This June, we spent a week in Uman, a mid-sized city in Central Ukraine. Uman’s big tourist draw is Sofiyivka National Park; you might have seen some of the pictures from that:
But we went to Uman not as tourists but to work with a fellow PCV and friend on a camp she was running. June, for PCVs in Ukraine, is camp season. The country is full of volunteers running these 5-10 day events for kids and teens with all kinds of focuses, from creative writing to Model UN to girls’ empowerment to HIV awareness to music and theater. If the youth are into it, there’s probably a camp for it. And when I talk to Ukrainian teens, these camps are the highlight of their summers. My students still say “that one time at Camp ACT,” “last summer when I was at Camp WILD….,” “at Film Camp we…” with great enthusiasm. Peace Corps camps are highly competitive, and many are funded by partnerships between local partners, State Department Grants (like Let Girls Learn), and donations from supporters in the States.
But Camp You and Me was the first of its kind here in Ukraine. This camp was a two-week endeavor. During the first week, 25 teens took part in sessions with topics like gender equality, leaderships, anti-bullying, which are pretty common education goals for PC camps. But these teens also had trainings on inclusive language, etiquette when working with individuals with special needs, tolerance and acceptance. These trainings prepared the teens for the second week, when 25 kids, ages 6-15, arrived. Then the teens became counselors,and they were paired with a kid camper, each of whom had some sort of special need, from autism to dyslexia to Down Syndrome to cerebral palsy. The counselors were in charge of making sure that their camper had a great time, and could participate in every activity. Each morning was filled with different stations that teams rotated through, with activities including making slime in a Sensory Station,
and more. After lunch at a local cafe, each afternoon had a theme. One day was a carnival, where PCVs and teachers ran games like ring toss, face paint, knock-the-cans, etc.
Another day was a quest for treasure, complete with maps and a pirate.
And the last day was a talent show, where campers and counselors performed all kinds of talents from singing to art to puppets.
The best part though, as a PCV, was two-fold: being a part of making camp a super fun and special place for the campers, who had a stellar time, and watching the teens step up and spend a week making sure their camper was having fun, hanging out and playing. These teens went above and beyond to make camp a positive experience for everyone.
And all of these great pictures? Taken by the one, the only:
Chris came to Uman to be the photographer for this camp, and if you want to see more of what the camp was like, all the photos are on their Facebook page. The camp was even featured on local television.
It was a super special experience for both of us, and all of the volunteers involved are hoping that this is the first of many inclusive camps in Ukraine. Here, where inclusive education and attitudes are just beginning to really spread, this is a crucial space for kids to just be kids. In the words of the PCV director: “Just let them play.”
Things are different in Ukraine than in American for dogs. In some ways, dogs have a better life in Ukraine, in others it’s a harder life. Street dogs (i.e. dogs with no owner or home), are all over the place. In almost every town and city we visit there are dogs on sidewalks, in the parks, and in the neighborhoods.
To some capacity, the dogs here are taken care of. Most of them are reasonably well fed, whether it’s by their own effort, or from the compassion of someone who buys them sausages, or the meat shop owner who lays out the pieces no one buys.
Most communities have some sort of organized effort of at least controlling the spread of this issue or working to eliminate the issue. During our few months of training, Chris was partnered with an NGO which worked to vaccinate and sterilize the dogs. Each dog that received this treatment was then tagged on their ear with a number. This is also now happening to a higher degree in our current community. Based on our observation, about half of the dogs in our community have received these ear clips.
It is also worth noting that while some of these dogs are technically without owners, there are some who have a sort of informal caretaker. For example, some schools will have a dog or two that hang around because the left overs from school lunches are put out for them and the kids will play with them on the school grounds.
The terms “stray dog”, “street dog”, or “homeless dog”, really don’t capture who these dogs are. Many people here do see them as a problem or a nuisance, but also many people see them companions or a kind of a character or personality of the community. No one wants to see them without a home, but until in the meantime, let’s see them for who they are.
We have been living at our site now for almost 8 months. Now that we have gotten to know it, we want to share it with you. We think you can begin to get a feel for life here through these pictures, but this is certainly not comprehensive.
Our town is full of beautiful nature, amazing people, and a storied history. The longer we’re here, the more we discover.
