The University of Iowa

Brushing up on Russian

September 18th, 2014

Russian program directed by UI faculty members provides educators nationwide with skills in language, culture

By Amanda Bartlett

This June, a group of 14 Russian educators from various U.S. states traveled abroad to Moscow for an intensive four-week teaching workshop. The program, titled ‘Russian Teachers for the 21st Century: Maximizing Teaching Effectiveness by Immersing into Language, Culture and Standard-Based Teaching,’ was directed by two University of Iowa faculty members – Irina Kostina, Ph.D., lecturer in Russian and Anna Kolesnikova, Ph.D., adjunct assistant professor of Russian language.

The majority of the group poses in front of the Tretjakov Art Museum. 

With a focus on language training, test training, and culture, the program’s goal was to provide the K-12 and college-level educators with the professional development necessary to improve their language proficiency, while submerging them in everyday Russian life.

“We understood that many of our American instructors from (schools) in the U.S. needed more frequent professional contact with Russian colleagues,” Kostina said.

Plekhanov University, where the class took place in Moscow.

“Our program was built in such a way that our participants got the whole picture of contemporary Russia through language training, cultural trips, and meeting with lecturers from different regions of Russia.”

Last year, she and Kolesnikova were awarded $75,000 from the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad competition, making the program possible. It was the only Russian Language program selected that received financial support from the U.S. Department of Education.

When it came to selecting participants, only 14 out of 43 applicants were chosen. Half of those were high school teachers, because Kostina and Kolesnikova  found that this group usually had less financial support for travel. Some graduate students were chosen as well, for their key role in becoming the future of the profession.

Prior to the trip, participants received training in an online pre-departure workshop. It focused on the comparison of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language (ACTFL) and the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (TORFL) standards to teaching Russian. Additionally, they were introduced to the culture project modules and given a practical orientation on what to expect in the foreign country.

Sessions were conducted completely in Russian to initiate the immersion experience while participants were still in the U.S.

During their four-week stay in Moscow, participants prepared their own materials for Russian classes to be taught back home. High school teacher Todd Golding created a culture project called, “The Delights of Russian Cooking or ‘The Adventures of a Gourmand-Teacher in Moscow.’” This infused his passions for Russian language and cooking to be used in the classroom.

“While in Moscow, I took a cooking course in which I prepared three popular classic Russian dishes. I created a video to use as a model for my students to create their own presentations of Russian cuisine,” Golding said. He believed learners would be able to cultivate their awareness of available foods, cooking methods, and cultural nuances in the world of Former Soviet dining.

Despite great success found by instructors like Golding, some challenges were faced. Much of this was due to the intensive preparation, in-country studying, and post-trip work. But according to Kostina and Kolesnikova, the most difficult aspect was seeking out information for the multimedia culture projects, which required interviewing the residents of Moscow and collecting authentic material.

It all proved to be quite beneficial, however.

The group did various activities to immerse themselves in Russian culture. Here, participants Richard Uzzell and Phillip Stosberg paint their own trays at a master class located in Zhostovo.

“(Through) unique and intensive training, the participants (were) made better professionals in the area of Russian foreign language teaching,” Kostina said. Each of them received documented certificates based on their level of language training.“All were involved in a culture program that included local tours and guest lectures from leading experts on a variety of aspects of contemporary Russia. (We also) traveled to neighboring provincial cities like Nizhny Novgorod and Gorodets.”

Overall, participants were very pleased with the program and their knowledge obtained.

 Richard Ozzell sports the group t-shirt with their English motto on the back.

“(The program) helped me vastly improve my Russian language schools, provided me with a much needed crash face-to-face encounter with contemporary Russian culture, and put me in touch with some really great people working in my field,” language teacher and participant Phillip Stosberg said.“I got to try new Russian foods, visit the various forest parks of Moscow, go to plays like Griboyedov's Горе от ума, and even purchase espresso and cappuccino from a Russian barista who sold coffee out of the back of his van while playing Russian electronic music!” Stosberg said. “Our endless discussions about Russian literature, film, music, politics, and grammar made me feel as excited and intellectually stimulated as I did when I was a student in my first Russian classes in college. The impact of this trip will last a lifetime.”


Kostina and Kolesnikova said they were able to build unique relations with the participants, and that the group as a whole hopes to participate in many new projects together. Kostina believes the continuation of similar programs is crucial for the U.S., because, as former U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz stated, “expert knowledge and insight on Russia is arguably more vital to the U.S. national interest than at any time since 1991, but the foundations for cultivating such expertise over the next two decades look to be weaker than ever before.”

“If we have another opportunity for a similar grant,” Kostina and Kolesnikova said, “we would be happy to continue this work and our participants expressed their desire to follow us in the future.”

The Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad competition provides grants to support overseas projects in training, research, and curriculum development in modern foreign languages and area studies for teachers, students, and faculty engaged in a common endeavor. Projects must focus on the humanities, social sciences, and languages, and must focus on a world region other than Canada or Western Europe.