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Paree Looys Armenia

View from our window.

Ararat on a hazy day.

Karen Dimirtchian complex in the distance.

Karen Dimirtchian complex in the distance.

Good morning Armenia.

Out our kitchen window the twin mountains of Ararat are crisp and clear after a gentle evening rain. Almost every direction you look, the skyline is framed by a snow capped mountain range.

Here are some reflections on our first week in Yerevan:

Like most developing nations, Yerevan is a mixture of bright eyed cosmopolitanism surrounded by the masses of generally good natured people silently eking out a living in the dusty jungles of soviet-style apartment blocks. We live in the north east corner of the city, a steep climb from the gorge of Hrazdan river which is crossed by the equally steep arches of the Kievyan bridge, built by German prisoners of war in 1950.

Kievyan Bridge with Karen Dimirtchian stadium in the background

Kievyan Bridge with Karen Dimirtchian stadium in the background

The City: After Armenian pizza last night on Tumanyan St. – a thin roasted pita with meat and parsley – we walk past the family ice-skating park down the pedestrian boulevard from the Opera House to Republic square. It could have been Paris or Prague except the busker plays “duduk” style music on a clarinet. The difference between the Caucasus and Europe are the distinctively Romanesque arches and ubiquitous tufa stone buildings. Tufa is a red tinged volcanic rock (reminiscent of Rome), and the cause of all the dust….hence the never ending sea of Armenians in black clothing.

Yes, everyone here really does wear black all the time. Bright colours are rare, which adds to the general atmosphere of solidarity and gentle apprehension about the past and the future. I wore brown khakis last night, and my two year old’s shoes stained my legs in no time. We are unmistakeable foreigners. Cars defer to pedestrians on crosswalks, but still joust for position in the fluid traffic. Young people of the same sex held arms and in Middle Eastern friendship custom, sharp Persian features contrast with stocky male figures – in black leather – who seem to have enjoyed the excellent Ararat beer, brandy, and the whole aisles in the local grocery stores dedicated to vodka. Stores catering to the super-rich are a short walk away from Pizza Hut and KFC and Starbuck imitators.

Classic faux leather outfits

Classic faux leather outfits

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The generally conservative culture is highly family oriented. As Jane and Alasdair ran into each other and fell to the stone ground, two young men eagerly ran over to help them up like off-duty guardians. This is a good metaphor and representation of Armenian friendliness.

“Yerevan is older than the Roman Empire,” reminds our driver. The presidential palace, parliament, opera hall, and Moscow movie theatre are each worthy of a great city. Throughout its epic history,  Armenia has changed capitals 11 times. A banner of the poet musician Komitas hangs among the Republican Square buildings – he has the face of a stern medieval monk with piercing eyes. Down the street this inner turmoil is expressed outwardly large posters in the boulevard – photographs of affected poets smoking, yearning, and thinking dangerous philosophic thoughts.

We drive past the world famous Ararat brandy company and back up the Hrazdan gorge, the rock face naturally cut with large quartz like formations. A group of men work out in a public gymnasium on the side of the road. All that protects us from the Hrazdan is a handmade rock wall.

Back at our apartment, we gaze down from the Ararat mountains to the Kievyan bridge. The city line is dominated by the other-worldly Karen Demirtchian stadium, rising from the city like an alien temple, each of its porticos shaped like a Spanish colonial helmet. The Persian inspired arches are weighed down and pushed outward. Behind it lies the Armenian holocaust memorial.

Trees are pruned every 5 years

Trees are pruned every 5 years

A walk down our street takes you to Buenos Aires park. A policeman wearing an Ushanka russian style hat guides us across the busy traffic, along with men wearing black, and women in layers of makeup. In the park, I peer in a small building with hazy windows – men from another older generation all wear black caps and jackets, smoking and playing backgammon and chess (Chess is still a required sport in school).

Old timers unite in the park

Old timers unite in the park

Last night we received a gentle reminder of Armenia’s Soviet history. Answering a knock on our door, I speak to a man who is uneasy and grinning politely. He claims to be our apartment “caretaker” – the police have apparently requested copies of our passports, he explains. Also, he requires that we pay more for the apartment because we have two children living with us. Doesn’t he know that we are replacing a family of the same size? None of this sounds kosher.  My guess is that the main floor grocer has informed the “caretaker” that we are gullible newcomers.

My first impression of Yerevan was that the skeleton-like apartment blocks live amongst the ancient rubble of a noble civilization.  Thirty years ago, the city administration scrambled to fulfill a Soviet style population quota (for the sake of building a metro – currently still under construction) by importing provincials to hastily built apartment complexes. Now these precarious islands, connected by clotheslines, sit on the man-made fault line of crumbling foundations.

