A New Project: Beginning Russian Lessons

Have you tried to find Russian CI/ADI resources for rank beginners? I have! Most resources are aimed too high or they move too quickly for the opening moments. I am personally guilty of starting first classes in a series at a confusing pace.

But now I am working to fill that void. Here is a Screencast-O-Matic folder with videos of a first lesson for beginners. The lesson introduces the system and the characters we will be meeting and ends with a “quiz.” Each video is under ten minutes.

I am not a native Russian speaker. Once students can comprehend the basic structures of Russian, they should listen as much as possible to native speakers who are communicating in a comprehensible way.


Basics, again!

A red ribbon is tied around a finger to remind of something important.

I participated in a La Maestra Loca (Annabelle Williamson) webinar a few weeks ago. Whether I attend a class, teach a group, or present to a group, I always learn something new. This time I learned that I also need reminders about the basics! The theme of the webinar was “Slow.” Ironically, I showed the members how important it is to go slowly by not going slowly enough, and I committed two other errors that I will be working to evict from my practice.

My first error was to call on the class as a group for answers without allowing time to let students think. If there isn’t enough think time, the faster processors will answer quickly, making slower processors feel frustrated or even tune out. Annabelle does a countdown in her classes after asking a question. In my Pre-K through third-grade classes, I have been occasionally raising my hand to encourage students to raise theirs, calling on them only after several have raised their hands. I have not been able to make that gesture a consistent part of my toolkit. I am going to return to a countdown. I’ve experienced a countdown variation in a class with Diane Neubauer. Diane asks students to wait to send their answers (in chat, on Zoom) until her hand moves from the top of the screen to the bottom.

The other improvement I will make during presentations is to be more mindful of giving brain breaks. Adults and children alike need brain breaks from input in language classes. Because I am on triple engagement mode when I’m teaching or presenting, it’s easy to forget that others aren’t at the same level of engagement or that they may be experiencing overload. Simply pausing to ask whether someone has a question or comment can help slow things down.

The new idea I plan to try is “turn and talk,” a technique La Maestra Loca recently shared in her podcast. She said that having children turn and talk when she asks a question increases engagement beyond the typical students who answer every time, even though it increased the amount of brief first language that students use in the classroom. I will try it in break rooms on Zoom for now (until I recover from a COVID attack) and then we’ll see whether I can use it in my lower school language classes.

Reminder image: by geralt https://www.needpix.com/photo/164010/

Star of the Day/Special Person

A teacher on Twitter recently remarked on the benefits of using slides that students provide to generate Star of the Day interviews. I concur! If we use student slides, we don’t have to wonder what is important to students! Students also get to ask a question about others. (Thanks to Skip Crosby and Cynthia Hitz for this teaching hint; elementary teachers can ask parents for slides.)

Victoria Maximova and I volunteer to team-teach a weekly beginning Russian class for OLE (Opportunities for Lifelong Education). Some in the class have now had two years’ worth of eight-week sessions, and some have only recently started. One of the more advanced students types words into the chat that she thinks beginners might not recognize (a trick I learned in an Agen French class with Daniel, Sabrina, and Carla). We have grown to know one another fairly well by sharing pictures and questions.

Because I wanted to use a particular video this session, we have been asking students about their favorite cuisines and dishes. We also ask who likes to cook, who likes to do dishes, and who in the household does those things.

Today two (married) students said that they like Italian cuisine. It happens to be International Pizza Day, information that I had shared as part of calendar talk. There are laws in Italy about everything having to do with preparation of pizza! Victoria lives in Italy, and she added that there are laws about preparing espresso as well. We started talking about who likes coffee, tea, whether with milk…

And then, because the man in the couple said he liked pizza best, we talked about the Italian law. We explained that Anchorage pizzarias do not follow any rules. A student said she likes pizza, but not Hawaiian pizza. What is Hawaiian pizza? Off we went, and we learned about legal pizza ingredients.

