At French immersion school, a love for Russian
By Robert Samuels and in Washington,
To find the public school with the largest reported number of tweens learning Russian, look not in New York City, Alaska or anywhere else known for enclaves of immigrants from that country.
Instead, peer into Room 213 at Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Prince George’s County, where a teacher on this particular day is bouncing a rag doll named “Tyoti Moti” on her knee. Dani Sanders is leading the seventh-graders in a silly song about the frustrations of this doll, her Aunt Moti, whose four sons won’t stop singing these words at the dinner table:
“Pravaya ruka, levaya ruka. Pravoe plecho, levoe plecho,” motioning from one body part to another. Right arm, left arm. Right shoulder, left shoulder.
“Ah, ah, ah!” That translates to “Ah, ah, ah.”
In 2010, Sanders had 176 Russian students in eight classes, according to a survey by the Committee on College and Pre-College Russian, which has tracked Russian class enrollments since 1984. Goddard has the only full-fledged Russian public middle school program in the region. Of the nearly 300 schools at all grade levels that reported data, Goddard has the largest middle school program in the nation.
Often, the biggest Russian classes are filled with “heritage kids,’’ Sanders said. Not so at Goddard. At this school, where 82 percent of students are black or Hispanic, not a single person in Room 213 has a Russian background. Not even Sanders, who is from Bulgaria.
Tacked to her bulletin board are the 33 letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. Taped on the chalkboard are fat numbers Sanders drew, colored in with marker. Only the daily assignment — “to review the numbers, 1 to 100” — is written in English. That’s so parents can review lessons with their children.
“The language is easy to get if you do the work and reflect on the vocabulary at home,’’ said David Williams, 12, a seventh-grader David Williams, 12, a seventh-grader. “I figure that the more variety I have with the languages I speak, the better chance I have to change the world. And all I want to do is change the world.”
The interest in Russian is certainly unusual. According to a 2008 report from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, only 10 percent of high school students surveyed would take Russian if they had the chance.
The most popular language — with nearly 40 percent of those surveyed stating they would like to learn it — was French.
At Goddard, an elementary-middle school founded in 1986, students learn both. They are admitted as early as kindergarten through an application process. Then they are taught only in French, except for two courses: English and world languages.
Administrators originally used the world languages course for children to try a smorgasbord of nontraditional tongues, such as Japanese and Swahili.
About a decade later, Principal Kona-Facia Nepay said, administrators decided students should intensively learn a single language. When parents were surveyed, Nepay said, 85 percent wanted their children to learn Russian.
Russian? On the surface, the choice seemed strange. The Cold War was over. Russian language programs were being cut throughout the nation, leading some educators to think Russian instruction nationwide could soon enter its winter. But in Prince George’s, the language had a unique advantage.
“Parents thought it would help their children get into Roosevelt,’’ Nepay said.
Eleanor Roosevelt High School, the county’s most selective and best-known public high school, was the only other school in Prince George’s that had a Russian program at that time. Goddard parents, according to school officials, hoped to lobby that their child be admitted so they could master Russian. Many times, they were successful.
That practice of admitting children because they speak Russian ended about five years ago, according to school officials. But the language has become intertwined with Roosevelt’s culture, even as languages such as Chinese and Arabic are as relevant as Russian was before the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Even so, after years of declining interest in Russian, more foreign language programs have been preserving — and even adding — Russian classes over the past two years, according to John Schillinger, an American University professor emeritus who compiles the survey data on class enrollment.
The largest programs are in high schools, which usually grow through the popularity of a Russian teacher, Schillinger said. Before high school, the language is typically introduced during an exploratory unit. Goddard’s Russian program is distinguished for its size and seriousness.
“This isn’t, ‘Let’s just give them something to do for 20 minutes a day,’ ” Schillinger said. “They use a college-level textbook. That indicates it is a significant, strong program.”
Making learning fun
In Sanders’s class, those strengths are developed through play.
Sanders points as fast as she can from number to number on the chalkboard, so her students can repeat them with lightning speed. The students carry a box of crayons to learn colors. They use puppets. They watch cartoons.
They sing songs about stressed-out Aunt Moti, whose sons still won’t eat.
“Pravaya noga, levaya noga,” they sing. Right leg. Left leg.
By the time students graduate, Sanders expects them to be able to speak fluently and do some basic writing.
They won’t be able to read Tolstoy in the original, but maybe one day, with time.
“I want to be able to go to Russia because I really like the architecture,’’ said Eva McNabb, 13, a seventh-grader. “This class is fun. We’ve learned a lot of vocabulary, and now we’re starting to learn to string everything together.”