Tag Archives: Russian

Another Textbook Issue

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If you are reading this post and my blog in general, you are likely a teacher. Odds are English is not your first language. The chances that you are a Russian English teacher, or have experienced learning English within the Russian education system, are slimmer but still exist. But if you can imagine two English textbooks – one written by your country’s ELT authors and published in your country’s publishing house, and any coursebook by a big ELT industry name – you will understand what the discussion below is about.

I stumbled on this discussion in the comments section under one of my friend’s Instagram posts, was excited to lurk for a while, and then decided the topic could actually be relevant to teachers in other countries. So (with these people’s permission), go ahead and read my translation of their discussion, and let us know if it resembles the situation in your country or the country you work in.

 

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DS:  … For a whole 11 years of school kids study the language and the end result is zero! Why do they have to learn about London sights for the whole third term (cultural note: the 3rd term in this case probably lasts from around January 10th till the end of March). Who can possibly need to use that in real life, and when??? And the teacher is faced with a dilemma: to teach the way that will be good or to teach what the syllabus tells us to teach. ..

AZ: And then all kids have to hire tutors because of such syllabi…

DS: Exactly!! I feel so sorry for both children and teachers!

LB: Well of course, a whole term is too much. But it’d be great if after school kids had a little idea of where the UK in fact is, which city is the capital of which country, who the queen is, and knew a few sights. I’ve been tutoring kids for about 3 years and I’m in shock from their knowledge. There’s a feeling that they are all cretinous. By the way, if a child happens to get 5 in English in school (cultural note: “5” in the Russian education system is the equivalent of an A grade) and their parents happen to have enough money to send the kid to London to a summer school, then this knowledge would be quite helpful. But these kids are one in a million…

K: One can bend the system, one can fit something else, more useful in it!

DS: @LB There’s a billion of great travel guides which show where to go and what to see… I think it’s absurd to study the history of the Tower of London while living in Moscow area or in a whatever-it’s-called small town… I agree with the idea of teaching general notions, but not the way it’s done in the idiotic ****** textbook. If this author, as one of the authors of the standard (state educational standard is implied), writes such a textbook, I don’t have anything else to say about the standard itself… As for kids’ cretinism, it’s a complicated, multifaceted question that needs to be discussed…

LB: Well that’s you going to extremes here. Will they never go to see the Tower, or want to learn more about it in the future, study language more thoroughly, even if they live in this nobody-knows-its-name town? Or, what if a child is an invalid, can’t leave home at all, and their only chance to learn is English classes at school? Should students give up learning anything at all at school since they can grow up and buy a copy of “London for Dummies”? The content of what’s being taught is not made-up or accidental, it’s borrowed from foreign textbooks, which everything is copied from. The way that ****** textbook presents the topic of London only shows that it’s her personal choice and problem as an author and an educator. As well as it is the problem of your school which chose this textbook in the first place. There are better textbooks. And in general, the standard was not designed to match the textbook, but rather the author edited “old stuff” that already existed to fit the standard requirements. And this is quite manageable. So you shouldn’t paint it all with the same brush.

DS: There are much more interesting and visual ways to see the world without leaving your apartment for an invalid, other than studying about the Tower in old English. I agree about the brush here in this case. Regarding the choice of textbooks I agree as well, but I’m ready to argue regarding the copying of topics from foreign textbooks! *** textbook, for example, is a little less of a copycat, which makes me like it more, even though even this book is not without some amazing (weird?) things. I sincerely can’t understand, having the teaching experience that I have, why a language education standard can’t be based on such mastodonte materials as ones by Cambridge, for example, on the grounds that it is their language exam certificates that are accepted worldwide. But that’s not a question to you:) In any case, I agree that it falls on a teacher’s shoulders to find ways to get out of this situation and turn flaws into advantages 🙂

K: @J I wish you best of luck! Unfortunately, syllabus can be so imperfect that a teacher has to redesign it completely. One of my acquaintances teaches Russian using one of those prescribed textbooks. And if I were a foreigner, I would hate Russian the way it’s presented through that book!… But the teacher and students are working with it, every time trying to create something new, something of their own…

 

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Three years ago in the blog post here I wrote about my personal experience with this notorious textbook issue in a school I taught in Moscow. Since I haven’t worked as a school teacher in Russia for almost ten years now, I don’t think I am the best source of an opinion to contribute here (although my feelings towards textbooks in general have been established on this blog, I believe…)

Thank you for reading. I sincerely look forward to whatever comments this discussion can spawn.

