Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thoughts About the Heydar Aliyev School

Language is an important part of a student’s education in this school. All students begin learning four languages in the first grade: Azeri, English, Russian, and Arabic. In grade six they also start to learn another modern language, either German or French. As I have learned in my short time here, nearly all language classes begin with a simple “How are you today?” and with writing the date on the board. In addition to this, many teachers ask their students to describe the day’s weather. This light conversation puts students in the right mindset for class, as was the case in a third grade level Russian as a foreign language class that I observed. After a brief discussion about how nice the weather was, the teacher transitioned into teaching the students about the four seasons of the year. By taking a concept, in this case the weather, that the students were already familiar with and building onto it, the teacher was able to build on what the students already knew.
After calling each student to the front of the class to talk about the day’s lesson, the class was allowed to ask that student various other questions in Russian, such as “What is this called?” (pointing to a body part) or “What is your favorite fruit?” This was a brief review of the past lessons and allowed students to strengthen their speaking abilities and listening comprehensions, and also tests the knowledge of the individual answering the question. This encourages students to have the same knowledge level as their peers, and be comfortable in front of the class.
“Today, I started to get acclimated to the classrooms in the Azeri school. I am no longer lost in the school, and I am not so surprised at the difference in the culture of the classroom. Although most of the teachers use some of the same methods in their classrooms, I am starting to see differences in their teaching styles… The teachers here use almost 100% positive reinforcement. If a student is not staying in their seat or speaking out of turn, they will be ignored. The students who get the most attention from the teacher are the students who answer frequently. The students would rather get a question wrong and receive feedback than be invisible,” (Manci, C. May 19, 2009).
“The first thing I noticed going to the next class was that the relationship between the teacher and the students was very friendly and open. It was a six grade English class, and Ms. K. was the teacher. The students gathered around her desk before class began and they all talked and laughed until the bell rang. While most students were talking to Ms.K., some were getting started with the lesson before the bell by writing the date and the day on the board.” (Knapp, K. May 19, 2009)
The next class I observed was an eighth grade level class which was taught by Catherine. Part of her lesson involved the students reading aloud about Johnny Appleseed. While the individual students read aloud, I noticed a few issues that they had with pronunciation, such as saying past tense words with an “-ed” ending as a separate syllable, or pronouncing “wild” as “willed.” These are common pronunciation mistakes that even some young native English students might make, and could probably be remedied by hearing more native English speakers, so that the students could hear the correct way to say the words.
Despite these mistakes, the students still seem very comfortable speaking in front of their classes. The teachers tell us that the students are nervous because they have guests, but I find this hard to believe, because overall the students still perform outstandingly.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shirvanshexlar Sarayi

The first part of the city is now known as Old Baku City, or “Icheri Shahar.” It was built during the twelfth century and has since been surrounded by increasingly new architecture. One such building is the Shirvanshexlar Sarayi, which has a beautiful architectural mixture of plain stone and intricate carvings that line the windows and doors both inside and out. It was built in the fifteenth century entirely of stone, even the old baths, which had hot and cold running water in 1438! We also saw a private collection of artifacts from the time period that included money and household appliances dating from the tenth through nineteenth centuries.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Azeri Dance Experience: Georgian Treasure and The Azerbaijan Ballet

The origins of dance go very far back for the people of Azerbaijan. We got a healthy dose of dance during our first weekend in Baku. Friday we saw a performance of Georgian dancers, and then Saturday we visited the ancient Gobostan caves that had depictions of people dancing. That night we also saw a wonderful performance at the Azerbaijan Ballet Theater.

The Georgian dancers gave a good glimpse of the dance culture in the Caucuses. We were very entertained at the women gliding about the stage and the men leaping and bounding. I learned about another culture of dance that has a different technique, presentation, and abilities. I was also interested to learn that this dance style heavily focuses on the male dancers. It seemed like the men dancing were having more fun than the audience.

Our trip to the ballet was surprising. It was a modern ballet performance of a classic piece accompanied by a live orchestra, which is what I was not expecting. The performers wore soft ballet shoes (not Pointe shoes), which is unusual for a professional company in the US. These performances would be more cutting edge in the US and would be mainly presented with modern music and mainly attended by other dancers. The choreography was modern in the style and the dancers used props like chairs. There was a live classic orchestra playing. The acts of the show were quite short, but it was enlightening to see modern Azeri take on classic Bolero ballet. No matter what style of dance they are doing, the Azeri people love dancing. Dance is a force of nature here that one has to experience.

*Click here to see the Georgian national dance.

These volcanoes are made of mud!

