U.S. Family Signs Up For Extreme Schooling In Russia

When Clifford Levy was posted to Moscow for The New York Times in 2006, he and his wife Julie Dressner decided to immerse their three children fully by sending them to a progressive Russian school. David Greene talks to the couple about what they call their "family's experiment with extreme schooling."

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LYNN NEARY, host: Now, the story of some students who arrived as foreigners in Russia. When New York Times reporter Clifford Levy and his wife Julie Dressner moved to Russia five years ago they chose to use the time to fully immerse their children in the country, opting for a Russian education over the local international school.

DAVID GREENE, host: And their Russian education began in classrooms where everything was foreign. The children did not speak Russian, even though that's the language everyone around them was speaking. Clifford Levy and Julie Dressner called it their experiment in extreme schooling. And they believed their experiment was successful. When I'm not hosting MORNING EDITION, I live in Russia, and got to know Cliff and Julie in the journalism community there. The couple is back in the U.S. now. Cliff wrote about his children in the York Times magazine. And Cliff and Julie joined me to talk about what they learned.

CLIFFORD LEVY: We have three children. When we got to Russia our youngest son was 4 and a half. His name is Emmett. Our daughter Arden was 7. And our oldest daughter Danya was 9.

Emmett was a sort of a separate case. And we like to joke around that when we first put Emmett in a Russian school at 4 and a half he barely even realized that the teachers were speaking another language. It's really quite stark, the difference between how a 4-year-old can experience this and how a 7-year-old or a 9-year-old can experience this.

GREENE: Julie, you produced a documentary about the family's experiences and I think one thing that comes across is how articulate the kids are.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: So we had heard a lot of things about the Soviet-style schools. All the kids are sitting there very straight. They have to like put one arm up when they want to raise their hands. And it's all very strict and the teachers are not nice and they yell at the kids and call them stupid. I did know that I didn't want to go to a school like that.

GREENE: So the expectations were not great.

JULIE DRESSNER: Yeah, we set out to look for a school that had taken the opportunity to innovate and to keep those parts of the sort of Soviet-style education that made sense to keep, and to jettison the others. And we've found a school that, even on its website, it was as if it was speaking directly to what we were looking for.

GREENE: Well, Cliff, you wrote about the first day when you dropped the kids off at school. It sounds like it was just torturous for a parent.

LEVY: Yeah, there were a lot of days early on when we were in Moscow where we would drop them off and then we would say goodbye to them and give them hugs. And then walk away and say this kind of silent prayer to ourselves that they would make it through the day without falling apart. There were few days when they did fall apart and we had to go to the school to pick them up, or go to the school to sooth them a little bit.

And then there were, of course, many days when they made it through but got home were upset and troubled. This caused a lot of conversations between Julie and I - were we doing the right thing, what are we scarring our children? Well, maybe this is just a huge mistake.

GREENE: One of the scenes in the video is when Emmett, your young son, was in kindergarten being corrected by a teacher.

EMMETT LEVY: Sometimes I actually didn't understand like what I had to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VIDEO)

LEVY: I feel like I don't know this. I can't do this. What is this for? Sometimes I just get frustrated.

GREENE: That was Emmett kind of looking back and taking us through the scene. But can you both tell us what you were seeing?

DRESSNER: You see him crumbling his test paper in his face and hiding his face under it, and falling down on the desk. And it takes him a long time before he recovers and hands in his crumpled paper.

You know, the thing that was surprising about watching that was I thought Emmett was the one of the three kids who had had an easy transition.

GREENE: But he now speaks fluent Russian. I mean I've, you know, seen your three kids over the last couple of years and I mean it's extraordinary. They're speaking Russian better than most adults I meet in Moscow.

LEVY: Yeah, that, you know, it has filled is with great pride and it also annoyed us a bit, too, because they correct our Russian or they used to correct our Russian.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEVY: And we've found ourselves in these situations where we had to ask them for help. So you can understand why it's a little bit humiliating when you have to say to your 8 or 9-year-old child, can you remind me what the word is for this.

GREENE: And, Cliff, your writing these very important stories in The New York Times from Moscow, and your son and that might be helping you with a Russian in translation?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEVY: Exactly. Exactly, I mean my Russian was pretty good by the end. But I will never and was never able to shed my clunky American accent. Emmett especially, but all three kids have these gorgeous Russian accents. I mean the big issue now is how do we keep up their Russian now they were back in New York. And Julie and I are both kind of trying to figure that out.

New York obviously is a place with a huge Russian-speaking immigrant community; their hundreds of thousands of people here who speak Russian. So we're now looking for ways to keep what they've got. And Emmett especially is in danger of losing his Russian. At that age it's kind of easy come, easy go. He's nine now and so I think if we don't keep him speaking a bit for the next few years, his Russian could really atrophy.

GREENE: So you might be hanging out a lot in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEVY: Exactly.

GREENE: That's The New York Times Clifford Levy and his wife Julie Dressner, talking about their family's experiment with extreme schooling in Russia.

Thank you both for joining me. It really was great catching up.

DRESSNER: Thanks.

LEVY: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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