Summer 2020 Virtual Educators Workshop: K-14 Education during COVID-19 in the U.S. and Abroad

By Stephanie Porter (Outreach and Programming Coordinator, REEEC)

On July 28-29, 2020, the area studies centers of the Illinois Global Institute (Center for African Studies; Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies; Center for Global Studies; Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies; Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies; European Union Center; Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies; Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center) hosted a summer virtual educators workshop, “K-14 Education during COVID-19 in the U.S. and Abroad”. The workshop was designed for primary and secondary school educators, community college faculty, and librarians. Illinois educators could earn up to 6 professional development hours for attending.

With almost 120 participants from all over the world, the workshop incorporated interdisciplinary lectures, roundtables, and vibrant discussions about online educational resources, tips on teaching with technology, assessment, and perspectives from educators (both in the U.S. and abroad) about teaching during the pandemic. Presenters ranged from University of Illinois and Parkland College faculty, K-14 educators in other states, to educators from countries like Brazil, Poland, and Peru. Participants were especially impressed by the ingenuity of teachers working in areas where most of their students do not have access to widespread, stable internet connections. Many recounted how difficult the sudden shift to online learning was on themselves and their students, especially on those students with less resources and support at home. 

Throughout the 2-day workshop, participants and presenters touched on questions of social justice, student engagement, teacher support, and the digital divide – all topics that were relevant to educators from different countries. They noted the many similarities and differences in their experiences, and actively used the chat feature on Zoom to communicate with each other – frequently providing feedback and suggestions.

Despite the uncertainty and challenges for the academic year ahead, the workshop participants appreciated the professional development opportunity of connecting with their counterparts from many different countries, reflecting on the past year, and learning about tools and approaches for effective distance learning from other educators’ experiences.

Stephanie Chung Porter is the Outreach and Programming Coordinator at REEEC.

Trent Reedy, Author of “Words in the Dust,” Visits Central Illinois Middle Schools

REEEC supported the 2014 Youth Literature Festival by sponsoring the appearance of young adult author Trent Reedy. This is Reedy’s second visit to the area, as REEEC brought him to Illinois in March 2013. Reedy related his life’s dream of becoming a writer and how it developed at an early age. He detailed his experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan and the events that led to publishing his first novel, Words in the Dust. At each assembly, he challenged students to live lives worthy of the soldiers’ sacrifices, especially those who did not come home.

Reedy spent two full days in four central Illinois middle schools – Tuscola East Prairie Middle School, Mattoon Middle School, Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High School and Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Middle School – where he spoke at full school assemblies and also at smaller gatherings with students who had read his work. At each stop, Reedy took the time to sign copies of his books for students and teachers.

Held biennially, the Youth Literature Festival celebrates the value of literature in the lives of youth by bringing together local and national authors, illustrators, poets, and storytellers to share their stories, their craft, and their enthusiasm with children, teens and adults. Authors visit area schools and a Community Day provides author presentations and special performances. The Festival is organized by the Center for Education in Small Urban Communities in the College of Education in partnership with the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and the University Library.

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REEEC on HuffPost Live: Alisha Kirchoff discussing Putin’s Homophobic Law and Russia’s Future

 On July 15, 2013 Associate Director Alisha Kirchoff joined Russian-American journalist Sergey Gordeev, Harvard Visiting Fellow Stephen Frost and Timothy Patrick McCarthy (Director of the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy) in a live HuffPost broadcast hosted by anchor Josh Zepp to discuss  the federal law banning gay ‘propaganda’ among children. Recently signed by Russian President Putin after it passed unanimously in the Duma, this law is the latest example in a series of legislative measures against LGBT rights adopted amid a more general crackdown on human rights communities and independent civil action in the country. Among others,  the on-air guests explored what the sources behind this post-Soviet trend in the criminalization of homosexuality and the restriction of homosexuality are and discussed its future implications for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, LGBT tourists and citizens and Putin’s plans for Russia. To watch the live broadcast, click on the video.

2013 Freshman Focus: Brief Report

On Tuesday, June 4th, the Champaign Schools Foundation hosted its first “Freshman Focus” at Parkland Community College.  The purpose of this event was to introduce freshman students from Centennial, Central and Urbana high schools to academic subjects (like Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and computer programming) not readily available in their own schools in order to motivate them to enroll in academically challenging classes in high school to prepare for college.

As a presenter during the Freshman Focus program I had the opportunity to talk about Russian language and culture to 40 of these bright, local students.  After I briefly introduced myself I began the lesson began with a very brief group “quiz” which asked the following questions: What is an alternate, official name for Russia? What is the present capital of Russia? What was the capital city of Russia for most of the 18th and all of the 19th century? From 1917-1991 Russia was part of a larger country.  What was that country called?

