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Move Your Kids to Russia and Toss Them Into School
September 17, 2011 2:06 PM   Subscribe

Move Your Kids to Russia and Toss Them Into School Clifford Levy and Julie Dressner moved their 3 kids from Park Slope to Russia. Instead of putting their kids in an international school, they decided to let the kids learn Russian in a Russian school.

After a few failed attempts, they found the New Humanitarian School, a radical private school, too "alternative" for Moscow's elite, although too expensive for most Muscovites.

But the teaching methods in this school are innovative - ""Anyone who thinks that 2 + 2 = 4 is an idiot" and the community, well... read the end of the piece.

[Cliff wrote the NYT Magazine piece, but Julie made a documentary.]
posted by k8t (42 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
I liked this part too: "They occasionally mocked the three for their mangled syntax, though the school cracked down on that. Bogin even devised a ploy for Emmett's class: one of the school's English teachers conducted a lesson entirely in English. "This is what every day is like for Emmett," the teacher explained. One boy was so tormented trying to follow along that he burst into tears."
posted by k8t at 2:09 PM on September 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


So what if mine did not speak a word of Russian and could not find Russia on a map.

Does this man even own a map? Go up to any child, say "point to land," and they've got, like, a 20% chance of hitting Russia. I call shens.
posted by phunniemee at 2:13 PM on September 17, 2011 [15 favorites]


But Bogin added courses like antimanipulation, which was intended to give children tools to decipher commercial or political messages. He taught a required class called myshleniye, which means "thinking," as in critical thinking.

These should be part of every curriculum in the world.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:19 PM on September 17, 2011 [51 favorites]


The most interesting part of the article to me was the brief discussion of how modern Russians who are ambitious and successful have withdrawn from their country in despair. This is pretty close to my experience as well.
posted by prefpara at 2:31 PM on September 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


When I asked Bogin to explain Shchedrovitsky, he asked a question. "Does 2 + 2 = 4? No! Because two cats plus two sausages is what? Two cats. Two drops of water plus two drops of water? One drop of water." From there, the theories became more complex.

Perhaps this leads to quantum mechanics at some point.
posted by Brian B. at 2:35 PM on September 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


US schools really have an "everyone's a winner" mentality? Huh.
posted by fightorflight at 2:40 PM on September 17, 2011


Rather cold parenting? I hope when he's old his kids put him in a Russian old folks home. Hey, you'll cope somehow, Dad. Then when you do, maybe we'll move you to Mongolia.
posted by Segundus at 2:43 PM on September 17, 2011 [16 favorites]


Segundus, I couldn't imagine Russian old folks homes being very common. It would be surprising and even shameful for a family to do such a thing with an older relative (unless perhaps there was an extreme medical condition...)
posted by k8t at 2:46 PM on September 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


I read this story a few days ago, my immediate reaction was, how can the NYTimes appoint a Moscow Bureau Chief that isn't fluent in Russian?
posted by charlie don't surf at 2:54 PM on September 17, 2011 [20 favorites]


Perhaps this leads to quantum mechanics at some point.

I'm guessing, but I think the idea was to show how mathematics needs thinking rather than just rote memorization and repetition. I really liked the "how many crows are left" answer, since, when I was in grade school, the "You have seven apples; Bill takes two and Mary takes one. How many apples do you have left?" Since i always wanted to ask "Why the heck are Bill and Mary taking my apples?"
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:56 PM on September 17, 2011 [15 favorites]


At least the children will be masters of belittlement.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:56 PM on September 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Julie and I had grown to love Russia and its people, but aspects of the country - its drift toward authoritarianism, its conservative social mores - still troubled us.

...as for N. America, I don't think the ride is quite over yet.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:57 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was ready to rip the parents a new one as well, but read it to the end and the comments too. I don't think they simply dropped them off and said that's it, fend for yourselves. The children seem to have adapted and found peace with their adopted culture, so it's unlikely that there were not a lot of support and help from the parents and the teachers. (It's mentioned that they too, the parents, were learning Russian and they attend shows at the theatre.)

The children are now multi-lingual, multi-cultured and are likely to feel like they have much opportunities to pursue when older, so I think they are for the better.

