Cowheads, Conferences, and Choices

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do something awesome.  However, due to a series of changes that had nothing to do with any of things I had originally planned, I came out of that weekend (and the beginning of the week) with a lot of different thoughts and feelings.

For weeks (or maybe it was months) I was so excited about the prospect of going to this really unique event in Gyumri that only comes around about once a year (although it is relatively new).  It’s the Cow Head Festival!  It celebrates one of the more interesting cuisines to come out of the former meat capital of Armenia–the cow head.

As we’re all aware, the cow greatly interests me.  Not just for the fact that cows are fun animals that could easily replace dogs, except for the fact that I would never dream of eating a dog.  I can imagine eating a cow, all the time.

A whole cow head is somehow cooked and served.  THE WHOLE HEAD! The eyes, tongue, and brain, and most of the parts we think of as gag-worthy.

On a related side-note: you shouldn’t call it gag worthy if you’re not willing to try it.  Maybe it’s just different. For example, over the summer I introduced cookie butter to what was my 5th form club.  So much skepticism over something that is truly great because it was different.

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Anyways, I’m really into cows, so I was super excited about this AND I haven’t had a chance to actually go to Gyumri—which is supposed to be the most humorous city in Armenia.

Well, I was all set to go to Gyumri up until the Thursday before.  I ended up getting a phone call from the amazing Meri telling me that they had some people drop out of a conference that I was really interested in.  It started on the same day that the Cow Head Festival was set to start.

I ended up doing the adult thing and asked Meri if I could let her know whether I could come later.  I had real angst about it.  REAL ANGST.

I had to think about what was more important to me: my professional development, or my passion for cows.

The scales were not balancing out.

Real talk, I’m not planning on being a teacher in a formal classroom setting after Peace Corps.  As I’ve said before, and Armenia has really affirmed this for me, I find the formal classroom stifling.  The bureaucracy that goes into it suffocates whatever creativity I thought I had, and being confined to this teaching style that is really hard to deviate from has been a really tough challenge.  Many Armenian teachers hold the textbooks as canon, even though they’re not really that good.  Also, there’s a heavy dependence on rote learning—getting students to value memory over critical thinking and coming up with the “most correct” answer instead of teaching them how to think (of course, I’m generalizing).  My own counterpart tries to bring in different materials, and tries to move away from this method that was so prevalent in many of the post-Soviet countries.

But it’s hard for her too.

Like, really freaking hard.  It goes against the basic understanding this society has and it’s this form of formal education that really has me disliking being confined to the four walls of a classroom.

However, this conference provided me an opportunity and I decided against my better judgement to go to that instead of the Cow Head Festival…apsos. (To see what the hype is around the cowhead, check out Thong Do’s and Liz Barron’s personal accounts! Fair warning, their pictures are graphic.)

The two-day conference hosted by AELTA (the Armenian English Language Teacher Association) challenged participants to bring critical thinking in to the classroom.  As I’ve said before, critical thinking isn’t necessarily taught in the classroom.  It’s not necessarily important.  But after this conference, I’m realizing that there is so much that goes into critical thinking and I guess questioning things is so second nature to us of the “free world” that we don’t necessarily realize all of the components that go into thinking.

A good friend of mine in my village asked me to teach her how to think like me.  At the time, I was stumped and didn’t really know how to answer.  How do you get someone to think?

Overall, the conference was really good in that it allowed me to see that educators, especially English teachers in Armenia, are facing the same problems.  They see the boys in the back of the class that refuse to participate and also don’t know what to do. They see the students staring listless because they’re just so far behind, and struggle with trying to engage them, too.

It was awesome to see that there are teachers just as frustrated with the system as the Americans that get paired with them.  They are equally at a loss as to how to fix the system.

But then again, it seems that some of them don’t want to change.  They know that the system is broken, but how can something that worked for them just not work anymore?  Also, it’s easier for many of them to just stick to the status quo.  It’s honestly easier for me to let them.

Then you have this group of women from Yerevan and from the bigger cities who exemplify the progress TEFL volunteers hope to see in their villages.  Talk about the wave of jealousy that washed over me for two days.  The villages need the resources way more than Yerevan, which is why all of the volunteers are placed in villages or cities that aren’t in Yerevan.  For those of us in the villages with very little opportunities for secondary projects outside of clubs (I’m talking about working with orgs), and very little options for deviating from the text, there’s really very little that we can do to feel useful sometimes.

Having to admit the lack of useful work really kind of sucks.  But it’s about planting seeds, right?

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