“Woke Us Up and Made Us to Think Positively”

Upon my return home, I spent many hours recovering from jet lag and re-adjusting to the local time zone, catching up on school responsibilities, and spending time with family.  There were many, many people asking about my trip, often voicing “What was the one major thing you learned?”, which I always struggled to answer, there having been so many areas of impact.

Until I received this email from my host teacher, Oleksandr.  The email began:

“A couple of days ago we had crazy time with two Americans who woke us up and made us to think positively”

THIS is that major thing:  to know that I was able to use my experiences, my skills, and my availability to wake up someone and make them think positively”–THAT is my calling as a teacher.   To wake up those who slumber, to make them think, and to think positively at that.  I am proud to be counted among the community called “teachers”, humbled that others recognize my impact, and motivated to improve education at all levels wherever my feet may take me.

Perhaps my obituary may someday read:  “Though here he sleeps, he woke us up.” 

I hope I can live worthy of such a tribute.


NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.


“There’s a party goin’ on right here A celebration to last throughout the years So bring your good times, and your laughter too We gonna celebrate your party with you”–Kool & the Gang, CELEBRATION

It is said that all good things must come to an end, and so it was with my time at Sofiivska-Borshchagivka.  Our final day began at the public school in a small village southwest of Kiev.  Small, indeed.  Fourteen students, four teachers, including the principal–a matron who appeared visibly nervous upon our arrival, which was apparently thirty minutes earlier than she had anticipated.  As we meandered about the small village, I noticed the village was extremely tidy, with a beautiful small church and village museum nearby.  After thirty minutes of preparation, the principal invited us in, telling us everything was ready. 

“Ready” caught us completely by surprise:  this lady embodied”hospitality”:  the school–all fourteen students–had prepared a special folk tradition program celebrating the arrival of spring–the Festival of the Birds, where they invite the birds to return to their village by annually presenting colorful, student-decorated birdhouses which adorn the entire village.  We (host teacher Oleksandr, partner teacher Kevin, IREX director Lisa, State Department representative Michael, and I) were now the honored guests, and the performance began.  Folk songs, dances, reciting of poems and readings, and a special guest performance by a chorus of local ladies in traditional garb singing songs about birds,.  After the school presented this year’s birdhouse, the children were dismissed to decide where to hang this year’s model, the trunk of a large tree which provided shade for the playground tower and slide.  Group photo taken, the children were dismissed for an early weekend, and we were invited to lunch.  So were the guests who shoed up unexpectedly to check on “the Americans who were in the village”.  Three Cossack officials had heard–from word which had spread throughout the village–that we were visiting, and wanted to welcome us–or perhaps check us out.  After a few conversations, though, it was clear that possible suspicions had become congeniality, and they joined us for “lunch”, which was an impressive spread provided by the school.  The teachers, Cossacks, and us Americans crowded around the pushed-together tables and feasted and toasted and shared in a wonderful celebration of countries and schools and interests come together.

Sadly, we had to leave in order to be guests of honor back at our school in Sofiivska-Borshchagivka.  We were invited to the front row of the auditorium, which was packed with high school students, but we could hear out in the hallways the excited voices of primary and secondary students waiting to perform.  Songs, readings, dance–INCREDIBLE dance, bandura preformances,–all dedicated to our visit and lessons, thanking us for coming to Ukraine.  And the gifts:  nearly each performance was followed by the presentation of a gift–pysanka egg, a friendship shawl, dolls, jewelry boxes,–all presented through tears and smiles and hugs and requests for photos.  Lots of lumpy throats trying to express heartfelt “thank-you’s”.

My experience at the school on Sofiivska-Broshchagivka was unforgettable.  The next couple of days were spent in de-briefing and travel home, but my mind was still filled with mental images and videos replaying my experiences here in Ukraine.  Thank you, TGC and IREX for such an incredible opportunity to reach beyond my classroom and embrace classrooms abroad.


NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.

