Posts tagged John Piper

“Why We Teach Overseas” (Part II)

Yesterday I started a short series of why my husband and I live in Astana, Kazakhstan. My first reason is we have both learned to become flexible with the Kazakh culture.  We met each other in Almaty, Kazakhstan back in May of 1993, my second day in country. Fortunately, I had learned about this strange land from my former pastor, John Piper.  I think I first heard that it existed as a country from Dr. Piper in the mid 1980s when it was still under Soviet Union rule. I had just returned from doing my two year Peace Corps stint in the Philippines. Below I have listed several other reasons why my teaching experience and skills gained in the former Soviet Union of 12 years duration (seven years in Kyiv, Ukraine) plus the five years collectively in Central Asia keeps us challenged.

1. I care about the country and reputation of Kazakhstan. I believe the Kazakh people have been maligned and misunderstood by many people, westerners and Asians alike.  Yet Kazakhstan has a rich and deep history that should be known by the rest of the world. The Kazakhs should be taken seriously as a viable country. I want to help meet the Kazakhs’ goal of being one of the top 50 developed countries by the year 2030. Slogans, billboards and adverts in Kazakh and Russian are everywhere to remind the Kazakhs of their duty to get a good education and thus to perform better to help develop their country.

When I taught in Harbin, China back in 1986-1988, the Chinese students I worked with had a mantra “I will study hard for the Motherland.”  Work hard they did! I saw with my own eyes the success of the determined and industrious Chinese people when I re-visited Beijing and Tianjin, China in 2000 and again in 2001.  Materially, the Chinese have come from behind in these last 25 years due to their strong efforts to catch up with the modernized world.  I believe that the Kazakh people are capable of the same kind of achievement.

2. I enjoy teaching the Kazakh students. Despite the fact that many of these young students do not know any better, unfortunately they DO cheat and plagiarize. That is a problem everywhere, the U.S. included.  What is most baffling is that sometimes these same Kazakh students who cheat or steal others’ words boast about it.  Some spend more time being “clever” in knowing how to pull one over on the teacher than if they would simply read the textbook or do their own assignments. These same students have been taught under Kazakh or Kazakhstani teachers who have turned a blind eye to this behavior because they have not known anything different having been trained under the former Soviet system.

Many of the Kazakh teachers I taught with at the university in Almaty admitted that a careworn, Soviet saying “Initiative was punitive” was true and that being creative was verboten.  Better to keep within the box and only write what was considered standard party line rather than risk the withering displeasure of Moscow where the Ministry of Education had very set parameters by which to teach.

I believe new standards against cheating and plagiarism needs to be adhered to in order to eradicate this problem.  The hard working Kazakh students would love to see their work receive the merit it deserves while the slackers, who want to get by not doing the work, would be punished instead.

I know the new university in Astana that just opened wants to set high standards of learning for the development of their country, they hope to train doctors or surgeons to know how to use cutting edge medical technology correctly. This new university needs knowledgeable technicians or engineers in the oil business who do not fudge on the facts, who can make judgments according to their expertise, not according to fulfilling a five-year plan.  The new university wants to train the young Kazakhs to take over the jobs that highly trained physicists; geologists and chemists from western countries are doing now.  That means they need rigid, high standards that start in the university classroom where grades are not changed just because a young student has a father who can buy the grade to help his child graduate.

3. I have had the good fortune of teaching some very hard working Kazakh and Kazakhstani students in Almaty. I saw good results from my students when they clearly knew what the required assignment was.  They needed examples from me and they also worked well in groups.  The Kazakh students are curious and open to new ideas, they are much more malleable than a few of their older teachers who were considered “refuseniks” when it came to computers.  But that is true also in the U.S. where older teachers are afraid and refuse to learn the latest technology. The Kazakh students know all about the computer and in many cases know more than their teachers.

I had no problem turning over the classroom computer so that a willing student with computer know-how could get a DVD or CD to play correctly. All for the sake of completing the lesson I had planned for that class period.  Often they knew how to fix the problem before I would send a student off to find a computer techie to help solve it.

I found the Kazakh students are much more demure and compliant than my Ukrainian students.  The Kazakh students are much more talkative and expressive than my Chinese students. Teaching in Kazakhstan, I have enjoyed the best of both worlds with teaching a student-centered approach while having students who have been taught under a teacher-centered academic environment. I have learned to teach in both styles but have used that to my advantage.

