Fake Russia

It has been a crazy couple of weeks here at camp.  And not the ‘fun’ type of crazy: more like the ‘fml’ kind of crazy.  It’s also been very, very busy.  My teaching hours are far in excess of what I was told, and it’s six days a week once more.  I have afternoons free, though these are usually spent in a coma, trying to recover before the next day of lessons!  I have been getting some work done of course: the internet’s really bad, so I haven’t been procrastinating anywhere near as much as usual.  As such I’ve gotten a fair bit of uni reading done, and am at around 32,000 words into my book.  Ура.

Now, the kids: I have two groups, one of mainly kids in their mid-teens, and one of kids around 12 years old.  The younger group are alright: their English is generally poor, but they try very hard and are pleasant to be around.  The older group on the other hand is chock-full of super-‘Russian’ kids.  There are a few reasonable ones in there, but oh my god the racism.  Plus sexism and homophobia of course.  I have kids talking about how they want black slaves, preferably women who are only allowed to wear underwear all day.  Or then there’s the kids saying how ‘great’ it is when ‘skinheads’ kill Jews.  What, the, fuck.  But it’s not just that: they misbehave awfully in class, are selfish and cruel to each other.  Yesterday they pissed me off so much that I said ‘enough’ and made them write essays.  I hate making people write essays, but I needed to get some kind of discipline going again.  Egads.

Cultural differences are astonishing.  I need to point out that the way these kids behave isn’t some kind of genetic thing, or predisposition, or anything like that: Russians aren’t naturally fuck-wits.  When they come across something from outside their universe—ie me, in this situation—they do try and adjust to it.  They don’t want to upset me with my Western ideals.  Thus one kid, who has some VERY strong views, asked if I was in Greenpeace before he started ripping trees out of the ground.  They do try to anticipate what my morals and values might be, and do their best to not offend me.  They just don’t know this way of life.

They do get used to my Western independence pretty quickly.  This morning we all went out on the lake, and while I can’t row because of my back, they accepted that I don’t need a hand out, I’m perfectly happy to jump into the water or climb trees or leap between rocks or go hiking through the forest.  But the contrast between myself and the Russian girls was just insane.  I definitely confuse them as much as they confuse me.

I’ve actually run out of time as I have to go teach, but I’ll post this while I have enough internet to do so.  I have a lot more to say on this sexism issue, and also on Russians jumping into bed.  Confusingly.

С днём рождения

It’s my birthday today 🙂  I got up early of course, so that I could try to wrangle with Skype once more (I’ve since given up and am going to try Voxox from now on).  I also checked my emails, and this was one of the first birthday messages I received:

Happy Birthday!!!:) I wish u luck, happiness and to stay yourself, because you, Laura, good person, who can destroy all barricades on your lifeway, who can support your friend in difficult situation and who can stay a real man, inspite all problems)

Fantastic Renglish 🙂  I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing it!  I’ve always wanted to stay a ‘real man’ hahahaha.

With my first group of kids this morning, we wandered into the forest.  It’s weird, because on the one hand I’m studying ecology at the moment, so am constantly in ‘study’ mode and categorising the things around me.  On the other hand, I LOVE trees!  In the end, my kids had to wait for me on the way back to class, because I was the one holding everybody up!

At lunchtime, I tried to set up some kind of phone calling, but again failed.  As such I was late to lunch, and was the last one there until Sasha and Misha walked in.  Sasha then insisted that I stayed until they finished their meals.  We were interrupted by one of my students, who said that there was a ‘big problem’ and to ‘come straight away’.  I told her I didn’t believe her, and she spluttered and walked off.  I was suspecting some birthday mischief, and I was right to: a few minutes later, Michael came in and said I had to come.  I specifically said to him a few days ago that I hate the ‘happy birthday’ song (I can’t even bring myself to sing it), and asked him to please not arrange for people to sing it.  So I walked toward the main зал and two girls started to play the tune on piano and violin.  All of the staff and students were in the room.  And they sang the song in Russian, so that it didn’t count haha.  They gave me a big bunch of ferns and wild-flowers they’d picked, and then just about killed in me in a mass group hug.  Note the expression of terror:


Then there was delicious slice 🙂

My afternoon class was fairly chilled too.  We have an early dinner here at camp (16:30), so I waited until after before going swimming in the lake for about an hour.  It was so relaxing—all I could hear was the sounds of me and fishies swimming, and I was surrounded by clouds and water and forest.  Very nice 🙂  Then an epic stretching session on an abandoned jetty before back to the hostel for an actually hot shower.  Whoa!

The Last Week

Well, I’m done with camps and with ‘fake Russia’.  It’s been very strange being thrust into Russian culture once more, and it’s definitely clarified my thought with regard to whether I ever want to go back.

