Archives for posts with tag: teaching

Wildflowers and mountains, very Bakuriani

I FINALLY made it to Bakuriani! It’s odd that I’d never been there before, as it’s just up the mountain from Borjomi, one of my favorite weekend getaways. I went there a different way than I usually travel, though; I was teaching at a summer camp held there. It was, to be honest, a pretty sweet gig (despite some incredibly rude kids): as a teacher I wasn’t responsible for the kids outside my class hours, so I got to have plenty of free time to read novels, go on walks, and catch up on Jane the Virgin. Bakuriani is primarily famous as a ski resort, but they’ve done quite well in marketing themselves as a summer destination, too. The place was full of summer camps and families relaxing outside the heat of Tbilisi. Though room rates are cut in half for summer, it looked like the hotel was making a fairly good profit selling the campers Coca-Cola and ice cream. It was on average about 10*C cooler in Bakuriani than back in Tbilisi, making the weather just lovely. We were lucky to have sunshine for the majority of our time there, and somehow I didn’t spot any mosquitoes!

Since camp was keeping the hotels quite full, I actually spent time in three different hotels: Hotel Ritza, Hotel Ana-Maria, and Hotel Edemi.  None of them were perfect, but all of them were quite good–especially for the summer season prices. I was definitely comfortable. They all seem to be managed by the same people, but Ana-Maria was the most recently renovated.


View of Aghmashenebeli Street from below, where Hotels Ritza (the big yellow one left of center), Ana-Maria, and Edemi are located.

Since I was at summer camp, I didn’t try any of the restaurants in town, eating with the camp at Ritza. The strawberry-apple jam and (home made?) pelmeni were excellent (though pelmeni for breakfast was hard on my stomach). Other meals were less impressive, but nothing was disgusting or anything. Likewise, I can’t comment on transportation to Bakuriani, as I traveled on the camp bus, though I hear the train up from Borjomi is wonderful.


Thunderstorms rolling in over the mountains at dusk

Everyone working in the little shops in town was incredibly friendly and helpful (not always the norm), and I really liked walking around, poking in various places, and exploring. The town layout was pretty simple, so I never worried about getting lost. One nice little walk was to a suspended footbridge behind the “Bakuriani Resorts” hotel (I think that’s near the “Otsdakhutianebi” ski slope. Visiting the Didveli ski slope and taking the cable car up was also fun, but be warned–5 GEL only gets you halfway up; you’ll need to spend another 5 GEL for the next cable car further to the top (I didn’t…this time). There’s quite a lot to do in Bakuriani (I didn’t have time to do it all): it has one of the few cinemas outside of Tbilisi, there’s an amusement park and a botanical garden, and you can rent horses, bicycles or ATVs to go for a ride. The scenery is beautiful, and in early July, at least, all the meadows were full of wildflowers. Bakuriani is definitely a nice place to escape the summer heat and relax–I hope to go back sometime soon, maybe I’ll even try skiing.


I’m an actress.

Well, no I’m not–I’m a teacher, but often the two are the same thing.  As a kid I wanted to be an actress, and all the acting classes I took have been the single most useful thing for me in trying to be a good English teacher.  (I’m not saying that this can replace professional teacher training, but since I don’t have that, I use the skills I do have to my best advantage)  I don’t often post about my work on the blog because I want to preserve my and my students’ privacy, but I think this is an important topic.  There are lots of English teachers in Georgia now, of all different ages and levels of professionalism.  I have friends who are career ESL teachers or working on their PhDs in pedagogy, while I know others who consider their teaching incidental to the opportunity to enjoy plenty of Georgian wine.  I’m in the middle of this spectrum–I’m not a professional English teacher (before I came to Georgia I was a language learner, a Georgia lover, and a swim teacher), but I take my job seriously.  I owe it to my students to be the best English teacher I can be–and to do that I have to invoke the skills I learned in Middle School Drama Club.

