Archive for August, 2016

REFORMERS AND PERFORMERS

August 28, 2016

subjectsIn Ukraine, the Ministry of Education has launched another reform. I say “another” because reforms are being launched in this country practically each time the political structure changes. This style of educational management has a long tradition dating back to the 1920s when communists prohibited reading fairy tales at school and introduced teamwork in the process of learning. The explanation of the “fairy-tale ban” was that the phantasmagoric imagery led students away from “concrete realities” of communist construction and also because many of “ideological enemies”, like kings, czars, etc., were positively presented in this type of folklore. The teamwork, in return, was said to add an element of equality and comradeship to the atmosphere of learning., and the slogans of “equality” and “fraternity” (borrowed from the 18th-century French revolution) were much touted in the Soviet Union. With the teamwork, only one student was “delegated” to the teacher to present the results of work in the group, and the grade was given to the whole group on the basis of the delegate’s answer. When it became clear that the standards went down due to the “team approach”, the Soviet school returned to individual assessment that had existed in Russia before the communist take-over.

To a large extent, individual academic assessment created the cult of learning in the Soviet school. High achievers were esteemed. They were praised at class – and school meetings, at PTA gatherings, their photos were placed on special boards of outstanding students usually titled “Our Best” or “Our A-Grade Students.” Please, notice the word “our”: the school was proud of them. On the other hand, to represent the school in inter-school competitions in different subjects was a great honor for every student sent to the competition. The “Olympiads”, as the competitions were called, were usually held during winter holidays, but if you qualified for the next stage (and then the next, etc.) you could “go Olympiads” well into March or April.

It may be objected that the “high standards” were not that high if we consider the “ideological component” of the teaching-learning process of those times which distorted the objective picture of academic subjects. That may be true regarding courses in History or Social Studies, and, partly, in Literature. But even with Literature, there were timeless masterpieces in which there was nothing of ideology, but only undeniable aesthetic values (take “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorites). If we take science or mathematics, intellectual challenges were rather serious. Long ago, when I was doing a research in the U.S. education, I read the book by Arthur Trace “What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t.” The book was written in the wake of the 1959-Sputnik launch when the Americans were alarmed by the then-Russian dominance in space. The author compared Soviet and American high school programs and came to the conclusion that in every school year the Soviet students were two years ahead (regarding the contents of learning) than their counterparts of the same age in the U.S.A. Here’s an extract from a review of the book I came across while preparing this blog entry:

By the time American schoolchildren get Jack and Jill up that hill, Soviet children of the same age will probably be discussing the hill’s altitude, mineral deposits and geo-political role in world affairs. This profoundly disturbing book is a comparison of American and Soviet school curricula and textbooks. It proves that the sciences and mathematics are not the only subjects in which our children lag behind. By the time the American fourth grader has learned to read 1500 words from his typical classroom reader, a Soviet student in fourth grade will be expected to read at least 10,000 words and will be ready to plunge into history, geography and science. Why does Ivan at the age of nine have a reading vocabulary so much larger than Johnny’s? Could it have anything to do with the fact that from his first reader on, Ivan reads Tolstoy and Pushkin and Gogol while Johnny follows the adventures of Jerry and the little rabbit that goes hop, hop, hop? If a Soviet student undertakes to learn English as his foreign language – as 45 per cent of those in the regular school do – he will study it for six consecutive years starting in the fifth grade, and he may well have read more literature in English by the Tenth grade than an American student will have been assigned by the twelfth grade.

I read the booklet with the outline of the present-day Ukrainian educational reform at primary (elementary) school very attentively. In their desire to make school attractive for learners, the reformers are simplifying the programs to make them more “accessible” for pupils. The booklet teems with the words like “take away from…”, “delete…”, exempt…” – meaning the themes covered earlier which should be removed from the programs now. From now on, the teacher will give grades “in secret.” That information will be confidential – not to traumatize pupils who have lower grades. Don’t the reformers think that this approach demotes the status of A-grade pupils too? Before, many of high achievers were kind of locomotives for the class by setting standards of how homework should be prepared and presented in the classroom. Besides, bright students usually helped slow learners in reaching a higher level of knowing and mastering a problem course.

My strong suspicion is that the reform is being introduced not because we want to be “closer to the West”, as the popular mantra goes, but because teachers are less talented now and they cannot perform as before. The Ukrainian teacher is in the lowest-paid category of professionals. This year the greatest number of low-performing high-school students (with the equivalence of C- or D-grades) were enrolled at pedagogical universities, as has been sadly admitted by the Minister of Education. I ask myself: can a teacher who, academically, was below average at high school, inspire a high-school student for “aiming higher”? My answer is: NO. Incidentally, it may be another reason why parents, according to the new reform, have the right to exercise control over teachers’ methodology. I would hate to have any parent rush into my classroom and telling me (who had seven years of studying to get the required degree in teaching) how to teach his/her offspring. Is any “layman” allowed to instruct a surgeon how to operate a patient, or do passengers sit next to pilots to tell them which button to press or which lever to lift?

