Last Bell

Friday, May 25th brought about the day the students and teachers had all been waiting for—Last Bell.

When I was in grade school, we always ended the school year with an assembly where everyone got end-of-the-year awards, and this is similar to the Ukrainian tradition of Last Bell. Everyone gathers in the school courtyard, and the Director (who we’d call a principal) of our school gives a speech and then hands out awards. All the children come dressed up, and in true Ukrainian fashion have choreographed dances prepared to do in front of everyone. This was second the “Last Bell” that I’ve attended, but I think it was even more highly anticipated than last year’s—I’m looking forward to summer so much that I might be even happier than the kids that school is officially over!

The Last Bell Ceremony began with the playing of the national anthem (which goes, “Ukraine is not yet dead,” such an uplifting tune) and the promotion of the 10th grade to the 11th grade, which is the last year in the Ukrainian education system. The new seniors carried the Ukrainian flag around the courtyard while we sang the national anthem.

Vlad carrying the flag, Sasha and Olia modeling the Ukrainian uniform.

After the Director’s speech and the presentation of awards, many dance numbers followed. Here’s a picture of my favorite group—the fifth grade! They should get an award for best dressed ; )

The ninth form also deserves an honorable mention for their beautiful waltz—they all looked sharp in their school uniforms too, but I think I prefer the fifth grade’s costumes.

The Last Bell ceremony ended with two of the first graders making a route of the courtyard while shaking bells, signifying the “Last Bell” of the school year and thus concluding the ceremony. All the students cheered (and some of the teachers too), and with that, we’re officially on summer break!

I realized that this is my last, “Last Bell” ceremony. I always thought of the 2 year commitment to Peace Corps as a long time, but as my second year draws to a close and I start experiencing my “last” of certain events and holidays, I realize how fast the time has flown. I’m not sad that this was my Last Bell ceremony though—I think if anything Peace Corps has helped me realize that one of the requirements to be a teacher is to have the patience of a saint, and this is something I don’t possess. Don’t get me wrong, I love the kids that I teach (or at least, some of them) but I don’t feel like my life calling is to be a teacher. I still haven’t determined what it is, but at least I can knock “teacher” off the list of possibilities! So while I feel a tad bit melancholy after some of my “last” events (like graduation!), I can honestly say today I’m only feeling relief. One more school year down, 2 months left to teach in the fall and I’m DONE!

After the ceremony, I chatted with some of my favorite 4th graders who begged for pictures. Bogdan (second from the left) even begged for my number, but I sweetly refused. I don’t need any prank calls from 4th graders this summer ; )

This year it was a toss up as to which class was my very favorite—the 4th and 5th grade classes were full of sweet, intelligent kids that were a joy to spend time with. But these kiddos right here have a special place in my heart and I might even miss them this summer. (That is, if I have any free time left to pause and think about it!)

From left: Amina, Masha, Sasha, Vitalik, and Bogdan.

So now that summer break has officially started, I’m packing my bags and heading to camp! Next week I’ll be working at a school camp in Uman (central Ukraine), and the week after I promised to help teach at a summer language refresher camp for Ukrainian teachers of English. My friend Michelle has planned it at an institute in Chernivtsi, and many of my Peace Corps friends will be there to help teach. And after that, the work is over and the fun begins! Mark is coming to visit me in Sokyriany, then we’re picking up my sister Tori at the airport in Kiev! I can’t wait 😀

Happy Summer! Wishing you warm weather and some time off to enjoy it : ) All my love.

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Is this Prom or Graduation? BOTH!

This week in Sokyriany (and throughout Ukraine) we had two major things to celebrate: Victory Day on Wednesday celebrating the former USSR’s triumph in World War 2, but then on Saturday another sort of victory that many of us teachers were uncertain would ever happen—that of our 11th formers making it to graduation!

This was actually my first time attending graduation in Ukraine. Last spring my school had no 11th form, so last May our 10th formers just got promoted to 11th form and that was that. We had the “Last Bell” ceremony which marks the conclusion of the school year, which was interesting, but nothing compared to the graduation ceremony that I observed this weekend in Sokyriany!

