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Friday, July 8, 2011

Another lesson, another lightbulb goes off.

There are times when, because of being tired, wanting a little time off from Russian, or just pure laziness, that I think, I hope Boris cancels class today. It would be so nice to just sleep in.

Then I get up, shower, eat a bite, jump in my car and drive to Boris Shekhtman's home where we have class. As soon as I arrive he meets me at the door and guides me in to the apartment, making jokes and small talk in Russian. We sit down, he asks about my life, I start my digital recorder ( I have recorded every single lesson since we began in June, 2010), and before I realize it, an hour has passed. All of it in Russian.

As I talk I realize that he is laughing, making notes and observing me intently. He is teaching me but I wouldn't know it since it is such an enjoyable experience. Apart from my times with Michel Thomas, few of my language learning experiences have been consistently truly enjoyable.

That, precisely is why I got interested in learning and teaching. My impression is that many of us are turned off to learning by what passes for the educational system. Early on I unconsciously knew this for I would refuse to take classes in the things I most loved reading about or learning. Why? Because frequently the experience of having to suffer through a really horrible class complete with examination, stress, homework, and teachers who on some basic level didn't love what they were doing, would just turn me off to the subject.

Some of those subjects, after years of painful memories of the classes, are still frustrating for me to learn since I have so many unpleasant associations with them from the past. Such was the case for Hebrew which I was forced to study when I was young. I loved languages but just couldn't relate to what I loved in the manner I was taught. I am sure the teachers were well intentioned but I and many others who were sent by our parents several times a week to the Hebrew school basically didn't want to be there. As kids there were so many other things we wanted to be doing. Studying a foreign language with a different alphabet that didn't use vowels was not one of them.

Over the years I have attempted to return to Modern Hebrew by going to Israel and studying. It has taken years for me to get to a level where I can comfortably converse, read and write ( and type) in this language but it was never easy. The old, really painful memories just seem to be living below the surface. Years and years of them are still there. Little by little I am wiping the slate clean. I wish I had a teacher who would teach me like Michel Thomas or Boris Shekhtman for Modern Hebrew but so far that hasn't happened.

At some point one must become the teacher one seeks. You can't just sit quietly and wait forever, can you?

Anyway, getting back to my last time with Boris, at one point it suddenly hit me why I really am coming back to him each week.

It is not because of any burning desire to learn Russian. Much as I enjoy the language and culture it is not my number one language to learn at present.

I really want to learn the teaching method of Boris Shekhtman. He knows this and is very generous in teaching me whatever he can. Michel Thomas was not so generous. With him I had to really combat his ingrained resistance to giving away his "secrets". He was one of the most paranoid teachers I have ever encountered. It took ten years of constant contact in many, many different situations for me to get answers to all of my questions and be able to replicate his approach. I not only had to learn all the details of how he taught but also all of the course creation methodology which he was especially reluctant to share. At one point I asked a question and he answered, " Well, if I told you that then you would know everything!" By constant detours, returning to old questions, getting to him when he was in a better less paranoid mood, I got the information I sought. It was never easy though it was constantly fascinating. However, I was not about to give up what I regarded as a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn from a true genius.


In the end it paid off in many ways I had never anticipated.

The CDs we have of Michel Thomas teaching are excellent. They are pure gold for the language learner and teacher. However, as he well knew, they didn't exactly cover everything he taught his private students. Since I was privately taught by him twice ( French, Spanish) I can say that from personal experience. In addition, there were levels of teaching that went on following his personal instruction which were done by teachers he trained to help to teach higher levels of conversation. The courses were personalized. If one wanted business German one got it. If one desired diplomatic French then one got the required training. It was all tailored to the student.

So what was it that suddenly came to me during my last lesson with Boris?

Why do I keep returning even though frequently it is the last thing I want to do with the one free day in my week?

While we were talking and laughing I got it.

My time with Boris is more intellectually stimulating and mind blowing than almost anything else in my life these days except for my work as an osteopathic physician. Experiencing the physical system of my patient shifting and changing before my eyes and under my hands never grows old. However, for language learning that level of excitement was rare before Michel Thomas and Boris.

The excitement that comes from learning something new, truly novel, something that I have never before experienced, and with such an amazing teacher as Boris, is a real gift for me. He is constantly surprising me and I love to be surprised when it comes to teaching and learning. It makes me laugh.

That's at least one reason why I return each week.

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