Meanwhile, I remember the time when I, a ten-year-old, come home after a day at school. I pull open the door, and, still with my winter hat and coat on, report to my Mom and Dad the results of my day’s work: “Reading – a five, Math – a five, Literature – a five…” (“a five” was the top grade). Even now, after so many years, I clearly see their faces – so young and so happy.

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“…BEST LOVED AND MOST NEEDED…”

August 22, 2016

2016-08-22Charles-CausleyI discovered this poet for myself when I once woke up after midnight and started listening in to BBC Radio Four. An old voice with a West English burr was reading his own poetry.  The noise of the sea and the scream of the seagulls were in the background. I got enchanted by the magic of the ballad I heard and couldn’t believe that the ballad had a concrete author: it was like a sea shanty sung by a sailor, or a story told by a salt about his mates he had left on the sea bottom:

Farewell, Aggie Weston, the Barracks at Guz,
Hang my tiddley suit on the door
I’m sewn up neat in a canvas sheet
And I shan’t be home no more.

Charles Causley knew what he wrote about. He lived a long life, he lost many of his comrades-in-arms during WWII, and (as he confessed once), he never “invented” his stories or poems: all of the events and people he mentioned had their prototypes. Just like in his poem Convoy:

Draw the blanket of ocean 

Over the frozen face. 

He lies, his eyes quarried by glittering fish,
Staring through the green freezing sea-glass
At the Northern Lights.

He is now a child in the land of Christmas:
Watching, amazed, the white tumbling bears
And the diving seal.
The iron wind clangs round the ice-caps,
The five-pointed Dog-star
Burns over the silent sea,

And the three ships
Come sailing in.

2016-08-21School-Causely as a Pupil and a TeacherOr like a protagonist in his much anthologized Timothy Winters. After the war, when the British government launched a program to adapt veterans to civil life, Charles Causley earned a degree from a teacher training college and worked in a primary school for 30-odd years until his retirement (incidentally, he had gone to that school as a child).  Timothy Winters was one of Charles Causley’s pupils. To quote Causley himself: “People always ask me whether this was a real boy. My God, He certainly was. Poor old boy, I don’t know where he is now. I was thunder-stuck when people thought I’d made it up! He was a real bloke. Poor little devil.

 

Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football pool,

Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

His belly is white, his neck is dark,
And his hair is an exclamation mark.
His clothes are enough to scare a crow
And through his britches the blue winds blow.

When teacher talks he won’t hear a word
And he shoots down dead the arithmetic-bird,
He licks the patterns off his plate
And he’s not even heard of the Welfare State.

Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren’t boys like him any more.

Old man Winters likes his beer
And his missus ran off with a bombardier.
Grandma sits in the grate with a gin
And Timothy’s dosed with an aspirin.

The Welfare Worker lies awake
But the law’s as tricky as a ten-foot snake,
So Timothy Winters drinks his cup
And slowly goes on growing up.

At Morning Prayers the Master helves
For children less fortunate than ourselves,
And the loudest response in the room is when
Timothy Winters roars “Amen!”

So come one angel, come on ten:
Timothy Winters says “Amen
Amen amen amen amen.”
Timothy Winters, Lord.
Amen!

 

It should be noted that many of Charles Causley’s poems have strong Christian references. The most indicative for this line of writing is his Ballad of the Breadman. It’s a poetic presentation of Jesus’ story. Especially impressive are the closing lines:

 

Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves? He cried.
‘Not today’ they said.

 Another specific feature of Charles Causley’s works is that it’s difficult to draw a borderline between his writings for children and those for adults. “There are no good poems which are only for children,” he once said.

2016-08-22I am the songCharles Causley was born in Launceston, Cornwall in 1917, and lived all his life there. He was never married. He was very shy, and when he was asked to speak about his activities, he would rather speak about someone else. Ted Hughes was his close friend who once said that Causley was one of the “best loved and most needed poets of the last 50 years.” Another classical person of letters, Susan Hill (also his friend) wrote an obituary after the poet’s death in 2013. She remembered that after Charles Causley had been made a Companion of Literature by the Royal Society of Literature and, being already very weak, he couldn’t go to London to make a speech, he asked Susan Hill to speak for him. She asked what words of his she should convey. The reply might well have been: “What an honour.” Or perhaps, “What a surprise . . .”. “ But,” Susan Hill says, “our greatest living poet, aged 83, asked me to say, “My goodness, what an encouragement.”

After the death of Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, in 1984, there was a campaign to have Charles Causley appointed to that position. The choice was different: Ted Hughes. But to the people of his home town Charles Causley was the “greatest poet laureate they never had.”

