SCHOOLS IN RUSSIA

I am sometimes asked about schools here in Russia. How do public schools in Russia compare to schools in America? How are they different? I have mentioned various aspects of how our kids have done in school all along. I have not, however, given much of an overview of how public secondary schools in Russia differ from their American counterparts. I have also said that we have been basically pleased, but I have not given too many details about the school system itself and how things differ here from my “other world” in South Carolina. Of course, I have to summarize without getting into too many details. I apologize to my Russian readers.

Traditionally, children have begun school at the age of seven in Russia. Fairly recently that regulation was changed to six and a half. Still children here start public school at an older age than kids in America, where most begin with five year kindergarten. Russian school goes through the eleventh, not the twelfth grade. Elementary school extends from grades 1-4; middle school is grades 5-9, and high school is 10-11. Usually the elementary, middle and high schools are at the same physical location, whereas in America they can be miles from each other. The schools are also normally designated by numbers. Gabriel goes to School #5. Occasionally you will see a school named for someone famous, e.g., “Imeni Pushkina” is named for the famous Russian poet. In South Carolina we had Chandler Creek, Skyland, Blue Ridge, etc. They keep things more basic here in Russia. The numbers go up into the hundreds in large cities like St. Petersburg or Moscow.

All schools start in Russia the same day: September 1st is the “Day of Knowledge” throughout the country. Children dress up and take flowers to the teacher. There is a big presentation at the school. Everyones meets outside in the school yard and children gather by classes. There is the formal commencement of the school year as we parents look on. It is pretty impressive. I cannot fathom how much money is spent on flowers for the Day of Knowledge all over Russia! Of course, that is just my Western capitalistic curiosity. Here they cannot fathom why it is that American schools in even the same state start on different days. I really do not have an answer to that question. Also, here transportation is up to the families. In South Carolina there was always the option of the school bus. Kids here usually walk or take a city bus. And now you even see a number of cars outside the schools as parents drop their kids off at school. When I first came here years ago, you rarely saw that. Since Gabriel does not attend the closest school he walks to the bus stop every morning and takes a city bus. Usually his grandfather picks him up and brings him home. If that is not possible either Oksana or I walk to the school so he’ll have someone to walk home with. If we’re in a bind she sends a taxi. The cost is a little under $2.00.

Elementary school children have the same teacher for all the years they are at a school. Gabriel’s teacher, when he started last year, was Galina Mihailovna. She will be his teacher until he leaves elementary school. In our case that worked out well. He really came to love his teacher last year. She taught Oksana when she was in elementary school! She knew our situation and was very good for Gabriel. So when he started this year there was very little anxiety. He knew he was going to have the same teacher and basically the same classmates as last year. I suppose there are advantages and disadvantages compared to changing teachers and classmates every year, but for us there were clearly more advantages.

Students keep the same group of teachers for the different subjects in middle school and high school. That is, they have a different teacher for math, science, history, etc., but the set of teachers does not change. They will have the same teacher for math from the time they start middle school all the way through high school. It is the same for all courses. Now, if there is a severe problem then the parents can ask that their class have a different teacher. The “norm,” however is for them to keep the same set of teachers.

The program of study is pretty much a “lock-step” program. There are no electives. Everyone takes the same courses. The major courses and the grades they are taught are: History (5th-11th); Social Studies (6th -11th) ; Russian Grammar (2-11); Russian Literature (5-11); Foreign Language, usually English or German (2-11) Home Economics (1-11); P.E. (1-11); Art (1-7) and Music (1-7). There are also reading and penmanship courses for the younger children, of course. Math is also taught every year, and geography, biology, physics and chemistry start during middle school and must be taken every year in high school. There is also one course wherein the students are taught survival skills, military training, and First Aid (7-11). Since Roman’s classmates had already had courses he had not, we had to use tutors to “catch him up” last year.

Overall, I think most Americans would see this as a pretty rigorous course of study. Also, I would add that schools here are about academics. There is no equivalent really to the “Friday night football,” like in America. Also, the “social issues” of sexuality and gender identity are simply not considered the task of the school system in Russia. In America Roman had an openly gay teacher in the ninth grade. That is not allowed in Russia; President Putin is often critisized for this law in the West, but I do not see it being changed.

