Monday, March 31, 2014

US Embassy and the Kremlin

We spent the morning back on American soil --specifically, in the US Embassy in Moscow. It was all you would think--Russian guards out front, high security inside. We had briefings from officials there regarding the history, past and recent, of Russia; the economic, cultural, and political climate; and what to expect in the various regions IREX is sending us to all over Russia.

I found that my assigned  school in Karasnoyarsk has 3 emphases:  STEM (science, tech, engineering and math), business (rare for Russia), and athletics (also rare).  While athletics may seem to be commonplace in Russian education, evidently it is not.  Most schools do not have gyms.  School is to be academic. Sports are reserved as a leisure or club activity outside of school.  Specialty schools (like InterLochen in the US for performing arts) may specialize in music or  athletics, but combining these 'extras' with education is rare.  The video questions my KC students had for Russian students involved their activities in sports and music.  It appears those interests are not part of the typical Russian student's experience.  While my assigned school will have limited parallels to the Hickman Mills district in the area of athletics (not music), it seems most of my TGC colleagues will be going to schools that do not.

A large component of the Teachers for Global Classroom program is to develop and research Essential Questions. As I reflect on what I am doing here and why,  I am interested in gleaning what is considered 'educational success' in Russia and how that is measured.  In the US, we follow the Western ideal of education including the intellect as well as physical and emotional aspects of a person. In Russia, it appears education is typically more isolated to academics.  That can be a plus in terms of pure skill set, and may contribute to US scores lagging behind those of many other countries.  There have been stories of the STEM schools here offering advanced physics education in middle school. One fellow related that a Russian exchange student attending her high school had a mother back in Russia concerned about how far he would fall behind in academics by spending his junior year here in the US. She emailed him physics homework, that they had to seek out university professors over here to help him complete.  No one at the high school or even the local community college could touch it. However, in critical and creative thinking, US students appear to excel. The US model of educating the 'whole person' may have short term deficiencies but long term gains.  I'm interested in seeing first hand whether this appears to be the case.

Language education here is mandatory from an early age.  Amazingly, it appears most Russian students will be able to follow me in English.  Many study a third language, perhaps German or French, but in the case of the TGC fellow  pair going to a school 25 miles from the border of China, the language of choice there is naturally Mandarin.  Both the US and Russia  have a main language and various ethnic minorities speaking other languages, but Russia appears to have worked language study  into their system of schooling earlier and more pervasively than has the US.  As being bi or tri lingual has obvious social and economic benefits and has also been shown to improve mental functioning in other areas, I can't help but think language study is an area we would do well to see what their 'best practices' are and what we can learn from them.  I'm incorporating this idea into my essential question.

We spent the afternoon at the Kremlin, visiting the grounds.  Russian has a broken historical bell, just like the US.  It just happens to be the biggest bell in the world, though.  Dwarfs ours in Philadelphia.  The break is more impressive too.  Not some simple crack!

The armory of historical cannons, the Orthodox churches in the fortress, and the last home of the Romanovs were part of our snowy walking tour.  The  Kremlin museum housed Peter the Great's leather boots he likely made himself, Catherine the Great's carriages, a coronation gown display that reminded me of the Smithsonian's First Ladies' inaugural ball exhibit, the crown jewels, and yes, the Faberge eggs.

No photos allowed inside.  PLEASE visit the link and see these treasures at Kremlin Museum Collections.  FABULOUS!

We experienced the true ambiance of a Spring in Moscow.  After yesterday's gorgeous day, today IT SNOWED! I would have been disappointed if it hadn't. Russian winters are legendary -- was great to be part of that legend.  To escape the wind and wet, we walked to dinner through the subway system. It was clean, well-lit with ornate chandeliers, and technologically efficient with pass cards.

