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Z is the 1st letter of their alphabet


The comment above from a dad about his daughter speaks volumes.

For two years, I have been holding on to this story from The New York Times in my vault of possible blog posts. For many language teachers including myself, it is a riveting glimpse into a language learning experience opposite in perspective to how we experience it as teachers in the classroom.

Clifford Levy, a journalist for The New York Times and his wife, Julie Dressner, a filmmaker and contributor to The New York Times blog, moved from New York to Moscow, Russia for work. Big deal, you say. To whom it was a big deal was their three Russian-less children, Danya (10), Arden (8) and Emmett (4). This story showcases their experiences in not only adapting to a Russian philosophy of education, but also being educated completely in a foreign language during their formative years.

For me, it is extremely insightful into a language learner’s experience. Many of the comments the kids make demonstrate their experience in a way I rarely hear from students themselves.

Maybe now you can add to my inspiration.

I have been meaning to write a post about this story for a very long time, but have waivered back and forth between what way to do so in its one post. So it occurred to me today to crowd-source different types of posts about this from the PLN. Without being too pushy with a blog challenge, if you are as inspired by this story as I am, see where it takes you in a blog post (or comment here). Some types of posts that have been swirling around in my head for two years (and may finally manifest themselves over the summer) include:

  • Commentary about the content
  • A project for students to do
  • An activity to do with students
  • A language point about a particular section of the video

Looking forward to reading your ideas, activities and lessons. /fingers crossed/

Related readings:
Dressner, J. (2011) “Z is the First Letter of the Alphabet”. The 6th Floor, The New York Times [online:]
Levy, C. (2011) “My Family’s Experiment in Extreme Schooling”. The New York Times [online:]

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What a great idea, crowd sourcing a post! Am in end-of-year madness right now,but will take a look at this, and try and get something for you!


Hi Tyson,
I watched the video and it really impressed me. Not only because I kinda have an understanding of the Russian (Soviet) education system but also the way the kids coped with the extreme differences. The boy spoke immaculate Russian, and the girls’ judgement and observation skills were amazing.
I would not know what to write about this video as it is self-explanatory.
Thanks for finding it.

Eugenia Loras

Wow! How I fully understand and thank you very much for this video. You know OUR story and we shall share this post of yours.
All the best,


This is so beautiful and so touching. i absolutely loved discovering this video, thank you so much!

Wow, I saw this film earlier in the day and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
One of the girls mentions the different way the students raise their hands.
It reminded me of when I moved to Israel, in the sixth grade. I had the misfortune of being placed in a class with a very narrow minded old-fashioned teacher. When I raised my hand for the first time (so brave!) I did it the American way, the whole hand (in Israel you use one finger pointing straight up). All the teacher could say to this brave attempt was : Where do you think you are? This is not how we raise our hands!”.

Rivka L.

Wow, I had a similar experience when moving to Israel (in the eighth grade) – not with a teacher but with fellow students. I, too, finally summoned the courage to raise my hand, and was so proud of myself, but after the lesson one of the other students told me, “You know that everyone’s laughing at you because of the way you raise your hand? That’s not how we do it here.” It took me a really long time to get over that and raise my hand a second time.

Krysia Rumun

Walking into an environment where everyone was speaking English only knowing a few words was intimidating for a four-and-a-half- year-old. Nobody seemed to understand me and I had to mimic the others in the class. Unfortunately, during my school years the teachers were not particularly kind and they were very strict. Caning was commonplace. I was afraid of most of my teachers and that made me shy to speak up in class because I didn’t want them to shout at me and make a example of me if I made a mistake. I also attended Polish school on Saturday mornings (actually the lessons were held in my own school) and for the longest time resented going there when my English friends could stay longer in their beds or do fun things on the weekend. But my parents were very smart, wanting to keep the Polish language and culture in my life and so as a teenager I began to be grateful to them for making me learn the history, geography and language of my heritage. The problem with being born in England to Polish parents in those post war years was the fact that I didn’t belong in England ( strange name, parents have thick accents , different traditions) , but when I visited family in Poland I also didn’t completely fit in either because of the fashions, exposure to pop music and British culture. People on the buses in Warsaw could tell just from looking at me that I was a foreigner and yet in England people would say, “Go back to your own country!” That’s why finally I’m happy to be living in Toronto.


Thank you for sharing this. It is a fantastic thought-provoking resource. A bit sad, though. I do understand why it took you so long to write a post on this article. I checked it in the morning on the way to work and could not stop thinking about it for the whole day. I am overwhelmed: there is so much to say that I would not know what to begin with. While reading the articles, hungry for details, I felt each word under my skin.

My experience is different but I can relate myself to these children, especially to Danya.

I was born in the Soviet Union and went to a Russian school. Shortly the Soviet Union collapsed and my small country gained independence. The National Revolution changed everything. All of the sudden, the Russian language was considered spoken by the enemies of the state, and everything I and many other teenagers had learned or read did not have any value. At 14, I had to change my school and start education in a different language which I thought I knew before joining the school. Plus the so called language revolution: I was born to Russian speaking parents, therefore at school I was constantly brainwashed that I had to be embarrassed of my parents. I had been one of the best students for 9 years and then I found myself at the end of the list. I didn’t have any friends as I was afraid of making another mistake while talking to them. Oh those mistakes (I felt for Danya when she talked about coming out in front of the board) during my first year, I made so many silly mistakes that I was embarrassed even to think about it not to talk about them with my parents. It took me 15 years to start laughing at those blunders. I do not know if it is a coincidence or not but it also took me 3 years to thrive. During my fourth year of study I got back to the top of the list. By the way, kids speak impeccable Russian, better than I do now:)

I am so grateful to my parents who taught me to think for myself, not to doubt myself or my roots: these I believe are the most important things regardless the language you speak. Sorry, I was carried away from the original intentions of the post but this is very honest.
A couple of years back I volunteered with Newcomer Services for Youth, there are so many ESL kids in Toronto who also need help and understanding!
A quick thought on Possible PBL ideas:

1. Students work in teams. Start with the articles and then set up a debate (for and against the parents’ choice)

2. Follow with 2 simulation activities. Students work in teams. First, a literacy simulation activity where students have to complete a task in a language they do not speak, read or write (a great workshop has been created by the ESL Literacy Network at It can be in any language depends on the languages spoken in the class.
Second, a simulation where students work in teams, they have to complete a typical task for your class preferably involving all four skills but each of the students is unable to use one of them, for example one student has her eyes closed with a scarf, another years with ear plugs, another can not speak. They will have to help each other to solve the task.
3. A Skype conversation with a class from a different country could be Russia, Brazil, China or a different ESL class from Canada. Students prepare questions to ask about education in that country.

4. Finally, wrap it up with a written reflection: 3 things they have learned or have been impressed in the process. Post them on a blog. Students read and comment on each other’s ideas.


It’s true, these activities would work better with a group of ESL teachers. I had my students in mind when thinking about it: I teach advanced ESL students interested in becoming ESL teachers in their countries. I am going to try one of the simulation activities with them next week and see what it is in practice and what ideas it can generate. By the way, many of us once achieving something easily forget the difficulties associated with it, and often some things are easier for some people than others. I think this kind of training would be beneficial even for non native speaker ESL teachers. It’s not unusual for some of them to forget what it was like in the beginning and give up on the students who need more time and attention than others moving on with progressive students leaving those with difficulties far behind.

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