Pictures Worth 1000 Words

Boss Tweed, a huge man in stature as well as impact, was the mayor of NYC and the engine that drove the Tammany Hall political machine.  He and his cohorts practiced graft on a giant scale, just like everything else he did.  Tweed didn’t worry much about his constituents squawking because most of them couldn’t read the newspapers.  He was brought low by one Thomas Nast, a cartoonist whose drawings appeared in Harper’s Magazine.  Nast exposed Tweed, and Tweed ended up in jail.  He escaped once to Spain, but was captured and returned to prison where he died in 1878. He famously said, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles.  My constituents don’t know how to read.  But they can’t help seeing them damn pictures.”

Moral of the story: A picture is worth 1000 words.

So I am re-discovering.

Boss Tweed pixOne morning, not so many weeks ago, I was invited to attend an AP US History class where the topic was Boss Tweed.  I listened to the lecture and to the discussion that ensued and took notes the old-fashioned way: I wrote down words and numbers and dates and tried to capture the essence of the lecture in longhand.

That afternoon, not entirely by chance, I listened to a TedX Talk by Rachel Smith called “Drawing in Class.”  This blog is a shout-out to Rachel Smith.  She’s changed everything for me and, I hope, for a lot of people besides me.

I stumbled across her talk because I was looking for easy and/or effective note-taking strategies for a professional development presentation I was putting together for middle school teachers.  So far in my research, I’d  come across links to strategies I’d known about for years—like Cornell notes—and some clever ideas such as using highlighters to mark up texts in answer to a specific research question.  I’d learned that there’s no one right way to take notes (a big relief) and that some techniques—like trying to write down everything a speaker says—are largely ineffective.  Nothing new there.  And then I stumbled upon Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk.

When Rachel Smith was in school, she got in trouble for drawing in class.  She describes, in her talk, a scenario I remember from my own school days of teachers berating kids for doodling—when, in fact, they were creating graphic representations of what they were learning.  (A colleague—now an art teacher—told me she’d even been kicked out of Sunday school for drawing in class!)  Smith makes the point that drawing while she listened helped her focus—not to mention that her drawings captured the content in memorable images.

Now she makes a living drawing pictures of group discussions and collaborative proceedings.  I watched as she demonstrated how she draws words and images as people talk.  I wondered if 7th graders would be able to do this—listen and draw simultaneously—particularly if they aren’t “artistic” to begin with.

But maybe, I thought, even if they couldn’t draw fast enough to record a presentation as it was unfolding, maybe could they draw pictures after a presentation—as a way of summarizing the content.  I decided to try it myself.  I pulled out my lecture notes about Boss Tweed, and that’s what I drew.

The picture I created brings the story back for me in an instant—much faster than reading my original notes.  Could we teach kids to draw pictures as a summary exercise?  I’ve since made several presentations to my colleagues about Visual Notetaking, which (I’ve learned), is more common than I realized.

Since then, I’ve been drawing pictures in other classes I’ve attended.  Here’s a chemistry lesson on the heating curve, a biology lesson on karyotypes, and a visual summary of WWI and the Treaty of Versailles.

Ploss V-N


Cox V-N


Jordan Versailles








In the case of the two science classes, I recorded my visual notes as the class unfolded.  The WWI summary is an after-the-fact graphic.  Either way, I had to listen as the lesson unfolded, process the information on the spot, and then create an image that matched the content. Talk about focus!  No mental drifting possible.  And that is just the point.  Kids who doodle are likely processing—and learning in a mode that is natural for them.

You might notice that my people all look the same—except that Boss Tweed has a belly, the biology teacher has hair, and the people shaking hands at the Treaty of Versailles are standing sideways.  Rachel Smith makes the excellent point that novice artists like me need to develop a “library of images” that they can draw in an instant—and she ends her TedX Talk by teaching her audience how to draw a stylized “star person.”  Lesson learned.

All you need is a pencil and a blank sheet of paper.  Over time, you’ll develop that library of images.  Give this notetaking or summarizing strategy a try and teach it to your students.  I’d like to hear if you, too, rediscover that old truth: A picture is worth 1000 words.


If you’re new to visual notetaking, as I was, here is the link to Rachel Smith’s TedX Talk:

Here is a link to the Pinterest page I put together on various notetaking strategies.

Here is a link to a Scholastic article by Meghan Everette on visual notetaking with directions for teaching kids how to do it:

Time for Reflection

P1040504If you’re traveling abroad with students—whether touring, volunteering, or participating in an exchange, you don’t have to worry that your charges will take plenty of pictures. Given the omnipresence of cell phones, not to mention that a carefully chosen camera is pretty much de rigeur for a trip abroad, you can be sure the kids will catch those Kodak moments. What could get lost, though, are verbal images—the pictures people paint with words. Journal entries recall different details about a trip than photographs do. Words capture mood and tone and nuance–subtleties that cameras often miss.

Furthermore, journal entries lend themselves to reflective thinking. You’re going abroad for a reason: to learn a language, to fulfill a mission, to discover another country and culture, to make friends with people from afar. You, as the teacher leader, want to facilitate the reflection that comes at the end of a trip because reflection spells the difference between mere observation—noticing a difference between cultures, say—and internalization—altering one’s viewpoint because of that observation.

For example, when I traveled with students to Russia, almost the first thing they noticed was that the Russians didn’t stick to a timetable. My students would be up, dressed, and ready to embark on the day’s adventure at the appointed time. We’d (most of us) gather at the school—and invariably have to wait—sometimes a half-hour, sometimes, forty-five minutes—for everyone to arrive. No one apologized, and the bus driver didn’t blink an eye. The fact that Russians were frequently “late” might have remained an observation but that we teachers specifically asked the students to reflect on the importance of schedules in the US. Then they would discover, though dialogue with their counterparts, that the Russians thought the Americans were obsessed with time. We all wore watches, and our magazines are full of ads for watches. A timepiece—the Rolex—is even a status symbol. In school, we Americans live by bells. And bells at odd hours: 10:02, 11:18, 1:44, for example. When the bells don’t ring, schools are paralyzed. It was all pretty funny and certainly instructive: Through reflection, we learned that understanding a cultural difference like that could help us avoid being irritated with each other and, ultimately, avert conflict.

Making time for reflection is critical for achieving the goals of any trip abroad. Here are five ways to do it:

1. Take turns taking notes: Purchase a journal that is reserved just for the purpose of taking lecture notes. When you’re in a museum or art gallery or at a presentation, have the students alternate taking those notes. Only one person needs to focus on writing down the facts, the dates, the statistics. Everyone else can use their personal journals to record impressions or draw pictures or make diagrams—whatever will help them to remember. Later, you can Xerox the official notes for everyone else—or, if the notes are taken on an iPad—you can instantly email them to everyone else.

