The First Blow is Half the Battle

The theme for this week’s meeting of the Elabuga English Club was “English Proverbs,” and the proverb I was asked to explain sums up these first few weeks. “The first blow is half the battle,” accurately describes the front-loaded nature of adapting to a new culture, job, and social group simultaneously. These first few weeks have had ups and downs intensified by the newness and disorientation of a new way of life, but I have finally started to settle into something resembling a routine, and I can confidently say that I really think I’m going to like it here!

The biggest concern for me while preparing for my time here was teaching; after all, I wasn’t an education major and I had had little experience. You can imagine then how overwhelmed I felt when I found out that I would be teaching 4 classes on the college level. Five months ago, I was taking 14 credit hours, now I was expected to teach them! There was little time to reflect on my role change, however, as I was given a textbook and thrown right into the classroom. I am happy to say that it was not as scary as I had imagined it to be. My students (who are only a year younger than me!) are a joy to teach, and I already see the seeds of positive relationships being built, the development of which was one of the main reasons I wanted to teach.

A little about what I am teaching: I teach two sections of conversational and written English for fourth year students. My first group is from the English department, and they are definitely at an advanced level of English; we have already had many interesting conversations about the government shutdown, Syria, politics, and cultural differences. I also teach a current events/news class for them once a week, which they seem to be very interested in. My second group is from the Tatar Department. Basically, there is a separate department for those who want to study Tatar Language and Literature (usually ethnic Tatars), but there is also an English track within the department. Their level of English is lower than my other group, but I have found that the textbook they are expected to use doesn’t help. It is way above their level, and if I were in their position, I would feel overwhelmed and discouraged. In addition, the teachers seem to have given up on them. I have heard quite a few times, “they really can’t speak English. You just have to do drills and vocab with them.” It is true that they really don’t have the ability to speak conversationally, yet! It is going to be a challenge to learn how to teach them effectively, but I already had a small success yesterday when I modified an assignment on reported speech. By the end of the lesson, I felt like they all understood the concept, and they had fun doing it. I even got to teach them “hangman,” which they were really good at!

Finally, I am teaching a creative writing class once a week, which I am creating completely from scratch! Well, not completely from scratch. I had the privilege of taking a Creative Writing nonfiction class last semester with an excellent professor at Gordon College, and I am modeling the format of the course after this class. In short, each student will write a poem, short story, and personal story in English, and there will be lots of peer review and workshopping. I started the class by writing a cinquain as a class (an easy form of poetry), and the students chose to write about how terrible school was, which was actually really funny. I told them I understood, since I had been in their shoes just a few short months ago. Then I asked them to write their own cinquains, and I was very impressed! I believe every one of them has a poetic bone in their body. I read them “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I don’t know if they understood all of it, but I sure felt like Anne of Green Gables reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” We will also be starting a wordpress blog to showcase student writing, so be on the lookout for that!

Oh, a side note: students at the university had never even heard of a syllabus before! I think this speaks alot to the differences between American and Russian culture. As a person who loves syllabuses/syllabi (take your pick), I very nerdily and enthusiastically explained about how wonderful it was to know what was coming in the future and what was expected of you (two things which don’t seem to exist here).One of my students put it best in her essay comparing Russian and American higher education: in America, students get a syllabus, but “in Russia, it’s always a mystery.” I have made a syllabus for two of my classes so far, and the students seem to like it.

Socially, things have gotten much better too! Two of the teachers from my department, Lenara and Albina(such beautiful names!) took me out to lunch and a movie, and I really enjoyed their company. I also visited the local English club, and people have been eager to befriend me there. I went out to pizza last night with two high school girls from the club, one of whom wants to be a translator. The head of the English club has also asked me to give a presentation on my state next week, so it seems that I may have to start saying “no” to invitations if I am to have any time to myself to recharge.

Finally, I am taking Russian lessons with the head of the Russian Department, who is an excellent teacher. At the beginning of our first lesson, she looked at me and said, “all the other teachers have been praising your Russian and said you spoke so well, but I’m not so sure.” Needless to say, this was an intimidating way to start a lesson, but by the end she had become convinced that I could say more than “Da” and “Nyet.” My Russian is at a point now where I understand probably 70-80% of what is being said, but my speech hasn’t caught up with my head. But unlike other times in Russia, I finally have enough time for my speech to do the catching up! I have no doubt that if I work hard, I will make great strides linguistically during my stay here.

The Russian version of the first blow is half the battle” (хорошее начало, полдело откачало) is translated loosely as “a good beginning is half the work.” It has been an overwhelming, tiring beginning, but overall, it has definitely been a good one, and I now that I have thrown the first blow, I am excited to see how the rest of the year will unfold.

First Day at Work

When my host contact dropped me off at my dorm on Friday afternoon, all he told me was just to come in on Monday. This vagueness did not do much to settle my detail-oriented, American mind, but learning to be okay with the unknown is just a part of adjusting to Russian culture. I had no idea whether I would be expected to teach on that first day, so I prepared a few get to know you games as well as spruced up a PowerPoint I had made about my life in America.

My host contact, and older man in his last year of teaching, picked me up from my dorm, and just like he had on our drive from the airport to Elabuga, he barely said a word. I was initially disconcerted by his silence, confused as to how to relate to him. I am still not quite sure how to relate to him, but this morning I was put much more at ease when I met many of the women who teach in the English department. One of the teachers, a small, unassuming woman also in her last year of teaching, helped me to set up a library account, took me to register my passport, and acquainted me with the curriculum.

And as it turns out, I will not be assisting teachers, but actually teaching my own classes! I will be teaching a conversation class twice a week, a current events/newspaper class once a week, and I will also be teaching a creative writing class. It is strange to think that only four months after graduating college, I will now be teaching college classes. It was definitely both exciting and nerve-wracking to see “H. Johnson” on the schedule hanging on the fourth floor of the institute. I will be teaching my first class on Wednesday, but until then, I am trying to get to know the city better.

After getting my schedule worked out, a student from the institute named Anya showed me around Elabuga. I saw “The Devil’s Tower,” which, according to her, it is over 1,000 years old and has lots of folklore surrounding it (which I will need to look up!).

Anya, her friend Dasha, and Dasha’s boyfriend Radion also took me to buy a winter coat and an umbrella. Radion was a considerably good driver by Russian standards- he only swerved around a corner once 🙂

Let’s just say there wasn’t as much choice as I would have liked in coats…so I am definitely going to look very Russian! The coat is a long tan puffer with a contrasting darker tan hood and belt, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything exactly like it in America. The coat also came with a hat that was both bedazzled and had pom-poms, but this, dear reader, is where I draw the line.

All in all, I am doing much better than I was over the weekend. Slowly but surely, I am getting to know the city, beginning to understand the transportation system, and best of all, starting to meet Russians!