Monday, December 28, 2009

Kazakhstani School System

The Kazakhstani school system is quite different from the America system. For starters, students only study for 11 years, rather than 13; they start in first form and go through 11th. Kindergarten here is more like our preschool. It's not mandatory, and parents have to pay to send their children to it. Also, students study six days a week, including Saturday. However, they don't study for as long each day. The younger students are only at school for about four hours, although the 10th and 11th formers stay for about six hours. They can't study for longer because there are two shifts of students studying in the school, one group before lunch and and the other after lunch. There's not enough classroom space for everyone to study at the same time, so classrooms are used by two different groups of students. This means that teachers must often be at school from 8:30 in the morning until 6:00 at night. All of the students study in the same building; there's no separate buildings for elementary, middle, and high school.

Classes are divided very differently than in the States. Students are put into a class group, and they will stay with that same group of 20 or 25 students throughout their entire schooling career. The groups are divided based on a test the kids take when they first enter school at six or seven years old. The “smartest” students, who do the best on the test, are put into the “A” group, the next best into the “B” group, then “C,” “D,” etc. (Although, of course, the names are Cyrillic letters, not Roman.) For the rest of their schooling lives, the students will be identified by their class group, and everyone knows that the A's are the “smartest” and the D's aren't very smart at all. However, this is all based on one test when the children are very young, so it doesn't divide them up very well and there are still slower students in the A group and quicker students in the lower groups. Luckily, my school is quite small, so most of the grades only have 2 classes and the division is not as obvious. In fact, some of the B groups at my school are much better students than their A counterparts.

In addition to studying with the same students throughout their school career, classes also study with the same teacher. There is only one division, between primary (1st-4th forms) and secondary, so primary teachers start with 1a or 1b, and teach those students until they become 4a or 4b, then cycle back down to first form. After that, if a teacher is assigned to 5a for Kazakh history, then they will continue to teach those same students Kazakh history until they graduate. Therefore, you might find some teachers working with both fifth formers and 11th formers. And since English starts in third form at my school, I have both third formers and 11th formers. If I were to stay in Saumolkol for long enough, I could keep teaching my third formers until they graduate from school.

Some of the teachers from my school. The only man in the picture is our "director," or principal, and the lady with the flowers is one of our "zavuchs," or vice principals.

Because classes always study together, they stay in their classroom, and teachers move around. There are no substitute teachers, so if a teacher is sick the school can do one of two things. First, they can make another teacher teach the absent teacher's classes. This is what my school likes to do, and I've found myself standing in front of several different groups of students, without a textbook or any idea about what they're studying, and 45 minutes to fill. Right now, my counterpart is gone for one month to attend a session about methodology, and during that time another English teacher (who already has a full teaching load of 20 hours) is expected to also cover my counterpart's 22 hours. The other option for the school is to rearrange the schedule. If the history teacher is absent, then the periods she taught are dropped from the schedule and all of the other periods move up one hour so that the students get out early. This is what the school I worked at during Pre-Service Training liked to do. As a result, you never knew when in the day you were teaching, and a fifth period class might move up to third, with no reliable way to let you know about the change except a piece of paper hung in the teachers' room.

Grades here are not letters, but numbers from 1-5, with 1 being like an F and 5 being like an A. However, because you have to stay with your group, no one ever receives a 1. And even a 2 is very rare. You might receive a 2 for your daily grade, but never your quarter grade. Students are given a grade every day, in every class, and this is recorded in a giant class journal. The students also have a “kundelnik,” where teachers write their daily grades and they take them home weekly for their parents to sign. The grades are not normally based on tests or homework, but instead are very subjective, depending if the student was well behaved, participated in class, or did whatever a particular teacher wanted. There is no transparency, so teachers never have to defend why they gave a particular grade. At the end of each quarter, students are given a quarterly grade. These can be improved with a few thousand tenge given to the right teacher. Also, if your father happens to be the director or the mayor or someone else important, you're more likely to get a better grade.

A lot of the bribery is because teachers are paid so abysmally poorly. A starting teacher might make the equivalent of $100 or $200 a month. In a country where things are not cheap, this puts them below the poverty line. Teachers are paid based on the number of hours they teach, so everyone is angling to teach the limited available hours. Also, pay checks almost never come through on time. Last month, the teachers at my school didn't receive their salaries until the 20th of the month. This month, everyone was shocked when their money was already in the bank by the 4th.