Suddenly it was the end of class again, so naturally we never got to the slides in our program about the little video we were going to watch. We may never watch it. Discussing “real life” always takes priority, and it is especially interesting with Victoria, who has fascinating stories about Italy and Russia to share. I wish I could team-teach all my lessons with her …

My takeaways here: 1) use students as the curriculum. 2) team teach if possible.

New toys

Two new toys this week!

  1. Wordle, which I can play in English, Spanish, and Russian. It is also available at least in German and French. Yesterday I got the English only after two tries, but had the Spanish in two and the Russian in three. Score!!
  2. Seeing ai – a great tool if students have visual impairments. But for others, download the seeing ai app – iPhone only, sadly – and make sure your phone is in the language you want to speak. Click on the house and tree icon, and take a picture of something; or click on the person icon, and take a picture of someone. I just took a picture of a scene on my laptop, and it says, “Imagen de hombre con la puerta abierta.” (image of a man with an open door) And then I pointed it at myself and it said, “Mujer de 50 años con cabello castaño con gafas que parece ser neutral.” (50-year-old woman with brown hair and glasses, neutral expression) I can’t wait to point it at kids in class. It took more than a decade off my age, so that was kind! In Russian, I checked out as older if I was smiling. Does it show more wrinkles? It says “52-year-old woman with brown hair in glasses who seems happy.” (And yes, I just took off a hat before taking this.)

To change the language on your iPhone, go to Settings, then General, then Languages. Be careful to choose a language you know, or it’s hard to get back to English if you want it.

Writing a book is not what I thought

That is not true. Writing the story was about what I thought it would be. It was the after-work, both for me and for all the people I needed help from – and whom I keep on needing.

The book is based on a the story of two young people from different ends of the former Soviet Union who meet in Moscow and fall in love. Their love is not “approved” because they are from different ethnic groups, but when Lena goes to Kazakhstan to meet Arsen’s parents, she sees a picture of a painting on the wall at the house. Lena asks Arsen whether he knows about the picture, and he explains to her that the girl in the picture has been his muse as he grew up. Lena explains to Arsen that her mother painted the picture – of her!

The fictionalized story was easy to write, first because there were many articles about this magical, true union, and the happy life that followed. Secondly, I had signed up for a writing class that kept me on schedule and inspired the first set of revisions. But then came the rest of the story of writing. I’d attended a presentation by Anny Ewing at iFLT one year. I hadn’t listened closely enough to understand what would follow.

Ten or twelve different groups read and commented on the story, thanks to kind colleagues and my own students. Rewrites ensued. A brilliant young editor taught me more about writing, though that meant tearing the story apart several times and revising many sections several times. Because I am not a native speaker, the Russian had to be edited and edited and edited. And edited again. In the meantime, a long-time student who is a talented artist researched the clothing, the hairstyles, and the way buildings looked in 1950’s Soviet Union. He drew illustrations and planned to lay the entire book out for me to self-publish. I kept re-reading it with students and fixing it. I took out chapters and rearranged them.

Tragedy struck: my sweet, brilliant editor died of a terrible cancer. By this time, we were friends. Another wonderful colleague swooped in and fixed the remaining Russian problems, once I decided to move on. Then my illustrator broke his hand, but when I was telling yet another colleague about the trials I expected to face in self-publishing and the temporary obstacle of the broken hand, she offered to publish the story for me! That was a completely unexpected dream come true, but it did mean that I needed to bring the vocabulary structures in line with her expectations for books for language acquisition. More editing. Glossing restructured. Glossary revised and corrected.

In the meantime, I’d been trying to get permission to use a photograph of the painting of Lena for the front cover. I connected with the Tretyakov museum, where the painting Morning (Утро) hangs, but the museum doesn’t have the rights and did not seem to know who does. My first editor had planned a trip from her home in Kazakhstan to where Lena lives today. She had once attended an exhibit of Lena’s – Lena had become a well-known artist herself, as had Arsen. But that chance was gone.

