Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Passion of Turgenev
My Russian reading club serves troubled students who are operating at a variety of reading comprehension levels. I'm still learning what works well for these students, and what doesn't. The fact that at least a few of my students apparently can't read at all complicates matters. The fact that brand new students show up at the center every month or so also makes planning difficult. However, recently I've had some luck asking student volunteers to read aloud. Each week, we go through one Russian short story from the book, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. In this way, the stronger readers can practice their pronunciation skills while the entire class, inclujding the weaker readers, can at least learn new vocabulary words. Although I haven't had time for much literary analysis, we do at least tack back and forth between the text and some of the larger themes of Russian history, or indeed of history in general. For instance, two weeks ago we read a short story from Turgenev's A Hunter's Notebook, and spent some time discussing the whole concept of serfdom in Russian history. The students inevitably and profitably made comparisons to American history, and the institution of slavery, in particular. The class also had an opportunity to discuss aristocratic traditions such as hunting.
The highlight of the evening came when a fistfight broke out in class, right in the midst of the Turgenev reading. The fight, which was apparently the aftereffect of a previous verbal altercation, was quickly broken up by trained staff, and thankfully nobody was hurt. Of course, the fight helped to underscore the essential irony of asking troubled kids to engage with advanced literature. On the one hand, one asks oneself whether this level of tension precludes serious intellectual work. On the other hand, one wonders whether serious literature isn't needed most whereever students are struggling the most to find real meaning in their lives. Whatever the answer, reading Turgenev with a nontraditional audience of novice readers helps shed new light on an old text. How will these students relate to the hunter, the hunter's servant, the local peasants, and the alleged brigands? One of my favorite parts about the reading club is hearing how some of the most creative students read the story. They add accents, invent brand new Anglicized names to replace the difficult Russian ones, and laugh at jokes that may or may not have been intended as such by the author. To be sure, by the end of any evening with a Russian author, the kids are ready to quit, tired out by the day, and sometimes a little bored by the text they had no hand in picking. Even so, my hope is that each week they learn a few new words, and gain a little more confidence in their own ability to tackle new and difficult subjects.