Unbound Project by
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Masters of Art
Humboldt State University
Submitted May 3, 2011
For Paige and Elliot
Table of Contents:
1. Introduction -----------------------------------------------------------------2
2. Pre-Peace Corps Service (Staging)---------------------------------------9
4. Pre-Service Training (PST)----------------------------------------------15
5. A Host Family-------------------------------------------------------------19
6. Language Classes--------------------------------------------------------23
7. Meeting the Other Volunteers------------------------------------------26
8. The Armenian Education System--------------------------------------28
-a. School Number1 Malishka: A Physical Reconstruction----------31
-b. A Typical Day in the Armenian Classroom------------------------32
-c. Adapting to the Armenian Classroom------------------------------39 9. The Need for an Informed Grammar Translation Approach
to Language Learning in Post-Soviet Republics----------------------46
10. Overcoming Isolation and Integrating into Armenian Life----56
11. Amot: A Concept of Status Quo-----------------------------------62
12. Conclusion: Where I Found my Armenia-----------------------66
“You know,” he said, “when you go back to your America it won’t be like it is here.”
Peter Hessler River Town
“Leave the Caucasus,” I said, mock incredulous. “I’ll never leave the Caucasus.
Wendell Steavenson Stories I Stole
The railroad ties are unevenly spaced and I have to adjust my gait to them. Each right step is slightly extended, each left is restrained, one large, leaping step, one mincing skip. The early afternoon is bright. It’s not late enough in the year to see lizards, but I can imagine where they’d be along the ties, warming themselves on the steel tracks, throats lifted to the sky if only it were a month later and the air warmer. The grass is a heavy green where it lifts through the ashen rock bed. It reflects the dark and bulky clouds moving in from the west. It is about to storm but the sun is shining brightly overhead. It will shine through most of the rain as well. In Armenia I have almost never seen the rain without the sun somewhere off in the periphery, if not in the very center of the sky, glancing off every drop. Like everything else here, it is a picture of life. The sun and rain are not independent. They occur simultaneously, readied for the apricot orchards, for the wheat and the grey independent streets. It is a place where everything was meant to happen at once.
I pass the first station on the edge of Solak, a village of about 300 people just outside the regional capital of Hrazdan. Years ago, it was the first thing I really saw of Armenia, a village perched on a ledge, above a river valley, beneath the pastures. Solak had the most natural look to it. As a village it looked like something that had sprung from the ground along with the trees. It did not look intentional, but rather like something that had always been there. The people had this in their mien as well, something timeless.
One must view Armenia with the eyes of a poet, because Armenia is as vast and deep as the sea, because she has been carved under the blows of gales and winds, and because she is master of countless invisible currents and tides which one cannot recognize without the loftiest intuitions of spirit (Zarian 24).
In the past there has always been a dog waiting at this station. I don’t know if he lives here or if he was the watchman’s dog. It is not directly in town so few people other than shepherds pass by. If I had a herd of sheep or a few heads of cattle with me there would be no problem, but alone I look suspicious to the sheep dogs, as well as to people. But no one is ever alone here. You may think you’re alone and even feel alone, but there is always someone bumping around just on the other side of the wall, yelling at you to come in for a cup of coffee. There is always someone sitting in that empty looking car giving you a curious glance. There are always some young men just down the street eating sunflower seeds, trying to emulate their fathers who are doing the same thing but with more poise and gentleness. There are grandmothers getting up before dawn, laying plastic beneath mulberry trees, and with them a little boy who eagerly climbs into the tree to shake the branches madly, scattering bugs and the pale, overripe fruit in all directions. Well before dawn the hars has also been awake, preparing the house for the throngs of family, neighbors and friends that will swarm through it over the course of the day. “My house is not mine, it belongs to the one who opens my door—the Armenian version of mi casa su casa” (Petrosian & Underwood 196).
The dog doesn’t like to see anyone alone. The old station has long been stripped of anything valuable, but the dog will protect it anyway, much like the watchman who occasionally shares the porch with him. The dog and the watchman are half-asleep and startled by the sound of crunching rocks that marks my approach. The dog starts up quickly, but the watchman just opens his eyes, and without even adjusting his posture, stares straight into me as if I were a puzzle, a game of blot , that had to be sharply concentrated on. He has almost no expression. His face is neither friendly nor sullen. He doesn’t look angry but he doesn’t look the slightest bit amused. The dog begins to bark and makes to get down from the remains of the old platform where they are sitting. For a moment it seems a very hostile picture.
“Bari luys, axper ,” I greet the watchman by calling him brother. Though he does not smile in reaction his look mellows; his eyes have given up their intense search. He doesn’t say anything but makes a gesture by holding his arm up and shaking his open palm back and forth. He has asked me where I’m going in this gesture, although, in a different context he may have been asking me what I was doing, or perhaps more confusingly, where I was coming from with the same gesture. I tell him which village I’m going to.
“Inchu ?” he asks and I tell him I have to teach a class there today. He begins to wave me over, which he does with his palm down. He wants to ask me questions. If he has some coffee or oghi he will offer it to me. “Tti oghi, mulberry vodka, is the preferred drink of Armenian men to play up their machismo…One serious vodka connoisseur explained, ‘It does not make you drunk, it fills you up’” (Petrosian & Underwood 157). We will drink together while he asks me, roughly in this order:
1. If I am Armenian.
2. If I am married.
3. Why I am not married.
4. Why I have a beard.
5. Why I am not married.
Beyond this nothing is really certain, but if I go over and talk with him he will ask me those five questions. Over the last two years I have come up with some pretty clever answers to them. I use my moments to express levity whenever I can. In a different language and cultural setting it is difficult to joke. When I have a long way to go I usually tell people that I am in a hurry and continue on, telling them to have a good day. Today, I should hurry; I have to be down in the village of Qaritak by four and it’s already two. It’s going to rain soon and I’m not really too sure how far I still have to go.
These are problems that, however, I no longer understand; at least I don’t really consider them. Now that classes have ended for the summer and my projects have all been finished, there is nothing to do but to finally adapt to the exceedingly slow pace of life around me. The pace of life dictated by the dribbling sound of nardi dice on a board, the dull thud of broom handles connecting with dusty, autumn-colored rugs and the Ladas laden with tomatoes roiling the mid-afternoon heat. “Outside there were hundreds of cars jostling, old Ladas driven from the provinces full of tomatoes, or peaches or plums or grapes and marshutkas , small buses, honking like hell” (Steavenson 25, describing a market in Tbilisi).
I take a seat by my friend and begin to tell my jokes. He asks me where I learned to speak Armenian. I don’t answer right away. I take a sip of the gritty, sweet coffee and tell him.
“I’ve lived here for two years.”
“Did you speak Armenian before you came?” he asks.
“No,” I reply, using the informal ‘che,’ “I didn’t know a word before I came here.”
“молодец ,” he praises me in Russian, for having learned his language; he tells me to stay young, a popular idiomatic phrase for “good job.” When our conversation has dwindled down and the rain is nearly overhead I say goodbye and head back to the railroad tracks where the heavy light of the storm has burnished the tracks down to battleship grey.
“Bari janapar ,” he yells out to me.
“Apres ,” I yell back over my shoulder.
Just outside Charentsavan I realize that the village to which I am going is further away than I thought. The rain is still falling lightly through the sunlight and I have to break into a trot. I pass a sign that proclaims the village is three kilometers away and though I feel annoyed I am not really worried. So many times I have run to be on time here and have been the first one to arrive, though I am ten minutes late. Today, however, I am meeting with Americans, and if I am not on time they will be. Since this presentation is the last thing I have to do in this country I would like for it to be successful. I would like the new volunteers to hear about the Writing Olympics contest from someone who has been working on it for two years, from someone who has begged for funding from the British Council and has had to bargain with Yerevan printing companies to produce a booklet that showcases creative writing efforts from all over the Caucasus. In other words, I would like to show them something I have done for this country that has given me so much. I have about five minutes left and am still quite far from the school. The rain is coming down harder now and I am quickly becoming very wet. The village is quiet; everyone has gone in from the rain. In the late afternoon the cows are coming down from the pastures and the shopkeepers stand in the doorways of their shops to watch the rain in stoic silence. The smell of manure is especially strong and the earthy smell of wet stone and mud drifts from the gardens outside every house. From the open doors the fatty smell of lanolin and cooking onions mixes with the heavier smells of the pasture. “Behind each one there is a family, a kitchen table, a collection of beds and relationships; second wives, grandmothers, teenage sons and babies” (Steavenson 89).
A white Lada passes me then quickly pulls over. A man opens the door.
“Ari ,” he yells waving me over and I feel a surge of relief.
Without saying anything I jump in the back of the car and tell them I am going to the school. Over the years I have learned to dispense with unnecessary formalities. Here direct speech is appreciated when it is called for. When I first arrived here, like all the other volunteers, I used to use the modal, asking, “can I sit, eat, etc.,” while I felt extremely annoyed when Armenians would say things in a much more imperative voice. It took a few months to learn that this way of speaking was just much more efficient and that, by comparison, our hesitant, ever-polite English sounds uncertain and balking. Here, one simply stated, flat out, what one wanted, and if it was possible it would be done, no reason to mince words. There would always be time for that later.
So there was. The school was about 500 yards away, but the streets were muddy and potholed. The Lada, like all the others, had no suspension, so every dip and bump had to be taken extremely slowly. While I answered the usual questions about my marital status and facial hair I considered our pace and thought how it may have been faster to walk, but at least this way I was out of the rain, and honestly, no matter how many times I had explained it, I always liked telling people the reason I had a beard was that it helped me think, which I demonstrated by smoothing it over thoughtfully with my hand. It didn’t get too many laughs, but everyone always smiled. At the very least they understood it was a joke.
You can’t take a favor from someone without accepting another. In Armenia, if someone helps you with something they’re probably going to insist that you come to dinner afterward. My driver and his companion in the Lada were no exception. I declined the invitation as I was only going to be in the village for an hour or so. Still, at the very least, I had to take down some phone numbers, just in case I should come back another time.
The school had been recently remodeled, as a few of them had. It smelled of caulk and drywall inside and echoed with the emptiness of any school in July. I climbed the stairs and stopped at each floor to listen. When I reached the top floor without finding any evidence of a Peace Corps meeting I made my way back down to the first floor, yelling this time.
“Guys,” I yelled out in Armenian. “Guys, where are you?” Feeling light-hearted, I didn’t mind being so coarse as to yell while running through a school. I had spent the last two years in different school buildings all over the country. For me, Armenian schools felt like home. The posters of the alphabet (Armenian and Cyrillic) on the walls, the reliefs of Tumanyan or Baghramyan and the drawings of Ararat with rainbows and calligraphy surrounding it seemed to accommodate me. I began to feel the usual sense of purpose and excitement that I would feel before starting a new class. Even if it would only be held once, even if it was to be an informal presentation, even if I was leaving in two weeks and it was to be the last classroom I ever spoke to in Armenia, I could not stray from what two years of teaching had taught me to do to prepare: loosen up, consider how to make the content relevant, and smile when you walk in the class.
“Hey, Jon, stop yelling. We’re in here. You’re just in time. They were just going to start the Writing Olympics presentation without you.” I follow the voice to a classroom down the hall. The door is standing partially open and as I approach I can see a room full of expectant faces turned my way. I open the door.
“Barev, yeghahek. ”
Pre-Peace Corps Service (Staging)
Before I left for Armenia, we had what they call “staging” in Philadelphia, an opportunity to meet the other volunteers who would be going along and to make any last minute decisions in regard to whether or not to go at all, as, according to the Peace Corps Wiki the early termination rate (ET) or percentage of volunteers that leave before the formal close of service (COS) was 29.2 % in 2009. Over the next three days we future volunteers were introduced to the rigorous, mind-numbingly monotonous concept of training sessions, as defined by the Peace Corps. Most of what we did in staging can be described as team-building exercises, novel lessons that were designed to get us prepared for the kind of work we would be doing in Armenia. There was, however, no one on staff that had actually been to Armenia. I believe our primary instructor had never even served in the Peace Corps herself. In a New York Times article on professional cross cultural training, Gretchen Lang writes about the desire for specific cultural information, “While clients are happy to have some intercultural communication theory mixed in, most say they want specific information about the culture they are about to enter and that they are most pleased with that aspect of the program” (Lang).
As can be imagined, we were literally bristling with questions about the place we would be getting on a plane to in the next few days and almost all of the sessions went unheeded as they offered no consolation in the way of specific Armenia-centered instruction. We were prepared for basic cultural differences that would apply to almost any country outside the US. Concepts of time, personal space and folk-beliefs were introduced in sessions that usually concluded with the demonstration of gained knowledge in poster form.
I remember a specific activity in which half of the trainees left the room while the others stayed and were given note cards. Each card had an instruction, a code really, as to how to react to certain types of questioning and body language with unbearably incoherent actions. The point was to make those who had left the room feel alienated and awkward, much as they would when they arrived in Armenia, unable to communicate or understand social norms and mores. The half of the trainees who had left the room were given questions to ask us, without being told that we would not respond as expected. The point of the activity was to introduce all the trainees to the cultural discomfort that we would soon be encountering as a possibly beneficial thing.
To manage cultural discomfort, we must keep in mind that we will always feel some level of comfort or discomfort when interacting with someone of a different culture. The key is to not allow the discomfort to dictate our actions or reactions. Also, we must work towards turning fear into curiosity. Healthy curiosity about cultural differences can lead to cross-cultural dialogue and relationships (Wells).
The scene was not as chaotic as one might expect. When the trainees returned they approached a group of us and asked one of the questions they had been given. We responded through patterns in their questioning: for example, if the question had been a yes or no question we would all nod vigorously without saying anything. If the question had the word “the” we would all immediately frown and stare at our feet. The interrogators were all fairly nonplussed but continued asking questions, trying to understand the pattern, to find a key that would allow them to gain legitimate answers to our questions.
