The trick was to get them to debate about their pets. I had been teaching English in Ochakiv, a small Ukrainian town for over a month, and none of my 5th graders had said anything more to me than their name and to ask me for the bathroom key--in Russian. When I joined the Peace Corps, they told me that I might run in to this type of stone-walling from students who were not used to dealing with foreigners, with their strange accents and intense desire to discuss things not in the text book. Still, playing "Simon Says" hadn't worked, and neither had me bringing in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (which they hated), and I was getting frustrated. As usual, debate saved the day.
Out of a combination of desperation and exhaustion, I asked Nadia, a blond girl with a blank but alert expression in the front row, if she preferred dogs or cats. Here eyes lit up and she smiled. "I have a dog. He is 'Boomer.' He is two years old, and he is better than any cat in the world" It turned out that debating about animals is a universal passion for 10 year olds, and everyone chimed in. With the ice finally broken, I learned that Dima had a cat named Max who he argued was fiercer than any dog he had ever seen, and that Sasha thought that fish were better because they were easy to feed (he gave his fish bits of vereniki before school). Debate was a hit with my students, so I started teaching them parliamentary debate--in English.
One day towards the end of the year, during a heated debate between Dima and Roddick about whether or not Ukraine should join NATO, the Vice-Director opened the door with alarm, thinking the students had revolted. Yuri politely explained, “Fso normana, mbi havarim!" (Everything's fine, we're speaking!). Students who months before were unable to tell me the time in English were having intense discussions about important political issues that affected their lives.
My students were only a generation removed from living in the Soviet Union. Their parents did not have the right to express their opinions in public much less have debates in which they could express their views honestly. I asked another English teacher in my school about debate in the Soviet Union, and even though there were no KGB officers or recording devices in the walls anymore, she was still reluctant to talk about it. For me, this highlighted the importance of debate and discussion clubs in Eastern European schools. Only by encouraging and teaching debate can people move beyond their fear of open expression. If this begins with the debates about dogs and cats, so be it.Thomas McCloskey, past IDEA trainer