Sunday, April 29, 2012

Final Thoughts of Ukraine as Rhody Returns Home

Ukraine's Future
The Day After:  The return to Kyiv and finally, to Rhode Island, was a whirlwind that included a 26- hour trip between Hotel Rus in Kyiv to the airport in Providence. It's taken me another full day to unwind and although processing all that transpired in the past two weeks will take longer, here are my initial thoughts.

Ukraine's vivid culture is evidenced throughout Kyiv and Crimea. However, it is a newly independent state, a toddler crawling away from it's soviet past.  Market capitalism has not benefited the masses yet and this is evidenced in poorly paid teachers and other workers, and a crumbling infrastructure. However, the youth, who are bright and eager, are Ukraine's biggest assets. The young people I met are gifted and persistent in making and meeting personal goals. When they approach their careers  with the same enthusiasm, they will help propel their country forward, and will, I believe, make Ukraine shine.

I am not sure if I added value to Gymnasium #9. But, I have brought home many gifts. With joy I will remember the mature, lively students Dina and Olya and the incredible teachers I saw, especially my mentor teacher, Mariana and the vice principal, Svetlana. With fondness, I'll remember the genuine smiles of all the kids. And, with hope I'll look back on the superb academic outcomes attained by students who do so with little technology, but rather by sitting before great teachers and applying positive attitudes to a solid work ethic.

Although this is the end of my trip, it won't be the end of the experience. We still have to iron out details, but next year will be one in which my JSEC students will engage with learning opportunities with their Ukrainian and Chicago peers.  I look forward to our collaboration!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dasvidania Simferopol

Day Twelve:  Dasvidania is Russian for "good-bye" and sadly, that's what I had to say to my host and the teachers and students here in Simferopol. What an emotional day! It started with an awards ceremony for 5th to 8th form students who gave powerpoint presentations yesterday on subjects such as "The Etymology of Names of Ukrainian Cities", "Origami", "English Slang", and "World Water Day." 

Later, Dana and I met with a 10th form class to give presentations on American schools and students. When we asked what their stereotype of Americans was they said we had more freedom, more opportunities, more independence. It made me realize we, as a community, should think about these concepts. Ukrainian students truly value the culture of education and work very, very hard. They want what they think you already have. So, are they right in their viewpoints? And, if so, do we take these things for granted? If others are working hard to attain "more freedom, more opportunities, and more independence," should we work just as hard to keep them - if, indeed, it is true?

Tomorrow I fly to Kyiv to meet with the other teachers and to "debrief" about our individual experiences. Then, it's home to Rhode Island. I wonder what "big ideas" we'll all come away with from our time in Ukraine.

Question: What do you think about the students' stereotypes about life in America?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ukrainian Treasures

               Marina in her "Rushniki" standing before a photo of birthday heroine Vera Ruik

Day Eleven:  Today Ukrainian treasures took center stage. The morning began with a school presentation on Vera Ruik, a Ukrainian heroine and master embroiderer who would have been 101 years old today. She taught at Gymasium #9 in the 1950's and it is said she "embroidered her own destiny". Marina wore her traditional "rushniki" in honor of this Ukrainian treasure. I've been looking for a similar one to take home, but it's difficult to find in this part of Ukraine. Sadly, we've been too busy for much souvenir shopping, but perhaps that just means another future visit is in order.

                                           Dima and Olya, our tour guides today

The second treasures were the most important as they were two of the school's students: Dima and Olya. They volunteered to take Dana and I to the local ethnography museums and in doing so I learned a lot more about them and other typical students at the school. They both have full class loads of 7 classes per day but both take extra classes before and after school. Dima's extra classes include physics, math, Russian and yoga - which he takes after the school day ends. Olya takes extra lessons before school (at 7 am!) in chemistry and physics and after school lessons in math, German and English. Both study from about 7  to 11 pm every night as well. Now that's dedication! The two 10th form students were gracious, accommodating and super friendly.