2. Keep a group journal: In this case, you purchase a journal that is the official Log of the Day. The students circulate the book, taking turns writing about the events of a particular day. While you might think this would result in dry reading—a straight chronology—it doesn’t. The students will comment on what they are seeing and doing, and their reactions to the experiences of the day will dominate the discussion. Their voices will be strong, clear, and uninhibited. They know their audience—each other. An internal dialogue will quickly develop. Nicknames, group jokes, asides, graphic symbols, and friendly joshing back and forth will capture the students’ personalities and recall the trip later from a completely different perspective. As a writing teacher, I came to cherish these group journals. I would only occasionally see the book as it changed hands, but at the end of the trip, they’d give it back to me. I’d make copies for everyone. Once again, technology has improved since my day, so today the same thing could be accomplished with an iPad.  In that case, the entire piece could be forwarded to everyone at the end of the trip.

3. Make it a point to conference every day for at least half an hour. By carving out a little time just for your group to talk together, you can take the group pulse and get a feel for how individuals are reacting to the cultural differences they are experiencing. My students lived with Russian families—their Russian “bothers” and “sisters” had lived with them in the fall in Indiana. Questions of etiquette frequently arose. How do I refuse more food? How does the shower apparatus work? Why isn’t there any hot water? Is it okay to change money on the street? Sometimes the questions were more serious than that. Medical issues. Homesickness. A death in the family. Once, a tornado had destroyed the home of one of my students. Problems like these involve everyone when you are a group abroad. Cut off from family, the group becomes your family. It’s also a good time to pose questions of your own: What has been your biggest challenge so far? What has surprised you? What have you changed your mind about? What has been the most fun? Has that surprised you? What lessons have you learned so far?

4. Give students a list of journal topics that will inspire reflection:

• Three things I should have brought…
• Three things I didn’t need to bring…
• Three things I didn’t expect…
• Three things I’ll never forget…
• Something I’d like to forget…

• Things I love about Russia (or any country)…

• Things I miss about the USA…
• Things that made me sad…
• Things that made me glad…

• A surprise
• A disappointment
• A moment of gratification
• A moment of annoyance
• A wish
• A hope
• A dream

• Advice I’d give to someone else traveling here…
• Advice for people traveling to America…

5. At the very end of the trip, set aside an evening just for reflection. You can do this in a hotel gathering place—a lobby or a floor lounge or even in someone’s room if it’s large enough. You can sit in a circle on the floor in the airport while you’re waiting for a flight. But don’t let the students disband without discussion and final assessments.

Here are some of my favorite final questions and some  answers from some of my Russia Travelers:

What do you admire about Russia?
• People who hadn’t met me brought me food.
• Their knowledge of their history. So many of our kids don’t care or know our history.
• The boatload of information coming out of nowhere whenever we walked anywhere.
• Nothing is wasted. We had leftovers for breakfast.
• Art and monuments everywhere. Even the bus stops on the way to St. Petersburg were mosaics!
• Walking arm in arm is okay.
• They don’t label people. They don’t make assumptions.
• Russians are more easy-going.
• Hard-working people working in their dacha gardens.
• The whole dacha thing is so mellow.
• They live so simply [at the dacha]. They get water from a well. They’re self-sufficient.
• I admire the desire to communicate. Her mother tried to talk to me in English.
• Sasha’s mother used a dictionary to communicate with me.
• Articulate, poetic answers.
• They appreciate their history. They are proud to be Russian.

What do Russians seem to value?
• Sit down dinners: They take pleasure in eating meals together. They take time to sit down even when something is on the schedule.
• Close-knit families.
• Friendships are really close—people go out of their way to help friends.
• Pride in their country, their city—it’s somehow different than American patriotism.
• You can be late here.
• Conversation at dinner.
• Pushkin—Even the bus driver could recite Pushkin by heart. We have nothing like it.

What do you realize Americans value?
• Convenience
• Independence
• Sanitation—you can drink water out of taps.
• Good roads
• Hot water
• Space
• Privacy
• Structure and schedules
• Laws and government: Taxes do help us—I understand that now.
• Direct answers.

What have you learned from your experience?
• Patience
• Independence
• Appreciation. I take things for granted at home.
• I’m okay. I can handle myself. Now I am not too scared to travel.
• People are people no matter where you are.
• A week [in the country] and all the girls were sitting together finishing each other’s sentences—people are the same everywhere.
• We were on the other side of the world, but we were at home.
• It meant the world when his father spoke to me in English.
• I learned I could do this. Growing up, I couldn’t spend the night at a friend’s…but I wasn’t homesick…here I am halfway around the world and I wasn’t homesick at all.
• I learned I can step out of my worrying self.
• I’m not the only person in the world.
• Everyone doesn’t speak English. We’re all the same, but the common barrier is communication…yet we found a way around it.
• Russians think America is so wonderful. I want to say, “Do you see where you live?”
• They haven’t sold out their culture. A fortress is next to a block of apartments. In America, “old” becomes a park you have to go to or it’s a space for advertising—it isn’t just a part of what’s there. Russians embrace their culture.

How will this experience affect you in the future?
• I’m not so scared to try something.
• I don’t have walls anymore…I knew this exchange would open doors…
• I have more confidence in myself now.
• I always hated cities before we came, but I learned I can’t be so close-minded. You just have to try it.
• This experience has made me stronger. I felt isolated sometimes, but I could get through it…if I could do this, I can do anything.
• I found my Russian family, but I feel like we were all a family.

What was the hardest part?
• Walking away.


The Sacred Valley: Peru, 2009

Summer is fast approaching. Teachers who are traveling abroad with students next month are checking their lists and making last minute tweaks to their travel plans at the same time they are winding down the school year. In 2009, I traveled to Peru with a colleague who was doing just that. She and her husband had recently inaugurated a short-term travel abroad program called HOST–for Hands-on Spanish Travel. The program was a cultural and linguistic immersion experience–we stayed with host families in Lima–and it was a service learning-based program, too–we worked in an orphanage that year. Today, HOST partners with high schools and colleges in the US, offering study abroad programs in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas and in Spain. I savored every moment of that trip to Peru, but this day in the Sacred Valley was especially memorable.

sm vendorAt every turnout where the bus stopped on the journey to Pisac and at the top of the mountain we’d descend to reach the market at Pisac, as if to warm us up, to whet our appetites for buying, to prepare us for the panoply of choices available there, full-skirted women wearing brown felt hats and red wool jackets, long black braids down their backs and dancing black-eyed children with adoring, pleading, coaxing voices sold us water and water bottle holders, beaded strings for our sunglasses, chullos and whistles and musical instruments. No end to the items they offered, no end to our need for novelty, no end to our need not to disappoint…

sm Pisac TrailCemetery holes in lacy, eroded hillsides, precursors of those we had seen in the hillside in Lima… delicate yellow wildflowers holding their own in dry, vast space…terraces and granaries where Incan farmers long ago worked out the exact altitude at which to grow each of the varieties of corn and potatoes…Incan walls, stones set to withstand earthquakes and the destruction of men…steep stone steps cut into the earth, staircases of them, one after the other, meant to ease the descent—or the climb—but not for us: legs the wrong length, bodies unused to the effort, the altitude, the sun. But exhilarating nonetheless, the walk to Pisac. Accomplishment. Activity. Away from crowds and buying and selling and tasting. Shared venture.