This activity stands out as one of the few relevant exercises that we engaged in while in staging. Mostly, this is because it brought us together. Most Peace Corps volunteers that I was to meet over the years in Armenia and elsewhere all struck me as being independent, self-assured people. Initially, it is difficult for them to mix as they are so caught up in their own ideas of assimilating to the culture they will shortly be joining. I heard trainees remark, during futile “meet and greet” exercises, that they had no need for such activities as they had no plans to spend time with other volunteers once in the country. It may sound like a rude thing to say, but given the prevalence of the idea, often most people agreed. I initially had very similar thoughts and didn’t make much of an effort to make any friends.
The activity that was meant to introduce us to feelings of cultural otherness was unproductive in that it didn’t have any connection to the kinds of difference in communication we would have to come to understand in Armenia; therefore, it had very little bearing on what we needed to know. We all knew that Armenia we going to be different and that people were going to have different cultural expectations of us. Over the course of our staging we were hit over the heads with this concept multiple times.
The cultural discomfort activity was, however, very helpful in that it introduced us to each other. Sitting around a sheet of flipchart paper discussing generic problems Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) face didn’t do much to bring us together. We made what comments we felt were necessary and moved on; all of us were inwardly groaning. The cultural discomfort activity demanded that we have meaningful interaction with each other. What we needed the most was to become a group so that a year later we would feel comfortable talking to each other, sharing ideas and asking for help.
I didn’t expect to become so close to the other volunteers, not only the ones that I began lifelong friendships with over the time that we were in Armenia, but even the ones I hardly ever saw. It was a gradual process. I didn’t come to feel solidarity with these people overnight, but gradually came to identify with everyone through my own experience. Regardless of where we had come from, we all shared a similar background, at least relatively, in contrast to the Armenian cultural milieu in which we all found ourselves after our arrival.
As the rest of the country identified us as Americans it was impossible that we shouldn’t come to think of ourselves in the same terms. It was, interestingly enough, the same feeling that I now have when I meet Armenians living in America. One of the most significant things that Peace Corps does for its volunteers is to take them through these loops of identity. Until I left for Armenia, I had always thought of myself in a static way in terms of how I related to the world at large. Now words such as Nineteen-Fifteen, apricot, Caucasia and even Eurasia produce a riot of emotional identification in me. We didn’t realize it while we were in training, but none of us were going to fulfill the assimilation goals we had set for ourselves. As these goals had been set with little to no knowledge of Armenia, after we acculturated we formed clearer, realistic goals. After all, it was very difficult to adapt to one of the most geopolitically varied regions of the world. “No definition is necessary because the South Caucasus has multiple identities. It is both European and Asian, with strong Middle Eastern influences as well” (De Waal 10).
The night before leaving we were given free rein to go out and say goodbye to the America that most of us would not see again for over two years. Some ventured off together to share drinks and expectations. I, having previously visited Philadelphia years before, decided to roam around and reflect on all that I had taken for granted about my native country and would no doubt come to miss very soon. I remember passing Benjamin Franklin’s grave at one point, which, for some reason, had pennies all over it, and thinking about the legacy of America, how it had formed and its place in the world. I was not suddenly feeling overly patriotic; it was rather a feeling of premature nostalgia. I looked at the lights of the city around me, and glanced into the faces of those passing by, knowing that it would be a long time before I could rest my eyes on such familiar sights again. I felt like I was moving automatically. It was like a scene from Sartre’s Nausea. “I was on the doorstep, I was hesitating, and then there was a sudden eddy, a shadow passed across the ceiling, and I felt myself being pushed forward. I floated along, dazed by the luminous mists which were entering me from all directions at once” (33).
On the eve of my departure I was able to see into the cultural heart of my country, but what I saw there was already just a reflection of what I had known for so long. At once it was who I was and who I had been: a careless citizen who would now, like Franklin, venture out into the world and, perhaps bring something back. Our flight left at 8pm the following night. We arrived in Armenia around one in the morning the 30th of May and began our slow, at times painful, acclimation to our new home.
The beginning was a blur, studded with sharp, gleaming points of seminal experiences. In order to lessen, or rather to delay the gran mal culture shock we would soon experience, we were cloistered away in an empty campground upon our arrival in the country. Our first experience with the unpredictability of our host country occurred as we drove from the airport to our temporary lodgings. As the campground was situated, like almost everything in Armenia, mid-way up a mountain, the Uaz soviet-built trucks carrying our luggage began to gasp at the effort, packed as they were. The vans or Marshutkas carrying us made it to the campground without much trouble. We all tumbled out at once in a tired flurry and began to wait for our luggage. It was about 2:30 in the morning, and as excited as everyone was to finally have the process underway, to be, at long last, in the country we’d all been voraciously reading about for the past three months, sleep is not so easily evaded after a 13-hour flight.
It had been warmer in Philadelphia and, in the mountains of Armenia, we were all beginning to shiver. Standing there, looking at each other, barely listening to the welcome team that was comprised mainly of volunteers who had already been living in the country for a year, people who had become accustomed to speaking and listening to Armenian. They seemed to be testing us with their questions, seeking out those who would be new friends, and those with whom they could possibly work together on a grant proposal. Our questions for them were all in regard to the basics of living in Armenia; their questions for us were all personal. The conversation had begun to die out and still our luggage had not appeared. Without our luggage, and with most of us wearing light clothing, we unconsciously began to huddle together in the dark.
I wouldn’t really say that it was an inauspicious beginning to my Peace Corps career to have the truck with all our stuff break down about a mile away from our campground. Rather, it gave us on opportunity to display our ingenuity and commitment on a rather gaudy scale, like something one would see in a Boy Scouts of America commercial. Almost as soon as someone had mentioned the truck had broken down a number of us began rolling up our sleeves and slapping our palms together, thinking, “This is where it begins, from now on everything will have to be done by me; I have to take hold of the situation and forge my way to a preferred solution.” Oh, God, if only we could have realized how wrong we were then, none of us would’ve worried about the truck, we would have left it down there all night, had a drink together and then went to bed, but, we were still in our American mindsets, and, as such, we set off into the dark, eyes and teeth flashing, ready to drag up the whole damn truck if necessary, anything to demonstrate the utility of our Yankee ingenuity. What we didn’t yet realize was that “[working] as a foreigner was a matter of trying to negotiate your way through [a] political landscape,” a landscape that, when we first arrived, we knew nothing of (Hessler 41). Pre-Service Training (PST)
The Pre-Service Training (PST) portion of my Peace Corps service still looks monumental when I reflect on it. For the first three months we were in the country we were kept so busy with our adjustment we scarcely had time for much else. I remember taking short walks on Sunday afternoons and hardly being able to deal with the sheer amount of freedom; I remember it was as if I were going to float away without my tether of lesson planning materials, Armenian/English dictionary and my language and culture facilitator (LCF) there by my side.
The new volunteer is kept busy during PST for a very good reason: it’s about the only distraction from the twisting sickness in your heart after the first few weeks have passed. Initially, everyone roars into the country, unable to contain all their ideas for development and teaching practices. The enthusiasm is such that one can hardly breathe through the air of everyone’s ideas. The conversation is constant. Undergraduate courses are referenced, Durkheim is alluded to and woe be to anyone who had grant-writing experience, because everyone else is “really interested in doing something like that.” This is all fueled by a semi-professional conference air. Every time we all met we were expected to dress well. Instant coffee was available by the gallon and all the IT volunteers would be out smoking during every gap in the numerous lectures we had to sit through.
Initially, yes, it is almost exactly as you’ve imagined it for years: the Peace Corps is no longer a dream. You are in the middle of it with a group of like-minded people. Every dream, every vision that you have attached to the concept of Peace Corps whirs around your head night and day. The language classes are novel and produce results right away, considering there’s seldom opportunity to speak anything other than Armenian after class. You live with Armenians, eat with them, garden with them and fight for turns in the bathroom with them. People you only recently met become your new family very quickly.
The weekly central sessions you attend leave you feeling refreshed, and in possession of all your faculties for another week of dubious battle with an unfamiliar, but enchanting world. And you’re having a great time communicating with your new family. For the first time since you were young you’re living amongst elderly people again and you’re actually really enjoying their company, considering they are much more tolerant of your excessive language errors than the younger generation who never had to try to speak to the Russians. All this has you reeling with excitement over what the next two years are going to be like.
Then, one night, while you’re reflecting on another exceedingly productive day passed, the phrase, nay, the idea of two years sticks to something in the convolutions of your brain. You consider it. Since you’re still in training the two years hasn’t even really begun yet, in fact, won’t begin for another month and a half. I should stress here that at this point you feel pretty well-versed in this new culture. You’ve lived in the most real part of the cultural milieu for six weeks already. You feel situated in it, like you understand it. And as the plane-less night sky reels above and your last cigarette burns down, you begin to wonder how much more there could be to learn about this place. You begin to think about your friends and family back home. Suddenly, you find that someone’s birthday has passed. That somewhere there was a party without you, in which everyone that you used to live alongside had a good time without you. The places and habits of your American life suddenly come whirring out of the void, but between you and them is an abysmal two-year stretch of time.
Luckily, when you surmised that you understood this place and felt situated in it you were dead wrong, and after you get over the idea that the life you loved and left is moving along without you you’ll be able to see this very clearly; unfortunately, this realization is a long way off yet, and, meanwhile, you’re totally alone, listening to goats bleat under the glowering mountains.
The two and a half months in country are spent in Pre-Service Training, or PST. During this period which precedes the swearing-in ceremony, the recently arrived volunteer is termed a trainee and is subjected to fully-scheduled days of language and cultural trainings. Five to six days a week are spent in four-hour language class blocks. These classes are held in the villages surrounding the temporary Peace Corps training office. While the main Peace Corps office is in the capital, a regional office is set up in the provinces or marzer . The purpose of this is to introduce trainees to the level of local life that they will be living and working in for the next two years.
Our training office was in the town of Charentsavan in the region of Kotayk, a region that abuts the capital and is, therefore, slightly more prosperous than farther flung regions such as Syunik or Vyots Dzor. In Kotayk, as in other regions close to the capital, students often commute to the capital for university classes, but, as in the rest of the country, many either leave to remain in the capital or move abroad to work. The result is that although many citizens from this region have access to quality higher education the towns and villages closely resemble those elsewhere in the country with little superficial difference. The esteemed Armenian poet (Y)eghishe Charents wrote about the effects of early industrialization in 1923. “What is to come is the industrial, the dynamic…This is what is to come, what has already entered our lives, already edged into Erevan [Yerevan] and Kumri [Gyumri]. And it will decide whether our country is to be or is not to be, and it will require a new language to define its social character, its new creative impulses” (49).
Peace Corps trainees are placed with families in villages just outside the town. Around Charentsavan we were grouped by sector, or by the field in which we would work. In Armenia there were four sectors: EE, or environmental education; CHE, or health education; TEFL, or English language education and CBD, or community business development. In my last year these programs were cut to the latter two.
Because of the high number of TEFL volunteers, we were grouped in two villages, Bjni and Solak. Bjni, the site of a local spring and, consequently the name of a national mineral water company, was divided between CBD and TEFL volunteers. My village, Solak, hosted only TEFL volunteers.
Although Solak was close to Armenia’s fifth largest city, Hrazdan, and considered to be incorporated into its greater area, the village itself was small and lacking in basic amenities. My host family’s house had some indoor plumbing, but, the water only came on for a hour or two a day. The indoor sinks were used much less often than a spout located in the garden. There was no indoor bathroom and to bathe one used a bucket of water heated up on the stove in a room that was primarily used for laundry. Despite the poverty of the area the people are quite proud and externally happy. Most of the population is unemployed and spends the warmer months between their gardens and tending to the flocks in the pasture just to the north and south of town.
A Host Family
After we had been isolated in the aforementioned campground for a few days we were soon after placed with our new families. I assumed the experience of moving in with a host family was going to be much more difficult than I found it to be. First, was a ceremony in which we all got to watch a local traditional dance troupe, after which we climbed on stage ourselves to receive the traditional welcome of bread and salt, presented to us by the dancers. “Hospitality is associated with bread and salt…Bread and salt offered to guest implies the promise that no harm will be done to them. Salt indicates the preservation of ties just as it is used for preservation of foods” (Petrosian & Underwood 42). Our new host families were waiting in the audience, listening for our names, names totally unfamiliar to them, to see who among this gaggle of foreigners would be the one joining their family.
When we came down from the stage we were introduced to our new families. It was a slow process. We all milled around for a while, many of the volunteers nervously talking together, out of sheer nervousness trying to avoid the flashing gold smiles of soviet –era dental work and soft brown eyes that took in the room under supercilious brows. There was a smaller guy named Danny in our group. He was introduced to two women that had entire golden mouths and huge smiles on their faces. I remember thinking that, as he was taken over to meet them, he had the look of a Hansel who has just seen the abnormally large pot past the threshold of the witch’s house. Danny ET’d (Early Termination) just before swearing in. I remember one of the things he said before leaving was that he was really going to miss was his host family. This is, essentially, what happened to all of us. Initially, we were overwhelmed by the otherness of our hosts. The initial reaction was to consider how these people appeared to be different from us, both in appearance and mentality. But it didn’t take long before their sense of openness overwhelmed us and we came to identify with them, perhaps more than we did with each other.