(Pysanka) Egg on my Face

Wednesday began with a visit to “Vineyard” private school–a Christian school, yet it cannot legally be called a Christian school because of Ukraine’s separation of church and state, so it simply goes by private school…who teaches Christian ethics!  Afterwards, we hurried back to our host school in  Sofiivska-Borshchahivka for our presentations.  Oleksandr had asked me to present about my community, and especially to focus on the Amish culture, which is strikingly similar to the rural traditional Ukrainians.  Kevin later presented on geocaching, which ended with a geocache outdoors in the school yard, a collective hide-and-seek that gave us an excuse to go outside on a very nice day.

Student-decorated pysanka egg

Two highlights followed:  we were given a master class lesson on decorating Pysanka eggs, traditional in Ukraine for Orthodox Easter.  These are highly decorated, with symbols representing life, growth, springtime, and bounty.  It was tedious, and I was proud of my efforts–ok, pround until I late saw the egg students had made for me.  WOW!  Afterwards, we hurried (because we were so slow with the Pysanka egg decorating!) to another masterclass to learn to play the bandura–a tradional Ukrainian folk instrument (imagine a 61-stringed guitar!).  Actually, I proved to be fairly adept on it, at least for a beginner. The next day we would hear students playing it in the school clelbration, and would hear how it SHOULD sound!

Learning bandura

NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.

“Getting schooled” in Ukraine


I admit much of my visit in Ukraine was for the purpose of “getting schooled” (although this is definitely NOT the same “getting schooled” as what my sons would apply to me when they challenged me in various Wii games–they ALWAYS got the better of me, much to my frustration–and the demise of one controller!).  Earlier the IREX group had visited Kyiv Mohyla Gimnasium and International School Euroland, annd now, besides “my” school at Sofiivska-Borshchagivka, Oleksandr was taking us to visit others schools as well–Kolosok public kindergarten in Petropavlivska Borshchagivka on Monday, and Shchastlyye Education Complex in Shchastlyye (“Happy”) Village, followed by Hotiv Education Complex in Hotiv Village.  The purpose of each visit was to visit with administrators, teachers, and students.  In some schools we participated in round table discussions with students, who asked about student life in America, about music like One Direction, and about our opinions about their country; we sometimes observed a class in session, and sometimes even addressed a class or two, asking and answering questions to give them plenty of English practice.  The overarching purpose, however, was for Kevin and I to get a keen sense of what the Ukraine education system is like.  From these many visits (all told, we were to visit nine different school, from progressive curriculum taught in lavish facilities to strict and disciplined with modest failities).  Though most were modest in size (a few hundred in grades K-11), one small village school had but 14 students and 4 teachers, which included the principal, and yet this tiny school proved to be one of the most hospitable we visited.

“Getting schooled” in Ukraine seems to follow these general observations:

  • Schools come in many “flavors”: public, private, gimnasium, lyceum, collegium, or other variations.  Typically Primary school is grades K-4, secondary is 5-8, and high school is 9-11. School is mandatory until 9th grade.
  • Much of Ukraine’s school still follow a Soviet-style of classroom management: sitting up straight, arms folded properly across one another on the desk, eyes constantly on the teacher.  Instruction is either direct from the teacher’s lectures or from reading.  Rote memorization is a key to learning, and students often enter competitions and are recognized for their ability to recite from memory long poetry passages or dramatic readings.  Singing is often used as a tool to reinforce this rote learning.
  • Ukraine schools employ a federally-mandated curriculum from the Ministry of Education.  Schools are held accountable at a federal, oblast, region, and local level, so administrators sped a great deal of time on documenting their progress.  Marks are assigned for work on a grading scale of 1 (student went to class) to 12 (knows much more than teacher).  However, for all this accountability, though students are required to take several end-of-year tests, students are not held back for failure.
  • Students generally enjoy school.  Since Ukraine students may not work after-school jobs, they often tend to hang out at school, participating in extracurricular activities or the arts, or perhaps getting tutored in their studies, rather than go home.  School is truly the center of the community, in many cases, so it is not uncommon to see several students–and therefore supervising teachers–stay until 7 or 8 pm!
  • Being a teacher in Ukraine comes at great personal sacrifice:  annual salaries average about $300/month, so most teachers are female with income-generating husbands AND/OR they augment their salaries by private tutoring or supervision AND/OR…taking bribes!  Sad, but true.
  • Foreign languages are valued as stepping stones to the world–many students dream of emigrating from Ukraine, and they see foreign languages as their way out!  Many of the older students speak three languages–Ukrainian, Russian, and English, and several also study German or Polish as well.
  • It was interesting to see that science is not taught as hands-on as it is in the U.S. where STEM has become so emphasized.  When Kevin and I had the seniors do an Egg Drop project on Cosmonautics Day, teachers and students alike were excited, telling us they had NEVER done a project lab like that before, a practice that is quite common in my courses.  In an email from Oleksandr (upon my return), he wrote these words:  Students ask about you everyday and some of them said thanks for bringing you here. Many of them AT LAST said that they are smart and can understand foreigners. But the main thing that I was surprised: they say that the previous two visits of US teachers were JUST ENGLISH PRACTICE. But you were here as a part of our school teachers and they are dreaming about such teachers to work at school.  It means so much to know that the students noticed the difference–that they were engaged in what we were doing, and they responded so positively.  And I am certain it is NOT that I look so dashingly handsome in my NASA jumpsuit!

