Academic journal article Childhood Education

Lessons from Ukraine

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Lessons from Ukraine

Article excerpt

In the midst of an inflationary economy, the collapse of Soviet trading ties and the continuing threat from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 120 preschool teachers from across Ukraine met on the outskirts of Kiev to participate in a two-week workshop on teaching in a democratic society. Sponsored by the Soros Preschool Project, the workshop examined ways to ensure that democratic principles will prevail in the education institutions of Central and Eastern Europe and the countries in the former Soviet Union (Children's Resources International [CRI], 1995). The workshop participants focused on encouraging Ukrainian teachers to help children make choices and decisions, take personal responsibility for them, and formulate and express their own opinions in a climate of mutual respect (CRI, 1995).

We, two university professors, were excited and enthusiastic about being sent to conduct the workshop in Ukraine. To be a part of nurturing an infant democracy, even in a very minor way, was thrilling. We also knew that we would learn much by communicating with Ukrainian teachers whose backgrounds, experiences and values were very different from our own. "One cannot share in social intercourse with others without learning - without getting a broader point of view and perceiving things of which one would otherwise be ignorant" (Dewey, 1944, p. 123).

We had concerns, however. Although our objectives were clear, we worried that our goals would not match the Ukranians' because we did not know their backgrounds. And while we had participated in a training program with the Ukrainian directors of the project and read everything we could on Ukrainian culture, we realized that learning occurs most easily when lessons are relevant to the learners' backgrounds, and to what they already know (Hunt, 1961; Vygotsky, 1986). We wondered if the cultural gap would be so wide that the Ukrainian teachers would find the workshop irrelevant. Or would the similarities of people everywhere, regardless of national heritage, enable us to meet their needs?

And what about the Ukrainian children? Even though there are universals in human development, would our knowledge of American children's growth, development and learning be applicable to Ukrainian children?

A Universal Preschool Teacher?

Some of our concerns were alleviated as we sat on the stage the first day of the workshop, looking over at the crowd filling the auditorium. The Ukrainian preschool teachers looked very much like every group of preschool teachers we had seen. We could not help but recall a passage in Alice Walker's Possessing the Secrets of Joy (1992), in which M'Lissa asks Tashi, "Tell me, what does an American look like?" Tashi ponders the question, not knowing how to answer. Should she describe her Aleut neighbor, or the Korean shopkeeper, the Norwegians in her night class, or her Haitian friends?

This passage seemed salient to us, for should someone ask us to describe a Ukrainian preschool teacher we would have the same problem Tashi did. The Ukranians were a diverse group. Would we describe the blond, blue-eyed, dimpled-cheek woman? Or the teacher with dark eyes and hair? The short or tall woman?

Perhaps more important was the fact that we found Ukrainian teachers not only looked like American teachers, but also interacted with children much like any group of American teachers. As the workshop was held at a family retreat on the banks of the river Dneiper, many children were present. Ukrainian teachers were observed chatting with and playing games with older children, and playing spontaneous games of "hide-and-seek" and "peekaboo" with toddlers.

In addition, we found the Ukrainians also shared other commonalities with American teachers. They, as American teachers are, were concerned about children's health and their own creativity, were dedicated to children's academic welfare, and had doubts about the worth of the workshops. …

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