Saturday, March 21, 2009

Interview on Yaroslavl TV

I was interviewed at Alexsey's school on Thursday, March 12 by a local Yaroslavl TV reporter. The 3-minute segment was aired twice that evening. Aside from the fact that one of my eyebrows was standing on end, I was impressed with the quality of reporting and editing.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My last day in Yaroslavl

We toured Yaroslavl State Pedagogical University where Olga and Alexsey teach on Monday. The head of the geography department gave me a tour of their geological museum. In ancient times, the Yaroslavl region had been covered by a large sea. As the sea receded fossils were left behind and this museum contains many examples. I was particularly impressed by the large: 18” diameter nautilus shells.

She also gave me a tour of the zoological museum. Many stuffed birds and animals were nicely displayed in one classroom. In the other classroom were skeletons and jars containing specimens in formaldehyde. Examples of lungs of smokers are used to discourage students and pupils from smoking.

We sat down for tea – a Russian tradition and I talked about my school and experiences at the university. I also showed the Power point presentation that I had prepared.

After tea we headed for botanical gardens. These greenhouses were a striking contrast to the snow and ice surrounding them. Our tour guide was a young man who does a segment on the morning news for children on interesting facts about particular plants. One plant holds water between its leaves. Small frogs live in the plant in a sort of symbiotic relationship. Our guide picked up a frog and let it walk over his hands – so I offered to do the same to the delight of the rest of the group. These gardens had a wide variety of specimens from a sequoia tree to cacti in a desert setting. Olga remembered a turtle that had been a long time resident of the gardens. She was stunned to see that the turtle had died and its skeleton was on display in the area where the turtle had lived.

When we left we walked past the mathematics and physics building. We then headed home for a late lunch.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I owe Russia $1200

With apologies to Bob Hope, I was faced with a similar situation last night when I took Olga, Alexsey, and their friend Anya out to dinner. The bill came to 1839. The bill, of course, was in rubles. Since 100 rubles is about $3.60, the total was closer to $66. This included four entrees, a bottle of red wine from Chile, a salad for me, and a pitcher of “most” which is a drink made from berries. Olga ordered for me and suggested a particular fish dish. Anya was concerned, however, that this dish was too expensive – she said (correctly) that it cost almost $10! I went ahead and ordered it.

This restaurant is Olga’s favorite in Yaroslavl. It is where she and Alexsey decided to get married. It is a Soviet era restaurant where I had also eaten the previous Sunday. It is a mini-museum of Soviet era posters and memorabilia. There were pictures of Lenin, Breshnev, and Kruschev. The waitresses wore “pioneer” uniforms which was the name of the scout-like group that all children belonged to during the era.

Anya is a medical professional in Yaroslavl who also teaches English. She is married to an American, Rob. Rob came over to Russia after a career playing professional hockey in the US and after getting his MBA. He thought there would be good business opportunities here. They met and got married. Unfortunately, Rob came down with MS and returned home (to Wisconsin) for treatment. The American and Russian authorities will not let Rob return to Russia nor let Anya go to the US. The two of them talk frequently and their language of communication is Russian. During their conversation before dinner, Anya handed the phone to me. I started off with “Hello, Robert, this is John from Bethesda, Maryland.” He was quite surprised to hear English, let alone an American voice. I quickly explained why I was in Russia.

Earlier on Sunday, Olga and I traveled to Rostov. Sergei’s friend, Andre, drove us in his Nissan SUV. Andre, apparently, is a prominent Yaroslavl business man who owns two cars. This contrasts to Olga and Alexsey, neither of whom own a car or have a license. Rostov-Veliky is finest sites. It has a large kremlin (stone wall enclosure) and three monasteries. There is a cathedral in the kremlin along with churches and museums. Olga and Alexsey had arranged for me to have an English guide who spoke quickly and authoritatively. Rostov was founded in 862 on Lake Nero which is the largest lake in the region. The people in the town decided in the 19th century to preserve the kremlin and the city is now a major tourist site – although there weren’t many people there on Sunday as it was icy and 14 degrees. My guide showed me the museum devoted to the art of enamel. It is only one of two such museums in the world – the other being in Limoges, France. In this museum, each room represented a century and so I could see the progression in the art over the years. One piece was spectacular. It was about 12 by 18 inches. It consisted of 12 panels – one for each month. Each panel was divided into sugar cube sized parts – one for each day. On each part there was a picture representing the life of the saint whose day it was. The detailed work on this calendar was stunning.

