Posts Tagged ‘teaching’


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.


January 28, 2016

2016-01-28mathWhile studying to be a teacher of English, I did supervised teaching in a primary school. At one of the lessons I had to introduce numbers, so after reading a respective chapter in a methodology book, I wrote on the board two columns of math problems that included addition and subtraction, split the class into two teams and told them to compete against each other in solving the problems: the left column of the problems was to be done by the team on the left and the right column – by the team on the right in the classroom.  The pupils knew math well enough to subtract or add, and this time they were only to train their language skills by articulating in English what they were doing. Of course, mathematical correctness counted too. A pupil from each team waited for their turn to rush to the board, do their own problem and return to their seat, while the next person from the team picked up the baton and did the next problem. It took longer for slower pupils to do the job, those who were more advanced did it in the blink of an eye. When the language-and-math shuttle race was over, a girl from the team which lost burst into tears and I had to run for a glass of water for the girl. Since that time I never arranged any competitions during my lessons.

I remembered the episode when I read Danielle Sensier’s poem Experiment. Danielle Sensier is a published author and an editor of children’s books. Some of her books are Costumes (Traditions Around the World), Masks (Traditions from Around the World), Poems About Weather, and Poems About Journeys.


at school we’re doing growing things

with cress

sprinkly seeds in plastic pots

of cotton wool.

Kate’s cress sits up on the sill

she gives it water.

mine is shut inside the cupboard

dark and dry.

now her pot has great big clumps

of green

mine hasn’t

Mrs Martin calls it Science

I call it mean.




October 1, 2011

I thought it might be reasonable to periodically come up with notes in methodology of English. Making a crammed story is as simple as it is effective. You choose a point of interest and develop it using the words and phrases you are going to activate. Then you learn the story made. At times it may sound kind of artificial, but… the needs justify the deeds 🙂 A wonderful vocabulary booster activity! Here we go (the activated idioms are in bold type)!


Learning a foreign language… The task is anything but easy. However, that is all the more reason why you should do it. If someone says that for them English is as easy as pie, it’s all well and good, but more often than not it’s an uphill climb. Ideally, a student of English should know the language from A to Z, but I always recommend that the span covered should be “from A to Y”, That is a play on words because “Y” coincides in pronunciation with the pronoun “why.” Thus, the recommendation which I’m trying to get across to my students is: be inclined to investigate, be eager for knowledge, curious and inquiring, be never satisfied with what you have learned, always ask :“why?” That is a guarantee that the learner will know all ins and outs of the language.

It seems like an age since I was sitting in an English class – agog to hear my teacher speak the foreign language (hopefully, he’s alive and kicking 🙂 ). But even now, the thrill I get from living English heard on television or via the Internet is the acid test that shows whether I’m enthusiastic and creative as a learner. Anybody who is (or wants to be) anybody in English will feel the same.

The title of this entry is a line from the oath which we, graduates, pronounced during our Farewell Bell ceremony at university. The English language and culture were the be-all and end-all of all our efforts. It beats me how we managed to do it without going abroad in those days.

No matter what we were busy with – administration, politics, business, etc, English was the “in”-thing to do – we were never “betwixt and between” in our passion.. And now, at the end of the day, all said and done, I make a bee-line for my desk, turn my computer on and (“oh, English, my love!”) get back into harness – sweet harness of English.


September 6, 2011

Yesterday I dwelt on the principle of adapting a foreign language to express concepts circulating in a learner’s native language, which is supposed to speed up the process of learning the foreign tongue. However, on a more advanced level no less exciting and no less stimulating may be the emphasis on “exotic elements” that have no equivalents in the native language. Actually, it’s one of the reasons to study another language. When you comprehend the cultural phenomena specific to speakers of another language, you enter a different world, and that gives you a special pleasure (provided you are a linguistic gourmand). Wilhelm von Humboldt mentioned it about 200 years ago. There follow a couple of untranslatable jokes to illustrate this pretty much known thought.

  1. Professor – Time is money: how do you prove it?

Student –    Well, if you give twenty-five cents to a couple of people, that’s a quarter to two.