Em and her friend T in the 8th Grade Play. Em was the octogenarian dowager princess in a version of Sleeping Beauty.

Build your character Teacher Em is really a character I play while I’m in the classroom.  Teacher Em is far more confident than Regular Em, and Teacher Em knows far more about English Grammar.  When I get ready to teach, I get dressed and do my make-up for my role.  The clothes I wear, the make-up (Regular Em doesn’t wear much) are all part of getting myself into character.  I think of myself in my teacher persona before I go to class, and then I have the confidence to stand up in front of people for two hours and be an expert on the English language.

Learn your lines.  Although developing a teacher persona helps me feel confident enough to stand in front of my class, Teacher Em can only make it so far if she hasn’t got a clue what the Present Perfect Continuous is (In case you’re wondering, that’s “have been” constructions) .  This is why prepping for class, like learning your lines, is vital.  I don’t script an entire class and then memorize it, of course, but I make a point to look at the activities and grammar explanations before I stand in front of my students.  Sometimes their questions still catch me off guard, but that’s what improv is for (also, that’s what saying “That’s a good question. I’ll find the answer for you by the next class” is for).

Enunciate. This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised.  Speaking English clearly helps the students understand, and improve their own pronunciation.  And all those diction tongue-twisters we learned in Drama Club warm-ups make an in-class activity that even older students enjoy.

Energy! Energy! Energy! It’s rather tricky to teach your students anything if they’re fighting to keep from falling asleep.  Bring the energy to help them stay engaged.

And even if something unexpected happens, in teaching like in the theatre The show must go on!

So…I went to Prom on Tuesday night.  Actually, I didn’t know that I was going to Prom until I was there (besting my “spur-of-the-moment” decision to attend my Junior Prom in high school because I found a pretty dress for only $7 the weekend before).  Thankfully, it had been a hot day and I happened to be wearing a sundress.  This stroke of luck kept me from being TOO under-dressed.  My first inkling that perhaps the “banquet” (ბანკეტი bank’et’i) I was attending was a bit more of an event than an end-of-the-year awards ceremony was seeing my colleagues, who were all wearing cocktail dresses and had their hair in formal up-dos. Our school director was looking very elegant in a floor-length evening dress.   Clearly something was up.  While the teachers were waiting for the (now former) students to arrive, I chatted with one of the teachers who speaks English well.  She let the cat out of the bag that I was, in fact, attending a Georgian prom, and she and I had an interesting discussion of graduation and the surrounding events  (such as prom and banket’i) in Georgia and America.

In order for me to compare and contrast Georgian bank’et’i and American prom, come take a stroll down memory lane with me to my high-school days of the early 2000s.  I attended a stereotypically All-American high school in a small town in the Midwest.  (The first few episodes of Glee will give you an idea of what my high school was like, but then they strayed further into fiction).  Our town had just one high school, and most peoples’ parents had attended it together years ago (albeit in a different building).  Football was a big deal, although our team wasn’t particularly good—we were quite strong in Speech and Debate, Cross-Country, Swimming, and Volleyball, though.  The high school housed grades 9-12, and there were roughly 1200 students.  As I recall, at graduation my class had a bit less than 300 students.  Prom was held in the esteem that it is in teen movies.  The Junior and Senior classes had one big dance together—the Junior student council did the planning, and the seniors got to enjoy their hard work.  (It turns out that this isn’t the norm, though it seems like a perfectly sensible arrangement to me).  “Grand March,” the promenade portion of prom, was held in the school’s theater to often sold-out crowds, and was broadcast on local television.  The dance itself was held in the cafeteria, which the student council had decorated: as I recall, my Junior Prom was titled “Beneath the Milky Twilight” and Senior Prom was “Cruise-In to Paradise”.  At the dance itself, the DJ played mostly pop songs with a few older songs “from our childhood” and some “party dances” like Cotton-Eyed Joe and the Macarena thrown in.  The dancers were overwhelmingly girls, jumping up and down in a loose circle, while the guys lingered around the snacks and the punch bowl, and occasionally joined the dancing (generally when dragged by the girls).  Alcohol was, of course, strictly forbidden, and there were police officers with breathalyzers at the doors to enforce this law.  Teachers attended as chaperones, making sure that a certain level of propriety was maintained.  Although my description doesn’t sound like much fun I remember enjoying myself both years, though I was under no illusions that Prom would live up to the hype of “The Most Important Night of My Life”.

