Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Final Stretch

Hello again! I haven’t forgotten about you. I’m just – as I’m sure you can imagine – too busy to think straight (or write readable sentences). 20 days to go . . .

I’ve officially finished teaching, although I’m going to teach some goodbye lessons before I go. It was a good half-semester; though I think the kids and I were getting a little punchy towards the end. They finally figured out that when I ask them to translate an English word into Ukrainian, I sometimes just take their word for it based on how confident they sound. If they don’t hesitate before translating, and if I don’t know any better, I just assume that they’re right and don’t bother looking it up to make sure. Well, as I said, they figured this out – and tried to trick me a few times, which was cute. One day I asked, “What’s ‘to sprint’?” – and one student said, with as straight a face as he could manage, “Sprint-oo-vah-tay.” (Most verbs end in “oo-vah-tey” in Ukrainian – and there are some cognates, like “pack-oo-vah-tay” (a relevant word for me right now).) Maybe they fooled me a few times and I didn’t realize it, but usually I was able to call their bluff by raising my eyebrows and waiting for them to break. Funny children.

Another time, I was teaching the 7th graders about food, and different things that we should put in the refrigerator or freezer. I said that I could put a Coca-Cola (they don’t say “Coke”) in the freezer for an hour to make it cold . . . but (I asked) what else could I do? What can I take from the freezer to put in my drink to make it cold? One boy, still stuck on the idea of what food products we keep in the freezer, blurted out, “Meat!” Usually I keep a straight face when I’m teaching, but I couldn’t help laughing when I asked “You put meat in your Coca-Cola?” The kids are usually willing to laugh at themselves, too, which is nice.

My star 5th graders are now slightly rowdier 6th graders, but they still did pretty well this quarter, despite the adjustment to a more difficult textbook than they’re used to. Unfortunately, since two very smart girls moved away, it’s a much quieter class, and only a few of the kids are usually willing to read out loud. However, one day, quiet Ruslan volunteered, and managed to make it through a few sentences. When he finished, his friend Yuri turned around and shook his hand in congratulations – so silly. Only men shake hands in Ukraine, and even in schools, you’ll see a boy enter his classroom and shake hands with all of the other boys before taking his seat. They’re very formal, in their way.

About a year ago, my coordinator, Lyudmila, started planning a methodological handbook for teaching the 6th grade: a collection of ten sample lesson plans for a relatively new textbook called “Our English.” Her preparation for this was to take meticulous notes while I was teaching those lessons last fall and again this quarter. So when I helped her edit them, I found myself looking at a record of basically every word I said during those classes. Here’s an example from a lesson in which I was explaining different modes of transportation:

“What’s a carriage? Is it like a train? Does it have wheels? Does it have a sail? Does your family have a carriage? A carriage is a wagon that a horse pulls. (In Ukrainian, you say that a train has ‘wagons.’ In English, we say a train has “cars.” For example, ‘What number car are you on?’) Do you know what a ‘fairy-tale’ is? What character in a fairy-tale had a carriage? She went to a dance, and she had to come back home by 12 o’clock, because her carriage would turn into a pumpkin. Cinderella!

There is also a baby carriage – to push a baby in. [Draw a picture.] There is a poem: ‘First comes love / Then comes marriage / Then comes baby and the baby carriage.’ . . . .

[Looking at a timeline exercise in the (very random) book:] What happened in 1100 BC? The ‘first passenger carriages.’ Like Cinderella – people started using carriages in Europe. Did they use carriages in America? No, in Europe. What is an ‘automobile’? It’s just a car. Big word, short meaning. The first car was in France – when? In 1890. How many years ago? 117 years ago. Did the Romans have cars? No. Did Cinderella have an automobile? No.”

Ok, so I know that this excerpt makes it look like I’m on speed, but you have to factor in the long pauses between questions (which contain, ideally, answers and student participation). But really, that is like a word-for-word account of one of my lessons. It was sort of horrifying to see physical proof of how much I talk, and my utter lack of any brain-mouth filter (this is all pretty much off-the-cuff – I’m not proud of how little I plan my lessons, but there it is). It was strange to relive these lessons as I typed and edited them. The booklet will be printed, with an introduction in Ukrainian by Lyudmila, after I leave . . .

So, I’ve lived in Bratslav for nearly two years, and I still don’t know everyone, but everyone sure knows me. People whom I don’t know never hesitate to speak to me in the street and address me by name (though one man called me “Angela,” which was confusing). On my way to school one day, a woman riding a bicycle stopped to say, “Virginiyechka, you still haven’t left?” No idea who she was. I think I said, “Uh . . . no.” The other day, while I was walking home, a man stopped me to point out a faster route to my house. No idea who he was. I sort of nodded, but defiantly continued along the route I prefer (you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere).

I taught my last big city English club, though we’ll have one more meeting before I go. I decided to talk about a book I had just read – Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail. The passages that I read were definitely more appreciated by the more advanced speakers in the group, but everyone enjoyed talking about bears and other dangerous animals. They were all pretty taken aback at the idea of someone hiking for five months for no real reason.

