16 July 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Innovative Language Programs

Interview with Nor Haratch

Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian
Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian © Ricardo Oliveira Alves

Nor Haratch (Paris) interview with Armenian Communities Department team translated from Armenian by Taline Voskeritchian. Original in Armenian, published on 11 June 2020 ( page 3-8). French version published on 18 June 2020 ( page 4-8). Slightly abridged.

Paris – Lisbon – Beirut — Brussels

(…) The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has been doing serious work for the past five years in the sphere of digital and technological advancement in Armenian. Its professional approach touches the domains of education, pedagogy, literary translation, social science research, conferences, video production, language programs (such as spellcheckers, online dictionaries, text corpus, etc…).

The pandemic-induced lockdown further underlined the necessity of these language programs.  For a more detailed understanding of the Foundation’s projects, we present below a four-person conversation with the individuals responsible for the education and language related initiatives of the Armenian Communities Department. Ani Garmirian, Shogher Margossian, and Kayane Madzounian discuss the aims, nature, and outcomes of their specific programs.  We begin the conversation with the Director of the Department, Razmik Panossian, who will cover more general issues pertaining to the Department’s work and approach.

The interviews were conducted by Jirair Tcholakian (the Editor of Nor Haratch).

 

Interview with Razmik Panossian

The Director of the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

Nor Haratch (NH):  During the period of [Covid-19] lockdown, the Gulbenkian Foundation launched three new projects (…) Did these new projects coincide with the pandemic, or were they planned after the outbreak of the pandemic?

Razmik Panossian (RP):  Because of the pandemic, the Armenian Communities Department of the Foundation prepared four new programs, two of which are prizes: “Khosk Ar” (Be Heard) offers the opportunity, particularly to young persons, to respond in Armenian to fundamental issues pertaining to humankind and the world.  The second is a prize that supports teachers. These two prizes came into being in the context of the pandemic.

Beside these two programs, and again because of the pandemic, it became imperative to provide aid to Armenia, especially at the beginning of the outbreak when the need for personal protective gear, masks, and medical supplies was urgent. Collaborating with the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora, we responded immediately to the emergency.

Two weeks ago we provided humanitarian assistance to the Armenian community in Lebanon. 

We have another program that relates to Lebanon.  It is a new initiative aimed at creating innovative culture in the Armenian language; we had been working on this project for months.  It happened that coincidentally we launched the initiative in February.  This project is one of the cornerstones of the strategic plan for Lebanon, which we had prepared in 2019.

Therefore, of the five programs that we launched during these months, four were initiated specifically for the pandemic.

I must add that because of this unprecedented situation, we were forced to cancel, postpone or adjust some projects we had planned.  For instance, we were unable to go ahead with the various seminars during the London International Book Fair.  Likewise, the concert we had sponsored in Yerevan on the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Calouste Gulbenkian’s birth, as well as other programs related to this milestone, were postponed.  And we decided to keep the Zarmanazan Summer Educational Camp, but change its format to an online platform. 

NH:  In the final analysis, the pandemic shows us that harmful as they are, crises also have a beneficial side.  However you look at it, the Covid-19 pandemic had a positive influence on the rise of new, experimental methods in education, instruction, and pedagogical practice.  It was an occasion for communicating the accumulated content of collective life.  The pandemic was an opportunity to think about life, to search for life’s meaning, to appreciate well-being, and to be vigilant and responsible in taking care of one’s health and that of nature.  Regarding these issues, what is the approach of the Foundation?

RP:  The current, extraordinary situation is an opportunity for reflection on universal human problems.  The purpose of the Be Heard Prize is just that: We want to encourage individuals to articulate in Armenian, and in a variety of ways, their thoughts on these vital issues.

As a foundation, we have tried for many years now to secure and develop an Armenian presence online.  Our efforts have involved digitizing books, supporting websites, and sponsoring the development of technological tools.  Because of the pandemic, suddenly it became imperative that pedagogy too, should be brought into the online sphere.  This change happened very fast, and naturally many teachers were not ready for a new way of working from home and using technology to do so.