At some point I was introduced to Zhora, the policeman whom I was going to live with; his son Xachik was there with him. Within an hour I was living with them. Zhora had been a policeman, years prior, in Hrazdan, and still introduced himself as such, when we first met. At some point, a great deal later, I asked him if he thought he would ever return to this job. He didn’t sound too hopeful, but, as he had an ebullient character, he smiled as he said so. My host family consisted of seven people: Ani, Xachik and Anahit, 13,12 and 11 years old, respectively, my host mother and father, Naira and Zhora, and Zhora’s parents, mother Jenik and father Xachik Sr.. Next door to us lived Zhroa’s brother Naver, wife Anahit and their three children. Naira’s family also lived only a short walk away and her sister and brother came over almost daily.
Although my host family and I began to get along very well after my first week in Armenia, there were several instances of miscommunication. We tried very hard to understand each other, but, as we tried too much to anticipate each other, there were frequent periods of total communication breakdown that would leave both parties quite confused. An example of this can be found in the milk I was given for breakfast my first few months living in the house.
Most days were similar in PST. I woke up at eight and stumbled down the outside stairs to the kitchen below. In the late spring, the countryside was breathtaking. I had never seen so much life. Every tree bore heavy fruit, every trellis was festooned with vines and hard little green grapes, and every field was sonorous with the din of sheep, goats, horses, mules and cattle, all eating or lazing around together, depending on the time of day.
Naira was always in the kitchen when I awoke, ready with a sunny disposition and some simple questions to bring me into the day.
“Lav es knetsi ?” she would ask, slowly pronouncing every syllable.
“Shat lav ,” I would reply, wanting to ask her if she had enjoyed the same, but initially, not having enough command of the language to say much besides “yes” and “thank you.”
The first month or so she would have a large glass of warm, probably freshly squeezed, milk waiting for me on the table. I hadn’t drunk milk for about 13 years, but I gulped every glass down, not wanting to be ungrateful. As much as I disliked the milk there was always coffee to look forward to. I found out later that in almost every country where you’d expect people to drink what is commonly called “Turkish” coffee, no one does. In all the Turkic countries I would visit -- Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- everyone drank tea. If you wanted coffee it was going to be instant.
In Armenia, I am happy to say the abominable practice of drinking scalding hot tea from tulip shaped glasses never caught on, and everyone drinks a delightfully thick brew, in a demitasse cup. The coffee is usually mildly sugared and is served with a large dish of candy, which you will be ordered to take. “Coffee defines the life of Armenians. It is a common initiation ritual…in some offices a main chore for the receptionist is to make the rounds serving coffee all day long. A receptionist is judged on her ability to remember how sweet or bitter the boss likes his brew” (Petrosian & Underwood 162-3).
While I drank my milk I would keep an eye on the stove, making sure Naira was making some coffee as well. I did what I could to express my immense love of coffee to her in hopes of being offered a second cup. This never happened because it is simply not done, the whole country over. Over the two years I was in Armenia I never once was offered a second cup, despite the small size of the cups they drink from and every time I would order a second cup at a café I would be given an incredulous look.
After several mornings of the milk and coffee routine I eventually noticed that no one else in the house drank milk and often, Xachik, being the boy and the most forthright, would often stare at me while I drank it. I wasn’t sure if he was impressed with the rate at which I consumed so much liquid or if there was something else that interested him. When my language improved I was able to ask Naira why no one else had milk. Despite my poor language skills at the time, I was still able to understand that the Peace Corps, at some point, had told all the host families that Americans like to drink milk. Armenians usually don’t drink it at all. They drink tan and matsun but not milk. For the first month or so, I had been drinking milk against everyone’s better judgment.
I really enjoyed telling her that I also didn’t like to drink milk. Not only was it a funny cultural story we’d both be able to tell, but it also meant I wouldn’t have to drink any more of the stuff. Sure enough, the next day there was just a cup of coffee waiting for me. No milk.
After breakfast, which I would usually eat with Zhora and Xachik, I would grab my language book and go up the train tracks with Jay, another volunteer who lived with Naver, Zhora’s brother. I really enjoyed having Jay around; most of the time he was the only American I spoke with during PST. We would share our opinions and stories on life in our new homes. To counter my milk story, Jay would talk about how his host mother would put food in his room every day, most of it fresh fruit. Initially, he did his best to eat it all but in the end had to start giving it away and, finally, even letting it go bad in hopes that the message would be clear that he simply couldn’t eat ten apricots every day.
PST integrates four components: 1) Armenian language, 2) trainee health and safety awareness 3), cross-cultural adaptation and community development skills, and 4) technical orientation. The training is based on competencies (learning objectives) in each of these areas. You need to achieve a level of competence in all four components before becoming a Volunteer (http://armenia.peacecorps.gov).
Our language classes were held in the local school, a blocky soviet-looking construction. It seemed even in the smallest villages, in the furthest flung parts of the empire, the soviets had managed to build some kind of cultural center and a school. Usually, one couldn’t tell them apart, especially in the summer when both of them would be completely empty.
In class we worked initially from the book that had been compiled by host country national Peace Corps Staff. The book was called Kamurj or Bridge, and it began, as most language textbooks do with the alphabet, number, colors and greetings. The first eight chapters or so were based around three new letters from the alphabet. We had to write them over and over and identify common words in which they were the initial letter. There were matching activities, cloze sentences and a number of dialogues that we would listen to the teacher read or hear on tape. As the lessons were held six times a week, for four hours with the same small group, in our case seven students, our teachers had to do a lot of work to hold our attention. Luckily there was a lot of subject matter to cover to get us conversant in a totally new language in ten weeks, I also like to think that we were eager students, although there were certainly times when our attention waned drastically and our teachers had to resort to emergency strategies.
As I already had some teaching experience, I was able to understand a good deal about the amount of preparation that went into these lessons. In order to keep us interested our instructors had to vary their approach, and they did a great job, using different activities and games to introduce the language to us. Although most of the work we did came right out of the book, we started off every class with a homework assignment that was usually meant to make us interact with our families, using terms and constructions with which we were unfamiliar in familiar situations. One such exercise I remember was to ask at least two family members about their favorite things and other questions that we had designed ourselves. Initially, I found it an awkward exercise, as it seemed to make the conversation seem forced, as I tried to scribble down the answers to their questions. Later I realized how it was through meaningful language exercises like these that I had been able to build up a good amount of background knowledge on my family that may have never entered into our conversations. H. Douglas Brown writes of the benefit of “anchor[ing a new concept] in students’ existing knowledge and background so that it becomes associated with something they already know” (66).
We had a few lessons that incorporated elements of CLT, or Communicative Language Teaching. “[CLT] aims broadly to apply the theoretical perspective of the Communicative Approach by making communicative competence the goal of language teaching and by acknowledging the interdependence of language and communication”(emphasis added) (Larsen-Freeman 121). Since we were living in the midst of the context for our learning it behooved everyone involved for us to make use of this. In addition to the discussions we had with our families we also talked with shop keepers and tried to make a salad while giving each other directions solely in Armenian. This exposure was in turn to be useful in the formation of our own English lessons once we began teaching, as “Language teaching necessarily involves cultural contact” (Parry 665).
I studied a fair amount, but tried not to let it keep me from genuinely interacting with my family. Unfortunately, I initially took to my room to study at night, thinking, with the house quieter, that there wasn’t much conversation going on as everyone prepared for bed after a long day. Of course, in an agrarian society, this was precisely the time when everyone talked the most. During the day everyone was busy. I talked to the children, but I was denied the meaningful conversation from the adults who were all waist deep in weeding, threshing and planting at various times of the year. I later discovered, after I had moved and lived in a different part of the country that everyone got together and talked in the evening.
The language classes I had as a trainee eventually helped me build a decent amount of background knowledge up in Armenian. More importantly, they helped me to become familiar enough with the basics of the language to feel more relaxed when communicating. As I began to communicate more I became more confident in my ability to speak and, thus, became motivated to learn more. The concept of motivation has been held up, almost axiomatically, in TEFL scholarship. “The most powerful rewards are those that are intrinsically motivated within the learner. Because the behavior stems from needs, wants or desires within oneself, the behavior itself is self-rewarding; therefore, no externally administered reward is necessary” (Brown 68). The more I wanted to know the easier I found it to learn, and, more importantly, to recall. When I began teaching I used similar techniques to foster the motivation of my students. The largest difference was that my fellow trainees and I were surrounded by an Armenian context, where my students had few opportunities to use English.
Meeting the Other Volunteers
Sometimes we had language classes on Saturday but usually we had to go into Charentsavan for what were called central days. A central day was basically a day-long review of our progress as trainees, peppered with cultural sessions and work in our sectors. The building where we met, Charentsavan’s House of Culture, was just as empty as the school in Solak was in the summer. The obvious reason for this was that it was usually pretty warm in there by the time the afternoon sun hit the western windows. It was also a soporific kind of place that was ill-suited to the beautiful weather outside.
During these sessions we would be briefed on any new developments as far as our jobs were concerned, for example if the Ministry of Education had recently made some changes in the English curriculum. We would also hear from the volunteers that had arrived one to two years before us. Often they were invited in to discuss their daily lives and patterns of Peace Corps regimens to us, but most of them just stood around and talked about how horrible the winter was, when the heat was out and they had to put on all their clothes, crawl in their sleeping bags and continually quaff homemade vodka just to keep from freezing. This was a common sentiment. “In a pathetic way,” Peter Hessler, a PCV in China writes, reflecting on his experience, “drinking became the one small thing that Adam [another PCV] and I were good at, although it was difficult to take much pride in this” (80). The veteran volunteers would also talk about the existentialist dilemmas that arose during the colder months, when most schools, not having proper heating, would be closed and when there would be nothing to do except trudge through the silent, snow-covered streets of the village, question value judgments, and, indeed, the purpose of one’s entire life up that point. I know during my first winter I had a few days like that, and I have often been curious as to whether there is any kind of approximation or analogue to this experience in Peace Corps service in tropical countries. Wendell Steavenson, in her book about living in Tbilisi, the capital of Armenia’s neighboring country Georgia, writes about the difficulty of the Caucasian winter. “’You’re cold eh? Take this blanket and put it around your knees…Jeez, Wendell, I’m sorry, Tbilisi in winter is a bad place for a broken heart’”(154).
Although we met in our sectors (TEFL, EE, CHE and CBD) during the central days, we also met about once a week for an hour after our language classes were finished. In these classes we worked with a Peace Corps volunteer and a host country national. Most of the classes focused on lesson planning. We wrote lesson plans and tried them out with a model school class that we met with for a few weeks in Charenstavan, a class, that most of us later agreed, was nothing like a real Armenian class. Although I believe there was a lot to be gained from the classes, I think we would have been better prepared to experience more of what a real Armenian class would be like. Of course this really isn’t possible with volunteer groups coming for training in the summer when all students are out of school. But the disconnect between what I had been led to expect, especially as I was assigned to a university, and what I actually got was incredible.
I like to think that we were all capable volunteers. Yes, we were young and inexperienced, but most of us had some level of classroom experience. When we met in our sectors, we planned lessons together with a fair amount of enthusiasm and presented different teaching techniques to our peers. When our training ended we left with a large amount of ready-made lesson plans, ideas, resources and even tactics for working with our counterparts. When we left for our permanent sites we wouldn’t see each other again for three months. When we met again at our annual All-volunteer (All-vol) Conference, there was a feeling of apathy and unrealized ambitions in the air. When we were asked to act out some situations from our classes, most of them were negative. We were at our collective low point. During the skits we muttered under our breath. I remember one volunteer began to cry. The next time we would meet, only a few months later, everyone would be much more comfortable. I think most of this disconnect came from our training that didn’t do enough to introduce us to the typical Armenian village school classroom.
The Armenian Education System
UNICEF, after they had begun a project to “develop a rights-based, interactive and participatory educational system” in Armenia, released a statement in which they justify a life-skills curriculum, where students are responsible for their learning contra the teacher-centered structure the country has relied upon since the Soviet period. UNICEF’s statement regarding the need for educational change in Armenia reveals the instability of the present educational system, at once mired in traditional teaching methods and seeking to incorporate recent innovations.
Indeed, an independent report commissioned by UNICEF in 2001[in Armenia] assessed the project positively, supporting UNICEF's opinion that "possessing life skills is critical to young people's ability to positively adapt to and deal with the demands and challenges of life. And such an approach in a country which still faces a long and difficult transformation away from a totalitarian past is of vital importance (Krikorian).
The Armenian educational system is a nebulous thing. It is in such a state of flux that it is difficult to discuss it as static. While I was in the country, I worked through a major change in primary and secondary schools. In 2009, an extra year was added to secondary school education. Prior to this change basic schooling in Armenia went up to 10th grade. Students, roughly, went to school from 7 to 16 years of age. The addition of another year added a “flying” form for all students who were in school, in any grade, at the time of the change. These students all skipped or “flew” over a grade in order to accommodate the extra year that had been added since they had begun school. I was never entirely clear as to why this was necessary. As can be imagined, this made teaching in Armenia very confusing.
Seventeen years after the collapse of communism, Armenia was still using parts of the USSR’s system to inform its structure. The idea persisted that education, in many cases, was perfunctory. Khodzhabekian, in an article published in 2005, reflects on the educational system of Soviet period and the unique setbacks it poses for education in Armenia today, where the Soviet mentality is still extant in many civic areas. “In principle everybody was supposed to receive (often only formally) a school-leaving certificate enabling them, regardless of their level of knowledge, to demand an appropriate job” (5). In addition to this situation, schools, especially outside the capital hardly received any funding and teachers, earning very low salaries, earned most of their money tutoring more advanced students after class to pass the university entrance exams; as a result, classroom instruction was unplanned. Khodzhabekian writes of the effects of the decreasing quality of classes where teachers must tutor to augment their income. “Serious social problems are emerging because of the rising inequality of opportunities to obtain a good education” (5). Such unmotivated teachers would frequently spend the entire period reading directly from the textbook. Nicole Vartanian, a Senior Research Associate in the Office of Educational Research and Improvement and a senior international policy research chairperson for Armenia and Roben Torosyan, Associate Director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Fairfield University, both of Armenian heritage elaborate on the issue of the lack of teacher motivation:
The nation decentralized school and community governance in 1997 and shifted control of spending and appointments to local councils to attempt to address financial needs of families. But annual preprimary tuition for a single student now can cost as much as the annual salary of a teacher. Consequently, many children do not enroll in formal schools until age seven [only primary and secondary schools are free in Armenia]. Unfortunately, the teaching profession suffers too, due to decreases in training opportunities, status, salaries, and overall motivation in the post-Soviet era.
