How We Learned American

I am so excited about this NY Times article about American kids learning Russian and going to a Russian school in Moscow.  Because it’s about time those hipsters get a taste of their own medicine. And by hipsters I mean American parents and teachers that teach their kids that each one is a special snowflake. More Americans need to learn how the rest of the world works.

Here’s a video where Mr. B and I recall our memories of learning English, and debate why the American school system is terrible, but mostly just talk about nothing. It’s like a real-life Seinfeld, only with horrible production quality. Guess what? They don’t teach iMovie in American schools, either.

The VeeLog: School n’ Stuff from Vicki on Vimeo.

I would LOVE if you included your memories of being integrated into the American school system and learning English in the comments.  Let’s swap horror stories.  Or how we completely mischaracterized American education.  Or talk about why you’re a Special Snowflake and don’t know 7 times 7. 




26 thoughts on “How We Learned American

  1. (Throwing in my two cents without having watched the video yet.)
    I really liked the article, though I also felt that they got a bit of a pass, since they seemed to be at quite a progressive, forward-thinking (for Russia) school. And of course, it was uber-expensive. But then, if I were living abroad and had the means, I’d probably also be shelling out for my kids’ education in a similar manner. But otherwise, yes, good on them. And it was great he actually appreciated that immigrants go through this everyday. Just usually not in private schools…
    No horror stories for me, since I went through the full Canadian system. But I do think one part of our education that we tend to overlook is that despite the softness of our education, we’re also taught to ask questions and even correct the teacher right from day one. So the way we’re taught to relate to authority is mirrored in our political systems and so forth. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s the one thing that’s consistently right and valuable about our education systems.

    1. I agree with that.  A lot of friends that I have that came to America after college, no matter where they’re from, have a distinctively different mentality than I do.  I always get angry that stuff is wrong and want to fix it, and they have more of a lasseiz-fare manner like, eh, what can we really do?

  2. I read the story you posted from the NYT and my first thought was “It’s been done before by millions of us here in the US!  You aren’t a speshul snowflake!” because I am a bad person.  But really, I think the average white American can’t even begin to imagine dumping their precious children into a different country and language simply because they feel like they don’t need to (and for the most part, they don’t).  So it’s new to them, I suppose.  I did love the school’s founder and would trust him with my preshus snowflakes ANY day.  I wish we had more schools like that here.
    I moved here around age 14, but I had some English skills by then.  Enough to outsmart the rest of my class in regular English classes, so that probably tells you how bad the American educational system is and/or how apathetic and unappreciative the average American student is.  What baffled me the most was all the regionalisms and slang and how quickly everyone spoke.  I spent a lot of time looking up words and then practicing how I’d use them and repeating along with my television (Dawson’s Creek, bless my poor soul) to try to get rid of my accent.  I got good grades mostly because everything we were studying in 9th grade math and science I’d already learned before.  Mexican schools (I was lucky enough to have access to some good schools there, since I know many aren’t) start teaching o-chem in middle school and basic algebra in late elementary.  Here in the US, my 9th grade classmates were barely starting to learn what a variable was and to count moles in chemical formulas.  So that part was easy for me.  One thing I did like about the American schools was how broad the opportunities were.  I could take band and a sport and be in the yearbook staff and so many other activities.  It was a lot more diverse than what I had experienced before. 

    1. what’s the Mexican school system like in general, do you know? Since you had access to better schools.  I’m wondering if it’s better than here. 

  3. My friends and I have been talking about this story since last week, racking up nearly a hundred comments on a Google+ thread about it. It’s very heartening to see this approach — and the appreciation both the children and the parents have for what the school has taught them. Also, the youngest child’s Russian is nearly flawless! I wonder whether Cliff Levy, whom I have followed for the past several years through his NYT stories from Moscow, will do a follow-up about adjusting again — this time to the American school system.
    When we first came to the States, I was nearly 14 and had taken English — British, mostly grammar — for almost 3 years. I spoke very little, though, and spent the first month understanding every 10th word or so. Because I had had English classes before, I was put into an ESL study hall, in which the teacher was supposed to help me with homework. In reality, it was just an empty hour. The books they gave us to help us figure our way around things like idiomatic expressions and specifics of life in the Midwest were mostly useless (out-dated expressions like “full of baloney,” etc. were prominent). By the time I graduated from high school, I was the editor of my high school newspaper, which won a Gold Crown award at the Columbia Scholastic Press Awards. And I won a couple of other awards for my stories. This is not to say that I’m an exceptional writer or that I have any special abilities. I think what really helped me to integrate into the English-speaking environment was having learned Spanish from a very early age. I basically read in Spanish before I could even read Russian, and I used my vocabulary knowledge to compare with English when I didn’t know a word. Basically, it was like studying for the GRE or the SAT — the root systems are similar, so you can figure out the word’s meaning without actually knowing it.