To finish, I’d like to give another ballad-like poem by Causley that is very typical for his style.

What has happened to Lulu, mother?

What has happened to Lu?

There’s nothing in her bed but an old rag-doll

And by its side a shoe.

 Why is her window wide, mother,

The curtain flapping free,

And only a circle on the dusty shelf

Where her money box used to be?

 

Why do you turn your head, mother,

And why do tear drops fall?

And why do you crumple that note on the fire

And say it is nothing at all?

 

I woke to voices late last night,

I heard an engine roar.

Why do you tell me the things I heard

Were a dream and nothing more?

 I heard someone cry, mother,

In anger or in pain,

But now I ask you why, mother,

You say it was a gust of rain.

2016-08-21The_Grave_of_Charles_Causley Why do you wonder around as though

You don’t know what to do?

What has happened to Lulu, mother?

What has happened to Lu?

MANAFORT’S UKRAINE CONNECTION SCRUTINISED

August 20, 2016

My repost of a Financial Times article published today, August 20

 

Konstantin Kilimnik’s suspected background in Russian intelligence raises concerns over former Trump manager

ROMAN OLEARCHYK — KIEV

NEIL BUCKLEY — LONDON

When Paul Manafort, now Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, arrived in Ukraine a decade ago to advise future president Viktor Yanukovich, he relied on one man to be his ears and voice as an interpreter.

That figure was a Russian citizen, Konstantin Kilimnik. But, say several people who used to work with him, it was an open secret among the Manafort team and at a previous employer that Mr Kilimnik — as an army-trained linguist — had a background in Russian military intelligence.

At the time, the connection was deemed unimportant — Mr Kilimnik was valued for his “excellent English”, these people say.

Today, with Mr Kilimnik still close to Mr Manafort, according to people who know both men, the links have taken on new significance. As Vladimir Putin, Russian president, likes to joke, there is no such thing as a former intelligence officer.

Revelations about Mr Kilimnik threaten to deepen the controversy over Mr Trump’s sympathetic comments towards Moscow and Mr Putin on the campaign trail — giving him a reputation as the US’s first pro-Russian ticket — and over Mr Manafort’s work for Mr Yanukovich, who was toppled by Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution.

People close to Mr Manafort insisted his resignation from Mr Trump’s campaign had nothing to do with adverse publicity over his Ukrainian activities. Mr Trump’s campaign directed all questions about Mr Manafort’s relationship with Mr Kilimnik to Mr Manafort.

But one person with intimate knowledge of Mr Manafort’s operations said the relationship was grounds for concern.

“It is a very real issue if you have a known Russian intelligence officer one degree of separation from Donald Trump, presidential candidate,” he said. “Konstantin Kilimnik knows Paul very well, and Paul is at Trump’s right hand.”

Although Mr Manafort has said his work in Ukraine finished in 2014, one senior parliamentarian from Opposition Bloc, the rebranded Regions party once led by Mr Yanukovich, said Mr Kilimnik continued to advise the party, but that the role might not be “formal”.

Mr Kilimnik did not answer emailed questions from the Financial Times about whether he had worked in Russian military intelligence. But, responding to a report about the alleged links on the Politico website yesterday, he blamed an orchestrated “campaign” for seeking to “push Manafort away from Trump and annihilate his chances of winning”.

“I am just a minor casualty in the US political game, which honestly has nothing to do with Ukraine or its future,” he said.

Yet Mr Kilimnik’s role as a Manafort assistant gave him rare access to some of the region’s most senior figures, from Mr Yanukovich to billionaire oligarchs and senior western diplomats.

Born in Ukraine in 1970,Mr Kilimnik served in the Russian army. His first long-term job after leaving the military was as a translator in Moscow with the International Republican Institute, the US non- governmental organisation that promotes democracy, in the early

1990s.One former IRI employee said he was hired because of his proficiency in English. But another former IRI staffer said Mr Kilimnik’s background was a cause of concern for some staff, and it was assumed he continued to inform Russian intelligence.

A decade later, his language skills led to his recruitment as an interpreter for the Manafort team advising Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, on an image makeover r.He remained with the team when it switched to advising Mr Yanukovich’s Regions party.

The interpreter was entrusted with more duties as the team helped Mr Yanukovich win the presidential electionin2010. “It was well known, I think, that he had some sort of intelligence background but that was never an issue for us because the embassy did not have much contact with Manafort’s operation,” a US official with experience in Ukraine recalled.

The Russian kept such a low profile:  there are no known photographs of him on the internet. Acquaintances describe him as highly intelligent, and a skilled political analyst.

