Reflection Essay

The Thinker

The past few months of my life have been a blur. I can’t believe the semester is drawing to a close and – I am sad to say – that this particular era within the life of my culture study is ending. As far as my reflective essay is concerned, I will readily admit that I am having a difficult time brainstorming ways to encapsulate everything I have learned since August within the confines of a 2-3 page essay. I entered the project with a broad interest in Armenian culture and a slight sense of shame about not knowing more about the community. Now that I am letting the project rest, my heart is a little heavier after having learned about Armenia’s tragic past and its current struggles. Yet, I am also invested in watching the country and the global Armenian community seek due recognition of its past and work to restore its legacy.

Now that I have acknowledged the primary tone underlying my culture study, I would like to recap some specific highlights of the whole experience. Some of the highlights were attending the Armenian Festival in Cupertino for my “immersion” experience, learning the basic facts about Armenia’s educational system (past and present), reading a first-hand account from someone who attended school in Soviet Armenia, discovering that people from Armenia tend to be more frank and less likely to sugarcoat their words, and reading into all the current news in Armenian education.

I now know that I can take so many steps to address the needs of students and parents who identify with the Armenian culture. Knowing that Armenian parents tend to be very involved with their children’s education, I will find ways to extend class participation opportunities to them (and all parents, really.) For example, I could ask parents to help me chaperone field trips, ask volunteers to help with classroom crafts, inform parents about the PTA, and coordinate a classroom “career day” event wherein parents come to school to talk about what they do for a living.

In order to build a safe and inviting classroom community for Armenian students as well for as all other students, I intend to make cultural diversity a prevalent theme in my curriculum. No single “culture day” for my class, thanks! Whenever appropriate, the books in each unit will be culturally diverse. I will also slip in cultural factoids about the people we study or the songs we sing. For example, if we sing songs by Raffi, I might mention that his family is from Armenia. And although I don’t plan on setting aside only one day to teach “cultural awareness,” I will specifically create an “All About Me” unit that encourages students to gather information about their families from and then teach their classmates about what makes them who they are. During this unit, I will reach out to parents and ask them to help their children gather family history facts, compile family photos and (optionally) cook food from their culture.

The culmination of this particular culture study marks the beginning of a new lifelong quest to heighten my awareness of this and other cultures. As much as I know that I will strive to include all of my students and broaden their horizons, I can’t deny that I am a biased person. I am who I am and I can’t alter most of the factors that make me unique. If my comfort zone were a city, its streets would have names like Thanksgiving Turkey Lane and Starbucks Boulevard and its residents would have a longstanding tradition of playing in the sprinklers, watching sitcom reruns and drinking grape Kool-Aid during the summer months.

Still, I believe I can make headway to expand the city limits of my metaphorical comfort zone if I set aside time every week to read news from around the world and specifically look up information on any culture that seems new and/or unusual to me. In my mind, this new quest isn’t just about feeling more educated or being sensitive to my students’ cultural needs. I strongly believe that it is my moral duty as a future educator to learn about the children I am teaching if I ever expect them to become culturally aware citizens themselves.

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Some Excellent Resources and Agencies

I want to be able to support Armenian students by knowing how to refer them (and/or their families) to culturally relevant resources and agencies.

The first one would be a local Armenian community center, such as the Armenian Community Center of Fresno, which provides educational programs such as workshops (even classes for young children), has cultural programs, has social events and even offers athletic programs. Since I am not as eloquent as the center itself in representing its mission, I will just post an excerpt here: “Our mission is to enrich life, build Armenian identity, promote the development of meaningful bonds within our community, and facilitate connections with Armenia and Armenians worldwide.”

Some other excellent resources are:

  • The Armenian Assembly of America website, where parents and older students can read up on current issues, including U.S. and Armenian relations. Parents who want an active advocacy role in the Armenian-American community can also learn how to have their voices heard by visiting the Advocacy Action Center.
  • The Armenian Students’ Association, where older students can look up information on culturally-relevant scholarships, internships and essay contests.
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Education Reform

I was slightly taken aback when I watched this brief video on new (as of 2008) reforms taking place in Armenia’s education system. I know the U.S. isn’t a perfect model of diversity and inclusion (I immediately start thinking of how most ELL programs are subtractive,) but I guess that in my small lifespan I have grown accustomed to the benefits afforded by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Meanwhile, I have started to subconsciously assume that what is happening in my tiny sliver of the world must also be occurring on a global level.

Obviously, that isn’t the case. Still, I’m glad that reform is happening.

I like the comment someone added after the video.

“Great upload, the education system in Armenia is in definite need of improvement, thank you for sharing. We hope that through causes like yours and ours, the overall well being of Armenia will improve. Thanks for sharing!”