MY style… Students displaying their Egg Lander project prior to testing

“Getting schooled” was quite an education.  I have so much to be thankful for, teaching in America, teaching at South Adams.  Mostly, I am thankful that I was able to cast a new vision in Sofiivska-Borshchagivka of being a teacher that Ukrainian students dream for in their school.  I pray that many of them will realize that dream and become such a teacher  that casts visions for their students.




NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.

When is 10 Million Dead NOT a Genocide?

Back at school in Sofiivska-Borshchahivka, Monday brought an opportunity to listen to one of the history teachers share her lesson:  1933–Famine in Ukraine: truth which I didn’t hear”.  Which, of course, I had never heard of.  But now I shall never forget.

Голодомор, Holodomor, “Extermination by hunger“, the Ukrainians call it.  The 1932 Soviet harvest was about half of the 1931 harvest, and this triggered widespread rationing.  By the spring of 1933, famine began to affect the urban areas, where rations had been severely cut back.  In desperation, the Soviet government began to employ forced collectivisation and demanded more harvest output from Ukrainian farms, which led to numerous peasant revolts.  At the same time, Soviet films began to portray all peasants as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at the time when workers, who are constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving.  Thus began the apparent intentional targeting by Stalin and the Communist regime of Ukrainians and their nationalism to mass starvation, in an attempt to not only quell the peasant revolts but also provide food for Moscow.   This resulted in mass starvations and multiple reports of cannibalism.

The numbers will never be clearly known:  the official KGB account was 2.5 million deaths due to starvation and “unnatural causes”, but estimates range as high as 10 million, including birth deaths.  In 2003 at the twenty-five countries of the United Nations, including Russia, Ukraine, and United States, signed a joint statement on the anniversary of the Holodomor with the following preamble:

In the former Soviet Union millions of men, women and children fell victims to the cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime. The Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor), which took from 7 million to 10 million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people. In this regard we note activities in observance of the seventieth anniversary of this Famine, in particular organized by the Government of Ukraine.  Honouring the seventieth anniversary of the Ukrainian tragedy, we also commemorate the memory of millions of Russians, Kazakhs and representatives of other nationalities who died of starvation… in other parts of the former Soviet Union, as a result of civil war and forced collectivisation, leaving deep scars in the consciousness of future generations







NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.


War and Peace

Following the daily breakfast—ham and cheese sandwich on buttered white bread and incredibly hot black tea—we joined Oleksandr for our day’s excursion.  He also brought his sister-in-law Maria (Marishka) to accompany us and to practice her English.  Marishka proved to be delightful—the first Protestant Christian I had met in Ukraine, so we shared a great deal of conversation about faith and culture.   She comes from a long line of psychologists, and is studying to become a social worker.


