Archive for August 13, 2008

Encounters with Soviet People (Part I)

The following quotes are from an unpublished book by Frank R. Thoms tentatively titled “Through Their Eyes, Encounters with Soviet People.”  I never met this man who was probably a middle school teacher from, I believe, the East Coast who visited in Kazakhstan in the early 1990s.  I received Mr. Thoms manuscript from my friend and assistant, Tatyana Kazanina, when I was training 30 Peace Corps volunteers in the summer of 1993.  I’m thankful for Mr. Thoms asute observations of what the former Soviet Union educational system was like over 15 years ago because it helps me to understand the university where I am teaching in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Regrettably, my teacher friend, Tatyana Kazanina died May of 1997.  I am not able to ask her how she came to know and have Mr. Thoms writings in her possession.  I hope to meet him one day, to compare notes with him, if he is still alive.

Through Their Eyes, Encounters with Soviet People by Frank R. Thoms


p. 28 – Ï am in a Soviet classroom, I thought to myself, an American visitor with his camera and cranberry Land’s End coat, taking pictures to bring home to show his students.  Pictures of anonymous children filling the room like a wall-to-wall carpet, packed together.  Why should they be crowded together in the largest country in the world, I asked myself.  They had stood up as one, they sat down as one.  They looked at me.  They kept looking.


p. 36 – “…Tatyana invited the students to express their own opinions as they discussed this interpretation…She assumed her students knew the material and invited them to use their knowledge in search of deeper understandings…Nor was I surprised that I had been invited to observe “the best English teacher in the school”(as Anna told me later).  I did not expect, however, to observe a teacher in a Soviet classroom who preferred to listen to her students and to encourage them to express their ideas.  I had understood from my own reading and from what I had learned that morning in the Director’s office that Soviet education was a pressure cooker operating by rote memory and repetition with no time for deliberation.”


p. 40 “Tatyana Popelyanskaya was another story.  She was the best teacher I saw that day, perhaps the best teacher of English I have seen in Soviet schools.  Only one lesson and I had felt her presence in her pupil’s minds.  She dared to ask them to think—before glasnost had opened the way.  I would love to have been her student.  Was she a set-up for vulnerable visitors, the icing on the cake…in a ‘show school?’ She was “the best,”as Anna had said, a little lady on stage in her tidy room…a performer to enamor all observers with the quality of foreign language teaching in the Soviet Union.  I was enamored to be sure, but for different reasons.  She was a teacher.  Not a Soviet teacher but a teacher.  I imagined her with my eighth graders, sitting in our circle, engaging us to think beyond our words, enticing us to discover more than we ventured to find.”


p. 50 “Children learn to learn together from the first year of school.  I was naïve to think that the students would take the initiative to discover their own solution to the giant conflict.  That was not the Soviet way.  It is a given that all Soviet children struggle for peace.  Period…Open-ended approaches are an anathema to Soviet education.  Alternatives, choices, speculation, unresolved outcomes—these do not fit a prescribed curriculum, particularly a national curriculum, one that has been designed and produced at the Ministry of Education in Moscow.  At home my [American] students insist upon creating unique responses; Soviet students, on the other hand, seek to discover what is the right response.”


p. 62 Ëlvira was the outer matryoshka doll of School 185, the face of the school.  More like a Gorbachev than a Brezhnev, she created its image and shaped its thinking and performance.  She held the reins firmly.  It was her school and she knew it.  Her discipline was strict and evident.  Her sharp voice could cut through the bedlam in the corridors at any time, though she rarely chose to use it.  At faculty meetings she chastised those who failed to live up to her standards.  No one was spared.


p. 63 Ïn a society corrupted with hypocrisy and overloaded with rules and regulations, students (and teachers) welcomed opportunities to be defiant.  Pinning buttons under their lapels was one of many such defiances in a system that had ladened their lives with endless demands for proper behavior.  For some of the students defiance was their favorite pastime whether it meant skipping lessons, copying homework, cheating on tests and exams, wearing improper uniforms.  Feigning sickness was the favorite for many, teachers and students alike.

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