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


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.


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: 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: 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.


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 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.


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?


LEVY: 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.


LEVY: Exactly.

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


LEVY: Thanks for having us.


GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.