We headed first to the Museum of the Great Liberation (World War II). The museum complex is stately, on a hill overlooking the Dnipro River.  One enters the complex through what feels to be underground tunnels, whose walls are lined with massive sculptures depicting the people’s defense of the Soviet borders against German invasion in 1941, the terrors of Nazi occupation, and the Battle of the Dnieper in 1943.  Inside the museum were two stories of displays, displaying many examples of military life, from uniforms to weapons to photos and letters from home.  Photos of battlefronts and military invasion maps depicted movements of Soviet and German troops, and of particular interest to me were those clashes which occurred in and around Kiev.  But if the previous day had not been melancholy enough, the displays depicting the horrors and atrocities of the Ukrainian holocaust was particularly moving.  Stories of local Ukrainian heroes who did anything to resist the German advances and halt the atrocities were powerfully displayed.

From war to peace:  we next visited the Kiev Pechersk-Lavra, or Monastery of the Caves, founded in 1051, one of oldest Eastern Orthodox monastery in all Eastern Europe.  Despite throngs of worshippers and visitors, the monastery was one of the most serene sights of my trip thus far.  Situated on a large hillside, there was lots of climbing up and down large cobblestone walkways.  Elderly women in typical brightly-colored scarves and olive overcoats took occasional respites from the exertion, while young European tourists scaled the inclines as if hiking in the Alps.  The caves provided a silent, candlelight walk through the narrows of underground catacombs, where monks were discreetly cloaked in embroidered wraps and laid to rest in wooden-framed, glass coffins.

The deepest subway in all of Europe (imagine multiple sets of 45 degree escalators!!!), plus miles of walking of Main Street (which is closed on Saturdays and Sundays for pedestrian traffic only—imagine Central Park on pavement!) brought us to the Kiev Central Post Office (so Kevin could send post cards—AFTER WE WAITED FOR HIM TO WRITE THEM!!!).  Lots of time to unwind, along with dinner, made for a wonderful end to the weekend, and we took refuge in our hotel for the night, gathering rest for the presentation day ahead.


NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.

Chernobyl and Pripyat village

Today I am yet speechless at the sobering tour today–a tour of snow, groves of birch and pine, and ghosts.  For now I shall just add a few photos from the evacuated kindergarten at Pripyat village, just outside the disaster at Reactor @4 in Chernobyl industrial complex.


NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.

National Cosmonautics Day


Partner teacher Kevin Jacoves and I with student presenters for school Cosmonautics Day celebration

Ukraine celebrate April 12th as National Cosmonautics Day–the anniversary of man’s first flight into space, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin making history in that brief flight.  On this holiday, school children in Sofiivska-Borshchavika dedicate the day with posters, projects, dramas and dramatic readings, and special focus on space.  When host teacher Oleksandr first contacted me about this school day, I was delighted, knowing that I have a very strong background in astronomy–my aunt having worked for Jet Propulsion Lab in California, sending me all sorts of materials from NASA launches when I was young, my Master’s degree in teaching in Physics and Astronomy from Ball State, my training in handling lunar and meteorite samples at NASA’s Glenn Education Center in Cleveland, and my participation at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama while filming a science video with close friend Keith Conner.  When I told Oleksandr that I even had a NASA jumpsuit, he was thrilled; when partner teacher Kevin shared that he too had participated in space camp, it was settled:  we would present judge their projects for awards, we would visit classes, but all while wearing our NASA suits!   So we arrived, and our arrival could not have attracted any more attention.  Kids and teachers peered from classroom doorways and upstairs windows to catch a glimpse of the “teacher astronauts”.  We judged the entries, then watched a student presentation on Gagarin’s life.  Best of all, we presented a science project for them:  construct a Mars lander from ordinary materials that would safely “land” a raw egg when the unit was dropped from a second story window.  In my physics classes, this project makes an annular appearance in my classroom; for this highly Soviet-styled curriculum, they had never–NEVER–done a project like this.  Their excitement was immediate, and soon other teachers and their students peered into the auditorium to see what the excitement was all about.  Our  two dozen eggs disappeared quickly, as did Scotch tape, balloons, soda straws, and other assorted items as trios of students brainstormed their best strategies.  After 30 minutes, we tested them, all succeeding except one–“Made in China”, as they nicknamed it, was not as successful as “Lucky Egg”.  But perhaps the highlight was when assistant principal Ana Tieriekhova delighted the group by dropping her own entry–a raw egg in a single plastic baggie, which ceremoniously erupted in a mixture of egg white and yolk splatter.

