Friday, July 30, 2010

Ron's Trip Report

My June 26-July 11 trip was especially productive.

I was able to "debrief" all but two of this past year's teachers; I met and worked with an intern from Wellesley College, Malina Dumas, who is preparing a video to go with the Vladimir history that is now on our website; met two of this summer's four Intensive Russian students; drafted a written proposal for setting up an independent tourism development organization and attempted to move that project forward; met the new director of the Oblast Tourist Information Center—and provided him with what hopefully will be some useful information; helped get things set up for this coming academic year's high school exchange program; attended the first annual AH-sponsored under 18 boy's street ball tournament; worked with Alexei (and subsequently David Johnson) on developing a new writing program for Russian students of English and American students of Russian; and discussed with David (while he was in town) and the Russian staff a variety of issues—and more.

David Johnson is playing an increasingly important role in the Serendipity-Russia (American Home) organization. He taught for three years at the AH—2001-04. He is currently teaching first through third year Russian at Vanderbilt University and is the Group Leader for the University of Arizona’s St. Petersburg Russian program. His contributions to the AH to date have included contacting more than 150 colleges and universities with Russian programs and providing them with information about what we have to offer. As noted previously, this was a major reason we had the largest number of applicants for our teaching positions ever this year -- 38. He also took the initiative in preparing the video about which I have heard only positive comments. And he is actively recruiting students for our Intensive Russian program. Finally, he is providing input on policy and administrative matters.

David clearly has a strong commitment to the AH. I'm sure he will be an increasingly valuable asset in the years to come.

English Program
The outgoing teachers presented me with a number of useful observations -- as did Lena and Olya.

For instance, the teachers pointed out that several of the movies now being used are not working out well. For example, A1 students reportedly have a lot of trouble understanding Forest Gump. They suggested that movie might work well at the “advanced intermediate" (C1 or 2) level.

Does anyone have any suggestions for what might work at the A1 level? (I encouraged considering using at least individual scenes from TV programs like I Love Lucy.)

For the record, some of the movies, for example, Father of the Bride (A2), apparently are a good fit for the level where they are being shown—and are very much enjoyed by the students.

In general, it was clear that this past year's teachers took their responsibilities seriously and worked well together and with the Russian staff. (We have high hopes for an equally good, if not even better experience with the new group of teachers.)

Much to my pleasure, I must admit, the customizing of the English program course materials that I pushed for "practical" reasons has turned out to have substantial substantive value. Both Lena and Olya have acknowledged that, what they initially thought would be time-consuming "busy work," has turned out to be very productive. Lena and Olya are able to target exactly what our students need to learn and to incorporate in the lessons the explanations, exercises, and supplemental materials that, based on past experience, have the best chance of working. In short, the customizing of the lessons is proving to make them more effective and easier for the teachers to present. All this is still taking a great deal of time and effort -- and Lena and Olya, assisted by Brooke Ricker, deserve a great deal of credit for their diligence and creative efforts. In short, this isn't something that just anybody could do.

Some former teachers, particularly Nicole Mercer (in addition to Brooke Ricker), have already made contributions to this effort. If you think you can be of assistance, please don't hesitate to contact Lena or Olya. They can specifically use things like brief, level-appropriate readings and exercises/activities. Ask them for the vocabulary and grammar lists they have prepared. (You can reach them through the AH address:

Malina Dumas is making significant progress on the video for the City of Vladimir section of the history. And she is hoping to complete similar videos for Bogolubovo and Suzdal by the end of her 10 week internship.

The day I left for Moscow -- I overnighted there in order to do some shopping at Izmailovo, the now huge outdoor souvenir and flea market -- Malina was able to show a complete "draft” of the Vladimir section of her video to a small group that had come to town to take exactly the kind of walking tour presented in our "history." Malina has informed me that she received some good feedback. Alexei is continuing to provide suggestions as the work progresses.

I’m looking forward to seeing the final product—and making it available on the Internet.

Malina has also helped make recordings by native speakers of the vocabulary and dialogues for the Z1 course.

Olya is going to be teaching this course beginning in the fall. She will use what we recorded to present the material to the students. We hope to be able to arrange for more professional quality recordings which the students will be able to listen to at home.

Comment from Malina quoted in her hometown newspaper:

This is my third time in Russia, but for the first time I'm really starting to feel integrated into Russian society. Vladimir is a much smaller city than St. Petersburg or Moscow, and very few people speak English here. My Russian is better now than it was during my previous visits, so I have actually been able to make Russian friends and have become very close to my Russian host. I actually feel like she's my own babushka (grandmother).
-The Morning Sentinel, Waterville, ME

Intensive Russian
Thanks to David Johnson’s efforts, he did a great job of getting the word out, Nelli and Tanya, our two excellent Russian tutors, are being kept busy this summer.

