Like always, we woke up to a warm and wonderful breakfast at the hotel before we headed out to Vytegra School Number Two. Almost immediately upon arrival, we were designated guides to show us to various classrooms across the rather large school where we gave presentations about American culture or were broken up into small conversation groups. We were also presented with a three-course meal at the school during which we were surrounded with elementary school aged children wanting to get our autographs. I can’t even begin to imagine how many times I signed my name during that half hour. A few people invited some of the Russian students, including the four guides, to come to the hotel after classes. We all met in the hotel café for a wonderful hour or so of English and Russian conversation over tea and cookies. In the evening, the town’s music school presented us with an amazing musical presentation from both the adult group and the children’s choir. The five-person adult group consisted of an accordion, a singer, and three different sizes of Balalaikas, the biggest reaching to the floor and propped up with an in-pen like a cello. The music reminded me of Doctor Zhivago and I know when I return to the US that is the first movie I’m going to watch. The children’s group, of about eight girls in traditional Russian dress, sang Russian folksongs and taught us Russian children’s games. A few of these children also attended the school we visited earlier that day, and were happy to see us again.
At School Number Two, I went to two classes, a fifth grade and a fourth grade class, both taught by the same teacher. I’m so glad that Sergei, our assistant and translator accompanied us because the three of us, myself, Ian, and Isabelle, had huge difficulties conveying our presentations to the children. The first class we went to was the fifth grade class. We were all unaware of their English proficiency level, but all assumed they were at much higher than they were. We all did our presentations mostly in English and Isabelle and I tried to insert a few Russian words as well to help convey our message. I have no idea how much they understood, but I’m pretty sure it was less than fifteen percent, maybe even less than ten. We talked to the teacher a bit in English and she even had a few grammar mistakes, not to mention her heavy Russian accent. In between the two classes we went to, Sergei informed us that we were speaking way too fast and using way too many big words, so for our next class, fourth grade, we made a point to speak in as much Russian as possible, saying each sentence twice, once in English and once in Russian.
During the hour or so of small group conversation, Isabelle and I talked to three girls in the tenth grade (out of eleven) who want to pursue English classes at the university level. Isabelle and I started our conversations in English but it was clear after only a few sentences that their English was not even close to being proficient enough to understand, and answer, such simple phrases as “How old are you?” Luckily Isabelle and I both have a bit of Russian under our belt and were able to converse with them mostly in Russian, which was a bit disappointing, considering the purpose of our visit was to improve their English. But Isabelle and I were able to improve our Russian, so at least a couple of us were able to improve our language-speaking skills. The conversation would have been nearly nonexistent if it weren't for the English-Russian dictionary I brought with me. Regardless of their English proficiency, they were all very eager to learn about us and learn new words. I hope that if anything, I at least was able to inspire them to continue studying English in the future.
Towards the end of the day, the school’s headmaster gave us a presentation about the school in which she talked about the awards it had won and the achievements of the students. Like many of the characters of the short stories we discussed in class, the headmaster and the teachers of this school are extremely proud of their work. During the presentation I was surprised to learn that students attended English classes anywhere from once to three times a week, depending on their grade. The school starts teaching English in the second grade, and to be able to teach all 600 students with only four teachers, they can only offer the students a limited number of classes a week. To me, it seems like it would be more efficient to start teaching students English later in their lives, more towards their teenaged years, and teach them more times a week. I started taking French in ninth grade, but five days a week, and by twelfth grade, my French was much more proficient than their Russian, after ten years of classes.