Archive for January 11, 2009

Restore Dignity to my Students’ Grandparents – Part II

Hopefully I’ve established in yesterday’s blog, the strengths of the Kazakhs’ oral culture which helps students learn to speak English fluently.  While at the same time, with little exposure to written literature there is obviously a weakness here at our “westernized” university in Kazakhstan.  As I write, I’m thinking that these same teachers who bear down hard on their Kazakh students’ grammar, also hammer into them about correct topic sentence and supporting sentences.  So much so that even as a native speaker and writer of English, I begin to second guess my own writing if they are reading this. Am I doing this essay correctly, am I thinking about those stilted mechanics and getting it RIGHT?  Probably not, according to their scoring grid.


When native speakers of Russian speak in English they carry with them the heavy intonation colorations that put the EMPhasis on the first SYLlable of the words and FIRST part of the sentence.  Example:  “WHAT KIND of a restaurant is this anyway?” would seem offensive to a native speaker of English because it sounds accusatory.  The waitress hearing this would feel the question implies that it is a greasy spoon and not a fit place to eat.  Whereas, a native speaker would put the stress such as “What kind a restaurant IS this?”  Suggesting you want to know if it is a Greek or Chinese, what have you.


Back in 1993 and 1994 when I was dating Ken and not answering “Yes” to his marriage proposal, my friend Tatyana who was actually of Polish origins but was born in Kazakhstan said the following in her forceful Russian clip. “YOU ARE AN IDiot, if you don’t marry Ken.”  Okay, I listened to her wise counsel, I probably weighed out my careful pros and cons for the 100 th time and finally capitulated.  Of course, no one wants to be called an idiot, I married Ken.  I’m glad I did. 


Back to assigning my students to write about the problems their grandparents encountered and getting direct quotes from them about how they solved those problems.  Entirely different content from teen pregnancy or traffic gridlock, but the major point is to get our students to WRITE on a subject they are hopefully invested in.  Often while I did the cross checking of my fellow Kazakhstani teachers, I would find that their spiritless students would have as a solution the government would solve the problem.  I didn’t see many journal articles to support that, in fact, academic writers are more adept at showing where the government is a fault and part of the problem!


What my Russian friend objected to vociferously was that she claimed I had my students writing simplistic, descriptive essays.  Also, she fears that I would create a kind of “Ukraine Effect” where currently the Ukrainians are in a crisis over oil with the Russians. This is after the Ukrainians have a new found nationalism by re-establishing their own Ukrainian history.  If I get my Kazakh students to find out what the Soviet government did to their grandparents and share that information in the classroom, well her logic is, no doubt the problems of Ukraine would be visited upon Kazakhstan. Apparently, she doesn’t want to see any antagonism against Russians, like herself.   I think a quote from Shakespeare’s play from Hamlet applies here, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  Act 3, Scene 2, 222-230


Certainly I have been reminded over and over again about how the white man who came to America took away all the land from the Native American Indians.  In a few cases I have friends who are 1/16 th Indian blood, there were a LOT of mixed marriages over the centuries. The supposed takeover of American land was gradual, however, the Soviet annihilation of countries, such as Ukraine, Finland or other “stans” was devastatingly quick. Granted, where I am from in northern Minnesota there is what is known as the fighting Sioux and I taught at the Sioux Indian Reservation close to my grandma’s house in North Dakota.  From that experience, I know some of the Indian’s rage against the white man. 


Back to my student-centered approach, when I taught my young Sioux Indian children art, I saw what a strength they had in drawing horses and things from nature.  These Indian children were incredibly gifted and I plastered their artwork throughtout the halls of our school.  Do you think that didn’t restore some of their frayed dignity, just a little?  That is what I am trying to accomplish here in Kazakhstan, restore my Kazakh and Russian students’ dignity in finding out what their grandparents or great grandparents went through during the Soviet period. One of my students, Aida, had a grandmother who survived 10 years in ALZHIR,  Another student Laura’s grandfather survived 15 years in Siberia.  One Kazakh girl’s great grandfather was the highly respected Abay. 


You don’t think I was busting with pride along with them about the problems their ancestors encountered and how they solved them?    This problem/solution formula worked as well for my Ukrainian and Russian students I had in my predominately Kazakh classroom.  One student’s grandparents were Jews from Ukraine who were exiled to Kazakhstan. Often it happened that the Kazakhs ministered help and food provisions to these castoffs who were deported and dumped on their soil. In another case I saw one blonde Ukrainian student, who cared nothing about history, become alive with her writing project after she talked to her grandparents about the problems they faced down.  The same could be said of my Korean masters degree students I taught last summer.


Bottomline, I’m a student-centered teacher and the outline my students used needed to be more fluid depending on what the students found out in their searching for articles about the era their grandparents most talked about.  I believe it is far more difficult to plagiarize about topics close to the heart of the students (and they DO respect their elders) than the suggested, overused topics such as obesity, high school dropouts, traffic, crime, drugs, etc. 


By the time I come to the end of any given essay assignment, I hope to answer the question “So what?” Why is this important in the grand scope of things?  And the second question is: “Did I enjoy reading this or did I learn something new from this?”  If I can answer YES to those questions, no doubt the students enjoyed looking up journal articles and reading about the cause and effect of the problem.  No doubt they came up with more of a background and the far reaching extent of the problem.  I did not use a restrictive outline for them though I gave them my own example and wrote an essay for them to see what I was hoping to read in their essays.  Also, I would not have used such an elaborate scoring rubric that was devised but that was for the benefit of the teachers who are not student-centered.


Apparently there is NO solving this problem about who is right and WRONG except to maybe try using a different kind of essay this spring semester after the students have cut their teeth on a discursive essay for their midterm essay.  There are many other essays to choose from:  compare/contrast; cause/effect; argumentative, persuasive, evaluation…


Noone likes to be told they are WRONG simply because they are different.  By being an American and teaching in a oral tradition culture heavily dominated by top-down Soviet mentality, I am going to be different.  As our enrollment at our supposedly “western university keeps plummeting and more Kazakh parents can afford sending their loved ones to U.K. or the U.S. and Canada, they will see that writing is very, very important.  These Kazakh students will encounter teachers who write in their native language of English and they are promoted or gain tenure based on this skill.  Maybe THIS should be my swan song.


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