Archive for August 15, 2008

Encounters with Soviet People (Part III)

Please read two days of prior blog postings to understand that my source is from an unpublished manuscript by Frank R. Thoms. 

p. 113 “But, as dull as her [Zoya’s] lesson had been, I was struck with its success.  Her students, like all of the students I had borrowed, had been taught to retell, to repeat, and to regurgitate their texts.  I burst upon their lives, however, with my flamboyant antics, tempting them to speak their minds in English.  As I watch Zoya plod through her lesson, I suddenly realized that their capacity to speak had come from hundreds of days of such retelling, repeating, and regurgitating.  My success with Soviet students had come from the spadework of my colleagues.  I began to doubt that my teaching in a Soviet school would suffice in the long run.”

 

p. 192 “…Zoya encouraged me to invite her students to express their own ideas.  In these classrooms and others like them, inquiry replaced prompting as students and teachers strived together to learn.  But, the majority of lessons, teachers and students stood outside the material as passengers on Moscow’s curriculum train.

Prompting and cheating were essential for survival.  When I had the opportunity to speak with more than 100 teachers of English and department heads at an in-service workshop at School 169, I invited them to step off this train and to listen more to their students’ ideas and opinions in their classrooms.”

 

p. 132 “Sometimes, however, I wondered if the students only saw me as a celebrity who dropped in whenever he was in town.  I prefer not to think of it in those terms although Soviets do have an obvious curiosity and respect for Americans…The words, the United States of America,’ as most Soviets preferred to say, were rarely spoken with emotion.  America is a magic land known as much for its New York skyscrapers and Wall Street as for its unemployed and homeless wrapped in cardboard on heating grates in the winter’s cold.  There is no middle ground as far as America is concerned.  Maybe it is our extremes that fascinate them.  Beyond being an American, I hoped the students at School 21 understood me as a person who was excited about being with them, who taught lively and crazy lessons and wanted to hear what they had to say.  Except for Russian literature classes and occasional English classes, Soviet teacher do not ask their students to think.  The curriculum demands more than anyone can accomplish.  My teaching was a respite from the drudgery of its expectations.

 

p. 183 “It is interesting,” I responded, “that with political information class once a week, students develop the habit of hearing someone tell them what the news is, rather than finding it out for themselves.  It is the same when they let you as their class teacher entertain them rather than entertaining themselves.  Your culture is like that.  People do a lot of taking care of people including taking care of their minds, choosing which literature to read, which music to listen to, and which films to see.  People expect the government to do these things. 

It’s as if they are living on a cushion,” I reflected, “on a soft cushion, whether it is the cushion of stagnation or the cushion of perestroika, it is still a soft cushion.  Someone else is doing the work, someone else is doing the thinking, someone is telling them everything is okay.  Someone else is saying, ‘we will take care of you.’”

 

p. 184 “Political information lessons are symbolic of a school’s role as a dispenser of information, information that comes from above without question.  This process occurs every day at each lesson in every classroom as teachers pass on the curriculum that has been developed, produced and directed from Moscow.  The success of this process depends upon the best students who absorb and regurgitate the information and help their friends along the way. And the better the help, the greater the success—for everybody.”

 

p. 221 “This is the awful thing – that we still have all the old methods. We want the new thinking, but we have the old thinking and the old methods…There is a very bad need for learning, and now when an organ of man is not used, it atrophies, and this has happened to the brain.  When everybody says what you must do next, your brain doesn’t work when suddenly you have to decide for yourself.  We are so used to doing things as we are told.  We need to start putting our brains to work.  But it is very, very hard for the teachers, not because we are afraid or pessimistic, but because we do not have enough information, not enough knowledge – we don’t know.”

 

p. 225 “They had expressed their envy of the elaborate facilities and abundance of materials in American high schools as well as their admiration of the system of choices in the secondary school curriculum.  Everyone agreed, however, that this was not good for weaker students who preferred to avoid learning the basics.

 

“I was impressed that the teachers in the United States of America want to make learning enjoyable.” The teachers here are afraid to give hometasks.  My students were shocked that I gave them homework.  I think that learning should not only be enjoyable and interesting, it should also be hard, include homework—and the students should come to class prepared.  It is not only my work in the classroom, it is a reciprocal process.”

 

“These [American] students select easy subjects and the teachers don’t challenge them.  Yet, the age of 13, 14, 15—all these years—are good for developing their brains.  Four subjects with very little homework is not enough.  The students do not have enough food to develop their brains.”

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