Everything was confusing in Armenian schools; both in the university and the school I worked at the schedule was constantly changing. One would arrive to teach a class at 10 a.m. only to be told that the class had been moved to 11. At 11 the classroom would be empty. The students, taking advantage of the confusion, would frequently leave en masse. A large part of the confusion was the transitional status of the educational system in Armenia. The Armenian school system was a hectic place, and I don’t know if I could say I ever came to understand it. After working within it for over two years, I did come to see what major problems enervated the rest of the system. These problems of organization, materials and teacher motivation pervaded every level of the educational system I came into contact with, from teacher trainings to classroom instruction and the fact that so many qualified professionals move. “Too many young people are unable to find their place in life and become unemployed college graduates, which is a major factor of the ‘brain drain…’ Armenia is using its own resources to train cadres or other, more wealthy countries” (Khodzhabekian 4). It seemed to me that the major problem that contributed to all the others was that the republic had yet to really create its own unique educational system. Most of what I saw outside the capital still stood in the shadow of the Soviet legacy. “All too often, diploma-holding specialists simply do not have the requisite knowledge. This is due to the quality of instruction, which is not very susceptible to control in the regions [marzer] of the Republic” (Khodzhabekian 4).
School Number 1, Malishka: A Physical Reconstruction
Three stories tall, the walls are hewn rock on the outside and painted concrete on the inside. The paint is a cheap sort of artifice. It rubs off in chalky whirls on anything that brushes against it. The bathrooms are ill-maintained. There is no toilet paper and often no running water. In each stall there is a rusty bucket that contains soiled notebook paper. There is no mirror. On the second floor there is a teacher’s lounge. In this lounge there is a television which is always on and a stereo which never is. On top of the stereo sits an old Apple computer, also never used, and probably no longer functioning. On the western wall of the lounge is a shelf that holds, among other things, files of student papers, and some classroom materials such as a globe, on which the countries are labeled in Cyrillic, and a section of a human brain in embalming fluid. Among the student papers are various reports, compiled by students, usually accompanied by traced illustrations and meticulously neat handwriting. In the middle of the room is a long table with chairs on either side. At the head of this table is a large office chair reserved for the school’s director and the person in charge of scheduling, the two most revered people in the school.
In the hallways there are student-made posters of various Armenian heroes. The first floor is entirely devoted to military subjects and features Marshal Baghramyan as well as heroes from the recent Karabakh conflict such as Monte Melkonian. There are pictures of modern Armenian soldiers working out and enjoying their leisure time together, all in full uniform with brazen looks on their faces. The posters on the second floor are of great Armenian authors such as Yeghise Charents, Hovhannes Tumanyan and the astronomer Viktor Hambardzumyan. Similar posters are found in each classroom.
The classrooms have a green chalkboard on the south wall with rows of two-person tables facing them. The tables have no room for storage, so even the primary school students must keep all their books and materials in their backpacks. Each classroom has windows on the east or west side of the room depending on which side of the hall it’s located. Down the hall from the teacher’s lounge there is a library that is usually locked. When it is open, its use is limited to faculty. Most of the books inside the library are old soviet textbooks that are no longer being used. Near the front entrance of the school is a closet that janitors use for storage and as a lounge of their own. There is very little in there beyond a few scrappy chairs, a few handmade brooms and the thin bent metal squares that are used for dustpans.
There is nothing soft in the building. There is also nothing colorful save for the few posters that have not been faded by age, chalk dust and sun, hanging from the walls.
Outside the school is a recently paved lot that serves no purpose save to cover the dust that is rampant in the village during the drier months. The lot is surrounded by a gate which is usually open. Just on the inside of the gate there is a water fountain, probably a memorial to a youth in the community, as most of them are, featuring the name of this unfortunate child and a memorial icon such as a broken flower.
A Typical Day in the Armenian Classroom
In an interview for the Caucasus CRS, an online magazine, Armenian community activist Marianna Grigorian reveals the common belief that education in the country is below the international standard.
"We should march in step with the world," said Narine Hovhannisian, head of the general education department at the country’s education and science ministry. "Our educational system does not correspond to international standards” (Grigorian)
I walk up the dirt road from the main road that leads south to Iran and north to Yerevan, the capital. There are cabbage and potato patches along the road. At nine in the morning the farmers are already out with their donkeys tied up and wheelbarrows leaning drunkenly in the furrows of the fields. Malishka is a large village with a population of about 4,900 people, according to the 2001 Armenian census (http://www.armstat.am). In all probability, this number, however, is greatly exaggerated due to unreported emigration.
Almost everyone is working out in their garden plots or cooking eggs for those that will have to walk about 7 kilometers to the plots and grazing grounds south and east of the village. The children are on their way to school. They hang back in groups or rush forward alone. At the top of the rise the school is built upon, there stands an old soviet war monument of a soldier wearing a great coat, holding what looks like a tommy gun with a slightly contemptuous look carved into his face of grey rock.
I walk past the eager children, all trying to give me high-fives. I nod politely, but am unable to reciprocate the warmth of their greetings. Even to nod to them is far beyond what the other teachers do outside of class and I don’t want to meet with any more opprobrium. One of the janitors is standing at the door. I return her warm greeting and think about how much it contrasts with the perfunctory greetings of the teachers. Before going upstairs I stop into the bathroom and hold my breath while using it. The air inside is mephitic although the window is slightly cracked.
Once upstairs I still have 15 minutes before classes begin. I enter the teacher’s lounge and say hello to the teachers assembled there. The men, on one side of the room, return my greeting, the women on the other, merely look up when I enter the room. I have tried to talk with my counterpart here in the past about the lessons of the day, but her manner demonstrated her unwillingness to do so, although she didn’t say anything. On another occasion, I planned to meet with her after classes, but again, she did not show much interest. The lessons are dictated by what’s in the book. National regulations require that the book is presented in a certain fashion, i.e., a certain section is to be completed by a certain date. I have shown her that this approach leaves much to be desired in terms of appropriate teaching by international standards, but she doesn’t see the point in how the material is communicated as long as the material itself is not incorrect. This approach is contrary to all TEFL scholarship. Brown, in his book Teaching by Principles, writes, “The best teachers always take a few calculated risks” (43); “The communicative purpose of language compels us to create opportunities for genuine interaction in the classroom” (53); “We have much to learn in this profession…and we will best instruct ourselves, and the profession at large, when we maintain a disciplined inquisitiveness about our teaching practices” (58). Because correctness is the only issue, most of my communication with my counterpart consists of her asking me specific grammatical questions, most of them dealing with preposition use.
“I sit in the classroom,” she reads to me out of the book, “or I sit around the classroom?”
“You sit in the classroom,” I tell her.
As a result of this biased focus, the students are subjected to dull and usually irrelevant instruction. For example, one of the readings that we seemed to spend weeks trying to finish involved two monsters that went shopping at Macy’s. The textbook did not provide any information to students on monsters or Macy’s, nor did it introduce other key vocabulary words that would be requisite in significant apprehension of the text, as will be shown.
Christina Sargsyan, an English teacher in Yerevan, describes the state of English materials outside the capital in an interview with the British Council to promote their English learning materials.
Outside the capital the only resource teachers have is the mandatory English language textbook, perhaps one or two short stories by Somerset Maugham, William Saroyan and O’Henry published back in the 1970s in Russia and a bilingual dictionary of English and Armenian published in the 1980s (www.teachingenglish.org.uk).
The texts were all presented the same way: as a native speaker, I was to read the text first without translation to the students. It was difficult to persuade my counterpart not to translate from the very beginning. In rural Armenia I noticed there is a tendency among teachers to exhibit their knowledge. They are the sentinels of the discipline they teach. It is considered important that they impress this upon the students. Regardless of the level of English familiarity in the class my counterpart would translate everything. She did so in a defensive manner that seemed to ask no one in particular, “I know what this sentence means. Who says I don’t?” Students in their fifth and sixth years of English study would still have the page numbers translated for them. There was no incentive to learn. All the student would have to do was to wait for the forthcoming translation if anything was said in English. It was not what one would call a challenging environment.
We spent at least two weeks on the Monsters in Macy’s reading. I continually patrolled the class when not actively instructing and checked comprehension as we practiced differentiated instruction. I rarely found any evidence among the students that they had the slightest idea what the reading was about. When we finished the reading my counterpart was all set to move on to the next banal and irreverent section in the book. I stopped her and asked if I could ask the class a few questions about the reading. She seemed nervous, but responded in the affirmative. The first question I asked was what the word green meant. I asked the question in Armenian so there wouldn’t be any confusion.
“Green inch e nashanakum ?”
There was no response. At this point I had been working with these kids for three months. They had no problems understanding my accent, which had been based in their dialect anyway, as I had learned the bulk of my language, like most Peace Corps volunteers, after I had gotten to my permanent site and began interacting with people. I repeated the question and one brave student ventured a guess.
“grel?” She asked. “Grel” is the infinitive for “write” in Armenian. I pointed to a green poster on the wall.
“Sa inch gyun a ?”
“Kanatch ,” they all replied.
“Kanatch vonc klini anglerenov ?”
It took a few seconds before one student made the connection. “Green?” she offered. All the other students were quiet. I turned to my counterpart with a look that said, “You see? There’s no way they understood anything we’ve been trying to teach them from this reading if they don’t even know such basic vocabulary as the colors.” Despite this and other similar attempts to demonstrate the impracticality of the means of conveying lessons in such a way, I was never able to get my counterpart to meet me for more than a few minutes before or after school. As this was a secondary assignment, I, too, eventually gave up trying to plan lessons and just tried to augment the classroom lessons with as much real and interactive English as possible.
Returning to the scene at hand, I sit in the teacher’s lounge. I read. I talk to the other two male teachers a little. I try to ignore the TV blasting a Russian-dubbed Brazilian soap opera into the room. When the bell rings I get up and meet my counterpart over by the door, only then do we interact at all, although we have been in the same room for the last ten minutes. I ask her which class we’re going to, since the schedule changes all the time, depending on which teachers came to class that day. I don’t get a chance to see what we’ll be teaching until I walk in the classroom with my counterpart. The students, well-trained, all rise.
Our first class is third grade (or form). These students, in their first year of learning English, are probably the only ones who aren’t thoroughly sick of it. In keeping with tradition the students are all very well-dressed in mostly black and white formal clothes. The class is ebullient with the excitement of unspoiled youth. I only make it to their class once a week, and since I am something of a novelty and I play games with them, they seem happy to see me.
Sometimes, I am able to communicate to my counterpart that there is something I’d like to do to begin the lesson and I can pre-teach a little of the relevant content by selecting a simple activity from a repertoire of such activities that I have amassed after teaching in varied contexts. Echevarria et al. in their book Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners, write of the benefits of previewing material in such a way before beginning a new unit. “When students’ attention is focused on the specific information they will be responsible for learning in the lesson, student are able to prepare themselves for the information that is coming, making it more comprehensible for them” (83). These activities are really basic, but help to introduce material and motivate students. In this particular unit I have noticed there are a few colors mentioned. I don’t know if the students have been introduced to these colors yet so I quickly color in six pieces of paper with red, blue, yellow, green, orange and purple.
I place these papers on the chalkboard and write the names above them in English. I read each on to the students slowly, automatically, they repeat what I say. After we have gone through all the colors once, I hold up each piece of paper and ask students what color it is. When I return each piece of paper back to its place on the board I intentionally put it in the wrong spot. I put green in the orange spot. I don’t say anything. I just put it there and look at them. After a while a student corrects me. I ask her to come up and put it in the correct spot, each time students saying the proper name for the color. After each piece of paper is in the correct spot I pretend to accidentally knock all the papers off the board. The students laugh. Acting flustered I put them back in the wrong places. Of course, by this point the students are getting to know these six colors pretty well, so it’s not hard for them to come to the board and correct my mistake. I conclude the pre-teaching portion by walking around the room and pointing to different objects, asking which color they are.
When I am finished my counterpart comes to the front of the room and tells the students to take out their books. She speaks only Armenian to them and they all duly open their texts to the unit on the letter “G”. I wince, having read, numerous times, things like, “It is important not to let your classes go to excess in the use of the students’ native language” (Brown 118). Each student is to have memorized the page and my counterpart calls on each one, asking for their recitation. She doesn’t stop to check meaning until they arrive at the part where the text mentions that “green” begins with “G.” My counterpart stops and looks at me, she turns back to the class and asks if anyone knows what “green” means. When they all shout out the translation in Armenian, my counterpart and I both smile. It may not have been monumental progress for one day, but it was something.
Adapting to the Armenian Classroom
Over the years that I lived and worked in Armenia, I taught in many different contexts, much like the one described above. None of them were easy at first. My primary assignment was to a recently opened university in the town of Yeghegnadzor, the regional capital of the Vyots Dzor region, the country’s smallest region. The university, in its fourth year of operation when I arrived, had not yet seen a graduating class. I taught classes there, from the beginning of my service, to a wide range of students. As I have mentioned, my only previous experience teaching in Armenia at this point had been teaching practicum classes during my pre-service training, which were entirely unrealistic, as far as classroom management and English ability were concerned. My students in my practicum classes were selected from among the best schools in the Charentsavan area. These students, most of them girls, were all very well-behaved and very interested in learning English. This was not, I later found, to be the case throughout the country.