sm 10 child with orangeA rest, a respite: a pig roast, freshly baked bread, a mother teaching her child to take stitches, another black-eyed child sucking on an orange turned inside out. A stroll through the market and frenzied buying. This time the bigger items: blankets and shawls, t-shirts, carved animals, leather pouches and silver bangles. For me: bits of cloth glued on white cardboard, woven designs in black on rust, subtle patterns…

sm 10 girl in pinkOur guide, Nilo, prepares the students for their long walk up the steps to Ollantaytambo’s fortress. I photograph a winsome little girl in pigtails dressed in filthy pink pants and winter jacket. She speaks a little English, knows enough to ask for a sol in exchange for her picture. Who is exploiting whom here? We’re both complicit. But I want the picture and I don’t need the sol. Later, I spend the rest of my soles on straps for walking sticks. A strange request, it seems to the vendor…straps but no sticks. Coming home from Rwanda with sticks, I had to lay them on top of my suitcase and shrink wrap the whole thing…or else pay $300 in excess baggage fees. No thanks. Not again. Just the straps.

sm 10 walls as shopsAnd then a walk down a cobbled lane where even the walls had become shops, a peek into one family’s store where the grandson charmed us and we looked at the sweaters and shawls hung on the walls and laid in piles on a table. A shop bare but for that table, the mother and grandmother seated cross-legged on the floor, weaving. Two granddaughters, yet to learn the skill, the boy to learn what? To market it all? Another craft? A trade? Weaving was in the bloodline, “as old as the sun,” the grandmother told Lee Ann. She bought a loosely woven sweater; I took a photograph of them all.

Boys playing in sand, covering their toes and shaking their feet loose; lace curtains at a doorway, shoes on the threshold. A Mototaxi—more than one—coming up the street from the train station at the end. We’d see the station itself the next day on our way to Machu Picchu. A decoration on top of a house—a bird’s nest of symbolic animals and flags and twigs all laced together to bring happiness and good luck to the marriage. Men coming home from work, sacks slung over their backs, their wives or sweethearts beside them and sometimes their children scampering along, too, escorts back to the town. For us, a surprise in the other direction: an oasis in Ollantaytambo: Hotel Pakaritampu, an orange adobe inn—La Casa del Amanecer—luring us in…the gardens, artful and opulent mounds of bright flowers, paved sidewalks inviting us to follow to an airy, modern, uncluttered front desk…an agradable ambiente…we should keep it in our memories forever…a destination for a weekend, an escape for the mind…

sm 10 sunsetAnd then, the sunset, the final glory of the day. White-capped Chicon Mountain in the background, jagged brown peaks like teeth snapping the sky, the sun on the landscape, brilliant orange, the fields looking almost like sand. A woman and her dog, their backs to us, traverse the field, return for the night. Two men are crouched over cloths and bundles spread on the ground. We settle in for the long, dark bus ride back to Cusco. End of the sacred day.

What you have given me…

Thank you, Lee Ann








What is Russia?

The Sochi Olympics have me thinking about the summers when I took students to Russia on an exchange program. The kids–in their twenties now–are thinking about those days, too. I know because they’ve been reconnecting on Facebook and emailing me. We are all acquainted with the unfinished public buildings, the difficulties of getting around, the stray dogs, and the other objects of humor so glibly reported on in the press. We know very well the dark side of Russian history. But more deeply than any of that, we know that what we took away from our experiences ten years ago would last all our lives. See what that was:

“What is Russia? Provide a brief definition.”

It sounded like an exam question. Alina, one of the Russian students, asked it at the end of our three-week exchange with students at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum. No one took it for a quiz at all; nevertheless, the American students reflected before they replied.  What came to my mind as I waited for their responses was Churchill’s remark: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

But the students weren’t hampered by such long-ago images as they articulated their impressions. Anna and Hillary responded first and simultaneously.

“History,” they said.

Indeed, we had experienced the history of Russia throughout P1000702our visit. The Pskov town fortress dates back to the 11th century; that year, in fact, Pskov was celebrating its 1100th birthday. Pskov was its own principality until 1510 when it surrendered its ancient veche, or assembly, and came under the control of Moscow. We visited Pechory, a monastery on the Estonian border where Ivan the Terrible decapitated the Father Superior, Cornelius, whom he supposed to be a traitor, and watched his head roll down the cobblestone walk. The Empress Elizabeth abandoned her carriage on a visit to Pechory—it’s still on display along that same steep walk. And in the caves of Pechory, Orthodox monks hid from the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. We hiked at Izborsk, a nearby fortress that dates back to 1232. Here we waded in a stream whose waters, according to local legend, promise health or wealth or beauty, your choice to wish for.

“Is it only me, or is Russia beautiful?” Kate wrote in our group journal in praise of Izborsk.

We spent an afternoon at Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. We strolled—and stopped to stare incredulously at Peter’s four magnificent water cascades, each more elaborate than the next, and at the palaces of Marly, Monplaisir, Hermitage, and the Grand Palace itself. We watched children play on the trick stones that Peter designed for children. Little ones, sometimes holding their parents’ hands, ran back and forth in the fountains, pretending to avoid the spots that triggered hidden sprays, hoping to be doused, shrieking excitedly when they were. Some of the students posed in the fountains—under umbrellas. We dipped our hands in the Gulf of Finland and heard from our guide about Peter’s war on the Swedes that culminated in victory in 1709. We could see St. Petersburg, the city Peter built to be his new capital, in the distance across the water.

Later, we toured St. Petersburg itself and had a look at the Russia I, II, III Posters 014famous statue of Peter the Great, the Bronze Horseman. The custom in Russia is for brides and grooms to lay flowers at the bases of historical monuments. While we were there, two couples laid flowers at Peter’s feet. We saw the incredible Church of the Stained Blood, built by Tsar AlexanderIII to honor his father, AlexanderII, who had been assassinated in that very place in 1881.  We walked around St.Isaac’s Cathedral, where the city’s treasures were hidden from the Nazis—we could see the attackers’ bullet holes in the monolithic columns. We were glad to learn the Nazis had never penetrated the building.

Of course we stopped at the WinterPalace, now the famous HermitageMuseum. The grandeur and size of the Hermitage amazed us. Our guide said that it would take eight hours a day for eight years to see everything. We had two hours. At the Hermitage, we split into pairs, each couple making a beeline for the period or style of art that they found most appealing. Some visited the Impressionists; others took in the Flemish painting. Two pairs went to the Egyptian exhibit. Nikita, one of the Russian students, translated the exhibit signs for us when our skills in deciphering Cyrillic failed. We saw clay vessels, fragments of cloth, an actual mummy, and a sarcophagus opened to display the case within the case.

“Look!” exclaimed Ashley. “It’s just like a matryoshka doll, only vertical!”

Nikita smiled.

“Russia is ornate,” said Allie. “Even the railings have detail.”

