Archive for October, 2009

*I* am not a slave, but a volunteer

PA290057So many thoughts concerning the above title, where to begin?  A quote by our highly esteemed President Abraham Lincoln who fought against slavery in his own capacity might be a good start.  It may help because the rest of this blog will be a diatribe about all that is evil in our center of higher education.  “Always bear in mind that your resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.”

I want to succeed as a teacher, a student-centered teacher, but the forces of the environment in Almaty, Kazakhstan which surrounds me in a strongly teacher-centered methodology continue to yank me down.  Our university motto reads in large letters on the side of one of the buildings on campus “Education to change society.”  However, I think the reverse is true since that huge banner was put up in 2005, it should now read “Kazakh society changing western education.”  Before I raise the hackles of anyone who is Kazakh who I have probably offended already by things I’ve written in this blog, let me explain why I turned this phrase around. If you read to the “better end,” you might see my point.

Teaching two listening courses on MWF, one begins at 11:00 a.m. (or rather it is supposed to be at 11:00*) and the other at 4:00 p.m.  If you are part of the elite nomenclature, then you would have your classes scheduled back to back.  For instance, teaching at 11:00 and then 12:00 OR 3:00 and then finishing the second class starting at 4:00.  But since I am only a volunteer (and not a slave bound to my desk doing the mandatory office hours between 12:00 and 4:00), I don’t have that privilege of back to back. 

*Why do I have my 11:00 a.m. class of 20 students meet at 10:55 and end at 11:45?  Glad you asked.  Because the scheduling is such where the pre-academic course “Instructor” must occupy the same room I’m in precisely at 11:50 which  according to the registrar’s schedule is when I was to end my class. Early in the semester I had this one particular Kazakh teacher loudly declare (totally out of character for a Kazakh) that I was in her classroom and to get out. What a scene she made in front of my 20 students but it was only because she is not confident with setting up the computer.  I couldn’t figure out why MY academic listening class had to start 5 minutes earlier for her.  Wasn’t it easier to ask her Foundations students to arrive five minutes later?  However, she had another class right behind hers that also didn’t allow for changing of the guard.  Supposedly, by this ninth week in the semester have all adjusted to this little scheduling snafu.

My second listening class at 4:00 p.m. also had a most inglorious beginning in August.  That seems so very long ago now as I write this end of October. (We had our first freeze the night before) This listening class was stuck away in the older building and by necessity, the windows had to be open because it was so hot last weeks of August.  That also allowed all the traffic noise to not only drift in but obliterate any kind of listening needed to successfully have real learning happen.  Eventually we got a room change to the New Building but not without some persistence.

Okay, back to how Kazakh society is changing our western education.  Since this is predominantly an oral culture, I believe the Central Asian students are fairly adept at listening.  Or so I thought until yesterday when I asked for their rough drafts for their final papers.  Keep in mind that the students according to the course curriculum are required in the past to take TWO listening classes and only ONE writing class.  Right there is a big switcheroo of the Kazakh culture adapting western education to fit their own preference.  If I told my American colleagues that American students should only be required to take ONE prerequisite writing class and TWO listening courses, my teaching friends would laugh me off the campus.  Writing is very, very important to move ahead in a western environment.  And you had better cite your sources correctly from where you got your ideas, quotes and paraphrasing.  It had better be in your own words too!  (There, I didn’t have to use the “P” word, did I?)

So what assignments did I get from my listening students yesterday after talking about this paper for the first 8 weeks of the semester?  What did they read of each others rough drafts when I had them peer review? A lot of BLAH, BLAH facts!!!  I’m feeling rather defeated, discouraged and NOT successful as a teacher.  Okay, so these “pretend” students knew they had to hand something in to me yesterday, or else.  To satisfy the deadline, they slapped together stuff they pulled off the Internet and maybe haphazardly cited something from somewhere. Perhaps they even got their Reference Page authors alphabetized correctly in APA format, but will it be interesting for me to read? NO!  

I’ve glanced through some papers that look so opaque with facts and no analysis, no follow through with the thesis statement.  Obviously these students did not bother to read the articles and sort it out in their mind even though they were given the choice of topic.  They were supposed to be passionate about their topic enough to be curious to WANT to read, research, investigate and dig into the sources.

Oh, and that’s another thing.  From the very beginning I told these dear students the hot button topics to stay away from when choosing their own topic to write about. They range from A to G for me: abortion, capital punishment, death penalty, GMO and gun control.  What did one student hand in yesterday?  A paper on the death penalty!!!  I can’t figure it out, either there is a lot of “Lights on but nobody home” going on with my 20 students in each class who all seemed to show up for every class OR they can get away with turning in these kind of blah, blah papers with their other Soviet styled, teacher-centered teachers?  Either way, as a western-trained, student-centered teacher I don’t like the answer to this either/or question.