Nellie Manis teaching Russian at Freshman Focus

Nellie Manis teaching Russian at Freshman Focus

The students had a lot of fun arguing amongst themselves about whether or not the Soviet Union still existed and if Stalingrad had ever been the capital of the Russian Empire.  After revealing the answers to the quiz, the Russian language lesson began.  This consisted of an introduction to both the oral and written alphabet. Next, students were introduced to some of the most important words and phrases of the Russian language and were even able to ask each other (in Russian, of course!) “what is your name?” and respond appropriately.  Our young local scholars showed enthusiasm and openness and were not afraid of looking (or sounding) silly.

To conclude the session, I asked students whether they had thought about going abroad in the future.  Almost everybody raised their hand!  I told students about some of the very low-cost resources available to high school students to study outside of the United States including the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) — a U.S. Department of State-sponsored program, and the Rotary Youth Exchange that sponsors programs of varying length in more than 150 countries throughout the world.  After each lesson, students were rewarded for their hard work and attention with Russian candy. They were encouraged to take handouts explaining the options and requirements of majoring in Russian in college and a brochure on what graduates from the University of Illinois’s Russian, East European and Eurasian Center have gone on to do professionally.

Working with CUScholars was a really fun experience.  It reminded me that our community has a really bright future and that the local school systems provide great opportunities for students to explore the world outside of their own schools.  To find out more about the CUScholars program, see the organization’s website at

Nellie Manis finished her MA at REEEC with a graduate minor in European Union Studies in May 2013. She received a BA in History and a BA in International Studies from Penn State University in 2008.  In August she will begin a Fulbright Student grant at the Linguistics University of Nizhnii Novgorod in Russia.  In addition to coursework in translation and interpretation she will research the differences between translation pedagogy in the United States and Russia.

REEEC at the 2nd Travel Around the World Event

Undeterred by biting wind chill, REEEC joined a number of university institutions and student clubs at the 2nd Travel Around the World on April 12th. This showcase of multifarious countries, cultures, food and dance from different regions and continents around the globe was organized as part of the annual International Week and was hosted by the International Student and Scholar Services and the Intensive English Institute. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. students and university staff gathered at the tent space between Everitt and Engineering Hall to get their passports stamped for visiting the exhibit stands and to win prizes. This year’s highlights also included international performances by the Capoeira Club, Desafinado, and TASC Special Ops (Chinese Yo-Yo).

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REEEC welcomed the approximately hundred visitors at our booth with trivia games. We carried players and interested bystanders on imaginary cruises along the Blue Danube, cycle tours across the scenic Baltics and luxury train rides on the Trans-Siberian Express across the Russian heartland. Prizes included coffee mugs and country tattoos from Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia but often our trivia champions preferred some good Russian candy. Besides raising awareness about the geography, cultural and historical richness of our region, REEEC also showcased the breadth of its educational programs, activities and resources. Thus, it buttressed interest among undergraduate students about its courses, MA program and its various opportunities for grants, travel abroad and language instruction.

Ultimately, the cold got to everybody’s bones. Participants and organizers scurried away at warp speed towards the warmth and comfort of their hearths and offices. Notwithstanding, Travel Around the World was the most captivating,  fun and fitting conclusion to our International Week this year. Hopefully, next time our visitors will be reminded of the winter cold solely by the intoxicating images of turquoise ice on Lake Baikal as they stop there on their imaginary travel across Siberia.

REEEC at the 2013 Global Fest

On Saturday, March 8, REEEC participated at the GlobalFest, a two-day event hosted this year by the Normal Community West High School. Organized annually by the Illinois Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the GlobalFest offers middle and secondary  students the opportunity to immerse themselves into world cultural experiences, languages and competitions. The GlobalFest relies on the assistance of teachers, professional performers and presenters, authentic native speakers, student organizations and clubs. Through its various mediums – language immersion rooms, cultural discovery rooms, stage performances, competitions, a ‘global market place’, arts and crafts displays and activities, it gives students the chance to make new forward thinking connections useful in our global society.

Nellie Manis teaching Russian

Nellie Manis teaching Russian

Our center’s contributions to this event included a series of short Russian language classes for beginners. Nellie Manis, an M.A. student at REEEC, took students on an imaginary flight to Moscow’s, teaching them the fundamentals of the Russian alphabet and some basic Russian conversation.

Zsuzsánna Magdó introducing students to Baba Yaga

Zsuzsánna Magdó introducing students to Baba Yaga

REEEC also entertained approximately 70 students with its now popular Russian Folk Horror Stories program. Being lured by Russia’s scariest folk characters, students blocked the hallways in front of the Russian Cultural Discovery Room 20 minutes before our program began. For an hour, they were then transported into the haunted world of guardian spirits and tricksters, borderline characters both good and bad. What students enjoyed the most, however, was the truly creepy folk tale of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave. This horror version of Cinderella, in which Baba Yaga – the Russian queen of witches – threatens first to gobble up the poor orphan but eventually helps her overcome her evil stepmother and stepsisters, recalled the terrifying imagery and sounds of contemporary horror movies. To sweeten students’ taste for Russia and her culture, REEEC distributed some Russian candy, a conclusion to the program that students greatly appreciated.


