Map of 1938 Czechoslovakia with surrounding nations Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Romania (called on map Rumania)

Fossil Identities and Digital Literacy

A central part of the programming work at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library is working in and with Cedar Rapids schools. The K-12 Learning Specialist at the museum organizes student-centered project-based learning curriculum that the museum then finds grant or other funding and community partnerships to complete. In the past this has looked like students building a to-scale section of the Berlin Wall on the museum’s lawn. This project took the entire school year and included learning the history of the wall and of governmental conflict that brought its rise; working with an architectural firm and later building contractors to design and construct the wall; designing an emblem of resistance that students tagged the wall with, and creating a marketing campaign with local businesses to promote it; and learning from street artists about producing street art. 

In the 2019/2020 school year, the project was designed around Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) that first used the Czech word “robota” or, in English, “robot” meaning forced labor or slave. After reading the play, students worked with community partners across Cedar Rapids, again, building robots (as we now know them, not as the play showed them) that are displayed in the museum’s exhibit “100 Years of Robots.” 

For this coming year, the museum’s plan was to continue this work by combining the technological and engineer work of creating the robots with the agricultural work central to Iowa’s economy by tasking students with creating robots that can be used for agricultural labor. With the continued outbreak of Covid, however, and the unpredictability around fall K-12 schools reopening and online teaching plans, that project has been put on hold, and the museum is leaning into its well-established bank of classroom curriculums available on its website that teachers can use independently or invite the museum’s programming team to teach. (Some of these are or will also be project-based, and the museum will put together take-home resources for students, so everyone is able to learn with the same materials.) With the continued timeline of virtual teaching, my job the last few weeks has been to create some of these virtual lessons that are not project-based but align with the museum’s continued to commitment to reach schools, even in the midst of a pandemic. One of these will be turning the Harlem Renaissance and Czech Independence workshop (the subject of my last blog) into a lesson plan, and it includes history, literature, and a poetry writing exercise. I’m similarly building out a workshop on the choreography of Yemi A.D., a Nigerian-Czech choreographer and artist, for Kanye West’s video “Runaway.” This lesson focuses on music and dance in the US and Central Europe and opens up questions about mixing styles and genres and focuses on Black artists. I will also be creating a lesson plan on Antonín Dvořák and Harry Burleigh, whose relationship began when Dvořák heard Burleigh singing African American spirituals and asked Burleigh to sing for him. After this, Dvořák incorporated spirituals into his compositions and Burleigh became a renowned composer and singer in his own right. Again, as is in my wheelhouse—though I know nothing of music—this lesson focuses on the relationship between American and Czech history and art. 

And while all of these are interesting, to me, a person who has made a life studying history and literature, I wanted to offer something that had its own sort of “project” or outcome. Something students could walk away from with a tangible way to see something differently. So I was excited when, in my research on Hughes and Burleigh and their relationship to Czech artists, I found this etymology on the name “Czechoslovakia” or “Czechia”: 

“Before Czechoslovakia was established in 1918, the former kingdom of Bohemia (which also included the region of Moravia) had been under Austrian rule for almost three hundred years. The English term Bohemia is derived (via the German Böhmen) from the pre-Slavic Celtic inhabitants of the region, while the current connotations of bohemian for free-spirited types comes (via the French bohême) from their association with wandering gypsies, or Roma, said to be from Bohemia. Before 1918, the term Bohemian was the most common term with a positive or neutral meaning for Czech Americans, whereas Czech often carried a negative connotation. The term Czech comes from the Czechs’ own name for their homeland (Čechy), while the distinctive cz comes from its Polish spelling. Only in the 1920s did Czech become widespread as the counterpart to Czechoslovak, a newly created term for the multiethnic citizens of the new republic, whether Czech, Slovak, German, Hungarian, or Jewish. However, most Czechoslovaks continued to refer to themselves by their specific nationality, and Slovaks preferred the hyphenated form Czecho-Slovak, seeing it as giving equal status to both nations within the republic (many also considered the frequently used forms Czechoslovakian and Slovakian to be incorrect). After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the term Czech Republic was officially adopted, and most recently the shorter Czechia has been promoted abroad as a counterpart to Slovakia, but is still perceived as artificial and awkward. ” 