I don’t know, I’m flummoxed by all of this. Will I be a slave to getting them to write properly even though this is a listening course? Or will I be a volunteer and just use up a lot of my valuable time and a LOT of red ink in the process to correct these blah, blah papers?  How student-centered do I want to be in this strong Kazakh environment that does NOT promote writing?  I want these students to have good ppt presentations so I can feel reasonably confident when I ask my foreign friends to be guests to listen to the students 7 minute talks, that it will not be a waste of their time.  From the start I asked my students to find good content in the peer-reviewed articles.  Perhaps they think they can pretend to slip this over on the teacher.  They probably think, “She is so overworked with her 100 students, she won’t notice, right?”

Abraham Lincoln suffered many more defeats than victories, so he knew of what he spoke.  His quotes will long be remembered.  Even though I am experiencing character assassination which is driven by my Kazakh colleagues and administrators who misunderstand me and do not support my efforts to teach in my preferred style, I will continue to persist. 

As I told my office mate one day, “The truth WILL prevail, it will just take a little longer in Kazakhstan.”  You can quote me on that!!!


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Lecture on Leadership and Volunteerism

PA290071Thanks to my Aussie friend who stepped in to give a lecture to my masters students last night. Kathy Banham (holding the flowers) is the president of AIWC (Almaty International Women’s Club).  She knows of what she speaks as a leader but also working with a group of many volunteers from all over the world.  I appreciated her consenting to be videotaped.  She spoke about her work and leadership experiences from the past that ultimately led her to Almaty, Kazakhstan with her husband’s job, but especially liked hearing her answer my students’ many questions.PA290062

But before Kathy spoke, I showed the class what Kathy’s next door  neighbor, Julia, had talked about the day before, Kazakh carpets.  I was mystified, along with Julia, why the production of carpets had stopped in the mid-1970s.  Kirill, a masters student,  matter-of-factly answered that question.  The Soviets did not want any country within the Soviet Union to freely express their artform of their former nationality.  To be politically correct in the Soviet times, all must see themselves as Soviet citizens and the Kazakh carpet challenged that notion.  Mystery solved but I am still wondering about when bride kidnapping started and why.  Seems that if the carpet had been a tradition for many centuries to be the brides dowry, then to short circuit that meant she didn’t have to make a carpet which took a year to build.  Also, perhaps during the Soviet times, the materials would have been difficult to come by, everyone was suffering.

Back to Kathy’s talk. She covered many points about her favorite place in Kazakhstan was Charyn Canyon (east of Almaty about 3 hours) and that she had been there eight times already.  She said that travel outside of one’s own country is an important stretching experience. Also, if you don’t know the language, a smile goes a LONG way to communicate, along with hand gestures.  Much else was captured on videotape.  I think we all appreciated her strong leadership views and I found out something else about Kathy I didn’t know before.  She is the oldest of six children and has three sisters and two brothers, as do I.

We both already knew that we perhaps share the same birthday even to within a day.  At least we are the same year and month and if we figured out time zone differences between Australia and Minnesota in the U.S. we might have been born within an hour apart.  (We both have not found out from our mothers when the exact hour of our births were to compare) How many people can say they have a birth sister?  Kathy is a very lovely leader who is a Super Volunteer. Thanks Kathy!

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Kazakh Carpets Have Symbolic Design and Mystery

PA280051Julia Connelly stepped in my “Listening and Note Taking” class to give a lecture about her ongoing fascination with Kazakh carpets.  She has a BFA degree in art specializing in Interior Design and when she arrived to Kazakhstan about six years ago she has been researching the mysteries behind this very complex art form.PA280050PA280052PA280053

Notice how one of the three carpets Julia brought has the woman’s name (Rakya) woven in and also the year “1963” when it was worked on.  Something like this would be a part of a woman’s dowry in order to be eligible for marriage.  A carpet typically took one year to accomplish. 

Julia also shared about the Pazyryk carpet that is also known as the Altai rug which measures 6 feet by 6 feet 6 inches.  It was found in south Siberia in 1947 by a Russian archeologist, S.J. Rudenko.  This well preserved carpet (found in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg) was in a grave mound belonging to a fifth century B.C. prince.  Soon after the grave was built and sealed, it was robbed of all its treasures but the theives took no interest in a heavy carpet.  The grave filled with water and then the burial chamber froze and like a deep freeze, it preserved the colors of this carpet.

Julia went on to explain about the dyeing process as well as the weaving on different kinds of looms.  She compared the carpets from Kazakhstan compared to Turkmenistan.  The striking features that I noticed as different is that Kazakh carpets were more creative and not repetitive and seemed to be more expansive in their design and not limited to the same blueprint.