A back lane near our place

A back lane near our place

The ubiquitous and formless rock contributes to the sense of being lost in time, like the fragments of countless wayward meteorites that have congregated in this one place. Along the highway on the outskirts of the city you would mistake the entire portions of the landscape for rubble because of the broken rock in the fields, the ditches, everywhere.  A pile of large rocks sits inside the rusting metal gates at the end of a parking lot. Is it rubble? In the process of being cleared for some new construction? Is this the way the landscape naturally exists? One does not know. The addition of concrete serves to fragment the landscape even further with a faceless monolithic stare.  These post-soviet concrete blocs are places of living – functional, but dilapidated beyond repair. And so they return back to the rubble on the surface of the earth. Our apartment block is one of the new ones, only four years old, but it manages to look twenty.

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A man staffs a taxi dispatch office

A man staffs a taxi dispatch office

The School: Briefly, I teach 7th and 8th grade history (Greece and Rome) and Literature at QSI, which is an organization affiliated with US embassies in 35 different countries. A third of my students are of the “patrician” class of Armenia, and the rest are embassy kids from around the world. Two thirds of my co-workers are Armenian. The high school is one small hallway – I share a projector with the high school Lit teacher, who until December was the British ambassador. The kids are bright and hardworking (compared to public school) and there are 18 in total. The days are long – school starts at 8:20 and ends 3:45. I have to prep 6 different classes a day. At times, you live by the Russian saying: “they pretend to work, and we pretend to pay them.” But it’s been a very good first week, and Jane seems to be enjoying pre-school quite a bit. It took about 6 days to get over jet lag. More soon.

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Yerevan, Armenia countdown:   1 week, 3 days.    Yes, I’m moving to Armenia with my family. We were offered a job there, and felt a strange connection to the place. For years, my wife Rachel and I have been volunteering at the Manitoba Chamber orchestra as ushers. We were always invited to the after-concert parties, so we met quite a few world-class musicians, including violinist James Ehnes, and the incredible Armenian/Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian.

Dle Yaman is a classic song about longing and separation, written after the genocide by Armenian composer Komitas. While teaching about emotions in AP Psych, I used this song to illustrate the emotion of huzun, or melancholy, which I had read about in Orham Pamuk’s Istanbul.  Spiritual sorrow, wanting to be close to God but being unable to, emptiness with the hope of fulfillment, a licence to introspect:

yerevan

Yerevan, Armenia, with Mt. Ararat in the background.

Դլե յաման
Գյամին էկավ կրակի պես,
Վա՜յ, դլե յաման,
Էկավ, հասավ չուր ծովու կես,
Յաման, յաման:

Դլե յաման,
Մեր տուն, ձեր տուն իրար դիմաց,
Վա՜յ, դլե յաման,
Հերիք անես աչքով իմաց (originally it is Մենք սիրեցինք առանց իմաց, menk siretsink arants imats)
Յաման, յաման:

Դլե յաման,
Արև դիպավ Մասիս սարին,
Վա՜յ, դլե յաման,
Կարոտ մնացի ես իմ յարին,
Յաման, յաման:

 

Dle yaman, the wind blew like fire
vay dle yaman, blew to the half of the see
yaman, yaman…

Dle yaman, your ad my houses are in front of each other
Vay dle yaman, Don’t wink any more (originally it is “menk siretsink arants imats”, “we loved each outher without knowing”)

Dle yaman, the Sun touched the mount. Masis,
Vay dle yaman, I miss my lover,
Yaman, yaman
It seems fitting that she sings ” Evenstar” on the LOTR soundtrack:

 

Leaving Winnipeg, and leaving the programs I love at Grant Park is painful. Time to reflect on the highs and lows of my first couple years teaching, and look forward to a new challenge overseas. While scrolling through 3QD today I found this gem of a quote, spoken by Kennedy after the assassination of MLK Jr. He quotes Aeschylus’ Agamemnon:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until, in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom through the awful grace of God

The experience of leaving a job I love is like a break-up producing a full spectrum of emotion. It’s simply confusing to be leaving people you love after spending so much time applying overseas and planning to leave. Through the confusion comes a profound thankfulness at simply being, and being where I have been, and where I am going.

 

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bloom republic of plato - picForgive my writing, for I have just completed anecdotal report cards.

Hi – it’s been a while. I’m back teaching AP Psych, Spanish, and Social Studies, with a side of Debate, so things have been jumping around here.

One of the biggest highlights of this semester was travelling to Montreal for the British Parliamentary high school debate tournament at McGill University. It was truly inspiring to see so many passionate and rigorous thinkers do battle. The McGill trophy has been dubbed “the Stanley Cup of debating” since they continue to add names of winners to the trophy. Six rounds of British Parliamentary style debate is a gruelling exercise of practical and theoretical intelligence. The winners were (believe it or not!) under 15 years old, were champions in Cambridge as well, and are coached by a lawyer.

