US teacher in USSR school finds rules strict, but behavior flexible
DESPITE national uniformity of curriculum, textbooks, and behavioral rules, Soviet teachers and students often go their own ways, says a New England teacher who taught English for two months in a Leningrad school. Frank Thoms, a Hanover, New Hampshire, social studies teacher, discovered varied teaching and learning at School Number 185, where he taught English during his fall semester of sabbatical leave. As one of three American Field Service International teachers to work in Soviet schools under the United States Information Agency-funded teacher-student exchange program, Thoms taught five or six classes a day.
Soviet students are surrounded, says Thoms, by a plethora of rules: They must wear uniforms, sit in rows, stand when adult enters the room, raise their hands and stand to recite. There's even a rule prescribing which corner of the desk to place books and paper. ``All that formality exists,'' says Thoms, ``but they break the rules in all kinds of ways.''
Take hand-raising. Students are supposed to keep arms folded on their desks, right arm over left, and to raise forearm only, elbow anchored on the desk. Thoms saw many students in their eagerness to be called on ``make a new table'' with one hand, raising their new ``table'' until they are flagrantly holding their hand high. As for the dress code, children simply ``forget'' to wear prescribed uniforms. Girls often arrive at school in nonregulation elaborate blouses, large earrings, or an array of pins. And although running is forbidden, students run. ``There's oppression in the statement of the system,'' says Thoms, ``But not in the performance of it.''
T. Anthony Jones, Northeastern University sociologist and Russian research fellow in Soviet education, says Thoms's experience with strict rules but flexible behavior reflects recent changes in Soviet education. ``It's a very rigid system. Until last year, teachers were judged by the grades their students get,'' says Jones. ``In the last year, the emphasis has been on getting away from rote learning, but it's hard to get off the conveyor belt.''
Thoms used Soviet texts plus American-style discussions to teach about US holidays, school life, and ``Uncle Tom's Cabin.'' He arranged desks in a circle to encourage students to listen to each other rather than simply reciting the text, the usual Soviet teaching method.
Teachers feel free to ignore rules as well, says Thoms. Some don't insist students raise hands or stand to speak. A few ask students to face each other during discussion groups. Tenth grade teachers in Thoms's school used a university textbook rather than the standard text they thought inadequate. Some teachers inject humor into their lessons, and others let students get close to rowdy. ``The system is pretty strict,'' says Thoms, ``but there's a lot of joking and exchanging. The society isn't that rigid on a personal level.
The 48-year-old New Englander, a 20-year veteran teacher, was surprised to find students constantly copying from each other's homework, despite strict penalties. ``Cheating is rampant,'' says Thoms, who says Soviet students get so much homework - up to five hours a day - that they resort to copying each other's papers before class. In class, he found an almost constant buzzing - ``a cacophony of locusts'' - as students whispered correct answers to the teacher's questions. ``Sometimes it was so loud it was unsettling,'' says Thoms. Coaching is condoned - unofficially. When Soviet teachers sat in on his class, they too coached students in loud whispers. ``It's `pokazukha' - putting on a good show,'' says Thoms.
The Leningrad school, one of 26 English-language schools in the city, is not a ``show school,'' says Thoms. Its furniture is old, its gym the size of a volleyball court, and its materials sparse. ``No ditto papers, xerox machines or handouts,'' Thoms recalls.
From the start, Thoms decided to teach in his own style. Discussion was sometimes tense. The students asked him why Americans put up with the Klu Klux Klan, why blacks must ride in the backs of buses, and if Samantha Smith was the only American child who wanted a peaceful, safe world. Soviet textbooks are heavily biased against the United States, says Thoms, focusing on inequities, discrimination, and outdated information - Jim Crow bus laws no longer exist. Soviet texts teach that monopolies run US business. Thoms didn't argue but talked about small US businesses. ``It must be difficult for students to learn about the demise of capitalism, and on the other hand to admire the products they see from the West.''
Thoms's goal was to get his students to think critically. ``I talked about different interpretations of both capitalism and socialism,'' he says. ``I even taught Marxism from my point of view. I wanted to complicate students' and teachers' perceptions of life in my country.'' The students, when asked ``thinking questions,'' came up with insights as varied and perceptive as New Hampshire students, he says. ``They aren't taught to think, but they think a lot,'' says Thoms. ``Nine times out of 10 when asked what they want to do, Soviet students will say go for a walk and talk. They don't spend a lot of time on trinkets, technology, and television.''
Thoms spent his weekends visiting with students, their families, and fellow teachers. He helped students with personal and career choices, and talked pedagogy and English literature with Soviet teachers. ``I was in my element,'' says Thoms. ``I wasn't a tourist, I wasn't a diplomat - I was a teacher.''