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Quotes and a Joke from an American Optimistic Realist

I love a quote used by John Piper which I found on his Facebook status. Back in the mid-1980s I first heard about Kazakhstan when he talked about this Central Asian land.  Perhaps he knew about it from his German connection. Back then, nobody really knew this country existed during the Soviet Union’s Cold War period.  Many in the western world still do not know this land of about 16 million people live in a country the size of three Texas states put together. 

So I have to give credit to Dr. Piper for getting me here to Almaty indirectly when I first arrived in the summer of 1993.  Piper wrote,“If we are not hated by someone, we don’t know enough people, or we don’t speak enough truth.”  I KNOW I fall into the latter category, I’ve been speaking the truth as a realist during my time at this Western university in Almaty.  Another quote I like is: A pessimist sees the dark tunnel, an optimist sees the light at the end of the tunnel and a realist sees the train coming down the tracks.”  I also love Winston Churchill and what he stood for, here’s a quote attributed to him about optimism: “I am an optimist and it doesn’t seem hard to be anything else.”

Yes, I am optimistic about Kazakhstan’s future because I have been working with their youth for the past 2 ½ years.  I did not get re-hired by the hiring committee because I fell into the third category of this joke which my husband loves to tell.  Apparently I know too much, especially about Soviet teaching pedagogy. But I’ve been accused of being culturally insensitive. I’m sorry that my words have been misconstrued and twisted by the very people I came to help.  I know I am needed for what I know, but I am not wanted.  Common malady among many of us Westerners, “needed but not wanted.” Read several blogs back.

 The Communist Party (CPSU) membership committee was interviewing candidates.

 The first candidate arrives, sits in front of the commission, and is asked:

“How much is 2 + 2?”

The candidate hesitates and replies, “6”?

“Are you sure?”


He is dismissed and discussed.  They vote him in after one of the committee says,

“I like him.  He is flexible.”

The second candidate arrives, sits in front of the commission and is asked:

“How much is 2+2?”

The candidate does not hesitate and immediately replies, “6!”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure, 2 + 2 is 6!”

The second candidate is dismissed and discussed.  The commission votes him in as a new member of the Party, after one of the commission members says,

“I like him, he has the courage of his convictions!”

The the third candidate arrives, sits in front of the commission and is asked:

“How much is 2+2?”

The candidate does not hesitate and immediately replies, “4!”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course. What kind of stupid question is that.  2 + 2 is 4!”

The third candidate is dismissed and discussed.  The commission votes NOT to admit him in as a new member of the Party, after one of the commission members says,

“He knows too much!”

Pres. Kennedy is quoted as saying, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”  Finally, one more quote by John Maxwell: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.”  I’ve tried to do that with my fellow teachers and I’ve tried to be a leader in the classroom full of students, whether they are Kazakh or Kazakhstani (Russian, Korean, Uighur, Tatar, German, or  mix of whatever else).  I have made enemies amongst some who do not want to see reality for what it is.  I still chuckle to myself for coming up with the quote that my Yale law school trained, work mate loved: “The truth will prevail, it may just take a little longer in Kazakhstan.”

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Former Student’s Comment and Best Blog Dart Thinker Awards

To be tagged as the Best Blog Dart Thinker Award is an honor and I must extend this prestigious award to other bloggers I know of.  When I read this announcement to my husband the other night, he thought he heard “Dark Thinker Award.”  He knows that I have chosen some rather dark themes to blog about such as the karlags and ALZHIR in Kazakhstan and the ominous politics at our university and anything else about our life here in Almaty.  No, I think Dart Thinker must have something to do with hitting the bullseye about how we perceive our world.  As an American guest in a country that has long been maligned, misunderstood, forgotten or NOT known about by westerners, I am trying to faithfully write about how GREAT this country is.  I suppose my friends in Ukraine would think I am a turncoat to my love of Ukraine but I believe living and teaching 7-8 years in Ukraine prepared me for living in Kazakhstan.  


I already mentioned in my last blog my American friend, Ukrainiac, who got me started on blogging two years ago but the next award goes to “The Sea Wave” a former Ukrainian student of mine who is studying in Honolulu now.  She has a very prophetic screen name for her blog and this is what she wrote on September 6, 2008 when she was first starting up her classes in an American university.


 The next class was Analyzing and Writing Arguments. And this is when I clearly remembered Mrs. KG) 8) Our professor is Polish but is very experienced in an American writing style, and this is what we are going to do in this class: write essays, make PowerPoint presentations, work on using citations, write a research paper, perform peer review and feedback (reading each others papers), and twice a week we will have to do something in the Internet (remember how we had to write blogs three times a week?). Dear Mrs. G, if you are reading this, thank you very much for your classes. Now I feel so prepared for all these.


