Posts tagged Frank R. Thoms

Abstract art and Kazakhstan

I like rustic, realist kind of art that I’ve shown this past week with Philip R. Goodwin’s prints.  I also like abstract art and I just met an artist when I was in the Boston area last week who sells her meter by a meter artwork for about $4,000 a piece.  She has a LOT of inventory and if I could afford her work, I would buy from Kathleen Cammarata.  She likes doing earth tones and I like anything green.  This one reminds me of a satellite photo of the earth. I did capture this one painting in Kathleen’s studio with the okay from her husband Frank R. Thoms.  It was wonderful to see her vivid colors in abstract form.

Why do I like abstract art?  I did acrylics while I was in college and soon after I graduated, much in primary and secondary colors but I also loved to do oil paintings.  I LOVE the smell of oil maybe because it hearkens back to fond memories my grandpa on my Dad’s side.  In his waning years, he took up a paint brush after being a lumberman, carpenter and a farmer. When I was in grade school I would brag about how he was a famous artist, little knowing that he was just an amateur.  But back 100 years ago, you had to be a jack-of-all-trades by necessity.  My dear grandpa was all of that and a master of all!!!  That was the only way to survive in the hinterlands of northwestern Minnesota and in Canada where my grandpa spent much of his time.  He loved to fish and hunt too.

Why do I like both abstract and realist art?  Because I know that both styles take a lot of talent and much sweat equity.  When the economy tanks, the artists and musicians feel it.  So, I’m hoping that Kathleen can sell her huge inventory and I hope others like Kazakhstan’s artist Nelly Bube can have enduring art and still be rewarded monetarily.  I’ve written about the Kazakhstani artist Nelly Bube before, I’d like to get more of her paintings on this blog.  What was interesting to me was that a distant relative of mine in Telemark, Norway, Sigmund Groven who is a famous harmonica player sent me a Christmas card and it was a Nelly Bube painting.  Maybe since he has had an interest in Kazakhstan, he knew to send it to me.  In any case, I appreciate those in the artistic and music fields, they know how to express themselves.

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“Encounters with Soviet People” (Final Part VIII)

The following is the last installment from Frank R. Thoms unpublished manuscript that I received from my Peace Corps assistant and Kazakhstani friend Tatyana Kazanina.  I knew Tatyana from training Peace Corps volunteers in Almaty the summer of 1993, she died in May of 1997.  However, I never met Mr. Thoms but would like to if he is still alive.  He had written what I thought were valuable insights into the Soviet educational system for my 30 plus Peace Corps volunteers who read what I had typed up.  In the seven prior installments of his book “Encounters with Soviet People” Mr. Thoms shed light on perhaps why the Soviet Union fell apart.  It was based on lies, cheating and pretending.  I believe Putin is trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, it won’t work for a number of reasons. 

For now, as of yesterday’s start of the fall semester, I’m encouraged by meeting my students from three different classes in our “westernized” university in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  I am now encountering Kazakhstani students who were educated by Soviet teachers.  Each student has a different story to tell about what their parents or grandparents have told them what it was like living in the former Soviet Union.  I will let that unfold as the semester progresses.  Enjoy what Frank R. Thoms observed about cheating and prompting in the classroom, it still goes on to some extent even today, no matter our best efforts to have that cease.

p. 149 At the end of the lesson Ludmilla gave a quiz, three problems for the whole class to solve…The murmuring persisted.  Lukasha turned around to ask Kiril for the answers, which he read from the text on his lap under the table (though he told me he knew all the answers).  While Ludmilla carried equipment to her laboratory some students held up their papers for others to see, and others shouted information across the aisles.  It was a quiz show where the contestants collaborated before giving answers.  By the time the bell rang, the room was in complete bedlam as the students delivered their quizzes to her [Ludmilla] – no doubt all with the same results.


p. 184 “…I heard students whisper to one another before answering my questions.  Initially, I thought they were nervous and were having difficulty with my American accent.  I soon became annoyed with this practice, however, especially with some of the younger groups who sounded more like a cacophony of locusts than students speaking English.  But, what surprised me the most were the teachers.  Whenever the class became silent with one of my questions, their teacher would lean towards the nearest studnt from her seat in the back corner and whisper an answer, sometimes voicing it loud enough for others to hear – including me.”