The entire week before graduation, our 11th form students were busy taking exams and carefully rehearsing the waltz and their other dance routines outside after school (no school event in Ukraine is complete without at least 5 dance numbers). Out of 30, only 3 of my 11th formers speak English, and one of the other English teachers was in charge of giving the English exam (probably because if it was up to me I wouldn’t allow cheating and I’d fail the other 27 students who can’t speak English at all). But of course that can’t happen (even if it should), so I hadn’t seen any 11th formers all week until Natasha came to find me and give me an invitation to the official graduation day festivities. Natasha is a dear pupil of mine who comes to me for tutoring and attended camp last year with me in Odessa. She’s one of those people that I know I’ll stay in touch with after I leave Ukraine, so of course I agreed to attend her graduation.

The ceremony started at 3pm in our school courtyard, where the whole town gathered (or so it seemed) to see the presentation of the 11th form. The parents of the students formed a line from the entrance of the school, and each couple held a traditional embroidered table-runner (called vishyvanka) above their heads to create a tunnel for the 11th formers to pass under as they emerged into the courtyard. It was a sweet way to start the ceremony, and the whole day I was impressed with the level of involvement from the parents—it was definitely a combined effort between the parents and the teachers (many of whom had students graduating so they fit into both categories) to make the graduation ceremony so elaborate!

The students lined up on the far side of the courtyard for the presentation of the Ukrainian flag, followed by the singing of the national anthem.

The 11th formers then showed off the results of all the long dance rehearsals I’ve observed after school by dancing a beautiful waltz. The boy-to-girl ration in the 11th grade is very disproportional, so some boys from the 9th and 10th grade dressed up and danced with the 11th form girls who didn’t have a partner. And here I thought chivalry was dead ; )

After the waltz, there were many speeches from the director of our school and other important people, which I mostly tuned out. But then we had the presentation of the ceremonial bread, which is part of every important occasion in Ukraine, and two of my favorite students (Natasha and Sergiy) were honored by being chosen to receive it.

Traditional Ukrainian bread on an embroidered table-runner (vishyvanka) being given to Natasha and Sergiy by their home-room teacher, Valentina.

After the presentation of the ceremonial bread, the students coupled up and formed a line, and then marched to the House of Culture down the street for the official graduation ceremony. This created an impromptu parade, as people lined the streets to watch them pass, and parents and teachers followed in their wake to the next ceremony.

Natasha saw me taking pictures and smiled—I love this shot! I also love all the beautiful dresses—there’s no “prom” in Ukraine, so graduation is an opportunity for the girls to all buy fancy dresses and dress up!

In the House of Culture, there was a mad rush for everyone to find seats, and every seat in the house was taken. People were refused admission at the door if they didn’t have invitations, because there was simply no room for anyone besides the teachers and the family members of the students graduating.

The fourth graders even had a dance slot in the graduation ceremony, and their costumes were precious.

Here is a picture of Natasha graduating!

The students were called up in groups of six, beginning with the best students in the class and working downward to the barely-graduating group. Natasha was called in the first round, because she’s definitely one of the brightest students in her class. After each group of students received their diplomas, they did a little dance number for us. So it took a while for us to make it through the whole class! When the diplomas were all handed out, about 2 hours later, I assumed graduation was over. But it was really just getting warmed up—the talent show started next, and lasted another 2 hours. It was a hot day outside, and with so many people jam-packed into the House of Culture, it was really hot inside too. I was so relieved when things came to a conclusion at 8pm!

Outside the House of Culture, the students again coupled up and formed a line, and this time the parade marched to the fountain in the center of town. The parade was even accompanied by a band!

In the square, the students again performed their waltz. Like I said, for my Ukrainian students this is the equivalent of Prom and Graduation combined into one long day of festivities!

Most of the town assembled in the square to watch them dance and admire their beautiful outfits, and my friend Olha closed her shop early so she could come observe. Together we discussed the dresses, pointing out which ones we would wear and which ones we wouldn’t. This conversation again proved to me how different Ukrainian style is from American style! We also watched the Father/Daughter, Mother/Son dance, and discussed which girl had the cutest father. Oh how I love my Ukrainian mama Olha!