As someone who did a variant of this as a child immigrant, the network of support, interaction and encouragement is so, so important. Don't let the kid feel isolated and alone like my parents did, fml
posted by tksh at 2:57 PM on September 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


In Russia, school teaches you.
posted by Flashman at 2:58 PM on September 17, 2011 [25 favorites]


The comments on the NYT site are at least as interesting as the article. I read it during recess yesterday at a predominantly Latino school in East Oakland, CA. It didn't take long before commenters pointed out that this seemingly unusual "extreme schooling" experience happens every day here in the US. The difference is that the parents are not usually granted a $10,000 tuition stipend, often work several jobs and have little or no time for school involvement, and the staff to student ratio is significantly higher. Lots of the kids turn out okay, some succeed prodigiously, and others fall through those yawning cracks. (No time to define terms now--define them as you will.) Again, for interesting outside MeFi comments, I recommend a look.
posted by emhutchinson at 2:59 PM on September 17, 2011 [13 favorites]


Can we discuss Chevy Chase playing Ford when we talk about stairs?
posted by hippybear at 3:16 PM on September 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


In my post-Soviet experience, many teachers are incredibly dedicated and care deeply for their students. Seeing the teachers kiss the Levy kids was not surprising to me. Intellectualism in post-Soviet societies is exciting. Seeing a school that honors intellectualism and dedication to children and works outside the bribery-based underpaid-teacher system of most post-Soviet schools gives me great joy.
posted by k8t at 3:28 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Had these journalists tossed their kids into an ordinary Moscow public school, I would be impressed with their harsh callousness. But this school sounds like a high-toned intellectual small private school for the children of the intelligentsia, where the kids received lots of positive attention from dedicated teachers plus language immersion. So I don't think the kids were really in such a drastic situation, as the lead would suggest.
posted by knoyers at 3:38 PM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Anyone who thinks that 2 + 2 = 4 is an idiot"

I now understand the Russian economy.
posted by tommasz at 3:48 PM on September 17, 2011 [11 favorites]


Moving from Brooklyn to Russia seems...so backwards.

Personal experience in the other direction: I didn't speak a lick of English when I came to the US at the age of 4. My parents enrolled me and my sister into a private school especially set up for Russian Jewish immigrants. At the time, the Orthodox community in Brooklyn was very involved in setting up infrastructure to integrate the new Jewish immigrants into Jewish life. Anyhow, my classmates were just like me, which was great--it was like one big ESL class, since we were all basically in the same boat. But my teachers were American Orthodox Jews and didn't speak a lick of Russian, so...I guess we all must have learned by immersion. It's amazing what the brain can absorb at that age without much trouble at all.
posted by litnerd at 4:21 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I was twelve my parents moved our family to Florence for 6 years. They were very keen for us to have the full bilingual experience and found an Italian-language school that was by Irish nuns. Most of the teachers spoke at least some English, which was a great advantage to us, and we all studied Italian intensively for a few months before we left. It was still very hard. After about a year and a half they transferred me to the local international school for high school, because I probably was not going to pass the exam that all Italians need to take at the end of middle school to place into high school. But by the time I left Italy to go to college I could pass for a native speaker and sometimes dreamed in Italian.

Whenever I tell someone I went to high school in Italy they gush and say 'that must have been wonderful!'. I hated it and for years I was convinced that my parents had RUINED my LIFE! Eventually I realized that as a morose, awkward SF loving teen I probably wouldn't have enjoyed high school very much no matter what country I was in. It was a challenge, though, going to a school where my graduating class, at 17, was one of the largest in the school's history. My parents gave me 2 gifts; one, Italian, I never use. The other is the global perspective that informs my character.

I remember clearly the feeling of having a sea of words wash over me in class, clinging to anything I could pick out. One of the first lessons was a dictation. I couldn't understand what the teacher was saying, but I could pick out one word that she said several times.... 'virgola', so I wrote that down. It means comma. I remember my mom sitting on the couch trying to make a phone call in Italian and getting redder and redder in the face as she struggled with the language and the embarrassment of not being able to communicate. And then the's what my little sister said after coming home from her first day at preschool: mommy, they can't hear me!

Third Culture Kids is a term I've become familiar with as adult.. I don't really identified it but one of my younger siblings (Italy, Denmark, Netherlands, UK) does.
posted by bq at 4:31 PM on September 17, 2011 [16 favorites]


how can the NYTimes appoint a Moscow Bureau Chief that isn't fluent in Russian?

He writes in the first few paras that he spent a year in intensive Russian training *before* he started the job. That's actually pretty good. Many expats from many countries get put in charge of some foreign post without even "please" and "thank you". If he had fluent underlings to assist, he was probably fine.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:48 PM on September 17, 2011


He writes in the first few paras that he spent a year in intensive Russian training *before* he started the job. That's actually pretty good. Many expats from many countries get put in charge of some foreign post without even "please" and "thank you". If he had fluent underlings to assist, he was probably fine.