As this passage demonstrates, naming is such a significant part of identity and of personhood (or statehood). It holds within it not only meaning, as in its linguistic history, but also its associations. With people, we tend to think of our feelings associated with that name based on who we like or don’t like, the third-grade teacher who didn’t listen to us, or the babysitter we had fun with. When we think of nations we think of ideals. In response to a lesson I do in my literature classrooms that I adapted from my talented colleague and friend, I write “America” on the board and ask students to contribute their immediate associations. Students start gently (always within the first 3 responses is “the American Dream”) and end up with more varied and reflective responses (“poverty,” “discrimination,” “student loan debt”). I think all of us could do that will many countries, not just our own, and the words we associate with them would tell us a lot about ourselves. (What would your words be for Russia? What about China? What about Norway? Or Egypt?) 

In this etymology of Czechoslovakia is an opportunity to explore our own etymologies and identities through digital literacy. A good question to start with, for example, is: were does a name—any name—come from? Being an amalgam of European descent, I have always felt attached to my name as something concrete to hold onto about my identity. My first name is of Latin origin and is derived from laurus nobilis, the word for laurel leaves that were a symbol of victory in Greco-Roman culture. My last name is Irish and is an anglicized form of the name of a Gaelic god whose name changed multiple times in Ireland before it ever got close to what my name is. My last name is also English and simply refers to people who lived near enclosures and overgrowth. Because it comes from two different languages and countries, it would take more digging to find out where my last name comes from. My middle name is an anglicized Hebrew name. Maybe I’m a victorious god of fire? More likely, my name embodies the position of a Judeo-Christian European American. 

So then, once we know where it comes from: what gives it the power of a proper noun? Naming is an act of power. We know where “America” came from, which then puts some of the immediate connotations like “freedom” or “melting pot” instantly in question.

From here, there is general research: what does my name mean? Where does it come from? What are the sources that tell me that? What language is it derived from? When did it change? 

And there is advanced research: What is the etymology before it was a name? Where did the original words get their definitions? 

There is history: Who had this name before? How did my ancestors get it? (In my case, when did it change from the status of a god to the status of mere mortal?) What was its transformation? When was it anglicized? How many times did the spelling change? Or, why/how has it remained unchanged? How do gendered suffixes change it?

There is room for thought and linguistic experiments here, too: what would your name be if it was the linguistic original? (Mine would be Laurus O hAodha if I am more Irish than English, or simply Laurus Hayes if I’m more English than Irish.) How would you write it? In what ways is that odd to you? What with your name do you most identify? (Mine, honestly, is my first name ending in a vowel–and such a lovely little vowel!)

This kind of digital literacy and research and personal reflection can be scaled to any age and is inherently public facing as names are something we all share. From pre-writing and reading activities with young children like drawing or writing a name or initial, to teaching middle and high school students etymological research on publicly accessible websites like Wikipedia and, which could likely expand into dictionary research (in different languages!), to high school and adult learners creating family trees through subscription services (, libraries, county offices, or museums, or by doing family interviews. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that language is “fossil poetry,” meaning that words hold within themselves entire histories and cultures and etymologies. And that in doing so these words create poetry and create beauty—that they are themselves beauty. In this way, I see names as fossil identities. They hold histories and fears and loves and beauty. They contain us as we inhabit them. And they are something material and concrete we attach to ourselves, our loved ones, our works of art, and our nations. From this position, we can see ourselves and our nations as meaningfully interconnected and always evolving and changing one another, not through trade or war or culture but simply through what and how we call ourselves. 

In practice, this is a simple lesson but its impact can be wide and, hopefully, empowering. Knowing one’s name can be powerful as a way to relate to family or cultural histories. Likewise, knowing the name of one’s nation or ancestors’ nation can be equally powerful in creating and maintaining personal identity. And what we call things and how we frame things by naming them is integral to our histories and education practices. 

Works Referenced: 

Sabatos, Charles. “A Long Way from Prague: The Harlem Renaissance and Czechoslovakia.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 50 no 1, 2017, pp. 39-74.

Image from The Gross-Raden Map Room at

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