 

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… and they lived happily ever after.

*** Prologue ***

I had my doubts. Thirty-five teenagers in a mixed group of levels from low B1 to near-native language ability jam-packed in a stuffy room, listening to me reading a Russian folk tale about the frog which was, in fact, a princess – I just was not so sure. Many things could go wrong. The text is long, the room is small, the kids are probably expecting games as the tests are over and holidays are near. I don’t know how big the interest of teenagers for a tale about a frog could be (I mean, I might not be too excited about it myself if I were them…). The text, even after my amateur adaptation, still has words like “a spindle”. It’s after lunch. I’m not at all good at storytelling or even story-reading. I don’t believe my reading could engage 35 young active minds and make them follow a long story and keep quiet.

So, entering this class, as any other for that matter, I was filled with concerns and assumptions. Yet, I wanted badly to try have this class my way and see what happens.

*** Class ***

Here’s a dry step-by-step run-down of this 45-minute class proceedings:

1. Instructing the students to organize themselves into pairs of mixed levels (Level 5 and Level 4 students within our course system). This took about 10 minutes and did not result in exactly all pairs consisting of students of both levels. All of them sit facing the whiteboard (and me).

2. Distributing the text. Below you can see the PDF version, but note that the kids only had 5 pages out of ten. As it goes, the office printer had got out of order and I could not print out those extra illustrations to the story. Please also note that I had adapted the text from this webpage, keeping the images and adding a super simple half-picture half-text glossary for the weirdest sounding words in the tale. I’d also divided the text into 4 parts.

3. Explaining to the students what is going to happen. Only half of the group sitting in the classroom are familiar with the practice of reading in class in this way, with an ideal objective of enjoying the text (aka extensive reading class). So I explain and write on the board the following, aiming at bringing some clarity:
– Part 1. Anna reads –> students talk
– Part 2. Anna reads –> students talk
… repeat till the end of story.

I split the text into four more or less logical sections for the reason of giving students a break while processing the long narration, too long (I feared) for many to handle. So my plan was to read the part and then give students 3-5 minutes to discuss it in their groups, in Japanese. Clarifying meanings, discussing, rereading parts, etc. There is no real task as such for this time, it is more like space to take a breather and probably “connect” with the tale.

4. It took around 30 minutes to do as I’d planned, reading and providing the talking time. In that talking time I also gave some extra cultural notes (Ivan’s clothing-related; my random thought that Yelena the Fair in the image on the second page looks much like an image of a woman saint in the Orthodox icons; the explanation of the Little Hut in the Russian woods that always greets the main character with its back).

5. The students are given a piece of paper each to write their impressions of the tale.

*** Students’ impressions of the tale ***

“I want to read many tales like this!!”

“I know that it is just a story and it can’t be reasonable and realistic sometimes, but it feels funny that Yelena changed her mind so easily, though she was going to marry another, to go back home with Prince Ivan.”

“I was surprised with the end of the story. The frog is so amazing!”

“I thought Prince Ivan is so poor. However, it wasn’t like that. Finally, they obtained happiness. I like this story.”

“Prince Ivan looked for his wife but she almost married another. I think it is very bad.”

“The story told me not to lose chances to marry a girl.”

“I can’t imagine life with the princess frog… This horrible story gave me shivers. I know the princess frog is a perfect girl (?) because she can do needle work, dance and cook, but she is a frog!!! OMG!!!”

“There were many scenes that made me confused. Such as the part when the prince’s wife was decided with a bow…. I wonder why it took over one year for Prince Ivan to go look for his wife, because if I were him I would go straight away to find her.”

“I think they are emotional people and Prince Ivan often cried. That’s too much for me. He is a man, he shouldn’t cry too much.”

“I think Prince Ivan was impudent, because soon after going into the house, he asked them to serve him food and drink, put him to bed. I couldn’t empathize with him.”

“I think the story is very interesting. The people in the story and their acting is so unique, as in many tales. I’m glad the prince and the frog became happy finally.”

