Thursday, December 14, 2006

Merry Early Christmas, and off to Bratslav soon

Hello! It has been a while, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to write again (I will, of course, just don’t know when), so I’m going to write everything that I can – prepare yourselves.

So, while Christmas commercialism is almost nonexistent in Rokytne (I mean in comparison to the displays you all were surrounded with starting two months ago), we are in a celebratory mood because of the end of training. After the interesting week that I wrote about last time, when training was fraying my nerves, things have calmed down and a lot of fun/funny things have happened. We’re finishing everything up, saying goodbye, and slowly getting the hang of things.

Dogs here often actually sit and sleep on their little houses, just like Snoopy! I see this one every day on the way to Yulia's.

I’ll start with some things I forgot to mention a week and a half ago: despite the many complaints I had that week, we did have a fun excursion to the Music School (often, instead of having music, dance, art or sports at schools, they have separate schools here which children attend after school or on the weekends). We saw a poet speak, who is apparently very well known, and although we didn’t understand the vast majority of what she said, it was still very entertaining. They began the presentation with several songs and performances in her honor, and children and instructors (including Yulia’s guitar teacher) sang some of her poetry set to music. When she spoke, she was very animated, occasionally recited her poetry by heart, and sometimes doing imitations of a little child speaking haltingly in a high pitched voice – it was really funny, even though we didn’t really follow it all. I paid attention because every five or so seconds I would catch a word and try to hear more – but it was always basic words like “woman” or “house” and never what connected them. We also had a nice trip to Kyiv, during which we bought books for our community project, and I got very nice letters which I will discuss more later . . .
A typical list of vocabulary that I present to students, attempting to explain through stick figures . . .

Our community project was a book drive for a local orphanage, and getting activity books and materials for the English teachers we worked with in Rokytne. It was good practice for the kinds of projects we’ll be attempting on our own for the next two years, but there were definitely drawbacks. For one, it was more or less presented to us as a “PC gives you money, you get people stuff” sort of operation than it is evidently meant to be – we were thinking of what we could buy more than how we could involve the community, so that’s something to work on. We heard descriptions of other groups’ projects at PST University, including fundraisers and Toys for Tots type projects, which made me wish we had gotten a clearer picture of what was expected. But anyway, we did our best, and were successful overall. An administrator at our school asked for donations of Russian and Ukrainian children’s books, and while we were encouraged to have low expectations, we ended up getting a lot of books from students! They were mostly well-loved (but certainly not in worse shape than the books in Rokytne’s library – almost all paperback books from the Soviet era), but they were perfect for our project. We had found several Ukrainian young adult fiction books, since many kids at the orphanage have trouble with Ukrainian, including a Harry Potter, and some colorful English flashcards about animals and holidays, and “Finding Nemo” in Russian. We went to the orphanage on Thursday to have a party and present everything. The three of us (me, Katie and Jasmin) were left hanging in the common room with the kids (about 28 live there, I think) for a while without a translator, but soon the older girls were beckoning me over saying “Excuse me . . . what is your name?” and practicing other English phrases. They got out the dictionary and everything, it was very cute. We presented the donated books from the school, and the things that we had bought to them as a Christmas present from the Peace Corps and our school, and they were pretty excited, the books were passed all around and examined and fought over (by younger kids), etc. A little about orphanages here, since I don’t think I’ve really talked about them before: apparently, most of them are in pretty awful shape. It seems that the one in Rokytne doesn’t have too many children, and has good sponsors, because it’s a very big facility (although the best face is often put on for visitors, etc.). Just speaking in general though, from what we’ve learned from current volunteers – many Ukrainians have a view that orphans are somehow dumb, or otherwise unacceptable by society (not sure the best way to put that). Many children in orphanages do have family and even parents, who might come to take them on vacation or to visit, but can’t afford to keep them, or are alcoholics, etc., who are not allowed to take care of them.