The city council building where Chris works (i.e. Miska Rada), in the center between the windows is the seal of the town
The Gymnasia, the school where Jessica works (note the two flags, the Ukrainian flag, yellow and blue, and the nationalist flag, red and black)
Below is a collection of some of the hot spots in town, where we spend time outdoors, doing our shopping, or unwind at a restaurant or cafe.
The bazaar, busiest on Wednesdays and Saturdays
Another popular pizza spot
The hotel and restaurant in the center of town
The most popular restaurant in town called “Old City”… but more commonly referred to simply as “pizzaria”
The newly redeveloped Lower Park with landscaping and new playground
A walk along the river in Lower Park
Next are a few places that show the feel of the town, both giving some historical context, and also to show some of the European charm.
One of the old Polish constructed buildings at the college
The buildings of the town’s center
The center square where there is the city council and rayon council
The train station, and the starting point of our 12 hour journeys to Kyiv
Paying respect to the past and remaining devout is a common part of life in western Ukraine. This is just a taste of the monuments and churches, these are nevertheless prominent in town.
The Roman Catholic church in the center of town
Taras Shevchenko, a highly influential poet from the 19th century
Being in the valley of a canyon has its perks. The nature here is awesome with hiking trails, river rafting, and simply great views. It’s hard to capture the beauty of this place in one frame, but we’ll keep trying!
The impending rain just outside of town
The view from Upper Park, overlooking the Dniester river and the neighboring village
The view from Lower Park in the valley of the Dniester canyon
A view of the train rail bridge from the old Jewish cemetery
As a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer I am placed at a secondary school here in Western Ukraine. In talking about the schooling here, I just want to be clear that this is a really big and diverse country. Everything here is based on my experience in Western Ukraine at my particular school, which could be very different than other schools and other volunteers’ experiences. We live in a town of about 9,000 and in our town there are 2 schools, 1 gimnasia, 1 vocational school, 1 college, and 1 internaut (combination orphanage/school for kids with special needs).
My school is a гімназія, in English gimnasia (him-na-zi-a), which is a specialized 5th-11th grade secondary school. To enter, students must pass Ukrainian and Math exams. Each grade is split into two sections A and б. But they aren’t labeled 5A, 5б , 6A, 6б . . . 11A, 11б . Instead the incoming class is 1A and 1б, the 6th graders are 2A and 2б, the 11th graders are 7A and 7б. This past year’s 1A will be next year’s 2A, this year’s 4A is next year’s 5A, etc.
This past year I taught 5th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th graders. As a TEFL PCV, I am required to teach 18 hours (and do clubs/teacher trainings). So I had 5 co-teachers over 9 different classes, each of whom I saw twice a week. It adds up to about 250 students in a week. My school has around 350 students so I saw the majority of the students.
Differences between American Schools and my Ukrainian School
The biggest difference on which many others rest is that at American middle/high schools, teachers (mostly) stay in one room and the students switch around depending on classes. This happens for a variety of reasons, including allowing for differentiation of material, especially in middle schools. In Ukraine, students stay in one room and the teachers move around. At my school, students will be in that same room for all of their time at Gimnasia. The 1A room, for example, will have its label changed to 2A and students will continue to have all their classes there. The exception is for special classes like physical education or physics.
In American schools, with the exception of very small schools, because the kids switch around, each class hour has a different set of kids; the group of students who are in one’s History class is different than the group of students in one’s English class. And the students in one’s 7th grade Spanish class are different than the students who will be in one’s 8th grade Spanish class. Here in my school, the 22-28 students remain together for every class, for every year, until they graduate. The national law is that a class with more than 28 students must be split into two different classes, so legally there should never be a group larger than 28.
In American schools, teachers have a varied course-load and teach a different mix of kids every year. Here, teachers “move up” with their students. The English teacher who starts with the group in 5th grade will be their English teacher for the next 7 years, like with each other subject area. This allows for teachers to really get to know their students (for better or worse) and it means teachers don’t teach the same material year after year (also for better or worse).
In American high schools, which don’t use block scheduling, students take 7 or 8 different classes a day, 5 days a week, all semester long. There are 3-5 minute breaks between each class. American students have the same schedule on Mondays as on Tuesdays, as on Wednesdays, as on Thursdays, as on Fridays. In Ukrainian schools, students take 12-15 different classes a week. Monday they might have 6 classes, Tuesday 8 classes, Wednesday 7 classes, etc. Each day is a different schedule with a different mix of classes. Students might have 4 lessons of English in a week, but 5 Ukrainian lessons, and 3 lessons of their second foreign language. Each of these classes is 45 minutes long, and there is a 15 minute break between each. Students don’t have an hour for lunch like in American schools, they eat during these 15 minute breaks.