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Chess as a Mandatory School Subject

Armenia Introduces Chess As Mandatory School Subject

Chess Pieces

Starting this year, all students over the age of 6 in Armenia are required to learn and play chess as a school subject. What a fascinating idea! According to the article above, Armenia is already home to many of the world’s chess grandmasters and gold-medal winners of International Chess Olympiads. Also, the article says most Armenians perceive chess to be an inclusive and universal sort of activity that joins together people of all backgrounds, ages and physical abilities. Educators have extended it to children in schools with the mindset that chess is appealing because it is a game but also rewarding because it is an intellectually challenging activity.

Grandmaster Smbat Lputian, of Armenia’s Chess Academy, was the person who paved the way to implementing chess as a mandatory school subject. According to Lputian, learning chess strategies helps children develop critical thinking skills. Having a direct influence over game outcomes  encourages children to think carefully well in advance and take responsibility for their own decisions. Not only that, it gives children a deep sense of victory when their strategies work.

Another aspect of the article I found interesting was a quote taken from a psychologist named Ruzanna Gharibian. She says high-tech computer games simply can’t offer children what chess does. “You know it is much better to create an atmosphere of real moral victory [for a child] by giving them these chessmen rather than giving them a computer and letting them experience victory through different aggressive [computer] games.”

With all that class time being spent on prepping students for standardized tests (and the lack of focus on other important subjects,) I wonder if implementing chess as a school subject would ever be a possibility in the U.S.

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Ms. Melkonian gave me permission to add our e-interview to my blog. I gained so much from it and hope you learn something new as well.

Image credit to "Hye Sharzhoom Armenian Action" online publication.

Q. When (what age/grade level) did you first enter school in Armenia and how long were you in school? Was this a standard length of education in Armenia?
A. I was born in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1970. My years of school attendance were from 1970-to 1987. I graduated after ten years, which was the standard length of education in Armenia. I started school when I was 7 years old.  As a first grader, this was the age to start school in 1970s and 80s. There was no kindergarten grade in regular public schools, unless parents chose to send their kids to preschool and kindergarten schools.

There were not separate middle school and high school, so the same school had all instruction and the appropriate teachers for all grades. From the first and third grades student would have the same teacher. I had the same teacher for 3 years (not sure if it was a good idea!).  From the 2nd grade we started learning Russian, which was the 2nd language for the country at the time, and I believe even now. English is also a 2nd language-a very common language to learn in Armenia the last almost two decades.

In the 1970s and 80s each school would offer their foreign language, so depending on where the student was, there was not choice for the student other then what the school was offering. I started with German, and I continued learning English because we moved to another area and I had to change schools.

Q. What are students’ expectations and perceptions of school structure? Are they success-minded and take the school environment seriously, is it the other way around or is it somewhere in the middle?
A. I think students’ perceptions of the school, teachers and its structure was rather serious. The school was and supposed to be a strict and formal environment where were going to start learning reading, writing, math and physical education, and other subjects later on.

I was even afraid of my teacher when I started school. I think she was not the smiling and friendly teacher. I suppose students always want to succeed, even if they don’t think about it consciously. However, some students are more success minded than others. This has lots to do with parents’ attitude and psychological motivators.

.  What is the emphasis of learning in Armenia? (Is the focus on critical thinking, memorization or problem solving? How do Armenian educators see homework and tests?)
A. Emphasis of learning had changed over the years and learning. But the general emphasis in elementary grades was on problem solving, memorization and reading. In upper grades, of course, developing critical thinking skills was also part of instruction. Of course this was accomplished in different ways.

It was required for the student to retell  and talk about it in front of the class, rather then writing about it. Writing was also part of the grade, but students’ quarterly grades were based on their oral retelling of the particular lesson they read in their textbooks. It could be history, geography, etc.

Homeworks and tests were also important and given regularly. However, there were not standardized tests.

Q. How do students treat teachers in Armenia? How do teachers treat students?

A. Students treated teachers with respect. Like I mentioned, there was even the fear factor there. The teachers did have high expectations from their students. However,  don’t think they didn’t have the same respect for all their students. Perhaps many of them didn’t treat their students objectively and equally. In my opinion, If there was a student who did well in the beginning of the school and was successful, they would have the “reputation” of a Good Student and I think this was not fair to others who were either not doing well in certain areas or had other potentials than the teacher failed to recognize.

Q.  What are parent perceptions and expectations from schools in Armenia?
A. In general, parents trusted teachers and what they were doing. They rarely questioned the quality of the work they were doing, etc. I believe they had the same general expectations as any other parent would in other cultures and times. They expected their kids to learn and succeed.

