Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wonderful or tragic?

 Intentional immersion...

A few friends called my attention to the NY Times piece about American children "thrown" into a Moscow elementary school. I found the video fascinating and poignant and even showed it to my English students. They liked it too, although they emphasized that it was NOT a typical Russian school!

Although I'm interested in bilingualism, the piece was about more than simply working hard to learn a language.

I found myself weeping a little bit over the contents, and I was musing about why. Obviously the whole experience of living in a place temporarily and making friends and then leaving would be emotional for anyone. But more than that, I think that the piece did a good job of portraying the language barrier in action. The frustration of not understanding the directions; the confused looks when you're making a mess of explaining yourself; the humility of being the only one who doesn't know what's going on, even if everyone around is kind to you.

 Just as compelling as the story itself is the comments section on the NY Times site. I found they ranged from "How beautiful" to "how cruel" to "No less interesting than what thousands of immigrants go through every day."

What a range of emotions! A few samples: click to continue/-

"We are Russians and have to send our kids to local school in US with American kids with no word in Russian. Do you think somebody is considering their feelings here?"

"Immersion was the way I learned, it hurt, it was embarrassing, but in 6 months I was fluent."

So here are a couple of questions for discussion:

1) Is this kind of immersion a good model for language-learning?

If you watch the end of the film, you see children who have become fluent in a second language (in 4 years) and are valued members of the new community, participating in extracurricular activities and having no shortage of social appointments...CONTRIBUTING!

 From this point of view you could say it was successful. But the article mentioned some behind-the-scenes struggles: for example, the bullying, which was caught on videotape and then discouraged. Without the emotional support and the intervention of caring adults, the social environment of a classroom in a new culture can be very difficult to navigate.

2) Is this model better than the current approach in U.S. school systems?

As far as I understand, immigrants to the U.S. normally attend special ESL classes or even bilingual classes, which, intentionally or non-intentionally, keeps them apart from their peers. This is meant to help their transition, but I wonder if it really does them a disservice. Consider the following comment to the article:

"While I don't think the parallel to immigrant children in America is exact, I do think the story supports my longstanding critique of bilingual education for foreign-born children. I tutored many immigrant children from Latin American countries, most of whom were taking all their classes (even here in Minneapolis) in Spanish. Not only did they fall behind in level of instruction for math and science, they didn't learn any English, and the classes kept them separate from American kids who might have become their friends. The kids who came from less-popular countries, like Russia or Afghanistan, had no bilingual classes -- they were dumped in with the English-speaking kids. And guess what? They did okay. It was a struggle, but like the writer's children, those kids caught up and excelled. They also made friends who could and did help them with English. They joined sports teams. They were totally "normal" kids. I genuinely believe the Spanish-speaking kids were done a terrible disservice by being segregated into classes taught in Spanish. Bilingual education, in my opinion, assures that immigrant children will not assimilate into society" 

I wonder what would happen if we challenged language learners academically by letting them learn with their peers, while putting energy instead into helping ease the social/emotional aspects of the transition?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Quick update

I miss writing! There are times when I'm catching up on blogging and email, thinking, this is excess socializing. If I write that person or comment on that blog, I'm going to get responses, and then I'll have to reply, and it will just keep going and going and take up precious time. Is it just egotism that makes me want to write about myself so others will read it?

But. Here I am.

Andrei and I are both teaching. He has several subjects that he teaches at the university, as well as one at the seminary. I teach Conversational/Business English at the local branch of an American company. We teach during the day, then come home and have to prepare for the next day.  I actually teach 3 days, then have one day for the orphanage. We've still got our Bible study and all that. We're working on gradually having all of our friends over to see our little nest. I suppose that is the thing to do after you're married.

I want to do some posts on teaching ESL and Sunday school, since I'm in that mode again.

I also want to write about how our wedding least for my sake, before the memories fade!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Speaking of youth...

And while I'm on the topic of teenagers...this little girl was about 8 years old when I met her. Now she is 13 (going on 20). I don't visit her orphanage anymore, but I recently heard of a local church doing outreach there, which makes me VERY happy. Oh Lord, bring salvation to these teens!

