Academic Freedom, Personal Growth and Creativity are among the seven core values at Russian-Armenian University, what values do you consider important in education?
All seven values of RAU are essential, but for me, the most critical element in education - one that happens to be undervalued in both America and Armenia alike - is a focus on experiential learning. Of RAU’s seven core values, academic freedom is to me the most important, because it permits choice and the opportunity for students to journey through their learning. If educators treat their lessons, units, and curricula as experiences for students to adventure through, students would have deeper, stronger, and more meaningful connections to the material. For example, I can have students practice identifying the settings of various excerpts - which I do as a warm-up - but the more complex and important questions are answered when they are given the task to create a location for themselves. This sort of experiential learning is just as critical - if not more - for the sciences as it is to the arts. The greatest scientists of our time were exploring when they bent or shattered norms, not simply following regimented standards.
You now have your own writing course. How come you started teaching creative writing?
I chose English creative writing for two main reasons. The first revolves around the Armenian-American family that took care of me for a year prior to my adoption - the Saraydarians. They introduced me to both the idea of being loved and to the English language itself, and I feel that the simultaneity of these two events has fused them. To this day, English literacy provides me with a sense of comfort and security. The second reason revolves around Armenia and COAF.
In most of Armenia, there is still a traditional style of teaching being implemented, where students adhere to standards, and innovation is naturally downplayed. I noticed that our English Access Program was different and was becoming very successful. I also learned that the program focused on speaking and listening, which makes sense. I wanted to provide students who graduated from that program an opportunity to advance their knowledge, while also placing them in an environment that encouraged innovative creation and out-of-the-box thinking. So, I created a student-centric, experientially-rooted creative writing curriculum that aimed to develop - more than the knowledge of writing - a sense of self-efficacy. I wanted students to trust that their creative ideas have value, that the unique perspectives they hold is worthy of sharing.
What are some of the American educational practices that could be adopted and implemented in Armenia and vice versa?
In Armenia, there seems to be a far greater respect for the value of education. In America, there is a dwindling reverence for education itself, rooted understandably in how ridiculous the system has become. The inequality between public and private schools, the expensiveness of college resulting in $1.2 trillion of unpaid student loan debt, and the lack of material relevant to being a functional adult are just a few of the absurdities here.
One thing parts of America - like New York, Massachusetts and California - are doing well is emphasizing differentiation: providing multiple avenues for students to arrive towards mastery of a subject. If a teacher is practicing differentiation, he or she provides students options with the content they will work with, or the process by which they understand the content, or the product they create to demonstrate their understanding. Outside of some of COAF’s programs - like our English Access Program - I rarely see differentiation being implemented.
People usually associate Children of Armenia Fund with the education sector, but as far as I know, its activities are much wider and complex including economic, infrastructure and healthcare development of the rural areas of Armenia. Could you elaborate on that?
I believe that the main reasons for COAF’s unprecedented success is not our growing celebrity endorsements, spectacular events, or incredible staff. While these elements are critical and cannot be underemphasized, the truth is that COAF is successful because of our synchronicity and village-centricity. We synthesize projects very, very well, and we work by the needs and priorities of the villages. How does this answer your question about COAF’s various programs? In our first village of Karakert, the populace decided - despite crumbling infrastructures, lacking basic healthcare, and life-threatening hardships - that education for the youth was their number one priority. (Which is inspiring, still, to this day). But, when we renovated that first school in Karakert, we had local carpenters, glass-makers, and road-pavers work on the furniture, windows, and roads, respectively - ultimately yielding an actual economy in the village. Both after school and in the summer, the school hosts clubs, summer camps, events, and vocational trainings - evolving the school into a sort of community center. The school hosts programs in healthy hygiene and nutrition, which benefits the physical health of the population. And so on. COAF has hundreds of projects ranging from agriculture to community development, but it’s the way they are commingled and led that truly catalyzes the rate of empowerment we are achieving.
More and more initiatives launched in Armenia are targeted at children and youth - COAF, TUMO Center, Teach for Armenia, UWC Dilijan. As they are all united by a common goal, do you have any plans for collaboration or a joint project?
