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.

Slavic Story Time

On April 15th, 2017, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center hosted Slavic Story Time at the Urbana Free Library. The program, held once a semester, introduces small children in the Champaign-Urbana community to the countries and cultures of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia through stories, songs, and crafts. At this spring’s Slavic Story Time, graduate student Madeline Artibee and REEEC Outreach Coordinator Stephanie Chung presented on the Czech Republic. The children watched the cartoon “Marishka’s Salt.” After watching the short cartoon, Stephanie taught them the Czech song “Šla Nanynka do zelí” (“Nancy Went to the Cabbage Field”). Madeline and Stephanie both assisted in making folded paper salt cellars, which the children colored and decorated. Everyone had a fun time. We at REEEC were delighted to once again work with the Urbana Free Library to promote learning about the countries and cultures of the region.

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International Night at Carrie Busey Elementary

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On March 9, 2017, REEEC outreach staff and students participated in International Night at Carrie Busey Elementary in Savoy. It was a lively event with performances, crafts, national costumes, and food from all over the world. Stephanie Chung (REEEC Outreach and Programming Coordinator) and Nicholas Higgins (REEEC MA student) ran the Russia table, which featured the Russian folktale “The Firebird.” The Firebird from the folktale of the same name is usually portrayed as the object of a difficult journey, with many seeking it to no avail. This was of course not the case for the REEEC outreach staff and students, as it was one of the busiest tables! Elementary school students lined up to make firebird masks. After making the masks, many children put them on and wore them for the rest of the evening – trailing orange and red feathers everywhere. Many thanks to Carrie Busey Elementary and the Center for Global Studies for organizing such a terrific event!

Russian Language Program – Urbana After School Child Care Program at Leal Elementary

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!)?

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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.

Youth Literature Festival

Held every other year, the Youth Literature Festival seeks to put literature at the heart of our lives. The 2016 festival brought award-winning authors and artists of youth literature to a wide area of schools in a three-day event culminating in a Community Day Celebration.  In the first two days, twenty-four authors and artists visited over 70 schools in Champaign-Urbana and the surrounding areas.  At the Community Day event, held at the iHotel and Conference Center on October 22nd, visitors had the opportunity to attend author and artist panels, visit the authors and get their autographs, and enjoy puppetry, music, dance, and crafts for youngsters. Children who visited the REEEC activity table learned about the Russian Firebird folktales and created firebird masks.

A co-sponsor of the festival, REEEC helped to bring Eugene Yelchin, a Russian-born author and illustrator, to the festival. Yelchin’s novel, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, received a Newberry Honor.  His most recent book is The Haunting of Falcon House. During the festival, Yelchin visited Gibson City Middle School, St. Malachy in Rantoul, Arcola Junior High School, and the Champaign Public Library. As part of his visit, Yelchin also met with faculty and students on the University of Illinois campus in a lunch time discussion sponsored by the Program for Studies in Jewish Culture and Society and REEEC. At the Community Day, Yelchin autographed books and discussed black and white illustration in a presentation entitled, “The Many Colors of Black and White.”

Eugene Yelchin

Author Eugene Yelchin presenting “The Many Colors of Black and White”

Find out more about Eugene Yelchin and his award-winning book at

For teachers interested in using Breaking Stalin’s Nose in their classes, REEEC has developed a lesson plan. For more information, please see:

For more information on the Youth Literature Festival, visit

The Youth Literature Festival is made possible by the efforts of the College of Education at Illinois and the University Library. This program is partially supported by the Glenna S. Udre Program in Literacy. Co-sponsored by REEEC and many generous sponsors.