Speaking of tech efficiency, they are ahead of us here in the US in several interesting ways. First, there is no check system in Moscow. You pay for things by scanning your cell phone.  This includes parking on the street.  There are no unsightly meters. Instead, an online system records where you parked and if you paid via cell phone.  Parking police have access to the paid database and ticket/tow you if you fail to pay or are parked illegally.

ATM's are in secure anterooms of banks.  You swipe any credit card at the outside door to show identification (similar to swiping a credit card at the airport kiosk to get your boarding pass).  This action unlocks the door to the anteroom housing the ATM.  As you get your rubles, no one else is allowed to enter.  You press a button to electronically unlock the door to exit.

Tomorrow - another day of prep in Moscow. Forecast -4 Celsius.  Do the math.  COOOOLD!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lenin....More alive than the living???

Maybe it's because my expectation comes from the Jason Bourne action scenes, but Moscow isn't quite what I expected.  I love it! The architecture is a compelling mix of stately pre-revolutionary, 'St Petersburg' type buildings, the drab Cold War era apartment buildings that remind one of egg cartons standing on end, the statement of fortress that is Red Square, and winsome cross-topped Orthodox churches with onion domes twirling into the sky. And yes, even some attractive edifices from the Stalin era--now a mix of government ministries and rehabbed luxury apartments.  And all of this overlaid with  winding ancient stone streets that have seen it all, now supporting the new presence of booming capitalism--designer store fronts, BP stations, billboards.

Regarding billboards, Moscow looks like any other Western city.  They are everywhere, and scream out all the deficiencies in your daily life they can solve. Our host gave  an interesting slice of life about them.  She served as a tour guide during the Soviet era.  As she pointed out the ubiquitous white and gray apartments (that look amazingly like the old freshman dorms at the University of Nebraska BTW), she commented that they still provide much of the housing for average Russians.  I replied, "Yes, but they didn't have the billboards in front of them as they do now."

She countered, "Oh yes they did.  But back then in the Soviet era, the billboards were all slogans.  Like....'We Support Resolution 128' 'Tractor Factory 16 Exceeded its Quota' or my favorite 'Lenin is More Alive than the Living'

I think he'd be a tad surprised to tour his new digs, actually.  Not quite sure this is what he envisioned.

Now, your view from the road is crammed with advertisements of cell phones, designer shoes, Ford cars and the like.  Missouri may be the US capital of billboards, but we have nothing on Moscow.

On the descent flight in, I had the window seat. I saw a ski resort just outside Moscow. Took me aback at first--the weather here is definitely spring-like.  They are evidently making snow there as well as in Sochi. And I saw suburbs, old and newer homes on twisting lanes and cul-de-sacs.  Some of it looked familiar--like flying into KCI and viewing the Northland developments from the air.  But the roofs!  They were of all colors.  Now we AMERICANS are the 'drab' ones with our insistence on weathered wood colored 3 tab asphalt cloaking complete neighborhoods.

I'm taking pictures, but do not have a data plan on my phone over here, so I'm having some issues uploading them while in country.  I'll get them added over time :)  Thanks for reading.

Tomorrow--a day of contrasts. The US Embassy and the Kremlin

Friday, March 28, 2014

SIBERIA!! A LAST MINUTE Change in plans

SIBERIA! I need to un-pack and re-pack!! The US state department interrupted my afternoon class to call and tell me my 2 week teacher exchange to balmy Saratov, Russia has been drastically altered last minute. 

Yes, I'm off on a 7:15am flight tomorrow for Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, the former HQ of  the gulag system.

Still really excited to teach for 2 weeks in Russia--just need a LOT warmer clothes. It looks to be quite the adventure. Goodbye to the Swan Lake ballet performance and hello to late winter granite climbing.

I was really looking forward to visiting the Lyceum in Saratov.  It was a 'closed city', during the Cold War, meaning no foreigners were allowed in.  It seems as if it were an area analagous to our NASA.  Military aircraft were designed, assembled, and tested.  The city appeared lovely in photos, situated on the Volga, in the southwestern area of Russia. It appeared to be flush with lovely architecture, culture, night life, etc.  But, as it is relatively (400 miles or so)close to the Ukrainian border, it appears that the switch to Siberia was prudent.

