ArticlesMarch 2021

“Code of the World”: A Digital Storytelling Project in the Russian Heritage Classroom

By Svetlana Korshunova, Princeton University

Svetlana Korshunova

Many heritage students cite “identity” as the principal reason for studying the language; they come to class to explore and assess the deep-rooted cultural, emotional, and aesthetic values of their language against the broader social groups of families, peers, and the country of the language in general. At the very first class, I hear my students saying: “I don’t really know who I am, I don’t identify myself as 100% Russian nor 100% American”, “I am not even sure that I can speak Russian properly”, “When I speak Russian, I feel that I am becoming a child again, not who I really am”. But when you ask students to tell a favorite story about their childhood, family, a tradition they share with their family, the stories and poems their parents read before bed, food they like to eat, or travels they took as a family in Russia, or even a thing dear to their heart, the genie of the ancestral land breaks free out of the bottle. Crafting and sharing their stories, students come to a better understanding of their multifaceted, fluid self, they construct or reconstruct their identity, and place themselves within the Russian community. That is why this digital storytelling project, which asks students to share their experiences, reflect on their background, culture and relationships inside their heritage communities through different media (an autobiographical  narrative, images, video, audio, and text) occupies a central place in our Russian for Heritage Speakers course. The class works on it over the course of the semester, and the collection of student work at different stages of the project (written assignments, drafts, presentations, and final digital story) constitutes the student’s portfolio for assessment. 

At the very first stage, I have students explore the transformative experiences of a boy, a “future Soviet cosmonaut” on the verge of self-identification. The process is forecasted in the opening sentence: “A man is half of what he is, and half of what he wants to be, said Oscar Wilde.” This story belongs to the contemporary Russian writer – Victor Pelevin – and is named quite suggestively – “Code of the World” (“Код Мира”, 2001). The author tells his readers that at the age of seven or eight, he, like all boys of his generation, wanted to become a cosmonaut and was particularly fascinated by the small, pot-bellied “suitcases” shining in the sun which the Soviet cosmonauts carried before the launch of their spaceships, a fascination which he had had until that revelatory moment when one of the adults told him that the suitcases were just for the disposal of human “waste”: “Cosmonauts are people too, you know.” After that “defining” moment, the boy’s “clean star world obtained an explicit crack”, and Pelevin demonstrates how eventually he comes to an understanding that all Soviet people carried their own suitcases with them. The suitcase becomes “a very precise symbol,” “a code,” unveiling all the horror of the Soviet existence: “the Soviet man, who built the first spaceships and flew in them to the stars, towards inhabitants of other words, could not offer them anything besides a suitcase full of stored shit, tyranny and dark misery.” (Translation by Kirill Zikanov)

For students, Pelevin’s short story becomes a model of the autobiographical narrative: building on a material object, through the dreams, struggles, bitter irony, and transformation within his persona, the writer inspires students to construct stories of their own. His story is linked to the communal history and social relationships that develop a full sense of self and others.

In response to this story, I ask students to create and share a digital autobiographical story  because I feel that the multimodal nature of the activity is better suited to echo the fluid identity of heritage students. Words, images, and music help to (re)construct the multidimensional identity of a heritage student. As one of my students told me, he fell in love with Russian poetry in his early childhood, when his mother used to read Pushkin’s poems to him before bed. He couldn’t understand the words, but the music of the poems was enchanting and became an integral part of his identity. I feel that a digital story – with its thoroughly edited visual displays of information and its emotionally charged personal images of people, places, nature – provides the ideal tool for self-exploration and self-assessment. It amplifies the uniqueness of the experience and has a great emotional impact both on its writer and its viewers.  During the process of creating meaning over multiple drafts, discussions, recordings, and peer feedback, students not only acquire the skills necessary to construct a personal narrative and express their opinions succinctly and powerfully, but they also transform their heritage language identity and their position towards their multilingual communities. One of my students phrased these changing attitudes in this way: “I rewrote the story several times because in the process of writing it, I realized that I didn’t think like this anymore.”

I base this video project on the principles of the multiliteracies pedagogy (the New London Group) which represents the multifaceted character of literacy, and is particularly relevant to a heritage learner, who thrives in translingual and transgenic communities.  During the first, pre-reading, stage (“situated practice”), students have the opportunity to reflect on their “home” experiences and knowledge. I ask them to explore what the title of the story – “Code of the World” – might refer to. In groups, they discuss what they already know about the Soviet “code” and compile lists of Soviet historical, political, and psychological symbols, as well as their own questions about Soviet “identity”. They discuss the meaning behind photographic images of the Soviet “dreamlike” reality – cosmic monuments, strategically raised near low-cost, concrete-paneled five-storied apartment buildings (“хрущёвки” – a word that refers to Nikita Khrushchev, who was the leader when this cookie cutter, low-quality housing was built), the Soviet posters of smiling cosmonauts holding stars in their hands, a video of the launch of the first Soviet spaceship, as well as images of GULAG prisoners and their suitcases. After the discussion, I ask my students to reflect upon their own childhood experience that transformed (as in Pelevin’s story) their understanding of themselves. This could define their Russian “half” – “half of what you are” or “half of what you want to be”. In groups, students share their family stories and name the objects which they consider representative of what they know about themselves and their Russian background. 