The four of us had lunch in a restaurant in the walls of the kremlin. Olga ordered me a traditional dish served in a container with a lid. It came with a decorated wooden spoon which I used to scoop out the delicious stew. Andre gave me a CD of music made from the bells of Rostov and a DVD of the town.

Andre drove us along the lake to one monastery. There, Olga had to put on a wrap to make it appear that she was wearing a skirt. The cathedral inside the monastery was impressive. I’m becoming more able to distinguish the different parts of a Russian Orthodox church.

Today, Monday, I’m going to Olga’s university and tomorrow morning I must bid farewell to Olga and Alexsey as I take the train to Moscow. They are throwing a party for me tonight at their flat. This certainly has been quite an experience.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


As my visit is drawing to a close, I jotted down these thoughts on Sunday morning:

My most inspirational moment was when the Russian scouts (boys and girls) sang “We Shall Overcome” in English, with meaning in Rybinsk. My most memorable moment was watching myself being interviewed and portrayed on the local news from a Yaroslavl TV station.

There were many things that surprised me in Russia. For example, I was surprised at how few Russians smoke. I only saw one woman smoke. I was also surprised by the prevalence of American products – Chevrolet and Ford in the streets. Head and Shoulder shampoo in the bath. Vanish being advertised by name and label on TV. American songs played as Muzak. And, everyone is using Windows – either XP or Vista. In one discussion with students, I compared this spread of American culture to the weed kudzu which has become an invasive non-native species in much of the North East. On the other hand, this spread hasn’t been pervasive – I saw a number of dial telephones in use.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Russian schools. I was impressed with how quiet the halls, cafeteria, and the classrooms were. Students whispered to one another. Teachers could talk in normal tones – and didn’t need to call classes to attention. Students seemed more eager to volunteer to give answers or present solutions to problems to the class – than those in the US.

One thing American schools can learn from Russian schools is that it much easier to have a national curriculum with fixed, testable standards. There is no room for implicit or explicit questioning of curriculum by teachers and students. Their curriculum is very European. Students study biology, chemistry, physics, and geography almost every year. They take 11 – 12 subjects a year – but of course the classes don’t meet every day.

On the other hand, there are things Russian schools can learn from US Schools. It appears that there is a lot of emphasis on teaching just what can (and will) be tested at the end of the year exams. One 11th form math class I visited focused almost entirely on complex looking problems that had simple, integer solutions. These artificial problems could appear on short answer tests. I believe that there is a value in longer, open ended math problems. American students use calculators to help understand mathematics – particularly as an aid to graphing. Data analysis and statistics seemed absent from the Russian math curriculum.

I’ve also been thinking how I’ll share my experience with my students and colleagues at my school. I took pictures during the math classes and took a short video of one of the math classes I visited. I’ll put these together in the form of a presentation to share with my students and colleagues. I got email addresses from a number of students and hope to encourage some of my students to set up a pen pal relationship.
I took pictures of what was being presented as well as from the math books that I saw. I was given copies of mathematics books, too. I will be talking about the international use of technology next month at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual meeting in Washington, DC. I’ll also be making a presentation to teachers at the Park City Math Institute in July in Utah.

All along, I’ve been thinking about how to collaborate in the future with those teachers I met in Russia. When I met my host and the other STEM Russian teachers in early October in Washington, I showed them some examples of mathematics software. The one that I emphasized is Geogebra. It is free and easy to download. More significantly, one can change the language easily. Math students in both of our countries do projects. What I’m hoping is that I can work with the lead math teacher in Alexsey’s school so that students can work on these projects collaboratively via the internet and Geogebra. I saw, for example, one of her students present a power point presentation on transformation of functions under translation, reflection, and dilation. This topic was identical to what I taught my pre-calculus students in the fall.