So, I'm packing as if I'm heading off to Northern Canada :)  We are in the southern part of Siberia, which I understand has a climate somewhat resembling Aberdeen, Scotland (been there!) or Winnipeg, Canada (never been there).  Besides teaching, we will be going to a nature reserve, observing unique granite formations, and enjoying the late winter/early spring east of the Urals.   Looking at the globe with my students just after my phone call this afternoon, one commented, "Mrs. Kucera!  You're going to be right by the Arctic Circle!!"

Well, maybe not RIGHT by it, but close :)  I am getting more and more excited by the moment.  The sudden change in itinerary created a flurry of activity, though. A sad and reluctant sign-off to Kate, the lovely teacher we were working with in Saratov.  New reservations, new plans, new clothes to pack, and new people to meet.  Whew!  

It will be good to visit with my team of US teachers in Moscow for a few days, so I can see how the lessons I had prepared for Saratov will fit into the plans they have been constructing these past weeks for Krasnoyarsk.  I have in hand some materials for Saratov's "Festival of Cultures".  Its coordinators requested info on  "Hobbies and Pasttimes of the American Teenager" (Thanks, Abby for ALL your help on that one)  and "Cities and Towns of America's Heartland".  I also brought a lesson plan for English teachers in Russia--a vocabulary building exercise using Latin word roots a la Harry Potter spells.  It's been a hit with my own middle and high schoolers, so I thought Russian teens and tweens might want to give it a whirl. I also was planning to present on College Prep and the ACT. 

If any or all of it fits in....GREAT!  If not, I can enjoy and absorb my colleagues' presentations.  One thing critical for this program is definitely flexibility!  

As for teacher gifts, another thanks to another daughter.  Leah, the sports 'stuff' was a great idea.  I got 10 lanyards, all from teams and colleges surrounding KC:  Mizzou, KU, Iowa, KState, Arkansas, Nebraska (naturally) and even Oklahoma :)

For the students, I'm bringing rolls of state/state park quarters to hand out.  Russian students really know our geography.  I think they'll enjoy this specially-minted money. They were a hit with Turkey students on my trip back in 2009. 

  At top is a 'googled' pic of the amazing granite formations--Krasnoyarsks' major tourist draw.  Lovely!! 
I just had to also google if Krasnoyarsk is far enough north to observe the Northern Lights--Aurora Borealis.  It is!!!! I hope the time of year and weather is right.  I'll keep you posted!  Back to final packing!

the LOWDOWN on Krasnoyarsk, Siberia

Welcome sheet 
(courtesy of my wonderful hosts!)

Krasnoyarsk is a major cultural economic and educational center of Eastern Siberia and administrative center of Krasnoyarsk region.
Language: Russian is the official language. English is spoken by the least part of population.
Climate: the middle temperature in April is about +8 degrees Centigrade (day) and about -4 degrees Centigrade (night). It’s snowy in the countryside. The weather is very changeable.
Time: +4 hours (Moscow time) and +12 (EST)
Currency: Rouble. Dollars and Euros are not accepted, but you can change then into roubles at any bank.
Transport: city busses, trolleybuses. The cost of the trip is 19 roubles. You can pay for your trip from the conductor in a bus or trolleybus. The price of the taxi is about 200 – 350 roubles.
Shops: Large grocery stores are opened 24 hours a day or from 8 a.m. till 10 p.m. without a break for lunch.
Connection/communication: Fixed telephony services are provided by more than 30 operators in Krasnoyarsk. The telephone area code is 391. Our city has more than 100 points of free Wi-Fi in public places.
Clothes: There is business style clothing in the most part of educational institutions. In our trip program we suppose a visiting of a nature reserve with rocky objects and we you recommend to put on comfortable closed shoes and clothes suitable for movement.
Food: there is a great variety of cafes and restaurants where you can try national meals of different countries. Basic food is meat and fish meal.
Safety: It’s safe at the city center, but it’s not recommended to take valuables with you at the evening time. Documents are recommended to stay at the safe on reception.
Photo: Photo is allowed everywhere except some places with special restrictions (for example, theatre performances).
Other: You should have an adaptor for wall socket.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Model United Nations