Thrills me to read my former student’s comments and I have many good memories of my other Ukrainian students who started this blogging experiment with me over a year and a half ago at a westernized university in Kyiv, Ukraine.  They are Princess of Snow who was another blondie from Sevastopol and also Noire Swan who looked very Ukrainian and was prolific in her writings and comments of her classmates and my blog.


The next award goes to Eric Bergeson who is known as The Country Scribe and has written for many years on his blog about what life is like back in my neck of the woods in northwest Minnesota.  He has a history background, talented piano player, owns a very beautiful nursery and is a wonderful photographer.  If Ron Vossler had a blog, I’d award him as well, his politics are very different from Eric’s but he has the same research interests as Dr. J. Otto Pohl. 


Then there are two American teaching colleague friends of mine who need to be encouraged to write MORE on their blogs about life in Kazakhstan.  Dr. Nancy Burkhalter and also James who has a screen name of Molapse which stands for “Momentary Relapse of Reason.”   My next award goes to Asqat who is very Kazakh but looks Japanese at first glance, he has a blog that is in Kazakh language but ocassionally he slips into blogging in English.  I trust that what he writes is a good perspective on life in his country of Kazakhstan, it was pleasant to meet him last spring.  Another American blogger I’ve been following through tags on WordPress is a woman who went to Kostanai, Kazakhstan to adopt a baby.  I don’t know her name but have followed her travails and eventual victory on bringing her Kazakh baby home to the U.S.  She goes by the screen name of ByChance, she has her hands full with two other adopted children I believe. 


The only reason I knew about Kazakhstan back in 1992 when I applied for a Fulbright grant was hearing John Piper talk about Kazakhstan when I attended his church in Minneapolis in 1983-1990.  Thanks to him indirectly, I met my husband when I arrived in spring of 1993.  I believe Piper wrote his doctoral thesis in German.  There is a strong connection of Germany and Kazakhstan as is true with Germany and Ukraine, but that’s a whole history lesson by itself. 


History IS important because it helps explain why certain people ended up where they did.  Why did my Norwegian great grandfather, Sveinung Aslakson, leave his beautiful country to farm in North Dakota?  That reminds me about who started their blog back in 2000 and I read it faithfully back then.  My Montana cousin, PK Aslakson Madsen, also shares the same great grandfather.  PK, if you are still blogging, I’d give you an Best Blog Dart Thinker Award also. 8)

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Solzhenitsyn’s Purpose According to Natalya

Q: “Life given back to me has not been mine in the full sense: it is built around a purpose,” he [Solzhenitsyn] wrote.  What in your [Natalya Solzhenitsyn] view, has been the core of that purpose?

A: “He himself saw it this way, that God spared him, life was preserved for him, he was not killed in the camps, he was not killed in the army, or by cancer.  Concurrently, he was a witness.  He was born in 1918—born at the same time as the Revolution.  His life mirrored, took place in parallel with, the life of Russia after the Revolution.  He was an unprotected grain in that movement and subject to the wild squalls of Soviet history that he experienced no less than any denizen of that country.  Yet he did not perish, while so many others perished.  He felt it a duty to speak for them, to what he had seen.  He survived, others did not.

For many years he feared greatly he would run out of time, and that is why he did not spare himself, worked tirelessly, and without ceasing.  For some years now he feels a great sense of liberation, and that he has fulfilled in time the chief purpose of his life.”

“Natalya Solzhenitsyn on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn” Center News, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, No. 110, Fall 2007.


The following is from my former pastor’s blog in Minneapolis, Minnesota:

Thank You, Lord, for Solzhenitsyn

August 4, 2008  |  By: John Piper
Category: Commentary

Yesterday Alexander Solzhenitsyn died at the age of 89. I pause here on my vacation in the woods of Wisconsin to say, Thank you, heavenly Father, for the inspiration of this man’s life.

No one did more than Solzhenitsyn to expose the horrors of the failed communist experiment in Russia. Hitler’s purge would pale, if such things could pale, when compared to ten times the carnage in Stalin’s gulags.

Solzhenitsyn inspired me because of the suffering he endured and the effect it had on him. Here is the quote that I have not forgotten. It moves me deeply to this day. After his imprisonment in the Russian gulag of Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labor camps” Solzhenitsyn wrote:

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts…. That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!” (The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Vol. 2, 615-617)

O that I would be done with murmuring against my tiny prisons. Lord, grant me greater faith to live in the coming day when I will say, “Bless you, all hardship and pain! You have cut me off from the death of prosperous idolatry again and again.”

Thank you, God, for the life and work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.




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