Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lena & Olya's US Trip--Thoughts & Comments


Lena Belova and Olya Solovkina, the AH's two exceptionally capable, conscientious, and personable Teacher Supervisors and beginning-level teachers, finally made it to the States.  I had suggested the trip a  year earlier, but ultimately decided that it would be best for us to concentrate the available resources, including time, on the preparations for the AH's 20th anniversary celebration in 2012.  (Click here  for the anniversary Facebook album.)

Lena and Olya were delightfully inquisitive -- and at the same time willingly responded to any and all questions asked of them.  

They clearly learned much of value to the American Home English  program.

I want to personally thank everyone who contributed to making their trip possible--and productive (see the partial list in Olya and Lena's essay below) and to encourage comments.  (Click here for the Facebook album on their trip.)

Ron Pope

Our First Trip to America
A more valuable experience than words or pictures can fully convey

By Olya Solovkina & Lena Belova, American Home Teacher Supervisors

Our April 24-May 7, 2013 trip was both professional and cultural. While the  founder of the American Home, Dr. Ron Pope, took care of our official itinerary, and his wife, Susie, provided invaluable assistance, the current American Home teachers also contributed to the agenda.  They brainstormed a “must-do-in-America” list for us. This included visiting a Wal-Mart; and eating a real hamburger, Chicago pizza, and Kansas barbeque—all some very American things that the teachers thought we should experience first-hand. We are quite proud to report that we were able to check off everything on the list. 

Our trip was planned so that we had the opportunity to stay in both large cities and small towns. We were very grateful for the opportunity to see the famous megalopolis of Chicago as well as small communities in Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. Since this was our first trip to the US, every kind of experience was interesting and welcome.

During our stay in Normal, Illinois we had a chance to visit a public elementary school where we taught a lively 4th grade class the Russian alphabet. 

Teaching the Russian Alphabet

Our presentation was followed by a lot of questions. For example, the children were interested in our itinerary, our first impressions, and the things we had been able to do so far – which was not much since we had just arrived the day before. When they learned that we were going to go to Chicago for the weekend they suggested that we visit their favorite places, like the Lego store (which we did visit) and the aquarium (which, unfortunately, we didn't have time to see).  We were surprised to find out that these children knew where Russia is and what language is spoken there.

After the class presentation, with the 4th grade teacher, Mr. Vogel, as our guide, we explored the school, peeking into different classes, the physical therapy room for children with special needs; and a classroom for preschool children that included hatcheries for baby chicks which had had their downy feathers dyed, so that the kids could more easily see the change from babies to adults.

Preschool classroom
Chicks with newborn feathers dyed
The schools in general (both the lower grades and the universities) have a great variety of facilities available for their students to make the learning environment engaging and effective, as well as contributing to their physical health.  For example, the elementary school had a large, well equipped gym, as well as plenty of outdoor playground equipment, and Illinois State University has a new and very impressive recreation center. (Click here for the Facebook album on the basketball program that includes a tour of the ISU rec center.)

Sugar Creek Elementary School gym
Recreation equipment storage

At the universities we visited we were very much impressed with the typical language classroom settings and special facilities our American colleagues have available to them, including "smart boards" and language labs.

Overall, we were impressed by how "customer-friendly" and convenient everything is in the States. We had only positive experiences dealing with various salespeople, waiters, and clerks. We also noticed how well organized and managed everything seemed to be in museums, railway stations, and the other facilities we saw.

As far as the professional part of the trip was concerned, we had the opportunity to observe ESL classes and talk with our American colleagues at three universities. These were Illinois State University in Normal, the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, and Kansas University in Lawrence. 

As we had assumed would be the case, we learned some really interesting teaching techniques and activities. We were also very excited to observe and, actually, help co-teach a very effective pronunciation class at the University of Illinois.  

In addition to the practical things we learned, there was another very important outcome from these meetings and class observations. We knew that the teaching philosophy we follow at the American Home is widely considered by ESL professionals to be the most effective approach for teaching a second language. But still it was very encouraging to see the communicative method in action in American universities. It was reassuring to see American ESL specialists using, by and large, the same techniques and activities that we use in our school in Vladimir.

At the American Home, the teachers are fortunate to have a chance to experiment, that is, to try new things in class—as opposed to having to stick to an established set of teaching tools. We have always considered this flexibility to be one of our most valuable assets. So now we are free to implement in the American Home English program the great ideas and techniques we were introduced to during our US tour. We are confident they will make a significant contribution to improving our program.

