Russian Heritage Program

The Heritage Program at Lesnoe Ozero is for students who were raised in a Russian-speaking environment and have some command of spoken Russian. The curriculum is specifically designed to focus on the unique needs of these heritage speakers, with the goals of bringing the language of our heritage students closer to that of their grade-level peers in Russia and increasing students’ cultural literacy through art, literature, folk tales, history, music, politics and science.

How many hours per day are the heritage learners challenged at their own (or higher) levels?

All of our villagers have three hours of language class. However, they have the opportunity to work at their level (whatever that is) all day long. Because we are a small program, our counselors know who the heritage learners are and seek them out for leadership activities, give them speaking roles in cultural activities, etc.

We practice differentiated instruction, so from the lunch table to cleaning time to campfire, our heritage kids are addressed with more complex Russian and engaged in conversation at greater length than our beginner or even intermediate second language learners.

How much are villagers exposed to native speakers and made to speak themselves?

Our villagers are all exposed to native speakers all day long. We do not force anyone to speak the target language, but we encourage all villagers to speak Russian as much as they can, and there is a lot of positive peer pressure to encourage language use as well.

Even heritage villagers, who often reject their parents’ language at home, realize shortly after arrival that their language makes them ‘cool’ at camp, and happily engage in language use throughout the day. We also have a variety of incentive programs to increase language use, such as русский стол, where villagers can choose to speak only Russian at mealtimes, and герой русского языка, where villagers can commit to a day of only Russian and receive a награда upon completion. Our heritage and advanced villagers often choose to do many days of герой русского языка.

What percentage of the villagers are heritage speakers who are able to talk or read in Russian?  The percentage of heritage speakers varies dramatically from session to session. Some years, in some sessions, we have six to 10 out of 30 kids in the heritage program. Sometimes, we have two or three. Our heritage kids do tend to return, but some end up fading out of the heritage program as they get older, if their families don’t maintain the language in the off-season. Most heritage villagers transition from the two-week program into the high school credit program (which also has a heritage track) as soon as possible.

Could you tell me more about the type of instruction that would be given to a child that speaks Russian in the home?

In the heritage language classes for younger children, we watch/read Russian children’s cartoons/stories, discuss them, learn the vocabulary, act them out, play games related to the vocabulary, etc. We also take advantage of technology to do international research projects, so the children might investigate a question of interest to them and then, as a class, Skype with an informant in Russia to find the answers.

Older villagers read literature that is more appropriate for their age level. We have a wide variety of authentic material for a range of heritage proficiencies at this age, so whether our villagers can read easily in Russian or are only orally proficient, we can meet them where they are and help them increase their literacy skills through engaging activities.

Correction of grammar in oral production is on an as-needed basis. In the non-credit programs, we focus on raising awareness of the gap between a villager’s production and the expected native speaker utterance. In language class, if the grammar point is one that the teacher has recognized as an issue for a particular learner, she usually would model it, have the learner repeat it correctly, and explain if needed. We do not do grammar drills or correct every error that is made.

In writing, we do spend more time on grammar, for our literate learners. So, if your child already writes in Russian, we would, for example, watch Cheburashka (the classic Soviet cartoon) and Luntik (a modern cartoon) and ask the kids to write a scenario for a cartoon in which Cheburashka and Luntik meet. We would focus primarily on making a creative story and learning new vocabulary because of their desire to express themselves. However, we would also pick some particular grammatical structures to focus on in that writing – mostly errors that interfere with comprehension, but also perhaps errors that we have noticed are particularly pervasive.

We may do some practice then with communication that requires the use of those structures. So, for example, if Cheburashka invites Luntikto take a ride on his голубой вагон, but the villager uses идти instead of ехать to describe their travel, and that seems to be a consistent problem, tomorrow’s activity might be a game of charades in which they pick from a deck of cards depicting means of transport and another deck depicting destinations, act out the travel on the cards, and the rest of the class guesses the destination using the appropriate verb.

Again, incorrect utterances would be corrected if they were part of the target structure. (So if we’re really working on идти vs ехать we might not always make the villagers repeat “в Москву” if they had incorrectly said “в Москва” or “в Москве.” But if they frequently have this problem, it might be the focus for another lesson!)

Outside of language class, there is very little explicit focus on grammar. If, for example, a villager is doing a design for her хохломская роспись in art class and says “можно красная ручка,’ the teacher would hand it to her and say ‘КрасНУЮ ручКУ хочешь? Бери красную ручку.” But depending on the situation, since grammar is not the focus of that lesson (art is), the teacher might not explain the difference between the two structures without being asked and might not require that the student repeat the correct version.