Thursday, April 10, 2014


Krasnoyarsk threw open its doors to give us a ‘day in the life’ of students from Pre K through primary, secondary and University. This was accomplished with a flurry of excursions (aka tours), visits with administrators and teachers, lesson observations, and even the privilege of teaching a lesson ourselves. So much of it mirrored American education. Yes, the buildings themselves were old, as most were built in the 1930s. But once inside, they came to life with the sights of student projects, smart board presentations and displayed student art work. The halls were bubbling and noisy during passing period, with students on cell phones, laughing, play fighting and dashing to their seats to beat the tardy bell. And the sounds—of dozens of ‘Hallo’s’ and ‘Welcome’s’ in chorus as we headed down the halls to our next appointments. They all wanted to practice their English, as in Principal Ilona’s words, our visit showed the students that “English is no longer a subject—it is an opportunity.” But beyond that, we sensed authentic warmth and hospitality. I will treasure the dozens and dozens of Siberian smiles that flashed my way every day. Pre-K and Kindergarten Kindergarten schools in Russia care for children from 6 weeks to age 6. 1st grade starts at age 7. Few infants are in these schools, however, due to Russia’s generous paid maternity—18 months on average. The school we visited is linked to Lyceum No. 2, our host school. It was a delightful, cheery and colorful place. The care of the children encompassed the mind, body and spirit, as we witnessed an inclusive classroom and Montessori type learning exercise with special needs children, a fully outfitted health facility, an engaging curriculum, and numerous play centers. I just had to take a close-up photo from the transportation center—all the toy airplanes were American. An F-16, a Boeing 747 and a USAF labeled fighter jet! We heard repeatedly, from Moscow and Siberian officials alike, of the critical shortage of kindergartens. This resulted from several merging factors—a perfect storm. First, the decline of Russian manufacturing due to outsourcing to China resulted in widespread closure of factory-sponsored on-site centers. Next, the birth rate has increased significantly as Russian domestic politics and its economy have stabilized in recent years. Russians are optimistic and no longer apprehensive about the future. Krasnoyarsk is addressing this shortage with the building of new schools. It is exciting to see a vibrant city, in the center of Siberia, with cranes in the sky and re-bar on the ground. It is growing and the mood is upbeat. Primary schooling from 1st through 6th grade reminded me more of my own rural elementary school than the schools of the district I teach in. And that was not just because of the age of the facility. Yes, the technology was different from what I experienced in Imperial Grade School during the 1970s, with web-enabled notebooks at each desk, but the demeanor of the students, respect for the teacher, eagerness to learn, and quiet classrooms truly took me back 30+ years. When we entered the room, all students stood at attention, waiting for the teacher to direct them to sit. And that was not done just for guests. This is a classroom management technique common to all grades. We even saw it done in a University classroom we peeked our heads into. Sitting in a seat equated to an attitude of being ready to learn. Starting at about 7th grade, the environment appeared to loosen, with classrooms then more closely looking like American counterparts. Students were often in cooperative learning groups, doing jigsawed presentations, and in a Russian literature class, we even were treated to a mini acoustic guitar concert by two high school girls. After a lesson exploring how Russian music evolved based on the changing historical and political climate of the 1960s-1980s, we were introduced to Tsoy’s LAST HERO, a banned protest song. Family Consumer Science, however, again took me back to the 70s. The junior high girls, in charming head scarves, had us help make Russian (I call them Swedish) pancakes and laid a delightful table for us of mushroom soup, bliny, cabbage burgers and tea. On real china with polished silver. Sewing classes were also in this room. Our hosts told us no boys take these classes, and no girls take wood shop. This was not so in Soviet times. One teacher told us her aunt took shop and welding and could do electrical wiring in her home even today. A word about math (Maths as they call it). My fear was that American students were behind. This does not appear to be true for US students that are motivated and take the tough curriculum through AB or BC Calculus. The lesson that principal Ilona taught (more on that later) to 8th graders in preparation for their high stakes 9th year test was very similar in scope and sequence to a rigorous Algebra I course. For highly gifted students, they are tested and then encouraged to take advanced math and science courses at Siberian University, just around the corner. Similar in concept and practice to dual credit and US AP course offerings. And now for my lesson. I admit that I was nervous about teaching here. Would the lesson be appropriate in rigor, would the students understand my English, would my Russian colleagues think it appropriate? Most of all, would they like it? I had brought a snippet of a lesson I do on Greek and Latin word roots. It’s one of my favorite things to teach and one of the most useful and engaging, judging from my US students’ feedback. I went for it. And I got on Siberian TV! THAT was a surprise. I am glad I didn’t know that going in The students seemed to enjoy it—the lesson was a bit easy for some, and a tad difficult for others. So, with some differentiation, it was probably about right. I hope I gave them a tool for increasing their English mastery going forward. I would have liked to have opened it with the Harry Potter Expelliarmus spell clip from youtube, but as luck would have it, the internet option was temporarily inoperational in my room. Just like in the US.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On the Krasnoyarsk Evening News!!

