Fulbright FLTA memories. Part 2. Translating Dovlatov back into Russian with my American students.

In this post, I am talking about using Dovlatov’s book to teach my American students.

What I want to share in this post was probably my favorite part of my teaching Russian as a foreign language experience, which was teaching language with the help of literature (or is it literature with the help of language?).

In the second semester, the Russian teacher at UNH, Daria Kirjanov, taught a course called, “Stories of Displaced Lives: Russian and Eastern European Memoirs of Exile.” As part of this course, the students of Russian were supposed to attend a language lab class, the purpose of which was reading some of the course materials in the original. I got my own language lab class with three beginner level students. The beauty part was I didn’t have a rigid program to follow and had the freedom to create my own materials.

Talking about Dovlatov in this kind of course was absolutely inevitable. But his works came later in the semester.

What we started from was Silver Age poetry. Since my students had only been learning Russian for 5 months, we started from the easiest and most obvious thing to do – reading and translating the poetry into English.

It went well, but at some point I got this nagging feeling that “variety is the spice of life.” I needed and wanted to vary my tasks. I thought long and hard. When we got to Dovlatov, it hit me, “Why don’t we reverse what we’ve been doing and translate literature from English back into Russian?”

I decided to work with Dovlatov’s “The Suitcase.” Firstly, because it suits the topic perfectly; secondly, because I found it online in both English and Russian; thirdly, because it is written in the past tense.

The past tense might be the single simple aspect of the overall complicated Russian grammar. There is only one past tense and all you have to do is change the ending of the infinitive. For example, жить – жил, работать – работал, ответить – ответил (masculine)It’s beautifully straightforward.

We only worked with the foreword as we didn’t have time for the whole piece. I cherry picked the portions I knew the students could handle and provided a glossary of the words they didn’t know. We then compared their translations with the original. You will find an example below and you are very welcome to give translating Dovlatov a shot too. (I have included the beginning to give you some context.)

Чемодан. The suitcase.
Foreword

So this bitch at OVIR says to me, “Everyone who leaves is allowed three suitcases. That’s the quota. A special regulation of the ministry.”
No point in arguing. But of course I argued. “Only three suitcases? What am I supposed to do with all my things?”
“Like what?”
“Like my collection of race cars.”
“Sell them,” the clerk said, without lifting her head.
Then, knitting her brows slightly, she added, “If you’re dissatisfied with something, write a complaint.”
“I’m satisfied,” I said.
After prison, everything satisfied me.
“Well, then, don’t make trouble…”
A week later I was packing. As it turned out, I needed just a single suitcase.
I almost wept with self-pity. After all, I was thirty-six years old. Had worked eighteen of them. I earned money, bought things with it. I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me. And still I only needed one suitcase – and of rather modest dimensions at that. Was I poor, then? How had that happened?
Books? Well, basically, I had banned books, which were not allowed through customs anyway. I had to give them out to my friends, along with my so-called archives.
Manuscripts? I had clandestinely sent them to the West a long time before.
Furniture? I had taken my desk to the second-hand store. The chairs were taken by the artist Chegin, who had been making do with crates. The rest I threw out.
And so I left the Soviet Union with one suitcase. It was plywood, covered with fabric and, had chrome reinforcements at the corners. The lock didn’t work; I had to wind clothes line around it.
Once I had taken it to Pioneer camp. It said in ink on the lid: “Junior group. Seryozha Dovlatov.” Next to it someone had amiably scratched: “Shithead”. The fabric was torn in several places. Inside, the lid was plastered with photographs: Rocky Marciano, Louis Armstrong, Joseph Brodsky, Gina Lollobrigida in a transparent outfit. The customs agent tried to tear Lollobrigida off with his nails. He succeeded only in scratching her. (1) But he didn’t touch Brodsky. He merely asked, “Who’s that?” I said he was a distant relative…
On May 16 I found myself in Italy. I stayed in the Hotel Dina in Rome. I shoved the suitcase under the bed.
I soon received fees from Russian journals. I bought blue sandals, flannel slacks and four linen shirts. I never opened the suitcase.
(2) Three months later I moved to the United States, to New York. First, I lived in the Hotel Rio. Then we stayed with friends in Flushing. Finally, I rented an apartment in a decent neighborhood. I put the suitcase in the back of the closet. I never undid the clothes line.