American schools work on an A, B, C, D, F scale, which corresponds to a 100% scale. At many schools an A is a 90% and up, etc. At Ukrainian schools, there is a 12 point scale. A 12 is the highest score a student can get, a 2 is the lowest.
Lastly, in America it is really important that religion is not a part of the public schools. Here, in this school, in this part of Western Ukraine, there is a religious icon in every classroom, some of the classes start with a prayer, all students take a course on “Christian Ethics”, and an Orthodox priest speaks at graduation.
School is mandatory to the 9th grade, then students can choose to leave school or continue to the 11th grade. There currently is no 12th grade in Ukraine (more on that later). Students who leave after the 9th grade often go to either vocational schools or a 2-year college. Graduating from a college is similar to getting an associates degree in the States, and like in the States, some students do go from a college to a university, but for the most part, students who are going to go to university stay in secondary school through the 11th grade. In our town, we have both a vocational school and an agricultural college. To the best of my understanding the vocational schools, students study for careers in cosmetology, the food industry, and carpentry/metal work. At the agricultural college students are preparing for careers in agriculture and economics.
Students who stay in secondary school through 11th grade and go on to university must pass ZNO exams in the summer after 11th grade. There is a separate exam for every subject area (Ukrainian, English, Chemistry, History, etc.). Students must take the Ukrainian exam and they can take up to 5 exams. The other subjects are determined by the university to which a student is applying. This testing is really high stakes. It determines acceptance into a university and unlike the ACT/SAT students can’t continue to retake until they like their score. Many many students have private tutors in their ZNO subjects, and they begin seriously studying the summer after 10th grade. For teachers it is high-stakes as well. The final grade a student gets in a class must align with their ZNO score, but scores in classes must be submitted before the ZNO scores are announced.
There is a lot that is different between American and Ukrainian school systems, and I’m really lucky to have an inside look on how American schools work to compare to my current understanding of the Ukrainian school system. But at the same time, when my kids now ask me “How are American students different?” the answer is that they really aren’t. Teens are teens. They love their friends and their cell phones. They like fashion that reflects their personalities. Some of them are goofy and some are studious. Some are snots and some are sweethearts. (This is a disappointing answer to my students here…) But really, despite all the institutional differences, on either side of the Atlantic, the students makes everyday worth it.
Work in rural Ukraine for an American volunteer is not particularly straight forward. It’s sort of like shooting from the hip. Sometimes you hit something, sometimes you don’t, and you can never really know why (Did I not play the wind? Was there even a target?). These things are particularly true for the community development program, of which I (Chris) am apart of. So what is it that I do? Well I develop communities.
If that didn’t clear it up, here’s what my actual work looks like.
While I don’t really have a work schedule, I do adhere to one so that there is some consistency. The only things set in stone during the week are english clubs. I do one for the city council, and then a community one that Jessica and I do together where anyone is welcome. Everything else is pretty fluid.
One of my ongoing projects has been working with the director of tourism for our town. One of the things that many Ukrainian organizations need more assistance with and exposure to is data collection and analysis. So for tourism, we just rolled out a digital tourist survey that travelers can take on their phones using a QR code that we are putting in hotels and restaurants, we then also have a tourist booklet map on the horizon (funded by local business sponsorships). While I think it’s really cool that we’re starting to collect this data and offer something new to tourists, what’s even cooler is that my counterpart, the director of tourism, was able to get local businesses to agree to work with us.
Many Ukrainian business owners are very skeptical. Historically, largely due to the fact that Ukraine is an ex-Soviet nation, the people don’t have a very good relationship with government entities. My counterpart would call these businesses and they would be hesitant to accept a meeting, nevertheless she made it happen. Everytime she made it happen. The business owners would ask what we want from them, but we were there to offer them something.
In the coming months, we also hope to be working on a project called “Z-Forum: Democratic & Economic Reforms Training” for female government officials. The background on this is that we have a female mayor who is very passionate about gender equality. So the goal is to equip and empower women in government for the current realities of the Ukrainian state. Right now is a defining moment in Ukraine’s history, and women need a voice in helping to define it.