When I arrived in Yeghegnadzor, after finishing PST, on August 15th, 2008, I had two weeks before my classes began to integrate myself and prepare my lessons. In order to be better prepared I went daily to the university to talk with what faculty I could find, and see what was going to be available to the students in the library for extra-curricular work. I attempted to meet with my counterpart a few times during this period, but found it especially difficult owing to the fact that she lived in the capital and rarely came to the university when there were no classes being held. Our first meeting was to be about a week before classes officially began.
It was a hot day in late August when I went down to a local café to meet with Nune, who was to be my counterpart. I had been instructed, as a final assignment of my training, to plan a lesson with her before the term began. I got to the café first and waited around with a book and a coffee for a while. Eventually, Nune appeared, looking tired. I came to understand that this was to be a common disconnect between the staff and myself, as they were subject to meetings and project advisement with graduating students, and that we would often be on different schedules. There were many times over the years that followed when my counterpart was exhausted just when I was ready to plan a lesson or discuss student performance. There were also occasions when I had stayed up late working on other projects (such as grants and community projects) when I would come to the university already tired before the day had even begun.
I tried to abide by the same duties that were mandatory for my counterpart, but as the meetings were all conducted in Armenian, it was to be almost two years before I could really take much information away from them. I found it difficult to sit through hours of a lecture that was nearly incomprehensible. Although I was initially able to speak on a basic level, I found it very difficult to listen to a sustained monologue. And, as these meetings were not mandatory for me, I eventually stopped attending them, in order to work on other projects I found more pressing.
After Nune and I had talked for a little while and I felt that she had sufficiently relaxed I asked if she was ready to plan a lesson. She responded that she was, but that she had to leave soon to catch a marshutka back to Yerevan.
Almost immediately, I realized that I was going to have to be really assertive if I wanted to add anything to the curriculum that she had been teaching for years and was very familiar, and therefore comfortable with. As we looked over an example introductory lesson plan I had been given by the Peace Corps, Nune suggested checking student comprehension and doing evaluations at the end in ways that I had been taught were outdated. She wanted to add dictation exercises at every available juncture in the lesson, and seemed to want to translate everything into Armenian. Basically, it seemed to me almost as if she wanted to sabotage the lesson and render the students completely reliant on her.
During training the Peace Corps staff had warned us, although very briefly, that we may encounter such resistance to new teaching techniques. My response to her ambivalence about whether students learned anything or not (as I understood it at the time) was to redouble my efforts. I launched into lengthy tirades about what I labeled “outdated methods” and gave examples from my studies about the absurdity of making students endlessly repeat after their teacher, never taking responsibility for their own learning. I cited the principle of student autonomy. “Successful mastery of a foreign language will depend to a great extent on the learners’ autonomous ability both to take initiative in the classroom and to continue their journey to success beyond the classroom and the teacher” (Brown 70).
After about an hour of this she seemed to concede to a compromise. I took certain portions of the lesson, where, I explained, I would introduce more modern methods of communicating the material such as Total Physical response (TPR) and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). After my impassioned argument I could tell Nune was somewhat interested to see how I would implement this material. We had just about finished writing the lesson plan when she stood up and announced that she had to catch her marshutka.
About mid-way through the first week I began to understand Nune’s reluctance to teach through the more modern methods in an Armenian classroom. About a year and a half later I completely understood her reluctance.
In my first week at the university I changed counterparts. In fact, it was the third, and thankfully last time the I would be paired up with a different teacher. The change was actually something that I initiated myself. After lesson planning with Nune and seeing her reluctance to undertake different teaching methods I was overjoyed to find two of the women who had worked at the Peace Corps training sessions over the summer in attendance in the teacher’s lounge on the first day of classes. Although throughout pre-service training I had only talked to the Arakelyan sisters a few times I knew them to be cheerful and intelligent teachers. Since, I had concluded, these women had worked with Peace Corps volunteers in the past, they knew more of what to expect from them, and, by extension, me.
On the first day on school I was scheduled to teach a few classes on my own, something, to my knowledge, no other Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia ever did. I assumed that my previous teaching experience had somehow induced this decision, either on the part of the university administrators, or the Peace Corps staff who knew what kind of work I would be doing at my institution. Instead of complaining about my position, I decided to just go ahead and teach the sections for the semester to see how they would go.
My first day went well enough, but it quickly brought my limited language and experience capacity to the fore. After classes had finished that day, I went back to the teacher’s lounge to review my material, and make any necessary adjustments for the next day. I found Anna Arakelyan sitting in the room, also going over papers, and again began talking with her. I talked of my aspirations for the semester, of the things I hoped to be able to communicate to my students and what, I hoped, I would be able to learn about their learning styles. Anna seemed interested in all this. She asked me if I would like to come to her classes on occasion and I said that I would enjoy that as I didn’t have too many scheduled. It was de facto, but, shortly after our conversation, I changed my counterpart to Anna Arakelyan. I worked with Anna at Giteliq university for the first year and at Slavonski Universitet on a monthly basis in Yerevan the second. Anna, although I don’t know if she was ever aware of it, was probably my greatest support throughout my two years in Armenia.
The main thing that I had not been prepared for, and as a result would seriously advocate for any Peace Corps volunteer in training, was classroom management. Before going into the Peace Corps, none of my teaching experience had been sustained beyond a year. I had classroom management difficulty when I was teaching in America. Like many new teachers, I would leave the class at the end of the day often feeling as though I had done nothing but yell and discipline for six hours. Whether I was dealing with the apathy of high-schoolers or the enthusiasm of fourth graders, I was woefully underprepared. However, my cultural knowledge of these situations often provided me with ample equipment to skirt major breakdowns in communication. I was always able to avoid sliding into the abyss of total classroom mutiny. As I had attended similar institutions growing up, I was able to recall what had bored or annoyed me, especially in substitute teacher contexts. I recalled the importance of winning the students over somehow in order to facilitate the rest of the lesson. I was often able to reference popular American culture in my explanations and in doing so, was able to bring the students over to my perspective and to cut the traditional distance between teacher and student. In Brown’s Teaching by Principles, he quotes Martha Pennington as she enumerates the key attributes of a successful teacher; among these she lists “informed knowledge of yourself and your students” (490). As I didn’t know my Armenian students like I had known my American students, I struggled with this for quite a while.
Having only had a few months of cultural training before arriving at my job site of Giteliq University, I had almost no knowledge of what the students; daily lives were like. This is something very important that is overlooked in the Peace Corps training materials. As volunteer trainees we learned about different team teaching methods, different ways of communicating material and about the history of the Armenian education system, but nothing was explained to us of our students. For example, I continually tried to use Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) techniques without being aware of the potential for these, especially in an Armenian context, to “reflect a cultural bias that is not universally embraced” (Brown 518).
When I began working I tried to fall back on techniques that had worked in America. When I felt I was losing control of the class I would pause the lesson and ask the students why they were acting disrespectfully. I tried to appeal to them, to get them to understand that I was there as a tool for them, and although I was very much interested in the material I was trying to communicate, I was teaching it for their benefit, not my own. In American schools, I had had success with this open discussion device. The students would open up and tell me why they were having a hard time following the lesson. Often, our dialogue would be constructive. I would promise to modify certain behaviors if they in turn would modify their own. In Armenia, this device did not work at all. It was preemptively blocked by cultural norms that I had no knowledge of when I first began teaching. The experience of the students, or their schemata, played a larger role in their apprehension of language than I understood. Echevarria et al write on this concept of a learner’s schemata. “ It is a widely accepted notion among experts that a reader’s schemata—knowledge of the world—provide a basis for understanding, learning and remembering facts and ideas found in stories and texts” (54).
Armenian education is still largely based on the Soviet system, whereby the instructor is the supreme carrier of knowledge, uncompromising and inflexible. My students had never had a teacher who didn’t conform to this expectation. All through their schooling history they had been given a lesson to repeat back. There was nothing in the way of autonomy or willingness to learn. The students had never been made to feel personally responsible for the material, the way American students are taught to learn. There is always a correct answer and it is always the intellectual property of the instructor. In class the students would either participate or be ignored; they would either be respectful or be cuffed on the ear. There was no middle ground. All my students had a similar understanding of the classroom. I was the exception. Hessler, a Peace Corps volunteer in China, writes of this phenomenon of student collective understanding. “I realized that I was not teaching forty-five students with forty-five individual ideas. I was teaching a group, and these were moments when the group thought as one, and a group like that was a mob, even if it was silent and passive” (Hessler 173).
My problems arose precisely from trying to find that middle ground. I sought dialogue with my students. They were, after all, university-level students, capable, I thought, of self-monitoring. After a few months had gone by I noticed that my appeals to the class were always unheeded. When I tried to talk directly to my students I would be ignored and the level of calamity in the class would only rise, until at last, the bell would dispel the nightmare of another class where nothing had been accomplished.
During this stage I knew I was doing something wrong, but couldn’t seem to fully understand what it was. Luckily, it was not just my problem, as our annual All-Volunteer Conference in November showed. Up until I shared the session with my fellow TEFL volunteers, in which we related our successes and setbacks, mostly setbacks at that time, I had taken every mistake personally. Every failed class seemed like a pronouncement about my teaching abilities. It hardly occurred to me at the time that I was simply out of cultural sync with my students. When I began to talk with my fellow volunteers I realized that we were all making similar mistakes, based on the clash of our own backgrounds with those of our students and their expectations.
The Need for an Informed Grammar Translation Approach to Language Learning in Post-Soviet Republics
Before leaving for Armenia, before I was too certain where Armenia even was on a map, I was taking graduate classes on TEFL pedagogy, reading about the methods and principles behind the teaching process. Over the course of my studies I was frequently flustered by what seemed to me like a self-perpetuating argument over the correct method through which to teach a foreign language. Brown notes this constant state of academic flux, “For the century spanning the mid-1880s to the mid-1980s, the language-teaching profession may be aptly characterized by a series of methods that rose and declined in popularity” (14). I understood the value in learning the history of methodological language instruction, but the constant shift from one school of thought to another left me with little faith that an absolute solution would ever be reached. I couldn’t understand why modern textbooks would hold up new methods such as Communicative Language teaching (CLT) or Content-Based instruction (CBI) as ideal models. In short, it seemed to me there was no value in following a model that was inevitably going to be outdated by another fad in a few years. Over the course of my time in Armenia I came to agree with the other TEFL instructors. “English teachers, especially those who teach students of totally different cultural backgrounds, have discovered that the best method of teaching is an unattainable ideal, for what works well with people from one group may be a failure with those from another” (Parry 665).
Since the Grammar Translation method, so widely espoused in Armenia, was so often vilified, I sought to defend it. Contemporary scholarship, though it may weakly admit to a few workable points in the Grammar Translation method, has reached an accord in choosing the Grammar Translation method as a scapegoat without fully considering the implications of this decision, namely that it isolates certain communities which maintain historic relationships between teacher and student, and, regardless of the amount of coercion evinced by the west, will not change their social order to accommodate liberalized concepts of teacher-student relations anytime soon.
Brown defines a method as “a generalized set of classroom specifications for accomplishing linguistic objectives…concerned primarily with student roles and behaviors and secondarily with such features as linguistic and subject-matter objectives, sequencing and materials”(17). As other aspects of pedagogical study as well as sociology are constantly redefining student-teacher roles, language-teaching pedagogy must constantly adjust itself to accommodate new schools of thought on these roles; the result is a constantly shifting ideal method, in which past understanding and recent innovations are combined.
The mutability of TEFL scholarship makes it a difficult subject to define. As multifarious disciplines have informed its attitudes from psychology to social justice, it becomes more thoroughly obfuscated. Multiple views combine to form viewpoints that, while they may be totally relevant in one context, are nearly inapplicable in another. TEFL pedagogy must frequently consider its context. Since classes in Japan and Bolivia are going to differ greatly, TEFL pedagogy must attempt to be concise and flexible enough to inform teachers in both teaching contexts. “Teachers need to understand what is most appropriate for students of the particular cultural groups with which they deal and must base this understanding on realistic expectations of the students’ behavior” (Parry 665-6).
From my experience teaching in Armenia, a country where the primary second language is Russian (ongoing, due to work migration), I’ve adduced that such a country’s values are greatly under-represented in TEFL pedagogy. The condemnation of the Grammar Translation method is an example of such cultural inconsideration. To westerners, and those who teach in countries that have adopted western values, Grammar Translation “is a theory for which there is no theory” (Richards & Rodgers 7). It is seen as a non-method that was once used to give isolated language instruction, that is, language instruction almost totally divorced from a context. But that might be a necessary attribute in a country that has yet to develop anything other than tenuous connections with the English-speaking world. Richards and Rodgers find fault with Grammar Translation for the lack of “literature that offers a justification for it or that attempts to relate it to issues in linguistics, psychology, or educational theory” (Richards & Rodgers 7). What they do not seem to consider are the different ways the lack of ethnocentric thought might make it universally applicable.
It is easy to forget that many impoverished tropical countries have large tourist industries. In countries like Cambodia, Kenya and Colombia, where the overall quality of life is low, most of the people in these countries have seen some foreigners skulk through their village or swarm their capital city. While the fall of the USSR may have opened up many erstwhile Soviet republics in the west, many of its eastern republics are still under nominal totalitarian control. Visa regulations are impossibly Stygian for westerners as most despots still harbor a deep-seated xenophobia. The result is that the countries of the Caucasus and central Asia often defy convenient categorization. Not only is it difficult to establish which geopolitical zone to which these countries belong, but to apply standard TEFL scholarship to students in these countries, one would quickly find most materials completely inapplicable to the situation in the classroom. De Waal, a specialist on the area, describes the Caucasus as “‘lands in between.’ In between the Black and Caspian seas, Europe and Asia, Russia and the Middle East, Christianity and Islam and, more recently, democracy and dictatorship” (1). In such a place of transition, English education is just another voice fighting for an audience. It must relate to the people in order to be properly understood.
