Monday, September 28, 2009

Why I am Travelling to Ukraine

I have explained in earlier posts why I think Sukhomlinsky is worth studying, but why do I need to travel to Ukraine to do this? I have thousands of pages of published material at home, which I can reread and relate to my own experience. I could spend many years just translating the material I have already collected.

One of the reasons I am travelling to Ukraine is that on my previous trip to the Soviet Union, in 1987/88, I was unable to travel to Pavlysh, where Sukhomlinsky's school is situated. I would like to see with my own eyes the facilities and landscape he describes in his books. I would also like to take photographs to illustrate future books and a web site devoted to Sukhomlinsky's legacy.

The other reason is that at the school in Pavlysh and in Kyiv there are archives that house old photographs and manuscripts, many of which are not published. Access to this material will give me a more complete picture of Sukhomlinsky's work than is able to be accessed through published material.

It is my hope, then, that I will return with photographs that I have taken or scanned from archives, and also with material scanned from unpublished manuscripts, letters and notes. Not long before he died, Sukhomlinsky wrote to publishers about many unpublished works that he had completed. He knew that he did not have long to live, and was making a final effort to see his ideas and experience preserved for posterity. While many of the unpublished works listed in his letters have since been published, an equal number have not. These works are of particular interest to me, and I will be fascinated to see how much unpublished material is held in the archives.

I will be leaving in a week and am making final preparations for my departure. My sense of anticipation is growing, and I am starting to get feedback from people interested in my blog. I will try to keep posting material over the coming weeks.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sukhomlinsky the Writer

Sukhomlinsky wrote about 30 books and about 500 articles while serving as principal at Pavlysh School. How did he find the time to do this? Sukhomlinsky used to wake around 4.00 am and work in his office till about 8.00 am, when the children started to arrive at school. It was during this time that he did much of his writing. He also wrote on holidays and even in his hospital bed. During the last three years of his life he tried to record as much of his experience and thought as he could, for posterity.

Some works, like "100 Pieces of Advice for Teachers" were written in response to the thousands of letters he received from teachers all over the Soviet Union. They knew of him from his articles in educational periodicals and newspapers, and from his books. Thousands of teachers travelled to see his school and meet him personally. Until the attacks on him in 1967, Sukhomlinsky managed to promote his humanistic approach within the framework of Communist ideology, interpreting that ideology in his own unique way. One commentator explained his rise to fame as follows:

"... a new name, a fresh approach, a clear voice. A village teacher, from the peasantry, a company political instructor, seriously wounded, a veteran, he understands the Party's policies and the role of the school correctly, he writes compellingly, intelligibly, based on his experience of work education in a country school...
In the measured rhythms of his narrative about the daily life and festivals of Pavlysh Secondary School, which had sent its roots deep into the peasant way of life, in his Ukrainian turn of phrase and intonation, there was a special charm, an authenticity."

I personally find each page of his writing to be permeated with his love for children, and with the conviction that comes from hard-earned experience and reflection. He is not merely intellectualizing, but strenuously seeking a way to educate children for a brighter future. He did not want any children to be left behind, and gave particular attention to those that struggled at school. He wrote of the need for concrete experience to preceed abstract thinking:

"I advised teachers: if a child does not understand something, if his thought beats helplessly like a bird in a cage, look carefully at your work. Has the consciousness of your child become a little dried up pond, cut off from the eternal and life-giving source of thought - the world of objects, of natural phenomena? Connect this pond with the ocean of nature, of objects, of the surrounding world, and you will see how a spring of living thought will begin to flow."

Only a small proportion of Sukhomlinsky's writing has been translated into English. I have commenced a translation of one of his major works, entitled "Pavlysh Secondary School". As the school included both a primary and a secondary school, I am considering making the title simply "Pavlysh School", so as not to give the impression that it was only a secondary school. You can see the early stages of my translation at the following site: . I expect to take some years to complete this translation, but hope to translate much more of Sukhomlinsky's work once I retire from teaching.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The School of Joy

Sukhomlinsky's most famous book is "My Heart I Give to Children", which was first published in 1969. In it Sukhomlinsky describes his work with a group of children he led through their primary schooling. The book gives us insight into Sukhomlinsky the school teacher, and the way in which he interacted with children. Sukhomlinsky became principal of the school in Pavlysh in 1947, but he missed the closeness of the relationship that class teachers had with their pupils. Then, several years after he became principal, he decided to take on a class himself, and combine the roles of principal and class teacher.