I was thrilled to be able to present a lesson on Greek and Latin root words to a high school English class in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. The students were so welcoming and receptive and appeared to enjoy discovering how Latin and Greek make up 80-90% of the 1,000,000 words in English. The lesson was taped by Siberian TV and an after-lesson interview was translated by my dear new friend Olga. Here is a google-translation of the broadcast transcript. There's a funny mistranslation about soup and pancakes in the middle. In one of the schools in the center of Krasnoyarsk are taught by American teachers . This is not because the schools are not enough teachers - so exchange program teachers. Our already traveled abroad , now a return visit . Lisa Kucera and her two colleagues conducted for school workshops . Free. Foreign teachers teach English and learn themselves . Teens gain knowledge from the speakers, and the task of teachers - this week an idea of the Russian education system . Lessons reinforce soup and pancakes cooked on the writings . Unfortunately, to get overseas professionals for lessons in other schools until you have - tomorrow guests fly home. Teacher from USA Lisa Kucera : " I loved the motivation Russian students. I would like to American students studied with the same gusto and fervor . It has been humbling to see my new Russian friends work to communicate with me in English. Many have studied English for a decade or more. I am trying to learn some Russian words, phrases, and the Cyrillic alphabet to try to meet them 1% of the way :)

Monday, April 7, 2014


Spent the day LIVING OUT the Russian passion for competition.

We were told to wear 'sport clothes' and that we would be Team USA competing against students.  Frightening for 3 non-athletic teachers.  When we showed up this am, however, we were graced with cheerful purple and yellow matching sport shirts, created for the 2019 Russian Youth Olympics that will be held here in Krasnoyarsk.  Yet another gift from them to us.

Donning the uniform gave us some needed courage. Then, we realized that the young, male PE coaches were to be added to our team!  The same coaches that helped us climb the icy rock hill--our Stolbeasts!  Now THIS could turn out to be fun.  Some needed testosterone to give us a fighting chance against youth. The remaining 3 teams were all comprised of high school students.

As we entered the gym, Olympic music blared over the speakers.  We were cheered with pom poms as we rounded the perimeter. We then realized our team was the "Happy Shovels".  Why not the Hurricanes or Flames like the others? We pinned on our badges anyway, trepidation growing. The opening ceremonies commenced, with dancing and choreographed gymnastics.

Once in line, we realized that the name of this competition was the Funny Starts.  Well, if we were here to be laughed at, it was definitely in our best interest to play along.  We embarked on a series of goofy relay games--cross country skiing with foam skis and poles, pass the basketball between your legs, pillow fighting on a rail, and balloon tennis. I even got to take a turn at curling. We surmised the Russian words for 'hurry your @$$ up', but saw they all had a good laugh anyway when I wiped out on the 'ski course' (see photo!)