*** Teacher’s impressions ***

1) I realize I probably never thought that the frog is amazing. In fact, I might have not given the frog a single thought in 20 years.

2) There’s no point (or sense) in asking a group of 35 Japanese teenagers “What do you think is gonna happen next in this story?”

3) While making a choice to read this particular tale I did not consider the message, values and the moral of the story. In fact, I did not think of it at all, maybe because the story and its plot are already too deeply ingrained in my consciousness through my cultural background. And so I was taken aback (in the best of senses) by the students’ reactions, their raw emotions, true and unaffected by comprehension questions and vocabulary gap fills. A single read was enough to spur a wide range of feelings, wonders and judgements… Yes, very humanly so, judgements of the characters and their actions. I had to do exactly ZERO lead-ins and ask exactly ZERO questions to bring up the topics of moral values, quirks of behaviour, relationship struggles and challenges, life choices. Just one read of this tale, that to me to tell the truth is already rather “flat”, was deeply emotionally affective for them. Which coursebook text could provoke any more sincere reactions from students?? It is a rhetorical question.

4) Can we just imagine a school in which we teach by reading?… just for a brief illusory moment.

5) Teens believe in the permanence of love. Why did they expect Yelena to wait for Ivan? We don’t get to learn much about that other man, but if she chose (?) him, he might, for all we know, be a good fella)))

6) The frog tale to my surprise left no one untouched and unconcerned.

7) I did not ask if they liked the story.

8) A student did use the word empathize all on his own, with no prompts OR dictionaries involved.

9) Bookclub. After winter break I am organizing a bookclub in our school!

*** Epilogue ***

This class made me feel so passionate that I couldn’t help but sit down and blog for the first time in four months. The students’ sincerity and genuine emotions was a spark that inspired and energized me. They are fantastic. And I, well, I just love my job.

When we finished I asked them to read something during their winter break.
Read. Just read.

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A very interesting post about blogs, bloggers and their blogging.

Now I’m feeling something. Something of a nerve to write a messy piece about many things at once.

 

Thing number one, about blogging habits.

In her recent post Zhenya Polosatova asked her readers the questions that brought about a storm of responses, both in the comments and as separate blog posts. It’s amazing just how easily *some* bloggers are drawn into analysing their blogging ways, how excited they get. Well to say “they” would be wrong since I’m normally the very first in that eager line. Here’s my short (see Thing number two) take on the topic.

Last year my blogging habits underwent quite an upheaval. I blogged in a cafe, on a beach, on the floor, in a train station, on a couch, on a bench in the park, on a tatami mat (at home at my desk being the habit). I blogged with people and alone (which is the habit). I blogged both in daytime and nighttime (the latter being the habit). I posted without liking my writing (… liking or disliking can’t be called “a habit” I reckon))). I blogged about teaching and about things far from it.

I really don’t know what else I can do. All in all, I’m more than pleased with how my blogging is developing and I feel desire and energy to proceed the way that will feel right. One new ritual I’m looking forward to establishing this year is going through my WP Reader once a week to balance my blog reading. Hope to see you there.

 

Thing number two, which tries to devalue part of Thing number one.

I can’t believe I’ve just written the above first thing! Because in fact it makes me sick to realize just how much I write about myself and my relationship with my writing. Seriously, look:

In this post I say I blog for my own pleasure but hope for shifts in the classroom. Then in no time I come up with a follow-up which is 800 more words about blogging and writing. Here I keep mentioning myself and my plans for writing in what some say are most powerful parts of a blog post – opening and closing paragraphs. If you need more proof of how obsessed I am with writing about (my) writing, don’t hesitate to look here, check this out and click this link.

First I wanted to make a difference. Then I turned into an ego-busting persona. Hedonism? I’m *possibly* done with it. At least with the part which whispers to me that it can be interesting to anyone to go on reading after my “I think that…” At the moment I think that I could think of writing something more exciting.

 

Thing number three, about us Russians.

I am, just like Vedrana Vojkovich here, continuously stunned as I check my blog stats and see that the overwhelming majority of my readers are from Russian Federation. Who are you?! I know a few and I am grateful to them for being ever supportive, plus last year several times my former students left a line or two and it felt great. Otherwise, I am unaware of names and faces of my ghost Russian readership. In any case, everybody is most welcome.