From Soldier to Children’s Author: Trent Reedy and His Visit in Champaign

After re-routes, flight changes, and a bus trip from Peoria, author Trent Reedy finally made it to Champaign to share his experience serving in Afghanistan, and his Words in the Dust, a book loosely based on his own encounters.

In his first novel, Reedy tells the story of Zulaikha, a young girl whose difficult life in Afghanistan is exacerbated by the fact she has a cleft palate.  Early in the story, she encounters the local bully. He calls her “donkey face,” which leaves Zulaikha feeling ashamed. While the story is fiction, Reedy and his fellow soldiers did pitch-in to raise the $400 needed to transport a young girl to a base where a doctor volunteered to perform the surgery.  Zulaikha’s house is based on a similar structure in which Reedy lived.  A tragic event involving Zulaikha’s sister was, unfortunately, based on a similar event Reedy witnessed. In his book, as well as his presentations, Reedy paints a vivid picture of Afghan culture. With great detail, he takes the reader into an Afghan village and family, complete with customs and societal norms.

Although a trip to Mattoon Middle School was canceled due to the weather, Mr. Reedy traveled to Eastern Illinois University, where he spoke at a joint meeting of the East Central-EIU Illinois Reading Council, the Beta Psi Chapter, Middle Level Educators’ Club, and of the Kappa Delta Pi (an education honor society). Mattoon Middle School reading teacher and East Central-EIU IRC president Ingrid Minger introduced the author. Engaging a crowd of 70 faculty and students, Reedy told the audience that he grew up wanting to be a writer and that his second book Stealing Air is based on a story he had written in sixth grade. He majored in English at the University of Iowa and signed up for the Iowa National Guard to help pay for college. He didn’t expect to be called up to serve, and especially didn’t think he would ever end up providing security for the reconstruction in Afghanistan. He described how his life events, including his time as a high school English teacher, prepared him to be a successful author.

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Reedy then traveled to Tuscola East Prairie Middle School to participate in Voices on the Prairie, a parent-child reading event funded by a grant from the Illinois Reading Council. Reedy spoke to an audience of 90 teachers, parents and students, all who had read Words in the Dust. After his presentation, the students asked detailed questions about Afghanistan and the book.  Because the chapters in his book don’t have titles, the students were assigned to write titles. Reedy led an hour-long session with the audience to discuss what titles were given and why. He later looked at posters students made and even took some with him.  He wrapped-up the event by signing the students’ copies of Words in the Dust. For Colleen Lehmann’s coverage of Reedy’s visit in Tuscola, click here to see her article in the Tuscola Journal.

Collage of posters prepared by Tuscola middle school students

Collage of posters prepared by Tuscola middle school students based on what they learned about Afghan culture

The next day Reedy met with a local radio reporter and high school friend, Brian Moline, who is the host of Afternoon Interviews on WDWS 1400 AM. Brian asked Reedy about his books and the events of the day before in an interview that can be found here.

Later that day Reedy met with a group of 30 librarians, children and parents at the Urbana Free Library.  Reedy engaged the group with his pictures and stories of Afghanistan. He also offered advice to several young writers in the audience.  Reedy signed copies of his book that were available for sale at the Library through the Illini Union Bookstore.

Inviting Trent Reedy to the area gave REEEC the opportunity to engage teachers, pre-service education students, middle school students, parents, and the community with Reedy’s accurate and beautiful account of life in Afghanistan. REEEC will be developing an online curricular module for Words in the Dust, and plans to bring more authors to the area in the future.

Story Time at the Urbana Free Library

REEEC and the Urbana Free Library hosted this year’s second Slavic Story time on March 2nd. Children listened to a lesser known Russian folk tale “The Animals’ Revenge” from James Riordan’s collection Russian Folk Tales (Oxford, 2000) and made a cat mask for themselves. The curriculum also included the Russian version of the children’s song “Rain, Rain, Go Away.”

“Animals’ Revenge” follows the story of a sly fox as she takes advantage of a half-witted old tomcat and hoodwinks the other animals of the forest. Mislead into thinking that the tomcat is the new governor of the forest, the fox – his alleged queen – forces the bear, the wolf, the deers and the squirrels to provide luscious meals in exchange for protection from the tomcat, a supposedly frightful monster. Yet, when the tomcat by a sudden turn of events wanders out of the fox’s den and the animals see him, they realize that they had been duped and swear to take revenge on the fox.