While in Montreal, a couple of my friends presented at this year’s PD day for Social Studies in Manitoba on the topic of Philosophy in the schools. My contribution (aside from organizing the session) was my experimenting with Gr 9s this year where I linked moral dilemmas to debate topics in order to introduce the fundamental challenges of Modern Liberalism. Sounds like a tall order, and well, it’s a work in progress.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing this year was reading Plato’s Republic seminar style with four other students throughout the summer. We had the advantage of knowing what we were in for – the highschoolers did not. Still, we  took the plunge and read the entire book, meeting almost every week. Mark Ingham a graduate of St. John’s great books program in the US, did a fantastic job of bringing the text alive in today’s day and age, with ample knowledge of ancient greece and the history of ideas up until modernity. I came back from every meeting reinvigorated and also bewildered at the dedication and earnestness of the students. On Book 10 we were left with the Myth of Er, Plato’s sneaky way of reminding you that poetry has not been banished in the practical world … only in the ideal “city in speech”.

Perhaps soon there will be a Summer Institute of Great Books in Winnipeg…

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Spring Break 2013

The last time I posted on this blog was August. At the time, I didn’t have a full-time job, and certainly didn’t know what or even where I would be teaching this year. I have a lot of reflections catch up on. I’ve been teaching Psychology and Spanish and having a great time. Now I have the perfect excuse to read books on spring break like “The World in Six Songs” by Dan Levitin (to prepare for teaching about evolutionary psych).

I’ve also had the pleasure of hosting the “Philosophy Cafe” at my school, which is a hit with students. Topics covered this year so far:  Hobbes’ view of politics, is there a moral difference between animals and humans? Do we have free will? and an introduction to Plato’s Apology.  I decided to start a philosophy club at lunch because of the interest, and we’ve been watching Michael Sandel’s Justice lectures from Harvard, with a steady crowd of about 10.

I’m also currently reading Simon Schama’s  chronicle of the French Revolution:  Citizens – which is really quite good, but unfortunately 900 pages long.

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After graduating this spring and spending my life savings on a trip to Italy, my goal this summer was to create a  list of education books to read and review for this blog. I’ve read through them, but now comes the elusive writing bit. Here is a sample:

Ken OsborneEducation: A Guide to the Canadian School Debate – or, Who Wants What and Why?

A very concise summary of views, with a liberal arts/civics slant. It helps to know some of the past education debates, and to consolidate some B.Ed. material. Ken has some shrewd observations along with a healthy dislike of “edubabble,” thanks to a sensibility for the history of educational ideas and its fads. I met Ken at last year’s SAGE where he did a workshop on teaching history through dilemmas. Ken’s an affable and Oxford trained Englishman who specializes in the history of history education in Canada. He retired from the University of Manitoba in 1997.

Northrop Frye – On Education

Frye is Canada’s greatest literary critic (UofT), and I should say quite a liberal arts traditionalist. I first read  An Educated Imagination while working as an editor and it helped assuage the guilt associated with buying too many second hand books.  This is a compilation of essays written from 1950s to the 1980s, some of them speeches to Ontario Council of Teachers of English. As a university professor, Frye was interested in the relation between the academy and the teacher colleges, and many of the issues he talks about in 1960s and 80s are still the same today.  His main thesis –  a truly basic education teaches that language is a way of thinking. Many quotable quotes in this book.

Nicholas Carr-  The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Your Brain

Carr’s book was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize and is a must read for anyone trying to make sense of the impact of technology on education. This one I’ve read twice now, mostly because he picks up on so many neuro-science studies which are hard to remember. His argument is that the internet is changing how we think, that the switch from books to the the Net means we’ll loose our one of the greatest catalysts of civilization and progress – the capacity for uninterrupted, sustained concentration (what postmoderns have demonized as “linear thought”). The Church of Google is perhaps his most telling chapter, where he sheds light on the reductionistic account of human nature brought to us by the priests of post-industrial capitalism – Google executives view the human brain as a machine and the greatest value is speed and efficiency. Especially when you make money off of how distracted you can make people.  Basically, Marshall McLuhan was right: a new medium changes how we think, not just what we think. Carr is a level-headed observer who is just reminding us of what we’re leaving behind in all our utopic progressivism.

Also to come are reviews of:
 
Yatta Kanu – Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into the Curriculum (2011)
 
The History Boys – a film version of Allan Bennett’s play.
 
George Steiner – Lessons of the Masters
 
Paolo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed
 
Neil Postman – Building a Bridge to the 18th Century
 
John T. Gatto Weapons of Mass Instruction
 

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Welcome to my education blog where I pursue professional development by reviewing books and writing about educational ideas.

A recurrent theme will be the status and place of a classic liberal arts education in an world of bots, algorithms, and technology.

Reading and writing helps me to “keep the end in mind” and is an antidote to the creeping utilitarianism of everyday busyness.

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