Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

In Russia / Warm Schools in a Cold Climate

When Connecticut students visited the schools of Moscow and Nizhnii, they encountered surprises and saw their own schools in a new light.

Russia—huge, impenetrable, unknowable, changing. For three years, groups of high school students, teachers, and administrators from throughout Connecticut have had the opportunity to explore Russia firsthand thanks to a program called "Linking Schools through Language and Technology." The project started with Connecticut, Russia, and Ukraine, and has since expanded to include pilot sites in Rhode Island, Tennessee, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Mary Ann Hansen, State Foreign Language Consultant for the Connecticut Department of Education, spearheaded the program. She estimates that since 1993 more than 1,000 students and educators from about 60 schools in the United States and the Commonwealth of Independent States (republics of the former Soviet Union) have participated in the exchange, which is funded by the U.S. Information Agency under the Freedom Support Act.

Mingling Cultures in New Haven

The New Haven Public Schools have taken part each year since 1993. This urban district is in a regional consortium with two suburban districts, the North Haven Public Schools and Amity Regional School District Number Five. Urban and suburban students meet and travel as teams. Indeed, one New Haven student who is African American remarked to the local newspaper, "Imagine, I had to go to Russia to meet kids from North Haven."
Americans and Russians live in each other's homes and attend each other's schools. Participants must study Russian (here) or English (there). Students from the New Haven-Amity-North Haven Consortium study Russian at school through distance learning, after school in the Cooperative Language Program at Yale, or Saturdays at the New Haven-Yale Saturday Seminar Program at Hillhouse High School. Yale University, a cosponsor of the program, works collaboratively with the State Department of Education and local districts. Currently there are 12 regional consortiums in Connecticut, with 30 participating school districts.
The Linking Schools project represents networking at its best, technologically and personally. E-mail via the Internet assists communication and joint research projects between pairs of students and among teachers. One can view many of these projects on the Linking Schools Web site (http://csde.aces.k12.ct.us).
As New Haven's Supervisor of Foreign Languages, I have been intensely involved in this project from the start. I hosted and traveled in the 1994-95 exchange, and it is impressions from that experience that I've distilled here. For three weeks in the fall of 1994 we hosted our Russian counterparts in our homes and schools. From February 16 to March 9, we traveled to Russia and were hosted by our former guests. We spent half the time in sister school Gymnasium 1515 in Moscow and the other half at Lyceum 40 in Nizhnii Novgorod. Nizhnii, some 300 miles northeast of Moscow, was the closed city called Gorky until five years ago.

Continuity and Tradition

Russia is at present an unstable society, but the schools we visited were beacons of continuity and tradition. The families they serve come from a range of economic levels, but share a belief in the importance of education. The Russian students were stunned when I said that we have some children and adults in the United States who do not learn to read. They could not understand this.
I was particularly interested in the English, German, and French second-language classes. The Russian students pursued a second language from 1st grade on, and their skills were impressive. The classes were half the size of others to maximize opportunities for each student to communicate. The 10-12 students sat in informal arrangements of chairs around a table. In one such little room I counted a sofa and five overstuffed chairs to one side, for visitors.
People at each school expressed love for that school and its traditions. Many administrators and teachers were themselves graduates of the school they served. Their own children attended the school. The schools we visited encompassed grades K–11. The mere fact of this grade span meant there was continuity and everyone was known in their schools. "Divisions" within grade levels also remain the same until graduation, so that a group of 20-25 students—of all levels of ability—spend about 10 years together. The 11th grade "seniors" spoke of their classmates as their dear friends; they knew them completely and had a sense of where they themselves fit in.
In addition to their teaching assignments, most teachers serve as "tutors" to the students in one division. The same tutor might counsel his or her students for eight years or more. Tutors said that students told them their problems, confident that a secret "wouldn't leave these walls." The tutors talk a lot on the phone to parents of their students.

The Total Child

This attention to the total child was also evident in the range of non-academic activities offered, in addition to an academic course of study that was rigorous, advanced, and entailed many hours of homework each night. From a young age, students did things with their hands, such as knitting, sewing, and woodworking. In Arzamas, 10-year-old boys assembled remote-controlled robots after school in a program sponsored by a local factory. Their fine motor skills were remarkable. At the school store, they sold the robots for the equivalent of four dollars, with proceeds split between the school (60 percent) and the boy (40 percent). There were many after-school clubs for sports, foreign languages, and even travel. An entire 8th grade went on an excursion to Budapest.
Music was important in the schools, and students were talented. They were accustomed to performing for one another and were eager to do so for us. The music had an international flavor, with one young child playing Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" on the piano and a little girl offering an endearing vocal solo of "Santa Lucia." It also became apparent in several Russian versus American basketball and volleyball games that they were skilled athletes.
Health and physical activity were considered important in school. Tutors took their charges to a medical clinic, during school time, for checkups. The schools had full-time doctors and nurses. In Arzamas they proudly showed us special herbal drinks arranged on tiered trays, for students who were deemed sickly and at risk.
I asked why there were large rectangular spaces in the hallways and was told that they were for the younger children's activity breaks from classwork. The teachers took for granted that this was necessary.
Oddly, in spite of the Russian schools' attention to students' physical needs, many of the children I saw appeared wan, drawn, and generally less robust than most U.S. children. I assumed this was due to many factors, including climate, poverty, diet, and poor medical facilities.

