"At the center of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service." ~Mr. Fred Rogers

Monday, March 26, 2012

Celebrating 24 and the Conclusion to the Parliament Saga

I guess I need to start where I last left off... preparing for Parliament. 

I finished my speech and practiced, practiced, practiced. I was happy, my Counterparts responsible for prepping me were excited...everything was ready! My speech was to be on the 14th, the day after my 24th birthday.

The afternoon of the 13th, the day before my speech, less than 24 hours before the big show, ON MY BIRTHDAY..it was canceled. I got "Ukrained" on a whole new level. It's one thing to think a bus is going to come and then it doesn't. It's another thing to accidentally buy a few kilos of pig back fat at the bazaar. But being invited by Parliament to give a 10 minute speech in Ukrainian only to find out you've been uninvited the day before takes getting Ukrained to a whole new level.

I was disappointed but the looks tears on my school's faces were the most heart breaking. The Ministry of Education was embarrassed, the Peace Corps staff was frustrated, but sometimes that's just how things work out, especially in Ukraine. There are reasons for the cancellation, and none of them are because of me or my speech, it was because they are them -- and like my Mom said, "Their loss". Sounds about right to me.

But birthday's are happy, so I didn't dwell! My school went above and beyond celebrating my day and I couldn't have felt more loved and blessed. I received an awesome package from home filled with all my favorites, and my friends all over the world sent me love. It was a day to remember for sure, but I will always be able to laugh. Enjoy the photos below!

(Side note: It's Spring Break, so expect 2 more posts this week. One all about the best English Week ever and another about the amazing seminar I put on with my friends at my school!)

The Brownies and Banana Bread I made

Humbled to work for this man

Tanya, responsible for this amazing birthday treat

Surprise - we arranged to have this cake made for you!

The Masterpiece

Happy Birthday, Mr. Benjamin

Getting my "official" Ukrainian Male Diploma

So heavy, so delicious!

Celebrating by taking a lesson off

Toasts, greetings, wishes, etc.
Happy, happy, happy!

Birthday loot! (Yes, that body wash is called "Agressia")

Package from home! Thanks family!

And to conclude, here's my speech in its uncensored unedited form. I was to share my Peace Corps experience and give strategies for improvements to the educational system I'm working in. Over time, my message changed into what Parliament wanted to hear but this is it.

My Parliament Speech:

I would first like to start off by thanking you for this opportunity to speak with you all today. It is truly an honor and a privilege to be here.

When I was nine, my class wrote letters to a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Nepal. My teacher would read his letters and I would imagine this foreign world he was living in. He would tell us about people he was meeting and working with and the food he was eating. He described some of the funny situations he had been in and would even write a few words in Nepali language. Even at a young age, it was clear to m that he was living a life totally separate from what I knew and he was having the adventure of a lifetime. The picture he created through his words has really stayed with me. Since that time, it has been my dream to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Now, I live in Kolky…a village (although my students call it a “small town”) North of Lutsk in Volynska Oblast. You might know Kolky from its brief history as the independent Коливська Республіка in 1943. In Kolky, I have the pleasure of teaching English at the Lyceum, facilitating English Clubs, organizing seminars, and spending time with great friends. I also plan workshops and Summer Camps for Ukrainian children with other Peace Corps Volunteers. I can honestly say, now I’m the one having that adventure of a lifetime.

Simply stated – Kolky is a dream come true.

Coming here to teach, I really didn’t know what to think. I learned a lot about the differences in cultures and ideas, about how Ukraine is more of a “collective culture” and America is more of an ‘individualistic’ society but this wasn’t as clear as when I started teaching full time.

One of the first things I noticed was that each class truly is a “team”. The structure is much different in America because after the 5th form, students rarely ever study with the same group of pupils. I like that Ukrainian students spend a majority of their adolescence together in one group because they form such tight, life-long bonds. Their friendships, as in any team, are rooted in their victories and defeats together.

This team feeling is not always helpful, however. While I fundamentally believe in the importance of teamwork, it seems detrimental to a student’s progress when it creates cheating. The practice of cheating weakens each student’s chances of learning anything. Many Volunteers speak about how cheating is one of the biggest problems in their classrooms, and we all share ideas on how to combat it. But how do we combat a problem that some choose to avoid?

Currently, teachers are under enormous pressure to have students earning the highest marks. Everyone from the students and parents, to colleagues and administrations are constantly evaluating them, both formally and informally. I understand that quality teaching produces quality results but students need to be encouraged to share the responsibility of learning with their teacher. Individual student accountability must increase, and be made a more of a crucial aspect of the education experience.

Personally, I realize and am comfortable with the idea that if a student performs poorly, it is possible that I haven’t taught him well enough. However, it is usually also the case that he hasn’t done everything he can to learn. The students who actively participate in class, are attentive and on time, and do their homework are rightfully getting the better marks. Participation matters more to me in my classroom than speaking perfectly or being correct, as learning language is a process that each pupil does at his own pace.

In Kolky, most of the classes I teach use  “Enterprise”, “Opportunities”, and “Solutions” textbooks. We are fortunate to have parents who invest in the learning of English by purchasing these high-quality books. However, this is not the situation in every school. It’s difficult to teach with books that aren’t written by native speakers of English or by authors who believe that communication in the English language is not a high priority. The books that we use in Kolky have lessons and activities that generally focus on communication as the primary way to learn, and we have good results because of this. The Ukrainian students who don’t have access to these books are at a disadvantage to the ones that do.

Probably my favorite part about being a teacher in Ukraine is the motivated and determined students. They understand that their education is a privilege and a way to make their future better. The youth of Ukraine are beginning to see their potential as leaders of change and it would be beneficial to promote civics and volunteerism to them in school.

We should focus on empowering students to become active citizens who are willing and able to participate in shaping the future of their communities and their country. Teaching about democracy and human rights – including identity, diversity, and equality, - could build on this momentum of change the students are already working toward. For me personally, it’s a privilege to be here and watch this empowerment of the youth take place.

My students also appreciate their history and hold their traditions close to their hearts. They honor their past as they continue to look to the future. Ukraine is so wonderful because of the amazing traditions that the people here cherish. I really respect and admire all of the celebrations and beloved history of this country, and it’s something I wish America was better at doing.

But through everything I’ve been taught here in Ukraine, I’ve learned it’s personal connections that matter most. It’s wonderful to be a part of the daily life of a village: enjoying meals and toasting to good health and good fortune, celebrating birthdays and holidays, visiting a colleague’s farm to pick potatoes, attending programs at local schools and cultural centers, swimming in the river and relaxing on its tree-lined banks, and practicing a new language over a cup of tea. 
In all these activities, social, educational, and professional, it’s the connections that matter most. Peace Corps is about connecting across cultures. Once a human connection is made, it's nearly impossible to break. No matter where we come from or what we believe, there is nothing more fulfilling than connecting on a basic level of kindness that goes beyond all differences. Again, I want to say thank you for your continued work with the Peace Corps and giving me the opportunity to make these life-changing connections. Ukraine has allowed for me to tell my nine-year-old self, “We did it,” and for this I am forever grateful.


  1. What a cake!! Molodets, Ben -- you are very clearly appreciated at your site :)

  2. Proud of you, Ben. Glad you got to celebrate!