I’d been waiting all day to catch Natasha at a good moment to congratulate her on her graduation, and finally she came to find me and ask for a picture. I told her that she looked beautiful and I was so proud of her. She said she’d been practicing something she wanted to tell me in English but forgot how to say it, so she told me in Ukrainian, “thank you for everything, you changed my life.” And I’m not often the overly-emotional type, but as she hugged me I felt tears coming to my eyes. I know as a teacher you’re not supposed to have favorites, but with Natasha the line between teacher and friend has definitely been blurred and I have no problem telling you she’s my favorite student. It was bittersweet watching her graduate, knowing she’ll be leaving Sokyriany for university in the fall and that I won’t be seeing her as often as I do now. This is just the beginning of our separation, with a much more permanent separation looming when I finish Peace Corps and leave Ukraine.

Watching Natasha graduate also made me think of my sister, who will be graduating soon in Ohio. I won’t be there to see that either, which is a sad thought. Life is moving so fast for these young ones! I’m glad my time in Ukraine included getting to know and love Natasha so well, and I’m glad this summer will include an epic adventure with my sister Tori before she begins the college chapter of her life.

Natasha and myself: words can’t even tell you how much this dear girl means to me : )

So congratulations on your graduation Natasha, and Tori, congrats on your impending graduation! I’m so proud of both of you, and honored to know such smart and lovely young ladies : ) 

Best Weekend of My [Peace Corps] Life

Sunday morning started out right—by sleeping in! Then I made breakfast for Michelle and Erin with a little treat from America—a packet of mix to make hollandaise sauce! So I made Eggs Benedict while enjoying my friends’ company and the lingering feeling of satisfaction from our successful seminar. I was thinking life couldn’t get much better—it was a beautiful Sunday, and we had all the windows open to let in the warm weather. I had no plans for the day except hanging out with two of my favorite people, so really, I wasn’t expecting anything more.

But Erin had a little USB modem with her that she uses for Internet in her village, and she offered to let me use it, seeing as I have no Internet hookup in my apartment yet. I was scanning my email and checking on my blog, when I followed a link that was supposed to lead to the page where my Peace Corps grant was hosted. But instead of showing my grant, the page displayed a little notice saying, “We’re sorry, but the page you are looking for cannot be located. The Volunteer project you have requested is fully funded.” I had to read it twice to realize what it was saying—my grant, which just last week had still needed $1700, was FULLY FUNDED! I screamed, scaring the bejeebus out of Erin and Michelle, who quickly got into celebration mode once I could articulate that I was screaming for joy because my grant got funded! There were even happy dances involved, I was so ecstatic.

Like I said, just last week I still needed to raise $1700, so whoever donated this week to help come up with that sum, this huge THANK YOU is going out to you! I won’t find out who my donors are until Peace Corps emails me a final list of donors and addresses, but I promise once I found out who did it, you’re going to hear from me : D Although if you are the mystery donor(s) and you’re reading this now, feel free to tell me sooner so I can stop trying to guess who you are ; )

The timing for this really couldn’t be any better, because my goal was to raise the money by the end of May. Now that all the money is raised, this grant will soon fund an English Resource & Technology Center, and my plan is to teach the Ukrainian English teachers how to use the new technology over the summer so they’ll be ready to incorporate the computer and projector into their lessons this fall. How exciting is that? My mind is spinning with all the possibilities, now that the money is raised and the time has finally come to put the plans in action! Again, my heartfelt thanks goes out to anyone who donated part of the $2667 we raised for this grant!

And today, another crucial piece of the English Resource & Technology Center fell into place—a shipment of English books arrived from Darien Book Aid! On hand to help me open the box was one of my favorite classes—the fifth graders!

Diona, Bogdana, Tanya, Sasha, and Dasha were reading the label, trying to figure out what the box might contain and why I was letting them open a box addressed to me!

I didn’t trust any of them with the knife, so I sliced it open while they waited in anticipation.

