Sisters Publish Preschool Armenian Alphabet Book, Carrying on Mother’s Legacy of Teaching

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DETROIT — Hourig Toukhanian Jacobs was one of those people who seem to single-handedly keep the Armenian culture alive.

For some 50 years she was active in the Metro Detroit area as an Armenian language teacher with Armenian Relief Society-affiliated schools. She was translator, a cataloguer at the Armenian Research Center at University of Michigan — Dearborn, and an expert on Armenian history and culture who was often asked to speak at community affairs, meetings of the still-active Van-Vasbouragan society, and elsewhere. She was an active member of the Armenian Congregational Church of Greater Detroit where she headed up the Sunday School, served on the board of deacons, and spoke at parish events and women’s gatherings.

Hourig Toukhanian Jacobs, Detroit-area Armenian language teacher

When Toukhanian Jacobs passed away in 2017, it was an immense loss not only to her family but to all Armenians in Metro Detroit. Yet from that loss, two of her daughters were propelled — by necessity if nothing else — to innovate in the field of Armenian-language education.

Filling a Need

Jennifer (Jacobs) Mullen, a former high school math teacher, and daughter of Toukhanian Jacobs, had a problem. Having decided to home-school her children, she knew they wouldn’t have the benefit of the Armenian-language environment of Southfield’s AGBU Manoogian School, and the Detroit-area extracurricular Armenian schools were held far from where she lived. But having been taught fluent Armenian by her mother, Mullen said to herself “I can do it at home.”

Yet, Mullen had planned all along to rely on her mother to bolster her kids’ Armenian education. Toukhanian Jacobs, unsatisfied with the existing materials, had almost always created her own curriculum and was an expert educator. But with her mother gone and unable to devise handmade lessons, Mullen had to begin her own search for printed materials.

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First, she went to another pillar of the Armenian community, Gyumri-born “Digin” Anahit Toumajan. (When Armenians from Detroit mention the word “Digin” by itself, they only mean one person — Toumajan, another long-time Armenian language educator.) Toumajan supplied her with useful materials — useful for kindergarten, Mullen says. It wasn’t what she was looking for.

Mullen felt there was a specific lack of books for pre-school age children. Mullen wanted a Western Armenian equivalent to the big workbooks produced for American preschoolers to learn the alphabet. Mullen didn’t find much, and what she did find, she felt to be out-of-date compared to what was available for learning American English.

Mullen reached out to her older sister, Cathy Jacobs Brito, an artist who had assisted their mother in her Armenian language classes growing up and had often designed/drawn the lesson materials. And so was born the project of creating an alphabet workbook that would serve the practical needs of Armenian children in the Diaspora: The Big Book of Armenian Letters.

Sisters (left to right) Jennifer (Jacobs) Mullen and Cathy Jacobs Brito

A Powerful Legacy

Born in Beirut, Lebanon and educated at the famed Nshan Palanjian Jemaran, the authors’ mother, Hourig Toukhanian Jacobs, immigrated to Detroit in the late 1960s and attended Wayne State University. There, she obtained her education degree, focusing in foreign language teaching with a major in French and a minor in Spanish. An interesting piece of trivia is the fact that Toukhanian played for the Homenetmen basketball team in Lebanon during her Jemaran days, and tried out for basketball at Wayne State, where the coaches, observing her not-so-fluid movements, put her on the JV team. Then Toukhanian surprised them all. “They put her in for one game, and after seeing her play, immediately moved her up to Varsity. She didn’t move in a fluid way but she could see the plays, she was that kind of player.”

After completing her required student teaching at Mumford High School in Detroit, Toukhanian Jacobs devoted the rest of her life to the Armenian community. At first, she taught at the Armenian Relief Society day school in Dearborn. But Metro Detroit’s mid-size Armenian community didn’t have the population to support more than one day school. The ARS closed down their school and AGBU Manoogian in Southfield became the only choice for parents wishing to give their children an Armenian day school education.

But the ARS continued to fill an educational need. Those parents who wanted to enroll their children in the public schools to have a mainstream American educational experience, but also send them to “Saturday School” as had been typical since the 1920s, looked to the once-a-week classes that the ARS set up under the Zavarian name. Due to this state of affairs, depending on their educational preferences, Armenians from both sides of the political spectrum attended the ARS Zavarian school, and Armenians from both sides attended the AGBU Manoogian school — a fact that has contributed significantly to community cohesion in the Metro Detroit area.

Toukhanian Jacobs became one of the most-loved teachers in the ARS “Zavarian” one-day school program. Teaching primarily out of West Bloomfield, Toukhanian Jacobs, having the benefit of a American college education and a stellar Armenian education at Lebanon’s Jemaran, was renowned for her ability to tailor her lessons for students who didn’t necessarily speak Armenian with their parents. When she got to Detroit in the late 1960s, that was almost all of them.