There is another interesting phenomenon that we have noted over the past two months. The use of Western Armenian, it seems, has suddenly increased and gained new energy on social media. For example, we learned from our representative in Lebanon, that a group of young Armenians has developed a new project called “Intch ga tchiga” (What’s there?). The website and app “Aghvor paner” (Good things) already have a following.  There are other similar individual initiatives.

It is safe to say that in the past two months, technology and language have entered the domestic space together, which is a new and significant phenomenon.  That is, the general subjects we used to talk about outside the home became the subjects we talked about inside, and in Armenian and with or through new technology tools. Now, the question is: What can be done, what productive means can be found, so that this positive step can take root among families and young people?

Putting modesty aside, I can say that for the past five or six years we have been laying the groundwork to reach this point, sometimes quietly and sometimes  more loudly.  We have made major progress in this area, some of which my colleagues will discuss later.  It is true that all the initiatives are not ready yet. In five or six months we will be better armed with additional tools.  Here, then, is something good that came out of the pandemic: Isolated in their homes, people began to communicate more frequently in (Western) Armenian, to use technological means, and to create new and interesting things (relating to culture).

NH:  Doesn’t the teaching of Armenian through technological tools (in the sense of mastering the tools) create a gap between those teachers limited by tradition and those teachers who master the technological tools of instruction (…). We must take into consideration that in the case of Armenian, not every person has the predisposition to use these tools (…).

RP:  You’re right.  You know, there’s an unfortunate contradiction in the Diaspora, especially in the sphere of education.  Where technology and innovation are strong, there the language is usually weak, both in geographical and generational terms. And this contradiction is part of our reality.  The pandemic hastened the pace of utilizing the tools of technology, gave it a push as we said. We must also take note of the fact that in the next ten, twenty years there will be a certain change of human resources as a result of generational change.  In terms of innovative approaches and the mastery of new ways of teaching, today more professional teachers are being trained.

Aside from this, some countries don’t have constant internet service.  We can use the example of Syria or Lebanon, where as a result of power outages, internet connection is often disrupted, and one can only imagine what a difficult situation this creates for teachers!  But on the other hand, we must not disregard the fact that we are living in the twenty first century; every teacher is obligated to be at least familiar with the world of technology.  As I mentioned above, the prize for teachers serves just this purpose.  We want to encourage teachers, knowing that not every person has the possibility of participating in this initiative because unfortunately there are teachers who do not even have a personal computer, especially in less developed countries. 

NH:  The world is moving fast toward digitization and the rise of information technology.  This, of course requires huge investment of resources.  Do pan-diasporan structures in the Armenian world have the resources to rise to this challenge?  What guarantees do you have for success?

RP:  I think the means are there.  The Armenian Diaspora is not a poor diaspora, but means are not enough.  The vision and will must be there, too.  And the first guarantee of success is to have leaders who see the importance of the Armenian language and of the mission of Armenian schools in transmitting the language.  It is imperative to have faith in this mission. And, of course, it is necessary to provide the means to make this vision a reality. Otherwise, we will stay at the level of slogans (as happens frequently), and nothing productive comes out of that.

The Diaspora’s “debates” on education focus on opening or closing schools.  When have you heard a constructive discussion about the educational mission of a school or about serious pedagogical subjects and problems? That is, a conversation about the “content” of the school’s building and not about keeping the school open or closing it down.  It is as if the quality of a school’s education is not related to its success.  As a community, we lament the fact that parents do not send their children to Armenian schools (where such schools exist), but we don’t have the courage to ask why.  The answer to that question is the result of specific failures on several levels, from the leadership to the pedagogical approach.

The Diaspora must assume the responsibility and the leadership in solving its own problems.  Western Armenian is the problem of the Diaspora, and it is the Diaspora that must solve its problems, with its own leaders at the helm.  The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is carrying out one part of this responsibility, within the limits of its possibilities, but the Diaspora has organizations that are much larger than our Department.

By the way, the leadership of Armenia has a very clear vision of technological development.  The priority there is not in language but rather economic prosperity, which is understandable.

NH:  True, the Diaspora is not poor, but as of yet it has not had that vision. Through a different mode of governance, it has placed the emphasis on other national issues, and in this way it has impoverished the Western Armenian cultural heritage of which Western Armenian is an inextricable part.  In general, and in the case of the Armenian language too, we know that, there is a 20 to 30-year lag in the development of educational programs, language education games, videos on scientific themes.  In this regard, what solutions would you propose?