Tae Gyeong in his cat mask

Tae Gyeong in his cat mask

REEEC will hold this academic year’s last Slavic Story Time at the Urbana Free Library in early May. Children will hear an Uzbekh fairy tale, learn an Uzbekh children song and make a dopi for themselves.

Children’s Author Visit – Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy FlyerThursday, March 7
4:00 – 5:00 p.m.

210 West Green Street • Urbana, Illinois 61801 • Children’s Services • 217-367-4069 •

After serving as a U.S. Army soldier in Afghanistan, Trent Reedy brought home many stories from the war zone. Meet Mr. Reedy and hear first hand his stories from Afghanistan and his journey to becoming a children’s book writer. Learn more by visiting

Trent Reedy’s books will be available for sale and signing.

For children of grade 3 and up and their families. Click here for the Trent Reedy Flyer

That Familiar Feeling by Mat Jasieniecki

In December, I received an email from the Associate Director of REEEC Alisha Kirchoff about a National Guard unit stationed in Illinois that was interested in a lecture on Polish language, culture, and history.  I must admit, I was pretty incredulous.  Why in the world would a National Guard unit out of Central Illinois want a class on Poland?  Random did not begin to describe the request.  About a week later, I was contacted by the unit’s administrator, an employee of UIUC named Karen Hewitt.  Apparently, Alisha nominated Jack Hutchens, a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and me to lead the lecture. My incredulity ceased.

Ms. Hewitt explained that the unit inquiring about Polish lessons was a BEST unit.  BEST stands for Bi-lateral Embedded Support Troops.  The purpose of a BEST team is to work hand in hand with America’s foreign military allies and make sure they have the logistics necessary to complete their mission, whatever that may be.  This particular BEST team works exclusively with Polish forces in Poland and/or Afghanistan.  After a few emails, Jack Hutchens, Ms. Hewitt, and I agreed on a lecture date: Sunday, February 3rd.

Admittedly, I had no idea what I was supposed to talk about.  Luckily, Jack was contacted to teach the language portion, which was the hard part.  That left me with history and culture.  I basically decided to talk about historical events and cultural differences that I felt were important for any American to know.  After I put the final touches on my Power Point presentation, something hit me: my past and my present had finally collided.

I was born in 1985 in Proszowice, Poland, a small town of about 6,000 people located 30 kilometers away from Cracow.  With a little luck, my mother and I were able to leave the country in 1989, three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, to join my grandparents in Chicago.  I spent most of my childhood growing up in Burbank, a southwest suburb.

After graduating high school, my life reached a dead end.  My senior year was spent partying and doing everything I could to get out of class.  My allergies to trigonometry aside, I still wanted to attend college.  My ACT score was above average and I still finished with a 3.5 GPA, despite my terrible study habits.   However, my family did not have the money to send me to college and financial aid would only take me so far.  At the time, I was living with my grandparents.  They packed my things for me one day about two months after graduation and told me I needed to move out (I had it coming).  Long story short, I had nowhere to go, so I did what thousands of young people in my position did throughout the years: I joined the U.S. Army.

The following six years were by far the most rewarding of my life.  I had the chance to travel and live in some of the most exotic places on Earth.  I worked with Kurds who fought against Saddam Hussein’s forces way before any Americans did.  As a mechanic, I repaired experimental vehicles before they were used in major combat operations.  Oh, and I got to play with grenades, C-4, and .50 caliber machine guns.  Far better than working at my local fast food joint!

Needless to say, I was awash with nostalgia when standing in front of that class full of officers and non-commissioned officers.  The lecture went very well.  The audience was motivated and interested; people participated as much as possible.  I could not have asked for a better group to lecture to.  I later found out that most of the BEST team had spent time with Polish troops in Poland so many things that Jack and I talked about were familiar.  The BEST team enjoyed the two hour lecture so much that they invited Jack and I back for another session.

As I mentioned earlier, my two worlds collided on February 3rd, 2013, and this was beyond rewarding.  Most of my friends in Urbana-Champaign either study engineering or computer science. So the legitimacy of my Russian and East European major naturally comes into question sometimes.  I have always defended REEES as a field necessary in the facilitation of good international relations in both business and politics.  Many people from our field have used their education to broker peace and implement defensive strategies to minimize bloodshed.  Talking and teaching the BEST team reinforced my feelings about REEES and made me feel very proud to be part of such an amazingly diverse department.

Mat Jasieniecki is a Senior Undergraduate in Russian and East European Studies.  His academic interests include the history, business, economy, and the IT sector of Russia and Eastern Europe.   Mat is on track to graduate in May 2013.  He intends to work in the private sector for 2 to 4 years before going back to school  for an MA or MBA.  Mat is also a U.S. Army veteran who has served 6 years, including in a combat deployment to Iraq from August 2005 to December 2006  with the 172nd Stryker Brigade.