Posts tagged Streams in the Desert

UNICEF and Kazakhstan (Part II) and a poem

Yesterday at our Astana International Women’s group meeting, we heard a featured talk given by Hanna who represented UNICEF.  Hanna had many interesting facts to relate about Kazakhstan to nearly 40 expat ladies.  The questions afterwards yielded even more interesting anecdotes from Hanna. Something I just remembered today is that many childbearing women in Kazakhstan are anemic.  She explained that this was due to how the flour in Kazakhstan is milled, it needs the added fortification of iron in it but that is lacking for some reason.  Hanna stated that if it could be legislated that flour be fortified with the iron that women need, they would not die in childbirth or raise children who are also anemic at birth. Simple solutions when facts are known, when people care and are educated.

Kazakhstan enjoys many economic privileges and benefits due to its natural resources but there are still so many needy Kazakh and Kazakhstani people in the rural areas who do not get all the perks.  Hanna’s strongest point yesterday was that if families, who are poverty-stricken, dump their kids off at an orphanage the children’s fate is worse when they turn 18 years of age. They are released from the state-run home and left to fend for themselves. I know that is true because of the work some friends I know in Almaty who work with the disabled “social orphans.”  These unfortunate, cast-off children when they are 18 are put into a mental institution and many of them die or commit suicide.

Hanna emphasized that it is best if the children stay within their family unit or with relatives as the Kazakhs traditionally did in the past before the Soviet era.  Children should not be cast off into an orphanage where there is little hope and where the children are often beaten or mistreated.  Yes, they may be fed but their future is not good.  Another lady from the audience asked “What about the street children?”  Hanna had an answer for that but I don’t remember it.  I think my mind wandered to all the street children I saw in Kyiv, Ukraine.  I don’t see them in Almaty or Astana but I’m sure they are in other cities in Kazakhstan.  It is just too cold in the wintertime for the children to survive on the street in Astana, perhaps they can survive in the winter months in southern Kazakhstan, I don’t know.

Here’s a poem that I like, I’ve probably used it before but it is from Streams in the Desert.  I think that UNICEF can provide a stream of hope in Kazakhstan, they are doing many good works.  But there is much left undone…

Have you heard the tale of the aloe plant,

Away in the sunny clime?

By humble growth of a hundred years

It reaches its blooming time;

And then a wondrous bud at its crown

Breaks into a thousand flowers;

This floral queen, in its blooming seen,

Is the pride of the tropical bowers,

But the plant to the flower is sacrifice,

For it blooms but once, and it dies.

Have you further heard of the aloe plant,

That grows in the sunny clime;

How every one of its thousand flowers,

As they drop in the blooming time,

Is an infant plant that fastens its roots

In the place where it falls on the ground,

And as fast as they drop from the dying stem,

Grow lively and lovely around?

By dying, it liveth a thousand-fold

In the young that spring from the death of the old.

Have you heard the tale of the pelican,

The Arabs’ Gimel el Bahr,

That lives in the African solitudes,

Where the birds that live lonely are?

Have you heard how it loves its tender young,

And cares and toils for their good,

It brings them water from mountain far,

And fishes the seas for their food.

In famine it feeds them—what love can devise!

The blood of its bosom—and, feeding them, dies.

Have you heard this tale—the best of them all—

The tale of the Holy and True,

He dies, but His life, in untold souls

Lives on in the world anew;

His seed prevails, and is filling the earth,

As the stars fill the sky above.

He taught us to yield up the love of life,

For the sake of the life of love.

His death is our life, His loss is our gain;

The joy for the tear, the peace for the pain.

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Teaching our Hearts Out!

You’ve heard the expression, “He is so spiritually minded that he is no earthly good.”  I have a new spin on that regarding teaching “She is so theoretically minded that she is no pedagogically good.”  Last week I asked my writing students three questions related to student-centered vs. teacher-centered and also which teaching methodology fits them best as “digital natives.”  Many of my teaching colleagues who were born and bred in Kazakhstan under the old Soviet system had a lot of theory given to them but were not able to practice anything creatively outside of the box.  

