Sergey Gordeev for New York Torch published by Columbia Journalism School
The Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. is known in intercollegiate athletics circles for its spirited basketball team. On Saturday mornings, however, the university hosts a different kind of ball game.
Since 1996, the university has been home to School Plus, an academic enrichment program created by Olga Fookson for children of Russian-speaking families.
Fookson believes that games are an integral part of learning. “Our goal is to engage children and to enable them to communicate with their families in their native language,” she said. “And you can’t teach this – or anything else, for that matter – without games. That’s what motivates children.”
This concept is easily illustrated in Marianna Marinich’s 3rd grade Russian language class, which takes place in one of the university’s regular classrooms. The nine students in the class seem like a typical group of elementary school kids: Lena, obviously an “A-student,” keeps her hand up in the air almost the entire time, eager to answer each question posed to the class; Gabi and the two Katya’s are sitting near her and occasionally giggle; the boys – Matthew, Gera, Anton, Sasha and another Mathew – intermittently pay attention, get bored, run around, squabble, and settle down when ordered to do so by the teacher.
Suddenly, the entire class’s attention is galvanized. Marinich asks: “Who wants to play ball?” “I do!!!” screams every child in the room. “Then put your seats in a semi-circle,” says Marinich and starts throwing a soft, plush orange ball to each child.
The game, of course, is not just a game. Each time she throws a ball, Marinich calls out a word and asks the students to come up with a correct diminutive version of it, which in Russian is formed by applying a correct suffix. “Wall!” Marinich says, throwing the ball to Lena. “Little wall!” Lena responds, with the correct suffix, throwing the ball back to Marinich. “Cat!” she says, throwing the ball to Sasha. “Kitten!” he replies, with the correct diminutive version of the word.
Marinich, who has taught at School Plus for the past two years, said it took her some time to come up with her current teaching methods. Having taught 5th, 8th and 9th grade in her native Odessa, Ukraine, where Russian is universally spoken, she realized that she would have to change her approach when teaching children of Russian families living in the U.S.
“They are practically American, and they have not grown up hearing Russian everywhere they go,” Marinich said. “So you have to find ways to engage them – and to get them interested in the Russian language.”
Marinich’s own two children, Gabi, 9, and Matthew, 7, are also part of the class. She said that the class helps her younger son, Matthew, stay in touch with his grandmother in Odessa. “Who did you speak to on the phone yesterday for half an hour?” she asked Matthew, in Russian, on a break between classes. “Grandma,” Matthew responded. “Did you understand everything grandma was saying?” she asked. Matthew nodded affirmatively.
Matthew’s classmate, American-born eight-year-old Sasha Saveliev, also uses Russian language to communicate with his grandparents, who often visit from Moscow to help his busy parents with babysitting.
Sasha’s grandfather, Vladimir Saveliev, 64, recalls, “When Sasha was little, I would read Pinocchio in Russian to him before bedtime. And, sometimes, when I would get tired, I would try to skip a few pages – but Sasha would catch me every time: ‘Deda [an endearing name for a grandfather in Russian], don’t skip, read the whole thing!”
Though they are happy that Sasha speaks and reads in Russian, Sasha’s grandparents wish that his school resembled more of what they experienced when they were growing up. “In our time, we sat there for 45 minutes at a time, hands on the desk, without moving!” said Natalya Saveliev, 63, Sasha’s grandmother. “And here? They just play with a ball!”
The Moscow-born Savelievs also lament the lack of a rigorous reading list that was a key characteristic of the Soviet era school program. They recall having to read Pushkin’s fairy tales and other children’s writers as early as 1st and 2nd grade. However, Fookson, the school director, believes that one must consider the limitations of one-hour-a-week language sessions for the school’s essentially American students.
“The goal of our classes is not to get children to read Russian classics or Soviet writers’ literature for children,” she said. “Rather, it is to enable them to communicate with their families in their original, family, language. And that’s what we focus on. Reading the classics is something that they are not intellectually ready for, and Soviet children’s books are full of references to a life their parents may know, but they don’t. The children would struggle to understand, and it may turn them off the language completely.”
Fookson’s reasoning is not without its share of logic: Sasha’s best friend, eight-year-old Mark Vilkin, finally asked his parents to stop coming to the Russian classes, as he was falling behind and subsequently lost interest in the language. Mark’s parents, both extremely busy financial workers, finally gave up: they did not have the time to work with Mark on his homework and decided to allow him to focus on “neutral” extracurricular activities like soccer, volleyball, hockey and chess.
Mark does, however, continue to attend School Plus’s math classes, which, in addition to Russian language classes, are offered as part of the school’s academic enrichment program.
Fookson explains that School Plus was conceived as a supplement to the American education system, not something meant to take its place. “When we arrived here in 1989 with our two children, we realized that in the American public schools they do not teach children how to think. Children are taught shortcuts and devices, but not how to understand and analyze the concepts that stand behind it. For example, they all know what to do to multiply a fraction by a fraction, but they don’t really know what it means.” So the idea of School Plus became exactly that: a ‘plus,’ a new challenge in addition to all the information that children receive in public schools.
And challenge is what the Russian-speaking families wanted for their children. In addition to Russian-language classes, they have asked for classes in mathematics, physics, biology, drawing, and even chess. All these classes are now offered at School Plus – which since its inception in 1995 has grown from one location in New Jersey to 13 location hosted by schools and universities in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey. Altogether, they serve over 1,300 students.
Sasha’s mom, Larissa Saveliev, 42, said she is happy that such schools exist and credits School Plus for her son’s ability to speak and read in Russian. “Our goal was for him to be able to read and write in Russian – and he does. He may not be able to read Chekhov in original, but if he goes to Moscow, he can make his way around; and if he goes to a museum, he can read the painter’s name underneath a painting… Most importantly, he can talk to his grandparents in the only language they understand – and that alone makes it all worth it.”