So anyway, we presented the books, and I read a little from the adapted Winnie the Pooh we got them (unfortunately we couldn’t find really simple, picture-heavy children’s books in English, so this one may have been a bit over most of their heads). Then they had a concert for us – two girls performed dances with original choreography to American music, a girl sang most of “My Heart Will Go On” (I was also treated to that song when I visited Bratslav), a boy breakdanced, and a girl and a boy did some swing dancing for us, it was really great. It was very informal, but all the kids knew who among them liked to dance or sing, or took lessons at the local schools, and would call out someone’s name until they agreed to perform. They were really talented, it was very cute. Then we had some cookies and drinks in their dining area, and I played Christmas music on my laptop, and turned on the “visualizer” so kids were gathered around, staring at the swirling, changing colors as the music played. We talked to the older girls as best we could in Ukrainian, and one had us sign her memory book. All in all, very successful, very sweet kids.

Teaching has also gone a lot better these past two weeks than it did that last week – it was good to see what happened when our novelty wears off, and what to do next. I managed to get the fifth grade through a lesson last Monday without too many giggling fits from the former culprits, and then was free to plan lessons without the textbook for the rest of the week – which sounds frightening, but turned out very well! The teacher I’ve mainly worked with – Faina – asked me to teach the 9th grade about the U.S. Government. Well, my ears perked up (I’m the “political one” in our cluster. I guess I can’t always be the “cute one.”) – and I planned a lesson covering as much as I could, but trying not to overwhelm the unsuspecting children (including my host brother, Vitalik). I ended up deciding on a lesson that focused on how there were three branches of government (I even drew a tree), where the President, House, Senate and Supreme Court fit in those branches, and how there were two major political parties (Katie, who I co-taught with, almost lost it when I started describing the “party animals”). They mostly understood, and I was very excited explaining everything, and we had a mock election between Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith. We had a poll on who liked Coke vs. Sprite, and puppies vs. kittens, and I then explained that Mr. Jones promised free kittens and Sprite, while Mr. Smith promised free puppies and Coke. I was for Mr. Smith, but Mr. Jones ended up with more votes, and the class clown (who last week claimed to understand nothing, and this week was calling out the answers – White House, Washington D.C., George W. Bush – faster than anyone), added an extra box on his ballot and voted for “Yushenko.” So that was really fun.

On Thursday we had our “demo” lessons, which were supposed to demonstrate our teaching level and how far we’ve come. As it turned out, only our technical facilitator was able to attend (who’s been watching us all along), but it still went well. Again, I didn’t have a lesson to go off of – Faina just told me to teach the 11th graders about American art galleries (because they had just read a text on British art galleries). This was a little less close to home than politics, but I borrowed some books on American culture from our tech facilitator, thought back to my art history class, and came up with a pretty cute lesson. The only real art I had was some Georgia O’Keeffe cards my mom sent me, so for examples of other major American artists and genres I was on my own. I decided on Pollock (representing Abstract Expressionism), Grant Wood (Realism? Maybe? Get off my back, I was far, far away from Wikipedia and people who know these things), Thomas Cole (landscapes) and Andy Warhol (Pop Art). I listed four major museums on the board – the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Modern Museum of Art, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. After we went over vocabulary, I showed them my versions of the artists I chose, and they were very entertained by my art but didn’t laugh at me, and listened respectfully as I talked about the differences, and described how Pollock threw paint on the canvas, etc. They picked which museum was best for each, including the pretty Georgia O’Keeffe cards, and overall understood things really well – although I try to stick to really simple questions like, with the Pollock: is this a landscape? is this a portrait of a king? no?? then what is it??? (and they chant, “Abstract Expressionism”). And we even talked about abstract vs. concrete, very funny.