We hope it will be possible to stay in touch with at least some of the creative and experienced specialists we met.  It is exciting to contemplate the contribution they can make to our ongoing efforts to make our program in Vladimir more effective.

In summary, our first trip to the States was a fantastic experience from which we learned even more than we had anticipated.

We would like to specifically thank the people who directly helped make this trip possible – and unimaginably  enjoyable and productive:

-Ron and Susie Pope, for organizing the trip and taking us everywhere we needed to go while we were staying in Normal;
-Krista and David Leach and their kids for welcoming us into their very comfortable home in Normal;
-Kasia Stadnik, Director of ISU's English Language Institute, and her colleagues for sharing their extensive experience (see the Facebook album);
-Tricia Goebel, for hosting us in Chicago and for sharing this great city with us;
-Meredith Clason and her family for the wonderful Saturday night dinner in Chicago (We regret that we didn't get any photos of that wonderful evening – but at least you can read Meredith's comments below);
-Laura Hahn, Director of the U of I's Intensive English Institute, and Andrew Hunt (who invited us to help him in his pronunciation class);
- TESL specialists Irene Koshik and Fred Davidson from the Dept. of  Linguistics at the University of Illinois for their time and suggestions;
-Nancy Hughes for organizing the Kansas part of our adventure and for hosting us while we were there;
-William Comer, Elizabeth Gould, and Marcellino Berardo at Kansas University for pleasant and productive meetings;
- and last, but not least, the American Home English program and the former teachers and other friends of the AH who made our great adventure financially possible.


Documenting the documentation

Getting a different perspective

"At home" in Normal

Dinner at Chez Clasons, April 27th
Meredith Clason
We Clasons really enjoyed hosting Lena, Olya, Tricia  and Laura.*

It was hard to decide what to cook, given that “American cuisine” encompasses so many things beyond the iconic  [pizza,] hamburgers, and hotdogs. We settled on food from the southeastern part of the country. We lived in North Carolina for many years – both of our daughters were born there – and so ‘southern cooking’ seemed appropriate. I wasn’t sure what everyone liked to eat and if there were dietary restrictions, so I made several different things with the hope that everyone would find SOMETHING they enjoyed. We made pulled pork BBQ for sandwiches with slaw made from kale (instead of cabbage); chicken and dumplings; homemade macaroni and cheese; a mess of greens; and corn muffins.

In lieu of a fancy dessert, we indoctrinated Lena and Olya into the American camping tradition of S’Mores. We have a small fire pit in our backyard (what’s that adage “You can take the Clasons out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the Clasons”) and we had a bonfire and toasted marshmallows for S’Mores. What can be more American than that? It was fun and something a bit unexpected given that we live in an urban environment. We even had a brush with some local wildlife – an opossum (the least attractive marsupial in the repertoire) decided to join the party. It’s a shame that none of Lena’s photos turned out. She was brave and got quite close to the possum to get a snapshot).

It sounds as though Tricia was a WONDERFUL hostess (I’m not at all surprised) and that the ladies had a lot of fun adventures during their short stay in Chicago. We are very pleased that they were able to sneak in a visit to the South Side and have dinner with our family.

NOTES:  Meredith Clason is Associate Director, Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies at the University of Chicago.  She co-led (with Dr. Pope) a 2008 Fulbright trip for American social studies teachers for which the AH made all the in-country arrangements.  Tricia Goebel is a former student of and graduate assistant for Dr. Pope at ISU.  She has been living in Chicago for a number of years and likes nothing better than to show off her city to visitors.  (See her comments below.)  Laura Meany taught full time in the AH English program for the 2001-02 academic year.  The next academic year she taught part time for the AH at the Kraft chocolate factory in Pokrov while studying Russian at what was then Vladimir State Pedagogical University.  According to Laura, her "ability to speak Russian" was a major contributing factor to her landing her first job after she returned to the States.  This was with a "DC-based nonprofit foundation that sponsored collaborative research between former Soviet scientists and US researchers."  She now works for a consulting firm that advises organizations on the management of large grants.  In July 2013 she relocated from Chicago to Denver. 

