Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Russian Schooling

I read this article in the NY Times the other day. It is a fascinating story about a NY Times correspondent that moved to Russia for a few years. He discusses their decision to put their kids, who don't know any Russian at all, in the Russian school system as opposed to in an international school where they would speak and teach in English.

"But when I became a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, my wife and I decided that we wanted to immerse them in life abroad. No international schools where the instruction is in English. Ours would go to a local one, with real Russians. When we told friends in Brooklyn of our plans, they tended to say things like, Wow, you’re so brave. But we knew what they were really thinking: What are you, crazy?"

I'm pretty sure that I would want to do the same thing with my kids, but I doubt that I would actually be able to go through with it. I think it would be a great experience for my kids to experience living in another country and in another culture and to be fully immersed in that culture. I've met plenty of people who lived in other countries, but hardly knew anything about that country because they spent their few years in that country mostly speaking and associating with English speaking people. Sure, they knew more about the country than I did, but their experience seemed to be vastly different than that of these kids.

I think the key for making something like this work, would be finding the right school. The founder/headmaster of this school and the teachers sound excellent.

"When Bogin [founder] was growing up in the Soviet era, the party used schools to mold loyal Communists. Teachers wove propaganda through the lessons and enforced memorization like drill sergeants. Bogin detested it. “I didn’t want to be a slave,” he told me. “I didn’t want to be a person who is ordered and must obey the orders without any thinking. I didn’t consider myself to be a person who repeats texts without any criticism or thinking or any alternatives.

Just as political dissidents fought the Soviet regime, so, too, did others oppose the educational system. Bogin was one of them. After studying English in college and serving in the army, he decided to become the kind of teacher he craved as a child. At a school in the Moscow suburbs in the late 1980s, he challenged pupils to challenge him — and everyone else...

"When I asked Bogin to explain Shchedrovitsky, he asked a question. “Does 2 + 2 = 4? No! Because two cats plus two sausages is what? Two cats. Two drops of water plus two drops of water? One drop of water.”

From there, the theories became more complex. In practice, though, the philosophy meant that Bogin delighted in barraging children with word problems and puzzles to force them to think broadly. It was the opposite of the rote memorization of the Soviet system."

Love it.

And a great story about one of the teachers:

"At the beginning of the year, the other children treated Danya, Arden and Emmett as curiosities. They occasionally mocked the three for their mangled syntax, though the school cracked down on that. Bogin even devised a ploy for Emmett’s class: one of the school’s English teachers conducted a lesson entirely in English. “This is what every day is like for Emmett,” the teacher explained. One boy was so tormented trying to follow along that he burst into tears."


Anyways, it's a great read. The kids naturally start off completely lost and discouraged and come home in tears. The parents question whether they should pull them out of school and if they made the right decision. They almost pull them out after one day but decide to stick by the decision and three years later when they are leaving Russia the kids are fluent in Russian and have made great friendships.

Reading this story made me ponder a few things. First of all, it just reminds me of how resilient people, and especially children can be. They clearly struggled and life was really difficult, but they stuck with it and their decision and I think the entire family would agree that they were glad they did.

I think we as a society, or at least as adults, shun or are embarrassed by struggling or failing. Even though it really is part of life. I'm reminded of this with Win. I know it is small and trivial stuff that he does, but it is inspiring to watch him grow. His life is full of struggles and failures at the moment. He spent weeks just trying to pull himself up to a standing position. Even when he does, he still falls over sometimes. He will usually cry for a bit. But once he is better, he tries again. And again. And again until he gets it. And when he does, he is so proud. He spent weeks trying to pull himself up in his crib. When he finally could do it he was so excited it took him a few hours to finally go to sleep. We would put him on his back and he would just flip over and pull himself up and giggle with excitement that he had finally done it.

The other thing this article made me think about was what I mentioned above about how many people, including myself, would actually do what this family did. It made me think about the many immigrants and people that come to the US and what they must be going through. Granted, I have lived in another country and struggled to learn the language and assimilate myself into the culture. But that was all part of the program I signed up for. This family didn't have to do what they did. There were plenty of English-speaking international schools they could have attended.

I guess I just often look at immigrants and think that if they would just learn the language and try to be more American, then life would be easier for them. First of all, I think many are trying and it's just not easy. And second, I'm already pretty sure that if I went to Russia I wouldn't do what this family did and I would likely spend my three years there partially getting involved with the culture, but also spending a lot of time with any English speaking acquaintances I made. I'm pretty sure most Americans would do the same.

Anyways, I'm not trying to get preachy and this isn't some sort of pro-Dream Act or immigrants rights blog post or anything. I don't know if I have a specific point. Just had one of those moments where my perspective was altered a bit and I realized I can't completely fault some people for their behavior because I'm not sure I would do differently if I was in their situation. I know I, and they, would be better off if they did; as demonstrated by this article. I guess I'm still a little too proud and afraid to struggle and fail. I need to better follow Win's example.


Cherylyn said...

Interesting read and thought provoking Kent! Having been put into English private schools rather than the American school in England for four years, I can attest (even though it was still English speaking) that it is an awesome experience. I DEFINITELY agree that finding the right school is key though and my parents did a heck of a lot of research before they thrust that upon us and it was difficult at times for sure. Clark just started school here in Indonesia at the International School. While it isn't a local school (I would never do that here), Clark has only 1 or 2 other American kids in his class of 18. It is fascinating to watch these kids from Italy, Indonesia, India, Iran, (what's with all the I countries?), Japan, U.K, U.S., and Australia, all get along just great despite their many cultural differences. I love it.

kent said...

Glad you enjoyed it Cherylyn.

Yeah, I think there definitely is some great value in the international schools. I know that is what I would do as well since I'm not bold enough to put my kids in the local schools - especially not in Indonesia. But the exposure to people from all over the world would really be a neat experience for anyone, but especially a young kid. Meeting people from so many different cultures at such a young age would really give him great perspective in life.