I am definitely older and probably wiser now, and attended my Georgian school’s bank’et’i as a teacher/observer, so some of the differences I note are clearly because I experienced the festivities from a different point of view, but others show a difference in the way Georgians and Americans celebrate major events and the way teenagers are treated.

Bank’et’i started off stereotypically Georgian—though it was allegedly supposed to begin at 8, nothing happened until 9:30.  The party kicked off with the students and their head teacher processing into the room to the dulcet (?) tones of “Party Rock Anthem”.  Although I knew that the graduating class wasn’t particularly large, I didn’t realize exactly how small a group they were until it only took 30 seconds for them all to make their dramatic entrance.  There were only 15-20 of them—mostly boys.  The hall was arranged with three tables: one next to each wall, with a wide open space for dancing at the front and in the center.  One table was for the graduates, one for their mothers (there were no fathers present), and one for the teachers.  The mothers had prepared a full-fledged supra for the evening.  And no supra is complete without wine.  I know that teenagers are allowed to drink in Georgia, but it still surprised me how non-chalant everyone was about students and teachers drinking together at an official school event.  When the students hit the dance floor, it was the boys who were most eager to cut a rug—and since they outnumbered the girls, they came to the teachers’ table looking for dance partners.  The teachers gladly joined in, particularly on old pop favorites and traditional Georgian dances (they were less enthusiastic about some contemporary pop music—their faces revealed that “Sexy and I Know It” is unlikely to become a smash hit with the older generation of Georgians).  Kids, parents, and teachers danced, drank, and celebrated together.  I was surprised at the level of social interaction between teachers and students and the lack of social distance between them–used as I am to the  division between work and fun, and the taboo against adults and children dancing or drinking together, I was initially uncomfortable being asked to dance by teenaged students from my school.  Clearly, though, this is perfectly acceptable in Georgia, and it does make a nice endpoint to their school experience–spending time with the people they have relied on for the last twelve years: their classmates, their parents, and their teachers.  Though I felt strange and awkward attending my Georgian school’s bank’et’i, I also felt strange and awkward at my own Prom (I was, after all, a teenager at the time),  In the end, my Georgian school’s “Prom” was a fun, fond farewell to the graduates…and the addition of khachapuri didn’t hurt, either!

(Sorry for the lack of awkward prom photos.  I hope I hadn’t gotten your hopes up too much.  I forgot my camera on Tuesday night, and the pictures of me from my prom have disappeared…and it doesn’t seem quite fair to post photos of my prom and potentially embarrass my friends if I’m not there, too).

Working on Russian homework. Note that I've got three languages going at once in my notebook. The Georgian-language Russian textbook should make a good souvenir, though!

In an attempt to better integrate into my school and keep Russian and Georgian from jumbling together in my head, I’ve started sitting in on the eighth-grade (second-year) Russian class at my school.  (I studied Russian in both undergrad and grad school, and my Russian is generally better than my Georgian, though still embarassingly poor after six years of study with fantastic professors.  In contrast, I’ve only had two years of actual Georgian classes.)