RP:  True, there is a huge lag in the educational sphere of the Diaspora, where the preservation of Armenian identity and the Armenian language has taken a very conservative course, and that is what is dangerous — conservative in the sense that what we have we freeze so we don’t lose it.  In doing so, we have not given young people enough opportunities to create what is new [with which they can identify]. Let me offer an example from history.  What happened in the 1920s was the exact opposite of this phenomenon.  Among the ranks of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, the Hunchagian Social Democratic Party, and the Ramgavar Liberal Democratic Party [the three main diasporan political parties with their respective cultural and social institutions], there was a very clear vision, based on the potential of the youth, to cultivate an Armenian speaking diasporan people.  In the 1950s and 1960s, too, a dynamic and youthful movement emerged which, it appears, took on a more conservative character in the 1970s. Language began to break away from present realities and attach itself only to the past and only to what was Armenian.  In Europe and in North America, cultural renewal found fertile soil to some degree but there, because of the absence of schools, language did not flourish. Today, it is possible to offer the younger generation the means by which it can create, in its own way, an Armenian culture in Diaspora. The answer to your question (regarding solutions) is the following: To provide the means for the production of culture in Armenian instead of preaching to — even imposing on — the next generation what their culture should be. Culture is not a package to be passed on; it is a process to be continuously shaped.

Of course, the Diaspora is not an island.  It is engaged with the Other, and definitely with Armenia.  But we should keep in mind that Armenia is not the beginning and end all of everything, especially for the fourth or fifth generation diaspora Armenians.  But let there be no misunderstanding: Diaspora Armenians will of course keep their ties with Armenia, and be inspired by Armenia.  Armenia, however, has a conservative approach in the cultural and social spheres, and in these two spheres it criticizes innovative ideas that it deems to have come from outside (of course, there are exceptions).  Let me repeat: The Diaspora must assume responsibility for solving its problems. In other words, it should take charge in shaping its future. I am optimistic because among young people I see a generation that defends and uses Western Armenian, it is an energized generation.  The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation offers its support and encouragement to this generation.

NH:  In a way, the pandemic created the opportunity for the comprehensive examination of such issues. But we are at the beginning and probably many things will change in our daily life…

RP:  On-line meetings, gatherings and lectures offer fantastic opportunities for multiple conversations with many voices, which are viewed and listened to by Armenians in the four corners of the world, without any organizational restrictions.  We must use such opportunities to exchange ideas on issues of vital importance (…).

 

The Importance of Bringing Universal Issues into our Community Life

Shogher Margossian joined the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 2018 as a consultant and project manager in language and technology.

NH: With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Gulbenkian Foundation launched several new projects, which opened possibilities in language use and in engagement young people in community life for the purpose of harnessing their intellectual and technical resources.  There have been applicants already; there are echoes.

Shogher Margossian (SM): We believe that language is not an end in and of itself; rather, it is inextricably tied to thinking. That is, the vitality of language is achieved also by stimulating the work of the mind. That is the real purpose of both the Be Heard Prize and the Creative Culture Program in Lebanon.

The Be Heard Prize stems from the necessity of bringing discussions around global issues pertaining to humanity into our communities, and of creating opportunities for young, as well as experienced minds to reflect, discuss and express themselves around such topics in Armenian. Born from the conditions of the pandemic, this prize is singular in its kind; it will be very interesting to see what the reaction of the Armenian world-wide community will be to this opportunity, and how it will be utilized – it is, after all, a first. Through this prize, Armenians in Armenia and in the Diaspora will be able to assert themselves as citizens of the world.

It is necessary to note that the aim of this prize is to offer a first opportunity, especially to young people, to express their views on important, universal issues, which inevitably relate back to the community. The essential thing here is to take a first step and not to set unattainable criteria in terms of knowledge of the language or the maturity of topics. 