Such isolated countries may have a basic understanding of the need for English instruction in schools, but since there is little evidence of English as an international lingua franca in such places, scholarship is stagnant, with innovations being implemented from a capital city that is often very out of touch with the situation in the rest of the country.
It is extremely frustrating to teach in a place that continually defies one’s expectations. While studying in the US I had learned certain things about EFL scholarship that I had been led to believe were universal. The one that loomed in my mind after a few months of teaching in Armenia was that grammar translation is “remembered with distaste by thousands of school learners” (Richards and Rodgers 6). I had not taken proper account of the learning differences of different cultures. As Ellis writes on teaching in Vietnam based on the CLT method,
In the confusion between Eastern and Western world-views, it is quite natural to fall into the trap of assigning one's own hierarchy of goals and value orientations to our counterparts from the other culture. The often unexamined practice of making casual attributions about the behavior of people from other cultures from our own perspective is part of a much larger picture, in which social interactions in one culture are distorted through the prism of values in another.
After I had spent hours planning lessons that accounted for multiple intelligences, promoted learner autonomy and lowered affective filters, I was shocked to see an immediate loss of respect for me glean balefully in the eyes of my students. Sometimes they laughed at the actions I would model for them, but the laughter had a derisive edge that seemed to imply that my attempts to teach them were only humorous because I was making a fool of myself, not because they were at all novel. My lessons followed this ridiculous form for months. I tried to vary them as much as possible, but with almost every activity encountered resistance. The students did not want to stand up. They were embarrassed. They did not want to get into pairs. The ones who had formed a perception of themselves as bad drawers did not want to draw. It was not their job to draw, as they were not good at it. No amount of coaxing or cajoling would convince them otherwise.
At some point, totally exhausted after about two months of late-night lesson planning and five hours of lessons a day, not to mention living with my second host family and still having to adjust to the prevailing culture around me, I decided to drop a worksheet into a lesson I was doing on prepositions. As the worksheet included directions like “up,” “down” and “to the right/left of” it seemed to tie in well enough to my lesson, but I disliked using a worksheet. For one thing copies were hard to make; The university only had one machine that broke down all the time (since some American organization had donated this machine, I never heard the end of it from the rest of the staff when it broke down on me; initially it was funny, but by the third time I got really tired of it). Most importantly, I felt like I was letting myself down by giving my students a readily prepared worksheet. I used to heartily dislike such assignments when I was in school. Even at an early age I rebelled against what I saw as a wall against creative input. The systematic form of the worksheet disguised itself as fun with a few graphics, but was mostly a rote fill-in-the-blanks exercise, scrambled words and word finds being good examples of such activities that didn’t require one to do anything with the learned information other than to locate it and write it down, independent of a definition.
The class I had prepared the worksheets for was one of my worst ones. The girls in their second year of elementary education studies seemed to have no desire to listen to me at all. A lot of what I encountered working in a university outside the capital of Armenia was similar to a high school setting in America. The students were mostly deprived of a social life with each other. In rural Armenia boys and girls are not really allowed to mingle outside of school and most students lived at home with their parents. The result was that the university was a sort of base for socializing that the students indulged in whenever they could. Young men who did not attend the school would crowd around the front stairs when classes finished for the day to attempt to talk with the girls exiting. Frequently, many of my students would show up to class flooded by emotions in a way that I had not seen since middle school. Bursts of tears or sudden bouts of illness were not uncommon sights. It was distracting to teach around surrounded by events that the students found much more important than English class. When the class began four or five girls were clustered around a single desk talking together in a disjointed and rapid manner. When the bell rang I asked them to take their seats so we could begin class. At first I was ignored, but eventually the girls took their seats.
Over the course of the class I struggled to demonstrate prepositional use to the students. Still adhering to the idea that techniques from the Grammar Translation method were destructive, I tried to avoid translating anything, especially if it could be readily demonstrated. As prepositions of place were easy to demonstrate I had brought in a stuffed animal to aid me in the process of teaching them.
I placed the stuffed animal (a duck) above the table and pronounced “over.” I wrote the word on the board. I then continued in this manner with other prepositions of place. I had hoped to engage any kinesthetic and visual learners in the class by having the students act out the prepositions of place by standing, in different positions, around their chairs, based on what they had seen from the example. The students, although they had previously demonstrated to me that they did not know the prepositions, seemed to be incredibly bored by this activity. They acted very put out, as if I had asked them all to do something outrageously stupid. Simply, I was not taking their culture into account. Parry, in her article Culture, Literacy, and L2 Reading, considers how culture can be easily overlooked. “The relationship between cultural identity and individual behavior is subtle, complex and easily oversimplified” (666).
After I took them through the activity of modeling the prepositions (motivation), writing them down and asking for clarification (presentation) and demonstrating understanding through the physical activity in which the students modeled the prepositions (practice), we moved on to the final (application) stage of the lesson plan. I introduced the worksheets at this point. Every student got a copy and I was surprised to hear them suddenly go nearly silent as they began looking at them. I explained the purpose of the activity (to demonstrate understanding of prepositions of place) in Armenian and told them that they’d have to listen carefully to me to complete the task. The worksheet was a grid with four or five pictures scattered throughout it. The point on the assignment was to listen to the numbers and prepositions I gave in order to draw a figure in the correct box. I explained that if everyone followed the directions all the worksheets would look the same at the end of the period (I shuddered inwardly at the self-betrayal I accused myself of through this last sentence).
I began the first set of instructions slowly. The room was the quietest I had heard it all year. It was the quietest I had heard any room in any Armenian classroom. Finally, I had gotten the students to listen to me, but how? The answer was not so difficult to understand. As heirs to the legacy of the Soviet education system, the students in my classes had a very different idea about what went on in the classroom. Students were expected to act out to some degree, especially the boys, but they also expected to be slapped upside the head with a book for it. Although education is greatly respected in Armenia, I often found that in rural areas it was shrugged off, especially for boys who would all be joining the army through conscription at the age of 18. I had a conversation once with my host family in which the mother informed me, with a slight grin, that while both girls were good students, the boy just couldn’t focus. For boys whose families did not have much money, the military was to be the experience that would make them into men, not going to the university. For boys whose families were wealthy, mandatory conscription did not apply to them. Khodzhabekian, considering the disparities in Armenian education, considers what mandatory conscription has done to his country: “The moral health of society is negatively affected by the sharp division of young people into men who have been able to acquire large incomes and avoid serving in the National Army [sic]” (4).
The Soviet system of education, as it persists today is also firmly rooted in the Grammar Translation method. Students are “expected to translate…The ability to communicate in the target language is not a goal…The Teacher is the authority in the classroom…Students should be conscious of the grammatical rules of the target language. Whenever possible, verb conjugations and other grammatical paradigms should be committed to memory” (Larsen-Freeman 16-17). Grammar was a major focus that would be explained inordinately in Armenian (L1). Dictations were common in classroom instruction. Most of the material came from outdated Soviet textbooks and often dealt with obscure if not altogether occult topics. The language in these exercises was so convoluted even I, as a native speaker, sometimes struggled to understand it. Sometimes students would spend an entire period copying down what the teacher had read to them. Their homework would be to translate the text in Armenian. In some classes they did little else. The students also rarely spoke English in class. They often repeated things from the book totally divorced from any kind of context. Until these university students had me they had never been taught another way.
As horrible and unproductive as it sounds, the constant repetition worked for Armenian students learning Russian because it was more accessible. The students’ parents all knew Russian and many people had relatives in Russia. In some way, everyone in Armenia had a direct connection to this language. Russian idioms were sprinkled through everyday Armenian conversations. Sometimes, especially in the larger towns of the north like Gyumri (Leninakan) people would just switch into Russian with no warning, sometimes without even realizing they were doing it.
From the perspective of the students their Russian education had worked well enough. They didn’t seem to realize that what had worked for a language that was readily accessible to them (Russian), had failed for one that was not (English). However, because of the prevailing notions of teacher and student roles, one could not deviate too far from the rigors of the Grammar Translation method to introduce language to these students. The teacher had to remain an authoritative figure. Outside the capital, to do anything inventive was to throw away all credibility. Sapargul and Sartor gloss over this notion in their essay on teaching English in another former Soviet country, Turkmenistan. “Although [Grammar Translation] is a widely criticized method, some students prefer its teacher-centered activities” (1).
The solution for Armenia, and other post-Soviet countries, needs to be one tailored to their specific needs, not one based on inapplicable findings of classrooms in Japan or Chile. The unique situation of these countries demands that the instructor assume a certain role, one that is in keeping with the mores and expectations of these countries. Likewise, a certain teaching model must also be implemented in order to successfully reach students and faculty alike. It is unrealistic and hegemonic to expect that TEFL instruction has any universal precepts. Every good instructor will adapt to his or her class. The situation in post-Soviet countries, however, will require the instructor to challenge his/her notions of what good language teaching is. According to established TEFL scholars, such as Brown, as teachers we must “Respect the diversity of cultural patterns and expectations among our students, while utilizing the best methodological approaches available to accomplish course goals and objectives” (518).
Research in TEFL pedagogy has been shown to be variable. One method eventually gives way to another and the idea that may be in vogue this year will be discredited later. Because there is no single answer on how best to instruct a class, a good instructor should utilize all available resources. If students are accustomed to learning through the Grammar Translation method, it should be employed in the classroom although tempered with other methods of instruction. The goal is not to emulate the other instructors the students may have, but to model just enough instruction on culturally accepted methods to gain the students’ trust and attention in class. Once the students have identified a TEFL instructor with their culturally-enforced concept of instructor, one can begin to challenge them in different ways, without fear of their bewilderment and misunderstanding.
My class would have had a much easier time understanding my position as an instructor if I had presented the material to them initially using the prescribed methods. I wouldn’t have made the mistake of having to stumble upon what was expected teaching material after months of inattentive classes. Had I begun with common teaching material I could have been on my way to using more creative teaching methods after a few months, instead of reeling at the spell-binding effects worksheets had on my students.
Overcoming Isolation and Integrating into Armenian Life
Although I did spent a lot of time in the classroom and planning lessons, I still had a good amount of free time. Simply put, for the first few months, there were no distractions. Since I had moved from the house of my second host family in December into my own apartment, I suddenly found myself with free time that I could spend on my own terms.
My first year in the country I was missing a lot, both in the sense that I wasn’t comprehending certain things about life in Armenia, and that I was longing for the past which was unavailable to me. I spent many afternoons in my apartment after classes, wanting to avoid the world outside my door, the world of students who didn’t listen to me, of teachers who poked fun at me and of groups of young men on almost every corner with nothing better to do than making kissing noises when I passed. Such troubles are fairly common among Peace Corps volunteers. Hessler writes of similar experiences teaching in China: “I was run down by the pressure of daily life as a waiguoren [‘foreigner’ in Sichuan dialect]. It was tiring always being the center of attention, and being a foreigner meant that you were more likely to attract complications” (294).
As the first winter set in I still had no viable connections to my community, other than my position at the university. Even there I had little to depend on as most of the faculty came in from Yerevan to teach. The place was almost entirely empty and silent over the weekend or any holidays. Even all the students in the dorms would return home for the weekend whenever possible. Other than the cleaners, I didn’t have too many people to talk to when classes weren’t in session. As kind as they were, talking with the cleaners wasn’t quite enough to break the melancholy that seized me after the rains started and roving groups of villagers cut all the branches off the few trees in town for firewood for the coming winter. Overnight, the charming utility of the soviet architecture suddenly menaced the town with the look of military occupation and cultural erasure.
For a few months I spent my time off shuffling around, walking to all the nearby towns, climbing the peaks that stuck out, higher than the rest of the mountains, against the rolling leaden sky. I met people, or I made people’s acquaintance, but I had no friends. I received numerous offers, after being invited into different homes, to return again soon, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to make this decision. I returned home in the evenings, on many occasions, to stand in my kitchen for a while, doing nothing, before moving into the living room to do the same thing. It was around this time that I began the practice of staring out the window. This, though it may sound irrelevant, signaled a drastic change in my demeanor and my ability to cope with the foreign ideological climate.
Until the evening when I found myself sitting by the window, doing nothing for hours on end other than looking into the night, I had always led a fast-paced life. Before leaving for Armenia, I had convinced myself that I would be able to cope with the absence of activities and distractions offered by western society with little problem. But I came to this conclusion without understanding how much self-effacement it required. In Armenia the solitude and lack of activity encouraged a degree of self-reflection that I had never before experienced.
When living abroad in western countries there is always some place to go or someone to meet, but in the developing world where young people get married in their early twenties, I found it very difficult to meet new people. Social life in Armenia was not nonexistent. In fact, I later came to find that it’s much more vibrant than its American equivalent, but that it occurs on a level that was almost invisible to me when I first arrived as a foreigner. Over the many evenings and nights that I initially spent sitting on the windowsill, watching time drift over the sky I came to understand that I was looking for the wrong thing, and that if I were going to make it through another two years in the country I would have to adjust my expectations.
From this point on, probably about January of my first year in the country, I began to alter my expectations, gradually allowing for the known aspects of Armenian culture to influence my outlook. I began to consider what people did, how their communal lives functioned and soon I found myself with a large number of options as to how I could spend my free time. But while I was gradually beginning to understand social life in Armenia, its microcosm form in the classroom continued to elude my comprehension.
