FRONTENAC, Kan. —
As the crow flies, it’s more than 5,500 miles from Frontenac to Sochi, Russia.
But for fourth-graders studying the Olympic Games this month, the distance didn’t seem quite so great Thursday: A native Russian and an American faculty member at Pittsburg State University who has been a frequent traveler there shared with them the country’s language, culture, food and traditional dress.
Debbie Restivo, a longtime teacher at Frontenac’s Frank Layden Elementary School, has for many years used the Olympics as a focus of cross-curricular study.
“We’re able to use it to introduce project-based learning, to learn geography, math, science, reading — so many things,” Restivo said.
She was thrilled to find out from Susan Knell, an education teacher at PSU who has led trips to Russia seven times, that her former host student, Anya Rogacheva, would be in Kansas this month.
“To be able to meet a Russian and learn from her in person was just icing on the cake,” Restivo said.
Knell and Rogacheva agreed to spend time with Restivo’s class and the fourth-grade class of teacher Angela Siebuhr.
Knell’s fascination with Russia was sparked by a colleague, Tatiana Sildus, a native of Russia who joined the faculty at PSU several years ago. About that time, Pittsburg High School’s exchange program presented an opportunity for Knell’s daughter, Megan, to study in Russia, and for Knell to be the host for a Russian student.
Knell began leading study-abroad trips to Russia with students, faculty members and area residents, and she returned six more times.
“It was such an eye-opener, to get beyond our little world here in Southeast Kansas,” she said.
On one such trip, Knell met Rogacheva’s mother, a fellow educator who expressed a desire for her daughter to be able to study for a semester in America. Anya Rogacheva got her chance in 2005, when Knell suggested PSU and became her host parent.
They became such close friends that Knell still stays in touch with and sees Rogacheva’s mother, and she welcomed the chance for her daughter to again visit this month.
In addition to artifacts she picked up on her travels, Knell shared with the fourth-graders a slide show of the landmarks of Russia, including Moscow’s Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Rogacheva explained the history and significance of each of the buildings.
Student Coy Medlin said he was surprised to see a photo of a McDonald’s in Russia, where the line of customers was out the door.
“I didn’t know they had those there,” he said. “It’s fun to learn about different places and cultures.”
Knell also shared photos of children in Russia, impressing upon the Kansas fourth-graders the similarities they share and that “kids are kids, wherever you are.”
So much so that when Rogacheva read aloud a classic Russian children’s picture book, “Kolobok,” in her native language, the children found they could follow the story line. It was very similar to an American tale they’d grown up with: “The Gingerbread Man.”
“The kolobok — a little pie or cake — gets up off the table and escapes from the babushka’s home,” Rogacheva explained.
The students also delighted in the differences in Russian culture, including the hats, headdresses, aprons and tunics that Rogacheva helped them try on; the handmade wooden toys that are in stark contrast to many of the plastic playthings American children use; and the food, which included tastes of a gingerbread-like treat and of small, hard rings of bread.
Ironically, Rogacheva came to the U.S. just as the Olympics were beginning in her country, and she won’t return until after the games are over. But the fourth-graders can tell her anything she needs to know: They’re watching the medal count, keeping track of what time it is in Russia, and logging on to three Olympics websites frequently to monitor the athletes and the sports on which they each chose to focus.
THE FOURTH-GRADE CLASSES also are doing math lessons using rubles — a unit of currency in Russia — and will read and make a cake based on Patricia Polacco’s book “Thunder Cake.” Understanding other cultures, their teachers said, helps promote world peace.