These same teachers are having a difficult time keeping up with the 21st century in our “westernized” university in Almaty. I know that many of my colleagues are trying hard, but there are those who are not. They just gather their paycheck after punching the clock and go home to their families.  I read this in Streams in the Desert today and thought it applies to foreign teachers who are called to this diverse and challenging land of Kazakhstan.

 There is a legend of an artist who had found the secret of a wonderful red which no other artist could imitate.  The secret of his color died with him.  But after his death, an old wound was discovered over his heart.  This revealed the source of the matchless hue in his pictures.  The legend teaches that no great achievement can be made, no lofty attainment reached, nothing of much value to the world done, save at the cost of heart’s blood.

What have you observed as the major difference between your Kazakh teachers versus American or other foreign teachers?

D. – Enthusiasm.  For example, in college and h.s., teachers were not very enthusiastic.  They were not very much interested in teaching in a good quality level.  The situation is much better at our university.  Everybody wants to give us knowledge, but sometimes some teachers feel lack of skills to do it in an interesting, effective way.  Over this background, foreign teachers usually look more preferable.  It looks like they are working not for money, but for idea.  Another thing is that they probably have better education and richer experience.

R. – I think Kazakh teachers have more connections with students outside of class.  Also, during office hours, they can speak about topics which are not related to the subject that they are teaching.

K. – Of course I like foreign teachers! Why? Maybe because I am interested in the way they are teaching, in their language and in their specific behavior.  When you go to their lessons, you start to compare they way of their learning and our Kazakh teachers learning.  Of course, it is more interesting, you have a lot of useful, new information about other countries.  And what about our Kazakh teachers?  They always use info about our country, our culture, all about Kazakhstan!  We always speak about patriotism! I don’t like this.

Also, foreign teachers are more extensive, modern, focus on monitor learning, different tests, use a lot of supplementary material like short videos, movies, sounds, cases and so on.  And all this interests students in the learning.

A. – I like my classes with American teacher, because the language is more clear and understandable, also I am surprised by positive energy of this teacher, because she help me to motivate myself, she can do so many things during the class, as noone can do…Kazakh teacher is also good, but he is boring and classes is not interesting.  So, I think, that American teacher gives us more possibilities to know more and to develop ourselves like individuals.

S. – Foreign teachers are more creative, in particular Americans try to conduct numerous researches, tests including psychological tests.  Another feature they try to connect the practice to the theory.  Also, foreign teachers try to make students be interested in learning process using different creative methods.

 M. – Kazakh teachers try more to obey the rules, while foreign teachers (American) often pay more attention to learning more about the subject by students, making studying more free, actively involving students in discussions.

A.S. – I think the main difference is that our Kazakh teachers are still used to old system of education.   It is because of post Soviet Union system.  Foreign teachers use another way of teaching to involve all students in lessons.  Using modern technology during the lessons and giving a chance to choose topics by own choice – it is beneficial, because students will really be interested in the subject.  Kazakh teachers do not prepare new presentation of lessons for every class but they have ready presentations and program and they just repeat.  Moreover, taking courses from foreign teachers can improve your English.

X. – Foreign teachers relate to students as grown up people, and our Kazakh teachers want to be in the center of classes.  Foreign methods of teaching are better than ours because while in a foreigners class, I feel free and I can tell everything that I think.

Y. – I think foreign teachers are more supportive and helpful to students.  I felt that they always try to help us but here the local (Russian/Kazakh) teachers seem more strict than foreign teachers.

Z. – American teachers are more willing to help others (students) while Kazakh teachers in some cases forgot about helping others.  But at our university all the teachers are qualified and I don’t encounter differences between Kazakh and American teachers.





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Thoughts on Writing and Kazakhstan’s Present “Soviet” Reality

I cherish an older book dating back to 1925 written by a female author, Mrs. Charles E. Cowman. I love the following passage about a musician who played from his heart.  This passage is taken from Streams in the Desert which illustrates a point I try to drive home with my Kazakh students about writing from their hearts. 

