of The "American Home" in Vladimir, Russia
Walking down the frosty streets of Vladimir, one is hard pressed to find any signs of Western culture. All around are symbols of old Russia: the glorious Golden Gates, the imposing Uspenskii Sobor, the babushkas selling potatoes at the markets. In contrast to many European cities, and indeed, to Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is nearly impossible to find a billboard written in English. Vladimir is, in almost every respect, hard-core Russian.
Or so it would seem. One's initial impression of Vladimir is sure to change with a bit of investigation. Ask any cab driver in town what "Letneperevozinskaya, house 3" means and he'll say, "That's the address of the American Home." Talk to the English-speaking students at the Pedagogical University and many of them will tell you they study at the American Home. Turn on the television and you'll see a group of enthusiastic American Home teachers wishing the people of Vladimir a Happy New Year. In short, the American Home has become something of a legend in this sleepy winter wonderland. With approximately 250 students taking classes every semester, the interaction between Russians and Americans has reached new heights.
The American Home exists not only to provide its students with high-quality English instruction, but to spice up the study of English with cultural information and American humor. At the Home, becoming familiar with American slang and colloquial speech plays as great a role as mastering English grammar. Students are encouraged to do everything they can to effectively communicate with each other during class. And the learning doesn't stop there. Three Saturdays a month, students are invited to watch English-language movies in the American Home "rec-room." In addition, upper-level students are welcome to participate in English Club events which are held at least once a month during the academic year. Such events have included parties for Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, lectures given by teachers and guest speakers, and baseball games on the lawn.
While one obvious reason behind the American Home's success is its emphasis on fun, another important factor is the incredible opportunity that it has made available to the people of Vladimir. A large percentage of the locals have never left Russia. Some of them have not made it as far as Moscow. But here, only a trolley bus-ride away from their homes, is a bastion of American culture. Six native speakers. Hundreds of books and magazines. Dozens of films. America, the beautiful, right in Vladimir's backyard.
Among other things, studying at the American Home has prompted many of our students to inquire about exchange programs in the United States. To aid them in these endeavors, we have invited study abroad program representatives from Moscow to speak on several occasions. Our students are now aware of the countless options they have. A substantial number of them are eager to study in American universities and are grateful for the information and assistance the American Home staff is able to provide. One of my students, Lena Yakuseva, expressed shocked delight when I actually agreed to write her a recommendation for her to study at a university in America. Apparently one of her Russian professors had offered to "help" her in this capacity on the condition that she write this recommendation herself! Needless to say, ethics in Russia differ from ethics in America. Our students are invariably struck by the way that we conduct affairs at the American Home. This experience will likely prove invaluable to those who choose to pursue careers in areas such as international business.
Not surprisingly, our students are quite happy at the American Home. One student, Roman Ryabinkin, has commented that "students can learn English anywhere they want, but only at the American Home can they interact with native speakers" Gregory Fateev enjoys studying at the American Home because there he engages in "international communication that helps everyone understand each other." Ksenya Tsaryova likes the American Home because the "lessons are especially interestingyou can talk, speak, ask, answer, argue, and feel the English around you." Lena Spiridonova has this to say: "My English classes at the university are boring. When I say something wrong, my teacher bites my head off. At the American Home, teachers are always nice and understanding." This emphasis on positive feedback is one element of the American Home's pedagogy that continues to attract students. They are constantly impressed by the open, friendly atmosphere in our classes. A number of our students are currently studying at the Vladimir State Pedagogical University in order to become certified foreign language teachers. One can only assume that the American Home's progressive methods will "rub off" on them. In this connection, Svetlana Kontarchuk writes, "The American Home is 'cooler' and better than school. Here you can relax and speak on various topics. The atmosphere is friendly and we celebrate American holidays. It's the best way to learn."
Equally satisfied are the teachers who work at the American Home every year. Living in Vladimir for a year, sometimes two, affords them the opportunity to witness the slow and fascinating transformation that is currently taking place in Russia. As mentioned above, the American Home is one of the few signs of Western influence in Vladimir. Only very recently did MTV-Russia arrive in town, further exemplifying the gradual changes that will occur over the next couple of decades as Western influence becomes more prevalent. It is an incredibly exciting time to be in Russia. Teaching at the American Home allows one to observe these changes firsthand. This year's financial crisis, while certainly not a pleasant reality, has made working here particularly interesting. The fact that people who haven't received a paycheck or pension in months, yet somehow manage to survive, clearly demonstrates the incredible nature of Russian life.
In addition to the cultural, social, economic, and historical education that one can receive in Vladimir, the chance to greatly improve one's Russian is another major benefit. Teachers work along side a Russian staff and live with Russian host families. This informal language training is complemented by three hours a week of lessons with private tutors. It is impossible to walk away from this experience without a noticeable improvement in one's language ability.
All in all, the American Home provides a program that benefits both the students and the teachers. Such a situation is difficult to find these days in Russia. It is a program in which everyone wins.
NOTE: An abbreviated version of this essay was published in the January-February 2000 issue of Transitions Abroad magazine. Also, in May 1999 Charity married American Home staff member Roman Ryabinkin. They have both found challenging jobs in the U.S.