    1. My ESL experience was so different! 
      I had an amazing ESL teacher, who did two two-hour one on one sessions with me every week. I was the only ESL student in my grade, so I got a lot out of it. I was 12 at the time, and it took me about six months to be fully integrated. I remember she used to bring in articles from like, TEEN BEAT magazine  and we would read about the Backstreet Boys. At first I was like, WTF why are we not reading Dickens or something, but in retrospect it was a really good way to get an understanding of North American tween culture. It definitely helped me be less FOB-is at the time.Obviously reading about BSB was a very small part of it. We also worked on grammar and spelling and had tests and quizzes. It was such a useful experience and she made it really, really fun.

  4. I lived in SoCal for 1st-4th grades.  The schools were so bad in that area that my parents pulled me out to homeschool me.  I was so bored (they were learning times tables for the first half of 3rd grade and it took me about a week to understand/memorize the concept) that I brought books to school to read in the middle of class.  So yeah, I was disciplined for reading.
    THEN, after spending 2 years in a DOD school in Sicily (which was actually pretty decent, besides nearly getting molested – no joke) I came back to mainland USA for 7th grade, where I was again bored because they were going so slowly.  But at least I liked girls at this point, so I wasted time ogling, instead of something stupid like reading.
    I think I learned more in the two years of homeschooling than I did in 5 whole years of public education.  And compared to anything I’ve heard about foreign primary education, even homeschooling is crap.  You know, this is what happened to the egyptians, greeks, romans, and mayans.  The existing hegemony got too comfortable at the top.
    Also, I’ll stand by my position that communism will work if you only let the people who really believe in it participate.  and by participate, I mean live.

      1. You misspelled “Frodo”.  Also, I don’t think that was a line from LotR. 
        If I had seen the godfather, I wouldn’t look so stupid now.  (i had to google the quote).

  5. I was so incredibly disappointed with the NY Times article. Yes, good on them for immersing their children in the culture, good on them for realizing that constantly telling your child they are a special, special snowflake can be detrimental. However, as someone who went through the post-soviet school system, I can tell you that what those children received was in no way, shape or form authentic Russian education.  The author’s children were nurtured and supported in a private school that just happened to be taught in Russian. The reality of public schools is quite different.
    Honestly, I am a huge supporter of the North American education system.  Sure, it may seem pretty lax in comparison, but it teaches critical thinking, something that is very much discouraged and often punished in the Russian school system.  Also, in my personal experience, I found that North American system encourages understanding of concepts, rather than blindly memorizing and reciting them.  Obviously, it is not a perfect system by any means, and there are many, many things that need to be improved upon*.
    I do see why the Russian education system seem appealing to some.  And I’m not trying to completely shit on it.  I do wish there was a happy medium between the two.  Every child doesn’t necessarily need a participation award for just showing up but in the same vein, I don’t think that rating kids in the order from smartest to dumbest is the best way to go about motivation.
    ·        * I went to school in Canada, I have no concept of the American public school system. 

    1. Until moving to the States in the middle of 8th grade, I went to a public gimnaziya in Moscow. Yes, it was a specialized, bi-lingual school with an emphasis on Spanish (one of three in Moscow at the time) and yes, we had “tests” to get into the school before first grade — basic reading & math proficiency as well as thinking, like putting a puzzle together, answering zagadki, etc. Still, it had all the hallmarks of Soviet & post-Soviet educational bureaucracy — the linei’kas (until 3rd grade); the crazy zavuch; the loud and unfeeling khimoza; etc. Perhaps because my mother also was a teacher at the school (though she never taught either me or my sister), I was lucky enough to be put in the class that seemed to get the best teachers throughout my years there. Our program encouraged critical thinking, both our brains & our spirits were nurtured. In sixth grade, we spent the entire year reading mysteries & science fiction as an experiment in analyzing the world. Our history teacher would take us on tours around Moscow — the kind where you stop in front of a building, ask Alexei’ Yur’evich who lived there & what it was used for, and he’d know the entire story. We wrote essays that analyzed why Sophia Paleolog married Ivan III (or why the latter wanted to marry her) and why the opening of the Northern Sea Route was an important achievement for the Empire.
      Yes, the Russian educational system is highly flawed. I keep in touch with my friends and my teachers from my school, and the stories I hear are horrifying. (Teachers directly asking for bribes for the tutoring they’re supposed to provide anyway; school principals denying admission to those who merit it for financial reasons; overcrowding; books with mistakes, etc.) But I think we have to look at individual schools — and there are gems even among the public education system.