Some Comments from Professional Contacts

"It was so nice for all of us at ELI to meet our Russian colleagues--Lena and Olya--and hear about their experiences with teaching English in Russia.  We were impressed by the materials they were able to put together for their students in Vladimir."

Dr. Kasia Stadnik, Director
English Language Institute
Illinois State University

"We at the Intensive English Institute enjoyed the opportunity to meet with Lena and Olya. Their energy and enthusiasm for language teaching was inspiring!"

Dr. Laura Hahn, Director
Intensive English Institute
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Bloomington-Normal Host Family

David and Krista Leach

When we found out that a family was needed to host two people from the American Home in Vladimir, Russia, we knew right away that we wanted to be that family.  We have four young children and knew that it would be something they would both enjoy now and remember for years to come.   

It was a joy to share our home for the week and to be both students and teachers at the same time.  Lena and Olya are natural teachers and took right away to sharing examples of the Russian alphabet and culture with us through games and toys they had brought with them.  Hosting them was a great experience that we will not soon forget!

Chicago Host

Tricia Goebel
BA, Russian Studies,
MA,  Political Science, Illinois State University

When Dr. Pope mentioned he had two of the staff from the American Home coming to visit the US, he said he’d like them to see Chicago for a day.  I refused to have them here for only a day.  You can’t see Chicago in a day!  They ended up arriving on a Friday evening on the AMTRAK train from Bloomington-Normal and departing Chicago on Monday morning on the AMTRAK to Urbana-Champaign.

On their arrival, I immediately recognized them in Union Station from their photos on the American Home Facebook page.  We went to the Adler Planetarium promontory that night, to look out over the city, before I even took them home.  They were delighted by the scope of the city and all the water.

It was a perfect weekend --  which made it possible to see a lot, beginning with Navy Pier.  They wanted me to join them on the giant Ferris wheel with its stunning view of the city.  Their enthusiasm overcame my innate fear of heights.  From there we went to see the “bean” and the fountains where the kids play.  They ran in the fountains too.  Our conversations were as varied as possible.  One of the things they shared was that after staying in such varied places as my condo in Chicago and their hosts relatively large new home in Normal, they now had a much better appreciation of how the visiting teachers lived when they were home.  They both thought what they were learning about living conditions in America would make it easier for them to connect with the teachers, particularly when they were missing something from back home.  Little things an American probably wouldn't give much thought to such as toaster waffles were a special treat. (I promise that’s not all they ate in Chicago.) 

Lena and Olya were lovely guests.  They mentioned that hospitality and a good nature were things Russians and Americans have in common.  I hope they will come again.  My greyhound, DJ, and I await their arrival! 

They, in turn, invited me to visit Vladimir.   I was last there in the fall of 1991 when Gorbachev was interned at the Black Sea during the last ditch effort by the old guard to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union.  They informed me that, among other things, consumer goods are much more available, and there are more things to do.  For example, Olya goes to the gym daily -- something I don't think would have been possible when I was last there.

Lena and Olya are fashionable and smart women who love their families and love to share their home country and their city with visitors to the American Home. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to share some of Chicago with them.

Kansas Host

Nancy Hughes

The time Lena and Olya spent with me at the end of their May-June 2013 US trip felt like the mirror image of my time in Russia. I wanted to experience Russian culture first hand, observing how people live their daily lives. I was interested in such prosaic questions as how do people organize their days; where do they shop; what do they eat; how do they bank; what mode of transport do they use? I was also interested in how everyday people work and relax and how they entertain themselves. Olya and Lena appeared to have a similar curiosity about the US and enthusiastically threw themselves into whatever experiences were offered. 

The time they spent immersed in US "realia" up close and personal, should enhance their ability to explain the American understanding of terms related to, for example, social interaction.  It's one thing to say that people are the same the world over, which I believe to be true in general; but it's also true that we have our unique cultural experiences that influence our understanding of individual words and expressions. Based  on their personal experience, Lena and Olya should be better equipped, for instance, to explain the American understanding of the concept of "customer service" in restaurants, stores, and public institutions like the post office.

NOTE:  In 2011 Nancy, who is semiretired, spent the better part of three months  studying in the American Home's Intensive Russian program in Vladimir.


  1. I want to encourage anyone with anything to say about Lena and Olya's "great adventure" to post a comment.

  2. What a nice post it is ! I like it . Thank you for sharing a nice topics . To know more about this lego storage and play table .

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