This space is dedicated to my adventures in Kazakhstan. It has evolved and grown through the incredible weeks I spent there, observing classes and co-teaching with fellow TGC teacher, Rob, and our host teacher, Natalya, as well as interacting with other teachers and students in country — and in the intervening time, as I’ve worked with fellow teachers here in the states to connect our classrooms. Many thanks to the Teachers for Global Classrooms program, IREX (Kristin, especially!), and my fellow collaborators in this project.
Background on Kazakhstan
On the Ground Blogposts from Kazakhstan
The ninth largest nation in the world, the Republic of Kazakhstan is a Constitutional Republic that declared its independence from the Soviet Union December 16, 1991.
It is also the largest land-locked country in the world, with the majority of its mass stretching out across Asia and a portion residing in the continent of Europe, as well.
While Kazakh is the official language, both Russian and Kazakh are spoken, especially in official business and schools.
Kazakhstan is a richly diverse nation, both in terms of ethnicity and culture. Of the approximately 17.5 million people living in Kazakhstan, only about 2/3 of them are actually Kazakh. There are about 130 other ethnicities represented in this nation. Thus, Russian tends to be a unifying language that allows all people to communicate.
Kazakhstan has a centralized, top-down education system. So while it’s an immense country and sparsely populated, the courses and content of those courses is pre-determined and replicated across the nation, ensuring unity and conformity. Classrooms are teacher-centered and content is delivered via lecture. They, too, have high stakes testing that determines future education and, ultimately, life pathways.
On the Ground Blogposts from Kazakhstan
Day 1: The Long Arrival
No grand adventure can quite begin without a journey. This particular one began at 4am and ended some 34 hours later. Lewiston to Seattle to Frankfurt to Almaty. Over ten hours of layovers.
My seat mate to Frankfurt was absolutely delightful and the nine-plus hour flight melted away amid discussions of Daniel Pink’s Drive & theory on motivation and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. We contemplated the non-linear nature of life, goal acquisition, free will, and the psychology of failure. Eventually, we even moved on to politics and religion, those taboo topics that one must never broach. I’m deeply thankful for such intriguing conversation that practically eliminated the bone-numbing tediousness of plane travel.
The flight to Almaty wasn’t full at all, and the seat next to me was empty. I catnapped a bit, getting up to walk the plane every 20 minutes or so, trying to stretch out my legs and keep the blood flowing.
Once in Almaty, we shuffled to the customs line. One of the passengers pointed to a customs slip, motioning that we would need to complete one as well, which was good since none of us knew. (Not that I’m particularly well-traveled, but this slip has always been handed out on the plane, before.) Getting through customs was easy. Stamp. Stamp. A brusque nod. I went in search of my suitcase.
While waiting for my bag to come around the carousel, one of my TGC colleagues approached, a stern-looking official in tow. She was calm, but her eyes sparkled with tears. “They’re going to send me back,” she said.
“My visa. The dates are wrong.”
I explained to the official that we were all traveling together and that the TGC person was waiting for us right outside. I pulled out the phone number and showed her. The official raised her eyebrows, then shrugged. “Call her.” I asked for access to a phone. She shook her head and sighed, rolling her eyes.
Long story short, nothing worked. The Kazakh officials put her on a plane back to Frankfurt.
The ride to the hotel was quiet, somber, long. It felt odd, wrong, somehow. Like we left a comrade behind. But there was no going back.
A Brief History
The most important meal of the day: A large airy room, filled with tables draped in linen and lined with silverware, welcomed us to breakfast. The buffet consisted of cold meats, cheeses, and a vast array of breads. There was bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs, cereal, and yogurt. Cucumbers with a mint sauce. Tiny pastries. Coffee.
We spent the morning with Dr. Gulnara Mendikulova who regaled us with the history of Kazakhstan and the Kazakh people, the nomadic clans, the conquering tribes, the restless and contested history, the Russian help/occupation, the Soviet years, the new beginnings and stirrings of Independence.
She mentioned petroglyphs some 20 km away, and I would really like to go see them. I am contemplating this adventure as soon as I return from Ust-Kamenogorsk.
Our afternoon guide took us on tour. Incredibly knowledgeable and full of stories, he also sported a Canadian hat, which I wouldn’t have thought twice about except for the rather droll comment he made at the very beginning about trouble & Americans. Regardless, he was fantastic, and we gave him no problems.
A fantastic dinner at the Tubeteka restaurant with new Kazakh friends, and then we were back to the hotel for the night. Once again it’s after 11pm — and morning comes too early!
The Soviet Education System
Nadezhda Trubova, or Nadia as she is called, spoke to us about the Soviet system, the Kazakh transition period, and the 2011-2020 education reform. What a phenomenal young woman: articulate, accomplished, and very patient. I learned so much.
The Soviet Way: What particularly intrigued me about the Soviet education system was the clever ways it used peer pressure, collective punishments, and immense pressure to keep everyone in line. “Good” students were awarded the October Kid award – a star with a baby Lenin – in the second or third grade. Everyone, of course, wanted this award — and would be immediately shamed by one and all if it wasn’t achieved. In the middle grades, “good” students were awarded the level of Pioneer, a red kerchief that one ironed every morning and wore with pride. (Nadia was a 7th grade Pioneer at the time of the Soviet collapse and remembers ripping off the kerchief, throwing it away — though has no member of previous resentment of the scarf.) As a senior, “good” students can earn the Komsomol, the Committee of Soviet Youth. This time the badge bears the face of an adult Lenin. The accumulation of these three awards allows one to get the party ticket, without which life wasn’t worth living.
The Kazakhstani Education System
Education in Kazakhstan continues to be under the control of centralized planning. The curriculum is set across the country, the high stakes tests still in place, and inordinate pressure is placed upon the teachers. Student performance is directly linked to the instruction, attention, and involvement of the teacher.
While curriculum is set (and teachers must “be on the same page” across the nation, so to speak), I saw examples of teacher supplementing with additional curriculum materials, especially in the area of foreign language.
One major change since the Soviet times is this emphasis on foreign languages. Kazakh is now an official language, and students may receive their instruction in the language if they choose to attend such a school. English is also an official language. Many students we met spoke Russian, Kazakh, and English.