Saturday, February 22, 2014

Reflections and Connections: Teaching and Learning in Ukraine

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Several weeks ago, my husband and I began to receive e-mails from our friend in Ukraine urging us to contact the US government for help regarding the increasing hostility and violence that Ukrainians are facing at the hands of their own government. Since then, the situation has gotten much worse for our friend and his fellow countrymen as Ukraine seemingly sits on the edge of a civil war. We've seen photos and videos posted by other Ukrainian friends showing some pretty horrific stuff. Parts of the beautiful city of Kiev are in ruin. Citizens are dying. The country's long-deserved and long-awaited freedom is at stake.

Beautiful Kiev
To some of the world, the images of protest and conflict on the city streets may be the first glimpse of Ukraine that they have ever seen or will ever see. However, we see familiar sites and landmarks that we posed for photos in front of that have become the burnt-out backdrop for violence, make-shift morgues, and a dangerous war zone for our Ukrainian friends.

Site of current protests
Independence Square Summer 2011
As we wait for more news via e-mail and Facebook from our Ukrainian friends, my husband and I also remember a different Kiev--the one from three summers ago when we traveled to Ukraine to teach conversational English at our partner church in Brovary, just outside of the capital city.

Getting off the plane, I didn't know what to expect. I'd traveled in western Europe and considered myself pretty adaptable to cultural differences. I also felt like I knew a fair amount of history about that part of the world. I recognized names and places. I knew a little of the languages. I felt relatively safe. However, visiting a former Soviet republic caused some apprehension. I was out of my element. Let's face it, up to this point, my Soviet point of reference was Rocky IV. I wandered around the city humming "Winds of Change" by Scorpions the first few days we were there. I really didn't know anything about Ukraine.

Despite this anxiety, as a student of history, I soaked in every moment of the drive to our host family's apartment. I noted the vehicles, the architecture, the streets and street signs, the billboards, and everything else I could see. It was all fascinating. Even our host family's huge, Soviet-era concrete block apartment building was a piece of history. It was then that I intended to use my experience in Ukraine not only to be a teacher of English to our students but also to become a student of the country. To my surprise, I did not expect to end up making such warm, hospitable, and gracious friends who, in turn, helped me to become a student of the Ukrainian people.

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Before we left for the trip, our group's leader emphasized that while we would be teaching English, the most important purpose of the trip was to establish friendships with our students and host families.  We weren't even supposed to refer to ourselves as teachers. Instead, we could focus on building relationships with the students. And when you think about it, isn't that a key to meaningful teaching and learning anyway? Part of me was relieved not to have to measure success by test scores and letter grades.  However, the other part felt some anxiety about how we'd be received and whether stereotypes--from both sides--would get in the way. Would we get suspicious and disapproving stares from distrusting citizens? Would the students find us arrogant, obnoxious, and modeled after Kim Kardashian? Those fears were quickly dismissed when we met the men and women who were part of our classes. Their warmth, willingness to reach out, and genuine interest in our lives was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. And that was just our first impression on day one! For the rest of the two weeks in Ukraine, we spent time with some of the most hospitable and generous people I've ever met. In the classroom, conversation came easily as we shared information about our cultures with one another, played games like charades and Pictionary to learn vocabulary, and sang silly camp songs to learn English phrases. Our friends even taught us some important Ukrainian and Russian conversational phrases in return. As students, they were a teacher's dream--motivated to learn, engaged in the activities, and not afraid to ask questions. We were honored to help these men and women, most of whom were young professionals, gain confidence in their speaking skills and hopefully provide better job and education opportunities.

Morning class
Evening class
Not afraid to be silly
While I would have counted our classroom time a successful endeavor on its own, our Ukrainian friends did not let the four walls of the classroom limit the friendships they were willing to extend to us. They invited us to sight see, go to restaurants, and to have dinner in their homes. They even took us bowling! When they found out what our favorite food was, one class ordered pizza for us, and the other took us out to a pizza restaurant. One of the sweetest gestures was made by my friend who prepared a surprise dinner picnic in the local park. Coming from a culture where individuals value their down time, I was floored by the willingness of these wonderful people whose day involved full-time work and three hours of English school to sacrifice their down time and family time because they genuinely cared about us as friends. I quickly realized that I what I could teach them was insignificant compared to what they were teaching us about friendship and putting others before themselves.  

Pizza party and conversation with friends
I did end up becoming a student of the country, but only because I became a student of its people. I learned that Ukrainians have suffered mightily during their history. However, if you speak to them, they are still optimistic about the future and have a deep and proud patriotism for their country. This is why my heart breaks for them right now. After so many years of oppression, having finally tasted freedom, they are again under attack. And I know that some of those dear people I met are literally in harm's way.

I'm currently on an extended break from the classroom to raise the most important students I'll ever have--our children. However, if I were in a classroom today, I would be sharing my experiences in Ukraine with my students through photographs, videos, and personal stories. As teachers, we have an important responsibility to help our students look outside of themselves to a much bigger world. I believe that one of the most effective ways to do this is by introducing them to the personal stories of the people who were or are "there," wherever news and history unfolds. We can try to make history relevant to students in many ways. Perhaps one of the most simple ways to do it is through awareness and empathy. We need to show students that they have a responsibility to care about their fellow human beings and that they have many common experiences and feelings even if they've never met one another. I think this is what our Ukrainian friends are hoping for from us and the rest of the world who sees their suffering and struggle for freedom. 

**Update** Within hours of finishing this blog post, I've seen on the news that the Ukrainian president has fled the capital, which is a victory for the protesters. One of our Ukrainian friends has said let us pray that the sacrifices and deaths haven't been futile and that peace and order can be restored in the new government.

Your comments are welcome. How have you effectively taught empathy for others to your students?

1 comment:

  1. Praying for their peace! We have read a lot of WWII Literature , and it has really seemed to help my students grasp the meaning and feeling of empathy.



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