 

Glossary
(1)
Бродский, m., adj., Accusative, animate, the ending is –ого.
to touch = тронуть
to ask = спросить
merely = всего лишь
to reply = ответить
distant relative = дальний родственник
(2)
later = через (is written at the beginning of the sentence)
to move = перебраться
with friends = у друзей
finally = наконец
decent = приличный
to put (in a vertical position) = поставить
in the back = в дальний угол
The original
(1)
А Бродского не тронул. Всего лишь спросил — кто это? Я ответил, что дальний родственник…
(2)    

Через три месяца перебрался в Соединенные Штаты. В Нью-Йорк. Сначала жил в отеле “Рио”. Затем у друзей во Флашинге. Наконец, снял квартиру в приличном районе. Чемодан поставил в дальний угол стенного шкафа.


 

The students did a great job. Curiously, they made two types mistakes: writing everything in direct word order (subject+verb) and including every single pronoun in the sentence. For example, they wrote “Он не тронул Бродского.” for “А Бродского не тронул.” (At this point, I would like to remind you that these students had only started learning the language 5 months before.)

Thanks to this perfect combination of Daria’s course on immigrant writers, “The Suitcase” and the simplicity of the past tense in Russian, my beginner students could have a go at translating Dovlatov. How cool is that?! 

Special thanks:
I would like to thank Daria Kirjanov for giving me the language lab class and the freedom to teach it the way I saw fit.
I would also like to thank Alma Classics for the foreword in English and multiple resources for the whole book in Russian.  
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Fulbright FLTA memories. Part 1. Teaching Russian from scratch: my proudest achievement.

In this post, I am sharing my experience of teaching Russian as a foreign language.

I am a teacher of English as a foreign language, but last year, thanks to the Fulbright FLTA program, I got an incredible opportunity to teach Russian as a foreign language at the University of New Haven (CT, USA). In this post, I want to share a tiny portion of this experience.

When you win a Fulbright FLTA grant, you don’t get to choose your host institution or your duties there. The only thing you can do is accept or decline the grant offer (but why on earth would you do that?). I got an offer from the University of New Haven and happily accepted. According to my terms of appointment, I was going to be a primary teacher for beginner level students.

Truth be told, teaching beginners was the last thing I wanted to do. In my defense, I just didn’t know how rewarding it would be because I had never taught beginners in my entire life. Anyway, I went through with it and I don’t regret it for a minute.

When I say beginners, I mean absolute beginners – people who literally knew zero Russian. In the first semester, we worked on the basics, like the Cyrillic alphabet, pronunciation, noun cases and verb conjugation. The second semester was when I started doing what I enjoy most – develop my students’ speaking skills.

 We actually started working on speaking several weeks into the semester, but speaking basically went like this, “What is it? – It’s a cat.” or “Where do you live? – I live in West Haven.” These and similar questions were introduced in the course book we followed. Answering these questions, while admittedly necessary, wasn’t particularly exciting because the answers were so obvious and predictable. My aim was to engage the students in more natural, relevant, and meaningful conversations. In pursuing this aim, I discovered that Russian is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Just kidding. … I discovered that I could get by with very little grammar or vocabulary. And I didn’t need a lot of time either. My class started at 8 am. The time slot between 7:55 and 8:05 was enough.

Achieving my aim was simple. All I did was ask questions, consistently and relentlessly, five minutes before and after the beginning of every single class. That’s it. No more, no less.

We started from “Как дела?” (How are you?) which, fortunately, is a very simple question in Russian. The students already knew two ways to answer this question, “Хорошо.” (Good / Fine.) and “Отлично.” (Excellent.) because I had been using these words to comment on their performance since the very beginning of the school year.

Little by little, I added more questions and answers basing them on the material covered in the book but making them more relevant. For example, the book introduced the conjugation of “хотеть” (to want) and used such examples as “I want to study Russian. / I want to live in Moscow.” I thought to myself, “How relevant are these sentences if they are already studying Russian and have never been to Moscow?” and added the following to my morning QA session, “Do you want to sleep?” – “Yes, I want to sleep,” which sounds very relevant in the morning, doesn’t it?

As a result, my students could have a conversation that went something like this:

 1 Some phrases might sound awkward in English because I am giving direct translation. 
2 Some phrases might look complicated in English but aren’t in Russian due to differences in grammar. 

