Russia: New Approaches for a New Generation

new approaches for a new generationKRASNODAR, Russia | Teachers of the humanities and social sciences often find it hard to compete with the information available to their adolescent students in this fast-paced digital age.  Furthermore, traditional methods for teaching about culture and society simply do not inspire the younger generation in this day and age, many say.

“This is a generation of children who do not read,” explains Nadezhda Leontyevna Yanakova, a literature teacher at Krasnodar’s secondary school №51.  “To foster a love of reading, it is not enough to just follow a textbook and give homework assignments. You should be able to carry away children’s imaginations.”

“I teach an abstract subject,” admits Irina Alexandrovna Mirushevska, a social science teacher in the same school. “But we study society in order to be able to better navigate our world.”  She says she discourages traditional types of learning in the classroom, such as reading assignments and rote memorization, because they do not help students develop into competent adults.

Both teachers say they are trying to diversify their teaching methods by introducing unconventional approaches to the subject matter in the hopes of capturing students’ interest early on.

“Literature is a creative subject.  I am trying to teach my students through the creative process, and develop creativity in them,” Yanakova says.  During her 22 years at the school, she has tried many different methods, but found the most success in teaching literature through acting techniques.

Starting with the fifth and sixth grades, Yanakova has children choose roles and read their parts out loud when they are analyzing a literary work.  According to her, it awakens creativity in the children and helps to develop their skills in elocution.  The students put on dramatic performances, sketch out the characters’ costumes, and attend theatrical performances.

“I have collaborated with drama groups and youth theatres for many years,” says Yanakova. “When we study a dramatic work, I take children to see it staged. Afterwards, we share our impressions and compare the performance with the original text.”

Yanakova also organizes essay competitions, has them keep reading diaries recording their ideas, and arranges literary evenings for the children.

Her efforts have paid off. Maria Bazilevich, a student in the seventh grade, says, “I used to dislike literature before and now it is my favorite subject. Nadezhda Leontyevna explains things in a very interesting way. She uses displays, shows us photos of writers, and we explore their private life in great detail. But most of all I like going to the theatre. Thanks to it, we understand  the literature better.”

Her classmate, Liza Shalashnikova, adds, “I like to read very much, especially poetry. Nadezhda Leontyevna has discovered a talent in me. I even take part in elocution competitions. I also like to write compositions and do sketches based on stories.”

Irina Mirushevska takes a different approach with her students. Social science only appears in the Russian curriculum after the eighth grade, at which point she reckons students should be treated like young adults.  Therefore, she has introduced teaching methods typical of a university setting in her classroom, in an effort to develop students’ critical thinking skills.

“My aim is not only to teach but also to develop my students’ minds and to adapt them to higher education,” says Irina Alexandrovna. “I want my former students to be able to take up scientific work immediately upon entering a university and feel confident and free in a new environment.”

Irina Mirushevska adopted this approach in 1991 when she participated in the establishment of the experimental school-lycée № 90 in Krasnodar, featuring teaching approaches and an educational atmosphere similar to that of a university.  Irina Alexandrovna worked for there for 13 years before joining the teaching staff of school № 51 where she has been teaching for 6 years. Here, she says she has expanded and improved upon her methods.

In her lessons, students are required to listen to lectures and take notes, as well as write research essays, work on scientific projects, and pass oral tests. And, as her students testify, the most important aspect of her lessons is that they are organized around a lively conversation in which students are asked to think logically and develop a strong argument.

“Our lessons are like a dialogue,” explains eleventh-grader Kirill Belonog. “Other teachers’ lessons are usually a monologue and if you start to question them, you are quickly stopped. With Irina Alexandrovna, we always have a dynamic conversation and she respects our opinions.”

Yulia Martirosova, a student in the tenth grade, adds: “I like the novelty of our lessons. Each lesson is unique. Sometimes we work on a scientific project; sometimes we conduct a roundtable discussion. We constantly analyze social phenomena and discuss everything freely. I learn a lot in these lessons and always look forward to them.”

Irina Alexandrovna’s and Nadezhda Leontyevna’s students regularly take part in regional Olympiads and municipal competitions and win prizes. This year, two of Nadezhda Yanakova’s students became prizewinners in district and regional Olympiads in literature and a student of Irina Mirushevska, Irina Gasij, ranked second in the city.

The impact of their teaching methods can be found in their students’ impressive progress. During the last three years, not a single student has received a grade of “unsatisfactory” in literature on his or her leaving certificate.  And the results of the unified state exam in social science for this year show that 74 percent of the school’s students who took the test received marks of “excellent” and “good” and 26 percent, “satisfactory”.

Many former students say the tutelage of Yanakova and Mirushevska helped them in passing their university entrance examinations.

“I was in the eleventh grade when Irina Alexandrovna came to teach us in social science,” says Aleksandra Bulatova, now at Kuban State Technological University. “I was thinking of entering the faculty of mathematics, but her lessons fascinated me so much that I applied to the Public Relations faculty. I passed the entrance exams easily. Now I’m an undergraduate at the university and I must say that I have not once regretted having connected my life with this science.”

Both teachers say that their teaching methods are contributing factors but downplay their personal roles in students’ successes.  They say that dedication to high professional standards is key to creating a positive environment for students to learn in.

“Of course, you must be a professional.  If you don’t actually enjoy being in school and around children, you will not succeed with them,” says Nadezhda Yanakova.

Irina Mirushevska agrees: “You can’t deceive students, you must be very good at your subject, be patient and have a good sense of humor. But the most important thing is to respect your students and believe in them. Only in this case will they begin to love the subject and study with pleasure.”

This article was produced as an assignment for the “Improving Coverage of Education Issues” online distance learning course organized by TOL and developed in cooperation with the Guardian Foundation and the BBC World Trust, enabled by the generous support of the Open Society Institute Education Support Program.


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