Inspecting the unbroken egg

After many, many “make I have photo with you?” requests, we left the school exhausted, but fulfilled.  Hopefully, a new “best practice” has been introduced to this Ukrainian school:  project-based learning.

Tomorrow is Chernobyl–I have gooseflesh just thinking about it.


NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.

Visit to a private school in Kiev

The International School Euroland is a private school, serving students from preschool through…Master’s Degree.  Really!  It appears to be structured much like the European schools, perhaps like Montessori schools in the U.S.  We toured the school, which is an impressive complex of ivory tiled brick and spacious, comfortable classrooms and student areas.  An indoor pool, impressive gymnasium, and IT department were examples of what ample funding can do for this private setting;  tuition tends to run approximately $12k USD annually, which is clearly a hefty price for most Ukrainian workers–school teachers, for example, receive salaries of about $300 USD/month, or an annual salary of under $4000, and yet many items that Ukrainians depend upon–food, gasoline, utilities–cost nearly the same or more than the same items in the U.S.  For this reason, teaching is a field rarely occupied by men, but rather by women whose husbands have more financial resources.  It is this low payment of teachers that sometimes promotes bribery.  The awareness that the teaching profession in Ukraine is so respected and yet so undercompensated absolutely grips my very being, and I realize how very fortunate I am to be able to earn a livable wage, and how privileged I am to consider these teachers my colleagues.

A panel discussion in the afternoon nearly erupted in emotional fireworks, something which helps me understand better why the outbreak of fisticuffs in Ukraine and Russian parliament meetings makes the occasional news around the world.  The topic was about equity and fairness in providing funding and technology for education, and at one point the speaker became so passionate that I believe he would either strike someone or perhaps have a stroke himself.  As they say, “cooler heads prevailed”, and when he found that I too have a background in the physical sciences (same as him), he embraced me as a “good fellow”.  I hope not like the movie “Goodfellows”.

Sadly,  this afternoon was time to say “goodbye” to three of the cohort pairs as they left Kiev for their assignments.  Though I shall see them in about a week, it was nonetheless to see them taking leave of the rest of us for schools and cultures in vicinities to them yet unknown.  I was better able to cope with their loss when Kevin told me of a restaurant which serves nothing but pie–tables of pies, some stuffed with various combinations of meats, cheeses, and vegetables, while others were specifically dessert–berry, fruits, cremes, and other sweet delicacies.  After three slices–rice & red pepper, spinach with feta & onion, and a dessert slice of fresh red raspberry–I had coped with my melancholy.

Tuesday: “We are all ambassadors, really”

Tuesday: Today the jet lag REALLY began to hit–they say it requires one day for each hour of time difference, so it may be a whole week before I am “normal” (no comment, SA teachers!).  We began with a a workshop presented by…MY HOST TEACHER!!!  I was SO glad to meet Oleksandr, and it was apparent to all that we–my partner teacher Kevin, host teacher Oleksandr, and I–were going to be a very good “fit”.  He spoke of the basic tenant and foundations of the Ukrainian education system.  Since he is a current teacher at a small public school in Sofiivska-Borshchagivka (a village about the size of Berne outside of Kiev), it was good to hear from someone “in the trenches”.  After lunch with Oleksandr, we said our goodbyes (for the moment) and were guests at the U.S. Embassy, it was fascinating to hear how our Ambassador and his staff work to keep harmonious relations with Ukraine.  One area of interest was visas: Ukrainians sometimes find it difficult to acquire visas to come to U.S. because of… flight risks.  Ukraine’s population is experiencing a significant decline, and many would choose to leave the country if they could.  They explained how Ukraine is sometimes divided in its political loyalty–eastern Ukraine tends to favor strong relations with neighboring Russia, while western Ukraine tends to favor involvement with Europe to the east.  After yet another incredible Ukrainian meal (including smoked pig ears), we attended a concert of the Kiev Philharmonic orchestra at their historic concert hall.


NOTE: This blog is not an official U.S. Department of State blog. The views and information presented are the grantees own and do not represent the Teacher’s for Global Classrooms Program, IREX or the U.S. Department of State.