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Friday, April 11, 2014

Final Day in Russia-Answering the Question

It's been two weeks since I first arrived in Moscow and I now prepare to leave.  As I sit in the airport, waiting to board a plane for the vacation part of my journey, I feel gratitude for my time here in Russia. 

I saw the country in a way that few can through the prism of my work as an educator.  This was a once in a lifetime experience.  I know this. Still,  I am so happy to be born American.  

If my great grandparents had made a different choice, I would  have been a Soviet citizen.  I would have grown up in the Soviet Era.  Would I have been reluctant and careful to speak of my experiences?  Probably.  Would I have been as generous and hospitable in a hosting situation with Americans?  I hope so.  Would I have been as clear about my high regard for my leaders and my country?  This is hard to imagine because so much of what makes us distinctly American is free speech and a sense that we are entitled to and have an obligation criticize our leaders.  Things are very different here.

 I am never more grateful to be American as when I travel through other countries.  

We are a blessed nation.

Yesterday, we met at the American Center which is a sort of library and safe haven for visiting Americans.  Twelve teachers from twelve different parts of the USA were able to de-brief about our experiences in five different regions of Russia.  Most of us were in Siberia.  Most were placed in schools that perform.  Our experiences were varied and most said that our time here was challenging and stimulating.  

The essential question that I used to guide my travels through Russian education was simple: what are the factors that determine the education of the Russian student?

As I traveled through schools, I examined my assumptions and  asked questions:

How much of the education is dictated by the state?
How much freedom do teachers have to determine their own instruction?
What is the relationship of teachers and students?
What is the relationship of teachers and administration?  
Is there a  Board of Education and do they set policy or is the policy set at the school?
What is teacher training like?
How are families supportive of their students' education?

I brought many of my own experiences to the questions that I asked.  I was so grateful that BHUSD allowed me to participate in this program (I worried about this from my acceptance) and I wanted my travel to be useful to the District as a whole. 

Here's what my group noticed in Russia:

Education has intrinsic value. 
Student engagement is at a high level in all observed classes and students actively participate in class. Children raised hands in primary forms.  Upper grade teachers called on students.
Students feel high pressure to answer questions correctly and we observed fear on the students' part as they worried about answering correctly.
Teachers didn't want to speak English in front of us.
Students dressed professionally and took great care of appearance.  
Students showed great respect for teachers.
As in American schools, halls and passing periods were chaotic. Students liberally use personal phones.
Homework seems prepared.
Education is highly competitive.  
Russian schools clearly define gender roles.  Girls Technical Arts means sewing, ironing, and cooking.  Boys took classes like wood shop.

Clear differences between the American and Russian system include:

The Russian system is nationalized and as such features curriculum, textbooks, high stakes tests and teacher education set by the government.
Teachers here are  underpaid and overworked (even more so than in the US).  Many must have second jobs.
Most teachers women.  I would say that men are nearly absent from the educational process in this country.  Those to whom we spoke said that men do not teach because they cannot support a family on a teacher's salary.
Teachers report that students are overworked and overtired.
In order to fit all students into schools, institutions have at least two shifts of classes. 
Administrators all teach (my favorite takeaway!).
The school week is six rather than five days.
As in the US schools facilities are are tired and often in disrepair.  Lights are often off in classrooms and in the halls.
Technology at the schools at which I visited appeared old.
Critical thinking is not often taught.  Facts are preferred to synthesis and analysis.  Russians emphasize theoretical over critical thinking.  
Students and families  transport children to school.
We observed pay for play in better schools.  Better schools require  money and palm greasing.
Parents are more concerned about grades than actual learning.
Russians take pride in and emphasize early education and pre school.
Fresh food is cooked in cafeteria and provides food for all.
Teachers see students for many years and build long term personal relationships with them.  This is further impacted  by the fact that all grades are housed in the same building.

