Monthly Archives: March 2014

A Guide That Will Teach You How You Must Live (in Russia)

I’ve been doing travel tips for visitors to Russia with students in my course for 2 years, and it was just last week that I felt satisfied with how it went. As my annoying habit goes, I feel like analysing why. There is, I suppose, a mix of external factors, my general easy-going happy feeling these days, and attitude to class this term.

Anyway, the “analysis” comes at the end of the post. Enjoy the The Guide now, written by my students. Or, rather, the guideS, as you should probably know that Moscow is not what Russia is. So we had two groups of students writing up lists of tips either about their native Moscow, or notes based on their knowledge of life in their native small towns of Russia (or cities other than Moscow).

tipsmediumPhoto of my student’s paper, with reference to Dr. Strangelove

In Moscow

Transport
Subway is better than trams, buses, etc. but it is most crowded. Don’t use private taxis! Be careful while crossing the road, drivers are not very polite (if we compare us with Europe). Use bicycles, many bike lanes are made now. There are usually a lot of traffic jams. Some buses which have an index number may have shortened their route, so be careful. In the centre of a platform of metro stations there’s a red and blue post marked INFO with a metro map on it.

Culture
You should stand up if you see a pensioner standing and looking where to sit. People seem to be very unfriendly and angry because they do not smile, but our people are actually very hospitable and outgoing if you need help or advice. Russians become very very friendly after some minutes of conversation. Be ready to understand irony and sarcasm. Giving gifts and presents is traditional, it means that people show their emotions. Talk about the beauty of Russia if you want to break the ice in conversation. Russians like to complain and to criticize something (but not themselves).
Russian art, literature and classical music are nice to be talked about.

Food
You can find food of any cuisine in Moscow. Be sure to try the taste of Russian honey and caviar. Russian people like to eat soup. Don’t drink water from the tap. It should be boiled before drinking.

What to visit?
Visit Vorobyevy Gory (and make a choice what to visit looking at the city from the observation deck on the hill). Don’t visit the outskirts. 1/3 of the city is green – go to the parks!

Language and communication
If you speak English (slowly) people will understand. Learn Cyrillic alphabet before you come.

Schedule and times
There is no fixed timetable in the underground but in the rush hour trains come every 50 seconds.  You cannot buy alcohol after 10 pm.

Safety
Have passport with you (in the city)!!! You need to ‘register’ in Moscow! Police are allowed to stop anyone in the street and ask for documents. There are a lot of different nationalities, you shall be acquainted with these cultures.

Shopping
Prices are high. There are a lot of malls. Check the receipt and change on the spot.

Hotels
High prices. Be careful if you live near a football stadium, it might be dangerous in time of a match. Our electricity standard is 220V, 50Hz.

Hot dogs
Avoid stray dogs!!! People don’t clean after their dogs – be careful!

Weather
Don’t wear very expensive shoes in the winter (chemicals in the streets). Weather is totally unpredictable. Summer in Moscow is very stuffy.

Random
Do not drink alcohol or smoke in the streets, it is illegal. There’s free wifi in most cafes in Moscow.

Have a pleasant stay in Moscow!

 

Out of Moscow (in a small town of Russia)

Language
Try to communicate with people using simple and basic phrases because people in small towns don’t know English well. Talk to young people. Try to learn and understand Russian phrases and greetings (da, nyet, dobri vecher, privet). You can have an eye contact in conversation but remember: touch contact is preferable only with close friends in an informal atmosphere.

Shopping
You should avoid shopping in underground crossings, there are poor quality goods there. You should look at the date of manufacture of a product.

Food and drinks
You can knock spoon when you mix sugar (in your cup). Stick to restaurants or cafes that you know (for example, McDonalds or KFC). You should try specific dairy products, like kefir or ryazhenka. There’s a stereotype about Russian love for vodka. Many people in Russia can’t stand it. Drinking age is 18 y.o. for beer and 21 y.o. for spirits.

Transportation
Be prepared to extremely noisy subway, buses and trolley-buses. In many Russian towns you have to pay fare to a bus driver. Try to stay close to the bus doors at rush hours. Otherwise, you should push your way to the exit.

Technology and communication

Some Russians like to show off their gadgets. Russians have many outdated things. Many Russians use headphones or earphones. In most towns you have access to 3G Internet.

Mentality/ culture

Keep in mind that Russians are people of extremities. Russians are straight-forward, direct and speak openly. So they like to comment on what they see and discuss people’s behaviour. Some Russians like to teach you what you must do and how you should live. Tolerance… almost no tolerance. Everything looks better outside than inside. Hot discussions are a normal thing. Dark tones prevail in clothing. Avoid contact with people wearing sport suits. You can see wild animals in towns (for example, bears and wolves in Nizhnevartovsk).

