Crystal Bock Thiessen, an ESL instructor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, participated as a U.S. State Department English Language Specialist in a nine-city Trans-Siberian railroad tour across two continents and seven time zones, June 9-28, 2017, in Russia. She was accompanied by the Regional English Language Officer (ELO) in Moscow, Jerrold Frank. The tour kicked off in Moscow and made stops in Yaroslavl, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude, and Birobidzhan before finally reaching the end in Vladivostock.
Throughout the two-and-a-half-week journey along the 9,288-kilometer route, the pair conducted teacher training workshops for Russian English language teachers, monitored projects and grants funded by the U.S. State Department, and visited several State Department-funded English language program participants from such programs as Access English Microscholarship and Advance Through Vocational English. In addition to conducting teacher training and workshops for incorporating photography, video, infographics, and other digital projects into the language teaching classroom, Bock Thiessen recorded interviews with program participants along the way to capture, in their words, the impact that State Department supported English language programs have on the lives of individuals, communities, and the broader Russian Educational landscape, and how they contribute to positive U.S.-Russian relations and collaboration.
This outreach tour across Russia to visit various English language programs, teachers’ associations, and post-funded projects was, in itself, a large follow-up to all of the important work the English Language Office at the U.S. Embassy Moscow has been doing over the past few years. Russia is a land of deep social bonds, and personally visiting these sites, groups, and projects goes a long way in maintaining (and developing) those important people-to-people connections, especially during a time when media and political relations between it and the United States are constantly being questioned and challenged.
Giving teacher trainings at many of the stops on the tour provided strategies and ideas to add to the teachers’ practices in order to more fully engage and inspire their students both in and out of the classroom. In this age where a great deal of students’ daily presence is online, it can be difficult for teachers to “compete” for attention and importance, especially in the English language classroom. It was the hope that, through this training, teachers could gain confidence in their abilities to provide a fun and educational atmosphere for their students by utilizing technologies with which students are already engaging, namely photography and video. Based on feedback from participants, this sort of training was greatly appreciated in its practicality and applicability to their own various teaching situations, and the sites would both welcome and benefit from future trainings.
Russia is a diverse and massive country, and an outreach tour such as this was an incredible undertaking; however, it is such a key part to not only the success of State Department-funded English language programs throughout the country, but also to the fostering of diplomatic relations between common representatives of our two countries. In a time where that diplomacy is seemingly strained, in-person follow-up visits to and interaction among the participants of Russia’s English language programs and post-funded groups and projects can go a long way in making sure those ties are strengthened despite the challenges they face.
The final highlight video of this English Language Programs outreach tour across Russia can be viewed below.