The mystery remains as to why the production of Kazakh carpets that had gone on for 1,000s of year stopped abruptly in the mid-1970s.  These are questions I need answered: Was there a Soviet law prohibiting the sale of these carpets?  Did it endanger the weaver to have symbols that told stories too dangerous to tell?  From what I understood, the families kept their carpets within their own family and for special occasions such as weddings.  But then there is the whole other mystery behind bride-snatching or kid-napping?  Was it so that the woman wouldn’t have to do the painstaking work of a carpet? 

I need my Kazakh readers to respond to some of these baffling questions. Julia commented to me before this lecture that in her researching at the archives and libraries in Almaty, that her work took different zig zags depending on what she found out.  She may have started with one idea and meeting certain people or reading something, made her go in a different direction than originally planned.  I have to tell my students that that is precisely what research does, you can have a plan but depending on the data you unearth, it may have entirely different results surface.  As with the carpets and their significance in the old days, what are the mysteries they keep from us today?

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American Football in Central Asia (Part III)

PA250028PA250021These photos of Sunday afternoon’s game are the last I’ll show, it is still slow Internet so I will see how long this takes to put these up.  I’m starting at 5:20 p.m. my Wednesday evening after we had a GREAT lecture done by Julia Connelly about Kazakh carpets.  I will share what she talked about in tomorrow’s blog.  PA250013PA250022

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More Photos of Am. Football in Central Asia (part II)

PA250027Our Internet at work is running really slow and yesterday I had put up five photos for my reading audience but only two survived and were saved in a draft form.  Unfortunately, I had to start all over again. Such is life in Kazakhstan. 

Hopefully I will do better this morning before my first class starts at 11:30 a.m.  It is now 10:30, I hope to accomplish this minor undertaking that becomes major here with slow Internet.  I’m showing photos of the 3-4 American coaches.  Two years ago when these same football players from our university were playing against Bishkek, they prevailed upon my husband to be their coach.  They had none.  However, he was too busy teaching economics but consented to be the ref for the big game instead. 

An analogy perhaps with slow Interent is same as how these football players must feel where  noone understands their love for the game which is completely foreign to most people in Central Asia, or the rest of the world for that matter.  That is why these athletes only play another team from Russia and their other opponents from Kyrgyzstan whom they played against on Sunday.  Our team in blue has another game in Bishkek in a month and that will be the extent of football season. American football may catch on yet as I hope faster Internet might!!!PA250016PA250024

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American Football in Central Asia (Part I)

PA250036What fun to be on a soccer field about an hour west of the center of the city of Almaty with the Tien Shan mountains ringing the southern horizon.  It was breathtaking to look to the south despite the haze.  Also to see our university boys play American football, I had four students dress in the blue and white uniforms.  The other team, the Snowcats, had travelled from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for this important game.  Our team won 33-12 but the other side put up a noble fight.  See the photos I took of the fall day, tomorrow I’ll show more of the team players and people I talked to.  For me it was a real social event meeting new people and connecting with old friends.PA250011

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Re-reading “Apples are from KZ” a third time

Christopher Robbins certainly knew how to write a good book. I am re-reading his book which is also titled “The Land that Disappeared” but I prefer the one in my blog title above.  I rarely re-read books unless they are very good.  I don’t often watch the same movie more than once or twice. I just believe there are far too many books to read and movies to watch to double up and do it all again. 

Several days ago I just finished reading the New York Times bestseller book “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett which was recommended to me by a friend here in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  I need to discuss this book with her, there are many different layers that need to be sorted out.  For me, it was an emotional book, my friend had termed it “brain candy.” 

Back to Robbins book which makes me laugh because even though it was written several years ago, he nailed so much of what I see and experience every day.  He has a wry, candid way of getting his point across that I can totally agree with him page after page.  The following are examples of what I like about Robbins’ writing:

p. 34 Quote from a middle-aged Kazakh philosopher: “One of the things you have to credit the Soviet system with is education. It was very good, and if you were bright it helped you go all the way, even to Moscow University.  And even the small towns had good libraries.  I began to read the Russian classics, and grew to love and be greatly influenced by Chekhov.”

Over a week ago, the president of this great country of Kazakhstan after giving a speech aimed at KZ students, was asked by a student at another university in Almaty, what he read.  She was a journalist and curious about how she could improve herself.  He answered, Chekhov and Tolstoy.  He also went on to say what else he read but I was struck with how much the Russian authors had informed him in his leadership role of this country.

p. 37 “We Kazakhs have always been clear that it was not the Russians who were to blame for our plight – it was the State. Under the Soviets many Russians were sent here forcibly to work as slave labor in the Gulag.  They were victims, not oppressors.  And we Kazakhs knew that the same applied to all the other nationalities deported here – Chechens, Turks, Germans, Koreans. It was very hard for them – they had nothing and they faced terrible privation.  Perhaps that’s why the Kazakhs became the most tolerant people in the Soviet Union.”