In the Autumn of 1951 Sukhomlinsky began working with a class of 6-year-old children, at a time when the age for enrolling in school was seven. He had managed to persuade the parents of these children to send them to school a year early. He did not plan to commence formal lessons with them during this year, but wanted to get to know them as well as possible through an informal program of outdoor activities. The parents of his 31 students called this introductory year the "school of joy". Sukhomlinsky told the children stories, many of which he improvised in response to their natural surroundings. The children responded and made up stories of their own. Once the children's awareness of language and interest in it had been raised to a sufficient level, Sukhomlinsky taught the children to read, again through means of outdoor excursions. The following is a description of a lesson, taken from the book "My Heart I Give to Children".

"We went on 'journeys' to the sources of words with albums and pencils. Here is one of our first 'journeys'. My aim was to show the children the beauty and the subtle nuances of the word meadow. [In Ukrainian this is a three-letter word which may be transliterated as 'LUH' or 'LUG'.] We seated ourselves under a weeping willow which leant over a pond. In the distance a meadow, lit up by the sun, showed green. I said to the children: "Look at the beauty in front of us. Above the grass butterflies are flying, bees are buzzing. In the distance is a herd of cattle that look like toys. It seems as if the meadow is a light green river and the trees are its dark green banks. The herd is bathing in the river. Look how many beautiful flowers early autumn has sprinkled around. And as we listen to the music of the meadow can you hear the soft buzzing of the flies and the song of a grasshopper?" I draw the meadow in my album. I draw the cows, and the geese, scattered about like white fluff, and a barely perceptible puff of smoke, and a white cloud on the horizon. The children are spellbound by the beauty of the quiet morning and they are also drawing. I write underneath the drawing 'LUH'.

For the majority of children, letters are drawings. And each drawing reminds them of something. Of what? Of a blade of grass. Bend the blade over and you have an 'L'. Put two blades together and you have a new drawing, an 'U'. The children write the word 'LUH' below their drawings. Then we read the word. Sensitivity to the music of nature helps the children to sense the meaning of the word. The outline of each letter is memorised. The children impart to each letter a living sound, and each letter is easily memorised. The drawing of the word is perceived as a whole. The word is read, and this reading is not the result of lengthy exercises in phonic analysis and synthesis, but a conscious reproduction of a phonic, musical image, which corresponds to the visual image of the word which has just been drawn by the children. When there is such a unity of visual and auditory perception, infused with a wealth of emotional nuances, which have been imparted to the word, the letter and the small word are memorised simultaneously. Dear reader, this is not a discovery of some new method for teaching literacy. It is the practical realisation of that which has been proven by science: that it is easier to memorise that which one is not obliged to memorise and that the emotional colouring of perceived images plays a crucial role in memorisation."

As his work with this class progressed, he taught them much more than was contained in the official syllabus. He taught them lessons in empathy - how to read the feelings of others in their eyes. He took measures to make sure the children's health provided the strongest possile foundation for their all round development. He helped them to develop interests and hobbies, and gave them practical opportunities to apply their developing knowledge in dozens of clubs and interest groups. The school environment was transformed through the planting of fruit trees, grape vines, flowers and vegetables. The children's feelings of compassion were refined through the establishment of an animal hospital, where injured wildlife was cared for. And always Sukhomlinsky's creativity and intuition is supplemented by deep reflection on the process of education, as he tries to generalize from his experience and stimulate similar reflection by his readers. Here is one such reflection:

"I firmly believe that there are qualities without which a person cannot become a genuine educator, and foremost among them is the ability to penetrate into the spiritual world of the child. Only the person who never forgets that he or she was once a child can become a real teacher. The misfortune of many teachers (children, especially adolescents, call them old fogeys) is that they forget that the student is first of all a living human being in the act of entering the world of knowledge, creativity, and human relations."

An English translation of "My Heart I Give to Children" was carried out by Holly Smith, and published by Progress Publishers, Moscow, in 1981. It can be found in many university libraries. Rough digitised versions of this translation (they have numerous typographical errors) can be downloaded in pdf format from the following websites:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sukhomlinsky's Heroism

As I make preparations for my trip to Ukraine, I have been reading a book sent to me by Sukhomslinsky's daughter, Olga Sukhomlins'ka, who is a professor at the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in Kyiv. Her book, entitled "Studies on V.A. Sukhomlinsky: Pedagogical Apocrypha", documents a debate that sprang up around her fathers work during the last three years of his life, and which continued for decades. The book reminded me of how difficult Sukhomlinsky's life was, from beginning to end.