We ended up getting 2nd place overall (had to be rigged--it seemed we were last in most events). Our prize?  A pretzel and candy wreath for our Stolbeasts and a take home trophy for us.

It is true in every teaching context that students don't care what you know until they know that you care.  Apparently this teacher vs student competition is held every year, and it is evident it is part of the reason for the close knit student-teacher bond here.  And I appreciate that Funny Starts was put into our visit for the same express reason--that both sides could again see that what we have in common far exceeds what separates us.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Extreme Team Building with StolBeast

The forested mountains of the Stolby nature reserve rise 1350 ft above river level.  There are interesting granite rock formations, formed by volcanic activity, within the park that are popular with climbers and tourists.  The Ecolological Reserve, as our hosts like to describe it, has been updated recently, with charming signs, footpaths, a children's playground, informative cedar signs sponsored by Toyota, and even an orthodox chapel dedicated to who else, but St. Nicholas.

Seems tame enough, doesn't it?  The cedar carved sign is so welcoming, with no hint of the terror awaiting us. But 1350 ft is farther up than one thinks.  The 5 km walk up and 5 more down got the better of us all.  We trudged through mud and snow drifts, tiptoed from root to root up an incline, and climbed the iced face of a rock.  At the summit, it was a severe 1350 ft straight down.  One slip and there would be no need to HIKE the 5 km down.

We learned the meaning of TRUST in our Russian hosts. We trusted them yes, to show us interesting sights, but today, it went beyond that.  They served us a hot picnic lunch and tea halfway up, had water and handwipes for us, carried down our trash, made 4 foot deep footprints in the icy snowdrifts for us to follow step by step, literally pulled some of us up onto the rocks at times, and most importantly, stood between us and the precipice when we froze with fear at the top. Yes, I am clinging to that rock for all I'm worth, while some crazy souls are having tea behind me right on the ledge!

Vasili, Janna, Natalya, Natasha, Oksanna Ilona, Irina, and yes, our own "Stol-beast" (a 63 year old Physics instructor serving as our guide) in turns encouraged us and pushed us beyond where we thought we could go.  The reward?  At the top, a beautiful panoramic view of the entire Yenesei River valley including the city of Krasnoyarsk and surrounding slopes of tiaga. They knew the fear and discomfort of the extreme hike was worth it and they wanted to share the raw beauty of their homeland with us.

Later, more touristy sightseeing ensued, riding the chairlift at the charming FunPark ski resort and then hiking to another, more congenial lookout point at the summit.  But I will never forget being pushed up an icy rock face to where I never thought I could go.  And having someone to hang on to for dear life once I got there. Thank you, my friends.

The summit
selfie at the summit!

Tree Roots - steps to heaven

A Siberian postcard pic
NO CLUE of what the StolBeast has in mind!

Hospitality on the mountain

Saturday, April 5, 2014

так счастлива за мир - So Happy for Peace

так счастлива за мир - So Happy for Peace

Inside a Mongol yurt, at the top of a Siberian ski slope, these words were proclaimed with a double fist pump to the air.  They came from a 70ish year old woman, there for tea with her grandson, who overheard us speaking English.  She inquired about where we were from and was thrilled her guess was correct--we were Americans!

She wanted to know why we came.  We answered we were teachers.  Her face lit up all the more, as she gestured to her 6 or 7 year old grandson, and beamed and shook her head back and forth, "I am so happy our peoples are at peace."

I saw a wisdom in her eyes and sensed in her voice that she was finally able to express opposition to the expectation placed upon her and us to live as adversaries for decades.

Grabbing her hands in mine, I smiled, and nodded to agree. We left, without a photo, without exchanging names. It's better that way. She and we represent all the peoples of Russia and the US that wish the best for each other, not the worst.  I am so grateful that IREX has given us this opportunity to show each other how we are more alike than different.