After I began to feel familiar with the cultural environment I began to interact with much greater facility. I made friends all over town, from passing acquaintances to families whose homes I would visit on a bi-weekly basis for dinner. But as my social circles began to expand so did my work load. Where I was once employed solely by the university, and to some degree its resident NGO office that had funded its construction and other local projects under the title of Syunik NGO, I soon found myself working all over town, in many different capacities. During the day I would hear the mantra of the Peace Corps in my head. “The type of work a volunteer does is ultimately determined by the needs of the host country” (emphasis added) (www.peacecorps.gov).
It began with translation work. Word quickly spread that if anyone needed anything translated into English that I could do a flawless job as a native speaker. It didn’t seem to make too much difference that my Armenian was not very good. As long as I furnished some kind of translation my varying clients were usually happy. This sort of work began on a very mundane basis, such as the women at the post office calling me down to read something that had arrived with Latin writing on it, but it quickly accelerated when fellow professors at the university began asking me to do translations for their abstracts on topics like mechanical propulsion that were totally alien to me.
I also began to do tutoring, the activity that would become the most relevant. Initially, I was careful to avoid tutoring work. In training, we had all been warned that our entire communities would probably mob us for tutoring sessions upon our arrival at our permanent sites. As this never happened to me, although I know it did to some volunteers in other areas, I was grateful to have an opportunity to interact with people on a more personal level throughout the bleak months of winter. Tutoring forced me out of my apartment on days when I may have stayed in and read until dark. It also brought me much nearer to the basic unit of Armenian social life: the family.
Over my two years in Armenia, I tutored at least seven people of various ages, for various lengths of time. In some situations my tutoring sessions functioned like planned classes. In others I would show up with an ad hoc lesson, knowing that most of what I would be doing would be very basic. As time passed and my Armenian improved, some of these sessions became little more than open invitations to dinner, something which pleased me immensely after cooking all my own food for nearly a year.
I mention the tutoring because I think it lends itself well to my overall experience in the country. Some of the groups that I began working with when I first arrived quickly broke up due to lack of interest, and honestly, my lack of concern, after already having taught all day at the university. What is interesting is that these initial groups foundered solely because they were in formal settings.
A prominent example of a structured tutoring group that failed was a group of kids I met through a local youth-based NGO. The director invited me in one day to view the accomplishments of the group through the medium of a photo collage. While she was telling me about the past accomplishments of the group she asked if I would be available one or two days a week after classes to come in and do a lesson in basic conversational English. Seeing what looked like an impressive display of projects completed by dedicated kids, I foresaw a classroom where I would be free of the constraints of the university and could teach in a more communicative style. I agreed and within two months I had completely lost the class. From the moment I would enter I could feel the students’ attention slipping away. After about twenty minutes or so, they had completely ceased to listen to me.
I’ll never really know what went wrong in these classes. I planned, what I thought to be, fun and interesting lessons, although perhaps my cultural ineptitude (this was still early in my time in Yeghegnadzor) again prevented me from communicating with the students, much as it did in my initial lessons with the university students. Instead of drilling the students on verb tenses I posted a thematic word list on a board and elicited answers from them. This was followed by a hands-on type of activity, in which they would demonstrate knowledge of these concepts through the creation of something, a map or a recipe for instance. I don’t remember any of the activities being well received, but, as Brown writes, “Not all educational traditions value the learner-centered, interactive approaches” (518).
My one-on-one tutoring sessions tended to go much better, although for various reasons all but one of these came to an end before I left the country. When I became more well-versed in student expectations, I was able to anticipate their responses to my lessons much better. Although I never ceased to include some communicative language aspect in them, I learned how to maintain the dignified air of a teacher as my students had come to understand the concept.
One of my tutoring experiences proved more valuable than I could have expected for myself. It was late February of my first year in the country when I got a phone call in which someone, in Armenian, asked me about learning English. Since I had gotten a few similar phone calls at this point that had yielded no-shows, I was quite evasive and non-committal on the phone, using the language that I had learned to deal with these specific situations.
“Ok, sure, just call me when you want to meet. It’s got to be over the weekend, though, I have to work all week,” I said, assuming I’d probably never hear from this person again. I was quite surprised to hear her response.
“Can you meet now?”
It was already getting late and I had class the next day, but for some reason I decided to risk it. I agreed on meeting Hyarpi at a local café to assess her English ability.
After that initial meeting I met with Hyarpi at least once a week for the rest of the time that I was in the country. Our lessons were never very well-ordered, and she didn’t do anything beyond what I asked of her. Even what I asked of her would be done quickly, often right before we were to meet. Still, Hyarpi was considerate, and more studious than most of my students at the university. Although she would often complain of not being able to understand anything, she often knew much more than she would let on. I tried a number of ways to coax some oral English practice out of her, but, much like all her peers she would do nothing other than write. She didn’t like to have to perform in any way, despite the fact that she was one of the least inhibited people I have ever known.
My time tutoring Hyarpi really brought to the fore my understanding of how prominent the Grammar Translation method is in Armenia. I understood it in class, and even with a small group of students after school. Hyarpi’s reserve in her own home, however, demonstrated just how pervasive the accepted roles of teacher and student were. It was around this time when I began to become better acquainted with the concept of amot or shamefulness.
Amot: A Concept of Status Quo
In the streets, near the apartment blocks, out in the deeply-rutted lanes of the villages one can hear the call, usually made by older women, determining what is and isn’t appropriate for Armenian society. Not only did I hear the concept of amot being tossed around the marzer (see note xiii.) I also heard it in the cynosure of modernity, the capital, Yerevan. Nearly everywhere I went, I heard people pass judgment. In certain ways Armenian society looks very permissive. People hang around the market all afternoon with nothing to do. It’s not uncommon to drink vodka during the day, especially if it’s cold. Some of the areas inhabited by men (vulcanization service stations along the highway, marshutka stations for village to village travel or construction areas [usually a hole being dug in the road]) can appear very permissive, even gruff, in a way. Despite these superficial aspects, Armenia is an incredibly conservative society. An interview in the English-language Armenian magazine Ianyan underscores this in an article about Armenian perceptions regarding expressions that are viewed as outside the cultural norm:
“We are intolerant people,” said Boyadjian. “If you want to go dye your hair green for the month of January, because that’s how you want to express yourself, God knows what your father’s reaction is going to be and what’s the Armenian community going to think? You’re walking with green hair, which means you’re a prostitute probably” (Aghajanian).
Everything is totally regulated by the concept of what might be amot, from the clothes worn to school by the children to the way the shoes are to be organized in the hallway. If something slips out of line with the ascribed regulations it will be deemed amot or shameful. To say amot qez to someone does not sound like its literal translation of “shame on you,” but rather like the idiomatic “Well, I never!” I mention this because it had more bearing on my lessons than I had ever imagined. Although I learned of the concept early on, and was subject to blandishments when I violated its laws (I say blandishments because everyone went easier on me as a foreigner), I didn’t consider how it would affect my classroom until I was finally forced to recognize it.
Amot was a difficult concept for American volunteers to accept. All the expected cultural differences such as food, perception of time, music and social distance sound interesting when they are considered as singular representative things. Somehow, what is rarely considered is the overall outlook that creates these facets of culture. I came to Armenia with no understanding of what life was like there, and I think it took me longer than expected to eventually formulate an idea on this because I created so many false assumptions after I had first arrived. After five or six months, I grew confident that I understood the habits of the people on such diverse subjects as conversation, eating and going to church. I, therefore, made the mistake of thinking I understood the people in toto. What I was unable to apprehend was the universal concept of Armenian-ness to which I was purblind.
The concept of amot led me to a place where I could see some kind of greater rationale that concerned everything the people did. Even after 27 months I could not see Armenian-ness as the Armenians themselves could, but I had begun to unconsciously understand expectations about behaviors that for most of my first year I challenged and questioned, as did most of the other Americans. Asking why a certain thing was done and expecting an answer was something that we came to abandon. Having been taught that inquiry was the path to understanding we questioned that which was not immediately clear to us. When the Armenians could not furnish an immediate answer we began to consider certain aspects of their culture superfluous. We didn’t realize that some aspects had just been clouded by time, not by their lack of utility. While America is recreated daily, the rest of the world was established long ago, and the rules and norms that brought it out of the dark ages are the same ones subscribed to today, simply because they have always worked. To question them would be to question the point of abandoning the dark and seeking the light.
As this gradually became clearer to me I stopped questioning my counterpart Anna about everything she did. I stopped challenging her opinions as much because I began to understand that there was a logic to the way she thought that was different from anything to which I’d ever been exposed. It wasn’t a question of right or wrong, just different ways of understanding the world.
I mention all this to explain how I came to understand my students better. It began with Anna, my counterpart and Hyarpi, the student I tutored. Since I met with both of them a few times a week I gradually came to understand more about their values and, likewise, they came to understand mine. Having friends whom I taught and worked with began to clarify questions that I had had since my arrival in the country. Through Hyarpi I learned what mistakes I had been making in class, what cultural faux pas I had been unwittingly committing in front of my students. Until this point in my understanding, I had been ignoring the cries of protest from my students when I would act out of character for a teacher, or ask them to get out of their seats for the next activity. I assumed they just rebelled against the unconventional work because they were unaccustomed to it. I hadn’t considered the idea that it could be amot for them to do these things.
Most of the time, yes, the students just didn’t want to try a new activity. They wanted to stay in their seats and passively participate as they had been taught for their entire lives. Most of the time I was not asking them to do something culturally inappropriate, but it’s always a fine line between that which makes a student feel uncomfortable and that which breaks an ethical boundary. For example, an activity where I had students use the future tense to predict their futures met with great resistance. Most students didn’t want to comment on their futures for fear that they would jinx themselves. Now, while there was no explicit cultural rule that was being broken in this activity, I would not attempt it again, knowing what I do now. In every class some of the students refused to do this activity, but the majority didn’t seem to mind it too much. This led me to conclude that while it was not quite culturally inappropriate it came close enough to make it a lousy activity to force on the students that had no desire to proceed with it.
I learned these things from experience and from working closely with people like Anna and Hyarpi. Toward the end of my time in Armenia I had many different tutoring assignments and all of them taught me different aspects of the culture that were incredibly valuable to me later on. By my final tutoring assignment, I seemed to have discovered a pretty good formula for captivating the student’s interest and keeping with the sort of Grammar Translation formula to which they were so accustomed.
Although in many ways I would probably always be amot, I learned to understand more about how it regulated the behavior of the Armenians, how it automatically prohibited some options for instruction. I found ways to incorporate the concept into my lessons, to discuss it with some of my more advanced students. In the end I was able to use what had initially stunted my lessons as a means of exploring the lesson.
Conclusion: Where I Found My Armenia
It was over a year since my arrival before I left the Caucasus area to take a vacation. In June of 2009 I made a round trip over land from Armenia to Sarajevo, Bosnia with three friends. The trip took almost a month and in many ways was instrumental for my understanding of Armenia.
Until my second summer in Armenia I was coasting through my experience. It meant something to me on a personal level, and I believed that, despite all the difficulties, I was providing a valuable service to those I worked with. Something, however, seemed to be missing. By the end of my first year in the country I had written a grant proposal for a conflict resolution-themed camp for disadvantaged Georgian, Armenian and ethnic minority youth. I had taught classes at the university with English language majors proficient in the language and able to understand complex instructions. In the university, I had also taught students who were majoring in other subjects who knew little more than the ever-present “my name is,” something they all seemed to remember from their primary school education, regardless of how uninterested they were in English. I had stayed after school on average of two days a week to hold an English club for those interested and I had met with at least four students in their homes for private weekly lessons. In addition to this I was teaching a class with the local NIE (National Institute for Education) branch that used English instruction as a medium to convey communicative teaching methodology. Despite my multifaceted approach to working in the country, Armenia had not come to mean much to me outside the personal relationships I had established over the time that I had been there. I felt little connection to the country. When I considered my place in Armenia it was as little more than an outsider who had a rudimentary understanding of the language and culture. I knew some wonderful people, and as a result I didn’t feel as alienated as I had when I had first arrived, but, without these people, Armenia elicited very little emotional response from me. It was over my vacation that this finally changed.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t been trying to acculturate myself. In fact, over the first few months I had been trying very hard, but a number of events had slackened my resolve. The first was that I had a very hard time relating to the young men in the country. Most of the men I met who were my age were either married or preferred to sit around all day talking, quite lewdly, about girls and conquests. I don’t mean to stereotype, but after a year of living in Armenia and traveling all over I had met very few boys or young men that defied this definition. The typical young man squatted with his friends on the corner, ate sunflower seeds and smoked incessantly and guffawed loudly every time I walked by. It was hard to relate to these young men, and the positive encounters I did have were usually quickly effaced by the multifarious negative ones. It was difficult to relate to a country where the type of people who would usually be ideologically closest to you were, often, the farthest away.
I had learned by this time that I enjoyed interacting with children and their families, but despite how well I got along with the kids that lived in and around my bloc apartment, I still didn’t feel very close to them. Their families didn’t invite me over, and children can only provide so much in the way of a friend for a 25 year-old university instructor.
The other dilemma I faced was of the connections I felt were slipping back in the US. When I had first arrived in Armenia my friends and family had all been very excited for me. I got e-mails and letters from them with alacrity. We kept in close contact despite my far-away life, but after about seven months, our experiences had grown too different to be relative. When we would talk, I discussed things they didn’t understand. I could hear it in their voices. I tried to alter my conversations but quickly found I had nothing else to talk about. Armenia, though I still wasn’t sure what it really was, had become my life.
All these factors had also contributed to me becoming very close with the other volunteers in my region. From my group (A16) there were two other volunteers that lived in a town about twenty miles south of mine. Initially, we saw little of each other, but as time went by, and we began to realize that we weren’t just going to be able to become Armenians overnight, we started to spend more time together. In the end, Paige and Elliot, more than anyone else, brought me out into the country. They made me interact with it on a level that I probably wouldn’t have had I chosen to remain alone. It just took a while.