School as Home

St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square surprises many because it is a fanciful expression of whimsy in a land of hardship and austerity. I was similarly unprepared for the warmth and humanity, the cozy home-like atmosphere, of the Russian schools. Their coziness was not due to size. The Moscow school had 900 students, the one in Nizhnii, 700. Another school in Arzamas, two hours from Nizhnii, had 1,500, and yet the warm atmosphere prevailed.
Russian teachers said, "School is home." Home is pleasant, comfortable, welcoming. The buildings were huge and in need of repair, yet classrooms were inviting and somehow domestic. The ones I saw had billowing curtains in pink, white, and yellow. Large windows let in natural light. There were lots of plants and elaborate teacher-made decorations that represented the class's subject. For example, a Russian literature class had striking black-and-white silhouettes of famous authors, a three-dimensional facade of a Russian house painted on the wall, and enormous "books" with movable covers.
Libraries were relatively small, with few books. Some schools also had "museum" rooms with artifacts and photographs about special events or periods. The libraries and museums were quiet, serious, pleasant places in which to learn.
The cafeteria had natural wood and curtains, though perhaps not much variety in the menu. Russians call lunch "dinner," and it is the main meal of the day, so students and teachers often eat their biggest meal at school.
In the cities we visited, amenities often failed to meet North American standards. But in some ways the schools were different. The schools had wooden parquet floors in the halls. At Moscow's Gymnasium 1515, instead of ringing bells between classes they played computer game tunes, which students seemed to like. A school cat who lived in Lyceum 40 wandered about the building and was much beloved by students.
Students from different grades and classes were assigned areas to keep clean. The official cleaners, often very old or very young women, were constantly mopping the halls. Due to the generally crumbling state of things, I could never determine whether the schools were clean. The teachers' rooms shone with attractive conference tables, comfortable chairs and sofas, carpets, and large display wall units. The principal's office in Nizhnii was modern and tasteful, with a large, well-supplied room to the side that served as a combination dining/conference/party room. In Arzamas, the principal's office was like a gracious living room, and she offered us tea, chocolate, apples, and champagne.
The exteriors of the Russian schools we visited—huge, impersonal, and rundown—belied the warmth within. In some ways this paralleled the contrast between Russians' public and private behavior. Our American students were dismayed at the people's grouchy temperaments, cold demeanor, and shoving in the streets and shops and on public transportation. In their schools and homes, however, they showed a spirit of caring and generosity that we will never forget.

There for You

Home is always there for you; the Russian schools never seemed to close. Regular classes were in session on Saturdays. Around 6:30 every evening, schools were still buzzing with clubs, tutoring, special classes, and sports. We were in the schools at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, 7 p.m. on a Sunday, and some weeknights until 9:30. Lights were on, activities were taking place, and the "security guard"—usually a nonuniformed older man or woman known by everyone—was stationed near the front door. Part of his or her job was to keep an eye on the open coat room.
Even during school vacations the school is open because, except for summers, teachers do not get vacations. They work in their rooms or attend workshops and planning meetings.
Administrators showed a noninstitutional attitude towards scheduling. They drove the schedule; it did not drive them. Each evening they rewrote the next day's schedule according to which teachers would be present and what special activities were planned. The job of scheduling was rotated among the eight or so assistant principals, who also taught, as did the principal.
This flexible attitude also pertained to work hours. Teachers and administrators went to school only when they were scheduled to teach or attend a meeting. The principal's hours, however, ranged from 8-11 a.m. to 4-10 p.m. Most teachers taught five days a week (including Saturday) but were off on Sunday and one weekday. Administrators recognized that teachers often needed a day off for personal business and arranged the schedule to accommodate them.
The school is indeed a second home for teachers, who work long hours. Yet there is a flexibility and rationality about when they should be in school, as well as a greater range of activities for them than one usually sees in the United States. The Russian teachers worked, played, and socialized at school. At Lyceum 40, we attended one of the parties they held after students had left. It was held in honor of Women's Day, March 6.

A Better Way?

Also at Lyceum 40, students, parents, teachers, and principal referred with pride to their school's awards, medals, and certificates. There was excitement when word came that their 4th graders had taken the top prizes in a math competition in Nizhnii, a city of 2 million. The school also had winners in international competitions in math and physics.
Which brings us to the proof of the pudding—the students. The Russian educators in Gymnasium 1515 in Moscow, Lyceum 40 in Nizhnii, and the Gymnasium we visited in Arzamas demonstrated great pride as they showed off their products—intelligent, knowledgeable, talented, polite, well-adjusted children. In the face of tremendous hardship and obstacles, Russia's schools and families are doing something right.
Am I saying that Russian schools are better than ours? Nyet. In many ways, I found their schools and society terribly disadvantaged in comparison to ours. Indeed, our three-week trip was an inadvertent lesson in American patriotism and civic pride in the blessings we have, not the least of which is our Constitution.
Also, when Russians toured our schools last fall, they liked many things about them and several times referred to their visit here as a fairy tale. Many of the positive things we saw in Russian schools are also being done here. And I am aware that the quality of classroom discussion is more important than curtains on the windows. Discussions in the Russian schools seemed to fluctuate between force-fed informational lectures and more student-centered approaches, such as free discussion, role-playing, and students writing on the chalkboard.
In essence, the value of studying cultures is that one is thrice born. You learn about your own culture; you witness and experience another; and you look at your own with new eyes. I think a lot about just how student-centered, friendly, and individualizing our American schools really are.
In Russia I saw an admittedly small sample of admittedly exemplary public schools, in many ways like the ideal home and family. America is supposed to be the friendly, informal country that places the individual above the institution. We want to have school-parent links, community schools, family campuses. Schools usually reflect the larger culture. Having been to Russia, and having new eyes, I wonder.

Kay Hill has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 196245.jpg
Go To Publication