Russian student concerns included  many of the same as those of my students.  They worry endlessly about admission into university and exams (at the state and and university level).   Russian students had very different concerns as well.  They loathe  their uniforms and feel that they have too much homework.  They view learning English as an opportunity and school as a way to evade compulsory military service.  Students give teachers credit for jobs well done and show respect  through everything from standing when an instructor enters a room to verbally praising their teachers.  I felt that Russian students demonstrated pride at every turn: pride in their schools; pride in their history; pride in their Olympic teams at Sochi. Russian students clearly wanted us to know the contribution of their artists and to value these artists as they did. The Russian youth is physically fit and I rarely saw any overweight children. 

And what do I think now?  We have a lot to learn from the Russian education system but they can learn from us as well.  Isn't this what we do when we globalize education?  Aren't we sharing best practices across cultures and preparing our children for the future rather than the past?

I remain committed to the following tenants of globalizing education:
learning about global issues for and with my students and infusing my lesson plans with a world view;
creating cross cultural empathy and experiences for my students; communicating  across cultures and often using technology to do this; creating global plans with many of my lessons.

And I want to add one more of my own: I remain committed to growing culturally and globally  as a teacher. Travel is more than a vacation for me.  I view it as a way to continue my own education.  I plan to do much more journeying through the prism of education in coming years.

We tackled the subway on our own.


With my fabulous co-teacher and Siberian travel partner.  Tracey Anderson is an inspiring colleague and travel partner.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Russian Airport Style.

What I notice:

Russians do not  send their luggage through with a mere tag and a lock. Rather, they appear to Saran wrap their bags.  
I worried that I was doing something wrong and that I'd find a charger or camera  missing from my bag after arriving from Moscow to Barnaul.
I was fine.  Shrink wrapping suitcases is more custom than necessity. 

Russians love their furs. 
There appears to be no PETA here.  

Traveling Russian kids fly with Harry Potter

Returning flights to Moscow from Siberia on Aeroflot are markedly more sane than the outbound flights.

One of the best things about travel is how much more you love home when you return.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On Similarities and Differences and Kazakhstan Days in Barnaul

ATracey and I have been worried about this day since we first arrived in Barnaul.  Tatyana and the Baker Street Director, Marina, told  us that on our final day we would be speaking to dozens of eductors from the Altai  region about American schools.    This prospect was daunting in Russia whrere we might face both language and cultural barriers.  

Of course, I am aware, at least conceptually, of the tension between our two countries.  The longer that I am here, the more I am asked about the "current situation".  More on this later.

I fortified myself with caffeine from the smokey coffee shop downstairs.  Plumes of smoke fill the air when we enter.  I've never seen anything like these fume filled coffee houses: certainly not in Los Angeles.  Still, they offer a decent Americano.  The hotel and most institiutions that we've visited serve a poor relation of Sanka.  I hold my breath and enter.

There's the girl who's served me every day that I've been in Barnaul.  These Russians really know how to twist.  The plaits are intricate and change with the day.  Girls of all ages from three to 30 indulge in in the fine art of braidery.  I asked Natalya if I could take a picture.

Thus fortified with the Americano--I must pay an extra 20 rubles for milk--we journey to the packed room. Legions of  teachers from all over the Altai region burned to ask us questions. 

After 12 days here, I feel that I am just beginning to understand and articulate the differences between our systems.  

The Russian teaching style is more authorative.  There is more emphasis on real facts and less on process. Knowledge is king.  Students have few after extracurricular activities but may go to language institutes after the close of the school day for enrichment. School buildings house kindergarten through secondary or what we would call high school.  

Elena asked about discipline.  Svetlana asked if teaching was a respected institution.  Nina asked if we had problems with mobile phones.  Yulia asked about project based learning. Many asked if  we struggle with class size.  Multiple teachers asked about exams for the state and exams for university.

The implication of these questions, as any teacher knows, is that Russian educators struggle with many of the same problems that we face in the United States.  Tracey keeps saying that we are more alike than different.  

On the issue of style, there are clear divisions.

Russian teachers assign more individual, less group work.  Teachers are the ultimate authority here and cut students little to no slack.  As I've said over and over again, there is real as opposed to stated committment to small class size.  While a class may have as many as 25 students, those students will be broken into groups so that kids can have meaningful, interactive attention.

