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From Russia with Love

June 17, 1993|GEOFF BOUCHER and JOANNE LEVINE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOSCOW — "Like first love, the heart of Russia will not forget you." -- Fedor Tiutchev,

"Tribute to Pushkin," 1837

Weary and restless from the daylong plane trip across the Atlantic, the spirit of adventure was at an ebb for Rachel Globus and her fellow Orange County students as they landed in Russia.

Wearing shorts, Rachel, 13, was shivering as she and her eight friends, all age 12 to 15, left the plane and walked into Moscow's bleary, 30-degree air of an April evening.

The chill and the disconcerting stare of the customs agent made Rachel uneasy, and the images fostered by a childhood during the Cold War--Russians as harsh, unhappy people living in a secretive, regimented society--came to mind.

"I was so tired; I hadn't slept since we left California, and the creepy customs guy was squinting at us," said Rachel, of Laguna Beach. "And then we walked out and there was a street band there, and they started playing (our) national anthem because they saw we were Americans, and it sort of made me feel a little more welcome. It helped."

For the next 10 days, unexpected welcomes, dazzling sights and the warmth of the Russian people washed over the American students, who were visiting to testify about an experimental classroom approach before a joint Moscow University-Boston University education conference.

The students, all current or former pupils of Thurston Middle School teacher Chris Byron, explained to educators there how the Laguna Beach instructor had allowed them to have a say in curricula, activities and class structures, an approach known as a democratic classroom.

And though they were there as envoys sharing new teaching techniques, the visit was itself an education for the articulate teens from Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel and Newport Beach.

From the majestic, colorful spires of St. Petersburg to the chilling, waxen visage of a preserved Lenin, to the majesty of the Bolshoi Ballet, the youths returned home mesmerized by the images of a far-off land.

And they saw first-hand how Russians really live.

'The Russians were really great, and I thought Red Square was just fantastic," Rachel said. "Everybody thinks of Russians as warlike, but they didn't name it Red Square for political reasons or because red means blood or anything. To them the color represents beauty and peace."

For Doug Lief, 13, staying with a Russian family and going to a Moscow school proved that, despite any geographical or social expanse, people are basically the same.

"I thought there would be a cultural shock when I got there, but the people were pretty much just like us," Doug said. "One thing I noticed is I don't think the people there feel very secure. We asked the family we stayed with if they ever worried about the future, and they were just completely silent."

The solemn nature of Russia--several of the students noted that their exuberant smiles and salutations while walking through the streets drew blank stares from older Russians--was balanced, Doug said, by the unbridled curiosity of the schoolchildren about all things Western.

"They wanted to know about Disneyland and supermarkets, all the American stuff they had heard about but didn't really know much about," Doug said. "They knew about Michael Jackson and Motley Crue, and they said that they really liked reading Mark Twain."

Byron and her students hoped that, like American literature and popular culture, the introduction of their new teaching method would open new worlds for Russian youth. In addition to discussing the approach at the conference, the travelers brought the idea to teachers and students at School No. 1282 on Barbolina Street.

While the dim lighting and turn-of-the-century desks had gone unchanged, the Levi jeans and brand-name sneakers had replaced school-issued uniforms. The most visible evidence of the dramatic changes of recent years was the swapping of icons in the corner of one classroom--the picture of Lenin had been replaced by a television blaring American programming.

After meeting with the Russian youths and their teachers, the California contingent said any implementing of a democratic classroom model would require a gradual approach.

"I began thinking on my own in the democratic classroom," said Thurston Middle student Kim Woodhouse, 13. "I think having a democratic classroom can influence society. But I think it will be a long process here."

That is because, for the past seven decades, going to school was little more than learning about the virtues of Lenin, Soviet society and communism. Teachers taught. Students listened. Teachers asked questions. Students answered them. Freedom of thought and the exchange of ideas were not part of any curriculum--or society, for that matter.

"Kids here are so used to structure," said Adrianne Abbott, 15, of Laguna Niguel, who graduated from Byron's classroom last year. "You would have to ease them into it."

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