There's the look of discipline and respect in the classroom here, with students standing when teachers enter the room and also standing up to answer questions. But discipline is normally quite terrible. There's no detention or vice-principal to send misbehaving students to; in fact, they can't even be sent out of the classroom because they are required to receive an education. The general discipline method here seems to be ignore the problem, until there's too much noise and side-conversations, and then yell at the students for several minutes. Immediately afterward, the students are talking again. But sometimes, I can hardly blame them. Most lessons are quite boring. There are no visual aids, just a blackboard. Most of the classes I've observed involved one student at the blackboard working out exercises, either grammar work or math problems, while everyone else copied them in their notebooks (or goofed off with their friends.) In English class, the focus is almost entirely on grammar, and students can barely speak, much less form a sentence. Whenever they are asked to speak, it's normally repetition after the teacher. If they have to come up with an answer on their own, they normally flounder and the teacher harshly corrects them, whereupon they repeat after the teacher and learn nothing but to fear speaking up in class. Everything is translated into Kazakh, so students hardly pay attention to English instructions because they know they'll be translated immediately afterward.

All teaching is geared to the two huge tests that all students must take, the PGK during their 9th year, and the ENT during their 11th year. Students can leave school after 9th form to go to college, which is four years long and either trains them in a trade or makes it easier to get into a university. The most motivated students stay through 11th form, when they take the very difficult ENT in hopes that they do well enough to go to university. The English section of the ENT is almost entirely obscure grammar questions, thus explaining why the teachers teach what they do.

Teachers from our school performing a traditional Kazakh song during a concert for Kazakhstan's Independence Day.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A few snapshots

My host family. My Dad, Oral, is unable to move anything but his right hand and his head; he got some sort of kidney disease about 15 years ago. He's still really positive and happy, though. My Mom, Zubairash, teaches Russian at my school. My sister, Aziza, is in 10th grade. My cousin, Aset, is in 9th grade. He's from Shymkent in the south, but is living with us now. I also have a 23 year old sister, Dana, who works at a hotel in Astana, and an 18 year old brother, Alisher, who studies engineering at a university in Kostanai.

In front of my apartment building.

Waiting for the bus with Aziza - it's really cold here!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Aziza plays the dombra

The dombra is the Kazakh national instrument. Aziza, my host sister, plays it really well, but she was really nervous when I was videoing her so this is the best of 5 takes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A (Very) Cold Day

Monday it was -30 degrees Celsius, so school was canceled for grades 1-9. This is because it's so cold on the street that it's dangerous for the children to travel, and also because the heating system in the school isn't good enough to actually get the school warm. The trouble is, there's no infrastructure in place to inform the students that there's no school, so my host siblings both went to school anyway. I also tried to go, but the bus didn't come. I ride a special bus, that takes kids from a boarding house where they live during the school week straight to the school, rather than the (very unreliable) public bus. Of course, since the bus is only for students going to school, it wasn't running that day. But I didn't know that. Stepping out of my apartment building at 8am, I noticed that my face was a lot colder than usual, and my snot froze instantly. But since it's been around -2 for the past two weeks, I figured it couldn't be that much colder, maybe -10 or so, and I started to get worried about when it got even colder. By the time I reached the bus stop 10 minutes later, my face and, strangely enough, knees were frozen. After waiting until long after the bus should have come, I finally gave up and trooped home. My host mother called the school director and only then did I discover that school had been canceled. Actually, even though classes were canceled, teachers were still expected to come to work, but the director made special dispensation for me. I think I've told enough people that it never snows in Oregon that they all feel sorry for me and think I'm going to die, or at least get terribly sick, as soon as I walk outside. Then my host mother had to call all of the students in her homeroom class and tell them that school was canceled. How they would have found out if I hadn't stood outside in -30, waiting for the bus for 20 minutes, I'm not sure.

Actually, other than my knees, I was pleasantly surprised with my first encounter with -30 degrees. Sure, I was cold, and I'm not looking forward to when the winds come in February, because they always make everything feel much colder. Nonetheless, I didn't die and didn't even realize it was as cold as it was. It's probably a very good thing I didn't watch the weather report.

With an unforeseen free day, I spent my time writing this blog, doing laundry (this is a 2 or 3 hour intensive task) and making “tacos.” It's kind of an insult to the Mexican people that I call my creation tacos, but I really did my best. There's nothing remotely resembling a tortilla here, and all of the chips are potato chips with this strange “chicken” flavor on them, so my choices for carb were bread or potatoes. I went with mashed potatoes, and spooned seasoned hamburger, fried onions and some strange-tasting cheese over top of them. I think the hamburger was actually lamb, or else really freezer burned, because it tasted funny. The pumpkin pie I made the night before was much more successful. I think I'll stick to desserts.