If you think about it, this is a conversation you might actually have with your friend at the beginning of the day. I went through these questions at the beginning of every class, so the students got used to them and answered effortlessly. And the beauty part is the students enjoyed the freedom to vary their answers depending on the circumstances of the day, which made the conversations truly meaningful.

I consider these short conversations to be my proudest achievement in teaching Russian in one year. Helping students get there from scratch gave me the satisfaction that advanced groups don’t.

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The benefits of being a Fulbrighter

In this post, I am elaborating on what makes participating in Fulbright FLTA program an experience of a lifetime.

The benefits of being a Fulbrighter (based on personal experience)

The benefits of participating in Fulbright FLTA program are numerous and I am only giving a small portion here. (If you need some background on my participation in the program, read this and this.) Here goes:

– You meet lots of great people.

Before you even leave for the USA, you meet your fellow FLTAs from your own country. Applicants go through a rigorous selection process, so the ones that do get selected are intelligent, creative, enthusiastic, and a lot of fun. Then you meet your fellow FLTAs from all over the world. Again, you meet intelligent, creative, enthusiastic, and fun people, but this time there is an added benefit of meeting people from other cultures (around 50 countries all told). You get a chance to see these people dance national dances, wear national clothes, and try authentic home-cooked national foods. The experience just opens your eyes to how fascinating and diverse the world is.

– You get first-hand experience of American education from two perspectives: as a teacher and as a student.

I did all the mundane things students do – I took notes in classes, did homework, wrote quizzes, sat exams, worried about my grades, checking blackboard 3 times a day, just like an average American student.

At the same time, I did all the mundane things teachers do – I graded homework, assessed exams, filled in online attendance after every class and so on. Fortunately, I got a lot of guidance and support from Professor Daria Kirjanov, who not only shared all her materials with me, but also gave me insights into what to expect from students and how to deal with any issues that arose.

– You get first-hand experience of American life.

Let me give you just some examples of things I got first-hand experience of. In the USA, everything is well-organized and made convenient for people. Everything starts and finishes exactly on time. Mass transit is not very well-developed (at least compared to Russia) because people don’t need it because they go everywhere by cars. When you get on the bus, you have to have exact change because tickets machines or drivers don’t give change. You get a grocery store discount even if you don’t have the store card. People hold doors and give up their places in lines for you. Everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities, is included and respected.

– You improve your English skills significantly.

First and foremost, living in an English-speaking country for a year definitely boosts your fluency and breaks down the speaking barrier that most learners of English have even if they have been learning English for 10 years. Additionally, you learn real-life and natural language that you don’t always find in books. I don’t think any book I’ve ever used to learn or teach English introduced the phrase Have a good one! (which means “Have a nice day” or simply “Bye”). Or, Are you all set? (which means something like “Do you need anything?” or “Can I help you?”). Or, I’m good. (which means, “I don’t need anything, thank you.”). All these phrases are ubiquitous in the USA, yet they aren’t usually taught in books.

– You develop professionally in the direction you like without the pressure of completing a degree or graduating.

 Since I write a blog, I wanted to improve my writing skills and took “Speaking and Writing for Professionals” and “Introduction to Creative Writing”. Since I was not very confident about my speaking skills, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and take “Introduction to Public Speaking and Group Discussion”. And I did it just for me, just because I wanted to.


– You can travel the country more cheaply and effectively.

Fulbrighters are scattered all over the country. So when you travel, you can stay at their places saving money on hotels and time on researching what to see in the area. I might never have visited Oregon, if it wasn’t for an FLTA there.

– This is just my personal benefit: I did everything I had on my bucket list during my Fulbright year!

There were only two things though: 1. See whales (which I did on both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean!); 2. See Mayan pyramids (which I did because a fellow FLTA suggested going to Mexico during the winter break!).

To cut a long story short, there are myriads of benefits of being a Fulbright FLTA on many levels, definitely more than I’ve described. Feel free to expand my list in the comments!

Lutsenko_benefits

Some of my Fulbright memories. 
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My Fulbright year: what, where, when

In this post, I am going into detail about my participation in Fulbright FLTA program.

And now I’m back, with a backpack of new experiences, inspiration, knowledge, and ready to write, write, write!

I went to the USA for my Fulbright FLTA experience on 8 August 2015 and returned on 4 June 2016. The experience was great, fantastic, eye-opening, mind-blowing, developmental and many other positive adjectives. But first, some facts: where exactly did I go and what exactly did I do?