My new editor and friend recently connected me with Lena and Arsen’s son Zangar, who is an artist living in Minneapolis. He also doesn’t have the rights to the painting, but put me in touch with his mother. Can you imagine how I felt when he responded to my Facebook message! My characters were walking off the pages, into my life. And now, it looks as though he is going to let me use a picture of his painting of his parents for the book cover. Friends in Minneapolis are offering to help get to the physical location to take the picture. I am besotted with love for the universe that makes these connections.

another head smack

I’ve been struggling with spending waaaaaaay too much time prepping lessons lately. We ask or tell a story, and we learn about students as we discuss the story or the reading or the history, or when we’re actually doing an official Star of the Day interview.

The student whose job it is to keep track of information in the classroom sends or gives me the information in English (or in Russian/Spanish that I then need to correct), and I create slides with the story/info and required support terms that the class may have forgotten by the next time.

What’s wrong with this picture? I remembered, right after giving a presentation yesterday, during which I said, “We always follow up with Write and Discuss.”

Well. I have been forgetting to stop after we’ve done a story to do Write and Discuss. “Write and Discuss” is not asking the students to write it. It is asking them all the questions referring to the story, possibly digging for new details, as I write it on the projector or shared slide, so that they can read it and process the repeated input at a slower pace. That takes time in the class, during which I have recently been instead adding new information. Without this part of the class, I spend a bunch of extra time on it after the lesson, when I should be planning instead!!

It’s still very useful to have those notes, as that person can supply whatever the class forgets, and I can use it later, but wow. I pledge not to take the entire load from now on. Thanks, ABC Boot Campers, for letting me remember.

Fast writes

I have been joyful for a week now about a group of adult Russian students in my Express Fluency class. For the ninth session, I had found the perfect picture for a story prompt. I asked the students to write for just three minutes, in Roman or Cyrillic letters, and WOW!! In those three minutes, after only nine class hours, they all wrote –in Cyrillic – as much as some Russian I students used to write in five or ten minutes after an entire semester. I’d never asked short-course students to write, and I was blown away.

What does this tell me? Well, first, that I had genius students. Spanish teachers, all. Second, that I shouldn’t be so fearful of asking for limited output, and third, that my students might enjoy an occasional short challenge. Mike Peto suggests that three minutes is probably the longest that I’d want to dedicate to writing during an online lesson, given that the piece students need from me is hearing the language. The quick sample works!

Students told me the story of this conversation. They made my day!

Weird words/tandem teaching

Any of you who’ve used Snack Attack in class know that “vending machine” and “train station” are important words for the video. It’s true that a wiser teacher than I am could easily get around them, but in Russian, they’re pretty useful words anyway.

Enter my co-teacher for a class today. I sent her a little note asking whether she could work those words into our lesson, and otherwise didn’t have time to plan with her. I got a Special Person slide ready that would ask her how she gets to work, and included “train” on it, but other than that, was out of ideas. And the words were still not really part of that question, though I think I could have found out whether her town has a big train station, and whether she ever eats from the vending machines –

So what did she do? When I asked her how she was, she said right away that she was fine, but that Turin (she is teaching in Alaska from Italy) is in red-zone lockdown. All the restaurants and bars have to close by six o’clock. We were all appropriately horrified and interested, and she went on to say that some people don’t want to eat at home. The only place they can go for food after hours is the train station!! And guess what…her sushi-loving husband can get his treat out of a vending machine at the train station.

When I think of all the times that I have written critical words on the board and done personal questions around them, when I could have just asked a tandem-teacher to jump into story based on fact … oh, yeah. I’m not usually this lucky. I love teaching with Victoria!

A recent prediction said that the online “foreign” language business is going to grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years. I hope it’s true, and in that case, all of us need to find our tandem teaching partners and get ready for an explosion of opportunity and fun.