Sukhomlinsky was born in 1918, during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. He lived through social unrest, famine, serious illness, and war. He was seriously wounded in battle, with his arm nearly severed and schrapnel in his lungs. While he was at war his home was occupied, and his wife and baby were tortured and killed. Somehow he rose above all this, and returned to help the children in his region to recover from the terrible suffering and loss of the Nazi occupation. He built a system of education founded on humanity, kindness and the appreciation of beauty. The famous musical educator Dmitry Kabalevsky thought that Sukhomlinksy incorporated ethical and aesthetic education thoughout a child's education, in a way that was unprecedented.

Then, in 1967, when Sukhomlinsky was apparently at the height of his fame and influence, he was suddenly subjected to ideological attacks in the press, which appear to have been directed from the highest levels of the communist regime. It would appear that his emphasis on universal humanistic values was not to the taste of more narrow-minded ideologues who held positions of greater power and influence. He was accused of "abstract humanism", and of putting the interests of the individual ahead of the collective.

Sukhomlinsky's health was already failing. Fragments of schrapnel from his old war wounds had remained in his chest and travelled to his heart. He was operated on, and one fragment was removed, but another remained. The attacks on him in the press greeted him as he returned from hospital, and affected him deeply. Sukhomlinsky's daughter is quite certain that they had a detrimental effect on his health and hastened his death three years later. In spite of his failing health, Sukhomlinsky set about writing the books which have secured his reputation for posterity. Sukhomlinsky continued in his post as principal of the school at Pavlysh until his death in September 1970, and during this time produced several remarkable books describing his experience at the school, and his educational theories. I will discuss these in more detail in later posts, starting with the most famous: "My Heart I Give to Children".

Moscow 1987/1988

I started studying Sukhomlinsky's work after purchasing a 5 volume set of his selected works in a bookshop in Melbourne. I soon realised that in order to take my studies further, I would need to travel to the Soviet Union. I explored various options, and eventually accepted a scholarship to study for ten months at the Pushkin Institute of Russian Language in Moscow, where I arrived in late August, 1987.

In 1987 the Soviet Union was going through a period of great change under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Freedom of speech was at a level unprecedented in Soviet times, and Moscow was seeking much more friendly relations with the Western world. Gorbachev had stunned Reagan by offering major unilateral concessions at a summit in Iceland, and preparations were being made for a summit in Washington in December. A further summit was held in Moscow the following year. It was a fascinating time to be in Russia.

It was a condition of my scholarship that I should attend Russian language classes at the Institute from 9 am to 2 pm, 4 days a week, and that I should conduct Russian language classes for the Australia-USSR Society in Brisbane on completion of the course. In return, all my tuition and accommodation was paid for, and I was given a living allowance of 140 roubles a month - enough to cover food, transport and other essential expenses. After classes each day I had a meal and then headed off for the Lenin Library in the centre of Moscow, where I read and collected material for my study of Sukhomlinsky.

The Pushkin Institute allocated a supervisor, Vera Sergeevna Deviataikina, to help me with my research. She provided valuable assistance, organising a meeting with Sukhomlinsky's daughter, with the publicist Simon Soloveichik, and with another researcher, Mikhail Boguslavsky, who had recently completed a dissertation on Sukhomlinsky. She also arranged for me to attend a progressive Moscow school headed by Evgeny Yamburg, where for several months I assisted with English language classes. I subsequently exchanged numerous letters with Sukhomlinsky's daughter, who supplied me with much useful material. She still continues to support my efforts to make her father's work better known in English speaking countries.

In May and June of 1988, shortly before I returned to Australia, President Reagan came to Moscow for a summit with President Gorbachev. The word got around that CBS was looking for interpreters, and about thirty English-speaking students from the Institute found employment for the duration of the summit. I was allocated to Charles Kuralt, who was supporting Dan Rathers' news coverage with background stories. Charles Kuralt was a legendary figure on American television, known for his Sunday morning program "On the Road", in which he travelled the back roads of America interviewing local people.

One of the most interesting experiences of my life happened while I was working for CBS. The largest hotel in Moscow, the Hotel Rossiya on Red Square, had been turned into a huge media centre for the summit. Most of its 3200 rooms were occupied by journalists and television crews, and some sections had been converted to television studios. All press staff and interpreters had passes to enter, but security was high, and most Soviet citizens were excluded. As the summit was concluding, an old Russian war veteran came to the hotel, insisting that he meet with someone from American television. The following day Charles Kuralt took an interview with him, at which I interpreted.