Citizens of the World Festival

By Samantha Celmer
On April 8th, the area studies centers, as well as the College of Education, Illinois Abroad and Global Exchange, and Illinois International Programming, brought Oakwood Junior High School to campus to partake in the inaugural Citizens of the World Festival. Part of International Week on campus, the Citizens of the World Festival aimed to expose a young audience to world cultures and to spark their interest in pursuing an international education. The centers created six rooms, each represented a different world region, for the junior high students to rotate through. REEEC organized its own room, the Russia and East European Room.
The Russia and East European Room highlighted four countries from the region: Russia, Poland, Armenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. To begin their session in the room, the junior high students started by hearing a story from a survivor of the Bosnian War, Medina Spiodic. Medina showed pictures of her hometown and family, while relaying the experience her family endured during the early 90s. After Medina’s story, the students were able to visit the other countries, which each had its own special activity. The Poland area had a heritage speaker of Polish who designed language based games so that the students were able to experience the Polish alphabet and try some tongue twisters. REEEC’s Associate Director, Maureen Marshall, brought her archaeological expertise to the Armenia area and showed the students bones and artifacts from her own excavations in the region. The graduate assistants who ran the Russia area shared their knowledge of the Cold War Arms race and utilized an interactive online website in which the user can type in a location and simulate what would happen if atomic bombs of varying size were dropped on said location. Follow this link for the interactive map:
After the successful event, REEEC donated several books to the Oakwood Junior High School Library that will continue to expose the students to the region’s unique culture and history. REEEC looks forward to creating new activities for next year’s Citizens of the World Festival. 

Samantha Celmer is the Outreach and Programming Coordinator for REEEC. She is currently finishing her thesis for the MA program which focuses on representations of Russia in children’s media in the 90’s and the problem of international relations in childhood development.

Olympiada of Spoken Russian Takes Place at the University of Illinois

On March 19, 60 students from four high schools and community-based Russian programs traveled to Champaign, IL to participate in the second autonomous Illinois ACTR Olympiada of Spoken Russian. This event represents one of about 15 annual regional pre-college Russian language competitions across the United States under the auspices of the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR). Each student prepares for individual conversations with three judges who assess and grade their knowledge and language proficiency in the following categories: everyday conversation, recitation of a poem and discussion surrounding a prepared text, and Russian civilization. In addition to demonstrating their language skills and cultural proficiency, the Olympiada provided participants the opportunity to network with students and teachers of Russian from other schools, to watch a Russian film (Kavkazskiy Plennik), and to hear a short presentation by David Cooper, Director of the Russian, East European and Eurasian Center (REEEC) and Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois.

Professor Cooper discussed opportunities and benefits for students who continue to study Russian at the college level.  He described the programs for Russian language at UIUC and UChicago, highlighting that both universities offer 5+ years of Russian and study abroad programs as well as the potential for financial support offered through the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) scholarships at UIUC and other Title VI centers. He identified the most popular majors for students who study the Russian language, such as Slavic Languages and Literatures, Russian and East European Studies, Political Science, and History, but also noted that students combine their study of Russian with numerous fields of study, such as engineering, agriculture, and education. This combination of language and area studies with another area of specialization can be a powerful tool on the job market and open doors and opportunities for working within numerous industries from international NGOs and humanitarian work to finance and global business.

This year’s Olympiada and was again a collaborative effort of the University of Chicago Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies (CEERES) and the University of Illinois Russian, East European and Eurasian Center (REEEC). Meredith Clason (Associate Director of CEERES) served as the state chair and was honored to work with an expert panel of judges, all of whom are experienced instructors of Russian at the University of Illinois: Irina Avkhimovich, Laura Davies Brenier, Maria Fedjanina, Nadia Hoppe, Alejandra Pires, and Morgan Shafter. Samantha Celmer, the Outreach Coordinator of REEEC, did a brilliant job of organizing this year’s Olympiada, with wisdom and guidance from Maureen Marshall, the new Associate Director of REEEC. The day could not have been better planned or run more smoothly. I also want to acknowledge Mark Trotter, the Olympiada National Co-Chair, who patiently answered at least 100 questions along the way.

It was a joy to host this group of students; they competed bravely, performed brilliantly, and were professional and courteous. The students represented three high schools: Pritzker College Prep (teachers: Phillip Stosberg, Rebecca Kaegi and Lauren Nelson), Noble Street College Prep (teacher: Paco Picon), and Glenbrook North High School (teacher: Svetlana Borisova), and a community-based school, By the Onion Sea (teacher: Julia Denne).

