Starting Off the Day (and School Year) in Ukraine

Lesson 1 for Mr. John and the Day of Knowledge

Students will compare the first day of school in Ukraine with the first day of school in the United States, including the challenges students and teachers both face in each country.

About the story

In the prologue to his memoir, Deever explains why he characterizes Ukraine in his title as the heavy side of the world—for its diet, its industry, its weather, its economic and social conditions, even its humor. He ends with a paean to the resiliency of Ukrainians, who, despite all their burdens, keep on singing and surviving.

"Mr. John and the Day of Knowledge" details the author's first day on the job at a school in newly independent Ukraine. His initial anxieties, the kinds of jitters shared by most new teachers, were complicated by his limited language proficiency (he had 10 weeks of language training before arriving at his Peace Corps post) and the cultural differences to which he had to adapt. He gives the reader a description of September First, the "Day of Knowledge" in Ukraine, when students and teachers join to celebrate the re-opening of school. The second part of the story details his observations of a master teacher, Svetlana Adamovna, as she struggles to revise her annual pro-Lenin First Lesson in the wake of the new Ukrainian politics.

Students will find more meaning in this story if they understand the geographical, social, and political context of Ukraine. They should be able to locate Ukraine on a world map and understand Lenin's role in the establishment of Russian communism and the former Soviet Union. They should also be familiar with events surrounding the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Finally, they should understand the mission of the Peace Corps and the role of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

About the setting

Ukraine, a country of 233,000 square miles (somewhat smaller than Texas) with a population of almost 50 million, lies between Russia and Poland, just north of the Black Sea. Although its diverse ethnic population—Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Crimean Tatars—speak many languages, Ukrainian and Russian are the most common. The government has made the teaching of English a priority so that Ukraine may be better able to participate in the global economy.

Ukraine's long history has been turbulent. In 1240 the Mongols, led by the grandson of Genghis Khan, attacked Kiev—today's capital of Ukraine—and controlled the region for nearly two centuries. In the wake of Mongol domination, Ukraine was invaded and ruled by Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and others. A Cossack uprising in Ukraine led to the country's liberation in 1648. Ukraine signed a treaty with Russia in 1654, which led to subjugation by the Russian Empire and ultimately by the Soviet Union. Stalin tried to stamp out Ukrainian nationalism in 1932 and 1933 by collecting grain and starving nearly 10 million Ukrainians, in what is known as the Great Famine. In 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine achieved independence.

Not all Ukrainians welcomed their independence from Russia. And at a time when the entire educational system was trying to implement Ukrainian as the language of instruction, there was also a growing demand from parents and students for increased instruction in English. Taken together, these factors placed incredible strain upon an already stretched educational system.

In response to Ukraine's educational initiatives, the Peace Corps launched its TEFL project (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) in Ukraine in September 1993. Deever belonged to one of the first groups of Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to teach English in Ukraine. Today, about 80 Volunteers work in the TEFL project to expand and improve the quality of English instruction in schools and at teacher training institutions—and to assist in developing new English teaching materials for primary and secondary schools. Volunteers also work in the areas of small business development and environmental protection.


To compare the first day of school in Ukraine with the first day of school in the United States
To identify what challenges the author faced as a Peace Corps Volunteer


  • Squelch: To suppress; push down
  • Spindly: Long or tall and thin
  • Pinafore: Sleeveless clothing, like an apron, that young girls wear over a dress
  • Amerikanets: Ukrainian for "an American"
  • Rudimentary: Basic
  • Idolatry: Worship, usually of a false god
  • Queen's English: Spoken English of the upper class in Great Britain
  • Yaroslav the Wise: Grand Prince of Kiev in the 11th century; a Ukrainian historical hero who strengthened the borders of his kingdom and made Kiev a center of culture and learning
  • Semaphore: A flag used for signaling
  • Disdain: To look down upon
  • Sanitize: To clean up or remove undesirable things
  • Patronymic: A Russian or Ukrainian person's name, based on the name of that person's father. For example, Svetlana Adamovna's father's name was Adam.
  • Connotations: Associations, additional meanings, or overtones connected with a word
  • Borsch (or borscht): Beet soup 


  1. Using information from the background information, introduce students to the author, the story, and the setting.
  2. Journal Activity. Ask students to respond in class, in their journals, to the following prompts:
    • How did you feel on the first day of school back in August (or September)?
    • Were you worried about anything? What were your positive feelings? Your negative feelings?
    • Did you feel this same way as a young child—on the first day of the first grade, for example? What did you look forward to then? What did you fear? What do you look forward to now?
  1. As a class, discuss what the most common reactions to the first day of school are for students. What do students think the feelings are or would be for a brand-new teacher walking into their class?
  2. Have students read the story—possibly for homework—and ask them to highlight phrases that make a strong impression on them, sentences they find confusing or that raise questions in their minds, and anything that surprises them.
  3. Ask students to report and discuss what they highlighted. Then conduct a class discussion using the following prompts, while also addressing any questions the students had in their reading:
    • Did you find anything surprising? What questions did it raise for you?
    • What cultural traditions stand out on the first day of school in Ukraine? Why is the "First Day" capitalized? What is the students' mood?
    • What do these details suggest about attitudes toward education in Ukraine? What might account for these attitudes?
    • Why was Svetlana Adamovna unenthusiastic about the First Lesson? What had changed compared with the First Lesson in previous years?
    • Who was Lenin? What did he do? Why had the lesson about him changed?
    • Svetlana Adamovna is required to use the First Lesson to inspire patriotism. Do U.S. schools have similar rituals? If so, what are some examples?
    • How can a change in political systems affect the life of a country and its people? 
  1. Have students work with a partner, using a Venn diagram (like the one illustrated here) or another graphic organizer, to compare the first day of school in Ukraine with their own first day of school. What are the similarities? The differences? Conduct a class discussion on students' comparisons. Then ask them how Ukrainian students reacted to seeing Deever. What accounts for their reactions? How do your students think Deever feels about being there?
  2. Journal Activity. For homework, ask students to respond in writing to one or more of the following prompts:
    • Serving in another culture challenges a Peace Corps Volunteer to understand the world from that culture's point of view. What challenges is Deever beginning to face in Ukraine?
    • How difficult do you think it was for Deever to see the world from the perspective of Ukrainian teachers and students?
    • After reading this selection, do you think Deever might have had second thoughts about his decision to volunteer to teach in Ukraine, or do you think he welcomed the challenge?

Remind students to support their opinions with evidence from the text.

Frameworks and standards

Enduring understandings

  • Serving in another culture challenges one to understand the world from that culture's point of view.
  • People of different cultures differ in their approaches to teaching and their attitudes toward learning.
  • Political changes can have a profound effect on a country and its cultures.

Essential questions

  • How do our cultural values shape our attitudes toward teaching and learning?
  • How does a change in political systems affect the life of a country and its people?
  • What are the challenges and rewards of serving in another culture?


English Standards: 1, 2,
Social Studies Standards: I, IV
National Geography Standards: 6, 10
For more information on the standards in Uncommon Journeys, see the Uncommon Journeys Appendix (see link above).

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