Russian Teaches Students Language, Global Friendship

Stuffed Bear, Dancing Help Children Learn

September 29, 1991|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Tristan Stanley stands tugging at the left strap that dangles from his black overalls so as not to obscure the red, white and blue Nike logo emblazoned across his T-shirt.

Addressing Micha the stuffed bear, he points to a third-grade classmate at Meadowvale Elementary School in Havre de Grace and introduces her in Russian, "Eh tah Victoria."

"Eh tah" -- "this is" in Russian -- is the focus of the half-hourlesson given Tuesday by Tanya Mikhalkina, a visiting foreign language professor from Murmansk, a port city north of Moscow.

Working Micha like a ventriloquist's dummy, Mikhalkina draws the 8- and 9-year-olds into a series of games, almost imperceptibly teaching them Russian language building blocks without confusing them with labels like pronouns or intransitive verbs.

For the next year, Mikhalkina will use folk lore, dancing and a host of friends like Micha to introduce kindergarten and third-grade kids at Meadowvale and Havre de Grace elementary schools to the basics of her native tongue.

Mikhalkina's husband, Dimitri, will visit Harford in November and then return to his own language studies in Murmansk, where he also operates a trolley.

While on leave from Murmansk Pedagogical Institute, a teacher's college, Mikhalkina, 33, would like to take what she learns here and apply it to a doctoral dissertation.

At the same time, she hopes teaching Harford students will foster understanding and friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union.

"Language is not an end in itself but is a means of developing the child's personality, their spirituality," Mikhalkina says. "I want them to see for themselves what Russian people are like. This is the main idea, not only to teach the language but to teach the culture."

As an example of how foreign language expands a child's imagination, Mikhalkina describes the bilingual mentality of her 6-year-old daughter Anna, who is attending first grade this year at Meadowvale.

When she was 4, Anna offered a critique of Picasso's famous painting of Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, using the first two syllables of the errant knight's name to make a pun in English.

Focusing on the squire's donkeyand the hero's horse, she said, "This should not be called 'Sancho Panza and Don Quixote.' "It should be called 'Donkey and horse.' "

Mikhalkina says that Anna and other bilingual children are able to separate words from the objects they describe and find new and different meaning in everyday language.

"The word is not attached to the thing," she says. "It is estranged. It becomes an object of heightenedinterest. They begin to think of the word itself."

The Russian classes mark a first for Harford schools, which normally do not offer any foreign-language instruction until high school.

Mikhalkina saysan "accidental miracle" led her to extend her U.S. vacation in Marchwhen an American travel agent she helped as a Murmansk tour interpreter introduced her to county school administrators.

By next March,Mikhalkina hopes to organize a festival featuring her students performing simple Russian songs and dramas.

Mikhalkina says the emphasis on games and play-acting is central to the teaching philosophy she learned at Moscow Pedagogical Institute and while raising Anna.

Looking from a child's point of view, Mikhalkina says that teachers must create a reason for children to learn something that is not readilyuseful to them.

"Children do not need to learn a foreign languagebecause they can communicate in their own language," she says. "I can ask them, 'What is the term for "chair?" ' and they'll say, 'Why doI need that? I already know my own language.' "

Instead, Mikhalkina's lessons create sort of an educational seduction, with students rewarded for playing their parts.

"Zdrahstvui Micha (Hello Micha),"the students greet the bear in unison as the class begins. "Zdrahstvui Tatyana Petrovna," they say, using Mikhalkina's formal patrilinealname, "Tatyana daughter of Peter."

During "The coach and the sportsmen," students order their teacher about, all the while learning vocabulary.

Following her students' instruction, Mikhalkina nods herhead on her folded hands, flaps her arms and falls to the floor as they call out the correct Russian verbs for "sleep," "fly" or "sit."

Their favorite command is "dance," repeatedly prompting the ballet-trained Mikhalkina to prance about on tip-toe with hands on hips and one arched foot pointing toward the other.

"For every lesson, there is a plot," she says, "and they learn the lesson and take care of the words."

Meadowvale principal John Roschy said Mikhalkina's motivational techniques are a perfect fit for the school's students.

"I hope they'll develop an understanding that people are not that muchdifferent whether they come from Russia or someplace else," he said.

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