Armenian Language Program at ARS Private School.

ARS Armenian Private School of Toronto just concluded its fifteenth-year Telethon with great success. Thank you to all the volunteers who made it such a great success. Also thanks to the board of directors, the principals, the teachers, the staff, and many, many, volunteers who help make the school one of the best cost-effective private schools in Toronto.

On this occasion, I thought it might be appropriate to publish the attached long email letter as a “Monologue”. (With some modifications and abbreviations to keep it in a “Monologue” format but keeping the context and essence of the email). The email was sent to Sevag Kupelian in 2016. At the time Sevag was the chair of the board of directors of the ARS Private School and also the chair of the “Strategic Planning Focus Group”, for the improvement of the teachings of the Armenian Curriculum at the School.

Thank you Sevag, and members of Strategic Planning Focus Group, for the invitation, and the opportunity to attend the first focus group meeting at ACC. Since I might not be able to attend the next meeting, here are some thoughts on some of the issues as were presented at the meeting. (I wrote a “Monologue” about the school seminar that you can also access through zohrabbebo.com. It is titled “A Seminar for ARS School” and is dated March 10, 2016).

“Focus Group Objectives”. “What should Armenian curriculum focus on – language development,  history, culture, religion, etc?”.

Language development.

— It will be better to help the students learn the Armenian language by engaging them and encouraging them to ask questions in the classroom rather than bore them by asking them to rote learn lessons that are hardly relevant to them. It best could be achieved by encouraging them to talk about their experiences, talk about relevant issues of their level of understanding, read out loud, listen, question, etc. In short, turn the classroom into a “conversational lab”, if I may say so.

By engaging and encouraging them to be active participants in the learning process, not only do they learn better, but the teacher also learns more from them about their level of understanding, and if need be, adjusts the curriculum as well.

History

— It could be thought of as part of the language learning curriculum. There are many other sources to learn about Armenian history. For mere curious ones, the google search is a good source. For those who are more seriously interested, there are many books and online classes (both, in Armenian and foreign languages) to learn from.

(In the late seventies we discussed these issues at length in focus groups with Prof. Shake Minassian of Montreal who accordingly prepared a series of books titled Հայերէնի գիրքս that was basically a book that included history, grammar, tradition, etc. and a dictionary of about 1000 commonly used words all in one book. The intention was to make the book the only Armenian book for the whole academic year. It was published by ACC Toronto with a government grant. I have copies of books No. 3,  No. 4,   and No, 5).

Culture.

— It could be thought through Armenian songs, dance, plays, etc. Traditions are important too. We could help students learn about some of the Armenian traditions and discuss the possibility of reviving some of them that could be applicable in today’s lifestyle of the Armenian communities in diaspora(s).

There are books, audio/video material, etc. that could be helpful too. (We are fortunate in Toronto that there are many booklets published by the committee headed by Houry Najarian at the occasion of the “Traditional day” (Տոհմիկ օր) celebrations that could be studied and see if some of the traditions described could be adopted as well).

Religion.

— Religion is Church’s responsibility and not the school’s. Fortunately, there are Sunday schools in all of our Armenian churches in Toronto.

“How do we ensure students like and enjoy the Armenian language program?”

— Make the Armenian curriculum fun to learn in the classrooms without burdening the students with homework that needs parents’ assistance. Rather, instruct, and encourage, the students to pleasantly surprise their parents by talking about what new and interesting Armenian subjects they have learned that day, and hopefully, help some of the parents get interested and learn about those Armenian subjects as well. In a way “use” the students as “tools” to help the parents get interested in the Armenian language teachings.

 “Focus Group Questions”

-“1 – Within the mandate of the objectives of the focus group, what are the most important things we need to accomplish over the next 5 years”.

— Turn the current Armenian curriculum from learning a bit of everything about Armenians to the best Armenian language learning curriculum. Always be mindful of the limited time that the Ministry of Education allocates for the Armenian curriculum.