The third funny class we had, and the last class I taught here in Rokytne, was with Jasmin, again without a lesson, about poetry and winter. We’ve gotten a lot of PC material incorporating music into lessons, and it was definitely the thing to do in Bratslav, so when Jasmin asked me to plan the lesson, I thought I’d try teaching them a song, which I don’t think I would ever dare try in America – which is part of why it’s fun being the crazy American: you can really get away with anything. So I picked vocabulary words from the song (we taught them how “baby” can be a little child or a boyfriend/girlfriend), and had a dialogue about winter (good suggestion from Jasmin – I tend to talk a lot in class, always making sure, as best I can, that they understand what I’m saying, going over and over things until I see the lightbulbs go off, but that also means I don’t get them to speak as much as I need to), and then we taught them “Winter Weather” (don’t know who it’s by, I have a version sung by Peggy Lee? Yeah, another of my old-people songs). It was really cute, and they weren’t embarrassed to sing along (had my iPod with little speakers), especially when I sang with them, and even alternated boys and girls. All three classes were really useful experiments, and even if I have to stick more to curriculum in normal classes in the future, I will also have an English club for interested students where I can focus more on American history, literature and music and more fun things like that, so it gave me a lot of ideas for the more “country studies” activities I can do with them.

We’ve continued to get to know people here a little better: I met yet another great-grandmother of my host family (well, there are just two, but still) when we went to her house for St. Catherine’s Day (everyone made sure that Katie knew about this holiday); and we’ve gotten to spent more time with our hilarious neighbor, Luda. She still comes in and yells at us in surzhick, but we understand each other a little more now, and she very sweetly gave us each brightly colored scarves last week as gifts (yelling, “NOT DARK!! NOT DARK!” in Ukrainian).

We had a cross-cultural session this week on religion and curse words – didn’t learn too much new in the religion section (no one seems clear on who is supposed to cover their heads inside churches – young women? old women? married women?), but the curse word section was hilarious. Andrey (our link cluster’s language teacher) made the Ukrainian women leave the room before he taught them to us, and got really worked up every time we even suggested the possibility of our saying them (asking about pronunciation, etc.) – he was adamant that our “lips never form these words.” He just wanted us to know what we were being called if and when the situation arose, and who to watch out for (though I can’t see how I’m ever going to remember these silly words unless I say them a few times just to myself). He would give us various situations – one was when he was crossing the street to be the best man at his best friend and sister’s wedding, and, in avoiding an oncoming car, fell into a puddle. This prompted a three-line string of words that, when he translated them, had me laughing so hard I was crying, but I suppose I’m not allowed to reproduce them here. Sorry.

This week, we were supposed to give tests as our final training task, so I wrote a three page test (don’t worry, it was handwritten and I write big) for the Lyceum kids whom I’d been asked to teach one more time, this Tuesday. Katie and I got to school frantic about finding the xerox machine and making enough copies for our respective classes. We couldn’t find the librarian for the regular school, so I went upstairs to the Lyceum where I was told that my teacher, who I had just arranged all this with the day before, wasn’t there. I chose not to believe this for the moment, although her classroom was locked, and went downstairs to try more there. Still unsuccessful, so went to try the librarian upstairs. She, it turns out, was in the hospital, and further, I was told, my teacher was in Bila Tserkva (nearby city). I read in Katie Aird’s blog ( if anyone’s interested), that when her students misbehave, “the Portuguese flows.” This seems to be the case for me in crises here – the broken Ukrainian phrases flow, and I generally get my point across. I managed to figure out that the other librarian had gone to the town centre, my students didn’t know whether they were supposed to have class or not, and, although I was willing to write out the test bit by bit on the board and make them do it without individual copies, they didn’t think we could open the classroom door. So, after calling our tech facilitator, I gave up – but it was definitely one of those funny experiences, and I didn’t care all too much.
Me and Svetlana, the teacher who wanted me to help her with English

That day we finished our community project by meeting with our two English teachers and, over tea and chocolate, giving them new grammar books and a map of America (that, unlike Plakhotnyk, doesn’t place Washington, D.C. by the Great Lakes). They’re both very sweet, and gave us a bags full of Baton bars (good chocolate bars here), and gave us each a little set of salt and pepper shakers (getting ready for that “individual housing” soon!). We asked them what they thought of our teaching, and they said that I have the right idea with discipline, but Katie and Jasmin are too nice to students, which was funny. I didn’t even think they had seen me be very disciplinary, I guess it’s just in my general attitude. I told them a story about what happened to a student who fell asleep in class in my high school (no names, but the others filed out, the clock was turned forward, and the student left alone to awake suddenly when the door was slammed – remember that?), which they thought was funny. So it was fun to chat with them, and we took pictures.