Another difference is that in elementary school students are allowed to have their cell phones with them. Students are allowed to call home when they need to. Again, I can see why American schools do not allow this practice. For us, the Russian way was a big help. When Gabriel was struggling last year with understanding a word or assignment, he could just call us. Sometimes his teacher would get on the phone and talk to Oksana to get the confusion cleared up. Also, Galina Mihailovna keeps her cell phone on her desk at all times. Oksana does not hesitate to call her if there is something she needs to pass on to her. She also promptly answers her phone and never seems distracted by the call. We don’t abuse it, but it helps to be able to do so when needed. She told Oksana she does that because it is always possible that parents need her promptly. Last week Gabriel had had some stomach problems, and Oksana called after school started to tell his teacher that he may have to excuse himself or even come home. Also, while we try not to take advantage of her kindness, Oksana has to call her sometimes in the evening to clear up confusion over an assignment. There is a very close “working” relationship between parents and teachers here.

Unlike in America, Gabriel does not get out of school the same time every day. We are given a schedule. He usually has four or five classes, depending on whether he has P.E., which he has three times a week. It is more structured than his physical education class in America. Students change into their exercise clothes and go through some fairly rigorous exercise routines. Still, even on his longer days, Gabriel gets home sooner than he did in South Carolina. Schools start about the same time in Russia and America, but Gabriel is usually home either at 12:30 or 1:30. While he gets home earlier, he has comparitively more homework here than he did in America. Further, even if it were not for the language issue with us, parents here almost have to work with their kids on homework. There is a lot of it, and it can be complicated. Oksana says it is like a combination of public school and home schooling here! She’s joking, but it is a fairly accurate description.

Finally, at the end of both, middle and high school, students in Russia have to take a rigorous set of standardized tests. They may have passed all their courses, but that does not mean they will pass these final standardized tests with flying colors. It is a big hurdle and an important one for getting into university. This created another problem when Roman started to school here. In Russia, you actually receive a certificate when you finish middle school. They will not accept you to high school if you don’t have the official certificate. Roman had finished the ninth grade in America, but naturally, had no certificate or diploma to show for it. Therefore, he had to repeat the ninth grade. Now, this was not a significant problem because we realized he really did not have the math and science courses which the other students had had. Finishing middle school here is obviously more significant here than in America. They even have a prom at the end of the year!

One reason for the certificate and prom is because college is an option after middle school. If a student qualifies by passing the college’s entrance exam and gets accepted into a college, he or she can forego the last two years of high school. A college in Russia is not the same as a university education. A college education continues your general education courses you would have taken in high school, but also provides the student with courses in his or her chosen vocation. So to go to college, you must qualify academically, but you also must be sure of your chosen profession—at least in general. Roman has known for some time he wanted to go into some sort of design, architecture or construction science. He shadowed my second born son in America who was a Construction Science major at Clemson and now is a project manager for a company that builds multi-housing units. Roman’s career aspirations were confirmed after seeing this work up close. So he will go to college for four years. At the end of that time he will have completed the same general education requirements that any high school student would take, but he will have already been taking courses pertaining to his career choice as well. The college is an architecture and civil engineering college. After completing his degree requirements there, he will have the option of going into the work force if he finds suitable employment in his field or he can continue with getting a higher education in a university setting.

The “switch” from the American school system has presented us with a few challenges, yet we are pleased. In addition to getting what we believe is a good education, Gabriel now communicates easily in Russian. Roman’s courses at college have been quite rigorous, and he has had to study hard. His classes go from 9am to 5pm every day Monday through Friday, and then he goes for half a day on Saturday. Yet both boys are happy with their schools. Certainly you will find parents and students here who are not happy. Some here believe it is too rigorous, and many believe the standardized tests are becoming more “Western.” For example, they have multiple choice answers now, which they did not have before. One had to write out one’s answers with no options listed. From our experience so far, however, we have been pleased.

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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF HAL CLARENSOVICH

ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF HAL CLARENSOVICH. Yesterday was neither normal nor remarkable. It was different from normal in the sense that we had to go to a private medical clinic for our physical evaluations for teaching at the English school. Even private schools are required to make their teachers and workers obtain certification that their health is “clean.” So we met our colleagues there at 9:00 a.m. I had neither breakfast nor the second cup of coffee, so it was a sacrifice.

The routine involved going to several different offices (actually “cabinets” in Russian, which includes the examining rooms). There were quite a few other people at the clinic as well. Many of them had similar forms to the ones we had so I concluded something about their jobs made them get clean bills of health also. I may have noted before Russians do not really “get in line” for waiting on things like buses, trains, or entering a doctor’s office. So we gathered outside the doors, and when each new person arrived they would ask who is last and know they go in after that person.