By the end of the first year, we were all still slightly confused and occasionally made to feel uncomfortable by the world around us. The America we had known was fading in hindsight, the future-- another year in Armenia--was uncertain and everything around us still had the tendency to be vaguely threatening. I often likened our experience to the scene in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland in which Alice follows a path, only to meet, head on, a dog brushing it away. The path ends abruptly. Alice takes a moment to consider the possibility of turning back before the dog sidesteps her and quickly begins to brush away the path she had taken to get where she was. She is left standing on a small patch of what was once a path, surrounded by darkness: Armenia.
When we left for our vacation, I was excited to see something new. We stayed in Georgia for a while, a place I had been before which was externally quite similar to Armenia, before moving on to Turkey. As Turkey is much more developed I was able to see things that I hadn’t seen since I left America. In Trabzon there were vast malls, parking lots and huge grocery stores with all manner of comestibles for sale. We feasted on all the things that we hadn’t been able to eat for over a year. In Sinop, we spent entire afternoons just sitting by the sea, feeling the cool breeze that is so alien to semi-arid climates in the summer, like the one we lived in in Armenia. In Sofia, Bulgaria, I was able to skateboard with people my age (an activity unheard of in Armenia) and in Sarajevo, Bosnia I spoke Italian to a waiter in a Mexican-themed restaurant after buying a copy of Ulysses from one of the many English bookstores.
Over the course of that trip we indulged in so many western things, but the most memorable thing occurred in Foča, Bosnia, a small town on the river Drina. We were staying with my friend Davor’s uncle. It was a nice day and Davor was translating a story his uncle was telling us about the war. We were all pretty relaxed, just enjoying the pleasant weather and the fact that none of us had any English classes to teach that day. Suddenly, Elliot, who had been quiet for a minute yelled out, “Oh, my god!” We all turn to see what he was looking at, to see what could possibly be so important as to intrude on the indolence of such a beautiful day. In his hand he was holding a bottle, and though it didn’t immediately register to me what made the bottle interesting, as I had seen its likeness so many times, I immediately felt a sense of familiarity. Elliot, there in a small town in Bosnia, was holding up a token of the past, and a fetish of the future, a cognac bottle, to be more precise an Արարատի կոնյակ (Ararat Cognac) bottle. It took a moment for me to see the incongruity that I was being presented with, but within a few seconds I began to feel something like nostalgia welling up inside me. We had found an object that would be incredibly commonplace in Armenia, while in Bosnia, it seemed so extraordinary and representative, almost as if all of Armenia had been placed inside the bottle. At that moment I realized that I missed Armenia, and in considering this feeling for the next few weeks I was able to ascertain what Armenia had come to mean for me.
I brought this feeling back with me. When I returned to Yeghegnadzor I almost immediately had to prepare to begin my summer lessons for a camp for disadvantaged youth in the Caucasus for which I had written the grant proposal some months before. As planning this camp had been a grueling process of writing, fact gathering and revision, I was dedicated to making it a valuable experience for all those who would be attending, both counselors and youth. The camp was to have three components; the first two were to be north-east of Yeghegnadzor outside of a beautiful village in a mountain valley called Yeghegis. The third component would be hosted by our Georgian counter-part NGO Lazarus in the southern region of Georgia Damanisi.
Both countries had recently seen outbreaks of violence. In March 2008 violence broke out in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, over election results that left ten dead. In August of the same year, a longstanding conflict between Georgia and Russia over the sovereignty of the south Ossetia region escalated into a brief war that ended in 850 casualties and 38,000 displaced persons or IDPs (DeWaal). Georgia and Armenia have also harbored resentments against each other since time immemorial. The reason for this no one I spoke with seemed to be able to identify. De Waal writes in his recent book, The Caucasus: An Introduction, about his own initial confusion over this enmity: “To the outsider, one of the mysteries of the Caucasus is why the relationship between Armenians and the Georgians, two old Christian nations, is frequently fraught and suspicious” (21). There were a number of issues that may have exacerbated this tension, such as previous surges of nationalism that turned a 1918 “border dispute over the regions of Lori and Borchalo into a small war” (De Waal 65). Varying allegiances over the centuries also fueled this sense of resentment. While Georgia and Armenia had historically been ruled by the same empires (Persian, Ottoman, Tsarist Russia, USSR), they had always acted separately to gain influence in the region. The south Caucasus region (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) was united briefly between the fall of the Romanovs and the established rule of the communists. The union was to last for a month before relationships collapsed. Things have never really been the same since. Although Armenia fought a direct war with Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union, most Armenians on the street, especially in southern villages, will tell you that Azerbaijanis are good people, but that Georgians are impossible. At one time “the Armenian Catholicos forbade Armenians to communicate with, eat with, pray with, or marry Georgians” (De Waal 21).
I had seen some evidence of the tension between the Georgians and Armenians. I had heard a fair amount of vitriol from ordinary people on both sides, but I had also heard a number of remarks ranging from indifferent to friendly, mostly the former, in regards to Armenian-Georgian relations. The camp was also to host ethnic minorities from both regions. Georgia, despite the two conflicts that it had after independence over the breakaway regions of south Ossetia and Abkhazia, has always been a tolerant multiethnic state. At certain times in its history its capital, Tbilisi, didn’t even have a Georgian majority. I was once told by a Georgian friend of mine that on his block alone in Tbilisi people spoke ten different languages, ranging from Mingrelian to Chechen. A year later, as I was leaving the Caucasus, I would have a conversation in Tbilisi with a Yezidi Kurd taxi driver in Armenian. He explained he learned Armenian through some of his neighbors, though he pronounced it like a first language. Still, I worried about how the two major ethnic groups would interact together at the camp.
Armenia, in contrast to Georgian diversity, is probably one of the world’s most homogeneous countries. After the deportations of Azerbaijanis, mostly living in the south and east, the country became 98% ethnically Armenian (De Waal 44). The only substantial minority in Armenia are the Yezidi Kurds (people who speak a Kurdish language, though they sometimes deny being Kurdish and who have a slightly animistic faith that reveres a deity that takes the form of a peacock). The Yezidis or Yezdiner as they say in Armenian, live mostly in Lori Marz along the main highway from Yerevan to Vanadzor (Kirovakan). Armenia also has (very) small numbers of Assyrians, Jews and Greeks as well as a transitional population of Iranians living in the capital, often students or professors.
When I first viewed the reports for the minority students who would be attending, I was shocked to find no Yezidis listed among them. When I asked why the Yezidis weren’t included, my colleague, who is probably one of the most astute, kind and caring human beings I have ever met, turned away and said, quietly, “They smell bad.” In an area where such attitudes prevail and are thrown in a heady mix with long-established ethnic conflict, I really had no idea what to expect from the camp. I envisioned a skirmish that would serve to inflame everyone’s patriotism or jingoism (as it certainly borders on this) and the camp that started as conflict resolution would become fodder for conflict maintenance.
Luckily, nothing like this happened. Over the summer there were isolated incidents, but for the most part everything went well. I conducted English lessons that combined physical cultural activities such as break dancing, skateboarding and basketball. I also tied my lessons in with the environmental lessons I was asked to do. In these lessons the youth went out into a nearby clutch of forest to find items that could be described by adjectives such as fuzzy or wet. In another activity I taught the basics of the food chain through having candy and different animal roles.
After returning from my vacation this camp marked a point of discovery for me. It allowed me to interact with the university students (who were also working there as counselors) on a more personable basis. Since my Armenian had advanced sufficiently I was able to speak to them with few problems. The presence of the Georgians, which spilt the counselors, into two groups, also gave me a special privilege as a tie-breaker. Most of the time when the counselors put something to a vote the Armenians and Georgians tended to vote against each other. As they were in even numbers the deciding vote was usually given to me.
The lingua franca of the camp was supposed to be Russian, but even the lingua francas of these two Caucasian republics varied. As Armenia still has a very close relationship with Russia, who guards her border with Turkey, Russian is still the primary language taught in primary and secondary schools. Most students’ parents also know Russian and it still makes its way into the daily language in countless expressions (da vai, poka ) and nouns for things that were introduced to Armenia during the Soviet period and therefore never really given an Armenian name (vulkanizatsia, banan ). In all my classes with younger students in Armenia, the students would frequently answer me in Russian when I posed a simple English question to them. Simply put, Russian still permeated Armenian society on nearly every level. Not so in Georgia where I was baffled when first visiting Tbilisi to see nothing in Cyrillic, whereas most of the signage in Yerevan (and elsewhere in Armenia) is still in Armenian and Cyrillic. Georgians had also, just the year before, had large portions of their country (including the capital Tbilisi and the port of Poti) bombed by the Russians (De Waal 214). When I had first visited Georgia in December of 2008, buses had large anti-Russian slogans written on them and similar graffiti was to be seen everywhere.
Still, in Georgia, most of the older people still spoke fluent Russian as did the people who had lived through communism in Armenia. This language had really only been heavily politicized in the last ten years in each country’s history. While Armenia continued to teach Russian, first and foremost to it students, Georgia, seeking NATO membership and generally looking west, had begun a rigorous push to teach her schoolchildren English. As a result, at the camp, the Georgians spoke Georgian to each other and English in mixed company, while the Armenians spoke Armenian to each other and Russian in mixed company. This put me in a very interesting situation.
By the end of the third session of the camp that was held in Georgia, I felt very comfortable around the counselors whom I had been working alongside since the camp’s inception a month and a half prior. I made many friends from both sides of the ethnic divide and, in many ways was finally beginning to feel like the citizen of the world that I had, in part, joined the Peace Corps to become.
I also had a different relation with the youth attending the camp. Whereas the Soviet rule that teachers and students didn’t interact outside the classroom had been a hindrance to me in the formal environment of the classroom, I found it worked to my advantage in the new and uncertain environment of the camp.
During the lulls in the day, I would frequently walk out to the courts and begin playing basketball with the youth, or I would bring my skateboard out and teach the more interested kids, which was almost all of them, more about turns and ollies. Although the kids changed between sessions I was able to quickly establish their trust as a foreign counselor who didn’t believe in telling them what to do with every minute of the day. In many ways I was abusing my privilege as a part-time instructor. If I had been a group leader like the others this familiarity probably would have led to problems. After adjusting myself to the appropriate behavior of a post-Soviet republic classroom teacher for a year, it was nice to enjoy myself with the kids. For once, without feeling like I was compromising myself, I was able to act freely and openly, as I did with the kids that I had taught to skateboard back in Yeghegnadzor who lived in my building. I taught the kids, and perhaps got them interested in English, but more importantly, I was able to become their friend and show them a good time for a couple of weeks. Again, these were kids that had come from disadvantaged backgrounds; some of them had seen open fighting in the streets and had seen the aftermath of war. I didn’t mind encouraging them to have a good time and to play with each other, regardless of who was Georgian, Kurd, Armenian or American.
My camp experience concluded on a very positive note. After working all summer with the same counselors and various kids, we had a culminating, farewell session the last night of the camp in Georgia. Groups had been picked to stage different cultural performances. I was asked to participate in this as well since I had my own culture to represent. Since a predominant aspect of this closing session was focusing on dance, and as I had taught break dancing, albeit quite poorly, to the kids, I decided to pick a few of my more eager students and put on a short break-dancing performance. Two kids readily asked if they could be a part of it: an older, slightly shy kid and a young, garrulous child, both from Georgia. I assented and we spent each afternoon practicing our routine for a couple of days.
When the last night came I wasn’t thinking much about the performance. I was preoccupied with the thoughts of leaving the camp and returning to another school year at the university in Yeghegnadzor. While I was initially disheartened by this prospect, I slowly began to realize that after a year of teaching, living and working in the specific Armenian context, it was something that I had become used to, even something I had come to identify with.
As I watched the Armenian dance group move into position I began to think about when I had arrived in the country over a year earlier, when I had been welcomed in Charentsavan by a similar dance group. I thought about all that had changed in my perspective since that occasion, how much more I understood Armenia. The country had ceased to be a job to me by that point. It had become a life. Perhaps for the first time I began to think about my time that remained with genuine happiness. I considered my students at the university, and what I could incorporate into the lessons that might challenge them, as well as entertain them and promote a higher level of motivation. The task did not seem daunting, but exciting. It was probably around this time that I also began to think of the life that I had left more than a year ago in America as something that wasn’t going to fade away with time. I stopped pining for the things that I missed. All the taquerias and late night walks and movie theaters were so far away that I saw how I had been idealizing these things, thinking that I had taken them for granted before without understanding how I may have been taking the beauty around me in Armenia for granted as well by dwelling so much on them. I was between letting go of the past and embracing the present when they called my group and me up to dance.
Yeah, the dance probably could have been a lot better looking, but we all had fun. We had planned a move at the end where the older boy and I hurled the younger boy up from the ground. It put him in the spotlight for a moment and when we pulled it off he was immensely happy. Still preoccupied with my thoughts, I went up to my dorm room to think for a while after the main part of the celebration had ended.
I had been lying down for about five minutes when I heard a small, hesitant knock at the door.
“Ha?” I said—‘yes’ in Armenian. The door slid open tentatively, a small voice enquired “Joan?” as everyone pronounced my name there. The young Georgian boy that had been part of my breakdancing troupe earlier slid into the room, taking me in with his huge brown eyes.
“Hey, Irakli, how are you?” I asked, not sure if he remembered the lesson where I had taught him and everyone else, “What’s up?”
“Joan?” He said again, moving over to my bed and holding his hand out for a high five. I slapped it, and he yelled out a practiced “best friends forever!”
It was that moment when the Caucasus forever became a part of me. In the year that was to come I had many similarly affecting episodes, especially those that accompanied my good bye, but that statement, made so matter-of-factly by a child, was the one that finally introduced me to the reality of what I was doing in Armenia. It was the one that made it my home.
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