She was referring to the railings our tour guide had pointed out along one of the bridges in St. Petersburg, but the imperial architecture, the interiors of the monasteries, the carvings in walls along the city streets, the gates between buildings, even the doors to business establishments are ornate. When we saw the Armory collection in Moscow, we understood “ornate” even better. Robes, wedding dresses, vessels of all kinds, chargers for serving food, plates, chalices, crosses and Bible covers, even the Tsars’ carriages have been preserved through the centuries.

“Preservation,” Ashley added. “It’s not just one person or small group; everyone values the past and is keeping it alive.”

In Pushkin Hills, we saw the ongoing excavation of a church that had burned to the ground after the Soviets took power, and we observed the restoration of a monastery, now a convent for Orthodox nuns, at Elizarovo. In fact, the students had helped with both projects. Under the direction of a well-known archeologist, they’d removed the first layer of turf in a small area at the church site. At Elizarovo, they’d painted window frames, hoed in the monastery’s garden, and washed some of the double-hung cloirestory windows that were caked with whitewash and dust from rebuilding efforts. St.Basil’s in Moscow was partially covered with scaffolding, as were churches in Pskov. In St. Petersburg, spruced up in celebration of its 300th anniversary, we saw, through a window into a less public side of the Hermitage, a stash of renovation materials and a faded green wall that had yet to be repainted to match the façade.

“Russia is culture.” Melissa turned in her seat to explain her impression. “It’s the national dress and the folk songs and dances.”

On the first full day in Russia the students had been invited to School #26, a magnet school for the arts, to attend a performance by a folk music ensemble, a group of select high school students. The students played traditional instruments— wooden spoons, the balalaika, the tambourine—and invited our young men to join the Russian girls who were singing on stage in traditional costumes. Back at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, the music and dance teachers taught the Americans some Russian folk songs and dances. Later still, the Americans and their Russian friends learned more folklore at the regional museum where they attended a Russian tea party, the table dominated by an enormous samovar, and participated in songs and dances that were led by a member of a local folk music troupe who was dressed in a colorful sarafan.

“Children,” was my answer. I’d noticed, of course, that most adults in Russian towns wore dark colors—a defense against dust and the expense of dry cleaning—but in contrast, all of a sudden I’d see a child who looked like a bright yellow chick or a big blue gumdrop holding onto her mother or grandmother’s hand. And the hats! All the small children wore wonderful hats—blue velour with yellow stripes, pink or beige straw hats with decorative satin rose petals, denim hats with daisies embroidered on the brims—and I longed for a telephoto lens to snap their pictures unaware.

Then Clinton offered this definition: “It’s hospitality,” he said. “Anything I needed or wanted was provided for me.” When we first arrived in Pskov, spilling giddily off the train and into the arms of the Russian families whom we’d so eagerly looked forward to seeing, some of the parents apologized because their apartment buildings were currently without hot water. Our students took the announcement of cold showers in stride, but their Russian mothers heated water for them daily, and two of the parents, who worked at a local hotel, made arrangements for the “unfortunate” ones to shower there occasionally!

The mothers opened their cupboards and refrigerators to the American students, cooking special Russia dinners for them and searching out foods that would suit American palates. “Eat, eat,” they constantly urged, and while we could never satisfy their need to fill us full, we ate heartily and learned to love certain foods especially. Everyone loved blini, served with sour cream, jam, honey, or just plain butter.  Some students liked the borscht and most liked a Georgian specialty, cheburek, which the students ate regularly at a café on Oktvabrskii Street. Russian pizza and the incredibly beautiful pastries were “hits,” and everyone loved the chocolate, too. Almost everyone developed a fondness for tea and the rituals surrounding it, and it wasn’t unusual to find an American student ordering tea at lunch or in mid-afternoon. The most popular food item of all, however, was the incomparable Russian ice cream. Again and again we visited the booth by the bus stop where a “scoop ice cream” vendor presented an ever-changing selection of flavors.

The Russian families—the parents and the students—extended themselves in every way, in many cases giving up bedrooms so the American students could have a room of their own. The families helped us with telephone calls, with the Internet café, with changing money. They bought bus passes for us in advance of our visit and showed us how to ride like Russians (jump on quickly, show the pass later) lest we be left curbside, waiting in a non-existent line to board. They took us shopping in town and over and over again to “the market.”

Russia? “It’s my second home,” pronounced Karen, and she wasn’t thinking just of the hospitality that had been extended to all of us by our families or of occasions like a trip we’d taken to Sacha’s family’s dacha. As had happened for the Russian students in the United States, all of the Russian parents brought the American students “into the family,” and soon the adjective Russian disappeared when our students referred to them.

Karen meant, too, what we all had come to understand: that the relationships we’d formed and the friends we had made defined our Russian experience more significantly than anything material, anything historical, or anything cultural ever could. During our three weeks, there had been official welcomes from the school principal, from teachers who had prepared special lessons for us, from the Chairman of the city Duma and from the Vice-Mayor of Pskov. There had been formal interactions with the professors and students at the Pskov Pedagogical Institute. All of them were important, but none made as indelible an impression as did the commonplace, often spontaneous, social activities that transpired between the brothers and sisters, between the Americans and their host families.

Allie and Anna cooked a spaghetti dinner together for their host families, and Karen and Melissa made spiced chicken for theirs. Yulia and Karen, whose birthdays are at the end of May, had a birthday party and invited the others. Irina’s mother, who works at a hospital, took Jolene along one day—an impromptu “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” A large group, accompanied by the teachers and Sasha’s father, went to a disco one night. The students danced together and found no differences in style that they couldn’t absorb. Even the music, half in English and half in Russian, bridged the potential divide.

Our Farewell Party at Alina’s family dacha lasted from late afternoon until the teenagers’ curfew at 11:00. The back yard was a sea of purple lupine, gathered from an adjacent field and stashed in buckets everywhere. Plastic chairs and café tables with umbrellas, rented from town by the parents, were sprinkled about the yard. Volleyball, croquet, and even a karaoke machine provided entertainment, and the fare was the ever-popular shashlik.

When the games were over and the meal was done, when we’d finished with gifts and speeches, lead teacher “Mrs. Irina” introduced the culminating activity. She distributed a handful of colored embroidery thread to each student and teacher and invited the recipients to separate the strands and tie the strings around the wrists of the people to whom they’d like to say a specific “thank-you.” Of course, the tears started as each student and all of the teachers approached each other and the parents to privately convey their thanks.

In the end, each person’s wrist was encircled with a wide, colorful band made of the individual strands. “What is Russia?” Alina’s unintentional quiz question had helped us focus our thoughts about our visit to Russia. Ashley remarked at the end of the discussion that Russia is like the Hermitage. “You could never see it all,” she said.

We agreed with her, but still, we realized we would come home from our three-week visit with fresh, joyful, and positive impressions of the country. There is no mystery, puzzle, or enigma in this. Our idea of Russia, outlined by the history and culture we were shown, has been colored brightly and deeply by the friendships and love that our exchange created. And, like the thick bands upon our wrists, woven of single strands of gratitude, so the idea we have of Russia is all of these impressions together, impressions for which we are grateful still to our many Russian friends.

