When I first came to the University of Alberta, a local public school called me up and asked me to do a presentation about Ukrainian culture. I thought this was great. Having town/gown interaction encourages interest in higher education. Exposing young students to university faculty increases the chances that those young ones will go on to advanced study. For all of us who teach the various Slavic languages, literatures, and cultures, encouraging interest in Slavic studies is a distinct plus.
But as lovely as serving the educational needs of the public-school system may be, it can prove impossible. The first request was followed by others and I quickly realized that my physical presence at all schools that wanted a unit on Ukraine was out of the question.
Ukraine Alive is born!
I had worked extensively in digital technologies at the University of Virginia where I taught before I was recruited at the University of Alberta. I helped develop a number of education aids. I used digital processing to handle the massive amounts of data that folklore research tends to produce. I built sites for use in my University of Virginia classes. A site for elementary education was a natural evolution of my work. I will not present a full history of our work here. Some of it has been published. See, for example: “Ukrainian Folklore Audio.” Oral Tradition 28.2 (2013): 243–252.
The first website I produced was Shkola Zhyva, a Ukrainian language resource for bilingual education. First I worked alone, then with a graduate student. Elementary school teachers who were teaching in all-English classrooms soon learned of our site and asked for an English language version. With federal grant support (SSHRC – Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada), this became Ukraine Alive and can be accessed at ukrainealive.ualberta.ca.
The really innovative aspect of ukrainealiva.uablerta.ca and the one that I would like to share with the AATSEEL community is the involvement of undergraduates in website building and presentation. Having undergrads working on an elementary school website has enormous rewards on all levels. The website, because it is built by persons closer in age and experience, resonates with the target users. It contains a wealth of fun and relatable pictures, video, and text. Google Analytics shows thousands of hits. As important is the effect that working on the site has on the undergraduate developers. This is not just a paper that earns them a grade and is then filed somewhere in the depths of one of the current online classroom management systems; this is something that stays and is regularly used. Undergraduate student pride in their work is a joy to see. Because one of the jobs of web building, as I run it, was having the students do a demo of part of the site in one of the local elementary schools, students get first-hand evidence of work being used. They can test what they and their classmates have produced and, if they come back and suggest modifications to the site according to the reactions that they saw, we make the appropriate changes. The sense of accomplishment that this work produces is most rewarding for all.
Let me give the logistics of running a course where undergrads help build websites:
- Students do research. They go through the existing Ukraine alive website to see what might be lacking or that might be productively expanded or better presented in a different form. They can look at Ukrainian educational resources in any format and they can compare to websites for other languages and cultures.
- Presentation and discussion. Students present their ideas to the entire class. Their ideas are debated and they then form groups that will work together to tackle the issues to which the class decides to give priority.
- As the work on the generation of the unit proceeds, each group presents its progress to the class. The teacher presents background information. In the recent past, one of our issues has been gaming and the degree to which gaming can incentivize the learning of a culture the way that it is supposed to motivate STEM subject matter acquisition.
- Students do presentations in the elementary school classroom. They go as a group and present a general introduction to the site, plus their own unit.
- Presentation of results back in the university classroom. Students give a short formal talk about their presentation to the elementary school students and the unit that they had worked on, critiquing their own work. They critique both the unit that they built and their own presentation style.
- Write-up – students produce a course paper. This is a report of work accomplished and an analysis of it. Reports that include theoretical discussion earn the highest grades.
This sort of web-building can be done for any Slavic and East European language. Cultural websites are even more widely accessible and fun to build. Examples might be foods of the Slavic world—or a particular part of it. Students could collect greetings from various Slavic and East European countries and post these. This works especially well if greeting gestures are added to words of greeting. While we do websites for elementary ed., this is not obligatory and work for middle and high school would, I am sure, be welcomed by both teachers and students.
To keep this blog post from getting overly long, I will bring up a few logistical issues that might help others. Bringing the website outside the university and presenting it to potential users can be hard to do. The biggest problem is overcoming public school teacher reluctance. We were lucky because we already had a relationship with teachers and because our university has a Community Service Learning program that sets up partnerships in the community.
My advice—check with your university to see if a community liaison program exists and take advantage of their services. If such a program does not exist, contact the local school board. Once the initial contact is made and once a successful demo is completed, our experience is that you will have more requests for demos than you can handle.
Less direct approaches include delivering a public lecture, preferably well-advertised and covered by the local media and news bulletins on the university website. Most universities are more than willing to advertise innovative programs, especially those that reach out to the community.
Natalie Kononenko is Professor & Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography at the University of Alberta.
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