Ukrainian politicians are now raising concerns about Mr Kilimnik’s proximity to Mr Manafort and through him, a potentiall  next US president .Volodymyr  Ariev, a pro-presidential MP, yesterday submitted a formal request for an investigation into Mr Kilimnik’s past. It came hours after Ukraine’s anti-corruption bureau published copies of entries totalling $12.7mtoMrManafort in an alleged ledger of off-the-books payments from the Regions party to political advisers, pundits and campaigners.

The bureau stressed, however, that it had not established if Mr Manafort received the payments. Mr Manafort this week denied ever receiving cash payments from the party.

AR

August 18, 2016

The concept of augmented reality (AR) is much touted on the Internet. The real world is supplemented with computer-generated elements that make this world more friendly and interesting. You just put on a wearable display (or take a hand-held) and navigate through visual reality being assisted by music, what-do-do-next prompts, animation, etc. The recent craze may be Pokémon who are chased, caught and trained to battle each other.

Funny, but I’ve just discovered that there’s nothing particularly new to me in the AR. I have always overlaid the outside world with my own images. The district where I’m staying now is overgrown with trees, but I see (quite clearly!) this district as a gigantic construction site, as it was before. Dozens upon dozens of red-brick four-and five-storey buildings (erected on the initiative of Nikita Khrushchev, and for this reason named “khrushchevkas) are stretching far over the horizon. Cranes are towering over them. No trees yet. The trees will be planted only in the coming March. And a few months later, on hot summer evenings all squares, precincts and footways will be filled with children and their parents, and there will be lots of shouts and laughter. Brightly lit windows will flood the whole area with electric light, and popular songs will be heard from radio gramophones (“radiolas”) placed on balconies or on window-sills. And no big deal if you haven’t got a radio gramophone: you’ll always be able to enjoy hits about a friend who is your “third shoulder” to support you, or about ships which you see off in a manner different from how you say farewell to trains, or about unmarried women weavers who work at   textile factory in a small town within easy reach from Moscow. Should you have no television, you may come to any open window on the ground floor and start listening to a World Cup football match from London. Pelé, Jairzinho, Geoffrey Hurst, Bobby Charlton, Franz Beckenbauer… You don’t see them because the television is further in the room, but you hear the names of your idols and you imagine how they are playing…

This time the “Cheremushki” (the name of the district from the 1960s) is very quiet, dark at night and old. I open my window and peer into the darkness. And again  I see the shining windows, hear popular songs of those times, get ready again for exams in the wild-growing park (which doesn’t have any website yet :-)), see my children coming from school and telling us, their parents, how well they did there… In short, I’m building MY AUGMENTED REALITY…

REUNION

August 17, 2016

A former teacher and his former pupils have met. They met after more than twenty years of aspiration, hope, good and bad luck, achievements and knock-downs, failures and triumphs. Now each of the pupils was almost as old as the teacher had been when he saw them last. That class was the best he had ever had, and that was his last class. What followed was a different part of his life – no less interesting and exciting and, definitely, more rewarding financially, but far less rewarding when he compared it to their shining eyes, lightning-like reaction to his questions, their display of wit and humor in the classroom (of course, all that was done in English, the language they were learning!)

This time it was a moment when the teacher was summing up his teacher’s past. Each of his pupils was a somebody in this life – having a decent command not only of English but of other languages, possessing business acumen, being able to meet the challenges of the present day. However, it was hardly the teacher’s merit: he had taught the pupils for a comparatively short time. Rather, those were their parents and their environment that had given them the initial powerful push. The teacher’s merit might have been that at some point he served as a good stepping stone by supporting the values the pupils had been given. He encouraged them, he inspired them, he didn’t fail them in what they were after. And that was his part.

We were sitting in a café with a big awning overhead. It was raining outside. The rain had been falling for several hours already, dampness was thick in the air, and our memories were rustling through the soft music of the rain.

 

REMONT…REMONT…

August 1, 2016

DSC05959Midsummer. Sweltering temperatures. Screeching of the jigsaw… banging… thumping … drilling all over my apartment (and, I think, all over the apartment house too). The English word ‘renovation’ doesn’t go here. It’s only the Ukrainian word REMONT that is the epitome of the eternal process that has been going on in the lives of individuals and the country as a whole for months, for years, for centuries… Remember Tsar Alexander II and his (mock) reform of 1861… Or Tsar Lenin’s bloody renovation of 1917, or (not-the-real-Tsar) Gorbachev’s “perestroika” of the 1990s… All of those undertakings (as well as many more smaller ones) were a chain of noisy ‘remonts’ – with banging, screaming, shooting, weeping… And with the unchangeable promise ‘SKORO BUDET’ (‘It’s coming soon!’)

From time to time, the cacophony of sounds in my apartment stops for a few days. Then I reach for the phone and ask the head of the Home Renovation Company what’s the matter. He answers: “The guys were paid yesterday. Today they may be having a drinking bout. SKORO BUDUT (‘They are coming soon‘).”


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