At each regional Olympiada an outstanding contestant in both the regular and heritage categories is chosen for special recognition in the form of a book prize and letter from the ACTR President, Dan Davidson.  This year, both Outstanding Achievement Awards went to students from By the Onion Sea: Amelia Parkes received the honor in the regular student category, and Katherine Edwards in the heritage student category.

To all of the students, teachers, parents, judges, volunteers – with special thanks to Mark Trotter, Sam Celmer, Maureen Marshall, and David Cooper – I extend my gratitude and congratulations for your patience, your time, your hard work, your expertise, your talent and your love of Russian language and culture.

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Meredith Clason is the Associate Director for the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies at the University of Chicago. 

Slavic Story Time

On Saturday, March 19, REEEC hosted Slavic Story Time at the Urbana Free Library.  About 10 young children (ages ranging from infants to elementary school students) and their parents attended the afternoon program, which introduced them to Russian culture. First, they listened to a Russian fairy tale called “The Frog Princess.” Then they sang a happy birthday song in Russian. However, their favorite activity that day was making crowns. Parents assisted their children in attaching feathers, jewels, and glitter to their crowns. Pretty soon, there were princes and princesses all wearing magnificent crowns. After the activity, the children went home with a piece of Russian candy. Many thanks to the Urbana Free Library for providing REEEC the space to organize such a wonderful community outreach event!

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Stephanie Chung is a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 at the University of Texas at Austin. She plans to write a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.

Jeffrey Werbock: Traditional Azerbaijani Mugham Music

Acclaimed musician Jeffrey Werbock presented a program of instrumental solo improvisations based on traditional Azerbaijani mugham, played on a variety of authentic instruments, at two Urbana elementary schools and the University of Illinois. Mr. Werbock has given presentations for more than 30 years and has performed at Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, Asia Society, and World Music Institute. The Robert E. Brown Center for World Music and the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center co-sponsored his visit. On Tuesday, April 21, Mr. Werbock visited Wiley Elementary School and the after-school program at Leal Elementary School. On Wednesday, April 22, he visited Prof. Bridget Sweet’s MUS 240 (Orientation to Music Teaching and Learning, Kindergarten-High School) course and Dr. Lillie Gordon’s MUS 133 (Introduction to World Music) lecture. He also gave a public performance in the Music Building Auditorium on the University of Illinois campus.

For each of the four classroom presentations, Mr. Werbock performed Azerbaijani mugham on ud, tar and kemancha. He started each session by describing how the music was related to a standard musical scale. However, he noted that in this type of music, part of the art was suspending the resolution of the octave with melodic ornamentation. He provided geographical maps for the elementary students and enjoyed the variety of insightful questions they offered. Mr. Werbock favorably compared his experience with the elementary school children here with his experience at home in a message after his visit: “The kids in the grade schools [in Urbana] spoiled me; now I expect everyone to ask many questions with burning enthusiasm. The Lindenwood crowd was nice, but getting questions out of them was more a chore than anything.”

In his PowerPoint presentation for university students, Mr. Werbock extended the details to include the music’s characteristics. His public performance was slightly different in that he performed a different order of instrumentation than the other programs and used less of his slides.

In addition to these engagements, Mr. Werbock had a lunch meeting with Professor Emeritus Bruno Nettl, three graduate students (Jon Hollis, Lucas Henry, Ben Wheeler), and me. Mr. Werbock invited Bruno Nettl over for an extended meeting and personal performance on Tuesday evening. He also enjoyed meeting a group of Azerbaijanis, who attended his concert, and having dinner with them that evening.

Overall, it was a very successful engagement with a total of over 500 attendees for all of Mr. Werbock’s events.

Jason Finkelman is the Director of Global Arts Performance Initiatives and Program Administrator for the Robert E. Brown Center for World Music at the University of Illinois.

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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