An Education in the Russian Outdoors

Summer is here, and in the summer especially, I think again about the academic exchanges with a secondary school in Russia that I led some years ago.  I especially remember a hike I took one Sunday when my American students were all at their host families’ dachas for the day. Call this post an American teacher in an outdoor Russian classroom. I learned a lot–not just about history and biology and geography–but about relaxation, camaraderie, and low-tech, no-fuss trekking. Please, can I do it again?

My colleague Tatyana proposed that we go on a hike. “Let’s go to Izborsk,” she suggested. “We’ll have a picnic by the lake.”

Her friend Sasha, an aerobics instructor and part-time construction worker, volunteered to be our guide. Sasha hiked often with his two sons, and even though he and his family were leaving on vacation in just a few days, he welcomed the chance to take visiting Americans to the Russian countryside he knows well.

Besides, Sasha was thinking about conducting formal tours of the Izborsk region where we would hike. Here was a chance to try out the route with some visitors from afar.

The trip he had in mind would take us through conifer forests and along a glacial valley in the Izborsk region of the Russian province of Pskov. Putin had visited the fortress at Izborsk when he first was a candidate for President, and for three successive years, my students and I had also visited this historic site.The fortress was built in the 14th century and served as a defense post for the entire Pskov region. It overlooks the Valley of Snakes, a hilly, green terrain with sparkling streams and icy glacial lakes, a landscape that is much more inviting than its name would suggest.

Would we be able to do 15 kilometers in a day?

Of course! Didn’t I hike regularly in America? I most certainly didn’t want to miss this opportunity even though I hadn’t brought proper boots or moisture-wicking socks or thinsulate garb or any of the other specialized gear American hikers deem absolutely necessary for a trouble-free hike.

My friend Tatyana and my colleague Rahul were ready, too. Sasha said we would start at a point north of the fortress and walk towards it all day, stopping only for lunch. I envisioned 15 kilometers of “Davai!  Davai!” (Come on! Come on!) and Sasha at us with a whip so we’d reach Izborsk in time to catch the evening bus back to Pskov.

I was concerned about the amount of food Tatyana was packing. In my experience, packing light was important so that you didn’t wear out from the weight on your back. Tatyana put apples and strawberries, cookies and blue cheese on the kitchen counter, and then she produced a bottle of wine. She said that Sasha was bringing one, too. I was to make ham and cheese sandwiches. “Make four,” she said. “We’ll treat the others.”

No granola bars. No freeze-dried food. No attempt to minimize the weight or pack food that couldn’t be crushed. And wine on a trip like that?  We’d all be too loggy to move. But I made the sandwiches and contributed two chocolate bars to the pile and let it be.

Since neither Tatyana nor Sasha owned a car, we planned to take the bus towards Pechory, a small town on the Estonian border. We’d get off at one of the bus stops that appear, isolated and unexpected, all along the highways in Russia and then take off into the woods. It was a wet, gray morning, the day of our departure, and we waited and waited at the bus stop under Sasha’s dripping umbrella.

A taxi driver approached us and asked if we wanted to hire his services. We said we’d wait for the bus. A second taxi did the same. Four hundred rubles for 35 kilometers. That was only $3-$4 for each of us. No, we were waiting for the bus.

We stood in the drizzle for another twenty minutes until finally someone remembered the bus schedule was different on the weekends. There wouldn’t be a bus for another hour.

So that was how it was that we went by taxi to our wilderness hike.

Our driver flew down the pitted asphalt highway and eventually turned onto a sandy road. He dropped us at the edge of a pine forest in the middle of nowhere. If I’d been blindfolded and helicoptered in, I would have thought I was in the north woods of Wisconsin. Pine and spruce towered above me on all sides; lush mosses and sprawling ground cover blanketed every part of the forest floor.

We struck off into the forest on an old logging road. Sasha carried his umbrella inside a rolled-up pad that was about the size of a bedroll. I had no idea what the pad was for, but I stopped wondering when he began talking about what was around us—for example, Icelandic moss.  “It makes a good cure for pulmonary ailments,” he said, and told us he treats his own son’s asthma with it. He gave us the instructions for making a medicinal tea from the dry grey moss, and Rahul put a clump in his pack.

Sasha pointed out bottlebrush (the same ancient plant which we know in the American West as Mormon Tea), and remarked that it’s good for digestion.  A plant called Mother/Mother-in-Law whose broad leaves are cold and smooth on one side and warm and fuzzy on the other side is a coagulant and can be used to staunch bleeding. “It was used for bandages during the Great Patriotic War,” Sasha said.

Remnants of trenches and a bomb crater from that war, now thickly covered with moss, ran alongside the road we were traveling. Fighting had been heavy in the Pskov region as the Soviets tried to hold back the Germans on their march to Leningrad. Later in the day Sasha picked a piece of badly rusted barbed wire, an artifact from the war.

A mile or so into the walk, we came across a young couple, Misha and Natalia, sitting at a picnic table in front of an old farm building. They had made a summer cottage—a dacha—from an abandoned barn. One day they too were hiking in the woods and discovered this building, a two-story structure of limestone bricks on the first floor, and weathered logs on the second. They’d tracked down the owner, who said there had originally been seven buildings on this property, but the barn was all that was left of the farm. They welcomed us to go inside their house, and Rahul and I did. Downstairs, they’d created a cozy kitchen with a small table, cupboards and shelves, and a wood stove.  Colorful baskets hung from the rafters; a bicycle was stored in the corner. Upstairs, four short beds were positioned along the papered wall and there were even lace curtains at the windows. A long table in the middle served as a nightstand.

Tatyana and Sasha stayed outside and talked with the couple  while Rahul and I explored. When we rejoined them, Sasha was describing a kayaking adventure he was planning for July. Perhaps Misha would like to join? Misha had been fishing in nearby LakeMalski and showed us his catch, 4-5 fish in a net bag. They offered us tea, which we declined, but insisted we take some of the pickles Misha’s mother had made that were in a jar on the ground by the corner of the table.

The path from their house led to a wide stream, several feet deep, and a bridge that had been fashioned of skinned pine logs lashed together lengthwise. Fortunately, there was a rickety log handrail as well because the logs were slippery. We had to step sideways to avoid sliding off into the water. It was the toughest part of the trip so far, and it wasn’t so difficult that we didn’t stop to take pictures of ourselves standing on the bridge.

The trees around us began to change from conifers to deciduous varieties and soon we came to the edge of LakeMalski, and sunshine and shadow dappled the vista. An osprey lifted into the air as we drew near. My feet, already damp from the morning, were soon soaking wet from the marshy ground.

An apple tree about five feet high was growing along the path; one hundred yards farther, there was another one. Sasha speculated that they had grown from the seeds of apple cores that hikers had tossed aside. Rahul asked if they’d bear fruit, and that led to a discussion of grafting and then a demonstration, not on the apple trees, but on some other specimen of which there was an abundance.

Suddenly, at our feet was a small bird hopping along the path in front of us. A tit, we thought, who’d fallen from the nest or was making early attempts at flight. Rahul moved ahead of the bird, and it hopped forward right onto the top of his tennis shoe. We could hear the mother screaming at us from wood’s edge. The bird hopped into the grass, and we walked on, coming soon to our destined lunch spot.

