A Chat With Dmitri Levine, FASPS's Assistant Director of Auxiliary Programs
This interview was recorded on January 22, 2020.

Lia: What were you doing in life before you came to work at FASPS?

Dmitri: My bachelor’s degree is in world language education, with a specialty in French. I taught high school French in Chicago Public Schools for about two years and then decided that that wasn’t really where I wanted to be. I wanted to explore other options, so I took a year off. I worked in a tutoring center for a little bit, and then I said, you know what? I’m going to get my master’s degree! So I ended up pursuing a master’s degree in applied linguistics and instructional design, in other words, learning how to teach French and how to create online curricula, manage learning centers, things like that.

Lia: So that’s where the instructional design comes in?

Dmitri: Yes, building a curriculum. Not just lesson planning but thinking about a larger scale and thinking almost scientifically about how we present information and how we transmit that kind of knowledge in schools. With the linguistics component, you’re sort of fusing it with how language is best learned. It’s like taking teaching French to the next level: “How can we think about this more globally? How can we think about not just the content and what order that content goes in, but how we’re presenting it? What kinds of modalities and forms and media are we using to help our students learn?”

Lia: How did you end up in Strasbourg?

Dmitri: That was kind of by chance. I knew that I wanted to do my master’s degree in France for two reasons: 1) It’s much cheaper; and 2) I saw it as an excellent opportunity for me to finally be able to really live abroad. I had done a semester exchange in my undergrad in Nantes, where I lived with a host family and went to the university for classes, and it was phenomenal. Without exaggerating, it changed my life! I wanted to go back, and I wanted to go back in a way that was a little less structured because I was living with a host family that took care of all the nitty-gritty bureaucratic details. I went through an American program that coordinated study abroad programs, so they did all of my university inscriptions and all of those things.

This time around, I wanted to get rid of the training wheels. I applied to six programs and got into two, one of which was in Strasbourg, and I picked it because my other choice was Boulogne-sur-Mer. I’m from Chicago; I just didn’t think I could handle living in such a small, shall we say, quaint part of the country. Strasbourg by my standard is still kind of a small city, but it has a city feel. It’s very international. It’s vibrant. Its culturally rich, and I absolutely adored my time there. I made amazing friends, my French skyrocketed, I got my C2 certificate last December.

I really appreciate the time that I spent there. I graduated in September and looked for work in France but decided that I needed to come home because I wasn’t finding what I needed. I moved back to my parents’ house in Chicago in late October, and then got hired here in late November.

Lia: How did you learn to speak French?

Dmitri: I had a phenomenal teacher in eighth grade who was so enthusiastic and excited. She really got me interested in France and French culture, and I absolutely devoured it. It felt easy to me, and it felt very natural, but at the same time I wasn’t bored; I was eager to learn more. I wanted to say everything! I have always been a big talker, and I joke that now that I’m fluent in French, I can talk to even more people! So that’s definitely been a huge motivator.

Lia: One teacher can make all the difference.

Dmitri: Absolutely, yes.

Lia: How long have you been bilingual? How has speaking other languages made a difference in your life?

Dmitri: Well, I have to disclose that I’m a huge language nerd and not just with regard to French. I initially went to university to do a linguistics degree to study the science of language in and of itself because I think it’s super cool, and I’ve dabbled in many other languages. I’m conversational in Spanish, and I’ve got basics in German, Russian, and Norwegian. The reason that I’m so drawn to new languages is because I find language to be indicative of how we view ourselves and how others view themselves. Being able to participate in that gives you that new perspective. It’s really cool how much culture we encode in the way we speak. With my friends from other regions of the United States, I’ll use a word that someone from here doesn’t get. I referred to something as a “jog in the road,” and they were like, “I’ve never heard that before!” I said, “I’ve got weird Midwestern slang I wasn’t aware of apparently!” There are huge amounts of variety in any language, even within the same language, so I think being multilingual has really allowed me to participate in that variety, share my own perspectives, and contribute to this global community of communicators.

Lia: What language would you like to speak if you could?

Dmitri: That is a great question, and it’s one that I ponder frequently. I’m currently trying to learn Lithuanian because I have family heritage from there, and my grandpa always used to say, “You’re learning all these languages, when are you going to learn Lithuanian?” He passed away last summer, so I made it my goal to learn it in his honor! It’s hard though. There aren’t a ton of resources since it’s not a very popular language for Anglophones to learn. It’s not even on Duolingo, so I’ve got to be a little more creative. I’d also really like to learn Hebrew. I can read the letters, but I want to be able to participate in that part of my cultural identity more.

Lia: Have you traveled to Israel or to Lithuania?

Dmitri: I haven’t yet. I’ve mostly done my European travel in France and Germany. I’ve been to Spain once, London, and Norway. I would love to do more of that kind of kind of cultural exploration the next time I have the chance to go to Europe, definitely.

Lia: What is your experience with summer camps?

Dmitri: As a kid I never did any summer camps because I was a competitive athlete, and I was traveling and in tournaments all summer. I was kind of jealous of my friends who did go to camp. In college I was working during the school year in the after-school program at the Lycée Français de Chicago, and they were like, “Hey after-school team, do you guys want to work the summer too?” So I did that for a year as a counselor, and then I was a group leader, and then I was also the supervisor teaching team leader for two years after I received my teaching degree. I really enjoyed working with the kids outside of the more structured school environment. All our camps at the lycée were immersion-based, so it was great for me to get to speak more French and be with my native speaking peers and be able to share that with the kids. But at the same time, we’re here to have fun, we’re here to play games and sports and go on awesome field trips. It was really exciting to experience that with the kids, and now I’m excited to be here and doing that role again. We’re planning field trips right now, and they sound so cool. I wish I was going with the kids! Especially being new to Seattle, it’s a great way to discover the city. Even when I was in Chicago, as a resident, you don’t often do the more touristy things. It’s a really great way to interact with the larger environment but still through that lens of French speaking and cultural interactions.

Lia: Which part of summer camp are you focusing on right now?

Dmitri: Right now, we’re pretty focused on Camp des Lucioles because it’s so long, and because planning preschool field trips is a little bit more complicated, so we’re hoping to get those figured out in advance.

Lia: What are some of your hobbies and interests outside of school?

Dmitri: This may shock you: language learning! I have a lot of native speaker friends of the languages that I’m studying, so I like to poke them and say, hey let’s talk in your language! Even though my skills aren’t great, they love it. I’m also a classically trained musician. I’ve played viola for about 16 years now. I was playing with the University of Strasbourg orchestra, and it was super-cool playing music in 13th or 14th century churches. I played a Mozart requiem in an ancient church, and that was obviously the venue it was meant to be played in. It’s also a blast playing something more contemporary in that context; it was really challenging because it’s not meant to have that reverb, but it was a super-cool experience, and I learned all sorts of very specialized vocabulary to talk about music in French. I hadn’t realized how different that was going to be. You can’t just directly translate a lot of things.

Lia: In what capacity are you continuing your music practice now that you’ve moved here and are adjusting to a new job?

Dmitri: Right now, I’ll bring out my viola on the weekends and look over old music. Something I really like to do is put on my headphones and play along with recordings. I’m hoping once I’m feeling a little bit more settled and have a better idea of what time commitments I can make, I’ll be able to find an amateur orchestra to play with here.

Lia: Thank you, Dmitri. I can’t wait to see all the fun our students have this summer!

Dmitri: Me too! Thank you so much.

Dmitri Levine