. How active are Armenian parents in the educational process? (In the U.S., in Armenia or both.)
A. Armenian parents are active in their children’s education process. This is a common pattern, that parents who are more conscious about their students’ success, are more active, encouraging, and therefore more involved.

In my opinion, Armenian parents, both in the United States and Armenia , are more active if the teachers involve them and show that they care about the individual student’s progress.

Q. Based on your own experiences as a student in Armenia, and your experiences as a teacher in the U.S. – and based on stories you have heard from others, if any – what would you say is the main difference between education in Armenia and education in the U.S.? (For example, are there any challenges or conveniences here that aren’t in Armenia? Or perhaps were there conveniences in Armenia that weren’t ?)

A. Having seen and experienced the schooling system in both countries, I have had many observations and ideas, which are very interesting. I realized more than the overall culture and social system is a big factor in individual’s education. This was a big factor that affects teacher’s, and their philosophy and style of teachers. There were not many standardized tests, which at the end helped students develop more critical thinking skills, if it was not obvious from first hand. (I believe that critical thinking skills is and individual students’ way of thinking and developing. For example, It has little to do with student’s grades, or being a straight “A” student.

Many Armenian parents agree that there was much more respect for teachers in Armenia, especially in the 1970s and 80s. There are many conveniences  in The United States, that people didn’t or don’t have in Armenia, of course. The global changed that occurred after late 80s was the development of computers.

One thing that I see lacking especially in upper grades and in high schools is that students don’t read as much and don’t read classical and European literature. They don’t study and learn about the world history. In general, math curriculum is not as advanced as it was and is in Armenia. Of course I have the general public schools in the United States and not the specific schools and one portion of the students. This is a rather general observation.

Another observation that I had was that teachers are more sensitive towards not hurting their students’ self esteem. For example, they refrain from putting their students down in front of their peers or classmates. This was not a big deal in Armenia and perhaps also in Russia and other European and Asian Cultures.

Q. Is there anything you would like to add that might help me better understand the life and culture of Armenian students in standard U.S. classrooms?
A. Like I mentioned earlier, culture and social system is a big factor in any school system which is always changing.  Education is always in the process of a change and evolvement. As any given Culture, it has many facades, layers, and perspectives.



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A 2nd grade teacher named Tiroui Melkonian has agreed to be interviewed via e-mail questions! According to Ms. Melkonian, her schooling was in Soviet Armenia and she graduated from high school just as the Soviet Era was ending. She and her family moved to California right afterwards.

Some pertinent background information/context:

  • On August 23, 1991, Armenia became one of the first republics to declare independence from the Soviet Union.
  • The state of Armenia was fully recognized and re-established on September 21, 1991.

Armenia is currently in the process of turning over a new leaf.

According to the Centre for World Dialogue, some of the top priorities on its agenda:

  • Developing a strategy to boost its economy (and tackle corruption)
  • Increasing the employment rate
  • Engaging Armenians living worldwide to help rebuild Armenia

Ms. Melkonian says so much has changed politically, socially and economically in the past 20 years that she doesn’t know that she would be a good source, but I still think she would make an excellent interviewee. She has seen where the country has been. She understands where Armenia is in terms of its stability as it transitions to independence. She understands where her current students’ parents may be coming from. She sees students now and can hopefully offer me some insight about the unique qualities they will bring to a traditional public classroom.

I have sent her a series of questions and look forward to getting a response.

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Prominent Armenians

As a writer, I certainly know that Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source of information. On the other hand, I do use it on a regular basis to “geek out.” (You know, if I’m suddenly very curious about how long snails live or what other movie that one lady was in.)  When it comes to researching with a higher purpose, I sometimes use Wikipedia as means to pique my curiosity and I jump off from there in search of more legitimate information.

I say all this for a reason: I was faffing about on Wikipedia in my quest to learn more about Armenian culture when I ran across this list of prominent Armenians. I thought I would copy/paste some of the ones I found most interesting. Sadly — and isn’t this often the case? — the names I recognized the most (or the prominent Armenians I already knew about) weren’t exactly the ones who have made the most dramatic contributions to the world. I won’t judge you if you discover the same thing about the ones YOU recognize the most.