They were so excited to see all the books, especially the Harry Potter ones ; )

We wrote “Thank You Darien Book Aid!” on the board and took a picture with it, so we can email Darien Book Aid and show them how thankful we are : )

So between the success of the TELL Seminar, the news of my grant being FULLY FUNDED, and the arrival of a shipment of English books, I must say that this might possibly be the best weekend of my Peace Corps service yet. I’m a happy girl : )

I hope all is well where you are, sending you all my love.

TELL Seminar in Sokyriany

In the midst of packing, moving, and resettling at my new apartment, I realized that the weekend for my English seminar at school was rapidly approaching. This seminar has been in the works for months, but given everything else going on, it somehow managed to sneak up on me. I didn’t come up with the idea for this seminar on my own; Peace Corps Volunteers conduct many English conferences, with the most popular series being called WELL (Workshops in English Language and Leadership). Most PCVs have taught at a WELL seminar before, usually in the bigger cities where students have a high level of English. The lessons taught at WELL seminars are conducted entirely in English, which is something kids in small towns and villages rarely experience. I wanted to bring this opportunity to kids in the boonies (or sticks, you might say), where we live, and my friends Erin, Alex, and Holden (who all live within an hour of Sokyriany), agreed to bring some of their best pupils to my school in Sokyriany, which would host the seminar. We modified lessons from the WELL seminar, and renamed our version TELL (Teaching English Language and Leadership). And our TELL seminar was set for Saturday, May 5th, which was suddenly only days away.

When Erin came over earlier in the week to help me pack and move, we spent part of the evening going over our plans for the day, modifying lessons and creating a schedule and assigning lessons to each volunteer who would be teaching. The rest of the preparations for the seminar had to be done at school Thursday and Friday, seeing as we had no school Monday through Wednesday (it was communist Labor Day, a remnant of soviet days which remains a fixed part of the Ukrainian calendar). I went to all my 9th, 10th, and 11th form classes Thursday and Friday, rounding up my best students and reminding them that there would be an English seminar at school on Saturday, and assuring my teachers that the seminar would be free. The director of my school had made the seminar mandatory for the English teachers, so their presence was guaranteed.

Thursday night, the bad news started coming. My friend Alex, who had planned on bringing 20 students from his school in Murovani Kurilivtsi in the next oblast (region), found out from his director that the school bus wasn’t allowed to cross oblast lines without signed permission from the Department of Transportation. The permission was denied, so Alex’s students wouldn’t be able to attend after all. Alex promised to come anyway to teach and help out, which was a godsend because two other Peace Corps volunteers who had committed to coming and teaching bailed at the last minute. Needless to say, by Friday I was quite stressed out. The bad news kept coming, when my counterpart informed me that none of my 11th form students would be attending the seminar because they had to sit for exams. It seems like everyone waited till the last minute to give me their bit of bad news.

Friday morning at school I reviewed the materials for the lessons, which focused on themes such as environmentalism, human trafficking, diversity, and HIV/AIDS. Erin and I realized that some of the basic concepts from these lessons (composting, recycling, prejudice, discrimination, etc.) were entirely unknown to our students. We came up with a list of words that the kids should know to understand our lessons, which we would still endeavor to teach only in English. So at school Friday I typed up the list, and my counterpart Natalia tried to help me come up with the Ukrainian translations. This turned out to be a project in and of itself, because most Ukrainians in rural areas have never heard of things like composting or recycling, so Natalia and I referenced Google Translate (Google Parakladach!) quite often. In the HIV/AIDS lesson, we had difficulty translating words like “treatable” and “curable,” because Natalia insisted that both terms translate to the same thing in Ukrainian. I tried to explain the difference to her, because while HIV/AIDS can be treated, it can never be cured. This point was crucial to the lesson, so coming with a decent translation was imperative. Just creating and translating this vocabulary list gave me an inkling of how challenging this seminar might be to pull off!

Luckily, help was on its way in the form of Michelle and Alex, who arrived in Sokyriany around lunchtime. We had lunch at a cafe with my friend Olha, and stopped in to see my friends Slavic and Petunia at work. Then I took them back to my new apartment, and we spent the evening hanging out and preparing for the big day coming up.