    2. I think they received much more of a Russian education than the kids that didn’t. And yeah, they were in a private school, but from the footage I could tell it was distinctively Russian and much different than American education. When Emmett started speaking Russian on the vdeo, I almost cried.  It’s such a beautiful gift for the parents to give to the kids. 

  6. <<<I read the story you posted from the NYT and my first thought was “It’s been done before by millions of us here in the US!  You aren’t a speshul snowflake!” because I am a bad person. >>
    Yes!  This is exactly what I thought/did, and then I yelled at my husband for sending me this article to read.
    I came to the US in the second grade and was immediately put in a Jewish Day School where I not only spoke no English, but no Hebrew, either.  While they put me in with the first graders for Hebrew (where I was still so lost I spent many a class period simply copying the letters on the board as if they were an art project), they kept me in 2nd grade for the general subjects.  So when handed a piece of paper, I wrote compositions – in Russian.  We arrived in January of the year, and I recall not being able to understand a word anyone said (I also remember that the school had a pool and swimming time and that I showed up the first day like a fine, Soviet girl, in just underpants… no swimsuit.  They had to scramble to find me one.) but by the end of the year, June, I remember explaining in pretty clear English that I had a new baby brother, so the whole immersion thing couldn’t have taken that long.
    I am a huge believer in immersion.  All ESL does is prolong the process and make sure you get further and further behind.
    When it comes to school for my own kids, it’s private school in NYC.  We toured our local public school.  There was an essay on the wall, “World War II began in 1943…”
    And… no.

    1. So true about ESL.  I came in 11th grade, and was put into ESL, which bored me to tears.  I wasn’t exactly ready for regular English, but I knew that ESL was not preparing me for that anyway.  I insisted on transferring to regular English, which my teacher said I can do if I want, but she wasn’t too supportive of it either.  I think she wanted more students in her class.
      What I needed was an immersion.  I went on to reading books and making flashcards.  It would never happen in a CA ESL class.

  7. Besides the slight accent I had before going to school with actual Americans, I escaped the immersion thing but my sister was not so lucky. She was in ESL and had some pretty traumatic bullying experiences because not only was she an immigrant, she was an Ethiopian! AIDs, famine, and Kunta Kente/Roots jokes galore were suffered by the pair of us.
    American schools made me math dumb too! I’m taking Trig Analysis. I am unworthy of Pre-Calculus! It’s all good though. I’ll take AP Stat next year, it’ll make me feel less slow (I hope). I’m in a freaking STEM program in the ‘burbs but my math teacher gives A’s for effort.  Needless to say, I’m unamused. 
    My parents were both teachers in Ethiopia (and then later there was some revolutionary blah blah stuff) and they used to buy me workbooks for like two grade levels ahead that I would have to work on in addition to the actual homework because of how jank our education system is. My parents reasoning for expecting all 100% all the time was “If you fail* in Amayrika, you fail everywhere. You know what B’s get you? McDonald job! I did not come to zees country for you to become lazy!”

    *anything below an A. Immigrant standards, woot woot! 

    1. OH MY GOD.  MY PARENTS ALSO USED THE MCDONALD’S JOB THING. Must be a psychic immigrant situation.  Hang in there with the math.  Stats is hard, but probably the most useful you’ll take in terms of real world stuff. 

  8. I love that your are drinking wine, while veeloging… classic. And also, you made “some people” blush, when you mentioned their love for all things communism.
    Anyways, back to the matter at hand. I was already of age, when we came to the states, and was trying my best to convince my mom to let me go to the Community College, but, because it was the equivalent of a “teknikum” (and what self-respected Jew will ever allow their precious child to go into such an unfine educational environment, right?) and following  the advice of “many knowledgeable people from immigrant school”, I was forced to go to Northeast High School for the first year and a half. My first ESL class consisted of a middle-aged woman in white stockings (the most shocking factor, when compared to Russian teachers) telling us “Repeat after me, Bill Clinton is the best president! Bill Clinton was a great president”. I could not speak English at All. Given that I was at the end of my teenage years that turned into a problem. I spent hours/days/months translating textbooks into Russian, or blindly memorizing pages of materials for the exams. I could only talk/be friends with Russian/Ukrainian Jews (the rest were anti-semitic), and was denied a chance to participate in Mock trial and other school events due to “poor command of the language”.
    However, the worst experience came, when I came to PSU. After my parents dropped me off and left, I was stuck with an American roommate, whose idea of good time was spraying our reoom with her shaving cream and doing the nasty with her boyfriend in our room, while I was there. I took 16 credits and then 21 credits the next semester and could barely understand anything the profs were saying. For my first political science class, I literally memorized 3 chapters by heart and re-wrote them from memory for the exam. Somehow I passed. 
    It was not until the end of my sophomore year and after meeting BIll (who blabbered in English non-stop) that I started to finally feel a little more comfortable at school. And, as you know, I still have an accent, only know it’s a source of pride, not embarrassment, like it was before.
    and now I am off to read the NYT article. Thanks for the great discussion topic!

