Posts tagged Zoya

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Please read two days of prior blog postings to understand that my source is from an unpublished manuscript by Frank R. Thoms.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.”

Leave a comment »

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.”




Leave a comment »