From a far distance, these incredible organizations can appear identical to COAF. I for one have heard our upcoming SMART Center compared to TUMO’s incredible centers many times, which, though a lovely compliment, is quite misleading. While we are all unified in our desire to sharpen the minds of the Armenian youth through education and providing opportunities, COAF works specifically in impoverished villages with the goal to empower them towards total self-sufficiency and excellency. As students move upward through their accomplishments, a consistent theme we notice is that they give back to their communities, which is something COAF barely has to encourage. It just happens. Most likely because they are proud of their accomplishments, and realize that it was through guidance, help, and passion that they were able to open doors for themselves. When I think of what makes COAF different, I reflect on the Chinese “Teach a man to fish” proverb. It goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” COAF seems to go one step further with, “Teach a man to teach others to fish and you feed a community for a lifetime.”
In terms of our collaborations, COAF is always open towards joint projects if they make sense. We have worked for a long time with many organizations like Birthright and Peace Corps, who have both done an incredible job.
This year COAF turns 15 years old. What have been some of the biggest advances and challenges for the fund throughout the years?
This is my opinion, but I know many people including Garo Armen (the founder of COAF) will agree: COAF’s biggest challenge has been its enormous goal: helping ALL of rural Armenia ascend out of poverty. Though we are proud to work in 44 villages benefiting over 75,000 people, not one member of our staff would believe that it’s enough. With this arduous goal comes other challenges, like amassing the necessary resources to continue scaling up our model. This is one of the reasons why we are building our SMART Center: to ‘really move the needle’, as Garo Armen puts it. Despite the near-impossibility of our task, I don’t doubt its eventual success. When we invite people to come see our villages, they often become life-long supporters. Through our amazing collaborations, sponsors, grants, amazing staff and - perhaps most importantly - the initiative of the youth, our task is more reachable than anyone might estimate. Remember, there were doubts about COAF through each of our greatest milestones. Fifteen years ago, someone would label our current status as an ‘impossibility’. They would say ‘it can’t be done’.
What have been the most memorable moments you had while teaching in Armenia?
I wish I could offer you my mind here, but all I have are words, so I’ll give you a few examples. There is a young girl I met in February 2017 when I was doing some educational research. Her name is Marina, and when I met her she was among the shyest students in the class - though demonstrably bright. When I launched my creative writing program, I was delighted to see her. I remember during our first lesson, how quiet the classroom was at first. You could hear students second-guessing themselves. The warm-ups, encouraging validations, and collaborative creations during our lessons converted a silent classroom into a concert of noise and knowledge within a few days. And Marina was among the greatest contributors. A month after Bloom, I announced that the short-stories they wrote about their lives were now bounded and published in a book (Among the Brightening Bloom). Marina messaged me on Facebook saying, “I’m so excited… I feel like a writer… I have already thought about new short stories!!” As if that didn’t make me feel accomplished enough as a teacher, she just won the coveted FLEX scholarship, and will be spending a year learning in America! I reflect on my early memories of her and wonder if she would even have applied to FLEX if she wasn’t surrounded by people who pointed out her gifts and strengths and accomplishments throughout her journey. Hovhannes, another timid student - so timid that his short-story focused on him fearing opening the actual classroom door to enter his first English Access Program class - is now helping teach the program. One of my Teacher Assistants - Rosa - just got accepted into a week-long Leadership Program called Women2Women in Boston, Massachusetts - fully paid for by the U.S. Embassy in Armenia. These sorts of accomplishments make me immensely proud and drive me to do even more.
How can our students join the initiatives run by COAF? Which programs are open for volunteer applications?
There are too many volunteer opportunities to name, to be honest. It would depend on the skills and preferences of your students more than anything. I can tell you that I personally have invited four of your students to volunteer during our second round of Project Bloom - what I’ve decided to call Bloom2. (The first round is now referred to as Pilot Bloom and our first students I know call our ‘baby bloomers’.) I look forward to teaching creative writing alongside some of the bright and passionate minds I’ve got to see during the guest lectures you and your university has honored me with.