p. 185 “At my own lessons I tried to persuade students not to help each other, most often telling them that I was more interested in knowing what each of them knew rather than what all of them knew…I struggled with this issue during my two months at School 185, but it was not until my last week when I observed some of my colleagues that I began to gain some perspective.  At some of the lessons I watched students whisper as much or more than they had with me…the importance of whispering in the classroom – what the Soviets call pod skazavats or prompting… “Of course we prompt each other,” Nick answered without hesitation.  “It is an important part of our schooling.  Without it our class would not be able to get our work done.  You know the teachers can give us a mark every day, so we must be ready for every class.  And, there is too much homework.  We have to help each other.”  He smiled and added, “it is important to help my friends, more important than helping myself.”


p. 186 “Prompting kindles the collective spirit in Soviet schools.  Prompting ensures that everyone learns, that slower students will not be left behind.  Prompting provides for success at every lesson.  It enables lessons to move along, to keep pace with the demands of the curriculum.  Without it there would be silence, the dreaded silence of failure.  There is no time for waiting in a Soviet classroom, no time for pausing, no time for reflecting.  More like heavy metal rock music than a symphony, a typical lesson resonates with overlapping sounds.

In essence, prompting is a leveling process, one that keeps everyone in the mainstream.  It replaces personal responsibility.  It eliminates personal initiative.  It underlies the collective spirit where everyone learns to stay together, where no one is allowed to get ahead.  It nurtures an excellence of the middle, a perpetual mediocrity.  It disallows excelling that breeds envy.  Prompting ensures that all is well in the collective.  Buried deep in the Soviet psyche, it is endemic to schooling.


p. 187 “Students and teachers alike have admitted to me that prompting is necessary to help the poorer students.  In Liuba’s case it enabled her to get through her English classes as the camaraderie of the collective ensured that she belonged and would get by.  Yet, the irony was that prompting harmed her chances of learning.  Her classmates, by covering for her at every opportunity, denied her the right to discover her own abilities.  Her teachers, by condoning this process, admitted that they had given up on her potential to learn.  Prompting also serves a greater purpose in Soviet society.  It acts as a mouthpiece for perpetuating the expectations of the system, a system that specifies what students must learn.  By encouraging them to repeat collective thought, prompting prevents any deviations in thinking to appear in the classroom…And more insidious, prompting induces brighter students to concentrate on expected outcomes rather than to think on their own.  The collective becomes the focus of learning – what we know becomes more important than what *I* know.


p. 188 “Prompting is as much a part of Soviet classrooms as the uniforms.  Whenever I came as a guest to a school, each classroom performed according to a script.  The teacher in the front acted as producer and director.  On command, students stood and recited.  Though teachers chose the best ones to speak, others prompted to avoid any hesitations…But, before and after such performances – at the rehearsals of everyday school – prompting dominates as it helps the actors with their lines and hones their responses.


p. 189 “With great pride students who knew me well told me about different forms of cheating.  The most common included writing on their hands and thighs, on the inside of their jackets, and on pieces of paper with answers to their friends when the teacher was not looking.  Some bragged about developing new techniques, for instance, imprinting information on plastic notebook covers with a sharp point that they could read when held to the light at the proper angle.  Another spoke of a method that utilized new pens with windows near the top, which, when the button was pushed, the information appeared.  Cheating, like prompting, is endemic to most Soviet classrooms and is known either as shparlgaka, which means “crib” or as shpora, which literally means “spur” [on a saddle].


p. 190 “Zoya’s conention that cheating was not a problem if the teacher looked the other way (“looks through the fingers” in Russian) is symbolic of the denial that is pervasive in the Soviet educational system – a denial that persists despite countless efforts at reform.  “The teachers pretend to teach, and the students pretend to learn.”


p. 192 “Prompting and cheating provide knowledge for those who need it. Without them, the system would grind to a halt.  Knowledge, after all, is power in a society that has restricted access to information, where Xerox machines are locked up.”