During the reading stage (“overt instruction”), students move from the experiential to the conceptual: they analyze the literal and figurative meanings of the short story’s words and expressions, discuss different types and contexts of the author’s irony, and identify how the discourse is organized. At this time, students look for the syntaxic conventions the author employs in order to support his opinion and express the relationships of time, purpose, cause, result, and concession. 

Before moving towards creating personal stories (“the transformative practice”), students get the opportunity to analyze the text critically. I ask them to analyze the meaning behind the author’s choices of vocabulary and grammatical forms and take on a perspective different from that of the author’s. During this stage of “critical framing/analyzing”, students read against the grain of the text: they offer their perspective on the author’s experience and construct their counter-arguments.  

Armed with narrative strategies, students come to the final stage of the project – the creation of their own digital stories. This stage is “the transformed practice” – the application of their knowledge to their “lifeworlds”.  To facilitate the digital aspect of the project, students watch a short video lecture posted on the course page that guides them through the process of making a digital video via the WeVideo platform. At this stage, the independent work in groups becomes the most important methodological activity: students brainstorm and exchange preliminary ideas for their stories in class, read each other’s drafts (usually about 500 words for a 3–5-minute video), share their storyboards (which they can create using StoryboardThat), advise each other on choosing visual images, videos, and music. They provide feedback during the in-class group discussions using the expression “Если бы это была моя история, я бы… / If it were my story, I would…”, as it is recommended in the guides on digital storytelling. As an instructor, I closely monitor the audio narrative (we use Audacity for audio recording). I offer each of the students individualized phonetic exercises and I am always present at the audio recording process. After they finish editing their digital stories, students take time to watch each other’s video stories and discuss “highs and lows” of the process and the final results. We even have our own “Oscar ceremony” with different nomination categories matching the number of students in the class! Final written feedback from students and their self-reflections help me to assess their work but also informs my plan for how to improve this pedagogical activity for the next year.

At this time the course’s video collection includes 34 digital stories, and I plan to continue working on the project with the next group of students and to set up a specifically designated website for our video stories – called “Code of Our World” – that might become a permanent place for the collective memories of Russian heritage students. 

What do heritage students talk about in the stories? What is the “suitcase” of their Russian “half”? It is hardly surprising that the most frequent topics are food (latkes, blintzes, borscht, the “Herculean” box of oatmeal, grandmother’s secret sack filled with sugar), family rituals (banya, New Year’s celebration, the “war” with babushka, ancestors’ farms and towns, the state-sponsored 1st TV Channel, berry-picking with father), cherished objects (a traditional embroidered shirt, Soviet celebratory metal badges, Chinese porcelain teapots, the “eggplant” song, the “Cheburashka” cartoon, a sweatshirt with the word “Russian” on the back), music, and music lessons.

The stories are touching and deeply emotional. The students share their struggles in accepting their “different” – heritage – experiences, they show the entanglement of different voices and perspectives inside them, sometimes even the fear of being an “outsider”, or of being identified by others by the Russian political agenda represented on  American TV.  Students always place their individual experience within the broader – historical, social, political, and cultural – context, and while learning how to structure their stories in the most powerful and effective way, they come to a clearer understanding of their unique heritage language identity. For these reasons, this collection of digital stories is a useful resource for future research on heritage language identity.

Students find the digital storytelling project engaging and wholeheartedly accept the idea behind it, as evident in their feedback: 

“The idea of the assignment itself is very unique to our course – in fact, it’s perfect for it. I actually thought about what it means to be Russian more than ever during the course, and still do”; “The WeVideo project was an incredible way of promoting independent work in Russian 108 to create a meaningful final product that employed high-level Russian writing and speaking”; “The video recording is a great way of showcasing and honing native speakers’ inherent fluidity in and command of the Russian language itself.” One of the students confessed that after watching the video story, his grandmother said that she had never expected him to be such a good writer in Russian and suggested that he write more. “If she only knew how much of everything went into this project”, he jokes. 

I have shared a few examples of the students’ projects below.

Ellie Makar-Limanov, “Eggplant”

In this digital story, Ellie talks about collecting the pieces of her parents’ Soviet past and the fear that the gap between her parents’ memories and her understanding will be lost when they are gone.

Timothy Sadov, “Borshch”

In this digital story, Tim talks about his love for borshch, a Russian beet soup, and how it set him apart from his non-Russian peers, in positive but also in uncomfortable ways.

Abigail Litvak, “Violin”

In this digital story, Abby talks about her Russian violin teacher Igor. He taught her to express herself through music and about the importance of art in life.

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