Posts tagged University of Minnesota

Twenty-seven Questions and First Impressions of Kyrgyzstan (Part III)

My last part of a letter I wrote to Tanya, dated May 8, 1994. She was a teaching colleague and friend at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota where we taught ITAs (International Teaching Assistants) together.
20) How are you surviving in terms of food, heat, housing and friends?
The food has little fiber or what there is might be peeled off because of uncertainty in the pesticides used. I am back to eating the apple skins if they are good apples. Many people eat sunflower seeds everywhere. There is LOTS of meat here so for all vegetarians who plan to come to this part of the world, think again. Many of the Peace Corps volunteers that I trained last summer had to succumb to the lifestyle here or they were forever in a heat about all the meat that was served. It is simply part of this culture, the nomadic tribesmen herding their sheep around.
In fact, yesterday I was at the market wanting to buy some sheep for the manti [steamed meat dumpling] party I was to have with my Kyrgyz students that evening but there was only beef. On my way home I was walking on the sidewalk of the main drag when I saw a sheep running at full tilt down the main street in the oncoming traffic lane. He was being chased by three-four men. I thought to myself, “that was the sheep I need for my party.” The sheep kept getting away from the men and probably was hit by a car. It is unusual to see a live sheep in the middle of an urban setting, they are EVERYWHERE out in the country. Food is plentiful and the vegetables are seasonal. The winter months there were no cucumbers or tomatoes but now that is ALL that you will see for salads at restaurants for the next six months.
As far as heat, I had a cold apartment but that is because the windows are not insulated well. This is because of poor workmanship. However, the winter months here are mild compared to Minnesota winters. I didn’t suffer too badly from my cold apartment since I had an electric heater and blanket. I love the place where I live, seven stories up with a view of the mountains from the east AND west sides. I pay $130 a month for a four room “flat.”
You asked about friends…I have my teacher friends and I have friends that I made through Peace Corps, the sauna, and also the church that I attend. There are plenty of people here I can go to plus I have e-mail so that I can keep up with old friends back in the States!
21) Have you had to deal with any shortages?
No, not like when I lived in China (1986-88) where they didn’t have sugar for a time or butter at other times. But yes, because they don’t have peanut butter or brown sugar or Stateside items like that, I just bring it with me when I have a chance to go home. We do not have massive shortages that I am aware of like I experienced in China or that they have in Mongolia, for instance. Also, I have money that can buy me more things whereas the local people on their subsistence living could probably tell you about shortages.
22) Have you had many opportunities to get to know any of the faculty there?
Yes, my dean, of course we are becoming friends in a professional sense. Others that I teach pronunciation to, I have had them over for a manti party. I don’t feel particularly close to any of my Kyrgyz teaching colleagues since they often have more than one job to supplement their income. They are busy with family too.
23) Have you been able to make many friends with the locals? As I mentioned before, I have my sauna friends and my landlady is my friend, as is my Russian teacher. I have not invested a lot of time in getting to know their culture by going to their homes and participating in their traditions. It would be a Russified form and not a true picture of the real Kyrgyz.
24) How would you typify the culture? It is a sort of hybrid of Russian and Kyrgyz, more heavily influenced by the Russian communist way of thinking. Perhaps there is some Asian way of thinking but compared to the Chinese I know and living in China, the Kyrgyz are more westernized. By the way, they have a strong dislike for anything Chinese! Carryover of Russia’s prejudice against their formidable border foe.
25) Would you say that it is heavily influenced by Russian culture, Turkish culture, Mongolian or what?
As mentioned already, the Russians have heavily influenced the capital city and the Turkish language has had a heavy influence in the Kyrgyz language. Perhaps if you went out to the countryside, the Mongolian presence would be strong, but I don’t know.
26) Do you feel it is easy to get to know people or do you find the people to be somewhat reserved?
They are fairly easy to get to know and rather “too” straightforward about their opinion sometimes. (Russian influence) They are not reserved like the Chinese I know. In fact, most of the Kyrgyz students I have are quite extroverted and outgoing. Their speaking skills are very good for never having had a native speaker talk to them before this year.
27) How are you looked upon being a single woman?
It is much easier to be single here in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan than it was in China. There they thought something was wrong with you if you weren’t married by age 25. Here, for foreigners, they made allowances up to 30. But here in Bishkek they seem to have a more westernized view of life and again this is my views from the people in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps in the countryside they would think that I should be married with seven kids by now.
Tanya, that is all for now. Hopefully I have shed some light on the little bit that I know about this Kyrgyz culture. I remember a year ago I had these same questions. So answering them now to the best of my abilities made me think that I have actually learned something about this culture and am happy to share it with you.
By the way, Tanya, your name is very popular here. One of my best friend’s name is Tatyana, she is living in Almaty, Kazakhstan and her friends call her Tanya for short. I hope this has helped you and that you apply for a Fulbright here because they would love to have your expertise…