As for the Creative Culture Program in Lebanon, through this project the Foundation reaffirms its engagement in [sustaining] the vitality of the Armenian language. The main purpose of the grant program is to stimulate creative individuals who want to take up innovative projects that are conceived and realized in Western Armenian. Therefore, this project aims to spark, primarily among young people, the desire to create in Western Armenian – to believe that their approaches, preoccupations, and creations have an important place in our reality – while bringing a degree of modernity to such creations. 

Both projects pursue the formation of a culture of exploration and participation, which offers young people a platform where they can articulate their thoughts using those means which are at their disposal today and which are “authentic” to their mode of expression, using Armenian as a natural medium.

The Be Heard Prize provides smaller grants to a large number of applicants. Fifty prizes will be given, twenty-five to individuals from the Diaspora and 25 from Armenia, whereas the Creative Culture Program in Lebanon will offer a total of five bigger grants.

We have already received interesting applications for both prizes. Given that these two prizes are unprecedented in terms of the submission of creative projects, applicants usually want to consult with the Foundation to better understand the conditions. 

NH:  The world is moving fast toward digitization and the rise of information technology.  This, of course requires huge investment of resources.  Do Armenians have the resources to rise to the challenge?  What guarantees do you have for success?

SM:  Here, too, the Foundation is engaged in making sure that language—Eastern and Western Armenian—be in step with current technological advances.   Let us list the most important initiatives in this regard:

A. Spell-checks for all internet platforms, smartphones, and all computer platforms, which will spur us to write in Armenian in our everyday communications. In the course of this project, the Nayiri website of dictionaries will be complemented with various new and rare dictionaries.

B. The digitization of the journals and manuscripts of the Mkhitarist Order, with the collaboration of the Armenian Academy of Sciences.  To date, more than 100,000 pages of digitized material already exist, almost half of which has been indexed.  Soon, a special website devoted to this rich collection will be developed.

C. The Foundation is also sponsoring two projects in Armenia.  The first is related to the development of a Treebank for Western Armenian, which can mechanically perform grammatical and linguistic analyses.  This will directly help in integrating the language into computing logic.  The other project relates to the development of an etymology platform for word formation, whose purpose is the deep grammatical analysis of words. 

In accordance with the principles of the Foundation, these projects are to be accessible and free of charge to all individuals.

 

The Pandemic also Had a Positive Effect in our Educational Experience

Kayane Madzounian is Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s focal point and project manager in Lebanon.

NH:  A new professional sphere has opened up for teachers—on-line teaching. This development presents a crisis for all those who don’t have the means to adapt to the new situation, to utilize the new tools.  Have you announced a specific award for teachers who bring innovations into their methods of teaching? What has been the reaction, the participation, the expectations?

Kayane Madzounian (KM):  Because of the isolation imposed by the pandemic, everyday life changed for all of us.  For the educational sector, this isolation and the ensuing experience of remote teaching was an opportunity to rethink and re-evaluate many issues.  Many Armenian schools that had so far hesitated in benefiting from the possibilities offered by technology suddenly found themselves in a situation to which they had to adapt very quickly.  Even in the first days of self-isolation, there appeared on social media educational materials developed by teachers of Armenian schools, and the interest in these materials seemed to go beyond the classroom.  As the saying goes, “There is nothing bad without something good.” The pandemic also had a positive impact on our educational experimentations.

The Foundation took notice of this upswing and could not remain indifferent to the plethora of materials that was produced under limited conditions and by individual means.  In our Armenian reality, the tradition of teacher appreciation is inconsistent.  Once a year, on Teacher’s Day, slogans and rhetorical praise are heaped on teachers, without any attention to fundamental issues.  Because the projects of the Foundation’s Department of Armenian Communities are based on the central principle of modernizing the teaching of Western Armenian, we wanted to encourage the teachers whose language of instruction is Armenian and who, for reasons beyond their control, had to shift their instruction to online platforms. We announced the prize in mid-April, and it was disseminated very quickly across social media.  We received applications from different parts of the world, from teachers who teach different subjects in Armenian (language, history, science, mathematics, religion, art).