For a journalist or diplomat it is crucial. For a foreign rep at a multinational, maybe not so much.

Similarly I have known foreign employees sent to the US divisions of large corporations to pick up corporate ways who after a year in America could not really speak English, so it can go both ways.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:46 PM on September 17, 2011


After the description of the food at the school, I kind of want to enroll myself.
posted by Dr. Zira at 6:33 PM on September 17, 2011


Agree with the point emhutchinson makes, this happens all the time with immigrant kids. It's a shame and unfair that this story is told because the father is a NY Times journalist, while their stories are usually never told, but so much better to have this than nothing.

I don't know if the parents or the kids themselves realize it yet, but this experience will profoundly change the way the kids interact with other humans and conceive of their own identity. I also grew up bouncing around in different cultures and languages and it did to me. (Diplobrat.)

Feeling deep deep down that I don't have a home is probably the loneliest and most liberating thing I know.
posted by DLWM at 7:16 PM on September 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


I thought everybody did this. My parents did (I was 12, my brothers 10 and 5 when we spent a year in Germany), my uncle and aunt did (their four boys, aged 5 to 12, went into public schools when they spent a year in France.) Heck, another uncle and aunt of mine sent one of their sons along so that he would learn French too. And now one my cousins has just spent the last year of his life doing every single screen of the Rosetta Stone ten times so he can work in Germany for a year and take his kids there to learn German.

It takes about six months to get comfortable in a language, and there is simply no better way than immersion. The idea that you should deprive your kids of such a valuable opportunity just because it's hard and they might feel lonely sometimes smacks of the worst kind of twenty-first century American helicopter parenting to me.
posted by sy at 7:40 PM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


He writes in the first few paras that he spent a year in intensive Russian training *before* he started the job.

Yes, I read that, and that was why I was shocked. There's an old joke in language instruction circles, that anyone who completed one year of language instruction can converse perfectly fluently with any other first-year student.

A year of even intensive language training as an adult will not get you even to a level of being able to read a newspaper. It is known that kids (especially under age 6) adapt more rapidly, which was pretty evident from watching the video documentary k8t linked to.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:53 PM on September 17, 2011


A year of even intensive language training as an adult will not get you even to a level of being able to read a newspaper.

I completely disagree, based on personal experience. But whatever.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:31 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Spanish maybe. Slavic languages, very unlikely. Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic, you're still in kindergarten.

Now realize, I'm talking about foreign language instruction in your homeland, not immersion classes while living in the native language environment full time, like the kids went through.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:39 PM on September 17, 2011


"We had just left Brooklyn and were spending our first year in Russia in St. Petersburg, the country's second-biggest city, where I was studying intensive Russian before starting my job in Moscow."
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:50 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I didn't recall reading he studied in Russia, but from personal experience watching total noobs taking intensives overseas, I wonder how much you can do over there, starting from zero. I still wonder about sending an investigative reporter into a job as Bureau Chief while he's still struggling with the language, and whether that affected his reporting abilities. Yeah, I know he won a Pulitzer (shared with another Moscow bureau reporter).
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:08 PM on September 17, 2011


Here is a video of the school's director, Bogin, taking part in a theatre production. He plays the role of the wolf in a version of the popular fairy tale "Teremok", declaring (among other similiar predilections), that he loves "throttling frogs" ... I barely imagine our headmaster in a simlilar kind of performance.
posted by megob at 12:42 AM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It didn't take long before commenters pointed out that this seemingly unusual "extreme schooling" experience happens every day here in the US. The difference is that the parents are not usually granted a $10,000 tuition stipend, often work several jobs and have little or no time for school involvement, and the staff to student ratio is significantly higher. Lots of the kids turn out okay, some succeed prodigiously, and others fall through those yawning cracks. (No time to define terms now--define them as you will.) Again, for interesting outside MeFi comments, I recommend a look.

This is exactly what I came to say. I read this yesterday and basically wrote it off as another NYT Style piece that is somewhat out of touch with the real world. My son's Kindergarten class (18 students in Portland Maine) has kids that speak six different languages at home. This is not an unusual or extreme story (perhaps it is, I guess, for upper-income New York parents, but certainly not for anyone whose child attends a public school. The author had a wonderful opportunity to tie his children's experience back to the experience that thousands of students in New York - and all across America - have every day, but he didn't do it.