Our two countries are separated by language, alphabet and geography. But there is much more that we have in common. During the Second World War, our countries were allies against the enemies of Germany and Japan. Somehow fifteen years later, the Soviet Union and the US were enemies and Germany and Japan were our allies. Now, there still may be political differences between our countries, but the cultural similarities are striking. We should continue to have exchanges like this LTMS one to bridge the gap between us. We often say that “Children are our Future.” They, indeed, may help bring us together.

Uglich - Russian for angle

We had to get up at 6 am for our trip to Uglich. The vodka last night made it harder to rise that early. It was cold again this morning, about 20 degrees.

After breakfast, Alexsey and I took the bus for 45-minutes to the central bus station. There we met two other teachers and my translator. The bus to Uglich (100 KM away) took 2 1/2 hours. When we got there, we were met by an official of the Uglich Pedagogical College who was our host for the day. She showed us around the school. A student gave us a tour of the school's museum. We had lunch and I was given a nice book of the town.

After lunch, we toured the town. The town is named for the Russian word for angle - as it is where the Volga changes course. This town is south of Yaroslavl and there are a set of locks to enable ships and barges to travel. The cathedral is set on a lovely piece of land. Three of its interior walls feature copies of Italian frescoes by Rafael. The fourth wall was filled with Russian Orthodox icons. It was beautiful and I'm hoping that there are pictures of it in the book I received. We then went a short distance to a church which was dedicated to the son of Ivan the Great who was killed at this site. It, too, was a beautiful church - decorated quite differently from the cathedral. We walked around and stopped at a private museum in an old house dedicated to life in Uglich 100 years ago.

We had some time to kill before the bus to Yaroslavl and I was given the choice of visiting a museum about prisoners or one about vodka. Even though I knew that the vodka museum featured a tasting at the end, I chose the other museum. It was the smallest museum that I had seen in a long time. Aside from the entry room, there was only one other room - and that was a cell. While that cell may have had at one time 16 people, the 7 of us filled it with ease. I told Alexsey that, after taking a photo of the interior of the cell, I would be telling my students that this is where I had stayed for my two weeks in Russia!

We arrived back home at 7:30. Olga and her mother had prepared a lovely supper for us - of Russian handmade ravioli. When we arrived the cat was sitting at the table watching TV. I was impressed by all of their hard work in making the dinner - and even more impressed with the dinner itself.

Tomorrow, we are traveling to Rostov.

Bye for now

A day at school

On Thursday night, I saw the rebroadcast of the Yaroslavl TV segment about me. It was over 3 minutes long and started off with the announcer standing in front of what looked like a six foot photo of my face. The piece was well edited and my English remarks were apparently well translated into Russian.

When I got to school on Friday, I was treated as somewhat of a celebrity. The younger pupils asked me for my autograph. Alexsey's school is a neighborhood school for grades 1 to 11. The students in the lower grades kept coming up to me throughout the day. I learned at the end of the day that there were two young boys who cried because they didn't get an autograph.

I saw four classes. In the first class, students presented math projects via power point. The math they were presenting was very similar to what I teach in my American pre-calculus classes. This turned out to be fortitutous because my folllow-on-project will be to get American kids and Russian kids to collaborate on math projects using Geogebra. This free software can instantly translate from English to Russian and vice versa.

The second class was Information Technology. The teacher taught the 20 students for the first half of the period and then they worked in pairs using Microsoft Draw on computers.

The third class was a 9th grade chemistry class. The level of chemistry these students were doing was similar to what we do in my school in 10 th grade. The teacher demonstrated an experiment (without safety glasses) and the students did a similar one in pairs (again without safety glasses) at their desks.

The fourth class was the highlight of the day - if not the week. This was a 7th grade math class. The teacher was using problems from the 9th grade end of the year exam to challenge these students. These students worked in groups and the teacher had devised a scheme for the group itself to get a grade. Students were meaningfully helping each other. Once a solution was arrived at the students presented the problem to the rest of the class. The other students could ask questions - and if the presenter couldn't answer them satisfactorily, the grade was lowered.

One of the problems that the students worked on is of the type that is traditionally quite difficult for 9th graders. It dealt with a person who drove to a city at 15 km/hour and then drove back at 10 km/hour. The total trip was 1 hour. How much time was spent on each segment? One girl presented the solution from her group. It was correct and explained well. I mentioned to my interpreter that this young girl was quite bright. At the end of the day, I wasn't surprised to see her picture on the wall in the front hall of the school as the top pupil in her grade.