                              Traditional Ukrainian dress at the ethnography museum

The next treasures were those of Ukraine's cultures. The ethnography museum displayed the cultural contributions of various Crimean peoples including Tartars, Georgians, Russians, Jews, Muslims, Greeks, Italians, and of course, Ukrainians. Such a diverse corner of the world.

Question:  What Rhode Island treasures would you share with visitors?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Stage!

Day Ten:  Here are a few English language teachers from throughout Crimea who came to Gymnasium #9 for a professional development workshop on language teaching methods. Guess who presented? Yes, me - along with Dana, my colleague from Chicago. It was a bit intimidating but luckily I came prepared. The "class" was about 2 hours long - so, as you can see, my Ukrainian visit isn't just about touring beautiful palaces and attending the ballet. Some teachers seemed timid about asking questions in a whole group setting, but several spoke with me after, requesting a copy of the presentation.

Next on stage was an amazing production of Romeo and Juliet, acted by students from the 7th-9th form classes. They had been practicing their performance for months for a Crimean-wide competition, in which they took third place. I have a video of the performance, which I'll share when I return to school. However, here is a group photo of the main actors. They did a super job! I'm now hoping our students will get motivated to learn scenes from plays by heart!

      Romeo and Juliet actors with their director/producer/teacher Inessa Ivanovna Chukaveva

After the school day ended, Marina treated us to lunch, delicious Russian blinis, which are a kind of stuffed, rolled pancake. Then we walked to the office of "Windows on America", a US State Department sponsored organization that is a meeting place for local citizens interested in American culture. The amazing Peace Corps volunteer at Gymnasium #9, Cynthia, also gives conversational classes there and even leads a (book club) reading group! 

                          Cynthia and Marina at the "Windows on America" office in Simferopol

Question to ponder:  Would you be up to the challenge of memorizing monologues for a competition between our school and Gymnasium #9?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Top 10 Lessons Learned

Day Nine:  After a full day at the school, which included teaching two classes about American schools and students, this is what I learned:

10.  Ukrainian and American students are more alike than different. They watched the presentation the JSEC 11th grade AP English class prepared, which included their favorite sayings, school cliques, and global issues of concern. Ukrainian students also identified themselves as a "geek" or "hipster" and were concerned about global climate change, poverty, and global security.

9. Teachers are overworked everywhere!

8. Diversity is universal. At JSEC we are multi-lingual and multi-ethnic. So are Ukrainian students: they speak at least two languages at home (Russian and Ukrainian) and are culturally diverse - Ukrainian, Georgian, Russian, Tartar, and Armenian are a few of the cultures found in the hallways at Gymnasium #9.
7. JSEC students don't have enough passing time (your counterparts have 10 minutes between classes).

6. JSEC students should read more - in more than one language. Ukrainians are readers: Gymnasium #9 students are reading in 4 languages (Ukrainian, Russian, English, German).  11th Form students gave presentations today about Langston Hughes and a science fiction writer named Clifford Donald Simak. Other favorite writers of theirs include Lillian Hellman and John Updike.

5. Ukrainian students have "fire" drills, too. They are called "civic defense training" drills and they must leave the building wearing masks. Here you can see that not all students follow directions!

4. No Internet in a classroom is challenging.

3.  Flexibility is a plus when teaching - anywhere.

2. "Nerd" is a universally understood word.

And (drum roll, please)...The Number 1 Lesson I've learned so far is...

1. Even students in the Ukraine text during class.

Question:  What would you like to learn from Ukrainian students?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Palaces, Princes and Playwrights

Day eight was a historic hike into history. While yesterday took us southwest to Bakhchisaray and Balaklava, today we left the flat terrain of Simferopol and drove south, across towering mountains, to the seaside and historical port of Yalta. The father of Sasha, a bright 8th form student from the school, selflessly volunteered to chauffeur us while tour guide extraordinaire (and vice principal) Svetlana provided us with the history of all the places we visited.

Swallow Nest Palace along the Black Sea near Yalta, one palace we didn't tour

We started at Vorontsov Palace, a fairy-tale structure set in a sweeping park, that took 20 years to build (1828-1848). Churchill stayed here during the Yalta Conference.