To me, the primary difference is the centralized educational system of Russia.  It is certainly less confusing for students if they move from school to school or city to city.  But centralized education strips away autonomy from a teacher (and a region).  

On Critical Thinking:

Focus on critical thinking skills have opportunities for growth.  Teachers with whom I spoke see a growing awareness of this need; if educators are given more autonomy  and can focus less on tests, they will have time to develop these critical thinking, problem solving skills in kids. 

On Testing:

 There are right answers and wrong answers.  In Russia, the state and national testing is perilously demoralizing to students; in the US testing, at least to me, seems more demoralizing to teachers.

On teaching language: 

Russian language classes are superb.  It's working here.  It can work in the US.  We need to start earlier and treat languages (both foreign and English) with more respect.  Teachers here know that a child who begins foreign language in the 9th grade cannot possibly become fluent.

On counseling:

Counselors don't exist here but there may be a form teacher (I think that's what it's called).  This teacher takes an intervention role and interacts with parents or helps students when they struggle.  Teachers will follow these students all the way through their schooling.  

On administrators as educators:

And I do feel like I'm burying my lead here. :-)
This was my favorite take away idea: administrators are teachers first.  All administrators from directors to principals must teach classes.  Because they teach French, or Physics, or Russian, administrators keep their hands and heads in the classroom game.  Other classroom teachers have respect for this and value the input of the administrator.  After all, administrators are currently teachers too. Schools are creating a true team effort on all levels. 

This part of the Russian system works.  It works now in the US for private schools.  

One of college pedagogy  professors with whom we met comes back to School 69 once a week in order to stay engaged in the art.  She's not even an administrator. 

I realize that my thoughts will solidify much more over the next couple of months.  There's a lot to think about, but I am looking forward to returning to BHHS and exploring some of these ideas with my colleagues. 

See below.  This is the last swag bag from BHHS  Rotery.  Another happy Russian customer!

On another note, today Khazakhstanis journeyed to Barnaul for their annual festival.  A good time was had by all.  They plied their wares including craft items and honeys. Table after table was heavily laden with honeys for every palate.

Supposedly, this is the best honey in the world.  I found it very strong, but maybe I'm just used to lame pasteurized resin that I can buy at my Sunday Farmer's Market.

I mean look at this stuff.  Have you ever seen honey like this?  It's as thick as frosting.   If the containers weren't so flimsy, I'd  bring some home. 

These beautifully clothed girls in traditional Khazakstani dress entertained crowds with dances.

The textiles were beautful.  The Kazakh man pictured below seemed to have no clue as to why I wanted his picture.  It's just another day for him.

Everywhere I go, I am THAT American.

I just want to  take a bit of it home.

We leave Barnaul tomorrow and forge ahead to Moscow for debriefing. I don't feel done with this though.  I will be proccessing this trip for a long time to come.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

School 69

School 69 is a typical city school in Siberia.  There are two shifts: one in the  morning  and one in the afternoon.  If School 69 does not break up their day like this, there is no way to accomodate the swarms of students in one block.  I have heard that in other locations that there can be as many as three shifts!

Morning shift begins at 8 AM and runs until 1.  Afternoon shift beings at 1:30 and runs until 6:30.  Teachers might teach both shifts. 

As far as I can tell, there is no union representation for teachers.

 I saw evidence of great pride in schools and respect for teachers.  Again, students rise when we enter the room.  They plied us with gifts as we made our way through the school to visit classrooms and to answer questions about America.  I am now quite happily familiar with Russian chocolate!

They all wanted to know if students wear uniforms in the US.  This is clearly a detested policy for students.  Like our dress code, teachers find it difficult to enforce.

Everywhere we go, we see vestiges of Sochi and epic Olympic pride.  School 69 in Barnaul was no exception and we admired the decorating on the walls.


I love the below idea.  

School 69 houses a museum on campus.  We've seen this in many of the schools that we've visited but this one was particularly well done. The school archivist (a history teacher) has unearthed all kinds of artifacts including the canteen and helmut from World War I.