Perhaps he's just ignorant of the fact?
posted by anastasiav at 4:59 AM on September 18, 2011


I appreciated that the author and his wife acknowledged & supported their kids to do something hard and push through. Fixing kids problems for them doesn't help in the long run. Also, the author does acknowledge that immigrants all over the world do something similar, in some places with less intentional support from teachers. That doesn't make it a bad idea to do with upper-middle class American kids.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:03 AM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Perhaps he's just ignorant of the fact?
His kids went to public school in New York City. I'm pretty sure that even fancy NYC public schools are at least as diverse as those in Portland Maine.

I agree with Heart_on_Sleeve that the point here seemed to be as much about exposing kids to difficulty, competition, and (at least initial) failure as about the experience of being immersed in a new language. These were liberal American parents who put their kids in a situation that defied all sorts of liberal American educational and parenting norms, and the kids rose to the occasion and thrived. I think that's sort of the point of the story.

I guess I do worry that we never hear about the failures in this kind of situation, though. My brother dated a brilliant and successful woman who moved to the US from Japan as a pre-teen because her father was transferred to West Virginia to run a car manufacturing factory. She went to an American public school with a bunch of other Japanese kids, and she said that they either sank or swum. The ones who swum, like herself, ended up doing really well, but she said the kids who sank were really lost and that she feared that they'd never be able to function well in either Japanese or American society. And I feel like the author wouldn't have written about his kids if they'd failed miserably.
posted by craichead at 8:52 AM on September 18, 2011


this is just to say that "MOVE YOUR KIDS AND TOSS THEM INTO SCHOOL" is like a pitch perfect punk rock chorus chant.
posted by The Whelk at 9:38 AM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It takes about six months to get comfortable in a language, and there is simply no better way than immersion. The idea that you should deprive your kids of such a valuable opportunity just because it's hard and they might feel lonely sometimes smacks of the worst kind of twenty-first century American helicopter parenting to me.

In 1987, I was one of several thousand 16 year-old high school students worldwide who packed up their shit and moved halfway across the world to live with a family and go to school and attempt to assimilate into another culture entirely. Many of the kids who do this have no instruction in the language of the country they're heading off to.

I spent my Senior year of high school in Altena, Westf., Germany. For a year and a half, I went to school, worked (shhh...), and lived like any other German teenager. Although I had had several years of formal German instruction, I still had a three month long migraine from trying to communicate. I will never forget the morning I realized that the headache was gone, trying to communicate wasn't frustrating me any more, and I had dreamed in German the night before. It was so exciting, to feel that sense of finally having the hang of it. And later, when a super strict teacher - whom I respected, adored, AND was abjectly terrified of - handed me back an essay with a big red 2 on it (essentially a B), I was over the moon. I had accomplished something huge, as far as I was concerned.

Long distance calling was expensive, and internet was non-existent, so my contact with my family in the US was limited to letters that took about 10 days to get there. That limitation was really beneficial to me AND to my family - it let me explore my new home and new life in peace, and it taught them to let go and let me grow as a person.

I am SO grateful to my grandparents for swallowing their panic at the idea of me moving in with total strangers more than 4,000 miles from home, with no way to keep a close eye on me. I learned so much, and the whole experience changed the way that I look at myself and how I look at the rest of the great, huge, interesting world. The experience was often tough and frustrating, but it taught me how to suck it up and adapt, to figure things out for myself instead of running off to someone else to fix things, and I consider it the most valuable thing I've ever done for myself.

We recently hosted an exchange student, and my youngest finally understood why I'm such a vocal proponent of young people going abroad, even if they can only manage it for a little while. He is now considering applying for a scholarship to go abroad and have that grand adventure. I don't want to push him into it, but nothing would make me happier than for him to go for it. I freely admit that I cannot relate to parents who are afraid of the idea of their kids going abroad and learning exactly how resilient and adaptable they can be.
posted by MissySedai at 11:56 AM on September 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


MissySedai: I spent a year in a German high school in 1986-87. I was well schooled in German by the time I got there, and quickly became fluent. It was both the best and worst/most difficult year of my life. The experience of living outside of US culture has marked me indelibly, mostly for the better. There is much to be said for being torn from everything familiar and seeing that even a very westernized country like Germany is actually a completely different life experience from what we tend to project as being universal if you're a US native.