Testifying to the program's excellence, the first student this summer had nothing but positive comments to make in his evaluation. For example, he had the following to say about his tutor:

I am very pleased with the way the Russian classes worked out. My teacher [Tanya] was always friendly and encouraging and actually had me speaking with more than just a couple of words or a sentence at a time (a first for me). She was also rather helpful with things outside of just teaching Russian, such as suggestions for things to do and places to go. I would gladly receive further instruction from her.
-Nick Shea, Purdue University

This program should definitely continue to grow.

Tourism Development
With any luck, we have reached a "tipping point" in our tourism development efforts. With significant input from Bruce Wicks, University of Illinois tourism development specialist, Alexei, and others, at the request of the Deputy Mayor responsible for tourism, Galina Vladimirovna, I have prepared a written proposal for the establishment of a Tourism Development Agency which will coordinate and make specific contributions to a comprehensive effort to promote Vladimir as an attractive visitor destination.

As envisioned, this organization will be set up under the "umbrella" of the American Home -- which should help give it some credibility as an independent, evenhanded "tourism development coordinator" worthy of support by the relevant travel agencies, hotels, and other tourism "stakeholders."

I also met with the new Director of the Oblast Tourist Information Center, Vladimir Vasiliev . He just recently took on the position. His background includes running a river kayaking business, teaching at the Tourism Academy for a number of years, and more. He had retired -- but obviously was attracted by the challenge of trying to get something done. In short, he appears to be the right man for the job. His only reason for being there is to try to get results.

Alexei and I told him about the tourism database program that Katya Lakshtanova put together several years ago -- with financial support from Karen Hasara -- as a part of our tourism development efforts. He knew nothing about this -- and was very glad to know that it was available. Getting this program up and running would be a major step.

We hope to work closely with the OTIC -- and other tourism stakeholders. We should be able to coordinate our efforts and just possibly make a significant breakthrough in promoting tourism in the Vladimir region.

High School Exchange
The high school exchange program we are attempting to put together on the foundation laid by the three Fulbright grants is getting off to a decent start.

This past April 3 students and 2 teachers from St. Gregory the Great High School in Chicago spent a week in Vladimir, where they were hosted by families from School #10. This was followed by a second week split between St. Petersburg and Moscow. While the second leg of their journey provided additional insight into the diversity of Russian culture and history, according to the lead trip organizer, the “person-to-person” program in Vladimir was invaluable.

Breanne Goldman -- from the 2008 Fulbright group -- along with her colleague Frank Edgeworth,organized this inaugural exchange program on the American side. Unfortunately, St. Gregory encountered significant financial problems which have resulted in it being unable to host a reciprocal visit. However, Breanne and Frank are independently organizing the group's visit to Chicago, where they will be hosted by families representing several different high schools. This unanticipated diversity should enrich the group’s experience.

The Russians will then travel to Tuscola -- where I am confident small-town Midwest hospitality will add additional valuable dimensions to their visit. Special thanks are due to Tuscola Community High School principal, Kyle Ransom, for being willing to participate in this project on short notice -- and to Katrina Chester, the U of I Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center’s new Outreach Coordinator, for recruiting him. (We are very pleased to have the assistance of the REEEC with developing this new program.)

The end of October, a group from School #36 will be hosted by Mahomet-Seymour High School. This visit is being organized by Tom Murdoch, a participant in the 2004 Fulbright program. Tom traveled to Vladimir this past March as a first step in organizing this exchange. This coming March Tom will take a group of American students and teachers to Vladimir.

In conjunction with the trips, the goal is for there to be substantial communication over the Internet. We hope to see both students and teachers getting involved in exchanging substantive information and ideas in part through the discussion of significant issues of mutual interest. (We are prepared to suggest topics -- and provide relevant readings -- to help get things moving.)

In a good illustration of “serendipity,” we are going to take advantage of the fact that Tom Murdoch’s daughter, Ann, was selected as one of our new teachers. With help from her father, Tuscola principal Kyle Ransom, The REEEC Outreach Coordinator, Katrina Chester—and others—Ann is going to prepare a presentation that will focus on Mahomet and Tuscola.

After Ann’s presentation, if there are no" technical problems," the two Russian groups will have a chance to ask questions of their American hosts via Skype

We hope to be able to expand and develop this program in partnership with the REEEC Outreach Program—and, eventually, other “Russian centers.” There is obvious value in getting kids seriously interested in Russia while they are still in high school. This program will also help young people who don't choose to pursue some form of "Russian studies" to better understand the world around them.