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TESOL sessions attended and Kazakhstan’s education

Starting early at my first 7:30 a.m. session, which feels like mid-day to me in my jet-lagged state, I learned more about a new tool called Lexile.  The session was titled “Using TOEFL Reading Scores to Differentiate Instruction.” I’ll learn more about this at the Technology Pavilion in the Exhibit Hall sponsored by ETS and the TOEFL Assessment “U.”  Knowing more about this will help with improving our Kazakh students reading scores.

Next session from 8:30-9:30 were three “luminary speakers” in the Grand Ballroom discussing “TESOL: Past, Present and Future.” Funny, especially Andy Curtis, but the other two Kathi Bailey and David Nunan were mildly entertaining.  They could have left off their political commentary going back to the 1960s when TESOL first started.  They depicted in their powerpoint, my Cold War heroes, President Ronald Reagan as a two-bit actor and Margaret Thatcher as a shop-keeper’s daughter.  They mimicked a lot from Obama, so clearly the presenters thoughts were that all smart people voted for Obama and the other side were idiots. Not too luminary in their thinking on that score.

From 10:00 to 10:45 I went to the Westin hotel next to the HUGE convention center to see my friend from the University of Minnesota who has made a name for herself working in the ITA (intl. teaching assistants) program I started out teaching once I got my Masters degree in 1990.  The title was intriguing “What ITAs should know about U.S. Nonverbal Classroom communication.” Colleen wasn’t there so I hope to catch up with her today.  I went to the Publishers Hall and bought some things like textbooks and other gift items.

The best session I attended with 50 people in the room was titled “Where’s the Money!!” Achieving Program Financial Stability” by Dr. Jim Pettersson. He explained in 45 minutes how their Language Center went from being state-appropriated funded to being self-funded. He explained the reasons for the change and the advantages and disadvantages.  He had a very thorough handout that discussed his business plan, the marketing used, enrollment and tuition compared to the competition.  Very informative.

Then at 12:30 I attended the poster sessions and wanted to find out more about how one person from New Orleans used movies in the ESL classroom.  That interest also coincides with my going to the ETS booth and getting another YouTube video done of me where I talk about using video clips in the classroom to encourage students to write.  Especially those clips that have surprise endings, the students WANT to express themselves.  Other good sessions were represented in one big room with handouts galore.

At 1:00 to 1:45 I attended a Discussion group session that was very appropriate for my situation in my new job in Astana, Kazakhstan “How ESL Teachers Become ESL Managers.”  I especially liked when one of the three talked about the hardest part of her job as a manager was to dismiss people because of budget cuts but then also the advantage of her position was that she enjoyed bringing four fellow teachers that she was mentoring to the TESOL conference.  All three told it like it is, very refreshing to hear and see their openness about their positions as administrators.  A lot of time commitment to answering e-mails and yet juggling their roles with their family responsibilities.

From 2:00-3:00 I attended a workshop titled “Educational Cultures in Conflict” and there were about 35 people in attendance. We discussed “culture bumps” and did a “Forced Choice Ladder activity”  I especially liked a quote that was on the handout written by Steven Simpson in 2008.

“The first misinterpretation Western teachers’ face is with the country and/or school; are you being asked to bring your pedagogical expertise or simply your linguistic expertise? “  Simpson goes on to write about three stages of acculturation:

1)   Baggage Brought – prior experience and expectations of the Westerner

2)   Hand Dealt – awakening stage in which EFL teachers start to understand the reality and constraints of the local context

3)   Fertile Soil – emerging, personal and professional issues in which the Western teacher begins to negotiate decisions in a more culturally sensitive and professionally productive way.”

Yes, this needs to be sorted out once our new university receives the western teachers to Astana.  I believe there are more layers of complexity than what Simpson describes but this was just a teaser.  My blog the last several years attests to what I have been struggling with as far as conflicts in educational cultures, West meets Kazakh/Soviet.