I want my cards back!

How many people are like me, old enough to have used the card system for writing extensive papers in high school and college? I used to have stacks of cards for any paper longer than two pages. One set was for the resources. I would label each one with the correct MLA/AMA form and number it. As I took notes, I would label another set with the resource number, the topic of those notes, and the order of the cards with the specific notes. When it came time to write, I put all the cards with notes into order by topic, and was thus able to see whether I had support from several resources on a topic (and could thus claim it was common domain) or whether I needed to credit the information to a resource or two. I could re-order the cards so that the information would flow as I wrote. Sometimes I’d write the whole thing out by hand, and only then type it up … on a typewriter!

As much as I love my laptop and word processing, I wonder how many writers are still writing their manuscripts by hand. My little book is really just a long story that is going to be a bit thick in print because it will have illustrations and an extensive glossary. But even so, I couldn’t keep track of what I’d said in one part and how it flowed to the next. I have been wishing for the card system. In fact, if I ever write another book (no, Cindy, definitely not happening soon!), I want to come up with a card system to keep track of the chapters or themes or something. What I had to do the other day was print most of it out, lay it all over my floor, cut it into sections, then crawl among the pieces, labeling what they were before crossing pieces out and cutting even more apart to move them into new places. I compared them to the 40 or so sticky notes that I had with comments on them for changes or improvements, scribbled on the pages whatever I’d forgotten, taped them together in a new order, and went back to the computer in despair that I could ever fix it.

I still have twelve sticky notes next to me as I write. Some are reminders to go back to the real story and read up on what truly happened with the artists, and some are notes I couldn’t make sense of while crawling around on the floor. But hurrah! My kind, surely exhausted, editor reread and said that I made it flow. Her words: “I read it in one breath.” Well, “Я прочитала на одном дыхании,” to be exact.

I’m so relieved. I was thinking it was going to be another couple months just tweaking the writing. And it may. But I feel a lot better. Authors out there: what systems exist for writing efficiently that don’t involve printing out entire manuscripts?

Writing: just the first step

Who knew how much work it would be to get a little Russian book off my computer and into the world? The answer: Annie Ewing, for one, every other author in the world, and Mike Peto, my writing group teacher, who never tried to scare us with the giant wall we were facing as we started writing.

It is with great joy that I can announce I’ve mostly finished producing a manuscript in 19 or 20 short chapters. But next, as I heard from Annie at iFLT 2019, there are many steps to follow. Right now, I’m in several steps at once. I have read the book in its entirety with a few students. I have read parts of it with beginning groups. A couple of dear friends have shared the entire text with single students, and one has taught a whole class with it.

A talented editor has worked through about the first half for me, making suggestions I could never have come up with on my own. She asked me to think about the purpose of every section. It’s hard to do. She made suggestions, but in the end, I have to look at the purpose and the piece, and make sure that they match. Can you hear my internal dialogue, asking why I have to do this? I didn’t know I was this lazy until now.

Another concurrent and scary step is sending each chapter out to a different Russian teacher who is not yet my best buddy, though some are becoming my idols as I speak, given their willingness to help. If you’re a Russian teacher and can help run a short chapter past a group of students, please connect!

And finally, I’m working on the glossary, even though I fear it will require a complete revamping if we change much. This is the most tedious task of all, given that every different form of every word must be defined, and any set phrases that will help also go in. Mike suggested reading the book, word by word, and constructing the glossary as I go, so that the meanings fit what I’ve written, rather than trying to make a mini dictionary.

The Russian words are bolded and in 14 point Cyrillic font. The meanings are in 12 point, not bold, but italic Roman font. Did I say “tedious” already? I would never have known to format this way, nor would I have known much of the other priceless information Mike has shared. Even if I were writing a book in English, I would probably sign up for one of his writing groups.

If I ever When I get through these steps, I will start working on illustrations. That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Wish me patience – and many Russian teachers!