In some cases the examinations can be, well, very personal. I’ll spare my readers the details, but sometimes they ain’t comfortable. A rather humorous exchange happened when Oksana and I were walking past an office where no one was gathered, and the nurse opened the door indicating the examination room was not occupied. So Oksana quickly grabbed me and starting explaining that she and I needed to go in together because I’m not fluent in Russian and may not understand some terms. The lady began immediately shaking her head no, so Oksana got a little more insistent. In the meantime I looked at the sign on the door. I’m not fluent in Russian but I do know the Russian word for “Gynecologist.” So I’m pulling away, the lady is gently shaking her head, and Oksana continues to explain that we always go in together, and it’s never been a problem. Well, it was a brief encounter that ended with much laughter when Oksana noticed the sign.

Eventually we went up to the next floor, and my first exam up there, while not pleasant, went fine. They drew four viles of blood! We stepped out to the next office, and realized it was the office of the surgeon who I had visited about a year ago for the removal of a growth on my back. His nurse came out and told us he was not available, however, because someone had had an accident and apparently had broken her leg. He would have to treat that emergency first. So we moved back downstairs and waited outside another office. After finishing there, we moved to another. Unbeknownst to me the surgeon, Dr. Tkachenko, had come down to check for an update on the person with the broken leg. As we were sitting outside one of the offices I looked up as he was walking quickly down the hall to get back to his office. After taking about three steps past me, he stopped in his tracks and turned around. He looked at me, smiled, and greeted us warmly. He then motioned quickly for us to follow him. As we were walking back up the stairs he asked Oksana if I had learned to take off my shirt “the Russian way.” As I recounted to FB friends at the time, I discovered Russians and Americans do not take off pullover shirts or sweaters the same way. We had a good laugh together, and I was surprised he remembered. He took us into his office and examined our joints and checked our blood pressure and pulse and we left. Well, after stamping our documents multiple times. Nothing is official in Russia unless it has numerous “official” stamps.

As we went back to wait on another office to open. I thought about what he did. Some would say he gave me preferential treatment. I don’t think Dr. Tkachenko believes it was preferential treatment. It was hospitality to a foreigner. Many Americans have noted that Russians do not seem to smile much. That isn’t true. The truth is they don’t smile without reason. When he saw me his smile told me not only he remembered me, but he was genuinely glad to see me. I’m an American; I’ve done that “American smile.” You know, when you smile broadly at someone and all the time you are thinking, “Do I know this guy? Who is he? Gosh, I don’t remember his name!” Russians don’t do that. He took me up to his office immediately because he wanted to make me feel a sense of being welcomed here. This is certainly not the first time I have been treated with genuine hospitality since I’ve been here. Contrary to popular belief, most Russians don’t harbor animosity toward Americans. They may not like what our government does, but they do not hold individual Americans—like me—responsible for what politicians do. So the next time Rachel Maddow rolls her eyes and sneers when she says, “Russians,” just remember Maddow knows far less about Russian politics than she thinks she does and next to nothing of life in this country or its people.

After getting back home two and a half hours later, we ate lunch. I went in our bedroom and started getting ready for my class that evening. Marina Grace came in and laid down on the bed. She’d had the sniffles and hadn’t been feeling well. After lying down, she said, “Daddy, can you come be with me?” So I got up and lay close beside her and let here watch “Masha and the Bear” on my phone. (Masha and the Bear is the only Russian cartoon I’ve known to become a hit in America.) People often ask why I took early retirement and moved to Russia. I’ve explained that there are several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that we can afford to live here without me working dawn to dusk, and if my little girl wants me to lie down with her in the afternoon I’ll be here to do it.

After I was lying there about an hour she still wasn’t asleep, so I decided to get up and do my Russian lessons. My laptop was right at the head of the bed so I could still be with her. Oksana and I tape my lessons. She says a sentence in English and then pauses to give me time to say it in Russian. That lets me know if I have learned the vocabulary. Then she repeats the sentence in Russian three times, pausing after each one so I can practice saying it repeatedly to make sure I have the right pronunciation. I have more recordings than I can count! Each lesson lasts 5-7 minutes. Before I had finished the second one Marina was fast asleep. It has happened before on several occasions that when Marina hears both our voices that lets her fall gently to sleep. I finished reviewing my Russian lessons, then turned to prepare to teach my late afternoon class.

The class I teach goes from 4:30-6:00 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays. Since it was a grey and cold Friday I wondered how many would be there. I have 14 students registered in my class. This is larger than most classes at the school. It is a private school, and they like to keep the classes small. But I’m the only native speaker so they made an exception. I teach teenagers, mostly 15-17 years old. They don’t get any school credit for the class or any grades. Some are there to work on getting their certification from Cambridge University. Our school is accredited by Cambridge, and they can qualify at various levels of proficiency. Some are just there to learn English. Parents pay, and students work so they’ll learn English. They all showed up for class. They were a little restless to start with but everyone settled in, and we had a great class. They worked hard. So after being in their regular school, they leave and come to my English class. Then they have to get up and go to school on Saturday morning! Yes, students here in high school go six days a week. I find that impressive.