The past couple of weeks have been much better, partly thanks to the staff, and partly thanks to my groups being much more balanced.

The staff here at the hotel are absolutely great.  They’re Russian ex-pats and just adorable.  The husband sells me chocolate every day, while the wife is lovely: she makes an effort to understand my muddled Russian, and cooks me vegetarian meals when there’s nothing for me to eat :).  They’re both fantastic.  There are two other Russian women who work here too, who always say hello with a smile.  Then there’s the kitchen-hand, a young guy who appears with coffee and milk the moment I pick up a mug.  It’s all very cute!

I should also mention my colleagues.  Michael has been supportive as usual of course.  All of the staff have been great actually.  This week’s in particular have been really friendly and high-energy.  There’s been one girl in charge of the rabble for the duration, and I don’t know how she does it—I’m dying of exhaustion, and she just keeps on rolling!  What a champ.  There’s also the manager of the camp here, and he’s a lovely guy.  I think I confuse him at times (eg in my insistence that fish is meat), but he goes out of his way to ensure that I feel welcome and respected.

As I said, my groups have also been much better.  The personalities have clashed a lot less, and so it’s been much more fun for everyone.  The kids are all still hyperactive, of course—it’s two weeks with no school and no parents, and they go a bit wild—but they look out for each other a lot more which is great to see.  There’s a lot of creativity going on, and the students, whose levels vary wildly, support each other when someone doesn’t understand something.  They do their best, and that’s all I ask.  I’ve become a little attached to them, actually!

With no more ado, here are some videos of the kids’ final presentations:

Horror film:

Murder mystery:

Robbie vs Rex:

Mirrors Parody:

Well done to all of my students—they did a great job in pulling these together.

And with that, I’m off once more: Helsinki for a few days, before heading back to the UK.  Bring it on!

Source: http://www.parade.com/12111/viannguyen/its-national-teacher-day-13-famous-former-teachers/

Rock-Star Teaching

I actually wrote yesterday’s post a few days before it went live, which has resulted in my needing to do a second ‘goodbye, teaching!’ post.  People also regularly ask me about my teaching philosophy and how it all works, so I figured it was time to write about it.

The reason I’ve called this post ‘rock-star teaching’ is because that’s what my students make me feel like: a rock-star.  In jumping up in front of the groups to give out course certificates last night, the kids clapped so long and so loudly that we had to use the microphone to get them to be quiet again.  They later put on a play about me called ‘Laura’s Good Mood’, and there have been sooooooooooo many hugs.  And letters saying how much they love me.  And drawings and poems for me.  And photos with me.  Not to mention declarations of undying filial love!  One girl wouldn’t let go of me this morning, she was hugging me for a full minute.  I pointed out that she couldn’t come to Helsinki with me, that she had to go back to Russia—to which she announced “but I love you so much!!”

I definitely am a stupidly popular teacher, though that’s not what I aspire to.  An incredibly large number of students have also told me that I’m the ‘best teacher they’ve ever had’, or that I’m their ‘hero’.  (It’s like I’m just begging to be trolled here, right?  A quick note on the trolls btw—they’ve obviously made some errors thanks to English not being their first language, so please don’t harass them too much.  Besides, the post going live tomorrow will be more than enough to explode their brains.)  This leads to other teachers asking me what exactly I do that’s so awesome.

Part of my teaching style comes from the fact that I had some truly fantastic teachers growing up.  My old chemistry teacher, for example: I did physical science in year ten, so that I could take it in year eleven, so that I could take chemistry in year twelve and have him for a teacher.  I was used to teachers who were like friends, who had a sense of humour, who knew and were passionate about their subject.  These are the values that I tried to enshrine in my own teaching.

There are of course cultural differences in teaching styles.  While English and Australian students quickly adapted to my methods, it took my Russian kids (and adults) a little longer.  My style is drastically different to that of Russian teachers.  It took my groups in St P a few weeks to get acquainted with the idea before they really started thriving.  It was a difficult challenge having the summer school groups for only a couple of weeks at a time: it depended on the group dynamic whether they’d adjust or not.  In the end, just about everyone did.

So, what is it then?  Basically, I run my classrooms democratically.  Kids are expected to be there because they want to be there (and it’s my job as a teacher to make the lesson fun and interesting enough that they do in fact want to be there).  They are expected to respect each other, to take responsibility for their own actions, and to try.  I almost never say “you have to do this”.  If there’s something I want done, I ask for it: and my kids love and respect me so much that they just do it.  Furthermore, I give my students input into what they want to study.  At any time, they can ask for an activity or a subject they’d like to do in class, and I do my best to cater to it.  If it’s something controversial, then we check that everybody’s comfortable with it, and vote using a show of hands (or anonymous balloting).  The students make up their own rules and any punishment for breaking those rules: people are always more interested in doing things which were their own idea.