The difference I see between the students in Russian class and in my English class is quite pronounced.  Part of this comes from the age of the students.  Georgian students now start English in first grade, and used to start in third or fourth grade.  (I co-teach all the first through sixth grade classes in my school).  By contrast, the Russian class is eighth grade, and the students started studying Russian in seventh grade.  In my experience, eighth graders are far less excited about all things school-related than their elementary-school aged siblings are.  There is also, of course, the political element.  Georgia is trying very hard to move West, and the history with Russia is troubled.  Because of this, English is seen as a cool language that will help them in the future (and helps them listen to pop music now) whereas Russian is just another of the subjects that they have to learn in school because their teachers make them.  My school’s Russian teacher is (IMHO) quite good, and despite the lack of motivation, the kids are learning Russian.  I love sitting in on the class—on one level it requires some major mental gymnastics on my part.  The grammatical explanations and translations of hard vocabulary all come in Georgian!  This doesn’t help me figure out what the word means, but helps me practice switching between the two languages in my head and should help me pick up some new Georgian vocabulary.  On the other hand, Russian class is relaxing—Russian is EVERYONE’s second language, so we’re on much more equal footing than we are in either English or Georgian.  My Georgians speak very good English, but I still have to sometimes rephrase, explain, or slow down for them to understand me.  Everyone knows how hard it can be to live your life in a foreign language, but it’s also difficult to live in your native language with people who speak it as a foreign language (even if they speak it excellently) because you always have to think if the words you’re using are comprehensible, and make sure you don’t talk too fast.  My Russian isn’t good enough for this to be a problem.  Maybe with more practice and use, I’ll soon get to the point when I’m not confused when a taxi driver speaks to me in Russian.

All public schools in Georgia are closed today and tomorrow due to the snow!  (If you don’t believe me, see the official Ministry of Science and Education statement here).  I had to be told this in three different languages before I believed it, and the idea that schools are closed nation-wide still makes my head spin a little.  My immediate reaction, of course, was “Oh! Four-day weekend! Maybe I can travel?”.  We’ll see how the weather progresses before making any decisions on that one.  You can see in this picture of me and my students outside our school (taken by one of my co-teachers) that there is some serious (record-breaking, apparently) snow in Kakheti.

Em and some very brave 3rd and 5th graders outside the school

I’ve now officially started teaching and have met my colleagues and students.  I’m working in a fairly small school (200 students grades 1-12) with two local English teachers teaching grades 1-6.  My school is the poorest in our town, and many of the students can’t afford to buy their textbooks, but the other students always share with them.  All the students are so excited to learn English that they are literally jumping out of their chairs to answer my questions.  Motivating the students doesn’t seem to be a problem at all, but keeping order in class might be.

Our school has two English classrooms, one very big and the other quite small.  The more senior English teacher has been working with other native-speaker volunteers for years, and with them has received multiple grants to create a more comfortable classroom environment for our students. She has a little English library in the back, lots of decorations on the walls, and fairly good teaching technology.  The other English teacher is fairly new to the school, and hasn’t yet had the time to nest in her classroom as much.  Her room is also much larger.  Though the classrooms are far from barren, they are freezing.  The school is primarily heated by wood ovens, which are great when you’re standing right next to them, but due to the lack of insulation the heat doesn’t reach very far.  It’s normal for teachers and students alike to be wearing their winter coats, hats, and gloves in the classroom.

Though my school is poor, it seems to be a really great learning environment.  The teachers care very much about their students, and want to do as much as they can for them.

Elise is off doing wonderful things and making change as a Peace Corps Volunteer and English teacher in Ukraine.  She’s putting together a project to buy English books for her school.  Elise is really a great person–and she’s given me plenty of advice for preparing to go back to Georgia in an entirely different capacity and given me pointers on working and teaching in the Former Soviet Union.  You should visit her original post here, but I’m re-posting the entire post in its entirety so that the word gets out.  And, as she mentions, you should provide your contact info for a thank-you card from her kids–I got one for a box of books I sent and it was ADORABLE.

English Textbook Grant

Posted on December 21, 2011

I am very pleased to announce that my Partnership grant, which has been in the works for a very large part of my Peace Corps Service, has finally become a reality. We finished everything last week, signed it, and today I got an email from Washington, DC saying that it is available on the website for donations.

