With reservations regarding the upcoming trip to Armenia, at times a reluctance to go at all, it greatly shocked me how rich my Depi Hayk experience actually turned out. But it was not just my fulfilment of the volunteering work in Vanadzor that gave bolstered this richness, nor the dopamine kicks that occasionally pulsed through my veins during the excursions, nor the scope of magnitude and littleness I simultaneously felt looking off to the mountains of Vanadzor from my homestay flat. It was indeed the combination of all these things working together in tandem to create the full experience I got to enjoy in Armenia. But above all was the most important and salient of all things, being the realization that I was empowering young kids. Though my volunteer time as a mathematics teacher at the Vanadzor Technology Center, I was offering the opportunity for knowledge and these young students, ranging between ages 9 and 17, were to leave the classroom, in my estimation, with a firmer grasp on mathematical ideas and ways of logical thinking that they didn’t have before.
It sounded too good to be true after receiving confirmation that I would indeed be designing a curriculum and teaching a few classes in math, but had little information to prepare with. I felt overwhelmed and free at the same time. Sitting in the Montréal airport and hurriedly slashing away on the keys of my computer keyboard, flipping between amateur websites tabs and recalling back through my rusty middle school memories, I quickly compiled a curriculum and sent it off by e-mail. In just a few hours, I would receive word of its approval and that was that. I was excited, my worries subsided but not fully diminished, as I would need a translator to help me with the classes.
This seemingly minor detail quickly invalidated my Utopian and albeit unrealistic vision of how the classes were going to run: a young man, unequipped with any teaching experience of any kind, comes to Armenia, starts a math class teaching series, and in the way he reflects and relates to the pupils with body language and emotion with expedience, he too is learning the Armenian language and is progressively starting to deepen his relationship and interpersonal dialogue and relationships with the kids, helping them understand more and more, learning from the kids as well, and crossing the invisible line that often separates teacher from student.
But how unrealistic that turned out to be! I was able to comply in a release this ambitious dream with my rapacious claws after accepting the fact that too few of the students would know enough English to communicate. And the task of learning an entirely new language, let alone the Eastern variant that was a foreign thing to me, was out of the question. I settled for the translator.
And it still amazes me. These kids, young and bright, voluntarily were deciding to come to VTC to bolster their math skills for the upcoming term. And this personal initiative was reflective in their choice of pursuant studies as I learned on the last day of class: radio physics, programmer, and business mathematics to name a few.
We split the groups of students into 3 levels: university preparation, middle school and elementary. But the organization and adherence to the curriculum I had written turned out to be quite useless. In my first day, I was surprised to learn that both the two highest level classes, as there was some overlap in the students, had already learned about basic set theory and some of its advanced notation. The Level 2 class went all over the place. We starting with fractals, moved to complex numbers, then made a jump to trigonometric identities. The level 3 class on the other hand was more straight forward: differential calculus, then integral calculus, with proofs all along the way.
The challenge certainly lay in finding material that was fun and exciting to teach, but also material that was in the right difficulty. My level 1 class suffered the most from this, as the distribution of students was the widest and therefore teaching proved the most challenging. Their attendance was rather shaky as well, as they were the youngest group and University preparation was out of the question. But often times I would think “How do I know the students understand if they seem very complacent and say they understand?”. My realization a few classes in was to test the kids more, rather than asking simple questions like “Do you understand?” or “Does this make sense to you?” I ended up being the most experimental with them, so in aid of the learning process I created little games or fun little drawing exercises that would facilitate the learning process. Once I made a grid with a bunch of Tech pamphlets on the table, ripped up pieces of paper to label with numbers, and created our very own 2D Cartesian Plane on the desk in front of the students. It was interactive and they found it engaging.
And really the teaching was all working out because of the very good and deliberate effort made by my translator Marine Babayan. It was her fluency between Armenian and English that made her not only an essential part of my classes, but made her a good friend to talk to in between our classes. She agreed that it was very challenging on the first day, to be translate mathematical expressions and nomenclature in Armenian to English. But as we went on she improved and was able to understand more and more what the kids were trying to say, making communication between us easy. I am entirely grateful to her and hold my appreciation very sincerely.
So that was it. I finished. I wrapped up the classes, said bye to the friends I had made in Armenia and before I knew it I was sitting back in my apartment in Montreal after 10 glorious weeks. But with this seemingly perfect experience behind me, during the time I was often thinking “I can do much better than this”. This was the struggle, the acceptance that not being able to speak Eastern Armenian at a fluent level was drawing a real line between me and the students. It was not impossible to break through this line sometimes, as I had Marine and the aid of physical comedy and hand gestures. But it was not just the desire to relate to them in a joking or humorous way, but to properly pick their brains. I was not convinced that everyone there wanted to learn as intensely as their neighbors, and I was very interested in understanding why.
The question “Why do you want to come to class?” or “Why come to class?”, like the “Do you understand?” question is the perfect way of getting a bland response out of someone. While it’s not as bad as a binary question, the classic “Yes” or “No”, the phrase is just vague enough to invite the most politically correct and boring answers. Some of the answers I got to these questions sounded like this:
ՈՒՍԱՆՈՂ 1: ‘Ես ուզում եմ սովորել մաթեմատեկաը։’
[Student 1: ‘I want to learn mathematics.’]
ՈՒՍԱՆՈՂ 2: ’Այո, ես նույնպես ուզում եմ գալ այստեղ…’
[Student 2: Yes, I too want to come here since…]
And this is where the proficiency argument comes back. If I was a better Armenian speaker, or even if I had more experience speaking and interacting with Armenian people, I could have cut through the politically correct answers and gotten down to the deeper truths. But this is the problem with all teaching, and in fact, it’s not the language-barrier’s fault. This is a question of how to properly motivate kids, and how to communicate with kids in general. It’s difficult to not autonomously impose the learning-math-is-very-important thing onto any kids, as not all the pupils are interested in mathematics the same way or not at all from their own perspective. They have different conceptions of their ultimate use of the classes. Some find it fun to solve integral questions with their friends at their sides; others need the tools to prepare for their university classes.
Understanding this through trial and error, through different types of experimentation in the classroom, and most importantly by dropping one’s ego and listening, it is my belief that pedagogy as a series of teaching techniques will continue to improve and teachers will become better communicators with their students. And I am very glad and thankful to have been given the opportunity to make even a little dent in their lives.