If I had kids, I'd be forcing them to do a year in another country in another language. There is nothing more valuable, especially for people raised in the insular US culture.
posted by hippybear at 12:36 PM on September 18, 2011


hippybear: If I could afford it, there'd be no question, the Monsters would have been shipped off Elsewhere for at least a summer, because it's such a valuable experience. But I'm broke, so I've required them to learn a language (Elder Monster chose Japanese and is teaching himself Arabic, Younger Monster is sucking up to Mama and learning German) and they are being raised waaaaay differently from their peers. Friends characterize our household habits and attitudes as "very European", and because we are so liberal and culturally open, we've been given the stinkeye from other parents on more than one occasion. I was in fact yelled at not long ago by the parents of a young man who had been asking about my exchange experience. They told me it was "irresponsible" to encourage him to think about doing something "so dangerous". Oh, brother.

The Monsters' friends spend a lot of time with us, and so do the school's visiting exchange students. I think the best compliment I've ever heard from one of the kids is "You guys are so WEIRD! Will you adopt me?" It's really satisfying to be able to share what I learned with the kids who spend time in my house, and show them that there's more to the world than our falling-apart little corner of Ohio. I hope the lessons stick.
posted by MissySedai at 1:01 PM on September 18, 2011


MissySedai: you should try to get your kids in with the Rotary exchange program. They don't require a huge monetary outlay for the exchange (the organization pays most of the costs which aren't related to travel). I don't remember the exact terms, but it wasn't expensive at all. Granted, that was 25 years ago, so who knows what it really is like now?
posted by hippybear at 1:34 PM on September 18, 2011


I looked up the Shched.... chap, and found this - an online elibrary of his works - in Russian :( Well, the site's in English, and they've translated the titles:)
I had to work and live in a psychiatric unit as a volunteer aged 26 learning Italian from scratch. (No, don't - i ended up having a breakdown. I'm not sure what part of me thought living in was a good idea. And i lost several years of my life, after which i tried to get pregnant and found i'd become menopausal early, so it may even have deprived me of having children. Dim.) Everyone i met agrees: it takes 2 months to become fluent in a basic way saying 'i eat toast, i clean kitchen' (this sounds much worse in languages with declining verbs), 6 months to become fluent like a normal adult but without the more complex stuff and 2 years to become as perfect as you're going to get.
I think moving around constantly just in one country, and therefore losing all my friends all the time - small children don't normally write letters, things are different nowadays - was a factor in my inability to form longterm relationships outside the family. I have a brother, but we were never close, we never had anything in common and barely talk beyond 'how are you?' even now, whereas their sibling group protected them i imagine. I think frequent visiting to the same place would be better for most children.
Americans are generally mocked for their low level of education in Europe, especially maths. American liberal arts education is meant to let you see all of culture, whereas on the continent this is achieved by forcing you to read all the classics of your national literature from tiny up. People who haven't been there don't realise how the sixties overthrew a snobbish, unquestioned, established criterion of education along with a ditto social order: in Europe to this day, social mobility is very low. But then, children aren't violent rude little yobs and they genuinely love the classics... The UK is in between, but our maths is shameful compared with all Europe. When i tried to explain how being good or bad at sport made you un/popular in the UK to Italians, they were completely bemused. They asked, did being good at school make you popular? So i tried to explain, no, then you would get beaten up for being a swot....
Of all university systems, the old Russian/Soviet Diplom is by far the hardest and anyone with the old - still common - Russian/Soviet degree will have a achieved a far higher level than most modern/UK/USA Masters students.
The intentional destruction of the soviet system involved the parallel destruction of the whole Soviet sphere of influence: african guest workers were deported and the west imported instead the ones from its migration system, for instance. A whole isolated (and oppressed in part) system of pedagogy and psychological research, eg in mathematics textbooks, was also lost. These were used within the Soviet sphere of influence, so many students subsidised by Moscow in India, Africa etc have used them, but they are not around in English. Translation should yield a goldmine....
Finally, i met a Russian woman studying a linguistics masters in America who enrolled her 4 year old in a daycare centre while she studied, telling her 'Now, you will have to learn English. You can't refuse any more.' A couple of weeks later, the centre rang her up to complain that all the children, including other foreign nationals from Spain, Phillippines etc were now speaking Russian. Her daughter had not only refused to learn English, she had persuaded everyone else to speak her language instead.
posted by maiamaia at 1:41 PM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Add me to the list of people that don't see why this is such an unusual idea.

I also went on exchange for a year to Germany ('97, spoke almost no german when I got there), and it was one of the hardest things I ever did. The first month I was there, I would come home from school and fall asleep until dinner time from the sheer exhaustion of communicating in a language I didn't know, but by summer I was chatting away like a local.

I can't imagine going to live in another country and not learning the language or trying to experience the local culture. It would seem like such a waste.
posted by kjs4 at 8:12 PM on September 18, 2011


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