From 3:00 to 3:45 there was “The Role of the Administrator in a Learning Organization” – the abstract explains what our current situation is in Astana “Managing educational institutions is about articulating countless variables amidst constant change…What do institutions need to succeed? What can administrators do to ensure it?”  More on that topic later…

By 4:00 p.m. I was fairly tired and ready for a long winter’s nap even though it had been sunny most of the day in Boston.  I was fortunate to run into a graduate school friend of mine from U of Minnesota who had asked me to take an anthropology class with him.  Thom Upton went on to get his Ph.D. and because of that lousy class we took together, (misery loves company), I was able to finish my M.A. within two years.  But I’ll also be forever indebted to Thom for telling me about the TEFL trainer job opening in Kazakhstan back in April 1993 when one month later I found myself in Almaty, training Peace Corps volunteers and I met my husband at that time in Kazakhstan.  Ah, such romance with my dear Dr. Ken Gray!

Also in that same era of May 1993 I met Elizabeth Macdonald in Washington D.C. before we pushed off for Central Asia and she has been in and out of my life ever since. She was the skilled TEFL trainer in Bishkek Kyrgyzstan and then we lived blocks from each other in the Washington D.C. area after I got married to Ken.  I ran into her after meeting with Thom at the conference and we had coffee together catching up.  Meeting Thom and Elizabeth capped off an already good day. I look forward to what is in store for me today with learning more about TOEFL all day at the Technology Pavilion.

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Thoughts on Old Books and Kazakhstan’s Future

I love old books.  Their archaic language and non-politically correct rhetoric contrasts with where digital thinking has taken us into the twenty-first century.  I particularly love the books with yellowed pages which are heavily underlined or highlighted.  They are marked up in the margins because earlier readers have diligently pored over their contents and absorbed their most salient thoughts.  Perhaps digital thinking has too much of the special effects and mumbling going on, just like Hollywood’s contemporary movies.  Where are the movies that spit out good and snappy lines that zing?  Where are the books?

I know I am getting into dangerous territory when I start to define “old” because a book I picked up to read the other day (which I carried in my 50 pound limited suitcase from the U.S.) was younger than me.  The first edition came out in 1962 titled “Thinking and Speaking: A Guide to Intelligent Oral Communication.”  The authors: Otis M. Walter and Robert L. Scott, the latter from my alma mater of University of Minnesota, had many nuggets of wisdom to grasp.  I especially liked the chapter dealing with “thoughts on problems.”  We have plenty of problems at our university.

I particularly liked Scott’s quoting John Dewey, the much revered educational philosopher who believed  “a problem is necessary to start thought.”  Dewey also claimed, “No man, even begins to think until he first notes a perplexity, a need, or a ‘felt difficulty.’”  Oh, yes, we have plenty of “felt difficulties” in our Kazakh run department at our “western-style” university.  *I* feel the difficulties. Professor Scott also wrote that when we are absorbed in petty problems, our thoughts are correspondingly petty.  So true, so true.

For example, last year I recall when our faculty were all gathered together to express concerns to those high up in administration.  It seemed not many had anything to say about what bothered them.  Though under the surface I knew there were MANY problems in our department.  People were afraid to speak out because of potential reprisals against them later.  Repression against my fellow teachers takes on many forms.  Such was the stilted atmosphere in this mandatory gathering where one bravely ventured to talk about how bad the food was at our student canteen.  I begged to differ because I recall when I was on this same campus in 1993, the canteen had watered down gruel or porridge for breakfast and carrot slop every day for lunch and supper.  They also had forks with only 2 tines instead of the standard four.  Don’t pick on the food people. Let’s look at the “food for thought” and what passes for education at our institution of higher learning.  Not our finest moment when educators collectively look to an easy target, such as the student canteen, instead of the “elephant in the room” problems that continue to exist.

According to this old book, when we look at civilization, problems bring out man’s best.  Arnold Toynbee showed that “each civilization of the past arose, not because the living was easy and man had time to think, but because the living was extremely difficult and to survive, man was jolted into the necessity of thought.”  Henri Bergson was added in his quote, “Those societies that have remained primitive, are those that the living was too easy and which never required stretching minds to solve demanding problems.”  I think Kazakhstan have very fine minds because they were stretched in solving problems on how to survive the rugged steppes for 1,000s of years.

The motivation to survive as a culture or society presents problems no matter what age we live in.  Kazakhstan wants to be considered one of the top 50 nations amongst other developed nations by 2030.  I witnessed when I taught in China in 1986-88 that my Chinese students wanted to help their “Motherland.” Back then I kept hearing that it was all about reform, reform, reform.  Look where China is today as an economic powerhouse? (never mind the human rights issues)  There can be the energizing forces that stimulate activity and drives man on to greater achievements. Or so this old book went on to posit.  I asked my listening students for examples of what cultures have thrived and survived because of difficulties and which ones have had it easy and are still primitive.  We had a lively discussion concerning Eskimos compared to those who live in the tropics and those who live in other developed cultures.