Speaking of our mayor, ever since the weather got nice, we’ve had picnics with her and her family every Sunday. Sometimes we’re in the forest cooking veal, other times we’re cooking chicken wings and sausages on the riverside. Don’t mind if I do.
We have had a lot to enjoy over the last few months, and have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. We just moved into our apartment and had a week-long visit to the city of Lviv for a Peace Corps Training. What’s next is a short vacation to Florence, Italy, spring in Ukraine, and then some large work projects over the summer.
For a couple Americans in Ukraine, living with a host family was strange, but also a huge blessing. We lived with and got to know an amazing and kind family, and we got to experience things we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, especially during the holidays. It was time though to move to our apartment, and it has been a fun adjustment, and nice having our own space and the ability to host guests. The biggest part of being on our own though is that we are now able to buy and cook our own food. Our typical dinners so far have been something like rice, potatoes, or pasta with meat (usually chicken), along with whatever vegetables are available (which in February is mostly just carrots, onions, and bell peppers). It’s nice however to be able to use our own flavor!
We got to spend Valentines Day in Lviv
The best part about our recent “Project Design Management” training was that it took place in the center of Lviv. It’s an amazing city in western Ukraine (about 6 hours from us), that feels more like a European city than it does a Ukrainian one. Lviv used to be apart of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and therefore was built by mostly by Austrian-Hungarian people, thus making the architecture distinctly less of a post-Soviet style and much more European. Since becoming a Ukrainian city, and mostly within the last 15 years, it has become a big tourism hub, being famous for its chocolate, coffee, craft beer, and it’s “experiential” restaurants. It’s sort of like the Seattle of Ukraine in that sense.
Before our dinner at a Jewish restaurant in Lviv, this was a hand washing ceremony of sorts. We also had to barter for the price of our meal at the end.
On the horizon for us is a trip to Florence, Italy to both visit a couple friends and to see a long dreamed of destination (for both of us, but especially Chris). We are greatly looking forward to the food of course, but also enjoying a new city with its own history and culture. We then will return to our site with spring right around the corner, and the tourism season along with it. There are also a few projects in the pipeline for both of us. Jessica is working on a national teacher training event and Chris is working on a national forum for female government officials to inform and equip leaders regarding the ongoing economic and democratic reforms in Ukraine. We will share more on these projects at a later time.
Jessica peaking out of a rooftop chimney kind of thing. This was at one of those “experiential” restaurants where each floor of the restaurant was a different theme based on Ukrainian legends.
The best part about the end of the holiday season in Ukraine is that there’s actually still more holidays. Not only does the Ukrainian holiday season start when the American holiday season ends, but it’s one holiday after another to start every calendar year. Here’s a quick rundown:
January 1st: New Year (aka New New Year)
January 7th: Holy Evening
January 8th: Ukrainian Christmas
January 14th: Orthodox New Year (aka Old New Year)
January 18th: Second Holy Evening
January 19th: Day of Christ’s Baptism
January 22nd: Ukrainian Unity Day
Most holidays are about one thing primarily, which is food. It is for the most part tradiational Ukrainian food with some modern twists like “shashlik” on New Years (basically meat grilled over an open flame) and five different kinds of cake (our favorite is our host mom’s Napoleon cake). Families gather for traditional and hours-long meals. For Ukrainian Christmas, there are 12 traditional dishes, without meat, some of which are only made for Christmas.
Outside of food, there’s a few other traditions. Most notably, for the the Day of Christ’s Baptism, there is the tradition that people will dunk themselves in a river or lake. Keep in mind this is in January, so it’s pretty cold. It’s something along the lines of “Polar Plunge” in the US. We did not partake.
That wraps up the holiday season, but there are still holidays to come. Easter is a big deal here, and we have only heard rumors of hours of upon hours of the Easter celebration. We’ll keep you posted on that.
In the middle of all of this though, we also made time for a holiday party with some fellow volunteers. We enjoyed some American style food made by our own hands. We had a small hotel to ourselves, which was good because we got to speak English uninhibited and Americans are evidently more loud than Ukrainians.
Some of the appetizers for the volunteer holiday party.
After all of this we had the chance to unwind at a small ski/snow tubing resort. The great thing is that you don’t need to speak the same language in order to have fun sliding down a hill of snow and ice.