Monday, May 27, 2013

Russia for Kids

A few weeks ago my son's second grade teacher asked parents if they wanted to visit school to talk about a country they had visited.  Naturally, I decided to embarrass my son by speaking to his class, and two others, about Russia.  Not having taught any subject in several years, it took me some time to prepare my PowerPoint slides for this day.  The problem was made worse by my unfamiliarity with the audience.  What were second graders really interested in?  What level of information could they possibly remember?  Would it be worse for them, or me, if the information was too simplistic or too complex?  My son knows I read about Russia, even think about Russia, all the time.  Once he pretended to be me, and his first act of mimicry was to declare:  "Hi, I'm Dad.  I  love Russian history."  In the end, I put together a series of PowerPoint slides that asked the kids seemingly easy questions that were slightly more complex than they appeared.  Was Russia a cold or a hot country?  Russia is, of course, a cold country, at least compared to most other countries, the U.S. included.  But of course Russians can live in the Crimea or other relatively warm climates.  Was Russia far from the U.S. or close to the U.S.?  Well, it would take several long flights to reach Moscow, and several more to reach Yekaterinburg.  However, as Sarah Palin famously reminded us all, at a distance of only four kilometers, Russia is visible from the Alaskan shoreline.  Is Russia flat or mountainous?  Showing both a picture and a map of the steppe, I went with flat, but showed a picture of Urals to provide some "relief."  

Again and again, I asked students questions with more than one answer.  Is Russia an old country or a new country?  When one student said it was an old country, I gave him a postcard of one of the tsar's palaces to acknowledge the correctness of the answer.  "Yes," I said, "Russia was old.  Russians had been around since the Vikings, if not before."  But when another student said it was a new country, she also got a postcard, for in a sense, the current iteration of Russia only emerged when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  Is Russia a place with a few people or a lot of people?  I explained that Russia was a populous country, but also sparsely populated, extremely so in parts.  

Presenting to about 90 second graders was a wonderful experience on several levels.  But it was also interesting to see how tempting it is to reproduce some negative forms of nationalism.  When I initially began preparing to meet my son's class, I thought I should concentrate on Russia's accomplishments, and in a sense I did.  I gave the class a few reasons why I "loved" Russia.  These included Russia's accomplishments in music, poetry, and space exploration.  But of course pointing to aspects of Russian "greatness" can imply that other countries are "less great," so I went out of my way to mention that all countries are wonderful in their own way.  I also talked about oppositional figures such as Anna Akhmatova, whose contribution to Russia included quiet resistance to tyranny, and Tolstoy, who contributed to Gandhi's understanding of nonviolence, and Martin Luther King's too.  

It seems patently absurd to attempt to give second graders a complex understanding of Russian culture and history.  Better by far to stick to the facts, such as this one:  that the coldest inhabited place on Earth is Russia.  But who can say when people start to develop a monolithic or hegemonic view of culture if we don't at least develop the habits of mind which lead students to think about complexity, diversity, and resistance to power?  Thus, when I mentioned Pushkin, Russia's "Shakespeare," I explained that he his grandfather had been African.  It's never too early to teach kids that Russia, like most countries, is a product of mixing, hybridization, and diversity.  For this reason, I also put a photo of a St. Petersburg mosque right alongside photos of Orthodox churches.  Perhaps it says something that ten children volunteered to define the word, "mosque," before one of them seemed to hit on something that approximated a real answer.   All of the kids who ventured an answer got a Russian postcard, of course, except for one enthusiastic child who, when called upon, merely introduced himself.  

I hope the kids got something from the presentation.  It made me feel good but it also made me laugh at myself.  After studying Russia for years, I couldn't answer some of the kids' basic questions.  How had Russians built their churches?  I used that question to talk about serfdom, not really knowing the extent to which serfs had or had not contributed to the construction of Russia's myriad cathedrals.  What did the colors of the Russian flag stand for?  I had no idea.  Where did the Russian language come from?  Luckily, I wasn't asked to teach the kids anything about the language or food.  I would have failed both tests for sure.  I think the main thing I learned from the presentation is that we approach a subject like Russia from various angles and perspectives, but this approach is never an accident.  This choice reveals something about the presenter, the audience, and the subject.  Had I not paused for a second or two before presenting Russia to the kids, I might very easily have reproduced Putin's version of the subject.  And while the kids might not have suffered from the error, I would have been giving myself the green light to make similar errors to older audiences.

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