The youth at my Russian church

When I moved to St. Petersburg I was focused on children’s ministry since I had just been ministering in the summer camps. But my church that I settled into had just a few kids on Sunday mornings, and no teenagers. I didn’t really have anywhere to bring the teenagers I’d met. We did a few McDonald’s outings and such. One girl and I went to the zoo. But really, what teenager wants to hang out with a random 20-something American lady? And furthermore, what Russian parent wants his or her children hanging out with a stranger from the U.S.? At least, that was what I worried about. The good news is that now a lot of those teenagers are grown-up now and it’s not as awkward to go out for coffee. But I remember one boy who took his own life. You only have so much time…

Doing ministry in a big city is different in that local churches don’t necessarily gain a reputation in the neighborhood. “Oh, I know that church, we went to a Christmas program there.” Nothing like that. Parents can’t ask around to see if other parents have sent their kids to such-and-such VBS. The Protestant churches aren’t really known around town, and the Orthodox churches are known more for their location/building than for fellowship opportunities. So it really takes a friend leading a friend for new people to be able to discover church life.

That brings us to the present. A few people in our church are involved in summer camp ministry, which is great. Our pastor talked about presenting the Gospel and all those little hands shooting up in the air because they wanted to receive Jesus. That brings back so many memories for me. Of course it always looks slightly questionable to an outsider, but I know what it’s like to be there and watching a person’s demeanor changing as the Holy Spirit works. Children are fully capable of understanding the need in their own hearts!
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After coming back from these adventures, one young man in our church is totally broken over the future of our teenagers. Kids are in Sunday school now; then they sort of “age out” as Sunday school gets boring. After that we have Small Groups, which they could technically come to, but it would be a little hard for them to travel to a different neighborhood and stay out that late on a school night.

Do teens need a separate ministry? I remember being motivated to serve as I attended youth group and had fellowship with other teens who were facing similar life issues, growing up Christian while attending a secular school. But I’m not sure if it was the fact that they were peers or just the fellowship itself that helped me feel like a part of the Church. I know that I would have been terrified to speak up at a Small Group if there had been people of all ages…but then again, I always enjoyed the Russia team, which was mixed ages.

People argue that Youth Group needs to be “fun” to attract youth. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s fun to play games and unwind, but I’m not sure if they affect a person’s reaction to the Gospel. If he’s interested, he’ll keep coming regardless. If he’s not interested, he may keep coming just for the social aspects. But I agree that a person needs to be able to feel relaxed and safe in order to share about deeper topics.

There is also the idea of a shared commitment…doing something together. From a parent’s point of view: my child is going somewhere to play games with some religious fanatics. It doesn’t seem to have hurt him. But wouldn't it reach a parent's heart to see a child getting involved in volunteer work, getting priorities straight, maybe learning some practical skills? And the youth is getting more than a feel-good experience; he's contributing to something bigger than himself.

So back to our church. Pasha pleads in a choked-up tone: We have to reach our teens before they’re gone. In a few more years another group of them will be teenagers, and then the others, and they will all gradually slip through the cracks and leave the Church.

What is more important? For the youth to have a program just for them, or for the youth to be included in the life of the church? Should they just patiently listen to the sermon and tag along to events with their parents, or should special attention be given? I feel the urgency too and once again I don't have a solution, but I can see hearts being set on fire to reach the youth. The desire is being channeled into prayer, and surely the Lord will provide a way.

I've seen some discussion around the Internet about integrated churches, where there is no division of ministries by age. Again I cannot say what is best, but I love when ages are mixed, as long as no one is left out. While we don't have a youth program, why not work with what we have? I’d really like to get some of the girls helping out with Sunday school. Other Sunday school teachers could be mentors and the teens would get a chance to serve. Of course they are helpful as it is, but having an official responsibility would be a chance for personal growth.

 I realize that this was more of a personal meditation and not so much a response to a Bible passage or other body of text. Maybe I'll come across some confirmation later as I read. Any thoughts?

5 years later

 After my latest  weird dream sequence , I found my mind wandering to an alternate scenario where our church never split up . I did the math...