Surprises and Karaoke and Lead Paint

The last month has been one of the fullest and most fun of my life. The two groups of fourth year students I taught last semester came back from student teaching at the end of March, and since then, I’ve been teaching 11 classes a week, which is the heaviest load I’ve had yet. Instead of feeling burdened though by the number of classes though, I’ve felt energized. I’m inspired daily by interactions with my (wonderful! bright! замечательные!) students, I’m gaining confidence as a teacher, and it’s becoming more and more clear that teaching ESL is the path that I want to pursue when I get back to the States. Anyway, here’s a bit of an update on the first month of spring in Tatarstan:

Birthday Surprise

I usually get really sad around my birthday. My mom says that even when I was a kid, like clockwork I would have a mini-existential crisis right around March 31, nostalgically reminiscing on the past year, knowing that once I added a new candle to the cake, I could never go back.This year was no different, in fact, it seemed a little worse, since for some reason, 23 seemed so much older and more concretely adult than 22. No more singing about breakfast at midnight and dressing up like a hipster, I would now be relegated to the ranks of the grown-up who was supposed to have just a little less fun than her 22 year old counterpart and was just that much closer to being an old maid. And dying. You get the idea. I expected to spend by birthday quietly, reflectively, writing about the weight and significance of the new role I would be walking into and analyzing the milestones of the year before, but thankfully for me, my students didn’t allow that.

When I walked into the kafedra(teacher’s office) that morning, I was greeted by enthusiastic congratulations from my colleagues, and was quickly asked, “have you seen the posters? They’re everywhere! Go look, there’s one on the door!” I left the kafedra and turned the corner to see this:





And that was only the beginning. I walked into my classroom to see all my students wearing birthday hats and to hear music playing. They told me that today I was their queen and they had a special ceremony for me. After I sat down on my throne (a chair covered in a pink tablecloth), and had donned a tiara, they began an intricately planned out surprise for me. One of the boys pretended to be a Spanish guitarist and brought me a bouquet of eleven light pink roses (not 12, because even-numbered flowers are considered bad luck), one girl dressed up like a gypsy and read my palm, telling me I would have seven children, one girl presented me a cake in traditional Tatar dress with another girl to interpret her Tatar speech, and finally, they took a student’s oath (to always prepare for class, to be kind to me), and I took a queen’s oath (to always be in a good mood and to not give too much homework). And as if that weren’t enough, they then gave me this mug with a picture of us on it:


It says “Пей сладкий чай, и про нас не забывай!”, or “Drink sweet tea, and don’t forget about us!” (It rhymes in Russian.)


And here they are!

One of the teachers who befriended me from the start, Lenara, also organized a surprise party for me in the kafedra, so right after class I walked into another birthday surprise. Along with tea, chocolate, and piroshki, she served goubadia, which is a Tatar pie filled with rice, raisins, eggs, sweet tvorog (curds), and butter. To an American, it sounds like a strange mixture, but its really growing on me.


Gubadia, Photo Credit:

Karaoke With the Americans

Singing karaoke has been on my bucket list for a while, and what better place to achieve this dream than in a bar on the outskirts of Elabuga with a handful of Americans scattered across the region? Hanna, the organizer, the planner, coordinated my American birthday party, inviting Steve from Samara and Nick from Kazan for the weekend.Image

A stealth shot of the crew coming up to Hanna’s apartment.


The first night, we stayed in Chelny and ate Hanna’s homemade banana bread and plombir, a Russian version of ice cream that is super delicious.

The next day we headed to Elabuga, where we made a pilgrimage to the Devil’s Tower and ate at a surprisingly scrumptious vegetarian cafe. Then we headed to Manhattan, Elabuga’s bowling alley/cafe/entertainment complex, where we had reserved a table in the karaoke bar.

It was awesome.

I think I’m addicted.

I sang “Такого как Путин” with Hanna, translated in English as “A Man Like Putin,” in which a girl lauds Putin’s manly qualities and insists that she needs a man just like him. How’s that for international diplomacy? Steve and I sang Taylor Swift’s “Trouble,” and Nick showed his rapping skills with some Jeezy and 50 Cent.


From left to right: Steve’s arm, Nick, me


Lead Paint 

My birthday was amazing, and in a few short weeks, spring has finally sprung. There is little snow to be seen, and the temperature averages about 55 degrees. But it is Russia, so in the midst of this idyllic blooming, there has to be some kind of health threat to make things interesting, right? On Monday, I walked into the university to be assaulted by the sharp, headache-inducing odor of the whole building being ripped apart. At least that’s what it looked like.




The fumes from the renovations made almost everyone in the university feel sick to varying degrees. I only got a headache, but some students felt so bad they didn’t attend class. Late in the morning all the students were allowed to go home. The next day, however, class resumed as normal with only a slight lessening of the fumes that I am 90% sure are filling our lungs with particles of toxic lead paint. The stairs are powdered with paint, and teachers and students have continued to feel sick.



On day three of the renovations, I began to become seriously concerned about the effects of long-term exposure to the fumes, so I decided to hold my classes outside. None of my students had ever had class outside before, so at first I think it seemed strange to them, but it seemed to catch on alright.Image

Fourth year students from the Department of Foreign Languages


Fourth year students from the Department of Tatar Language and Literature

This week I found out the the Russian word for gazebo is беседка, which has the same root as беседа, the Russian for conversation. A loose translate would be “little place to talk.” And it’s true, conversation classes work really well in this little circle where we can all see each other and easily interact. In many ways, I actually like having class in the gazebo more than in a traditional classroom, and I hope my students feel the same way. It doesn’t look like the noxious renovations will be over anytime soon, and since I want to avoid damaging both my students’ and my health, until further notice, the gazebo, the беседка, will be our classroom!



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.