Sasha immediately began a fire. As soon as it was going, he took a coffee can and a dozen small potatoes from his pack, positioned the potatoes in a pile in the fire, and put the coffee can over them. While they steamed, I explored the lake’s edge. I photographed wild iris among the tall reeds and watched white gulls swoop and dive and float on the water. When I came back to the fire, Sasha had snails and frogs to show me. The coloring on the frogs was different than North American species, but the behaviors were the same—they squirmed and jumped and mostly outmanuevered even Sasha.

The sun warmed us, a gentle breeze kept bugs away, and the sparkling blue of the lake matched the incongruous brilliant blue domes of an ancient monastery across the lake. It was a restful sight.

I collected wildflowers from the field for a bouquet for our “table” while Tatyana and Sasha and Rahul unrolled Sasha’s mysterious pad and laid out our lunch. From Sasha, steaming potatoes and fresh herbs from his dacha—parsley, green onions, and dill—served as the Russians do, as whole foods. Tatyana unpacked our fruit, blue cheese, sandwiches, and chocolate; and Rahul contributed leftover homemade pizza. On a side plate, the dill pickles from Misha and Natalia glistened in the sun, and in the center of everything were the two bottles of wine, one red and one white. I wondered how we could eat and drink it all, but we did—every bit—sitting on the ground, lingering over the wine and food, talking for at least an hour about the tourist industry in Russia and whether people would come to Russia for expeditions like this one today.

“People would pay,” I remarked, “for a day like this.”

While we ate, my shoes and socks dried. Sasha had hung the shoes on stakes rammed into the ground at the fire’s edge, and the socks were ingeniously pinned on sticks like marshmallows and roasted over the fire.

The wine, of course, made us sleepy, so before we left, I shamelessly napped while Sasha went for a swim. We left Tatyana and Rahul to pick up from the picnic. Then we doused the fire, left more firewood stacked for the next hikers, and resumed our walk toward Izborsk.

We climbed us the high glacial hill above the camp site and walked for some time along the ridge overlooking the long, narrow lake. Then we descended again and walked through fields on a rutted road that once had served now abandoned farms. The fields waved with waist high grasses, the scene interrupted by occasional clumps of wild strawberry and wild rose.

We passed through a tiny old village whose weathered wooden houses and broken barns slumped in the afternoon sun.  Few people were about, but lace curtains at windows and vegetables growing in gardens provided evidence that this cluster of buildings, surely at least 100 years old, had occupants. In fact, the probable denizens passed us a half hour later, tired people, men and women, walking toward homeward from Izborsk with their arms full.

We had taken a 20-minute break by the side of a stream just off the path. An old mill had once stood there; Tatyana washed her face in the clear water that tumbled down over the rocks in the stream and those that remained of the mill’s foundation.  Trash littered this wayside, so we built another fire and burned the candy wrappers and plastic bags. Someone had dug a pit for empty water bottles, and we threw those we found into the pit.

The fortress of Izborsk loomed on the horizon. It must have been intimidating to approaching armies, this high stone wall studded with towers and turrets with their keyhole openings. It’s imposing even today. We walked past the church overlooking the SnakeValley, past the cemetery behind it, and past the waterfalls of Izborsk that superstition says offer wealth, or health, or beauty to those who drink the waters. We walked into the fortress itself and then away from it, away from the roadside restaurant where Putin dined, away from the babushkas selling their woolen socks, woven baskets, and ceramic plates, and through the village of Izborsk.

It was as if we’d been transported to another century. A horse-drawn cart carrying villagers from one spot to another came up behind us and passed us on the lane. On one side of the cart, a shapeless old woman in a dusty dress was perched, her legs, in woolen stockings though this was June, hung over the side. A man on the other side of the cart was her mirror image. We passed a backyard chicken coop and fed leftover bread from the picnic to the rooster and his bevy of hens. The wooden houses all had gardens attached; an old woman in a scarf and heavy sweater sat on a stool outside one house, scrubbing vegetables. In another front yard, another woman, bundled up in a scarf and jacket as older Russian women keep themselves, sat straight on a bench, her feet firmly on the ground, conversing with a younger woman, not so heavily clothed. In villages throughout Russia, life goes on this way, in sharp contrast to city life where tall slim girls in form-fitting clothes stride down the sidewalks in stiletto heels and men assertively drive cars, smoke cigarettes, and talk incessantly on cell phones.

We were pleasantly tired when we boarded the bus for Pskov. Rahul summed up the experience of the day: “A picnic you have to get to,” he called it.

Sasha’s dreams of becoming an expedition guide didn’t seem far-fetched.

“Yes, people would pay,” I told him again. “People would pay for a day like we just spent. A little history, a little biology, a glimpse of life a century ago, and just enough exertion to feel good.”

A picnic you have to get to, but an experience you’d never forget.

The Bus to Friendship

Today, a former student, one of my Russia Travelers (kids I took to Russia 10 years ago) and I met together as colleagues in the same middle school. She, working with kids; I, working with teachers. We got to talking about our trip together years ago, and I told her I was working on another essay about those weeks we spent together so very far from home. I spent many hours, during those years of the exchange, preparing the kids for those trips. We talked about cultural adjustments they’d have to make…about differences in values…about similarities in matters of the heart. My students had no idea that their teacher was learning to cross cultures, too… 

When I traveled in Russia, the loss of independence was the hardest adjustment I had to make.

As the coordinator of an exchange program, I expected to travel about on my own to the school, to the market, to the restaurants my students frequented, and to the parks where they played.  After a few days of riding the bus with Irina, the host teacher, I was ready to travel alone.

But Irina was not convinced.

The trick to riding the bus in Russia is to push your way on like everyone else. In a crowded bus, your body is not your own, and personal space is only in your mind. You have to accept intimate contact with strangers. Courtesy demands that you remain silent or at least quiet in your conversation if you are with someone else. You have to be wary of pickpockets (I was told) and conscious of older people who deserve the seats. That sometimes means hanging on to overhead bars, or in really crowded situations, allowing yourself to be supported by the individuals packed in around you. You hang onto nothing in these situations and grab for the bar when the bus stops so you won’t be swept away by those who are exiting.

The conductor, usually a matron, pushes through the crowd asking to see passes and selling tickets to those without them. She makes eye contact with each individual, gives a brief nod when you hold up your pass, and for those who don’t have a pass, she somehow accepts money and even makes change as the bus lurches along. She never forgets a face, so there’s no danger of her asking twice to see your pass or overcharging you for your ride—but she’s ever on the alert for freeloaders.

Irina could see I knew the drill, but she still wouldn’t let me ride alone. “I can’t let you do that,” was all she would say.

Then one day I needed to meet my students at an hour that was inconvenient for her; she was forced to let me go.

I received strict instructions: Bus #17 from her stop straight to Lenin Square.

Bus #17 came. I boarded a nearly empty vehicle and took a seat on the right so I’d be sure to see the stops. At first, everything was normal. Then the bus pulled into a parking lot I’d never seen before, and everyone else got off. I sat there until the conductor gestured that I, too, had to leave.