I like the above quote made by the Kazakh philosopher in Robbins’ book.  That is why I love my job here in Almaty as a TEFL teacher and why I love my Kazakh, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian and all the other students in my classrooms.  I don’t see them as separate cultures, I see them as people.

This philosopher went on to say the following as quoted by Robbins:

p. 40 “And there has been a disastrous decline in the education system.  It began in the 1970s when 40 percent of students started failing their exams.  That was considered too many by Moscow so an order came from the top to make the students look good.  The quality of the teaching dropped off.”

Need I write any more about what I am witnessing today in our “westernized” university classroom?  Many of the good English teachers from the villages or towns throughout KZ have fortunately found better paying jobs outside of teaching.  The oil industry that keep Kazakhstan economically viable compared to all the other Central Asian nations, pays heftier salaries than in education.  The best paying teacher jobs for Kazakh citizens are found at my university compared to those other universities that are state run in our oil rich city of Almaty. 

Back to reading “Apples are from Kazakhstan.”

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More Fall Photos in Almaty (Part II)

PA210602I’m not used to seeing red roses blooming and trees turning fallish color at the same time.  Only in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  PA200601How I love this time of year.  As I write this blog entry,  the wind is blowing the yellowed leaves to the ground.  The street sweepers (Leaf Removal Managers) every morning are gathering these fallen shards of summer glory with a vengeance.  Where the piles go, I’m not sure.  In other countries where I’ve lived, like in China or the Philippines,  these tired, old leaves are burned.  I hope for the sake of curbing pollution in Almaty, that there is a ban on cremating the leaves.PA210607PA200597PA200599

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Fall Color Photos and other thoughts

PA210604Things are looking up at my place of employment in Almaty, Kazakhstan as the fall leaves are falling down.  According to the latest newsletter for this month our university president is “looking to improve the quality of language instruction by hiring more highly qualified faculty.”  We were at a big meeting of all English teachers who are the Kazakh faculty in the center. It was explained to them by the director that they must have a masters degree in three years in order to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Education.  Supposedly they have been teaching English many years with only the equivalent of a bachelors degree.  I believe the Kazakh students who are paying a hefty tuition deserve better.  But naturally this is a VERY touchy subject!!!

Also, on a more upbeat note, there has been a commitment of $200,000 “to the improvement of our library reserves, principally for access to online research databases and electronic journals and reestablish the research fund to support faculty research and conference attendance.”  Since I arrived on this campus two years ago, I have continued to push the electronic databases in all my classes no matter what subject I teach.  What a privilege these Kazakh students have to access Ebscohost, J-Stor and ProQuest through what their tuition money pays for rather than using their first impulse to access Wikipedia or or google so quickly and think it is research.

Yesterday I had to confront a student who submitted something about mobile phones that was straight from Wikipedia. He had kept the hyperlinks in place and claimed it was his own writing.  He remained glued to his chair even though I said I was done explaining to him that he was failing the course and that he has just blatantly plagiarized!  How ignorant do some of these students think I am?  (don’t answer that!)

I continue to enjoy all the colors around Almaty, that lifts my spirits when other things at work try to undermine that. 




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On Being Student-Centered (part II)

The following is what I worked on over our mid-semester break.  This is what I had to figure out for 40 students in my listening and notetaking class.  I am both student centered for my own purposes but have to be teacher-centered for the purposes of the team and getting along with my colleagues.

The breakdown of percentages constitutes 60% of the students’ grade.  They have  40% left to improve their grade for their final grade.

TOEFL practice Quizzes 10% Self Study10/20 %






TOEFL Midterm



The following is what I had to fill out for another 40 different students in the reading and writing class:


In class Writing 10% Self Study10/20 %



Home Reading




I had given them three vocabulary quizzes of about 20 points each which needed to be squeezed into the 5% box and they had to do two self-study assignments (fancy name for homework) along with a working bibliography.  The midterm was a 50 minute discursive essay where they had to read three articles ahead of time to be prepared to write in the Computer Lab.  All very elaborate, right?


Finally, the following was what I computed for my masters students in the English Speaking and Listening II class.  I had 22 to compute in order to arrive at a midterm grade which is due tomorrow.

Participation 10% Self-study 10%

Quizzes 10%

Midterm 20%

I would have done this midterm grading anyway, because it is what I’m used to doing for my American students. I think it is only fair to give them a progress report instead of having them ending up the semester surprised.  However, I don’t know that I have ever done so much math to arrive at the results for just the midterm grades.  I have about 10 students who are failing out of the 100 I have.  I have more that should probably get A+ but I don’t believe in that grade, yet you can get 90-100% and that constitutes an A+


Anyway, all that to say that I’ve been busy but I think my students all appreciate the fact that I have looked at each piece of paper they have written in class or handed in as hard copy or sent to me electronically. 

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