With regard to in-class conflicts: if it’s between students then I try to ensure that they use ‘friendly’ conflict resolution techniques (as described here).  There are to be no personal attacks, or hatred for hatred’s sake.  I try to promote understanding.  If I’m having a problem with a student (which is very rare) then I try to talk to them personally.  As a very very very last resort (it’s happened twice) I’ll give them a choice between simmering down/taking a walk or my calling their parents—it’s all still their choice, so they are being responsible for themselves.  Because it doesn’t matter whether I’m teaching kids, adults or teens (my usual age group): everybody likes to be respected, and everybody is capable of taking responsibility for themselves.

With regard to homework, I’m generally fairly flexible.  Firstly, I don’t give pages of boring or irrelevant exercises.  Partly because people do have other priorities in life, and they’ll do the homework they have time for: stressing them out or overloading them isn’t conducive to learning.  I give additional exercises in problem areas, or interesting reading/watching/listening to students as per their particular interests.  I also make sure that all homework I give is necessary or relevant.  If I need them to start thinking about something before we do related in-class activities the next session for example, or if they need further practice.  I only get annoyed about people not doing homework if they don’t do it for say a month in a row.  Then I’ll speak with them separately and check that there’s nothing going on at home etc before taking any further steps.

My overall teaching philosophy is that learning should be fun—because it is.  Learning’s fantastic, and there’s never any reason for it to be boring.  Sure you could teach continuous tenses by talking about brushing your teeth: but you can also teach them while discussing extreme sports.  Sure you can teach argumentative techniques by role-playing a conversation about your favourite food: but you can also teach them while debating genetic modification.  Every activity I do in the classroom is chosen because it will be interesting to that group, because it will get them involved and be a damn good time for everyone there.  Oh, and because they’ll learn a lot in the process.  And they do: they learn because they want to.  If people are interested and having fun, they’ll learn a lot more: and that goes for adults, too.  Adult groups like boring things as much as anyone else: which is to say not at all.  Find out what your students are into, and cater to it.

Does everyone like how I teach?  No.  Sometimes I get in trouble, and sometimes I go too far (eg my post of a few days ago!).  It’s generally my employers who don’t like it though, and honestly, they’re not my priority: the students are.

As it is, I’ve hung up my teaching hat.  I miss teaching sailing every day of course, but I was never going to be able to do that forever.  Teaching English was just a way to get into Russia for a while, and now I’m returning to my career.  I need something more intellectually fulfilling, and something which doesn’t involve writing lesson plans haha!  I hope I’ve been a good role model for the students I’ve had.  Seeing them flourish has been an incredible privilege, and I suppose I rather love all of them.

Gay Russia

Now that I’m no longer in Russia, or working for or with Russians, I can finally talk about something as ‘outrageous’ as attitudes toward homosexuality in Russia.  I just want to make it clear that I’m not breaking Russian law right now!

“He signs with a girl’s name,” squealed one of my students.  “He must be gayyy!”

“Okay,” I replied.  “I don’t care.”

Homosexuality/homophobia is a big issue in Russia at the moment.  I think by now most people have heard how Russia feels about it: there was the law-suit against Madonna; the fact that the gays aren’t welcome to ‘practice homosexuality’ at the Olympics; the arrests last week; and the ‘gay propaganda’ laws that now apply to the country.  Russia does not like gays.  It’s a pretty clear message.

My stand-point is of course, as usual, an entirely liberal one.  I really couldn’t care less what genitals you have, or what you like to do with them—as long as it’s between consenting adults, I just don’t care.  It doesn’t affect me at all.  Or, looking at it a different way, having spent a lot, and I mean a lot of time in hostels (by now more than a year of my adult life), I’ve seen it all.  Boy on girl, boy on boy, girl on girl: and they’re all equally icky.  I shared a room with a gay man in Manchester for a month or so (and tried not to think too much about his promiscuity, and how the sheets were never changed).  I’ve got gay friends.  One of my friends used to head the Gay and Lesbian Committee at USyd, and I went to a party with Zak.  After we’d arrived, he looked around and pointed out that we were the only straight ones there: and I didn’t care.  People are more than their sexual preference, and more than their gender.

Are there situations that make me uncomfortable?  Yes.  The lead singer of one of my favourite punk bands, Against Me!, was the manliest dude going: until, that is, he declared herself transgender, and she now lives as a woman.  It’s confusing on a couple of levels: there’s the fact that this incredibly masculine punk voice is coming out of someone who looks female, and there’s the fact that the transition isn’t complete.  Liberal though I am, I still find it confusing when I don’t know if someone’s a man or a woman, and that’s the case with my eyes and the newly-Laura Jane Grace.