I won’t say I wasn’t anxious. I realized that even if I asked for help, people wouldn’t understand me—and I wouldn’t understand them. So for just a minute, I considered that Irina might be right.

Then I noticed that the people on my bus had moved to a spot at the front of the lot and were standing there, waiting. The conductor and the driver had gone into a building that looked like a shed.  Other buses entered the lot; the same thing happened.

It was a shift change!  Sure enough, another #17 bus came along, and I climbed on. The bus resumed the usual route, and I met with my students, as planned.

As a matter of pride, I didn’t tell Irina about this incident. Besides, I was afraid that if I revealed even a moment of anxiety, I’d never be on my own again.

By the second year of the exchange, the Russian teachers with whom I stayed had accepted the fact that I could and would ride the bus alone.

One day I met Irina for an afternoon of shopping.  At the conclusion of our time together, she put me on Bus #1 to “Kristy,” the area at the edge of town where I was living. I had been told to take Bus #4, but Irina assured me that #1 went to Kristy, too—she used to live there herself. We parted, and I rode Bus #1 down Octobrisky Street toward the bridge I knew the bus would cross on its way out of town.

Just before the bridge, the bus unexpectedly turned. I noticed the deviation immediately and, with a sinking feeling, watched the buildings go by. A few blocks later, the bus stopped at the railroad station and everyone got off.

I approached the conductor.  “Kristy?”

She replied in sentences I didn’t understand, wrote #4 on a piece of paper, and gestured toward the corner where #1 had unexpectedly turned.

My moment of panic was short-lived. I would walk to that corner, catch the right bus, and continue my journey.

Just then, a taxi pulled up and I heard a familiar voice call my name.

It was Irina. She had read a sign on the side of the bus as it pulled away that indicated the route had changed. Concerned that I would be frightened and not know what to do, she had found a taxi and pursued me to the railroad station. That is when I understood at last the depth of her concern for me. I surrendered my pride, climbed into the taxi, and we laughed together all the way to the corner.

I learned later that the name of that corner bus stop is “Friendship.”  Fitting, because that is the place where I gave up my obstinate insistence upon independence—truly an American trait—and understood the motive behind her guardianship. That was the moment real friendship began.

Russian Mother

The holiday season is just about over. I’ve ingested my weight in cookies and confections, yet when someone urges another delicacy upon me, it’s impossible to say no. It’s cultural habit to urge calories upon friends and family in December, and indulging in culinary decadence has reminded me of another time and place in my life when eating too much was more or less an expectation, one I had to help my American students understand, too. We were together in Russia, ten years ago…   

I told them to just say “No.”

Politely, but “No.”

It didn’t do any good.

Their Russian mothers continued to heap food upon my students’ plates and ask again and again, “Wouldn’t you like more?”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“Don’t you want something to eat?”

“Kushai! Kushai!”  they implored.  In English, “Eat! Eat!”

In preparing my American students for their three-week stay in Russian homes, I had explained that the Russian mothers would associate food with well-being and the serving of it with hospitality—indeed, their own mothers had done the same when the Russian teenagers had visited us in Indiana. Still, saying “No” and stonewalling the urgent pleas of the Russian mothers was easier to imagine than do. My students struggled, and so did I, with hospitality that seemed to have no end.

In Russian homes, mothers serve the food at the table—even ladling it onto the fathers’ plates. We couldn’t help ourselves to small portions and thus strategically leave room for more. In fact, the mothers more often than not served the Americans giant portions to begin with and gave their own children the smaller portion sizes that are the rule in Russia. Perhaps they had heard that Americans’ plates are generally heaped, but probably not. The over-sized helpings were more an expression of generosity than cultural accommodation.

We tried saying “No, thank you” in Russian: Nyet, spasebo. That didn’t work. We tried “I’m full.” Ya sita.  It produced the opposite effect:

“Wouldn’t you like some more meat?”

We learned Russian slang for “I’m full. Ya ne slon. “I’m not an elephant.” That didn’t work either.

In fact, mealtime became a kind of battle of wills. The mothers, worrying and kind, urged more and more food upon the students, tempting them with packaged wafer cakes, elegant confections from the city bakery, peach juice and pineapple juice, and the incredibly smooth chocolate that is so hard to resist. The students begged, pleaded, shook their heads, held their stomachs in mock pain, and tried every Russian phrase they knew to say, politely, “Enough.”

It was the same for me, and I got nowhere, too. The teachers told me that the mothers were concerned. The kids weren’t eating. It wasn’t that they didn’t eat specific foods. No, the meat and potatoes were familiar and the desserts were delicious. The Russian “salads”—mixes of diced vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats or seafoods, all held together with mayonnaise—were tasty.  The trouble, the mothers said, was that the students weren’t eating enough.

I used such moments as opportunities to instruct my own hosts in American eating habits.  “We usually mean it when we say no,” I explained. “The kids will eat when they’re hungry. Don’t worry about them. Don’t worry about me.”

But they all did continue to worry. It became a kind of a joke, eventually, although sometimes it produced irritation. I began to dread meals. My waistline was thickening and I was usually still full from the previous repast—and yet, out of politeness I couldn’t completely resist, and out of gluttony I couldn’t pass up the desserts at all.

“Irina,” I said to my good friend, the teacher I stayed with the first time I brought a group of students to Russia, “you’ve been to my home in America. You know I don’t eat such big dinners. I don’t usually eat seconds.”

She nodded.

“In fact,” I said, “How did you get enough to eat at my house? I didn’t keep asking you if you wanted more.”

“I knew you’d ask only once,” she said knowingly. “I knew to take seconds the first time they were offered.”

I just shook my head.

Two summers later, Irina, her daughter Anna, and her daughter’s friend, Olga, met me at “Lavitsa,” a restaurant  that specializes in the delicate pastel cakes and mouth-watering chocolate tortes created at the city bakery. Displayed in splendor in a glass case at the entrance, the cakes tantalize customers who enter intending just a cup of tea. I’d “saved up” for this occasion and was in a dither choosing.

“I remember you like the one called cappuccino,” Irina said.

“Yes, that’s right, I do. Let’s order that. And how about Anna and Olga?”

“Oh, nothing for us,” they replied.

I arched an eyebrow. Skinny teenage girls. They should eat something, I thought.

When the waitress brought our cakes with the requisite teaspoons for eating dessert, my slice was as big as the Ritz. By comparison, Irina’s was small. And Anna and Olga had nothing.

I took the situation in hand.

Dve lozhki, I said to the waitress. She brought me two more spoons. I gave them to Anna and Olga and pushed my plate in their direction.

“No, no,” they said in chorus. “No, thank you.”

And then I heard myself say it.

“Kushai, kushai.”

My tone was urgent.

I jiggled the plate again and nudged it another inch across the table. “Kushai! Kushai!”  I repeated.

Irina looked at me and shook her head. I had become a Russian mother.

