Why Learning Russian Matters

Very few high schools in Massachusetts offer Russian. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian has not been considered a language critical to American security. Since 1991, many Russian language programs at American colleges and universities lost their Cold War funding and were forced to cut back or eliminate offerings. Meanwhile Russia and Ukraine have been in the national and international news nearly every day. Can we say Russian has stopped being important?

Enter The Academy at Penguin Hall (Penguin Hall). One of the beauties of Penguin Hall is the flexibility and ability to offer new classes and develop new curricula tied to faculty’s special interests and expertise. Penguin Hall has a rich range of courses, including in the languages. This year we are offering Latin, Spanish, French, Mandarin (in partnership with Gordon College), American Sign Language, and Russian. In January of 2018, I launched a one-semester Russian history and language elective. In 2018-2019, there was enough student interest that it grew into a two-semester sequence.

Building Blocks of Learning Russian

As beginners, students need to “keep things simple” when building conversation skills. Students learn how to create what I call “micro-dialogues” in Russian—how to pose basic questions and how to answer them. They master a range of greetings, introductions, and basic expressions. They construct basic questions; for example, how to ask where the subway or where their backpack is. With a small set of back-and-forth “exchanges,” there are many different combinations we can create, practice, and have fun acting out to build confidence with the language. 

To facilitate learning vocabulary and basic grammar, I adopted a recent textbook co-written by William Comer, a friend of mine from graduate school: “Between You and Me” or Между нами. The textbook has recordings made by native speakers, which allow students to do plenty of practice on their own. In the teacher’s resources area, a map shows what colleges and universities around the country are using the textbook. APH is the only U.S. high school using Mezhdu Nami. I am fortunate that when I have questions, I can call Bill directly for valuable advice in using the book at the high-school level; or, most recently, to learn about how a person’s chosen pronouns are handled in the Russian language today.

Students researching in Russian class

Russian History and Culture

I supplement Mezhdu Nami with historical and cultural material.Students start by learning the Russian alphabet. In addition to learning how to form the letters and sound them out, students learn about the history of the alphabet and why it is called the Cyrillic alphabet.

Over the course of the semester, we create a timeline of important dates and events in Russian history, starting with 988 C.E., when the Russians adopted Christianity. We learn about the concept of Moscow Third Rome, after the fall of Constantinople. We cover key events in Russian history, like Peter the Great’s adoption of the title “Emperor;” the Russian Revolutions; the establishment of the Soviet Union; Chernobyl, and the dissolution of the USSR. 

Russian Literature

Along the way, the students are introduced to Russian literature. This fall, we read an English translation of “The Bronze Horseman” by poet Alexander Pushkin, while learning about Peter the Great, the subject of the poem. Last year, Nikolaj Gogol’s “Nose” stirred up lots of laughs! This year, students are reading more Gogol and some Nekrasov poetry, in conjunction with learning about Russian serfdom, officially ended in 1861 by proclamation of Tsar Alexander II and inspired by President Abraham Lincoln.

Russian Geography

Recently we have been studying maps of Russia in class. Russia has the biggest land mass of any one country in the world. It straddles two continents. Where are the boundaries? What are the dividing lines? We have started with the basics: Where is the water? Where is the land? We determined that despite Peter the Great’s best efforts and his Herculean creation of a “window on the west,” Russia is largely land-locked. Because of this, we have come to understand the critical importance of Russia’s western border, especially Ukraine.

Russian tea party

Russian Biography

Before Thanksgiving, students completed biography projects now on famous Russians. Past students have researched cosmonauts, ballet dancers, a Nobel Prize winner, Stalin, artists, and even a spy. Through individual life stories, we see still more dimensions to the country’s culture and history, and we can pinpoint more dates on our common timeline of Russian history.

In the second semester, students write term papers on topics of their choice. Last spring, students researched a wide range of topics, including  the development of communism in Russia, the history of Sino-Soviet relations; and the role of surveillance and espionage in the Soviet Union. 

Russian Tea Tradition

The Russian word for ‘tea’ is чай or ‘chai.’ Russia is a tea drinking culture and having tea is part of our course tradition! We recently partook in tea and traditional Russian treats with President Martins and other faculty members, as students presented their biography projects. Next time, won’t you come join us for a cup or two??