October 2007

(link to photos)

I’m back from a week in Russia—Moscow and St. Petersburg. Hardly enough time or places to pretend to any profound understanding—but still I can’t resist a few less-than-profound ones.*

First of all. Despite lots of bureaucratic hassles around getting a visa, the trip was largely hassle-free and wonderful. Joining me were my two sons, educator Nick and computer expert Roger. They took care of photos (note Roger’s on the link above, more will follow). I enjoyed the people, the sites, the food, along with all I learned.

Second. The folks who invited us were wonderful hosts, and so were my school-traveling companions. The invitation came from Artion Soloveychik, who publishes teacher newspapers and magazines in Russia, and is a great new friend and colleague. It was Jerry Mintz (of AERO, an alternative school network) who initiated this contact. We were also lucky to be joined by Brett Schlesinger, former leader of City as a School (a sister school in NYC) who is a Russian history buff. Jerry and Brett were both a co-speakers, and Brett ended up being our fellow-traveler throughout our week. Since he has been to Russia (including the old USSR) many times he was the best kind of guide.  But, adding more spice to the travels was having Artiom’s son and daughter-in-law, Timofey and Svetlana, as companions and guides from our arrival at the Moscow airport to our departure from St. Petersburg.

Third. We were lucky to have a chance to visit a very innovative public school in Moscow, started by a very famous Russian pedagogue named Alexander Tubelsky. Tubelsky died last spring, and the conference was in large part devoted to his ideas. His school (now under new leadership) is a pre-K–12 school that many of you who know Central Park East and Mission Hill would recognize as in the same general camp, albeit with interesting differences. For example, the general climate was I think even freer and more joyous, while the classroom set-ups seemed far more traditional (rows of desks, with the teacher in front). However, the focus was on interesting student-centered projects, a great deal of respect and trust for all three constituents—parents, students and staff.

Fourth. The conference itself was a reminder that our victories and defeats are much the same around the world. Despite a flowering of reform over the past decade—with many interesting new schools popping up, there is a general tightening up, which includes more exams, focus on a standardized curriculum, and orthodoxy in many forms. Including religious orthodoxy.  There were several hundred kindergarten through high school educators present. It was hard to get the “facts” about Russian education, much as it is here in the USA. We heard various claims about graduation data—ranging from 70% to 100%. But one thing worth noting is that kids who leave high school and those who don’t go on to college have to serve 2-3 years of military service. Those who go on to “higher” education—passing exams being the major route into universities—are exempted. Women are also exempt.  I heard some talk of a change—one year for one and all. But it puts a different kind of motivation for staying in school and for doing well. Still, most do not go on to University-level schooling.

Finally. Being a tourist was wonderful. We enjoyed every bit of it.  Red Square, the Kremlin, the old-style Churches, the parks, the opera (Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky), in Moscow, as well as the Winter Palace and The Hermitage, Nevsky Prospect, Peter and Paul Fortress, a nighttime canal and Neva boat trip, Peterhof (summer home of Peter), and more in St Petersburg.  And we never stopped eating.

More on education in Russia, and thoughts that stemmed from the trip, in the future.

*Note also, that we saw nothing of the rest of Russia!

© 2007 Deborah Meier

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