Street Ball
On July 4 we held the first under 18 boy's street ball tournament at a sports camp not far from Vladimir. It was a very pleasant setting -- and the teams played hard. Afterwards I asked the participants if they would like the tournament to continue. They answered unanimously and with enthusiasm, "Yes"! (See pictures of the tournament on Facebook)

Our second tournament for girl's teams is scheduled for September 26.

We can use assistance with getting appropriate items to give out at the tournaments. For each tournament we need 10 identical baseball caps to identify the referees and other tournament officials. We also need small items to give to each of the participants (up to 40 per tournament) -- these don't necessarily have to be basketball-related, just clearly "American" -- plus prizes for the first, second, and third place teams (4 players per team), the MVP, and a few other individual awards. One thing that would be very nice to have is one or more autographed photos from the NBA and WNBA or major university teams (photos of retired professional players would be quite acceptable) that specifically mention the American Home Street Ball Tournament. Digital copies of the photos can be printed as needed.

Additional Projects
On a related matter, Alexander (Sasha) Vlasov, currently a member of the physical education department at the Vladimir Juridical Institute and a coach for three girl's basketball teams, requested assistance with arranging a trip to the States to do research for his "doctoral" dissertation. He wants to compare the American approach to teaching physical education with the Russian approach. David Johnson was able to arrange a one-week stay in Nashville hosted by the University School. Sasha will then spend two weeks in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois as a guest of the Illinois state University physical education teacher training program.

He should be able to get all the information he needs for his dissertation.

As luck would have it, we have another example of serendipity at work. One of the teachers who will be accompanying the Mahomet-Seymour High School group next March happens to be the coach of a junior high school girl’s basketball team. The plan is for her to stay on in Vladimir an extra week or two and present some clinics for local coaches. (She will be following in the footsteps of former University High School varsity coach Cal Hubbard -- with whom Sasha will be staying while he is in Bloomington-Normal.
See the section on basketball on our website for the history of this relationship.)

While Sasha is here we plan on exploring the possibility of setting up a program that will get young people here in States and in Vladimir involved in exploring "cost-effective" recreation possibilities that can be implemented in Vladimir -- where there is an acknowledged problem with a shortage of affordable constructive things for young people to do, especially over the summer when they are out of school.

As chance would have it, a large new park complex is being planned for Vladimir. This proposed "recreation development" project could provide input for the planning of this park. Once again, an opportunity for serendipity to work a little magic....

New Proposal—Writing Exchange

Out of necessity….

Alexei told me that the administration was adding to the teaching load of faculty at the former Pedagogical, now Vladimir State University for the Humanities -- without any extra pay. (I was told the same thing was being done at the Murom Institute.) Alexei wants his students to write as much as possible -- but he doesn't have unlimited time to grade papers. He asked about the possibility of having his students send their essays to American students who could correct mistakes.

We discussed recruiting American students who are studying Russian to help with this chore. The students in Alexei's class could send their comments on the topic under discussion to the Americans who would point out -- and possibly correct -- grammatical mistakes. The Americans would then respond to the content of their Russian partner's essay -- writing in Russian which Alexei's students would correct.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought this would be worth doing -- even without an increased teaching load.

If the students are discussing topics they are really interested in, they should put more effort into trying to communicate clearly. Also, there should be solid educational value in having the Russians and Americans exchange information and engage in critical discussion of, for example, gender relations, whether or not university graduates should be guaranteed employment, and underage drinking. The topics might be assigned by faculty or selected by the students, with faculty approval, or some combination of the two.

We are definitely going to pursue this approach, drawing on the substantial number of Russian language faculty contacts David Johnson has developed in the process of getting the word out about our English language teaching positions and our intensive Russian program.

Another example of serendipity at work?

Life at the American Home

On the Home front, as noted in a previous post, the staff has been hard at work making changes to meet safety code requirements -- and to make the AH a more comfortable and efficient place to work. For example, when I'm not there, "my room” is now used for lessons and office space. We need to get a decent quality "daybed,” so they won't have to set up and take down the existing bed when I come and go.

The primary safety changes are adding a staircase emergency exit from the small basement classroom with the window. (
See the photos posted previously on Facebook.) And relocating the furnace. (According to the Russian safety code, our furnace needs to be at ground-level and with no occupied rooms above it.

The total cost for the furnace relocation is going to be about 1.5 million rubles -- roughly $50,000. Fortunately there is about 1.2 million rubles left in the reserve fund -- after paying for the new staircase. The rest of the cost will be covered by new income.


I very much hope that some of you will find the time to comment on at least parts of this report. The one thing that has been missing so far in our
Facebook and blogging experiments is substantive feedback. In short, please put in your two cents….

No comments:

Post a Comment