-“2 – What are the tactical things that need to happen to put the above in place?” 

— Appoint a permanent Armenian Curriculum Committee for the enhancement of the Armenian curriculum. It will be preferable if the committee members are composed of language teachers, linguists, and concerned parents, to immediately start the research process of improvements and gradually implement them and complete it by the fifth year.

The Armenian Curriculum Committee could start the process by appointing 3 sub-committees, in the following priority sequences. (It will be preferable if the sub-committee is headed by a member of the Armenian Curriculum Committee)

-One sub-committee for kindergarten till grade 3, (the most adoptive years).

-One for grade 4 to grade 8, (the most formative years).

-One for grade 9 to grade 12, (the most important years to prepare for university education).

Let me repeat, again and again, always have in mind the limited time that we are allowed by the Ministry of Education to implement the Armenian Curriculum.

Here I would like to stress that, we must be mindful not to confuse indoctrination with education. Needless to say, indoctrination has no place in education let alone in language education.

“4 – To what extent do you feel the school is structurally ready to support this initiative?”.

— The current school administration is overburdened with fundraising and administrative duties and is not capable of handling these tasks and needs “new blood”, and experts, to do the restructuring of the Armenian Curriculum.

-“5 –  What are the primary challenges we will face, and how to overcome them?.

— The current school administration, especially the Armenian teachers will resist the changes which are natural, and understandable. We could overcome it by retraining the current teachers who want to go along or training new language teachers to replace them. “Imports” from Middle Eastern Armenian communities are no more an option unless they are willing to get trained to teach the new system. (If the grade 5 Armenian curriculum that my granddaughter is taking is of any indication, change is long overdue, urgently needed, and needed now)

“6 – Who do we need to partner with to help make this a success?”.

— Instead of “to partner with” I will say it is best to have the cooperation of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon Portugal. They seem to be in the process of helping to revitalize the Western Armenian Language in the Armenian Diaspora(s). They also seem to be willing to help train Armenian Language teachers. They did organize two seminars, one in Paris, and one in Lisbon, and participated in others in Yerevan, organized by the Ministry of Diaspora. They also took part in the one organized by Hrant Dink Foundation in Istanbul. If my memory serves me well, there were three participants from Montreal in the Lisbon seminar.

Let us not forget that the cooperation between the parents and the school administration is the most important element of curriculum success in any school, more so in Private Schools.  

Dear Strategic Planing Focus Group members, before finishing, let me say that my emphasis has been mostly on helping the students learn the Armenian language. Needless to say, the Armenian Language (especially the Conversational Armenian Language) is one of the most important, if not the most important pillar of the Armenian identity in Diaspora(s). You probably noticed also that, I used the term “help students learn” rather than “teach them” which I believe is a more effective method for teaching a language as well.

I am also fully aware of the term of the “Ազգային ոգի”, mentioned in the mission statement. I consider it to be an often-repeated slogan that like many often repeated slogans, implies to mean everything in general and hardly anything in particular.

The same for “Հայեցի դաստիարակութիւն”. (Դաստիարակութիւն is all about values to live by, and they live/learn it primarily at home as practiced by their parents or guardians. Here too, we must be mindful not to compare indoctrination with Դաստիարակութիւն).

Let me finish by emphasizing the point in the summary that says it all. “Language is a living communication tool that evolves”. (Emphasis is mine). Absolutely true. Language lives when you SPEAK it, READ it, and WRITE it. (Currently basically keyboarding). Let us help the students learn it and learn it in that priority order. Any neglect or undermining of the importance of the continuous development of the Armenian curriculum is the denial of the “raison d’etre” of the school itself.

Needless to say, we do not need to pay for and operate an Ontario Private School when we have the best public school system and it is free.

Yes, it could be done. We have the potential. It is time to act. As it is said in the beautiful Armenian Classic “Գրաբառ” language “Խոսքը առանց գործի մեռեալ տարր է. 

Յաջողութեան մաղթանքներով
Զոհրապ Սարգիսեան

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