There is yet another, far more critical point to be covered in this part. Russian and Russian-speaking ELT bloggers. A little pre-story: a while ago, in my more energetic Twitter years, I created a public list EFLRussia which I updated with handles of Russian teachers of English who I happened to come across on Twitter (70 now). I haven’t done that for over a year and I’m sure there must be many new faces to be added (my confidence comes from seeing quite a lot of people tweeting at annual E-merging Forums). The situation with the blogs was different. I’m talking about blogs that Russian(-speaking) teachers of English would run in English, so they could be accessed by teachers from the world over. Fortunately, there are now interesting, thoughtful, different blogs that I irregularly follow and will now share the links to here:

iamlearningteaching by Ekaterina Makaryeva aka @springcait

The aforementioned Zhenya Polosatova aka @ZhenyaDnipro and her Wednesday Seminars

Elserga ELT by Elizabeth Bogdanova

ELT Diary by Alexandra Chistyakova aka @AlyaAlexandra

TeachingEnglishNotes by Svetlana Urisman

 

That’s about it. If you happen to know of any other blogs that fit the Russian category, please do share, even if that’ll shamelessly be your own)

One last bit, which is my sincere wish. I wish the following three people started to blog:

Fatima Baste, who has a blog in Russian and also writes about a million things in captions to her pictures on Instagram: languages, teaching, culture, trends, psychology, ideas. Thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and educational, so I’m quite certain Fatima should start a blog in English =)))

Masha Andrievich, whose Instagram gives a peek into fragments of her teaching at own school (right?) and her learning (DELTA?). I’d love to have a #livebloggingparty one day, when she starts her blog. =)

Ludmila Malakhova, who is a fantastic lady from Yekaterinburg that I had a real pleasure to meet twice at the Forum I mentioned earlier and who suppported me in a very indecisive time with just the right words.

 

Thing number four, untitled for lack of creativity.

In connection with the previous part, there’s a story back from March 2014. Ludmila reached me and asked to participate online in the teacher training she was doing on-site in Yekaterinburg. That was my first (and only) suchlike experience, and in Russian! For 15-20 minutes I talked to a group of teachers sitting several thousand km away from me, and I talked about Facebook and blogs for English teachers’ PD. It was, as you might understand, a brief and general introduction and of course I am not at all sure what impact it eventually had on the participants, practically, if any. However, it was remarkable to me that the teachers sounded mildly interested and asked me post-session questions, such as:

Which blogs do you follow?

How do you find these blogs in the first place?

There are so many, how do you keep up?

Which platform would you recommend to start own blog?

Should we blog in English or Russian?

All these questions. One might think it’s not a topic that could be conference session worthy: too simple, no activities-interactivities, limited feel of innovation. Yet I’m thinking of doing it. There are so many aspects of online ELT community that I’ve grown to take for granted that it’s easy to forget some of these things still may be new or interesting. Even if a plain session on ELT blogging the way I experience it will not lead to a massive influx of Russians into this particular blogosphere, I’ll personally have a fun time spreading the word about you and your blog… =) What do you think of this idea? It’s a shame the Forum AGAIN does not give a chance to talk/ learn about the things I’m interested in by adding Professional Development strand. (Can it possibly be Russian EFL teachers are NOT interested in PD and the Forum organisers go by some survey results?..)

 

Thing number five, Final Thing, or the Thing of Importance.

It’s been on my mind lately. Namely, from December 2nd.

What else can we, English teachers who are united by ELT blogging addiction, blog about?

I took immense pleasure in taking culture notes in my travels and then publishing this post, as well as other, exclusively personal posts that I had out during my time in Asia. I was thrilled to NOT have it in my mind to make any connections to teaching/ learning, because frankly, I don’t believe a teacher should always, at all times in all situations think about his/ her classes. And while I’m sure we/ you all have our interests that might or might not be reflected in the classes we/ you teach, I don’t really know much about them. I do imagine, though, that there are words to be put into long beautiful/ eloquent/ funny/ witty/ touching  etc sentences.

 

What would you blog about if not ELT? 