This singer, Laura, was married with a daughter when she came out to the world as transgender.  I’m not sure, if I were married to a man who became a woman, that I’d be able to deal with it.  But I read an interview with her wife, and she says that sexuality’s more fluid than we think, that it’s the person she loves, not what they’ve got.  I also once read an interview with Anna Paquin, one of the stars of True Blood, who identifies as bisexual.  She said this thing, that it’s not important to her whether someone’s a man or a woman; it’s the soul that she falls in love with.  I think that’s a really beautiful idea. While I’m not attracted to women, I’d love to be able to love each gender equally.  Haha ultimate egalitarianism?

I should mention before I go on that I’ve never heard a Russian discriminate between gay, transgender, cross-dressing etc.  I’ve witnessed a male student dressed as a woman (for a play) who was accused of being ‘gay’.  There doesn’t seem to be any distinction between the categories, or at least, I haven’t encountered one.  It’s not like gay men dress as women, or gay women dress as men: it’s not some kind of signifier.  That’s just cross-dressing, and who cares?  Scottish men are super-manly but wear kilts.  And if you look into Russia’s history, men’s costumes used to look more like dresses than anything else.  Does that mean that all Russians a few hundred years ago were gay?  Of course not.

Then there’s transgender, where for whatever reason you feel like you’ve been born as the wrong gender.  It’s not the same as being transsexual, which is getting a sex change.  It’s living as the sex that you identify with, rather than the one that your genitals declare you should be.  At this point, the singer I mentioned is transgender, and may in the future become transsexual.

Then we finally get to homosexuality, being gay.  You may be transgender (though this is the exception rather than the rule), but either way you’re attracted to your own sex.  Maybe not exclusively, after all, bisexuality’s a thing as I mentioned.  And there’s something that confuses me: why on earth is it ok for two women to have sex, but not two men?  It weirds me out.  One of my friends once told me that he doesn’t understand why his guy friends are into watching girl-on-girl porn, because as he put it, “it’s the only situation where I’m completely unwanted”.   *Eye-roll* male fantasy.

I’ve had a few gay students of course, and one transgender student.  Not that we’ve talked about it of course, and not (hello, Russia’s anti-propaganda law) that I have ever brought up homosexuality in class—but it’s completely obvious to anyone with a mote of common sense.  I’ve even had one student who publicly announced that he didn’t care what orientation someone was, as long as they were a decent person.  This kid was a little anarchist, and amazing.  I wrote in his school report that he should consider leaving Russia.  There’s no future for him there.

I’d like to mention briefly the gay gag law that’s been passed in Russia.  Of course, I was already operating under St P’s “anti-gay propaganda” law, which forbade me from talking about or ‘encouraging’ homosexuality to children.  Because, to the law-makers’ minds, people choose to be gay, and if we talk about being gay then kids might choose to be attracted to their own gender.  It’s utterly ludicrous.  Why on earth would anyone choose to be gay, especially in Russia, where they will be persecuted?  Who in the world would choose to be in a sexual minority, making finding love that much harder?  Who would choose to be disdained in a lot of the world?  It’s like choosing to be one of the Untouchables in India’s caste system, or choosing to be red-headed during witch trials that saw redheads killed for casting freaking spells.  Nobody would choose that.

I also have to mention this idea of ‘manliness’ that comes up.  People generally tolerate man-on-man less than girl-on-girl, as I mentioned, and Russia is no exception.  Gay men aren’t seen as ‘real’ men.  Well, I have to say that I didn’t meet what I would call ‘real’ men in Russia.  We all have different opinions of course, but to me a real man is independent, creative, open-minded, and secure in himself and in his sexuality.  A ‘real’ man isn’t scared of or disgusted by gay men.  A ‘real’ man uses logic and reason rather than insults to promote his ideas.  A ‘real’ man isn’t so scared and cowardly that he won’t consider opinions other than his own.  A ‘real’ man respects those around him, and treats people based on how they treat him.  A ‘real’ man is prepared to be good and brave.  A ‘real’ man doesn’t insult and degrade others for who they are and how they live their life.

I made up a little ditty years and years ago, and it encapsulates my views fairly succinctly: “people can do and be what they may, but don’t fuck with me, and don’t fuck with my day.”  Other people being in love most certainly doesn’t fit into either of those categories.

Russia and ‘gay milk’: ABC News
Russia on ‘gay tattoos’: Huffington Post
Russia on ‘no gays at the Olympics’: Buzzfeed; Christian Post; ABC News and hereAtlantic Wire; Bloomberg; the Global Post; and finally (and shockingly) the America Blog.

An open letter from Stephen Fry

NYC Russian Vodka Boycott