(Musicians, Actors, Producers, Famous-for-Being-Famous people, etc…) 

Howard Kazanjian – Producer of Star Trek
Creg Mooradian – producer of The Twilight Saga (film series)
Dita Von Teese – Armenian-American[4] actress, burlesque artist, The Death of Salvador Dali
Andy Serkis – actor, The Lord of the Rings
Kim Kardashian (and family) – actress, socialite and model
Rick Bayan – (born 1950) essayist, humorist and philosopher
William Saroyan – (1908–1981) short story writer, novelist, playwright, essayist and memoirist
Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes – (Hughes Brothers) famous Film Directors (From HellThe Book of Eli)
Raffi Cavoukian – (born 1948) stage name RaffiCanada, children’s singer, songwriter, musician.
Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. – (1919–1972) USA, pseudonym “David Seville”; creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. – (born 1949) USA, continues work of his father for Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Cher (Cherilyn Sarkisian) – USA; (born 1946) singer, songwriter, actor, director.
Sib Hashian – (born 1949) drummer, was a member of the rock band Boston during their first and most successful lineup.
System of a Down – USA, alternative metal band:
John Dolmayan – (born 1973) USA, drums
Daron Malakian – (born 1975) USA, guitar, vocals
Shavo Odadjian – (born 1974) USA, bass
Serj Tankian – (born 1967) USA, vocals, keyboards.

John Roy Carlson – (1909–1991) best-selling author of Under Cover
Ben Bagdikian – (born 1920) former editor in chief of Washington Post
David Ignatius – (born 1950) associate editor of Washington Post
Kevork Ajemian – (1932–1998) prominent Armenian writer, journalist, novelist, theorist and public activist, one of the founders of ASALA military organization.
Lara Setrakian – journalist and political analyst for Bloomberg Television and ABC News

Innovation  (Medicine)
George Aghajanian – physician, neuropharmacologist and pioneer in serotonin receptor research.
Roger Altounyan – asthma researcher, pharmacologist who pioneered use of cromolyn sodium inhalation therapy for asthma
Raymond V. Damadian – inventor of MRI, inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame
Ara Darzi, Baron Darzi of Denham – surgeon, pioneer in minimally invasive and robot-assisted surgery
Varaztad Kazanjian – Father & Pioneer of Plastic surgery
Michel (Michael) Ter-Pogossian – inventor of PET scan, which has revolutionized the understanding of how the brain functions
John S. Najarian – developed the practice of organ transplantation in medicine, “a giant of 20th century medicine” whose intelligence, genius, and skill in the operating room have allowed him to pioneer an entire field of medicine.
Zaven Khatchaturian – neuroscientist; Alzheimer’s disease researcher
Edward Khantzian – Harvard psychiatrist; developed self medication hypothesis of substance abuse
Leon Orbeli – (1882–1958) physiologist, who known as the founder and pioneer of the Evolutionary Physiology.
Stephan Ariyan – reconstructive surgeon, originator of the pectoralis major flap, which has become the most commonly used flap for head and neck reconstruction worldwide
John Kebabian – neuroscientist and pioneer in dopamine receptor research

Innovation (Other)
Hovhannes Adamian – inventor of the color television
Artem Alikhanian – one of the founders of experimental nuclear and cosmic-ray physics in USSR, discoverer of the first artificial radioactive element which ejects electrons, first to mark the existence of new elementary particles in cosmic rays etc.
Emil Artin – one of the leading algebraists of the 20th century, one of the founding fathers of modern algebra
Daron Acemoğlu – among the 20 most cited economists in the world, winner of the 2005 John Bates Clark Medal
Hagop S. Akiskal – psychiatrist best known for his pioneering research on temperament and bipolar disorder (manic depression).
Levon Chailakhyan – physiologist, in 1986 with his soviet colleagues got the world’s first successfully cloned mammal – mice “Masha”, 10 years before famous “Dolly”
Anna Kazanjian Longobardo – author of contributions to the aerospace engineering field, the first woman to receive the Egleston Medal for Distinguished Engineering achievement
Armen Takhtajan – botanist, one of the most important figures in 20th century plant evolution
Avadis Tevanian – computer scientist, the architect of Apple’s OS X

Politics and Military
George DeukmejianRepublican politician, the thirty-fifth Governor of California (1983–1991), and a former California Attorney General (1979–1983).
Charles Pashayan, Republican Congressman from Fresno, California
Anna Eshoo, Democratic Congresswoman (Armenian mother)
Paul Krekorian, California State Assemblyman
Ivan Bagramian – (1897–1982) Soviet Marshal; Deputy Minister of DefenseWorld War II Commander of a Front.
Paul Ignatius – (born 1920) United States Assistant Secretary of Defense (Installations and Logistics); US Secretary of the Navy.
Garegin Nzhdeh – (1886–1955) Freedom fighter and World War I General.
Sergei Khudyakov – (1901–1950) Chief-Air-Marshal, USSR; commander of the Anti-aircraft warfare of MoscowWorld War II.

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