State of the Field: Pre-College Russian
Betsy Sandstrom and Jane Shuffelton
As this article is being written, pre-college students are arriving at the offices of American Councils for International Education: ACTR/ACCELS—on a weekend—for their NSLI-Y interviews. It is a very exciting time to be studying Russian! It is heartening to be able to tell our students that the government recognizes the importance of Russian.
The inclusion of Russian as one of the languages critical for national security has meant new rewards and incentives. Primary among them is probably the NSLI-Youth Program under the direction of the U.S. Department of State. Students may apply for study in Russia during the summer, for a semester, or for an academic year, and the year may be a gap year between high school and college. Teachers who encourage students to apply should also let them know that similar opportunities exist for Russian in college, such as the Critical Language Scholarship, the Flagship program, and financial support for other study abroad programs.
For large school districts, the critical language designation can be a factor in deciding to offer elementary school Russian programs through the FLAP grants from the U.S. Department of Education. Such programs are already in existence in a small number of cities through those grants.
Pre-college teachers are acutely aware of the importance of enrollment statistics and the need to constantly promote and defend their programs. In this regard, the state of the field in some schools reflects the state of the economy. This means that some of our longstanding and outstanding programs constantly face the threat of extinction or have already disappeared. A clear and in many way encouraging report on enrollment should be available soon through a large scale survey conducted by American Councils for International Education.
It is helpful to know what motivates pre-college students to choose to study Russian. Below are common responses from students when asked why they chose Russian:
• To learn more about the Russian people
• To learn more about Russia and Russian culture
• Because the alphabet is so different
• Because it is unusual and different to study Russian
• More challenging/interesting than French or Spanish
We can't say how much of the interest in studying a more unusual language is based on a desire to enhance a college application profile, but some of our students believe that admissions officers will pay attention to a dossier that lists Russian.
By and large, students are simply curious about a huge country that has been a world leader for so long, and a culture that they know so little about. Motivation for studying Russian has widened to include heritage learners, new programs are flourishing in elementary and middle schools, students are aware of Russia's importance in the world and are curious about the language and the culture.
This curiosity fits nicely with the goals of the national Standards as developed and published in Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. The Standards define goals for language learners that broaden language study to offer new perspectives on what language learning should be about. They offer Communication as one of the major goals, recognizing that learners need to be able to use the language to communicate in a variety of activities. The Standards recognize that "the true content of the foreign language course is not the grammar and the vocabulary of the language, but the cultures expressed through that language." (page 47-48). This coincides nicely with what students often say they want to learn when they enroll in Russian.
It is not easy to report on how fully the Standards have been adopted and/or integrated into pre-college Russian programs. There is no research that gives a clear picture of how teachers understand and apply the Standards in their classrooms, or how curriculum, activities, and especially assessments are or are not based on the Standards. Likewise, there is not much reliable information about how the teaching of Russian differs or is similar to the teaching of other languages in this regard. Montgomery County, Maryland, has some online curriculum samples where Standards-based activities and assessments are available, but a fuller picture would require a lot of research and many more schools. Two school systems with online curricula are Montgomery County (www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/curriculum/lang/pdf/blueprints/RussianBlueprint08-10-07.pdf) and
Fairfax County, Virginia (www.fcps.edu/DIS/OHSICS/forlang/russian).
In classrooms where teachers do adhere to the Standards, consciously or not, you will find a variety of activities that aim to develop proficiency in communication and in understanding the products, practices and perspectives of Russian speakers. For example, students might spend time preparing and presenting posters about pets, engaging in conversation in pairs or groups about food preferences, singing Ой мороз, мороз along with a Russian chorus on YouTube, sharing and discussing short pieces of writing about their families, comparing survey results about favorite music, working together on informal assessment of listening skills based on a clip from Морозко, presenting information about weather in a Russian city (information they have found on a Russian Website) and more. This does not mean that vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation are not taught and assessed, but always in the context of a meaningful communicative task. Those formal aspects of Russian will be presented as necessary for the task at hand, the grammar, vocabulary, etc. is not the central learning goal.
One important tool that does explicitly acknowledge both the Standards and the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines is the Prototype AP® Russian Language and Culture Exam. Students in Standards-oriented classrooms will find this exam in sync with the way they have been learning. To support this exam, American Councils holds an annual Professional Development Seminar for high school teachers in which participants collaborate to develop standards-based assessments and lessons. Teachers have the opportunity to learn and work with the latest technology in Russnet (www.russnet.org) and to certify their school’s participation in the Prototype AP® Exam.
It is important to recognize some of the complexities and challenges that continue to confront many pre-college Russian teachers. Years of communicating with colleagues via the ACTR National Russian Essay Contest, summer institutes, conferences and more have helped create a sense of how we work. As stated earlier, many of us must spend vast reserves of time and energy promoting our Russian programs to ensure their survival. In some schools Russian seems to be thoroughly embedded in the curriculum, but too often next year's enrollment is the teacher's constant concern. Mixed, multiple-level classes are not unusual, in which a teacher must teach Russian 1 and 2 together, or, worse, Russian 1 with Russian 4, or some other combination that mixes traditional beginning students with heritage learners who already have strong skills. We do know of at least one school with a separate track for heritage learners, but much more commonly, a teacher has to figure out how to provide learning appropriate for both.
Because it is unusual for a school to have more than one Russian teacher, he or she will be working in isolation compared to the teams of Spanish and/or French teachers who can share ideas and plans within a school. And yet, Russian teachers are extraordinarily resourceful, resilient, creative, and passionate about their field. Being the only Russian teacher has an upside: it allows one to be as original and creative as he or she has time for.
Russian language study would benefit enormously from the collaboration of pre-college and college instructors. At the recent (December, 2009, Philadelphia) AATSEEL Conference, a panel on best practices in the classroom was shared by pre-college and college instructors. This session had standing room only, indicating that this topic should be expanded into a workshop length program or activity. Pre-college teachers always wonder what instruction they should provide to ensure their students’ success in the college classroom. And college instructors wonder about the skills brought to their classrooms by the student entering from a high school Russian program. Given the wide range of resources, textbooks, classroom and school conditions, it would be wonderful if “how the student functions in Russian" could be used to drive placement rather than knowledge from a specific textbook. The Prototype AP® Russian Exam offers one way of making articulation less dependent on textbook or curriculum-driven placement assessments.