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Park Slope kids attend school in Russia

Clifford J. Levy’s story in this week’s New York Times Magazine is fascinating. When the Times placed him in Moscow, he and his wife had to find a school for their three kids. Rather than finding spaces for them in an international school with the kids of other foreign correspondents and dignitaries and such, Levy wanted his kids to get more out of living in Russia.

They chose Novaya Gumanitarnaya Shkola, or, the New Humanitarian School, which was all Russian, all the time. And, just like an ignorant North American might assume, the kids were ranked, with rankings displayed for the whole school to see. Why this school?

“It promised an enlightened and innovative interpretation of the classic Soviet education — all the rigor, without the suffocating conformity. Moscow progressives! Maybe the transition wouldn’t be too rocky.

We were, of course, naïve. New Humanitarian, which runs kindergarten through high school, was still rooted in Russia’s educational and societal traditions. Students recite by heart from Pushkin’s “Yevgeny Onegin” (“My uncle was a man of virtue. . . .”) and tackle algebra as early as fourth grade. Children older than 9 are regularly rated, based on test scores. Student rankings are posted on a central wall for all to gawk at, like the latest sports stats.”

But, like kids do, Levy’s adapted. Their accepted and clumsy Russian got better. His eldest daughter threw herself into mathematics, since it was a non-language dependent subject. (Much like Kady Heron in Mean Girls. Kady: “It’s the same in every country.” Damian: “That’s beautiful.”)

New Humanitarian was founded by Vasiliy Georgievich Bogin, a man who values critical thinking above all else. Bogin didn’t care what Levy’s kids knew or didn’t know, he cared about how they thought.

“He taught a required class called myshleniye, which means “thinking,” as in critical thinking. It was based in part on the work of a dissident Soviet educational philosopher named Georgy Shchedrovitsky, who argued that there were three ways of thinking: abstract, verbal and representational. To comprehend the meaning of something, you had to use all three.

When I asked Bogin to explain Shchedrovitsky, he asked a question. “Does 2 + 2 = 4? No! Because two cats plus two sausages is what? Two cats. Two drops of water plus two drops of water? One drop of water.”

New Humanitarian also had two or three curators for each grade. They’re teachers who don’t teach lessons, but observe classes, identify problems and help with homework.

After four years in Moscow, the Times moved Levy and his family back to Brooklyn. The kids were fluent, top of their classes and the younger two were hesitant to leave. (He said the older one was just excited to be a teenager in New York City… we can’t really blame her)

Have you ever thrown your kids in the unknown, trusting that they’ll figure it out? What would make you try a school that forces kids to look at problems from abstract, verbal and representation perspectives?

This post is sponsored by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and their Kids Matter campaign. Join the community on their forum or follow the #kidsmatter discussion on Twitter.

Photo by Prisoner5413 via Flickr

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