Lonely Planet Readers Pay Money for This

The Lonely Planet guidebook dedicates a grand total of ½ page to my region of Kazakhstan. Half of that page is descriptions of rundown Soviet hotels you don't really want to stay in, and how to catch the bus or train to another town. The other half is more encouraging, however. There are several “ecotourism” villages in the area, where you can pay to spend the night with a local family in their home. As Lonely Planet puts it, “The main attraction here is the experience of village life amid unspoiled countryside with lakes, woodlands, rocky hills and walking and riding routes, green from spring to autumn.” Well, I don't know about the rocky hills, and it's definitely not green right now, even though it's still officially autumn, but other than that it's a pretty fair description of the trip I went on a few weekends ago.

Nazgul, my counterpart at school, invited me to spend the weekend at her parents' house is the village of Karatal. The village school has 99 students in grades 1-11, so that tells you about how big the town is. It wasn't one of the villages mentioned in the guidebook, but it should have been. It was everything a Kazakhstani village should be: rutted dirt road with geese scattering across it as your bus clatters over the ice, run-down houses with leaning wooden fences around them (but you know they're pristine if simple inside), and a forest of birch trees at the end of the road. And I didn't have to hire a guide or pay money for my room and board! I just had to bring some chocolate bars from the states as a gift, and be willing to butcher the Kazakh language as I made friends with the family.

Kazakhs are renowned for their hospitality, and Nazgul's family was no exception. They served tea with cookies, candy, salad and bread at least four times a day, and made sure to cook me the Kazakh national dish, besfarmak. Kazakh hospitality is different from the American ideal, however. Kazakhs will never begrudge you a place to sleep or a meal, even if you show up unannounced. They always have lots of food, and they never let the guest do any work. (I knew, even as my American politeness offered to help wash the dishes, that I shouldn't offer because it was almost offensive to think that a guest should do work.) But Kazakh hospitality does not necessarily involve entertaining the guest. If people are busy, either cooking dinner or cleaning the house or doing one of the multitude of jobs that needs to be done, they may very well leave the guest to themself, often for long periods of time. I've learned this is not rude, nor does it imply that they aren't happy to have you around. People just don't have the leisure time like we do in America to drop everything and spend the whole day talking to you. If they were required to do this, maybe guests wouldn't be as welcome as they are.

Therefore, I watched a lot of tv while I was in Karatal. But you know, Indiana Jones is still interesting even when you don't know what anyone is saying.

My counterpart Nazgul, on the right, and her friend in front of the Karatal school.

I also got a chance to go to a party with some of Nazgul's friends from high school. One of their classmates had just returned from the army, and so they were having a celebration to welcome him back. (Military service is mandatory for all males in Kazakhstan.) Everyone spoke in Kazakh, so I didn't understand much of what was going on and didn't say much. One guy spent about 5 minutes having me translate words into English, and then repeating them back and laughing. (This makes up the bulk of my conversations here, after “Do you like it in Kazakhstan?” and “Are you used to our weather yet?”) My other main contribution to the festivities was when they had me give a toast.

Everyone was giving toasts to the returned soldier. Fearful that they would call on me, I formulated in my mind what I hoped was an acceptable toast, then waited to see if I would be required to use it. It looked like I was going to get off free, until, almost at the end of the evening, they called on me. Feebly, I raised my glass of orange juice and said (in broken Russian), “May you always have friends as good as the ones you are surrounded by now.” I thought it was a very valiant effort, even bordering on eloquence, and was just settling back in my seat, very satisfied with my toast-giving skills, when everyone started crying out, “That's all? More, more!!” Well, I hadn't prepared for more! And on the spur of the moment, eloquence always flees me. All I could think of was the formulaic toast, “to love!” which, considering how many marriage hints I've been getting recently, did not seem like a good idea. Then, another toast we learned in class came to mind. “Za udacha!” I said, and, for good measure, followed it up with, “To everything good!” By this time, everyone was chuckling and repeating “za udacha” and chuckling more, so I clinked my glass with everyone else's and settled back to figure out what I'd done wrong. I realized later, the toast I'd been searching for was “Za uspeha,” which means “To success,” but instead I'd said, “To good luck.” No wonder they were chuckling. I must have sounded like I thought he frequented the many casinos here.

You can't find a weekend like that in a guide book.