Misc
Police in Russia aren’t police in your country. Avoid contact with them. If you lose your gadget, put up with it. You will never find it. It’s better to have an insurance. There might be no toilet paper in public toilets.

 

***analysis***

One big reason for me thinking it’s gone better this time than at previous times is the introduction of categories, for which I thank this post. We’d read and discussed these tips written by Korean students first, and I believe the style they are presented in, as well as the type of information, got their reflection in what my students came up with. Another thing is stereotypes. Every year I have to remind students to keep away from promoting a bear, matreshka, vodka, valenki and ushanka kind of image. This culture trolling is ultimately their first choice, always. Somehow this year we managed to mostly avoid it, well at least in writing and the follow-up discussion. Of course, the jokes in the process of working on the tips were in abundance.

Talking about culture you live in and being neutral about it is very difficult. Still, I think maybe this year the overall picture is more realistic and complete than before. Also, it’s always been a flawed idea from me to ask them write only 10 tips. This is, on reflection, my final big reason.

 

*** A personal note on a small town in Russia ***

Yesterday I went to Ryazan, a small town with a very long rich history 200km from Moscow. I spent half the day walking around seeing the sights and also paying attention to every little detail around me (about place and people). My guide was a most kind, open and naive girl I’ve seen in a long time, or ever, here. Or it’s just as likely that I never gave it a thought or a close look. I might write more about the day some time later because it was a whirlwind of emotions and a week’s worth of impressions (although I believe a lot and quite enough has already been written about the dramatic disparity I’m just now redefining for myself). I’ve seen Russia and I’ve talked to a Russian. It’s all very vague for me now, but in a very simplified version my personal note is about being impressed and uplifted. And I’ve been impressed enough to get back to the roots and pick a collection of Yesenin’s poems as my reading choice, for today or more.

Feel free to use these tips in your class or life, and have a pleasant stay in Russia.

 

P.S. And just if you think you have some information to add, whatever it is, or you want to contradict, or argue, please do so in a comment. I’d be very happy to see this as start of such a discussion. Thank you.

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Students *supposedly* Connected

Some day it just so happens that you suddenly promise to write a blog post to an audience of about 50+ people. Here it is.

*****

Preview.

There’s this Facebook group that I’m one of the admins of. It’s called Students Connected and here’s what the group description (which I wrote) says:

This group is designed to help learners of English aged 17-23 get in touch, practice and improve their English in the most natural way – by communicating with one another. It is a closed group which provides safety for all members because teachers invite their own students and we trust the teachers who belong to the group. All activity is on the wall and it’s a good idea to start with introducing yourself. Both teachers and students are welcome to initiate a discussion on whatever might seem interesting. Feel free to upload a photo, give a link to a video, ask a question, or tell a story. Thank you. Engage in discussions. Be friendly and polite.

That was the mission and key principles of the group when I, Michael Stout and Mari Yamauchi originally created it in September 2012. A brief pre-story will tell you that one of my students of that new term came up to me and asked if I knew any place where he could talk to people his age (university students) in English. I never had a positive image of numerous English Clubs we have in Moscow (with no real facts or evidence to support my opinion, so it is notoriously subjective), so I wouldn’t recommend that. Well, Michael and Mari were the first teachers to respond to my tweet that very same day and then in a couple of days the group was set to go, with quite a few Japanese and very few Russian university students on board. The word was spread and more teachers with their students were joining. And have been joining ever since. Factual information at the moment of writing this post states that there are currently 564 members from about 25 countries or so.

Now to the point of this blog post. I’ve long been interested in how social networks can be used in and out of class, for learning English (and really much more than just the language), and I believe there’s a variety of ways. It’s very typical of Russian schoolchildren and university students to create groups in our Russian equivalent of Facebook (VK) for their studies. I think that’s great use of a SN, and I’ve had a group/learning space for my course for more than 2 years now. With time I’ve figured out what I need it for, what I expect my students to do there, what the easiest way to manage it is for me.

Students Connected is different, though. Different and difficult. That’s what this post is about, and now it finally begins.

*****

My presentation at E-merging Forum 4 last Friday had a terrible title (“International student collaboration on Facebook: what it is and what it isn’t”) which I regretted immediately after I’d sent my submission form. Not only is it long, but also presumptuous and deluding. I have little idea what it is or isn’t. But I do have worries, concerns and struggles about how the group has been developing, why it has been developing in this particular way, what my role in this development is, how responsible I am for the messiness that occasionally happens there, and how I can help it develop in the way that I see the group functioning in the future. That’s what I spoke about, that’s what I’ll now write below.

Articulating some of my and my fellow group administrators’ worries&struggles, and very superficial analysis of their why’s.

Little to no activity from students. This is what has been noted by all admins with no exception. The majority of students couldn’t get past the “introduce yourself” phase. There are few/no comments to posts, few/no comments to comments, and even few/no likes. This tendency of no response has affected teachers as well in that they gradually become less enthusiastic and consistent in posting themselves.