Lyudmila and I finished our PEPFAR project with a disco to raise awareness about HIV. Well, really we didn’t have a disco, so much as an “event.” There was no dancing, outside of the tango choreographed and performed by a few 9th graders. The school administration had had us reschedule the event several times, and in the end, we had to have it right after school instead of in the evening, which meant that no students from other schools could attend. But, as always, Lyudmila went all out, and it was quite a show. She wrote a skit for her new class (the 5th graders) to perform: they all had little paper hats with words like “hygiene” or “vitamins,” and they recited rhyming stanzas about healthy living and the importance of eating right and washing your hands. [Young children reciting original poetry is a very popular form of entertainment here, and it happens at almost every major event.] Then several older students introduced themselves, and performed skits or dances. They had formed “teams” – and each team had their own name, badge, and slogan, in the tradition of the Pioneers (a sort of Soviet Boy Scouts). As I mentioned, a few boys and girls did a tango to Shakira, and others did skits about how eating candy instead of porridge (“kasha”) will make you sick. So, the event wasn’t so much focused on HIV/AIDS, but the students had fun, and the school director and teachers really enjoyed it. Everyone was enthusiastic about planning future projects and seminars with the same theme, after I’ve gone home. So – I’m happy!

I told Lyudmila later that one thing that’s really struck me here is the students’ complete lack of stage-fright. They won’t volunteer to read in class, and they’ll be very shy and retiring in general – but if you ask them to put on a ball gown, do a dance and sing in front of the entire school, they don’t even hesitate. I’ve seen very shy girls get up in front of their teachers and parents and dance in ways that would make Baby from “Dirty Dancing” blush (even after she’d had the time of her life), and then they’ll grab a microphone and sing a solo. It’s amazing. Just the costumes are enough to make my jaw drop, sometimes – one young girl paraded around in a Southern belle-style white hat and poofy dress, complete with wand, at the “First Bell” ceremony this year. I must have had an interesting expression on my face during the tango performance, because the students later ran up to Lyudmila to make sure that I liked it. I did! – and I’m very impressed with them – just sort of surprised, that’s all.

After the “disco,” I went to Trostyanets to visit my friend Clara, and to go to the Halloween party that she organized for the students in her town. It was very involved – all the kids wore costumes, and they had different games like “pin the fangs on the vampire,” and a British version of bobbing for apples where you hang apples from a stick and try to bite them without using your hands. The next day we went over to her host family’s to visit, and made them an apple pie with the apples my coordinator gave me recently. Her host brother and sister speak very good English for their age – they go to a tutor – and are very enthusiastic about talking to us. While eating the pie, her host brother made the enigmatic statement, “There are good things, and bad things.” I said, “Oh?” And he continued, “The pie is good, but it is bad that we don’t have more.”

I’m trying to make sure that I see everyone before I leave, and I was worried about getting to see a former student from my 5th grade groupie class last year, Diana, whose family moved to another town. She was one of the students who called me from time to time (for short conversations, mostly consisting of asking how and where I was), so I had her number, and called her to see if she could come visit me. She came to visit (bearing chocolate and a huge can of strawberries), and told me about her new town and school. I’m still amazed at her English – it isn’t perfect, but she speaks without hesitation. Even if she doesn’t know exactly how to say something, she’ll figure out another way – like when she was giving me directions to her house, she said “You see the school. You see a big blue house . .”, etc. It was nice to see her before I left!

This week, Clara and I took a trip to Uman, a nearby city in Cherkasy oblast. I know I’ve mentioned the sect of Hassidic Judaism that began in my town – Breslov Hassidism. Well, the founder of this group, Rebbe Nachman, is buried in Uman. Every year on Rosh Hashanah, thousands of pilgrims from around the world go to visit his grave. We got to the area where he’s buried, and saw signs in Hebrew everywhere, and one in English advertising kosher food (it seemed like normal kiosk food to me, but it was the off-season). Our taxi driver even did the traditional chant for us (“Uman, Uman, Rosh Hashanah!”). We got to see his tomb, and met a very nice woman who gave us some literature in Russian (which we couldn’t really read), and told us about him. She pointed out where we could make a donation in his name, and assured us (in fairly good English) that Nachman “does favors” even for non-Jews.

Afterwards, we visited Sofiyivka Park: a sprawling park created in the early 19th century, named after Sofia Vitt-Potocka. I’m not 100% sure about her history, but I think she was a slave, then the concubine of someone important, and then the wife of two rich, important men, in succession. According to the guidebook we bought, she was “a very beautiful woman with a big intellect.” As I’m sure you can imagine. [The guidebook also asks, “What is it with Sofiyivka that has charmed numerous visitors?”] The park was very pretty, and it was nice to see all of the fall colors.

Speaking of the weather – it’s been relatively warm! The packing process is sort of a gamble: guessing how much long underwear I’ll be needing before I go, or which sweaters I can afford to do without. The weather’s been good to us, so far – some days, all I need is a fleece jacket! So keep your fingers crossed.

I’ll be spending the next couple weeks doing paperwork, trying to close my Partnership grant (my PEPFAR grant is done, I think), and going to doctors’ appointments and such. I’ll be in Kyiv during the election – so I’ll have internet access at the PC office, and BBC at the hotel! Very exciting!

Thank you to Mrs. Keeley for the nice note! And I’m sorry that so many of you appear to be receiving letters from me three months late! Well, what can you do. I hope you’re all doing well; I miss you – but I will see you very, very soon!

Love, Virginia


At October 29, 2008 5:06 PM, Blogger Louisa said...

I just got your note too! So glad that you posted again :) I'm going to miss this blog when you are done with your service, but I'll be even happier to have you back in person! Love you and miss you! Sorry I stink at writing!!!!!!

Louisa :)

Also, that guy telling you how to get to your house faster?! That is beyond creepy and awkward!!!

At October 30, 2008 1:22 AM, Blogger Virginia said...

Aw, he was just an old man trying to be helpful. Welcome to Ukraine.

Miss you too! See you soon!


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