Our correspondence with the teachers shows a positive picture.  Almost all the participants view this prize as a huge encouragement.  Whether they win or not, the opportunity has been created for the teachers of our schools (whose vast majority are women) to be more daring, but first and foremost to appreciate the value to their own work. It is natural that the proposals we received are diverse in content and form.  Even though these proposals are produced within the stipulations of the internet, they show traces of conventional thinking and methods.  In comparison, the young teachers are more daring, and it seems that the current situation works to their advantage.  In the past, because they did not have the technical means in their classrooms, they were often unable to develop their teaching and make it attractive to students.  Today, they are free to choose the means of instruction, which improves the children’s learning experience.

We also receive letters from many teachers who share with us the difficulties they have faced and overcome.  Of course, we answer the letters, but we cannot always be of help to all.  For many, the Foundations seems to be a savior, but today we want the helplessness and suppression to be removed, and for teachers to think and write to us as colleagues and not as saviors.

This nature and purpose of this prize is to appreciate and encourage, within certain criteria and limits, the efforts of those who apply for it (…).  The deadline was May 31 (…). The applications have come from Argentina, Greece, Russia, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, the US, as well as other countries.  We have received 101 applications.  We had originally announced that we would award 30 prizes, but we will try to raise that number to reach more teachers.

Let us note also that this prize does not intend to classify teachers or to judge their work.  It is natural that we receive applications from those who learn about the prize and who want to participate.  We are certain that there are very qualified teachers who have not participated in this competition.

NH: Can you tell us a little bit about the situation in Lebanon?

KM:  On several occasions last year, we discussed on various media platforms the challenges we faced in Lebanon and the projects we intend to develop in response.  Let me note quickly that our work in Lebanon rests on five specific pillars and includes programs for schools, teachers, special education, teacher training and education degrees, as well as the promotion of creative culture.  Since last October, Lebanon has once again been facing a state of uncertainty.  Because of the public demonstrations, schools were closed for a few weeks, and then the pandemic arrived and with it the mandatory isolation.  Today, Lebanon is in the midst of a considerably dire economic crisis, which has not spared the community.

A program of financial support for the schools was prepared, to which 13 schools applied.  Of these schools, six passed to the second phase.  Because of the critical situation of the country, the May deadline that we had set was extended by two months.

With a local Lebanese university, we are planning a program of courses for teacher re-training, which was to begin in the academic year 2020-2021, but because of similar concerns, these courses were also postponed for a year. 

At this time, the most active program in Lebanon is the Creative Culture Program, which is aimed at 18- to 35-year-olds, who want to make their creative ideas a reality through the medium of Western Armenian.  We will receive applications until June 19.  Then, the applications will be screened for the second phase.  The plan is to give a 5000 US-dollar-grant for each of the five projects to be selected.   

At the same time, in 2020, the Foundation twice sent financial support to Lebanon in response to unforeseen developments in the country.  The first was the sum of 170,000 US dollars, which was sent at the beginning of the year to the 18 functioning Armenian schools. Last week [at the end of May] a humanitarian aid package totaling 30,000 US dollars was sent to three organizations that provide social and medical services: the Armenian Relief Society of Lebanon, the Armenian Educational Benevolent Union, and the Howard Karagheusian Association.  

We are also pleased that many of the participants in our prize for on-line teaching are from Lebanon and some will receive grants.  Indirectly, these prizes benefit Lebanon too.

NH:  Is there on-line teaching of Armenian?  Is the existing mechanism adequate or should everything be re-thought from the beginning?  Is this teaching competitive with other instructional methods?  Does it satisfy the needs of today’s children and youth? Naturally, such questions concern us all.

KM:  As in classrooms, so too online, teaching is multi-faceted.  The online possibilities are varied for communicating with learners, for transmitting knowledge, skills and even values, and for familiarizing the learners with this processes.  As for the platforms, they are nearly infinite.

Not only for Armenian, but for all school subject, the parameters the pandemic has imposed on us all differ significantly from those for online teaching. Not only a public health crisis but also an educational crisis was forced on us. Most of the Armenian schools found themselves facing major uncertainties, and the teachers of Armenian, or more correctly the teachers who teach in Armenian, even more so. We can agree that in our schools, the average age of teachers of Armenian does not fall in the youth range. Furthermore, only few of these teachers have received training in pedagogy or have taken continuing education courses on a regular basis.  The remote learning platforms integrated into the internet are flexible, that is, they are not limited by a language. Therefore, their utilization assumes better technical skills, but preparing materials for these platforms requires very serious and meticulous pedagogical work.