 

Thank you for reading and, of course, – happy blogging =)

 

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Impressions we/ you/ they make

I’ll do my best now to write a non-whiney blog post. Essentially, I’m NOT annoyed much by instances of the behaviour I’ll lay out in this post. I most often try to keep an objective distanced view, make notes, and subsequent *logical* conclusions. And these conclusions is exactly what matters and drove me to be writing this.

This post is also nothing spectacular or new. It’s about impressions we/ you/ they make when communicating with others online. I’ll mostly be referring to emails here.

 

I’m wondering just how much it is a “Russian thing” to seem (be?), sound, and come across as rude while emailing in English. I’m less and less sure that simply teaching the formal/ informal letter templates, useful phrases and email layouts ultimately helps actually writing better letters. By “better letters” I mean those which (a) carry a message across; (b) don’t hurt/ humuliate/ shock the person on the receiving side. 

So, a few instances that brought me to think that I should be teaching more than just typical expressions, structure and style of common letter types.

1)  The other day I heard amusing and slightly disturbing comments related to writing complaint letters. Namely, threats were considered a norm, in addition to quite typical clipped and sharp half-sentences. Yes, the problem is real and does not come from an exciting case-study scenario. Thus, I now realize, emotions are truly involved and making a difference to the process of writing the letter in question. Is this a common practice? How emotional do you get when/if you find yourself in a similar situation? Do you then follow the rules we teach? Just wondering.

 

2) A few months ago there was a vastly comical but also to a large extent pretty sad correspondence thread in my mailbox. Both sides of it are/were connected with English language teaching or at least with the English language (which is L2 for both sides, by the way). The correspondence was around a professional issue, which is exactly what made it look particularly tragic for me. I couldn’t help raising my eyebrows in bewilderment when I saw Dear Anna!!!!!! The last sentence in the letter invited me to be even more excited about the whole thing, as the amount of exclamation marks tripled, I think. Well, in fairness, the main chunk of that letter conveyed the message and was mainly to the point. I smiled and was reasonably excited.

 

3) The same professional issue had to face more online communication but with a different person. The striking, and frankly speaking, somewhat offending thing about this particular thread was the tone (demanding? aggressive? offhand?) and failure to meet the communication target in the first place. I didn’t lose much as a result of this and had to offer my own very polite but unambiguously (as for the reason for it) clipped response. It was very much about the impression my conversation partner made.

 

4) Finally, this point is also about impressions and conclusions. It is less ethical than previous three, though, as it features some copied and pasted lines of real communication which took place.

The story setting: I was looking for an apartment to rent. The country is NOT Russia (which makes me want to dwell more on the culture impact and how far it extends, and also to be more condescending towards us rude and direct Russians). Here are the extracts of three responses I received. My initial messages included general info about myself, my upcoming visit and some specific questions about the apartments.

Response #1

I uploaded other pictures that you can refer. <…> To make your reservation, you should click “Book it!” button. You can also visit here before you make a reservation completed. To do so, just email me.

(Note: I did ask about extra photos. I did mention, too, that I’m not in that country now or in the following several weeks.)

Response #2

My apt is open for you.

(Note: ok.)

Response #3

Hello Anna

Thanks for your message. 
Big welcome to …. (omitted for secrecy and suspence building purpose, to be revealed soon))

Of course, this studio is available for you.

Yes, I have met some nice guests here. Usually they were working in that table.

If you need more information or help, tell me 🙂

Best,

– … (name)

 

Task: out of these three, choose the person I responded to. 

 

So, to me it all boils down to the impression, even if that sounds harsh. I mean to say, those other apartments could be really great, and I understand that the contact people do not necessarily feel extremely comfortable talking in Engilsh. Also, I’m a language teacher and I’m really understanding. I seriously don’t mind any of those replies, I could deal with that outrageous (to me) correspondence with the Russian ELT people without venting too much.

What matters in the end is that I will rent that other flat.

 

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Tell me please if I’m being the worst of an English teacher with these observations jumping out at me as biting my eyes. Where do these issues come from? Should I feel bad about being picky?

Convince me, if you will, that a person, of whatever culture and background, will by all means continue writing grammatically, lexically, stylistically correct letters after you’ve taught them a lesson on it… Throw stones at me but I think it’s about how people think and what they accept as a norm in communicating in their mother tongue.

 

I hope I didn’t sound too arrogant or unprofessional. I’d like to talk more about this.

Thank you. 

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