Hovannes Khosdeghian with some of his young charges

Rooting Young Armenian School Students in New York

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By Florence Avakian

NEW YORK — “A child is a learning machine. All one has to do is create a learning environment, as well as promote the child’s identity and individuality. An environment has to be created so that the child can feel comfortable wanting to learn,” said Hovannes Khosdeghian, principal and teacher of the St. Vartan Cathedral School, and the Brooklyn Armenian School in New York.

His thoughts on this vital subject brought me back to my childhood when my mother, Ashkhen Kapikian Avakian for 50 years — even before my sister and I were born — was the dedicated volunteer principal and teacher in a few Armenian schools in New York. Every Friday evening she used to prepare the Saturday meals for my sister and me, since she would be gone all day Saturday in one of her schools. She would always buy food and drinks for her school children. And for the bi-annual hantesses, my sister and I were recruited to help sew the costumes, play the piano and accompany the singing of the children. It was a ritual that we got used to throughout our young and teenage years, and it left an indelible mark on us.

“The focus must always be the child,” Khosdeghian emphasized. “This child is a learning machine. All you have to do is create the environment, and promote the child’s identity and individuality. It is important not to create competition,” he added.

“Each child must be greeted when coming to school. As she or he enters, the teacher should look into the child’s eyes, and greet each one warmly. A warm atmosphere of caring and interest must be created,” he stressed.

Describing his unique teaching method, Khosdeghian explained that “a child learns a language either on the street or at home, and comes to school to do it correctly. In our Armenian schools, the teachers only speak Armenian. We concentrate on a child’s ability to recognize Armenian letters, in all five senses. This does not necessarily mean forming words.” Extremely important is for the child, he continued, is “to listen to the new sound system. In our schools, the children speak Armenian with each other from a very young age.”

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At the St. Vartan Armenian School, there are 23 students ranging in age from 2 to 13, with many having parents of mixed ethnicity. Every five weeks the principal meets with the six teachers, to discuss how the children are approaching the learning process, how to improve the delivery message and content, and how to go forward on each child’s individual basis.

And at the Brooklyn Armenian Church School, which meets every Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., made up of a population of Armenians mostly from the former Soviet Union, the school student population numbers 167, with students ranging in age from 3 to 20, with 11 teachers. In both schools, the parents also are involved with different projects.

This year’s school’s goals have involved “familiarity with the Armenian alphabet and its historical and cultural context so that the Armenian language and heritage can be fully understood. This goal is achieved through various exercises and multi-dimensional approach which includes reading exercises, articulated pronunciation techniques, and introductory notes on historical and cultural setting of the invention of the Armenian alphabet,” Hovannes Khosdeghian related.

“The school must be put at the center of concerns,” Khosdeghian said. “This is especially important for new immigrant families. If not, that first generation will lose its connection with its roots. By the second and third generations, many have already left the shores of their identity. In America, this is especially vital. Once we start concentrating on economic issues, we lose this vital connection. It becomes a compass without bearing.”

How can a conversation be started in the community to address this crucial issue? How can the problem be solved?

“We must give direction to our destiny without losing our identity of being Armenian. We must put this issue at the head of our concerns,” he stated.

Khosdeghian is a Mekhitarist scholar who has had a deep background in pedagogy, Biblical studies and Systematic Theology, which he studied at the Pontifical Gregorian and St. Thomas Aquinas Universities in Rome. He served as editor of the Mekhitarist magazine, Hye Endanik, and was assistant rector and academic dean of the St. Lazarus Seminary, teaching Classical Armenian and Greek, history of philosophy and religion.

In 1983, he left the order as an Armenian Catholic monk, and came to the US, serving as assistant pastor first at the St. Mark Armenian Catholic Church in Wynnewood, Penn., then at St. Ann Armenian Catholic Cathedral in New York City, directing the church choir, and editing the Armenian Catholic Exarchate’s periodical, the Eternal Flame. Between 1988 and 1992,he taught Classical Armenian language and Canon Law at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, and was a Research Fellow at the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center at the Armenian Church Diocese (Eastern).

Most recently, at the request of the Mekhitarist Order’s Abbot General in Venice, Italy, he prepared an analysis for the academic and financial recovery plan for the rebuilding and relaunching of the Mekhitarist School in Tujunga, Calif.

In the American world, he does contract work for companies dealing with data systems for integrated and consistent financial, manufacturing and regulatory reporting. But it is his dedication to the promotion, and deepening of the community’s involvement in language instruction, the enhancement of home-school communication and teaching of the Armenian language and culture which is, and has always been at the head of his concerns and work.

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