Good news: On 30 April 2015, I got an email, which made me jump and yell triumphantly. It started,“Congratulations! You have been selected for the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) Program.” In August, I went to teach Russian and study at University of New Haven (West haven, Connecticut, USA). (More about my Fulbright application).

University: University of New Haven (UNH for short) has a student body of 5,000-10,000 students. Most of the people taking Russian at UNH have one of (or both of) these two majors: criminal justice and national security.

Location: UNH is located in a small town of West Haven, which is very conveniently located and has good transport links. New York City is only a 2-hour train ride away and Yale is only a 10-minute bus ride away.

Lutsenko_map_unh

Housing: I lived in university housing, in a two-floor shared house. My roommate* had some kind of office job at the university. The house was a 30-minute walking distance from the university or a 10-minute bus/car ride. There was a university shuttle service and I was also provided with a free local bus pass. (Although I didn’t have to walk, I often did.)

*(In the USA, they use the word “roommate” to mean someone who shares accommodation with you, not necessarily a room. Me and my roommate had our own separate bedrooms).

Teaching: I was a primary teacher at beginner level, teaching 3 times a week at 8 am. Additionally, I had office hours (6 hours a week), Russian tables (2 hours a week) and in spring semester I taught a “language lab” on Russian émigré writers and poets of the 20th century (which I absolutely loved!). I also took part in and / or helped organize film and culture festivals as a representative of Russian culture.

Studying:  As part of the program, we were required to take at least 2 courses per semester, one of which had to be in US Studies and the other three had to be related to our professional development as teachers of English. I took all 4 courses on credit basis, which means I did all coursework, took exams and was assessed on the same basis as every other student enrolled in the course. The courses I took and the grades I got: Speaking and Writing for Professionals (A+), Public Speaking and Group Discussion (A -), Introduction to Creative Writing (A+), American History since 1607 (A).

Finances: The grant covered everything: housing, meals, university tuition, travel to and from host institution, and a medical insurance. I also got a monthly stipend, which wasn’t large, but given that everything else was provided, I could save up for traveling.

I think that pretty much covers the everyday specifics of my Fulbright year. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. The next post will be on the benefits of being a Fulbrighter, stay tuned!

Disclaimer: Every Fulbrighter has a different story to tell. This is just my personal experience and the details of my participation in the program. 

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My Fulbright application or a teachable moment on essay writing

In this post, I want to share two excerpts from my Fulbright application essay and give you some tips on essay writing.

I did it on 30 May 2014. I submitted my Fulbright application. Now, 1 year and 2 months later I am going to the USA as a proud Fulbrighter! Yay!

The program I am participating in is called Foreign Language Teaching Assistant or FLTA for short. As a participant of this program I will be teaching Russian and studying at an American university for an academic year.

When my students heard the news, they asked, “What did it take to get this grant?” And I replied, “Well, there were several stages. First, I had to write a lot of text. Then, I …” And one student said, “I am curious to read what you wrote.” I suppose many are, so I am going to let you in on one of my application essays.

One of the essays I wrote is called “Objectives and motivations”. What I wrote is too long to upload here (1274 words, no less!), so I am only going to show you my introduction and conclusion. Oh, and I see a teachable moment here, which I just can’t help using. Ok, let’s get cracking!

Here is my introduction:

lutsenko_fulbright_intro

Let’s have a look at how I choose to structure my introduction:

1. I start with a quote. (Admittedly, starting an essay with a quote is a bit of a cliché. But it’s still not a bad way to start. To avoid sounding too clichéd, I expand the quote and add a personal touch.)

2. I explain what my job is and what I am like.

3. I speak about my main objective.

Here is my conclusion:

Lutsenko_fulbright_conclusion

Let’s have a look at how I choose to structure my conclusion:

1. I repeat what my job is and what I am like (point 2 from the introduction).

2. I repeat my main objective (point 3 from the introduction).

3. I connect all the information to the quote and my addition to it (point 1 from the introduction).

And here is the teachable moment:

– Make your essay personal and unique.

– Address the topic directly and clearly.

– Organize your ideas logically.

– Be consistent.

– Unite the ideas.

Essay writing aside, I want to emphasize that everything I wrote is absolutely true. They are not beautiful words I wanted to impress the readers with. I do want to keep moving, but stay focused.

So, students, don’t be sad I’m going away for so long. You now know why I’m doing it. I’ll return.

I’ll return and do what I do at a new level and with a new mind. See you in a year!

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