The subject was fractional equations, the course, Academically Enriched Algebra II.
The teacher scribbled on the blackboard, leading the class through examples. Some students called out answers and questions, others whispered to each other or played with watches and pencils. A couple, apparently having given up, rested their heads on their desks.
It was a typical American classroom, in other words, except for one thing: The teacher, Adrienn Orosz, was Hungarian.
Orosz and 10 compatriots who have been teaching and learning in Westside high schools since September are part of the vanguard of their country’s rush to learn English. They have spent mornings teaching and observing at Santa Monica and University high schools. In the afternoons, they have taken graduate education, math and science courses at UCLA. After they return to Hungary at the end of this week, they will teach math and science, in English, at Hungary’s “dual-language” high schools.
Even before the pace of political and economic changes accelerated to a gallop in Hungary earlier this year, demand for English was high. Since then, it has skyrocketed.
Accompanying the rise of English has been the demise of Russian. In September, the government abolished the requirement that every Hungarian student aged 11 to 18 study Russian. Now that students can choose among Russian, English, German, French, Spanish and other languages, almost 80% of them opt for English, and “Russian is very much on the bottom,” said Ferencne Gerencser, Hungarian coordinator of the guest-teaching program and head of the language department at Budapest’s Eotvos Lorand University.
Hungary, which for years has been the most Western-looking of the Eastern bloc countries, established its system of dual-language high schools three years ago. There are now 23 such schools in the country at which students are taught math, science, geography, history and other subjects in English, German, French, Italian, Russian or Spanish.
The aim is to provide students with not just conversational proficiency in other languages but also to teach them the technical language they would need to study medicine, science and international affairs, Gerencser said.
Given their population of just 10.6 million, Hungarians also realize that “nobody’s going to learn Hungarian,” added Russell Campbell, director of the UCLA Language Resource Program who is helping to coordinate the Hungarians’ visit.
But the English-language schools weren’t prepared for the crushing demand. At one of the 10 dual-language schools specializing in English, nearly 2,000 students applied for 72 openings, said Orosz, who teaches there.
Hungarian officials decided they needed more Hungarians qualified to teach subjects in English. UCLA language specialists, meanwhile, having heard about the dual-language schools from Hungarian educators visiting Los Angeles, wanted to learn more about the program.
Out of this sprang the arrangement this fall for the Hungarian English-school teachers, most of whom had just finished five years of university math and science, to apprentice in U.S. schools. Meanwhile, two UCLA researchers have gone to Hungary to test the students and help develop curricula. Campbell and Gerencser hope to expand the project next year and start an exchange of high school students.
For the first four weeks, the Hungarians observed the Westside high school math and science classes to become familiar with jargon and teaching styles. Their biggest worry was that they would not understand the students or be understood because of their accents. Students, however, adjusted quickly, and the American teachers found the Hungarians’ command of English very good, said Don Checchi, University High School math department chairman.
The “lack of discipline” in American classrooms was “a little bit disturbing,” Gerencser said. The Hungarians learned to flash frowns and say, “Please pay attention to me” and “Please be quiet.”
American students are freer in their dress and behavior, the Hungarians noted. “They just stand up, go to sharpen their pencils, they change their seats in the classroom--and I see it’s natural for the teachers,” Orosz said. There are no pencil sharpeners in Hungarian classrooms--students bring their own--but if there were, the students would have to ask permission first to leave their desks, she said.
Teaching methods in the two countries also differ, the Hungarians said. Ildiko Csok, with a camera and tape recorder, captured University High School chemistry teacher Kevin Paulsen lying on a bed of nails (to demonstrate pressure rules) and boiling water in a can, to have it collapse when put on ice (to demonstrate implosion). American teachers use more showmanship, she said. “One thing about teaching science--you’ve got to use a lot of demonstrations,” Paulsen said later.
Despite all the publicity about American children being science and math illiterates compared to the rest of the world, the Hungarians--perhaps because they were teaching many college-prep courses--found the students to be “very smart,” said one of the visitors, Katalin Koszta. “These students are much more interested. . . . They ask (questions) immediately from you.”
The American teachers were likewise impressed with the Hungarian teachers’ intelligence. “Their educational background is superb,” University High math teacher Lori McNeal said. “They never have to think about their math, and they don’t even have to hesitate that much on their English.”
The Hungarians also got high grades from the students. Csok, who is quiet, and the fast-talking McNeal are “like night and day,” but junior Sarah Morris said she admired Csok for “having the guts to do this. . . . Just the fact that she came from Hungary and can teach math in English is admirable.”
Shana Rutberg, 15, who said she learned about the geometry of bonding molecules from Csok, said she admired the Hungarian students who have to learn chemistry in English.
Teachers and a few students picked the Hungarians’ brains on not only math and science but on political developments and life in Hungary as well. They pointed to the Hungarians newspaper articles on the breathtaking moves, including the country’s change from “the Communist People’s Republic of Hungary” to an independent republic and the first free voting since 1945. "(The timing is) exciting. While they were here, (Hungary) became the Republic of Hungary, in one day,” marveled physics teacher Jay Carter.
Most unbelievable for the American teachers were the Hungarians’ salaries--about $100 to $180 per month, while rent in Budapest can range from $65 to almost $200, Gerencser said. Teachers end up living with their parents, sharing apartments, taking second jobs or leaving the profession for computer science or other jobs, she said.
But the low pay rates plague other workers too, she said, because the socialist economy, saddled with inflation and austerity measures, “is very much run down.” The visiting Hungarians followed the October Beverly Hills teachers strike with interest, Gerencser said, adding that Hungary has not had a teacher strike in modern times.
Before their departure on Friday, the visitors will take a final test at UCLA to determine “how much we’ve improved,” Orosz said. One of the areas of greatest improvement, she said, is undoubtedly in the specialized vocabulary of teaching. Terms such as “flip it over” (inverting the numerator and denominator of a fraction), “simplify a fraction” and “reduce to lowest terms” are “all new expressions that I can’t learn from a dictionary” but that are necessary for teaching in English, she said.
Other American idioms, such as “it’s a piece of cake,” now roll off their tongues, Orosz said. “And (for) the morning, we knew, ‘you are not very fresh,’ (but in America), we learned, ‘you are not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed'--which we like very much,” she said, grinning.
Then, there are terms that won’t be found in any book, Hungarian or American. Chemistry teacher Paulsen said that when he sketches atoms, after following all the technical rules for drawing their bonds and parts, he declares them “happy atoms.” He recalled he was sitting in the back of the room one day while a Hungarian teacher was at the blackboard, only to hear her proclaim, “It’s a happy atom!”
“There are going to be happy Hungarian atoms when (the teachers) get back to Budapest,” he said.