“My mom was an Armenian teacher and almost always created her own curriculum,” says Mullen. “She had the special ability to teach kids that didn’t speak Armenian in the home. In the beginning it was kids who spoke with grandparents. Then it was kids who heard Armenian spoken around them, but didn’t really understand much of it. Then it was kids who were Armenian, went to church, but didn’t know anything of the language. Finally, toward the end, she was teaching non-Armenian spouses how to speak Armenian.”

Hourig Toukhanian with her Kharpertsi mother Eugenie, in Beirut, 1963

Easy Armenian

Toukhanian Jacobs’ motto was to make Armenian easy. And so the sisters have branded their first product under the company name “Armenian Easy.” The alphabet book is their first, but they plan to come out with more in the future.

Toukhanian Jacobs used to give it “piece by piece to the kids,” Mullen says. The Big Book of Armenian Letters attempts to do the same. Multiple pages of assignments are geared toward the same set of three letters of the Armenian alphabet. Then the child moves on to the next three letters. The lessons are repetitive to a grown-up eye but are set up in a way that is fun and engaging for preschoolers and allows them to learn the alphabet by repetition in a way that they won’t find boring. The authors are confident it will work, because rather than patterning the lessons after previous Armenian-language materials, they copied in a large part the format of some of the best-selling products on the market for American preschoolers.

The book has other features. The instructions such as “color in the square with the letter Ayp,” are written entirely in Armenian. Some parents who don’t speak Armenian and saw a preview of the book were disappointed they couldn’t read it themselves to help their child with the lessons. But there is a purpose behind that, and actually Mullen and Brito are aiming to reach out to that population. “There are a lot of people who don’t speak Armenian, but they want their children to learn Armenian. We are trying to serve that population. But we wanted the book to be an immersive experience. If the child sees the English letters, their eyes will go to that and not focus on the less familiar Armenian letters. As for the parents who don’t speak or who don’t read Armenian, there are in depth descriptions and instructions of each lesson in video form on our website, which users can subscribe to for a minimal fee.”

Indeed, the Armenian Easy website has extremely helpful videos by Mullen narrating in a simple way and with a gentle voice the instructions for each page of the book. The first few pages’ corresponding videos are free to look at. “Another thing is that I wish they would show you what’s in the book. When we were searching for materials, it just would say what the book was and how much it was, maybe show the cover. I thought, ‘We need to show people what’s in this book.’” The website allows consumers to take a peek inside the book and see if it looks like something they would find useful.

There are other reasons the book is entirely in Armenian. First of all, the authors made the instructions kid-centric rather than teacher centric. Instead of the old-fashioned Armenian format using the infinitive, which translates as, for example “to color the box red”, because the child is to color the box red, Brito and Mullen’s book has written in Armenian “color the box red” using the imperative form of the verb. This will also help the parent who has some Armenian language knowledge to remember the correct word to use with their child. Also, Brito and Mullen hope the book can be used throughout the Diaspora, so there is a minimum of English content and most of the book is in Armenian, “so it can be used, say in Argentina or in other countries of the Diaspora,” says Mullen.

The book is 320 pages and is illustrated by Brito, including a colorful cover. Farm and zoo animals and other features of typical American children’s learning materials are included, along with some ethnic Armenian references. An interesting feature of the book is that the reader is informed that certain letters, for example the second letter of the Armenian Alphabet, Pen, “sounds like the ‘p’ in pen,” with a side note, “It should have a sound somewhere between ‘p’ and ‘b’. This nuance is all but lost in modern Western Armenian speech.”  The sisters were led to include this valuable information by their mother’s upbringing. “My grandmother was born in Kharpert, but raised in an orphanage, so she learned the Armenian they taught in the orphanage, how it’s spoken today. But her older brother had grown up in Kharpert and he pronounced the letters a slightly different way, which is how they are really supposed to be. Unfortunately, that has been lost, but it was often a topic of discussion in our family.” Given that various authorities have stated that the Kharpert dialect is among the closest of the regional dialects to the written Western Armenian language, this theory makes some sense.

The stated audience of the book is “children age 4” but it “can be used for children as young as 3 and up to age 6, depending on the child.” The introduction also states that “the creators believe this workbook can be beneficial to: pre-kindergarten Armenian school students, children of families who are unable to attend an Armenian school, and young children whose parents desire them to continue practicing Armenian lessons over the summer or other breaks from school.” The book further states that the goal is to “provide Western Armenian educational materials for young children in the diaspora” and “facilitate Armenian language learning for all, including those who may not have the benefit of hearing Armenian spoken in their homes.”

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