The last class of the day was a class that I taught - primarily to students who knew some English. I had been alerted to this possibility when I was in the US, but I couldn't really plan the lesson until I had met some of the students. I decided to focus on some less traditional aspects of mathematics and presented a lesson on game theory. I used the bags of American taffy that I had brought as props and taught the students a version of the game NIM. They played with each other and slowly started to figure out a strategy for the game. Yuri seemed particularly adept so, as this part of the lesson was drawing to a close, I suggested that he play me. I let him decide who went first. He started off well, but made a mistake and I decided to go ahead and win the game. He didn't seem upset. I then showed the students a variation of the game. After that Egor and Yuri volunteered to play another game - with nine cards labeled 1 - 9 while I allowed the 20 students to munch on the candy. Various adults, including Alexsey, dropped in during the class. It went well and the students posed for a picture with me at the end.

School ends at 2 pm. At 2:30 I ate lunch with Alexsey and is administrative team in the cafeteria. I was somewhat surprised to see a bottle of wine on the table. I was even more surprised to see that what I had thought was a bottle of water, was in fact a bottle of vodka. Needless to say, lunch was great.

We made it back home, had a cup of tea, and then went off to Sergei's for dinner. He lives in a flat with his parents a mile from our flat - the ice was treachorous, but we made it safely. We had a Russian dish: plimini that he had made from scratch. Sergei is a pathologist and a teacher of physicians - even though he is only 32. His English is quite good and the two of us spent most of the evening talking.

Our agenda for Saturday: Travel to Uglich.

Bye for now

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Russian TV star

On Thursday, we headed off to Alex's school which I had seen briefly on Saturday. I had breakfast with some of the staff there before heading to a room filled with 25 of the school's English speaking students. I met with them for an hour. They were great and had lots of questions. I showed my powerpoint and tried to show a DVD that I had made of my school - but it kept locking up.

The pupils asked about my impressions of Yaroslavl and of Russia. They asked questions what sports I liked, what I liked to do in my extra time, and in general what life was like for me in the US. They were quite familiar with American culture. One student said that it is too bad that another culture seems to be taking over their own culture. I tried to compare it to the weed "kudzu" but wasn't successful. US products are everywhere. The clothing worn by folk on the bus all has English words on them. The shampoo in my flat says "Head and Shoulders" and looks like the American bottle. All of the computers run Microsoft Windows. The students' favorite music groups include American ones.

The kids were a lot of fun to talk with. I gave them a bunch of small gifts and my business card. None of them has written to me so far. Many asked to have their photograph taken with me.

After I met with the students, I was interviewed by a reporter from a local TV station. She also interviewed Alex - who is the headmaster of the school. After about ten minutes we all headed to another building for an assembly put on by the students. In this assembly kids from various grades sang songs in other languages than Russian. Most of the songs were in English. Some were quite good. The last song was "It's raining men." To my surprise, I was asked to be one of the judges to decide which of twenty songs was the best. Well, even though I'm not Simon Cowell I knew that none of these groups would be going to Hollywood.

After a lunch with the staff, Alex and I headed by bus to the center of town and we met up with the two other American teachers who have been staying in the Yaroslavl region. We had a good, English speaking tour guide who was of great help. We toured the old monastery (see the photo at the beginning of the blog) and eventually made our way to a museum on "music and time." This museum featured old music boxes and gramaphones - most of which worked. There were a number of old clocks, bells, and irons.

After this visit we headed toward a cafe. It was great catching up with Liz and Leah. It was great being able to talk in English without pausing for translation. They are each doing well.

Russia continues to melt. The streets in a couple of days will be like the canals of Venice.

When we got home, Olga and Alex turned on the TV in their bedroom while we were changing out of our school clothes. Suddenly, Olga called me "John! John!" Fortunately, I still had my pants on. I went to their room and caught the end of the segment on the local news channel about my visit and the kids performance. It will be repeated later this evening.

Tomorrow, I'll be meeing with teachers at Alex's school and then teaching a math class. We are going to Sergei's house for dinner tomorrow. He is a physician who I met last weekend.

Bye for now.