This excursion was the most fun I’ve had getting dirty in a good while. The drive there was both beautiful and exciting. We drove up on a mountain and down dusty unpaved roads to arrive at our destination. At the pinnacle of this mountain, we found some great piles of dirt. However these, were no ordinary piles of dirt—they were explosive. Unlike what one would normally expect after hearing the word “volcano,” the mud erupting from these tiny mountains was actually painfully cold. Knowing that there was no real danger here, most of us reverted into small children and began running around playing in it. Upon hearing that people actually sought out this mud for medicinal purposes, Katelyn and I promptly covered our hands and faces in it. Here are some pictures of the fun we had:

Monday, May 18, 2009


Art is the basis of our modern knowledge of ancient civilizations. Before the paintings and sculptures of ancient Rome and Greece, there were cave paintings and rock carvings in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and, yes, Azerbaijan. On Saturday we visited Gobustan, , ancient caves that were inhabited by the native people of Azerbaijan several thousand years before Christ.

Gobustan is still naturally in tact; the carvings may have begun to disintegrate and the living spaces may be overgrown with plant life, but the overall structure is picturesque. There are dirt walkways and stone seats, fire pits contained by rock, water reservoirs carved in stone, drums made out of hollow stone, and natural shelter from the boulders. Each living space has images carved into the stonewalls such as stick figures, bulls, horses, boats, and dancing rituals. The scenes held meaning at one time, depicting a battle or a revered animal. This is an exciting location to visit, but tourists should beware of the current inhabitants of the caves: lizards and colorful snakes. Gobustan has evidence of different periods in history of Azerbaijan including some of the earliest human settlements, visits by legions of the Roman army, Arabic invasions, and more.

TISA: The International School of Azerbaijan


On Friday we went to The International School of Azerbaijan. TISA is a private international school of 600+ students ranging from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. A typical classroom has students from all parts of the globe with many different accents. The student body is 34% UK, 18%USA, 15% Azeri, and 33% from 46 other nationalities. The teachers at TISA are just as diverse as the students; they come from different 16 countries. One of the best parts of the mixture of nationalities was watching the different senses of humor play out in the classroom.

I immediately felt at home in this IB World Literature class at TISA. The classroom was very similar to the way my IB classes functioned in high school. I should first explain the distinction between an IB class and a normal class. In IB classes the teacher-student relationship is more personal, because the teacher and students are on an exploration of literature together. The literature classes tend to be conversational, and the teacher is like a guide toward scholarly conversation. In this class I got the feeling of the teacher and students being a team and working toward one goal, which is how my IB classes felt. The students in this class were preparing for their IB final exams, which happen in two installments. They went over a short text individually and made any notes on the paper. Then, they talked about questions to ask themselves when analyzing a text. Next, they listened to a recording of a student analyzing a text like they will have to do for one of the exams. The students were very comfortable with each other because the class only had six students. They all had different accents, and only two girls seemed to have English as their first language. The classroom was decorated with posters about authors and literary terms. The student teacher interaction is very different in these classrooms than the Azeri classrooms I have observed. This may be because of the difference in coursework, but some are not. The students do not stand when they speak, and the class seems less formal overall. The teacher is more interested in the students opinions and perceptions.

Drama Class
This is the first drama class I have ever observed in a high school, so I did not have any prior experience. It was a great reflection of the unique opportunities available at an international school. The students were practicing a one-act play that they will perform for Pakistani refugee women. The students wrote the play about personal hygiene in a comedy style to entertain the audience. The relationship between the students and the teacher was very friendly, and on an equal playing field. The teacher acted as the director, but was continually asking for the students input. They were all working together to get the play in a good condition to perform, and seemed to be having a great time doing it. The students were close friends and casually joked with their teacher about their characters in the play. One of the most interesting aspects of the play was that they had translated it into two other languages other than English. With the collective knowledge of languages in the classroom, they were able to help each other with any language that was not their native tongue.

Humanities Middle School 6th
After visiting this classroom, I remember why I want to teach middle school. The students had the enthusiasm of a young student, but the creative ability of an older student. The assignment of the day was to give a prepared presentation about a day in ancient Rome as an assigned character. I have never seen such creative and dramatic students! The presentations were absolutely entertaining because each student put on a small production, which made every character easy to remember. I wish I had a video camera this day, so that everyone could see what great actors these students were. The girl who was presenting as the Cyclops wore a mask with one big eye, and was surrounded by sheep cutouts. During her presentation she screamed and jumped on desks in order to be the angry Cyclops that had recently been blinded. An assignment like this will be something that students will remember and be talking about for a long time. I liked this tactic for teaching because it uses many different skills. Students practiced speaking skills, creativity, acting skills, historical knowledge, and research skills. The biggest impression that I took from this class was that they were having a great time learning. I wanted to be a part of this class.