One of my favorite roles as a gifted ed teacher is that of Model UN coach.  I have always had a personal interest in travel.  I've soaked up history and culture in and out of a formal academic context, and truly just love experiencing new places--the everyday life of another 'somewhere'.  I also love history--the stories of what has happened, where, and why and how does it affect ALL of us today?

As the model UN coach, I get to 'infect' my students with this travel bug. I hope it's contagious!  I share their excitement before conferences when we find out the countries we get to represent.  I admit it--I tell them to hop on youtube and watch the official travel videos first thing.  Then, look at some personal videos and blogs from travelers, young and old, who have gone there before them. Soak in the best of what this place has to offer.  Why is it special, and unlike anywhere else in the world? Then, we tackle the 'academic' part, the history timelines, the cultural demographics, the GDP, allies and enemies, natural resources, etc.  They feel as if they are really a part of their 'adopted' country, sharing its joys and struggles.

What I also hope they 'catch' is a passion for solving world problems.  I've seen my kids research and propose solutions for world hunger, ending human trafficking, cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Dump, protecting World Heritage Sites, disarming terrorists, improving education for refugee children, ending the ivory trade, and promoting international cooperation in space exploration. 

Each semester, we compete in 2 conferences.  One in town and one out.  This last fall, we tried out Model UN at the Univ of Kansas in Lawrence.  I was thrilled for my students to get a one-day taste of collegiate life.  I hope to infect them with the 'higher education' bug also.  I had novice students (yes, you, Michael!) getting up and speaking in front of dozens of peers, advocating their resolutions. 

This trip to Russia is especially significant--my students are representing Russia at the JCCC conference while I'm actually OVER there!  I hate not being with them for support, but I have a feeling they are going to do just fine without me :)  Thank you, thank you, TEACHERS FOR GLOBAL CLASSROOMS, for sponsoring me on this truly amazing opportunity.

TO Russia with Love!

It's almost here--I'm leaving for Moscow, Russia in 36 hours.  It feels like a numbers game at this moment, though.  26 lesson plans, 2 suitcases, 75 state quarters as gifts, 8 flights, 9 time zones to cross, and 1 already-lonely Corgi to drop off at the 'resort' in the morning before my last day of teaching before I go.

My students gave me a great send-off.  I think they're just as excited as I am.  They pitched in and helped me video-tape The Life of American Teens, came up with questions for their Russian counterparts, and promised, promised to not torment the subs while I'm away.  My 'survival of the sickest' class, studying Richard Preston's nonfiction thriller, The Hot Zone, comforted me with the fact that if I DO contract the Zaire strain of Marburg while abroad, I could have as good as a 33.333% of surviving.

A special thanks to Mr. Nellis, Ruskin High's AP History teacher extraordinaire, who altered his lecture schedule today so I could video an American educator's perspective on Russia's World War II experience and take it with me to the Lyceum in Saratov next week.

My principal has been an amazing support, from accompanying me to the preparatory Symposium in Washington, DC last month, to helping arrange special PD days, the subs, etc.

My husband, a frequent visitor to Moscow some years back when he worked flights there with American, listed out all the 'must see's'.  His advice?  Stay away from the NYC Canal Street type junky souvenirs. Spend rubles, not credit cards, in the stores. And the beer is better for you than the vodka.

And my youngest?  Thanks a jillion, Abby, for helping me get this blog up and running.  I, and IREX, thank you!

Now it's pretty much down to the packing.  And the dog....