The Russians are talking! Designing a Language Course Around Student-Conducted Interviews with Native Speakers.

Raissa Krivitsky, Cornell University

The subject of this paper is a complex, experimental, project-based curriculum, designed for students of third year college Russian. The curriculum contains a strong communicative, student-centered component, provides an excellent cooperative learning situation, and involves meaningful, goal-oriented verbal communication with native speakers of Russian. With the use of video equipment, the students assumed the role of sole collectors as well as co-authors of an impressive amount of quality, authentic learning materials for their class, that could be recycled for various educational purposes, while the teachers functioned as facilitators, counselors, text and film editors, and, sometimes, drivers.

The final product of the project was a film, portraying the students themselves interviewing a number of native speakers of Russian, who represent different geographic regions and socio-cultural backgrounds, and who work together for a local business.

The volunteer respondents were recruited by the teacher, briefly instructed about their roles in the project, and asked to use solely Russian in their communication with the individual students they would be matched with. The students had to initiate contact with their respective match, make necessary arrangements, and conduct the interviews on a variety of topics of their choice. The videotaped interviews were then used in a wide range of activities including listening practice, written reports, oral presentations, class discussions, essay writing, and completing various teacher generated tasks such as paraphrasing a respondent’s statement or completing an unfinished sentence. The latter assignment was developed by one of the teachers in the form of digitized clips from the videotaped interviews.

The project was organized in two major cycles, consistent with two rounds of interviews conducted by each student. The first interview, however well prepared, was “free style”: each student chose his or her own questions. For the second round, the class selected five “universal” questions - one from each student - that were to be asked each respondent in addition to the students' own questions. This arrangement allowed the teachers to later rearrange the collected materials into a series of short films. In each film, several native speakers, one after another, answer the same question. Listening to, analyzing and comparing the variety of replies and reflections on the same subject, engaged the students in class discussions about a whole range of topics such as reasons for and implications of immigration, moral aspects of the brain drain, culture and gender-specific behavior, the concept of deadlines in two cultures and some others. The videotaped episodes from class discussions as well as the students’ rehearsed narratives were made part of the film as well.

My paper will describe the project as a process, with focus on some important details. It will highlight many positive outcomes in this course, but will also address some of its deficiencies, in particular, by discussing how a reading component can be enforced in future curriculum implementations.

The presentation will include demonstration of some episodes from the film.