It must be noted that online instruction does not mean innovative or modern instruction; indeed, the internet provides alternative platforms but it does not guarantee alternative ways of thinking or teaching.  Therefore, it is very easy to add striking colors and motions to conventional methods that have already proven to be ineffective, and believe that such additions will satisfy current pedagogical criteria and our students’ intellectual curiosity.

The standard pedagogical approach to teaching Armenian, which is prevalent around the world, is easy to define: Lectures (or sermons) from the teacher to the student; an emphasis on the structure of the language (disproportionately focused on grammar); and the transmission of content that does not seek to go beyond the limits of the national context.  These characteristics threaten the vitality of the language and define it solely as a guarantor of national identity and not the individual student’s attempt at self-discovery.

There is no such thing as today’s child or yesterday’s child. There is always the child who is innately curious and endowed with the motivation to understand his or her surroundings, and whose natural predispositions are either encouraged or thwarted by his or her surroundings. If the teaching of Armenian is stifled, in turn, it stifles its learners.

The Foundation’s initiatives over the past years have aimed to change the unfavorable environment between the language and its learners, to adopt Armenian as a language that opens to the world and, in turn, to safeguard not only its preservation but also its development (…).

 

Zartsants 2.0.  “Participants from the Entire World, We Are Going to Get Together from Afar.”

Ani Garmirian is responsible for the Western Armenian grants and language dissemination programs at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

NH:  The general program of Zarmanazan also includes the re-training of teachers, with the collaboration of Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales (INALCO).    In the last three years, thanks to innovative pedagogical and technological methods, these teachers have acquired certain essential skills. In the current situation created by the pandemic, have the teachers who participated in those re-training programs been able to practice in the remote classrooms what they learned  in these re-training sessions?

AG:  In previous years of Zarmanazan [summer language educational camp], we did not place the emphasis specifically on remote teaching.  In any case, innovative technology does not always coincide with innovative pedagogy.  But we received quite a number of queries from teachers regarding the current changes. The condition created by the pandemic was unexpected; from one day to the next, schools closed and education generally became internet-based. Each school or institution tried, as best it could, to adjust to these new conditions, in some places in very practical ways and solutions.

NH:  In these conditions, and in the case of Diaspora schools, as the state educational program of a given country shifts to the internet, the parallel allocation of time and means to Armenian subjects becomes an issue…

AG:  Of course. This is dependent on the commitment of those who are in charge of Armenian programs in these schools.  For example, recently in one of the schools in Athens, the collaboration between the school administration and the teachers of Armenian reaped such good results that it inspired the other [non-Armenian subject] teachers to make their programs consonant with the mode adopted for the Armenian.  We do come across such positive phenomena, but more often in places where pedagogical innovation has already taken root. The online conditions of human communication themselves change the relationship between teacher and student.  If in the past, the classroom was focused on the teacher and on traditional methods, now an effort has to be made to search for new ways of establishing connections with the student. And if the classroom is already student-centered, the teacher having assumed the role of a learning companion or a facilitator, can very comfortably continue the communication online. This is the approach that Zarmanazan has adopted as a basic principle. It has tried to practice it at the summer camp, and teach it in teacher-training sessions.

NH:  (…) Have Armenian schools established a system of remote learning? And if that system does exist already, to what degree have the periods of Armenian language instruction been included in the programs?

AG:  Diaspora schools—from the Middle East to France, from Argentina to Canada—are subject to local, and economic realities.  The establishment and successful implementation of an online system of education is dependent on these realities.  If your question is about the creation of stable home-school platforms in Armenian, few schools were probably ready to cross that bridge.  But I assure you, everywhere, many teachers teaching in Armenian adjusted very quickly and energetically to the new situation.  They often succeeded in strengthening their communication with parents, and in energizing group work by developing or adopting positive ways of remote learning.  The applications we have received for the remote teaching prize launched by the Foundation provides evidence of that wonderful dynamism.  In one-and-a-half months, more than 100 teachers participated in the prize.  The desire, the ability, the talent—all these things are there! Perhaps a more enduring online educational system will be created after this new experience (of online teaching due to the pandemic).