I’ve been hearing about the topic of “American exceptionalism” again. I’m never comfortable talkng about myself, my “group,” or my country as “exceptional.” That doesn’t mean America doesn’t have some great people and great characteristics, as I addressed in a blog last month. I recall, however, the words of the Scottish Chaplain Oswald Chambers on a different topic, but his point applies more generally. As he advised those under his spiritual care he said, “Don’t seek to be known as a man of prayer. Seek to be a man of prayer.” Telling others how exceptional we are as individuals or as a country probably indicates we’re not as exceptional as we may suppose. I can tell you that in my unremarkable day, I was again the recipient of genuine hospitality offered by a doctor who had been very busy with a potential real emergency and a whole lot of other people waiting on him. Because the financial pressures of life here are less than in my home country, I was able to be beside my little daughter as she faded off to peaceful sleep listening to her mom and dad’s voice. I got to work with a room full of students who put forth the effort to study outside their regular school hours and activities just to learn another language. I think that was a pretty exceptional day.

doctor

OUR TRIP TO FINLAND

OUR TRIP TO FINLAND. As I have mentioned before one of the laws of Russia is that most visas require us non-citizens to leave the country every six months. You don’t have to go far at all. Just cross the border. You don’t have to stay gone long—just get your passport stamped and you can re-enter, and you’re good for another six months. Somehow, in a way I do not understand, this helps Russia to keep check on us “foreigners.” I am here on a “private visa,” which is good for three years, but I still have to leave every six months. After that I can get temporary residency permit, which means I will not have to leave for three years.

Marina Grace and Gabriel also have to leave every six months. Our paperwork has been acccepted for processing in order for them to become Russian citizens. We won’t get the approved paperwork back until next April, but we’re optimistic that we can get them citizenship after that. There are two advantages to them getting citizenship. One advantage is that they don’t have to go out of the country with us every six months. The second advantage is huge: Russia has a program which issues “Maternal Capital.” When you have more than one child, born between 2007-2018 to a mother who is a Russian citizen, you qualify for financial rewards from the government. Russia has a demographic problem: There are not enough people here. The primary factor was the huge number of people killed in “The Great Patriotic War” (WWII). Over 19 million Russians were killed in that war. Further, after the Revolution, abortion became a standard form of birth control. The population has never recovered. Russia is almost twice the size of the United States, but it has less than half the population. You can only apply one time for the Maternal Capital, but the more children you have the more money you receive. Since we have three children we are eligible for 1.5 million rubles. There are some restrictions on how you have to spend the money, since it is intended to pump money back into the economy, but they are rather “fluid” restrictions. It was very difficult getting the paperwork approved, but obviously it is worth it in the long run.

Six months ago we went to Finland for our out of country journey. We all enjoyed the trip so we decided to return there. I realize that making two trips to Finland does not make me an expert, but I thought some people may be interested in what Finland is like. I’ll break it down in terms of disadvantages and advantages.

The only real disadvantage we found was the reality that international travel these days is a pain. International travel with small children is beyond a pain. The flight itself took less than an hour, and our children did fine. Marina Grace sang the whole trip. It is getting through the terminals that is problematic. We decided to make it as simple as possible. Since we were leaving on Thursday and returning Saturday, we decided we could just stuff our backpacks full and have enough clothing. The only “luggage” we took was Marina’s stroller, which is kind of large. We didn’t know if we had to check it in as luggage or we could take it to the plane—or maybe someone from the airlines (FinnAir) could take it on board. We were given three different answers from airline personell. Oksana had to go back and forth before learning that they would just take it on board for us. Getting through security and then passport controls in a timely manner proved frustrating. No one treated us poorly, but just the process—especially with a three year old—is difficult. It was the same way coming back. We were exhausted even though, as I said, the flight was short. During all that screening, we did have one humorous incident. When I was unloading the containers with our computers, phones, etc., the lady asked me something in Russian, and I answered her. But then she kept talking as I was turning away, and I didn’t understand. I asked her to repeat it, and she said it again in Russian. Oksana only heard the last part and turned to me and said, “I guess they can’t speak English here!” The young lady said, “Oh, I thought he was Italian.” Not sure if an Italian could’ve understood her any better, but I’ll take the fact she thought I looked Italian as a compliment!

