Russian Culture: Engaging the Students

Sydney Schultze, University of Louisville

One of the problems of teaching Russian Culture in English at a large urban university is trying to engage the active involvement of a very diverse group of students in whole-class activities while helping each student develop as an individual, building on and enhancing whatever knowledge and experience the student brings to the class. The previous instructor gave up the class in despair, convinced no one was interested in Russian culture, or indeed in learning anything at all. The key to stimulating interest lay in making the students active participants in their education. The diversity of the group made it difficult to rely on any single approach: ages ranged 17-75, including students of the humanities, business students, engineers, and professionals from the community, including a newscaster and a foreign service officer. Several nationalities were present, including native Russians. Some students were highly educated and well-travelled, while others had never left the state, never read a play, never even read a book through to the end. It would be possible to teach this course using the usual lecture/exam or lecture/discussion/exam format, but this alone was not going to turn these students into a group thirsting for more knowledge about Russia. Nor would it make use of or build on the diverse knowledge and talents such a group inevitably possesses. To address this problem, it is a good idea to engage the students in every possible way: to stimulate their intellect and appeal to each of their five senses. Slides, videos, music, food, and demonstrations help liven up the material. But to mold the students into a group and to enrich them as individuals, projects -- both individual and group projects--offer great promise. Group projects may be of various sorts. To present a lesson on The Russian Language, teach the students to greet each other in Russian and give their names Russian-style (Karen Keithovna Grant); let them take an alphabet and try to puzzle out the Russian sound-alike words inserted into an English paragraph. For geography, they fill in individual maps. When learning about folk music, they sing Kalinka and go into the hall to try out a dance. For a unit on cuisine, they prepare Russian food and share it. For Easter, they make paskha and kulich and make Ukrainian eggs using real dyes and kistkas and beeswax. When studying Chekhov and Stanislavsky, they break into groups, each one casting a character from the play we read, discussing the character's motivation and deciding how the part should be played, as well as designing the character's costume. To develop and showcase individual interests and talents, students are asked to do a special individual project and present it to the class at the end of the semester. The project may be on any Russian-related topic. Students may write a paper... or do something creative. Some projects might include (and in my class, have included) the following: embroidering a Russian towel, making and modeling a sarafan, painting an icon, making a model of Baba Yaga's hut, creating a display of Russian aircraft, creating a Russian Culture web page, making a video The Ruble Gourmet featuring the student cooking a three-course meal, reporting on the significance of WW II to the Russians, learning to play the balalaika and singing a song in Russian, making a diorama of a dacha and garden, taping an interview with young Russian volleyball players. By this time in the semester, group spirit is so high that students spontaneously applaud each other's efforts. Students learn Russian culture by actively engaging in it and come away much richer as individuals and much more appreciative of the richness of the culture they have been studying. The sprinkling of native speakers in the class take pride in seeing others grow to love their culture and enjoy both sharing their knowledge and learning new things about Russia. (Note: this course gets superb student ratings and recently won $1500 in a contest for course design over 28 other entries from various institutions. This particular course has 45 students, but the techniques could work with any size group, from 5 to 100.)