I next talked about creativity and my Kazakh students were very aware of the saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  But there needs to be a perceived need for a change.  Some of the older Kazakh teachers are fine with the status quo, some are still living in the twentieth century and not wanting to engage their students in this century’s digital age.  I could write much more about this topic, at a later date when I gather more information from my students about their being “digital natives.”  I focused on creativity in art is an artist’s wish to express something in a different way from the current style.  For many of my teaching colleagues who were trained in the Soviet way of thinking, they tend not to “think outside the box.”  They still believe that “initiative is punitive.”  If they are creative with solving problems, they think they will be punished.  Perhaps that is true, so petty problems continue to produce petty thoughts.

My final point that I brought up with my listening students was about democracy.  The authors of the book claimed that only a democratic state has institutionalized the possibility of locating and solving problems.  In our institution, and particularly in my department, I think there is too much top down direction and no chance to address concerns or problems in a democratic way.  Another way to put it according to Professor Scott, “only a democratic state is persistently responsive to problems of the people and thus offering a possibility of continued growth through perpetual problem solving.”  I wish it might be true about our middle management in our department, but sadly they are caught up in their own petty manipulations.

Therefore, the reason I am still here in Kazakhstan after two years as a western teacher is that I can be a change agent for good.  I agree with the authors when they write, “Problems are the great dynamos behind the development of man and his society.”  Our institution should be more intentional with its motto, “Education to change society.”  I think that when working with the future of Kazakhstan, there can be dynamic changes for the good of the whole country.  As a listening and writing teacher, I look into one hundred faces of these future “change agents” every week in my five different classrooms.  They are Kazakhstan’s hope.  However, unsolved problems within our own department “is the cancer that weakens and destroys an institution or a civilization.”  Let that not be so.

(Thoughts to be continued)

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Calibrating our Scores in Coordinated Writing Courses

Our Academic Reading and Writing teachers had a very good rubric to score each others’ students writing by during “Reading Week” what should be REALLY considered our mid-semester break. “Break,” meaning a rest from the usual grind.  I suppose everyone has their own definition of what a “break” constitutes.  It would seem that something fell apart in the implementation of calibrating our scores when we put our students’ discursive essays all together to divide out amongst the nine of us teachers. Turns out there were five of us for Stage One of our experiment of politely working together.


Keep in mind that we are all professionals with busy lives of our own, therefore, we did NOT want to spend hours quibbling over the finer points of how to grade our students on three different types of questions.  Seems that my students had the more complex question to answer about the destruction of the Aral Sea, the others were straightforward, something like:  “Discuss if the Aral Sea should be revived or let it die?” or “What is more likely, was the Aral Sea destroyed by man-made factors or natural causes?”  In some cases, upon getting the results back for my students’ essays, I had high scorers give their feedback to my students mid-term exams. I know the student, I would have graded lower.

Unfortunately, other scorers just did the easy way out and did the copy-cat rating of the first rater’s score.  We were ideally supposed to have two raters score the same essay twice.  I rated over 50 essays when all was said and done.  I only have about 30 students.


After nine weeks of working with my students, I know their abilities and strengths.  I also know the ones who don’t show up for class and are lazy.  Most of those have already been withdrawn from my class or curtsied out on their own.  Those who have remained on my class roll have faithfully done their reading and writing homework assignments which amounts to 30% of their grade plus three vocabulary quizzes on the textbook units.  The mid-term exam has 20% of the weight, according to our syllabus. 


Here is the start of the inequities I observed in this erratic scoring.  In one case, a student of mine who was averaging 23% in his assignments and quizzes got 75% for his mid-term essay grade. He is retaking the course, so perhaps he knows how to take tests and doesn’t want to be bothered with going to my class.  However, two other girls, who are very consistent, hard workers with an average of 83% and 88%, were rated the same 55% for their mid-term exam.  Another student who has the abilities but doesn’t show it in his scores got 90% on his midterm but is averaging 60% in my class!  What gives!!!


I am VERY discouraged with our cross-checking amongst my teaching colleagues of mid-term essays between raters from very divergent teaching backgrounds. I am used to having weekly meetings when I taught ITAs at the University of Minnesota and we concertedly worked together to be on the same page. We necessarily had to calibrate our scores all the time. It is quite depressing that I’ll have to ask a third rater to analyze the work my students did. 