Friday, April 4, 2014

KRASNOYASRK--Siberia's most beautiful city, says Chekhov

9867 km from home

72 degrees and sunny--an absolutely beautiful spring day. Was so cold in Moscow yesterday, my fingers went numb on a walk.  Today in Siberia, we shed our coats.  

The flight was great--that means smooth, quiet (except for the barking dog behind me) and uneventful, on a brand new Aeroflot Boeing 777.  IREX booked us on the red eye, arriving at 9am local time.  My first impression of Krasnoyarsk was similar to that of Colorado, with a dense and vast carpet of evergreen pines, spattered in with treeless white birch as far as the eye could see in  all directions.  The runway and road to Krasnoyosk appeared from the air like a narrow ribbon carved out of the trees.  Krasnoyosk rests against the Yeneise River—big and wide like the Missouri, but coming down from Mongolia and emptying into the Arctic  Ocean like most rivers in Russia.  Mountains, between the Appalachians and Rockies in height, are at the horizon.  Snow is still seen on the ski slopes, but melted off by the foothills and lower toward the river and the  city.

Our host, the principal and math teacher at the Lyceum, Ilona, met us with the sign:  Carrie, Emily, Lisa.  And what a warm welcome from her and the rest of the staff, teachers, and of course, children. The countryside view from the airport to the town, about the size of Omaha, reminded me of a western slope Colorado town like Durango.

We got our schedules for the week, and a tour--an Excursion, Russians like to call it--of the entire school.  As in Moscow, the children were so very excited to see us!  They stood at attention when we entered, smiled, and were eager to practice their English.  'Hello', 'Hi', 'Glad to see you' and "Welcome'. We met met at least one teacher from each grade and high school subject, the counselor, many, many students, and surprise...the school dentist. This school, perhaps others (?) has a resident dentist office offering services to the students free of charge.  It was a fully-appointed facility.  Interesting concept.  

Siberia is a rich area, several high school boys commented to us.  Rich in natural resources. I could not have ordered up a better presentation than what followed.  They narrated their school's rock, mineral and fossil collection.  I can't wait to share it with my 6th and 7th graders studying the online Jason project’s Tectonic Fury unit. If anyone in that class reads this and emails me back what tectonic plate Siberia is on, I will have a gift from Russia for you when I return.  Thanks to cohort Mary Sue for the idea. 

We spent the late afternoon touring the local Krasnoyarsk museum, showing historical and scientific collections originating from this area of Russia.  The young teachers serving as our tour guides admitted they did for us what I also do for my students--go to the museum the day ahead of time and take notes and research before the day with your audience. Thanks so much! Highlights included a full skeleton of a wooly mammoth, found nearby and reconstructed in the Life Science wing.  And, inclusion of an exhibit of a choom.  Native Americans on the plains called this structure a tipi (teepee). Gives even more credence to the theory that Native American are descended from Asian immigrants walking over the Bering Strait land bridge and then on south.  

Have noticed the air is a bit hazy.  It was explained to us that  Siberia is suffering from wild fires, similar to what was experienced in Colorado last year.   Extinguishment has been attempted with helicopters above, but the fires are not yet contained.  

A few more facts about the area:

The area started as a wooden fort, in 1628 by the Cossacks,  to keep out the Tartars. My hometown of Kansas City also started with Fort Osage, but 180 years later in 1808.

Gold was discovered here in 1895 (close in timing to Alaska's gold discovery)

The Yenisei river bridge, flowing through town, and its bridge, are featured on the ten Ruble note.  Our hosts gifted each of us with one. This river starts in Mongolia and empties into the Arctic Ocean.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

KRASNOYARSK, SIBERIA--60+ degrees?? Can it be?

Does lie?  Forecast looks to be in the 50's and 60's during my visit. From the magical Moscow snow to surprising Siberian spring?

Tune in tomorrow--same bat time, same bat channel, Kent Stewart.