WHY? So many reasons. Fear to make a mistake. Shyness. Low self-confidence. Lack of interest. Lack of motivation. No personal connections. No need to say more. No time. Being used to being “led” and instructed by a teacher. And I’m sure there must be others, too.

FB group wall activity flow. Posts that are up the wall are those most commented or liked. This is a feature of FB groups, there are no separate sections for discussions. It becomes messy and difficult to find something important from previous shares. Also there’s only one possible pinned post.

WHY? It’s a Facebook thing. It can’t be helped I think, or if it can please let me know how.

Keeping track of members. Teachers keep arriving at our space (and initially they were supposed to add their own students). But then, as I made a decision to make other teachers group admins too (to make it transparent for myself who is who), I lost understanding and now have little clue or following of the members inflow. Also as teachers stop teaching their groups they lose contact with students, and these are left “hanging” in our space.

WHY? This looks to be my oversight, or poor management strategy. Having multiple admins, aside from the advantages it has, also creates unnecessary misunderstanding that must be handled.

Teachers being overly encouraging. I believe it’s in the nature of being a teacher. We are too active from the best of our intentions and end up devouring the space we’ve created for students, both by posting and commenting. Sometimes (or very often, or too often) wall shares in the group can be seen with discussion threads of teachers only (I, for sure, have participated not once!).

WHY? Trying to be “present”. Being initiative and genuinely interested in communicating, thinking of it as a possible example for students to follow. The line is truly fine.

Questionable shares. I must warn and apologise in advance – this is my very subjective view. And subjectivity in perceiving what’s right and good for the group, and what’s not, is also an issue. My point, that I’m a bit uncomfortable to write about but will, is that I don’t want “impersonal” shares in this particular space we’re creating (like posters, wisdoms, links). I think there are enough places for that online, other groups and places. Every wall post, from my perspective, should be addressing the students in our group and should carry a message. Like in real communication, when one person turns to another to give information and ask for opinion, share news or some story.

WHY? People are different. And it’s true that rules regarding shares are very vague, or even non-existent, so this is a logical consequence of opting for creating this kind of “free space”.

Thinking of ways to overcome the worries&struggles.

First of all, I now understand that it’s most important to organize efficient communication between teachers in the group. Set the scene and ground rules. We should all have a clear understanding of how many teachers are there, who of them need to be admins, once we opt to go for multiple admins. We should talk things over and think them through together, maybe agree on taking over charge, sharing some responsibilities for the group activities. In order to do this it seems logical to me now to choose a suitable communication channel (mail, Google doc, group messages). Finding a way to talk to students also sounds a good idea, to analyze and see a bigger picture of what’s happening in the group, get their feedback, learn what’s possibly missing. Guidelines for both students AND teachers should be clear, transparent and always available in the group. My reminder to myself would be to also remember it’s not a self-governing space; any Facebook group is a community that needs management, and so I should know something about it. I should be ready to make uneasy decisions (like approaching people re their comments or shares, etc). Another thing I should be ready for is that it’s going to take time and effort, so once I step in I should keep going and doing it well (which I’m afraid I haven’t been).

While I find the above-mentioned crucial and really cornerstones, there are more of course:

Talking to our students in real life, revisiting the idea and gently nudging them to connect by giving reasons why it could be good for them (e.g. authentic use of language). Maybe in order to motivate them it’s worth using classtime to introduce the group or do some activity together, like we once did with my students recording a video with questions to the Japanese members.

Routine is as we know very helpful. Presented in a nice, enjoyable format it can really stimulate students to check the group once in a while. In Students Connected a teacher from Indonesia, one of the “leaders” of the group, Ika Chieka Wibowo has been doing an amazing job with her Saturday Splash activity: every Saturday she suggests a topic for discussion with 3-4 simple questions for us to express our opinion about.

There’s a typical feature of any FB group that it’s good to remember about – it’s the wave-like nature of their online activity. You must “feed” the group, but even then the silence period will happen. There’s no such thing as ever-lasting buzz here, I think.

*****

Finally, I want to make one more point. I like to view Students Connected group as a space for students to come to. It’s not a project, not a club. Students will come and *hopefully* go (please don’t forget to remind your students leave the group when they don’t need it anymore, and please do the same). The space should stay and be welcoming, not off-putting, to those who come for the first time eager to contribute, take part and learn from and about other cultures. To me, connected is something to always keep in mind and aim for.

A huge thanks to all the teachers and students involved in the group activities and making that space grow and be interesting. I hope I haven’t said anything too wrong or offensive. Let’s talk about how we can turn our group into a glorious space to be part of=)

P.S. There’s a younger sister group for high school students organized just very recently by Kevin Stein and already hosting 70 members. Good luck to them and us all.

 

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