield) gather for Czech lessons at the Bohemian Hall in Queens. As well as improving their Czech, the school’s pupils learn about various aspects of Czech culture, while their parents get to catch up on what’s happening in the community.

The evening I visited, the children were happily taking part in a number of activities while their parents waited in the lobby of the hall.

Mother: “The teachers are wonderful, we are really happy with the quality of teaching. They’re good with the children, they’re very gentle, understanding.”

Do you have trouble motivating them to come here after school? It’s Friday, 5 o’clock.

“No, not at all. My daughter loves it especially.”

Father: “It’s a good opportunity to meet other children. But I think the community is so small in New York…I think it would be ideal if the groups were divided much more according to ability, and they just don’t have the possibility of doing that. It’s a little like being in a one-room schoolhouse, in some ways.”

What about the other aspects, apart from language teaching – what does your kid get out of the cultural side of things?

Lizanne Fluxmon
“She learns some songs, she learns how to sign the anthem, and sort of has a sense that there is a place to which she has a family connection.”

Lizanne Fluxmon is from the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society which runs the hall and puts on the lessons every Friday from 5 to 7 during the school year.

“It’s more than just a school, it’s a community centre. The parents have a chance to catch up and find out what is going on within the Czech community. The kids love it – they get this one time a week to meet up with their friends, who perhaps are going to different schools. Some of the students come from as far away as New Jersey, or Connecticut, so it’s the one time they get to see that friend they haven’t seen. They’re actually doing more than just learning to read and write, they’re learning about their culture. It’s a beautiful, enriching event that goes on here every Friday.”

Key to making that ‘event’ happen are a number of Czech teachers, among them Martina Morenberg:

“All the materials are Czech, the books are books children in the Czech Republic would use. We try to choose things that are user-friendly and would interest the children. Some of the children may be slightly behind…they may be second grade and working with first grade materials, since not all of them are as proficient.”

How do you deal with the fact that some kids are better than others, that you have mixed ability groups?

“That’s probably the most challenging thing about it. Not only do we have different age levels, there are also different abilities in terms of their ability to understand and speak and read and write. It is difficult, but once you get to know them and screen them, you try to group them by ability. But it does make it challenging.”

These classes take place at 5 o’clock on a Friday, the week is over, they must be a bit tired – do you have trouble keeping them interested?

“Well, we do our best. We really put a lot of work and effort into it…It is difficult but we do encourage the parents to try to keep up the Czech at home, because once a week is really not enough (laughs).”

And you also teach them about the Czech Republic, and folk music and so on?

“Absolutely. In fact we have folk dancing every week after the lesson. So the children perform, they sing, they dance.”

The Bohemian Hall in Queens is also home to a small pub – and a hugely popular summer beer garden. Lizanne Fluxmon tells me the latter is a useful source of funding.

“Revenues from the beer garden pay for the programme, which is free to people of Czech or Slovak descent, and all supplies are given to the students. They pay a portion of the kroj [folk costume] that they dance in. We really love them – they’re a very important part of the Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society. They’re really loved and appreciated, and highly photographed when they perform because of their beautiful kroj and the unique dances that they do…yeah, the beer garden funds them – it’s been a very good year for the beer garden, so we have a lot to offer the kids.”