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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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Encounters with Soviet People (Part II)

Perhaps some of my readers may think it odd to write about Soviet people when the Soviet Union was dissolved 17-18 years ago but the Soviet mentality still exists.  I know, because I will be teaching English this fall semester once again in Almaty, Kazakhstan at a “westernized” university. The following quotes I typed up ring true even today in Kazakhstan.  My guest writer, Frank R. Thoms, for this series on “Encounters with Soviet People” was maybe a Fulbright Scholar for several months in Alma Ata (as it was known back during Soviet times).  I have never met this writer but appreciate his unpublished document he left behind with my friend Tatyana about his experiences in secondary schools, specialized schools of English in Almaty.  Maybe some of my Kazakhstani teaching colleagues knew of Frank R. Thoms.  I would love to meet Zoya of whom he writes about.

p. 99 – “It was not many years ago, however, when the evaluation of Soviet teachers was based on the performance of their students.  Though this practice has been abolished, its residue remained.  National Teachers Day aside, teachers do not receive much respect from students or parents.”


p. 108 – “I preferred to teach from the curriculum, to mingle with the texts of their lives, their daily fare, rather than to use my own material.  It was enough difference that I was an American.  Though I enjoyed addressing larger groups, I preferred the classroom where I could mix with the students and their textbooks.  Somehow I felt that the texts would be a bond between us after I left.  As the same texts are used in all schools, the lessons become a shared memory within the school and throughout the city and the country.  Mention “What is More Useful” or “The Black Cat” and all students of English in special schools will remember.”


p. 110 – “I then labeled the Stages of History, putting each one higher and to the right of the other.  Everyone recognized what I was doing.  I then wrote ‘Socialist” slightly higher and to the right of “Capitalist”, and put “Communist” higher than that.  I added another live above “Communist” and put a question mark.

“Marx said the dialectical process is inevitable,” I continued.  “Do you agree?” Everyone nodded.  “It must go on and on.  If that is true, how can the end of history be Communism?”…The students were perplexed.  I think it was more than my American dialect, as they had met American teachers before.  But it might have been the first time in their schooling that they had been asked to evaluate Marx’s theoretical realities.  School learning required that they memorize texts or at least be able to retell it.  With so much to cover at each lesson there was no time for discussion, for reflection.  By the eighth year many students became numb to the disparity between the texts and their own realities; some were already cynical and most were bored.  In asking them to consider the implications of what they had read was another matter.”


p. 111 – “In the classroom, after all, a teacher is a teacher and students are students, adults and children teaching each other, learning from each other—at least that’s the way I have always done it.  I cannot see myself as “the teacher,” the one who knows, and “the students,” the ones who must learn from me.  It has never worked that way…

Zoya was fascinated with my teaching methods.  After the lesson on Marx, she said she wished she had been one of my students.  “You teach them to think.”


p. 112 – “The ebullient feeling that had permeated the room during the break vanished.  Her [Zoya] voice took on another rhythm.  The structure of the lesson in the text seemed to absorb her personality.  It was as if an Inspector had walked in, an Inspector who looked for the lesson to be performed as designed in the teacher’s text with each question, each explanation, each step to be carried out exactly as written.  I had heard that Inspectors could be that precise.  Zoya became “Soviet teacher” and her students become “Soviet students.”  The lesson materialized as if it had come from the book I read about Soviet education.  The children responded to her as if they were automatons, and she spoke to them as if she were on a language-lab tape.  When in pairs practicing dialogues, her students spoke to each other – back and forth, back and forth—without feelings, without emotion.  Nobody was having fun.  Nobody was charged with energy.  Nobody was thinking.  Everybody appeared bored.  They acted bored.  Yet everyone was involved.


…the lessons were more methodical than mine as teachers asked predictable questions, and students responded with predictable answers.  Because they were speaking from memory and retelling the texts, participation was guaranteed.  Besides, Soviet teachers can not tolerate silence as there is too much to cover.  Nor do they allow for mistakes as students are subject to being graded every day.  Therefore, methodical routines improve chances for success.  Success is better for everyone.  For students, good grades mean better choices after graduation; for teachers, they mean better evaluations.


…They spoke when asked and presented dialogues—retold, repeated, regurgitated without hesitation.  The voices were robotic—Zoya’s as well.  And the rhythm of the lesson, a relentless pattern: a question, hands raised at the elbow, standing, speaking, sitting; another question, hands raised at the elbow, standing, speaking, sitting.  If a student hesitated, the rhythm paused…No time for silence, no allowance for patience.  Too much to cover, too much to do.”




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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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