This past fall, I had the opportunity to step out of my usual teaching role in the Slavic Department and instead share my knowledge of Russian with some younger minds: the fourth and fifth graders of Leal Elementary School’s Afterschool Program. I admit, at first this seemed like a challenge. I was used to teaching Russia to college-aged students and, in general, Russian-language programs for elementary-school-aged children are not very common. How was I to adapt foreign grammar lessons to accommodate those who have not formally learned all grammar concepts in their native language? How could I convince the kids that learning Russian is more exciting than just memorizing a new alphabet and a whole bunch of grammar rules (and exceptions to those rules!)?
As it turned out, the kids, along with some helpful teaching resources provided by REEEC, made the process much easier than expected. My students were engaged and committed to learning Russian. Often, they’d want to delve deeper into the grammar and vocabulary than I ever planned. Even though Russian was a choice among many other afterschool activities, my students (a group of about 10) attended consistently, and were always eager to know what we would be working on next. They even took notes and brought their worksheets home so that they could study, even though it was never required.
We met twice a week and each session was 45 minutes. One day a week was devoted to learning vocabulary and grammar, while the other was devoted to cultural topics. Our grammar lessons mainly consisted of learning how to read and write the Russian alphabet. Each day we would learn a few new letters. As the students acquired knowledge of more and more letters, we were able to start learning certain words, and eventually we even were able to formulate simple sentences and questions. The cultural topics ranged from folk tales to art and geography. Among my favorite lessons was comparing a map of the Soviet Union to a map of Russia (this was actually a request from a student!) and recreating our own art pieces in the style of Malevich. We ended the semester with a screening of the Russian Winnie the Pooh and, of course, Cheburashka – both of which were a huge hit among the students!
Teaching at the afterschool program reminded me what I already knew: These programs are important. Learning language is important. At any age.
Nadia Hoppe is a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois.