Monday, September 22, 2014

Another Example of the Value of Teaching at the AH

As noted in the Facebook album on the value of Ann Mansolino's AH experience, you are encouraged to compare what she has to say with Dana Buckman's comments on her experience.  Dana's essay, "A Year that Wasn't Wasted," appears below after the blog on Lena and Olya's trip to the States.

Looking back on my time in Russia, ten years later
By Ann Mansolino

When I sat down to write about the value of my Russian experience at Dr. Pope's request, I realized that it’s been exactly ten years now since I moved to Vladimir to teach English at the American Home. So much has happened and changed since then, and yet the effects of my experiences in Russia still feel very present and very relevant today.

When I arrived in 2004, I had never studied Russian, I could not read the alphabet (let alone speak the language), and I’d not taught ESL before either. When I got off the plane, I was entranced and utterly fascinated, yet largely unable to make sense of my environment. I had a BA in English literature, an MFA in art, experience teaching college photography -- and a pervasive sense that there must be more to the world than I’d known or experienced thus far. And so I moved to Russia.  And that experience did very much expand what I knew of the world and myself.

I must admit that I was terrified on the first day teaching at the American Home – I could not read my attendance lists, as they were all written in the cyrillic alphabet. I tried to sound out my students’ names written in these unfamiliar letters, like a small child learning to read, embarrassed by my own ineptitude, and uncertain of my abilities.  Fortunately, it did get easier from there.

During my time outside the classroom, I took long walks around town, wrote, and photographed: I took pictures of signs I couldn’t read, signs I had learned how to read, potatoes, trolleybuses, icicles, anything, everything. I look back at that visual record, and I don’t see great pictures. Instead, I see the process of making the unknown known, or perhaps merely knowable.  I reread what I wrote, and see my own perceptions shifting, and see my own growth.

Looking back now after having taught for 10 years, I know that it was during my time in Russia that I really learned how to teach.  By teaching something outside of my field of specialization (photography), I could not fall back on familiarity with subject matter, but rather needed to think about the act of teaching.  I had to ask myself what I needed to communicate to my students, how to break that down into accessible pieces, how to structure it, how to make it engaging, how to know whether they were really assimilating the material. I also had to look at the course materials and think about their relevance – to ask if a Russian student would be able to relate to the content of the example sentences from our American textbooks, and, if not, to decide whether to use that difference as a means of introducing some aspect of American culture, or whether the grammar lesson itself took precedence, and if it might be to my advantage to shift the content of the sentences so that the grammar was more accessible. In doing that, I learned the significance of always assessing the relevance of course materials for a particular audience – a lesson that benefitted me enormously as I went on to teach English composition and photography the following year at Ngee Ann Polytechnic college in Singapore, and then to teach photography at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and Rio Hondo College in California. Throughout the years I taught at those various institutions (which served very different student populations in terms of culture and ability level), I was able to look at what I was doing and know that I know how to teach a given subject because of my background in that subject – but also that I know how to structure the material to be relevant to a very specific group of students because of what I had to learn in order to be able to teach effectively in Russia.

I resigned from teaching this past December. I have decided that I need to make art the most significant priority in my life, and thus left my job as an art professor to pursue my own creative activities more fully.  As a result of that unconventional (and somewhat risky) decision, many people have asked me what I’m doing next, and if I’m terrified to face an uncertain future, all in the name of art. I am afraid, of course – but I also see possibilities. And I think that too is related to my experience in Russia. When people have asked the invariable “what are you going to do?” and “what if…?” questions, I have found myself saying, “I moved to Russia without speaking Russian in order to teach English -- and while there, I survived two false arrests as a Chechen terrorist.  I was fine there, so I’ll be fine now too.” And I know I will. (And for anyone reading this who is teaching in Russia or is considering doing so who didn’t know I was mistakenly arrested as a Chechen terrorist twice in Russia: yes, it’s true -- but no, it won’t happen to you.* For some reason, I’m a vortex for this kind of unusual experience, and can tell stories of other improbable things that have happened to me all over the world that don’t happen to others). But, yes, I will be fine. And I think my time in Russia is one thing that makes me sure of that – I have frequently put myself in challenging situations, but know with certainty that moving to Russia to teach has been one of the most challenging. I know also that I emerged from that situation knowing that my view of the world and my understanding of what it means to be human are both broader and deeper for having done so. My time in Russia showed me that I am stronger and more capable than I had realized, that the range of ways of perceiving our individual lives and societal values is larger than what I was raised with, and that I need not see my experiences within it as limited to the options commonly seen around me. The things I have done since leaving Russia have reinforced and built upon those insights, to be sure, but my time there was instrumental in expanding a sense of self, a sense of where meaning in life resides, and an awareness of the range of ways open to anyone of defining and building an individual life in this world.

Many of my photographs – art photographs, as well as photographs from my travels (including Russia) – are on my website:

http://www.annmansolino.com

Does this image provide a sense of how Ann has seen the world over the years: as an artist, a teacher, and a traveler who seeks to learn what it means to be human in the world, and to translate those insights into poetic visual metaphors through photography. 



*NOTE:  Ann's explanation of what happened regarding her "Chechen terrorist" experience  appears in the American Home's Alumni Newslettelrs.  These can be accessed at:   

http://www.serendipity-russia.com/articles.html

See pages 101-03 and 129.

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