Friday, 4 October 2013

Hopping on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Our tiny but wonderful homeschool co-op started up again this week!  I've missed our weekly meetings and was excited to add this to our weekly routine.  We've chosen to globetrot around the world this fall, spending two sessions in a country.  First up was Russia, and I had the pleasure of facilitating.

While I know intuitively that most, if not all, countries have a rich history, culture and interesting geographic features, I felt intimidated by taking on a country with such a huge land mass.  There was so much that could be shared - from the Arctic to the dense forests, the steppes to the cities.  The history of the tsars, conquests, revolutions, and present times.  The beauty created by the composers, architects, artists and ballet dancers.  A different alphabet and different language.  Food.  Where to start?

I was inspired by the book Sovietrek, which is the story of a team of Americans and Russians crossing the USSR by bike in the last year of communism in the country.  Instead of following their bike route, however, I opted to board the Trans-Siberian Railway, which made its way from Moscow to Vladivostok - the last stop before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

I only had about 45 minutes to complete the trek, and I chose to make four stops along the way.  After teaching the children how to say hello in Russian and orienting them to the train (the train bell was music from Peter and the Wolf, and it would only ring once to warn the train was leaving), we found ourselves in Red Square, gazing at a large pencil drawing of St. Basil's Cathedral, which I'd prepared.  I shared how Russian culture had amazing roots, but it was squelched during the years of communist rule.  Slowly, culture and religion are coming out from the shadows.  I gave the children the opportunity to paint the Cathedral, or do an original painting, to symbolize the return of freedoms to the Russian people.

We traveled over the Ural Mountains, which separates European Russia from Asian Russia.  We found ourselves surrounded by the Western Siberian steppes - grasslands and wheat fields with thick forest marking the beginnings of the northern taiga.  It is here that the population becomes more sparse, and the older inhabitants take on the more traditional attire - babushkas (grandmothers) wearing kerchiefs, shawls, long dresses with aprons, and rubber boots for working long days in the fields or gardens.  Men wearing warm sweaters, hats and boots.  And it was at this stop that the children put on such clothing as well.  I brought what I had to share and asked the other homeschool families to supply whatever clothing or costumes might portray a rural Russian.

Now looking like authentic Russians, we travelled further east to Lake Baikal.  Factoids about this amazing place include that it is the largest lake in the world, owing to its depth (more than a mile deep).  It is also home to unique flora and fauna...about 75% of the 1000 plants and 1500 animal species can only be found at Lake Baikal.  The lake, unfortunately, is facing challenges due to human industrialization - air and water pollution are threatening the lake and the unique species that live there.  To bring the ebb and flow of the lake to life for the children, I introduced one of the unique species - the Baikal seal, also known as the nerpa.  With this sweet little seal in mind, we concocted an interpretive dance - we moved how the lake would move, how the seal would move, how the smoke from the factories might swirl in the air and the sewage might seep through the water, how the humans might try to clean things up.  A whole gaggle of children, from the youngest to the oldest were barking like seals by the end!

Our last stop was as we neared Vladivostok, for this is the home range of the largest of the big cats - the Siberian Tiger.  I shared that parents shared stories with their children to prevent them from wandering into the forest all alone, as beasts such as the tiger, wolves and bears also called the forest home.  With that, I read the story The Flying Witch, which illustrates a child's self-reliance and smarts when face-to-face with the terrifying Baba Yaga.  I had Babushka Baba Yaga available for families with younger children or those who might have been sensitive to the idea of a witch who eats children.

By the time we finished the book, our the Trans-Siberian train had safely glided into Vladivostok and we were ready to say farewell until the next time. 

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