It was a moving experience, which has been described in Charles Kuralt's book A Life On the Road, in a chapter entitled "The Dentist". The veteran described how he and many other Russian prisoners of war owed their lives to American POWs who were held in the same German camp. The Germans were allowing Red Cross food parcels into the American compound, but not into the Russian compound. The Russian prisoners were starving. Under cover of darkness the American soldiers started hurling thousands of food parcels over the fences that separated the two compounds, saving the lives of many Russians. The veteran was in tears as he remembered those who had helped him, and he vowed that Russians would never go to war against America. The interview was broadcast as the closing item on the CBS evening news on June 3, 1988. I felt as if I had been in the right place at the right time.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sukhomlinsky or Sukhomlyns'kyi?

I have received a grant from the Ukrainian Studies Foundation in Australia, to travel to the Ukraine to conduct research into the educational legacy of Vasily Sukhomlinsky/Vasil' Sukhomlyns'kyi. You may wonder why I give two spellings for his name. (If you are not interested is such linguistic niceties, please skip this posting and move on the next one.) I "discovered" Sukhomlinsky through my study of the Russian language, and the form "Sukhomlinsky" is a transliteration from Russian. Sukhomlinsky was famous throughout the Soviet Union in his own lifetime, and many of his books and articles were published in Russian. His most famous work "My Heart I Give to Children", was translated into English by Holly Smith and published by Progress Press, the major foreign language publisher in the Soviet Union, in 1981. An earlier compilation was published in English in 1977 under the title "Sukhomlinsky on Education". In my thesis and my book, I adopted the spelling of Sukhomlinsky's name which had been used in these publications: "Vasily Aleksandrovich Sukhomlinsky".

However, Sukhomlinsky was not Russian, but Ukrainian, and although both Russian and Ukrainian use the cyrillic alphabet, they are two distinct languages. In Ukrainian Sukhomlinsky's name looks different, and the transliteration is also different: "Vasyl' Oleksandrovych Sukhomlyns'kyi". Because of the precedent that has been set, I have continued to write "Sukhomlinsky" in my web resources, but out of respect for his Ukrainian origins I have felt compelled to mention the alternative spelling as well. I ask forgiveness of any Ukrainians who feel I should change my usage to Sukhomlyns'kyi, but point out that there are many possible other variants as well, as there is no single standard system of transliteration into English for either Russian or Ukrainian. In the interests of continuity (and also because it seems to me easier to read and write) I will continue to use Sukhomlinsky for the time being, though I may discuss this issue with Sukhomlinsky's daughter while I am in Ukraine this October.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Who was Sukhomlinsky and why is he worth studying?

Vasily Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970) was a school teacher and principal who became an inspirational figure for millions of educators in the Soviet Union and beyond. Through my study of the Russian language I came in contact with Sukhomlinsky's writings, and could not help admiring his idealism, intellect, and amazing commitment to the children he taught. I spent several years studying his work (1987-1994), writing a Ph.D. thesis about him, which was published in book form in 1999 by Peter Lang (New York), under the title "Each One Must Shine". I am convinced that Sukhomlinsky's educational ideas and practice have a significance that transcends the time and place in which he worked.

What is special about Sukhomlinsky is the way he worked to facilitate the development of every aspect of each student, placing great importance on their health and their emotional, aesthetic and moral development, as well as on intellectual and vocational development. His school was visited by thousands of teachers, who left inspired by what they had seen. His books were read by millions. Because of linguistic, cultural and political barriers, Sukhomlinsky's work is almost unknown in the West. In a small way I am trying to remedy this situation, by making available information about Sukhomlinsky over the internet. If you find this blog of interest, you may also like to visit my website at

Now, more than 20 years since I first encountered his writing, I am planning a visit to the Ukraine, where Sukhomlinsky worked, to visit his former school in Pavlysh. I will also be visiting two archives dedicated to the preservation of his education legacy, one in Pavlysh, and one in Kiev. My visit is being facilitated by Sukhomlinksy's daughter, Olga Sukhomlins'ka, who is a professor at the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in the Ukraine.

During my visit I hope to scan photographs taken during Sukhomlinsky's lifetime, and to take fresh photos of the environment in which he worked. I also hope to come away with a picture of the range of resources (including unpublished manuscripts) which are stored in the archives. I may have the opportunity to meet with former students of Sukhomlinsky's school, and hope to talk with educators in the region, to gauge Sukhomlinsky's continuing influence there.

In this blog I will share my reflections on Sukhomlinsky's educational approach, and also report on my trip to the Ukraine. I hope to post a photographic record of my visit as well. If you have an interest in holistic approaches to education, I hope you will come along for the ride.