World War II or what the Russians call The Great Patriotic War is similarly represented in the museum.  I thought it  might be meaningful to recreate something like this for BHHS--especially while we're still lucky enough to have greatest generation grandparents who served.  

What if one of our students took this on as a Service Learning Project?  I hate to say this, but what an impressive, initiative demonstrating project  for college applications. 

Do I have any takers?

The below  picture depicts the first lunch shift of the day at 9:40.  A bit early, no?  While we observed students at lunch--like students anywhere--a little girl ran up and hugged our student guide.  This was was our guide's sister and it was clear how much they adore each other.

We saw many classes that were similar to what we'd seen at other schools:  language classes for older kids, primary classes for the "youngers".

I want to emphasize how small language classes are here.  I have not seen any classes with more than 15 students.  

The photo below depicts  Girls Technical Arts.  Notice the  sewing machine in the foreground.  We saw ovens, ironing boards and stovetops.   Dresses that girls had made in past years lined the classroom closets.

The teacher assured me that boys could take the class if they wanted to do so.  Girls could also take the Boys Technical Arts if they wanted (this includes topics such as woodshop).  But she shrugged as if to say,  "Why would they want to do this?" 

The teacher proudly held up a dress that students had sewn.  Initially it appeared to be covered with large gold beads.  On closer inspection, we saw that it was really constructed from gold painted pasta.

Time and time again, students popped up at attention and wanted to ask us questions about our preceptions of Russia.  We asked the same about America.  We have said over and over again that there was no question they could ask that would shock or offend us. 

For the very first time a student asked us what our perceptions were of Crimea. 

We had a nuanced and careful discussion.  Opinions here in Russia have not deviated once.  They view an historical wrong being corrected by government actions. Everyone tells us a story about someone that they know in the Ukraine. There is no ambivalence that I can see about the government actions.

I look forward to discussing this with you when return.  

As I said, over and over again students wanted to know about school unforms: do we have them?  What are they?  These kids  hate wearing uniforms and some reject them with no repercussion.  We know at BHHS that dress code is hard to police.  Students want to be individuals and clothing is one of the ways in which they express this.

The first three girls in the photo below are wearing variations of the school uniform.

Girl number four was a conscientious objector.  She said that wearing a uniform doesn't allow her to express her originality.  

She sounded like one of our kids.  

We met with English teachers over tea and biscuits and discussed what makes our systems different.  

(I am loving tea time here).

Time and time again, foreign language and literature came up as subjects  that the Russians are doing really well.  American schools offer more extracurricular and sports (as far as I can tell, there is none of this in most Russian schools). We provide many more student services such as counseling and ROP.

 Discipline seems not to be an issue here.  One teacher said she can raise an eyebrow and silence the class.  We know teachers like this but in general, American atomosphere is more playful and relaxed.

Teachers here express shock that we kneel or crouch to help students with work.  Teachers here do not physically lower themselves  in front of students.

Teachers distinguish between real knowledge and applied khowledge.  My sense is that training and application in the US emphasizes process much more than knowledge.

Teachers  asked about parent involvement.  There appears to be less parent involvement here. 

We wanted to know if their students ever try to argue about grades.  

Apparently, arguing about grades is part of the international language.

State examinations are stressful both in the US and in Russia. As far as I can see, teachers here are also tempted to teach to the test.

Later in the day, students wanted to see pictures of how our students live and what they do on the weekend.  They cannot believe that kids get to drive at 16.  People cannot drive here until they are 18.

Later, we went back to the Baker Street School and met with Tatyana's English students.  These kids are smart and saavy: just like my kids.  Alina, the girl below, showed me her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.  Sound familiar?  I'm pretty sure that she was carrying an Ipad and that she had wireless access.

And how they loved the BHHS Basketball Jerseys.

These girls are getting their orange on and loving BHEF's generosity!

I could see the attraction of teachingin another   country for awhile.  There's a whole other level of education that happens for both student and teacher when we are allowed to explore culture.

Tomorrow is a three hour session with teachers from all over the Altai  territory who have come to hear us speak about US schools.  