As it stands, I can NOT give back the essays or their midterm grades tomorrow in class, it will have to wait until Thursday.  That goes for about half of my students. I have been watching my students’ progress over these past nine weeks, some have made major improvements. I am very proud of most of them. It does not speak well for me as their teacher to have so many with failing midterm grades.  So the question remains, am I in the way of my students’ learning?  I certainly hope not.


A 50 minute sampling hardly shows the abilities of students’ hard work in writing over the course of nine weeks.  Over the course of the semester, the ONE and ONLY semester these students will get in academic writing, it takes writes and re-writes to do this kind of skill justice.  Of course, I enjoy those eager students who really, really want to improve their writing too.  I am not interested in haphazard students.  Also, I’m not concerned about grammar but content and passion to get the main point across.  That is what I try to inculcate into my students. (sigh) Well, we WILL prevail with our final and second essay of the semester called a Problem and Solution essay.  Seems we have a classic problem with how we teach this writing course.  I am open to suggestions on how to solve the problem of getting our students to write plagiarism-free essays that are interesting for the teachers to read and grade.


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O Little Hills Skipped Like Lambs

Waking up at 5:00 am to the coolness of the morning, I made a beeline for our north balcony to witness the pink of the pre-dawn sky to the east. After making my coffee, I went to my meditation spot looking out to the mountains from our south windows.  I did my daily reading and sipped my coffee gazing to the foothills and the snow peaked mountains above.

Today I was reminiscing and reflecting on where I was 16 years ago.  I was in the Twin Cities teaching ITAs (International Teaching Assistants) at the University of Minnesota. I was also in self-imposed physical training for the Twin Cities marathon (26 miles) for October 1992 when thousands of runners come from all over the U.S. to run it.  I was in top physical condition usually running in 5, 10 or 15 kilometer races every other weekend.  I ran a few half marathons of 13 miles but that was many, many pounds ago.

Sadly I sustained a stress fracture during a 10 K I was running a day after I had peaked at 20 miles in my training for the THEE marathon in my home state.  The Twin Cities Marathon was meant to be my farewell run around all my favorite lakes in the Twin Cities before I headed to Central Asia to teach on a Fulbright Scholar grant in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  I was averaging less than 8 minute miles, I repeat myself, I was in top physical form.  I LOVED the freedom of running, especially in the early morning hours when there were no cars or people around, it was peaceful and cool!  Minneapolis is an attractive city in the summer and fall, especially in the fall with the autumn leaves.

When I first arrived in May 1993 to Almaty as a Peace Corps trainer, I took to the hills with the same energy I used while going up and down the hills near the Mississippi River.  For exercise in Almaty and taking a break from Peace Corps training, other trainers and I battled the dusty switchbacks to get to the top of Kok Tobe.  Back then, the cable car was in sad disrepair and everything appeared to be in past tense of Soviet glory days.  Kind of like me today when I will traverse up the back roads to Kok Tobe.  Right now, I feel so past tense concerning physical exertion.  I’ll be with my Minneapolis friend Kim, from 20 years ago who has lived in Kazakhstan since 1995.  I’ll be huffing and puffing, like a cigarette smoker, while she will be skipping along the road like a frisky lamb.  Kim is in superior condition because she is an aerobics instructor; I’m a writing teacher chained to my desk.

I can’t help but reflect on what shepherd boy turned into King David penned in Psalms 114 when the Jewish people were delivered from their captors in Egypt, from verses 4-6: “The mountains skipped like rams, the little hills like lambs.  What ails you, O sea, that you fled? O Jordan, that you turned back? O mountains, that you skipped like rams? O little hills, like lambs?”

What imagery did David have in mind with mountains quaking and moving?  Mountains and hills should remain stationary, it is the rams and lambs duty to flit about from rock to craggy rock. The next verses might explain: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a fountain of waters.”  Apparently King David desired his readers to know that God is in control and all powerful.

My thoughts sadly return to the Chinese who have suffered from a recent earthquake and aftershocks where they have positively witnessed the movement of what seemed stable.  Now they have dams that could possibly break and flood their homes, will their suffering ever cease?  King David wants his audience to know, God is in control and He will bring deliverance as He did with the Israelites.

Therefore, my thoughts turn to the Chinese sad plight and not my own of not being able to skip up the path like a lamb to Kok Tobe.  It should be a fun morning being with my long time Minnesota friend Kim and witnessing the changes of our walk from what I remember 15 years ago.

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