At 7am, I awoke to my cell phone ringing. I had set my alarm for 7:15, but it wasn’t my alarm going off—it was a call coming in from an American cell phone number. I answered and it was my Dad, who was calling to wish me luck for my seminar. It was so sweet of him—best Dad of the Year award definitely goes to mine! He was still awake in Ohio, where it was just after midnight. He was waiting to pickup my sister from Prom, and he proudly informed me that she won Best Dress! It was great to hear from him, and a lovely way to start the day. Thanks Daddy : )

After breakfast, Alex, Michelle and I headed over to school where we quickly set up the classrooms, distributed the materials, and started registration for the students who were beginning to arrive. Soon a school bus pulled up outside, full of Holden’s students from Kelmentsi and Erin’s students from Romankivtsi. My kids all showed up too, and soon it was time to begin! We started by welcoming everyone to the seminar, and splitting the kids into teams. Erin and Alex were in charge of the red team, while Holden and I had the green team. Michelle was on her own with the yellow team, which was fine because she has enough personality for two team leaders ; )

The schedule of the day went like this: Team Time, where the kids came up with a team name, motto, and song, followed by 4 lessons (with a break for lunch in the middle), before the final assembly, where they presented their team project and received certificates for successfully completing our TELL Seminar. I was in charge of teaching the lesson on diversity and discrimination, but since we were running short on teachers I also taught the HIV/AIDS lesson with Holden, and helped out Michelle with a lesson on the history of American music. This lesson was hands-down the most entertaining, mostly due to Michelle’s hilarious impressions of gospel music and improvisation. My Ukrainian friend Slavic came to see the seminar, and I was glad he sat in on this lesson, seeing as it was one of the best : ) When I wasn’t teaching, I was going from class to class making sure everything was going smoothly, and sneaking as many pictures as possible. Here are some of the best!

 The green team, a.k.a Green Day! Our motto was “Every Day is a Green Day,” because our group project was based on environmentalism.

Team Green Day came up with a project to teach people about composting, and create a town compost pile. In this picture, the girls are creating a poster to explain their project!

The red team, a.k.a The Red Devils (are good evils) [don’t ask me, that’s the name they came up with] is hard at work designing a project to raise awareness about the different ways HIV/AIDs can be transmitted.

And we can’t forget the yellow team, a.k.a The Funny Bananas led by Michelle! Their motto was “Just eat it! Just smile!” Here the Funny Bananas are presenting their project on diversity, where they planned a seminar featuring a “Living Library” full of people (as living books) from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, who would interact and answer questions about their lives and how it it feels to be them.

At the end of the day, after the students presented their projects, we handed out certificates of completion and took group pictures.

We had 30 participants, 5 Peace Corps Volunteers, as well as some of our Ukrainian colleagues who came to observe the seminar!

Alex, Erin, Holden, me, and Michelle—thanks so much for all your hard work, my friends!

In the afternoon when the seminar concluded and the kids went home, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It all went off without a hitch, and many of the students told me they enjoyed the lessons and meeting other American volunteers. I hope they learned a lot of new concepts that wouldn’t normally come up in their English lessons at school, and I hope their exposure to lessons taught entirely in English (by native speakers no less) encouraged them to take their English studies a little more seriously. I really enjoyed having the freedom to teach whatever we wanted and use methods that Ukrainian teachers would consider unorthodox (no translation! lots of conversation!), and it was a day I felt like our work here as teachers is actually accomplishing something. So all things considered, I would consider TELL 2012 a huge success. But I’m still really glad its over… I can’t believe its May and the school year is winding down! But having this seminar concluded means we’re one week closer to summer break—bring it on!

Thanks for reading!

Birthdays and Battles and Moving Day, OH MY!

In the midst of packing up my apartment, my friend Olha called to say my presence was requested (and expected) at the birthday party of our friend Ira in the village of Hrubno. I told her I really couldn’t, because I had a lot more to do before I’d be finished packing, but she assured me that we would only be gone a few hours and that it would mean a lot to Ira if I came. I called my new landlady to ask when I could pick up the key, and she told me they were installing a new lock on the door and still hadn’t moved the refrigerator in yet. She assured me the apartment would be ready by the next morning, if I could wait to move for another day. It seemed like a field trip to Hrubno for Ira’s birthday could be worked into the schedule, so I gave in and soon was on the road to Hrubno with Olha.

