The students in Meredith Louria’s Freshman Seminar at Santa Monica High School recently learned a couple of Russian phrases. They like to say them: “pre-vyet” (hi) and “pah-kah” (see ya).
The Russian words are among the gifts brought to them by their guest teacher, Nadya Strueva, from Voronezh, a town near Moscow. Strueva and Louria, an English teacher at Samohi, met in 2004 when Louria came to Russia on a teaching grant. This year, they are collaborating on a cultural exchange project between their students, as part of the educational program “Facing History and Ourselves.”
Facing History’s goal is to teach students of diverse cultural backgrounds about prejudice, racism, and tolerance. While Samohi has participated in the program for several years, the Russian connection is Louria and Strueva’s unique collaboration.
In 2006, Louria won a Margot Stern Strom Teaching Award, named for Facing History’s founder, and was able to visit Russia a second time so that she could “work with Nadya on a curriculum that we could then teach our students.” They developed a study course on the Cold War, which is currently being taught to 11th graders.
While in Voronezh, Louria met Strueva’s students and collected their input about themselves on homemade documents called “identity charts.” During Strueva’s recent visit to Samohi, Louria’s 9th graders got to look at the Russian students’ charts and create their own charts, which Strueva will take back to her students.
On this last day of her visit, Louria’s students present Strueva with their identity charts as well as souvenirs of American culture that she will exhibit to her students as “artifacts.”
Some charts are simply drawn in pencil; others sport elaborate designs and colors. The students read, shyly describing themselves: “My favorite colors are purple, green, and black.” “My background is Arabian. I like funny stuff – movies, video games.” “I play the guitar.” “I like to snowboard.”
Two girls have created a chart explaining the Quinceañera ceremony that initiates Latina girls into adulthood. They also give Strueva a figurine enclosed in glass – a Quinceañera souvenir.
“This is beautiful,” Struva says.
Speaking with the Mirror after class, Strueva said that Louria’s visit to her classes last summer was her introduction to Facing History – and she saw it as a chance to promote social awareness to students everywhere. “Much depends on our students being aware. As an Arab woman in America told me, when you do not know something, you start to be afraid of it. If you are afraid of something, you start to hate it.”
How does she see the American and Russian students differing? Strueva said she prefers to see what they have in common, but admitted: “There are stereotypes which shape our imagination of another nationality.” Both teachers had their students make identity charts about their notions of the other nationality. Strueva’s students associated Americans with hamburgers and sports.
“What worried me most with [the stereotypes expressed by] both American and Russian students was the aggressiveness associated with Americans.” She attributed this to the images of violence in many American movies.
But a project like this helps students to realize the interests they have that transcend geography and politics. Strueva’s students have created a website that they hope will enable Americans to learn more about them. Now Louria’s students are contemplating a website of their own.
As student Krystal Gomez put it: “It was awesome because we got some of their artifacts and they got some of our ours. That’s a cool way to communicate!”