Please, if at all possible, make a donation to this grant! Every dollar counts. Just $15 will guarantee that one of the students will have a textbook to use until they graduate. However, any amount you can donate to this project will be greatly appreciated.  Also, please know that donations through Peace Corps are tax-deductible.

To donate, click here. It will take you to the official Peace Corps website, and to information about the project. It is called “English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential.” Then, enter the amount you want to donate and follow the instructions. 

You can also go to and click on “Donate to Volunteer Projects” on the left hand side. In the search bar, type in Stephens or 343-294 to get to my project. It is called “English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential.”  Then, enter the amount you want to donate and follow the instructions.  

***Please note, if you donate to the general fund of Peace Corps or Ukraine, the money will not go to this project.***

English Textbooks and Maximizing Potential

One of the biggest struggles for teachers nowadays is the lack of motivation among their students. Luckily, our specialized school for foreign languages doesn’t have that problem. Students specifically attend because they want to study English. They dream of becoming translators, journalists, diplomats – even actors and actresses.

With eager students, passionate English teachers and more lessons per week than a general school (5 compared to 2-3), our school’s potential for success is great. However, the reality is that motivated teachers and students are not enough, if the foundation of the educational curriculum itself is inadequate.

We don’t have enough books for our students. Students have to share them, so no one can take them to complete homework. Using them in class is problematic; in addition to having 2 or 3 students to one book, the books are outdated, disjointed and full of errors. Despite extremely low salaries, teachers try to supplement the books by buying additional materials. New textbooks are desperately needed but this community just can’t afford it.

This grant would allow us to buy new textbooks. With modern, relevant books, grammar and vocabulary lessons would build upon each other, ensuring that language skills are repeated and revised. Lessons based on new textbooks would result in a more cohesive curriculum with defined objectives. Teachers would be able to do their jobs better. Students would have no limits to their progress.

With your help, our school can maximize its full potential and propel its students towards a successful future.

If you can’t donate monetarily, I encourage you to read my colleague’s list of suggestions: If You Can’t Give Money.  Anything you can do to help with this grant project is greatly appreciated!”

As I’ve mentioned before, when I chose to return to Georgia, I decided to collect as many books as I could to bring with me.  As research, I stopped by my local public library and chatted with the Children’s and YA Librarians about what books they thought might be appropriate for my future students.  They were incredibly helpful and allowed me to branch out beyond my preferences for spunky pioneer girls and vampires to find books that will appeal to a broader range of interests.  The YA librarian kept her discards for me for a few weeks and let me sort through and take the ones I thought would be suitable, so I now have two piles of books for my students (and I’ll get to read them, too)!

So, the moral of the story is, support your public libraries; they’re a great resource for the community and they might just support you some day.

Since I have some time before I leave for Georgia, I decided to use this time to gather books to bring with me.  From my previous travels, I know that Tbilisi has a fantastic English-language bookshop in Prospero’s Books, but I don’t know where in the country I’ll be living, and English-language books are expensive.  I asked for donations from a number of bookstores, and The Wooster Book Company came through for me.  Not only did they send me a box of books, but their taste was exquisite–there were books by some of my favorite YA authors, some classics I’ve been meaning to read, new discoveries I’ve never heard of but look fantastic, and books about the area where I grew up.

Wooster Book was the independent bookstore that I grew up with, and their store is, to me, exactly what a bookstore should be–light and airy with friendly staff and fantastic recommendations, an extensive selection of books and a willingness to track down what they don’t have in stock, coffee available, kitties roaming the store, and in the children’s section they have a stuffed dragon that kids can sit on and read (my parents would never buy me that dragon.  ::sniff::). They are also, I have just learned, the largest independent bookstore in the state (Check out this article about the store).

I urge any of you who can to stop by Wooster Book and make a purchase, or order one of the titles they publish.  They are a great store with great people!

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