  1. An American in London was having a terrible time with his pronunciation. It was bad enough to learn that Worcester was pronounced “Wooster” and that Chumley was spelled like Cholmondeley. Then he saw a marquee on a picture house. It read, “A REVIVAL OF CAVALCADE: PRONOUNCED SUCCESS.” – “That settles it”, said the American: I’m going home”

Or just take spelling:

No wonder students of English complain:

  1. Though the tough cough and hiccough, plough me through//O’er life’s dark lough my course I still pursue”

But the joke which capitalizes on geographic names as homophonic correspondences of phrases  is unsurpassed:

Waitress: Hawaii (= How are you?), mister? You must be Hungary (= hungry)?”

Gent: Yes, Siam (=Yeas, I am). And I can’t Rumania (=remain here) long either. Venice (= When is ) lunch ready?

Waitress: I’ll Russia your table (I’ll rush your…). What’ll you Havre (=have)? Aix(=eggs)? But can’t Jamaica (=you make a) cook step on the gas? Etc, etc.

Naturalization and “exotization“ of the language… Two conflicting forces viewed as a determining factor in learning. Just Hegel’s dialectics.


September 5, 2011

In 1930 Charles Kay Ogden, an English philosopher and linguist, published the book Basic English, in which he advocated the idea that some 850 words of everyday use are enough to learn to speak English. The list of such words is known today as “Ogden’s list” and it has been widely used for eight decades now ( Especially popular it was right after WWII with the U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe and the Europeans learning English as a foreign language instead of German, which was the case before the war. The well-known program Special English on the Voice of America uses the vocabulary, the core of which is made up of Ogden’s Basic English.

Such words as “perspicacious” or “coruscate” are not Basic English, of course. Neither is the word “remorse.” For many learners of English it’s next to impossible  to remember such words – due to their being “long and clever”, and/or also because they are used very rarely.

The other day, while analyzing the modern vocabulary that arrived at my email through subscription, I noticed the phrase “eater’s remorse” (The deep feeling of regret one feels after eating a large some of food, eating something unhealthy, or just eating in general: <I always suffer eater’s remorse after thanksgiving, thinking of the pounds I’ll have gained when I return to school>. Since my wife and I are reducing our weight for reasons of health, I thought it might be interesting for her and I told her about the phrase. She remembered the neologism immediately, though she had found it difficult to remember some simpler “Ogden’s” words.

So, what is the recipe for memorizing words of a foreign language? Even if they are not on Ogden’s list, MAKE THEM BASIC, i.e. such which describe your everyday activity and reflect your immediate interests and concepts that are in the forefront of your mind.

While thinking about this blog I was excessively pushing in and out my retractable pen: click-click, click-click – a psychological state described in lists of newly formed coinages as “push pen anxiety.” Sure thing – I’ll remember this phrase too 🙂


June 26, 2011

While browsing through the Internet I visited several websites which listed classroom phrases in English. Training teachers of English has the theme “Classroom Language” as its indispensible element. Back in  my olden days, every time I entered the classroom, I used to solemnly thunder: Stand up! Stand straight! Good morning! To which the class chanted: Good morning, teacher dear, we are glad to be here! and sat down. The next stage of the “organizational moment” (that was the name in methodology-speak) began with my question Who is on duty today?  The character of the “duty” was never specified because it was the same all the years when English was being learnt: a pupil rose to his/her feet and made a “report”: I am on duty today. Today is …(the date). The weather is fine. The sun is shining brightly (as a variant: The weather is not fine. It is cloudy/it is raining). Peter Ivanov is absent. He is ill. During the lesson the teacher’s commands filled the room like bursts of machine-gun fire: Open your books! Go to the blackboard (the boards were always black!). Take your seat! Why haven’t you done your homework? Tell your mother/father to come and see me tomorrow. Go out! There was something grotesque in that use of the language and, definitely, off-English.

The phrase lists I see on the Internet nowadays have a different spin. Instead of Stop talking! a teacher is supposed to politely find out: Why are you talking? An undisciplined pupil is reasoned with Be sensible, please. Copying isn’t cut short with the teacher’s Stop cheating!, but in this situation the perpetrator is anonymously addressed by Everybody work individually! or Work by yourselves! Should it happen that a student answers well, the teacher may react with Bravo! Great stuff! Fantastic! (it’s not said, however, whether the teacher should also jump with joy or not). If a student’s answer is wrong, the teacher is expected to say Good try, but not quite right, or There’s no hurry, you’re halfway there.

The final phrases that broke my “teacher back” were the recommended Don’t worry about your pronunciation! and Don’t worry about your spelling!

Frankly, I don’t know which choice is better or worse: the “goose-step English” of 50 years ago or the “don’t-worry” principle of today.

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