NH:  The fourth edition of Zarmanazan was to have taken place this coming August, which will be changed to an online platform because of the pandemic. Can you give us some details about the ways in which this huge project will be re-organized?

AG:  Because of circumstances, Zarmanazan changed form and appearance and became Zartsants 2.0 (with the motto of “Participants from the Entire World, We Are Going to Get Together from Afar”).  For the Foundation, as well for (our partner) Mille et un mondes, this shift is an unprecedented challenge.  As I said, in some ways, doing things online was outside the sphere of Zarmanazan.  Even the use of phones and computers during the camp was limited.  Zarmanazan was a link between students and the facilitators that deepened year after year. In a way, that link was continuous, and we did not want it to break.  True, Zartsants 2.0 will be independent of Zarmanazan, but it will remain faithful to the same pedagogical principles as those of Zarmanazan, knowing full well that the rules of the game have changed completely.  We must rely on the experience of Zarmanazan and the bonds that were established there, and think about ways in which new projects can be designed on the basis of Zarmanazan.  The central principle is the same in both cases: to strengthen the participants’ creative abilities and, with that purpose in mind, to strengthen the connections among the participants. We think that this new experience will yield unexpected results in the future. The new Armenian-speaking online site of Zartsants will enter domestic spaces, and in this way the use of language will be rooted in an intimate environment.  Language will also become an online language used among individuals.  For instance, “Zarmanatsayn,” the (participant-led) radio program of Zarmanazan, will be moved to a new platform and will include participants in different places. During the year, Zartsants can also become an occasion for listening to everyday language online.  All this requires serious, collaborative work.  Zartsants wants to become a place where young people meet each other and develop personal relations, and by doing so think together, play, imagine, question, experiment, create.  In this regard all the participants, young and old, have already started having online, structured meetings with the facilitators (…).

NH:  How many participants does Zartsants have?

AG:  There are 25 facilitators, and a staff of 30 persons.  The number of participants between 18 and 24 is 23; they are from Beirut, Istanbul, Canada, the US, Argentina, France.  The younger group (10-17) is around 40, half of whom are new participants [and again from around the world].

NH:  In a way, the parents, too, are participants in this online summer camp.  In their homes they must create comfortable conditions for their children…

AG: Yes, that is the case.  Parents, youngsters, and young adults are all enthusiastic and don’t want the link created among them to break… It must be said that the Zartsants staff was quickly able to re-create and re-organize the format of the camp.  A video  of interviews with Zarmanazan participants and facilitators was prepared, which explains the purpose of Zartsants. The parents, like the participants, will be informed of developments on a daily basis.

NH:  In short, we can say that Zartsants will be an experience abundant with new and surprising possibilities.

AG:  Yes.  But for Zartsants to be successful, not only must camaraderie be created but the online time must be used effectively.  It must be reduced to a minimum so that the participants don’t end up spending their life in front of the computer screen [on the one hand, while on the other] individual creative work must be enhanced within the context of the group.  For that to happen, a kind of group memory must be created. And all this, of course, always in Armenian.

NH:  In reality, Zartsants will be a challenge to all those local and Armenian organizations that organize summer camps and would want to live a similar experience.  They will pass through the same course as the one you have outlined.  In this context, it is interesting to study the various solutions that they come up with…

AG:  Of course, what you suggest is possible.  By the way, I wanted to briefly mention the initiatives that we have planned but which have been postponed or cancelled because of the pandemic. Among them was the program for teachers of Armenian, a collaboration between Zarmanazan and INALCO, and which you noted at the beginning of our conversation.  Because this program was based on simultaneous interaction between the camp participants and the teachers, it was not possible to implement it. Also, two workshops had been planned for the 2019 Zarmanazan participants, to take place in Paris in March of this year. The first was a group project, and involved the preparation of theatrical videos (for language instruction). The second was a literary workshop for interested young writers, again in collaboration with INALCO.  These two programs were cancelled as physical gatherings and transformed into online workshops; they continue to this day with great energy. You will see the results soon.  I hope we can talk about these workshops soon. In reality, Zartsants is already in operation, thanks to these workshops.