A Travel Journal Worth Keeping

School’s out, the grade book is closed, and the room has been cleared for summer maintenance. For many students, attention has turned to summer travel. Some will be going on exchanges, others traveling with their families. Here’s the handout I share with students who are going abroad for the first time.

Of course they’ll take pictures and send them back home—theirs is, after all, the world of the iPhone and Facebook—but some things can’t be captured in photographs. I encourage my students to record the sights and sounds of other countries and the experiences they have as they travel in words as well as photographic images. And then, of course, they’ll have lots to write about when they return to the classroom and need story starters for their essays.

First of all, I tell them, there is no single way to keep a travel journal (except that you have to write in it or you won’t have one.) Your journal can be an old-fashioned diary—one that summarizes each day from dawn to dusk. This type of journal is sometimes called a chronicle because it details, in the order of what happened, everything about the day: what you did, who you saw, what you experienced, where you went, what you ate, or just some of this. Or, your journal can be topical (you write on just certain subjects and don’t necessarily record every last thing you did). It can be thematic (you write about ideas and how you see them play out in events and people you encounter). It can be a sketchbook. That’s right: You draw your way through the day—or in this case, the trip. It can be a scrapbook of odds and ends you collect as you go and paste right into the pages alongside your thoughts, observations, summaries, and sketches. In other words, the journal is yours—your business, your record, your expression of yourself, your portrait in words (mostly) of what you see hear, smell, taste, touch, sense, experience, and understand on your journey.

A journal can be a diary with a lock and key, a spiral notebook, a fancy blank book (lined or unlined pages) from someplace like Barnes and Noble, a sketchbook (unlined pages), or even a 3-ring binder! It can be any size that’s convenient for you. But here are my preferences for journal-keeping (based on years of keeping them):

• A spiral binding so the book will open flat—makes it easier to write on the left hand pages.
• An elastic band that slips around the front and back to hold anything loose you’ve slipped inside (of course, this can be accomplished with a big, fat rubber band, too).
• Lined pages—but, if you’re likely to want to sketch, you might prefer unlined pages. In that case, take a sheet of blank paper and draw heavy lines on it–thick ones, dark enough to show through the blank page. Slip the lined piece of paper under a blank page and presto: lined pages!
• Not so big you can’t slip it in your purse or backpack. Not so small you can’t write very much.
• A glue stick (slip it in your purse or pocket)
• Pockets (make these with index cards and scotch tape) on the inside of the front and back covers. You will use the pockets to keep stuff too big to paste into your journal.

Getting Started:

It may help to get started to imagine an audience. It might be your parents, with whom you will share your book when you get back. It might be a friend. It might be an imaginary friend. It might even be just you yourself that you’re writing to. But most people have an audience in mind—maybe subconsciously—when they sit down to write. If a “known” audience will help you, consciously pick someone to think about when you write. That way, you’ll “speak” directly to that person, in a natural voice, and you’ll think of the details that person would need to know to understand. This is very much like writing a letter. (Some very powerful diaries have been composed as letters. Remember Anne Frank’s diary to “Dear Kitty”?) Other people, however, prefer to just “free-write.” Do what suits you.

Naturally, you are going to apply everything you have ever learned about descriptive writing from every English teacher you’ve ever had. You know: appeal to the senses, think in metaphors, relish similes and other figures of speech, write about one thing by comparing it to another, choose vivid words, use action verbs, include details, details, details—etc., etc., etc. Besides all that, which is VERY IMPORTANT and ABSOLUTELY BASIC, here are some practical suggestions for things to notice and write about :

What to Write About:

Jokes you are told—what someone thinks is funny tells you a lot about their world.

Conversations—just a few lines that are provocative or thoughtful will begin a journal entry in an interesting way and capture the flavor of what you learned. Just by itself, with no elaboration, conversation is interesting to read. For example, I had this conversation with two girls who were translating for me when I was in Russia in 1998. (Both girls were named Anya.) Their summary of the teacher’s omniscience stays with me because I recorded the conversation.

In Russian schools, students sit two to a desk—a “seatmate” it is called.
I said to Anya 1 and Anya 2 that I was impressed they didn’t poke each other, they said, “Oh, we poke.” And then I did see one boy whack his diligent seatmate with a ruler.
“Seatmates are an advantage,” Anya 1 said. “If I don’t understand something, my seatmate can help me.”
“What’s to prevent cheating during an exam?” I asked.
“The discipline, “ they answered. “The teacher knows.”

Lists. Make a list of items in a room, books on a shelf, ingredients in a cupboard, CDs or videos in a rack, things on the table, foods in the market, music on the radio, vendors on the street, merchandise in a shop, breads in the bakery, people on the train, foods at a party. The list will capture the flavor without much further description.

Draw a floor plan of your host’s apartment if you are staying with a family. Label the rooms and explain who sleeps where. Later, if you are able to take pictures of the apartment, it will help your family and friends at home to visualize it.

Recipes for foods you liked. Ask your host mother to show you how to make a favorite bread or dessert. She will be pleased, and you will have an authentic recipe to share.

Journal Entry Starters:

Three things I should have brought…
Three things I didn’t need to bring…
Three things I didn’t expect…
Three things I’ll never forget…

Things I love about Russia (or any country)…
Things I miss about the USA…
Things that made me sad…
Things that made me glad…

Keep a record of the weather
Keep a record of the number of times you hear a certain word or slang expression
Keep a record of the dogs you see, or cats, or kinds of cars, or popular songs
Keep a record of the American products you see for sale

A surprise
A disappointment
A moment of gratification
A moment of annoyance
A wish
A hope
A dream

Take a walk down the street. Who else is on the street? How many and what kinds of cars pass you? How many animals do you see? What buildings do you pass? How are they different from buildings in America? What is beneath your feet? Straight ahead? What do you smell? What do you see on the horizon? What’s the prettiest thing you see? The ugliest? What feeling do you get, walking down the street?

Go shopping. Describe the procedure. What if you didn’t have a friend to help you? What would be the dangers for you? What would perplex you? Frustrate you? Confuse you? What are the advantages of buying items the way it is done in this country? Disadvantages? Compare and contrast with shopping protocols in America.

Watch TV. IT doesn’t matter whether you understand the words. Record the types of shows, the length of each one, the commercials (if there are any), the pictures that are shown. Who is the audience for each of the shows? How is TV in this country different from American TV? How many channels are there? How many American shows did you see? What were they? How many shows imported from other countries? How much news do you hear about the USA? How much about other countries? Compare international news abroad with international news in the USA.

Describe a dinner/breakfast. What did you eat? How was the table set? What were you served? Were you expected to eat everything on your plate? Did you like it? If you didn’t, how did you balance politeness with preference? What was dessert? How long did dinner last? Did the whole family talk? Did everyone clear the table? Who did the dishes? Did you offer to help? Were you expected to help? What was the response to your offer to help?

Describe traveling by public transportation. How long did it take to go from one place to another? How much did it cost? What was the procedure? How did it differ from taking a city bus at home? If you traveled to school, how did the trip compare with your experiences on the big yellow school bus here at home?

And of course, write about what you did every day.

Happy travels! Don’t forget to come home and tell us all about it!