We had the typical Ukrainian birthday feast, complete with strawberries and champagne—Ira’s favorites. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but in Ukraine when its your birthday you invite the guests, prepare the party, and pay for everything. So while we brought Ira presents, she still was in charge of the food and party planning. Lots of people came to wish her a happy birthday, and I got to visit with Ira’s daugher Liza, who is my age. I thought that after the feast concluded, Olha and I would be on our way back to Sokyriany and I could finish packing. But Ira had heard about the Battle of the Nations, a medieval sword-fighting/jousting competition that was taking place in Khotyn, an ancient fortress only an hour away from Hrubno. One of the guys at the party had a van that would fit us all, and offered to drive. I tried to gracefully decline, but I was quickly overruled and we soon set off for Khotyn.

Ira, Olha, Liza, and I at the Battle of the Nations in Khotyn

An hour later we made it to the fortress, where tickets to the Battle of the Nations competition could be purchased for 80 greven each (about 10 dollars). I got in line to buy my ticket, only to be chided by Ira (in Ukrainian of course) for trying to buy it myself—it was her birthday, so of course she would pay for everything! I know this is part of Ukrainian culture, but I didn’t feel comfortable letting her spend so much money on me. She paid for everyone’s ticket, and then wanted to buy us food there as well! I think I prefer the American way of everyone else spoiling the birthday person, not the Ukrainian version of the birthday person spoiling everyone. I’ll have to invite Ira to my birthday party in July and buy her something ridiculously expensive! : )

It was a beautiful clear day for a sword-fighting competition, but it was hot! It was 88 degrees out, and many people had umbrellas to block the sun. The fortress of Khotyn sits atop the Dniester River, so it was was an incredible picturesque place to have the Battle of the Nations. There were competitors from Moldova, Belorussia, Russia, and Ukraine, all dressed in medieval costumes and looking like they walked out of a time period when the Khotyn fortress was a defended outpost. Some enthusiastic observers even came decked out in medieval garb, but I was perfectly happy in my sundress. It was way too hot outside—it would not have been a pleasant day if I was wearing a full-length gown.

We spent the afternoon watching the sword-fights and exploring the fortress. I also ran into lots of Peace Corps friends from the region who had come to Khotyn for the competition, and it was nice to catch up with some PCVs I haven’t seen for a while. The hot weather provided the opportunity to drink kvas, a national drink in Ukraine that’s like beer except non-alcoholic. I’ve heard that its made from bread, and it has a really crisp, refreshing taste. I actually had my first glass of kvas this time last year, at a folk festival in Pootila, and I couldn’t wait for spring to come this year so I could drink some more : )

Early in the evening, after a long day in the sun that produced many a sunburn, we started the journey home. I texted Erin, my friend and fellow PCV who was planning on coming to Sokyriany to help me move. The road home to Sokyriany always goes through Romankivtsi, which is where Erin lives, so she said she’d come to out to the road and wait for us to drive through so we could pick her up. It was funny trying to explain how, instead of finishing my packing and being ready to move, I’d gone to a birthday party which in turn included a random field trip to see a medieval tournament staged at an ancient fortress. One of the positive effects of my Peace Corps experience has been that its made me a much more flexible, easy-going person, which has come in handy when plans change at the last minute (all the time) and when I have to move every few months.

Back in Sokyriany, Erin and I made breakfast burritos (for dinner, of course), and I finally finished packing up my apartment. I think my fourth home has been my happiest, and I definitely felt a few pangs as I surveyed the empty apartment. I knew when I moved in that it was temporary, because my landlord’s plan had always been to renovate the apartment this summer so he could sell it, but saying goodbye was harder than I thought it’d be. But at least I had Erin on hand to keep me company, and we had enjoyed my last night at home by taking advantage of the high-speed Internet to plan our English seminar, which is actually coming up this weekend. It seems like everything is happening at once lately, and I hardly have time to process it, much less blog about it! So thanks for reading my tardy blog entries 🙂

Next blog posts will be from my new home!