Yes, I have more to say! I don’t even feel bad, because I have no idea when I’ll have the internet again, and a lot has happened. Today, we had our LPI, which is our language evaluation test. I talked for about a half hour with the PC evaluator about various things – she asked me the difference between the Ukrainian and American education systems, which is difficult to explain in English, so that was hard, but it mostly went well, and for the “situation” in which I had to pretend to discuss problems with a landlord, I said there was no water (she replied, basically, yeah so what’s your point? Which made me fear for the future), and that my wallpaper was falling down. After the LPI, we were basically officially done! There’s nothing left of training but to meet with the city administration one more time, and to have a goodbye party for our families (and Luda) (and I’ll be able to give my host mom the finished scarf! etc.). I figured out a list of ingredients for another American feast, using the magical PC cookbook, and it will be intense but I think we can pull it off – we want to make (mostly from my strong suggestions) potato salad and cole slaw as sides, macaroni and cheese, chili, corn pudding (all in the cookbook!), an apple pie for Luda, and brownies. We made invitations today, hopefully it will all work out. Also, Yulia gave the three of us manicures, we swapped MP3s (a popular habit in the PC), and watched “Dirty Dancing” on my computer (so great. That movie has more depth than I remembered – I had forgotten the references to “The Fountainhead,” “freedom rides” and the Ho Chi Minh trail (sp??) . . . but I whooped when the Peace Corps was mentioned (twice!), and laughed very hard when the main character is asked “So, are you going to study English, Baby?” (“Baby wants to send her leftovers to South-East Asia . . .”). Yulia got a big kick out of it, and it’s always fun to watch a movie from home.

Speaking of things from home!!! I have been very spoiled these few weeks with letters and packages, and wanted to do some public thanking. I got hilarious letters from Mev and Little One (with important information like Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillipe’s break-up – I hear no news out here, people, the news is in a foreign language), and later in the week, a very thoughtful package from the Carpenters (thank you very much!). And today I basically received everything but a Christmas tree from my family, which was very sweet (our LPI testers carried the package in, as everyone stared in awe), and I am saving most of it for Christmas. I finally got inspired to send a few text messages home – feel free to try to text back! And I’m updating instructions on how to call here, on Facebook, since Mev clarified after successfully calling. What’s more – it looks like I successfully sent a package home, so once I get to be best friends with the post office people in Bratslav, I will hopefully send more of those. I hear that more things are coming my way – thank you very very much for all of them, it is very sweet of you to think of me.

Alright, that’s about it. On Monday, we’re getting on a bus to Prolisok with God knows how many suitcases (I probably need one just for the package I just got), we will be sworn in on the 21st, and I get on a bus for Bratslav on the 22nd. All of this involves no internet, so you’ll have to imagine it all on your own. I’ve been told that, from Bratslav, I can go to the nearby city of Nemiroff and use the methodology center’s internet for no charge, so will definitely go there as soon as I can, but obviously have no plans now. All I know is that I’m supposedly going to watch the Olympiads (English competition) on the 25th (no respect for us non-Orthodoxers), but also, that night we’ll have a party for my future host-mom’s birthday.

Hope you all are doing well – miss you all, and tell stories in broken Ukrainian about you all the time! Merry Christmas, and Happy Birthday to my Aunt Archer, keep in touch and will write to you again as soon as I can!

Love, Virginia


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