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.

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