  9. There is more than enough substandard schools in Russia, but kids from good families went to good schools.
    Aside from the self-esteem movement, the main problem with American schools is the humanities curriculum or lack of thereof.  Russian high school student read something like half of the Russian cannon.  Here we no longer believe in cannon, so we read something little contemporary.
    American public education might just be utterly hopeless, and the best student of tomorrow will probably be homeschooled.

    1. Actually, I am pretty against homeschooling.  I think the best combination is the Asian tiger mom: doing well in school, then getting enrichment at home. 

      1. I have to disagree with that.  One problem with the Tiger mom model is that kids don’t have time to develop their personalities.  Another problem is that parents are not allowed to have any fun, which is not good for kids either.  Here is what PJ O”Rourke said about Amy Chua:
        What seems weird about homeschooling is that children don’t get to socialize unsupervised.  At the same time, with notable exceptions of select private schools, schools are glorified babysitting.  They take up a lot of time, but don’t do much good.  Homeschooling works because personalized instruction works so well.  It also works because homeschooling parents don’t fill the heads of their children with fluffy nonsense.  
        In Russia, we were free-ranged.  We played outside unsupervised since before we started grade school.  We walked to school with friends unaccompanied by parents.  School was more demanding than time-consuming.  We figured out what we liked on our own.  We had one, two at most after-school activities.  Sometimes none at all.  I liked reading books and draw, but I watched a good deal of TV too. 

        1. right.  I agree. It’s good to have a balance of everything: emphasis on schoolwork, but also some downtime so the kid doesn’t end up in a mental asylum later.  Which is why, I would guess, good parenting is hard.  It’s your goal as a parent to provide the balance of things that will make your kid grow up normal .

  10. Mainly I just like the implication that the cheesy video they showed us in seventh grade civics about how democracy was the best form of government was more important than all of the algebra and calculus I ever took. 
    And there’s a pretty huge variation among public schools in America.  My school in Maryland had a lot more families with professional parents, while a huge chunk of my class in Virginia aspired to do nothing more than find work in an auto shop.  The parents there by and large had low expectations for their kids, and the schools generally didn’t try too hard to rise above them.  When we moved there, the school had just started to offer Algebra I in seventh grade, but it was deemed too difficult for seventh graders, so they split it into a two-year course.  I am glad that my parents insisted on putting me in the regular Algebra I, so I and one other kid spent all of high school taking classes from a year ahead.  I’m certain that plenty of my classmates were capable of doing the same, but that possibility never occurred to the school.  One likely effect of all the emphasis on standardized testing is that schools have much more incentive to educate students to a certain minimum point than to offer advanced studies.  In the following years, more and more kids ended up taking the same track, which also involved driving to the high school for Algebra II in eighth grade, so at least it finally became normal. 

  11. Okay, I’m probably being a bit nit-picky here because I’m not so down on the American school system as you are (I think that as long as you’re at a place with a decent honors track, you’ll be fine, however selfish that may be), but there’s an age gap in your vlog that you fail to mention.  I live in Moscow and the kids here start their public education (i.e. “1st grade”) later than we’re used to – age 7.  What you say about learning times tables before you start school might indeed be a common practice (though none of my Muscovite friends with kids have mentioned it – I’ll have to poll them and get back to you), but in any case, if they cover it the first year when the kids are 7-turning-8, that’s the same time we did when I was at school…
    I have, however, heard plenty of my Russian friends’ complaints about their kids’ schooling here that would make your hair curl.  I think that both sides are too extreme – they’re complaining about something fresh, present, and in-your-face, so some exaggeration is entailed; and I think you guys are waxing a bit nostalgic and rosy there too, no offense intended…

    1. I’m not saying everyone learned the times tables before they went to school, but I think it’s an example of how involved my parents were in my education, and I think most Russian kids’ parents I know were involved in a similar way, either by teaching them stuff on their own ahead of the curve, or making them take Russian or math or chess after school.  I’d love to get some anecdotes from other immigrants here, but I’m betting if they’re Indian or Chinese or other Eastern European kids growing up in America, they had the same thing. 

      And yup, we’re being nostalgic..that’s what being born in a country that doesn’t exist anymore is all about ;) 

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