Teaching English in Russia

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When I was planning my trip to Russia, I knew immediately that I wanted to teach English in some way or another. A treasure was mine to give, that is English. Regardless of me and my background, I could correct and share. Touching young lives through language is very rewarding. The decision was a no brainer. Read about my journey through my difficulties and successes.

I taught English to high school students twice a week after school hours for the entire Fall semester of 2018. I stayed in the heartwarming town Svetlograd. My experience was wonderful. I loved the kids and the town. Each session was a delight. I was humbled and privileged to be apart of their lives for one semester.

The difficulties I faced were those universally felt in Russia and the world at large. Firstly, the teachers spoke too much in Russian. The students feel they know English, but they really understand the immediate translation into Russian. When I came, most could not follow my speech or reply back to questions. They giggled and looked to the nearest translator — another student or Google Translate. Even for the younger children everything is related back to Russian. This is very counterproductive.

Secondly, as is true everywhere, the students did not have enough time. I would ask them to write something or prepare for a small quiz, but very few were ready. They had all the desire in the world, but time was not enough.

Lastly, the number one difficulty I faced was that the students could not feel the language. I would sternly ask them to stand up, but they would remain seated. Dramatic displays of happiness or anger did not make sense to them, aside from my facial expressions. In Svetlograd, I was living with relations. If she said in Russian, “The tea is very hot!” or “Come here, Masha!” I reacted because I felt the words.

I wanted my students to also feel the words. One day we pretended to be a train. We all lined up. I was the leader and said, “We are going straight… Now we are turning left… Then we cross the book… Right again…” As I did the action, everyone followed in a snake motion. Then the next person behind me would reenact the whole thing. This proved very effective and helped awaken them to how English felt inside the body itself.

Successes from my point of view were innumerable because I was so pleased to be with them. Here I will note just three. First, at the beginning of the year, I visited many English classes of every age. I would tell them about myself and then take questions. Of course, most of the questions were about life in America and everyone always asks, “Which do you like better? America or Russia?” That said, I loved the questions from the youngest of students, such as “are there kittens in America too?” So many tried to ask me in English, even employing Google Translate occasionally. I was thrilled to hear everyone trying. These interviews in the classroom were one of my favorite parts of my trip on the whole.

Secondly, when grammar explanations became overwhelming, music proved the best way to communicate with my young students. We listened to songs and then went over the lyrics. My favorite was when they said they understand it all, then I asked one question….well, that popped that balloon. We chose only songs they loved so it really helped them to open up and start working to understand better.

Thirdly, by far the most success…and laughter…I had came from games! I got into the rut where I did all the talking. Then the potato arrived, well the potato in the form of a plush pumpkin. We all remember the game «hot potato», growing up. Well, I played with my students. I did it in different ways. We started off nice and slow, passing the “potato” to one another and saying in turn, “1…2…3..” Then the number would change and then next student would have to say the next number, “23…24…87…88…” Lastly, we tried some math, “1+1=2, 35+2=37.” When they loosened up, I would let them use both English and Russian numbers to help the English ones feel more real. There was always the one student that gave me: “563(Russian)-8(English)=?” It was a laugh. After numbers we focused on names of food and animals in the same game pattern. This helped the students relax and it helped them to talk. Hot potato along with other games were a huge success. We truly had fun.

I am so grateful to have met these students and to have had this opportunity to teach English in Russia. At the end of the day, English is a living language that should be enlivened for the student. I hope my students will love English more now and will use it from the heart and not just out of necessity.

Remember What You Read: a technique to learn how to digest the important points of any reading

Reading comprehension is not automatic. Helping students with this vital skill, when they are first learning it, can only help them multifold in the future with writing and more difficult readings. When the student considers the information within a text to be meaningless, create a story connecting those facts!

Check out the video now:

In late elementary and early middle school, students learn the skill of comprehending what they have read. They are starting to ask themselves, “What are the main points? Which are the supporting facts versus the actual arguments?” Reading is the gateway to writing. While they compose their essays, they will ask themselves the same questions. Learning reading comprehension is an important step in any child’s education. Not every student can read well. Some students struggle to connect the details and myriad of facts they encounter. What do you do?

I am mesmerized by people with an excellent memory. One can demonstrate this asset through the memorizing of decks of cards. I cannot do this and never will, but it got me thinking. Cards themselves are basically meaningless pieces of information. If you can find a way to remember them, then you can carry that over onto other situations.

I gave my students random cards from a deck. I asked them to remember those cards for 30 seconds. They did so easily when I did not talk, but the second round I talked during those entire 30 seconds and they were unsuccessful. Then, when I showed them how to make the random cards into a story, the students were able to remember the cards for any length of time within the lesson.

Here is an example:in video slides.003
Jack = The jack
Loves = The heart suit
To ace = Ace
Irish = The clubs suit
5 = 5
Higher = the spades suit (it looks like an up arrow)

After this, I want to hone the skill of story telling, with that story lasting only a sentence or two. I give my students random facts and ask them to connect them into a story. We must concentrate on this, because a story that does not connect properly will be harder to remember. If I say, “A man runs down the street and sees a boy,” now I must remember him running and seeing the boy, which is more work. I can tweak the story somewhat…. “A man runs and almost trips over a boy sitting in the street.” Now I have a bond between the man and the boy. You cannot have the man tripping without the boy in the street. Many times I will give the students random pieces of information in order for them to practice making meaningful connections.

Here is an example:in video slides.005
I make the story and also reinforce items: an old man with an old and a $12 ring for a 12 year-old granddaughter.

Lastly, we need to apply this to an actual reading assignment. I will ask the students to read the passage to themselves and then ask me about any words they do not know. Then we will go over it together to make sure they understand the words and passage 100%. Now we employ the story-telling technique in order to keep track of: the main argument, something in parallel or conflicting, and one example.

Here is an example:in video slides.007A mother goes shopping with her teenage, ninja son. He says, “Mom, all my friends are wearing black! I want this shirt.” She responds, “We are just regular farmers. You should dress normally. I like this shirt more.” Though inauthentic it captures the main points in a funny and unexpected way. (text original source here)

Stories are more potent and useful when they are weird, funny, and unexpected. The goal of the story is to digest and install the information without making your mind work even harder to remember even more. As you move through a reading, you can employ this technique as you go. Instead of trying to remember what happened two paragraphs up, just review the story going on in your mind.

They are learning a skill with this, not merely a method. They are connecting facts over and over. With time, the inventive and strange stories slip away and what remains is the ability to keep track of and connect information within a reading.

Everyone will have different stories and they may see them as a movie in their mind or just more text. This is adaptable to all kinds of learners because it is completely individualized. Making the short story serves as a vehicle to remember and digest what the student has read. Try it today!

Book a lesson with me here!