Now to the good information. We found Finland to be a very nice clean place to visit. You can even drink tap water there! Oksana went down to buy bottled water at the hotel, and the lady said, “You know, you can drink tap water here.” Oksana said she was sorry, but she just couldn’t bring herself to drink tap water. The lady replied that when they go elsewhere in Europe the Finnish people hate not being able to drink from the tap. We flew to Helsinki, although we never actually went into the city itself. We got a nice hotel at a reasonable cost fairly close to the airport in the town of Vantaa. The hotel we stayed in the first time we came was full, so we had to choose another close by. We actually liked it better. On both trips the hotels provided a free shuttle to and from the airport for the 15 minute drive. Our room was not fancy, but it was nice, clean and very spacious. The four of us had plenty of room. The hotel had a sauna, restaurant, and provided a nice breakfast for free in the cafeteria.

There was a huge mall about a one mile walk from our hotel. We enjoyed walking through a large park to get there. Our children loved the mall, and there were plenty of things for children. We had our first Mexican meal since leaving the States at a restaurant in the mall. It was very good, but when I asked for chimichangas they had no idea what I was talking about. So it wasn’t exactly like eating Mexican back home. Oksana also found a nice shop for buying Christmas presents for her friends. The kids loved the huge toy store.

After returning to our room and resting a bit after our trip to the mall, we decided to walk in the opposite direction that evening to see what we could find. We felt very safe walking. There were many other folks out walking on the large paved trails. The streets were well lit so we had no trouble getting around. We did get surprised when we got to the strip mall. There were many nice stores, but only one restaurant, which was a Japanese buffet. In America, a place with that many stores would have had five restaurants I’m sure! The food was adequate, but it wasn’t great. Even though it was the only restaurant in the whole complex it was only half full of customers on a Friday night! I guess Finnish people don’t eat out much.

The thing that makes Finland an easy place for Americans to visit is that everyone we met spoke fluent English. In the airport, and of course at the hotel and restaurants, we had no trouble communicating. But several times we stopped folks on the park trail or in the mall and asked for directions or for other information, and every person we asked spoke English with no problem. Speaking English really helped at the airport. When you enter Finland you must check in of course. You don’t just present your documents and walk on through, however. They ask you very specific questions about why you are there, where are you staying and how long will you be there. Obviously we flew in with many Russians, and they were required to answer in English (or Finnish). On our first trip there the Russian lady in the line next to us did not speak English well. They started asking her very pointed questions about the purpose of her trip. As all of us who try to communicate in a language other than our native tongue know, the more nervous you get, the harder it gets to communicate. The gentlemen working in this area do not smile and do not seem very patient. Fortunately, they recognized that my English was that of a “native speaker,” and I had our passports, as well as our papers showing our hotel registration and return flights. So we had no problem, but I did feel for the Russians who were left to struggle.

I cannot speak or understand the Finnish language AT ALL. Both Oksana and I thought it sounded, well, very different from Russian or English! It sounds very “tonal” and has numerous double vowels. When we got on the bus that took us out to the plane, I actually felt comfortable that everyone was speaking Russian. I can’t understand it when everyone is speaking at once like that, but at least it was Russian. I thought about how my life is so different living in another country and visiting places that I would have never thought of in earlier stages of my life. There are difficult aspects of “life abroad” to be sure. I admit to keeping an “open ear” hoping perhaps I’ll hear an American voice. (I never did.) On the other hand, I cannot imagine not having had the experiences I now am having. I live in a world that is so very different from the one in which I was raised. Not understanding clearly what someone says to me or looking closely for little “cultural cues” to see how I should react to different situations has become “second nature” to me now.

So overall I can recommend Finland as a nice and interesting place to visit. The prices for food and lodging are reasonable, and, given how many folks know English, it is quite easy to get around. I think we’ll be going back again in the future and hopefully see more.

The positive feelings about our trip over the long weekend were shattered, however, when we woke up Monday morning to the news of the shooting in Texas. As I recounted in my blog after the Las Vegas shootings, being able to get only partial news and being away from other Americans seems to intensify the feelings. This one hit me even harder. All such shootings, bombings, etc., are horrible. I cannot deny, however, the fact that this one happened in a small Baptist church in a small Southern town impacted me more because, well, small Southern towns and small Baptist churches was my world growing up. Seeing the pictures of those individuals, of all ages, who had been brutally murdered brought me to tears. Then the larger questions of how will American culture change as a result of these continued senseless mass murders will no doubt have to be addressed. Right now, I, like many others, have to wait with a heavy heart. The one positive and encouraging video I saw was of the pastor and his wife, who lost a daughter as well as many members of their church “family,” when they spoke to the press. They spoke with wisdom and faith even though their hearts were broken. I reminded myself of St. Paul’s words, “if it is only in this life that we have hoped in Christ, then we are, of all men, most to be pitied.”