“Paganini, the great violinist, came out before his audience one day and made the discovery just as they ended their applause that there was something wrong with his violin.  He looked at it a second then saw that it was not his famous and valuable one. He felt paralyzed for a moment, then turned to his audience and told them there had been some mistake and he did not have his own violin.  He stepped back behind the curtain thinking that it was still where he had left it, but discovered that some one had stolen his and left that old second-hand one in its place.  He remained back of the curtain a moment, then came out before his audience and said:

 “Ladies and Gentlemen: I will show you that the music is not in the instrument, but in the soul.”  And he played as he had never played before; and out of that second-hand instrument, the music poured forth until the audience was enraptured with enthusiasm and the applause almost lifted the ceiling of the building, because the man had revealed to them that music was not in the machine but in his own soul.”

Two years ago when I came to this institution of higher learning where I am currently teaching, there was already a “machine” in place.  Especially true for first year students with the one mandatory Academic Writing class. For emphasis, let me repeat, this was a class where the Kazakh students were only required to take ONE writing class while taking TWO academic listening classes!!! If anything, these Kazakh students who don’t have an adequate grounding in writing in Russian or Kazakh from high school, should have been required to take THREE writing courses in English in order to be on par with any university in a western environment. To become good writers, we all must put in our hours of writing practice.  No different from the great Paganini who put his time in with endless hours of playing his valuable violin.

 When I arrived on the scene and was finally permitted to teach, (there was much dilly-dallying about my coming on board, more about that in tomorrow’s blog entry), I witnessed that the writing syllabus supposedly had rules that were “set down in concrete” about how to write a discursive essay and problem/solution essay by people who themselves do not write much in English.  Perhaps these same teacher-centered teachers know how to write in Russian but if trained under the Soviet system it perhaps was stilted sentences that were politically correct.  Back in the old communist days, truth was suppressed in favor of the party line.  The soul was squeezed out of existence and if you wanted to get ahead, you could not write down your TRUE thoughts no matter how big the problems were. (See yesterday’s blog quote about John Dewey’s theory of problems encourage thought.) What if you had thoughts on how to fix a problem but the bigger problem was that you couldn’t express it, especially in writing?

Let me step back with another question, what do I require from my Kazakh students in ALL my classes? They have to write a LOT and from their heart, NOT just go through the motions.  Especially not doing the simple-minded, plagiarist cut and paste kind of assignments like when I caught one Kazakh girl try with me recently.  For her very first writing assignment during Week One of the semester, it turned out that she had written something that struck me as odd.

The red flag went up with each passing week when I compared her in-class writings with her very first writing assignment sent to me electronically.  She claimed her grandma survived the hard times of the depression and that they had to sell the chicken eggs for one tenge each for a dozen.  First of all, eggs in the former Soviet Union were never sold as a dozen, always sold in ten.  Still true today.  Second, the grandma would have said kopeks and NOT tenge. (new KZ currency as of 1992) 

When I did a simple Google search, obviously my clueless student had lifted this example of an American’s grandma experience during the Great Depression.  How very disrespectful of her own Kazakh grandma!!! Where is the soul or love for her own grandma by writing about someone else’s grandma?  Even when I showed the two examples in my powerpoint to all five of my classes, this girl seemed unashamed.  She didn’t think she had done anything wrong. Later, when I had a chance one-on-one encounter with her, I emphatically said she had better write about her REAL grandma or I would make sure she would be removed from my class, that’s how seriously I take plagiarism.  I had caught her red-handed, but she simply said she was sorry. SORRY!?!?

However, how many of our writing teachers let plagiarized material go for the students’ own written assignments?  It takes extra time to do in-class writing exercises, it takes time to look up the turned in written assignments to make sure it is NOT plagiarized.  Writing takes time!  Teaching writing takes time!!! But if the students’ writing is from their hearts and if it is expressing thoughts that can eventually solve problems, writing is worth it!!!

How many of our writing teachers actually have done the writing assignments they require of their students?  How many of these teachers are bored out of their minds reading through the same material that has encyclopedic, blah blah facts to them?  I tell my students that they must be so invested in their paper that I don’t care if the grammar is out of place or the wrong words might be used, at least they are practicing their writing skills. Paganini did not become a virtuoso overnight. No doubt he played wrong notes all the time in his practice sessions. But he practiced, as we all should in our efforts to write.  I speak for myself.