                           Sasha, myself and Dana in the inner courtyard of Verontsov Palace

Next, we went to the site of much of the action of the 1945 Yalta Conference; the meeting between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin to reorganize postwar Europe. Livadia Palace was originally home to the last Czar of Russia, Czar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their children. But, before then, in 1861, Mark Twain visited the original wooden structure that first existed here, when he toured Europe. His visit is recorded in his book Innocents Abroad. Then, of course, there is Ms. Barnes. Now I am part of this illustrious group of people who have walked these historic grounds.

                                           Lividia Palace, the site of the Yalta Conference

              Dana and I in front of a portrait of the last Czar Nicholas and his family in Lividia Palace

Our final stop was Yalta, where we toured the summer home of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov before we strolled along the windy pedestrian harbor front where we saw trendy shops, kids skating, and families enjoying their day. We continued to a main square where a statue of Lenin was graced with flowers from those observing his birthday (April 22nd!).

                                       Standing at Checkhov's Back Door. Anyone home?

Birthday flowers for Lenin in Yalta
I'm exhausted now but looking forward to tomorrow's day at the school. Dana and I will be sharing information about our schools and this is when I'll give the students the cards the Language students made and the 11th grade presentation.

Question:  How did the Yalta Conference change Europe? What happened to Czar Nicholas and his family after the Russian Revolution? What is the most famous Chekhov play? If any of my students can answer these questions - extra credit points might come your way!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Crimea's Past at Play

Days Six and Seven:  Work and Play!

Picture this scene: A teacher enters the classroom and all the students stand until she says "good morning." They repeat the greeting and sit only after they are given permission. Hmmm.....this is a routine I might have to implement in room 327 at JSEC! It works very well at Gynasium #9 and was one of many surprises I encountered after sitting in on three classes. In all the classes, the 45-minute lessons offered a variety of activities that fostered fluency in English. The students seemed comfortable with their conversational skills and one impressive student translated a Greek monologue into English while asking a few questions in his native Russian. Wow!

Teachers also make time to relax with each other and during the day one of the vice principals, Svetlana, served Dana and I tea with sweets before we talked about her responsibilities and classes (yes, administrators also teach here!).  In fact, I sat in on Svetlana's class, English for Tour Guides, which focused on museums. So, it was a great introduction and lead-in to our weekend activities.

                                             Tea with Marina, our host, and the vice principal

Today, Saturday, was a chance to leave Simferopol to visit a few sites west of here. Cynthia, a Peace Corps volunteer from Georgia who teaches at the school, came along. First, we toured Bakhchisaray Khan Palace, a spiritual and political center for the Crimean Tartars. Here is an excellent website about this compound, which is undergoing restoration:

                                                           Part of Bakhchisaray Khan Palace

                                        Peace Corps Volunteer Cynthia and Dana Desjardins
                                                               at the Harem's balcony

Next, we stopped at a monastery, built into high cliffs. The visit afforded a well-needed, but short hike up a steep road. At the top we were able to continue our short trek up to the small chapel that's carved into rock. Although we didn't see any monks, the monastery is still active and the resident monks still live in cliff side dwellings.

Stairs to the Monastery Chapel

Finally, we went to Balaklava, a once top-secret Soviet nuclear submarine repair base. The underground facility is now a museum and walking into the deep passageways felt like walking onto a film set for a spy movie. The base closed in 1993, but was originally built to survive atomic impact. When it was operational it was one of the most secret areas of the Soviet Union and nobody could visit the city without top security clearance. So, seeing it in person today gives a fantastic opportunity to view a piece of "Cold War" history.

                                             Sign at the entrance to the submarine museum

These are replicas of nuclear missiles situated in front of the door to the chamber which originally housed the real nuclear submarine missiles

Question to ponder:  What areas in Rhode Island would you share with visitors from the Ukraine, or elsewhere, to give them a unique perspective on our history?