I haven't been bored yet.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Training future English teachers in Siberia.

We arrived at the Barnaul Linguistic institute and had a few moments to review the textbook for future English teachers. 
Check out the second sentence. 

And the personal view expressed below about healthcare:  perhaps this book is a bit out of date? ;-)

We viewed a class of third years as they debated the merits of having single and multiple children in a family. 

The teacher gave her class over to one student to lead. 

Nearly all students thought it was better to have a sibling than to be an "only". Again, I am struck by how fluent all are in ither languages. 

Out of 12 students, six were only children (they called themselves "onlies"). Nadia explained that all were born in the 90s after the collapse of the USSR. The economy was in shambles and prospective parents didn't feel safe having more than one child.

The professor is much more playful than any other teacher that I've seen.  The atmosphere in this class reminds me of my classes. There is joking and teasing. Students are uninhibited. 

The teacher, Nadia, pictured below, was particularly candid with us about how it made her feel to have only one child.  Under different circumstances, she would have had many  more kids.  Now she gives her overflow of love to her students.

Before we taught our class of teachers-to- be, we were treated to a delicious Russian tea.  See those cookies in the front?  We waxed so poetic about these that the professors surprised  us with take home packages.  I would love to make them last for our trip as I'd like  for you all to try them.  These were yummy little pockets of caramel goodness.  I think they may have a market in LA.  

The delightful tea was followed by an intense class with new teachers to be.  They wanted to know everything from how we organized our days to what our exams were like.    They found it fascinating that teachers kneel  next to their students when kids need help: clearly this is not done here. Teachers should not sit lower than their students. Again, Tracey and I talked about the regional differences between our school systems. Both of us teach highly competitive kids in highly competitive districts.  
They wanted to know what books we taught and seemed entranced by the fact that we have no national concensus on a standard.  Here their schools are highly centralized by the government.  Students are in school by age three.

Later we particpating in observing a wild poetry slam and musical competition.  Students theatricized  poems and songs by groups.  There was a prize (cupcakes!) which is just as exciting for kids here as in the US.

The DJ was a hoot.  He is a recent graduate of the Pedogological Institute.  You can't teach personality like his.

For our second tea of the day we heard a little about how the US sanctions are impacting the Russians though we didn't know if it was rumor or fact.  We heard that Russians are heading up to Moscow for Visas (I think you have to apply in Moscow and only in person) to be rejected because of the tension between our two countries.  Again, I was unclear as to whether this is true or rumor.

Commercial break for these shoes:  high heeled booties are just as hot in Russia as in the US.  The walking conditions are significantly worse though.  These women take their lives into their own hands on the slippery, weathered streets of Barnaul.

Still: they're cute.  Right Newman?

From the Institute, we returned to Baker Street School where Tracey and I were rapidly fading. We started our final class at 5:30 and would have finished close to 7 PM if we hadn't asked for a shorter session.

As happens in our own classroom, all of my technology dreams were quashed: there would be no Prezi or video. What's a teacher to do?  

Turn the tables of course. 

I asked the kids to explain  Siberia to me.  According to their teacher, she just wanted them to practice their English--it didn't matter about what we spoke.  And practice is what I gave.  I used my sad little iphone map to give our discussion   about Siberia some illustration.

To the point of why these kids are here:
young  children go to school in one of two shifts: from 8-1 and 1:15 to 6:15.  There's no other way to fit all the bodies in the school.  Parents who really want their children to get ahead in the world, send them to these private school institutes to become more proficient in languages. 

 These kids were extremely reluctant.  I tried to get them to ask me questions about Beverly Hills, Los Angeles or even California to very little avail. But they were interested in answering questions about their dachas and about Siberia at large. 
They loved their T-shirts from BHHS sports teams and the BHEF.  Thank you to all of my donors. 

The back to back sessions are challenging for us.   We want to see as much as we can, but we also want to be rested for our teaching/student contact sections.  This is always the challenge in a trip like this.  So much to learn, so little time.  

On to the Siberian public schools tomorrow.