How many of our writing teachers have plagiarized themselves into a degree of distinction, such as Candidate of Science or MBA or some other masters equivalent?  Naturally, they would steadfastly refuse to admit they stole words from someone else, without the proper attribution. However, if their words in English (i.e. e-mail messages or lack thereof) were scrutinized today compared to their thesis paper done in English to get their coveted degree, they would fall woefully short.  They would be just as guilty as the clueless girl who thought it was okay to copy an American grandma’s experience as her own grandma’s life story.

I strongly believe that writing teachers should LOVE to write and LOVE to read what their Kazakh, Korean and Russian students are writing.  If these two conditions are not met, these “selfish”-made teachers should get out of the business of teaching, especially in a westernized university where writing is how one is promoted.

Tomorrow I will write about my observations of  the “givers and takers” at our “westernized” university.  These two groups of people are in every university, every corporation, and every community.  The “takers” siphon off energy from an organization, no matter what their mission statement is.  Regrettably, the “givers” have to carry the load for the free-loaders of which there are many.

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“The Lake Must Be Calm…”

The following quote is from today’s Streams in the Desert meditation:  “One of the blessings of the old time Sabbath was its calm, its restfulness, its holy peace.  There is a strange strength conceived in solitude.  Crows go in flocks and wolves in packs, but the lion and the eagle are solitaires.  Strength is not in bluster and noise.  Strength is in quietness.  The lake must be calm if the heavens are to be reflected on its surface.”


You can tell it is nearly the end of a busy and LONG semester.  My last four classes will be happening in the next two days. I have immensely enjoyed my hardworking students.  However, as an introvert, I need the break from all the cacophony of demands on my time.  We all need a break, a rest by a lake would be ideal but they are all frozen now.  This poem could apply to my tenure in Almaty, Kazakhstan, a city built up from the valley to the foot of the Tian Shan mountains.


It is well to live in the valley sweet,
Where the work of the world is done,
Where the reapers sing in the fields of wheat,
As they toil till the set of sun.

But beyond the meadows, the hills I see
Where the noises of traffic cease,
And I follow a Voice that calleth to me
From the hilltop regions of peace.

Aye, to live is sweet in the valley fair,
And to toil till the set of sun;
But my spirit yearns for the hilltop’s air
When the day and its work are done.
For a Presence breathes o’er the silent hills,
And its sweetness is living yet;
The same deep calm all the hillside fills,
As breathed over Olivet.”

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Challenging Kazakhstan’s Mountains

Our Internet is still down at home and so when I don’t have anything to write I usually put up photos. Can’t do that today since I’m tapping this blog entry at work and all my photos showing off Kazakhstan are back at my flat on my home computer.

Busy is my day today with preparing for classes as it is soon nearing the end of the first summer session.  Also, I’m getting ready for a conference to present at this weekend.  Much to do and NO time to complain about it so the next best thing is put in a poem I got from Streams in the Desert about mountains.  I looked out this morning when I awoke and our mountain view looked glorious with white puffy clouds and some changes in the color with the shadows in the mountains.  Time for a picture, I thought to myself.  When I looked five minutes later, it was not worthy of a photo.  Kind of like sunrises or sunsets, you HAVE to take the photos that very second, otherwise, if you delay too long the moment has passed, the glory has gone.

There was a scar on yonder mountain-side,
Gashed out where once the cruel storm had trod;
A barren, desolate chasm, reaching wide
Across the soft green sod.

But years crept by beneath the purple pines,
And veiled the scar with grass and moss once more,
And left it fairer now with flowers and vines
Than it had been before.

There was a wound once in a gentle heart,
Whence all life’s sweetness seemed to ebb and die;
And love’s confiding changed to bitter smart,
While slow, sad years went by.

Yet as they passed, unseen an angel stole
And laid a balm of healing on the pain,
Till love grew purer in the heart made whole,
And peace came back again.

I hope to find the article from a Kazakh magazine I just read the other day about some westerners who biked 14 hours across the mountains south into Kyrgyzstan to get to Lake Issykul.  The toughest part was keeping up with their Russian guides who said they couldn’t make it.  Breathing in the high altitude and getting flat tires delayed them a bit too.  But they DID achieve their goal and saw some beautiful mountain views along the way.  Such an extreme sport that maybe these bikers were in too much pain to fully appreciate it.  Usually people hike these mountains and take it in 2-3 days.  I’d like to do that sometime in the future when I’m in much better shape.

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