Samuel Armen recently created Project Bloom, a free three-week creative writing course that allowed rural Armenian students to find their writing voices. The eighteen-course creative writing curriculum was provided to thirty-one village students between the ages of 13 and 16 from Hatsik and Aragatsavan. The Children of Armenia Fund (COAF)-Sponsored program taught students the elements of a story, the stages of a plot, and the writing process, and had a drastic effect on student’s lives. Samuel, an Armenian-American teacher, and novelist implemented the first wave of the project this summer, and it was an incredible success.
The creative writing program is essentially a summer extension of COAF’s English Access Program, which is a two-year program sponsored by the US Embassy. Five out of forty-four COAF villages are home to English Access clubs, where students’ English skills skyrocket. All Project Bloom students were English Access Program graduates.
One of Samuel’s initial observations was the students’ high level of self-confidence from learning English wasn’t displayed when they doubted their abilities to complete writing projects. He says completing the program changed this drastically. “Besides the fact that their English literacy and story-telling knowledge demonstrably sky-rocketed, the biggest change is in students’ self-efficacy in terms of writing,” he said.
Part of COAF and Project Bloom’s mission is to erase the stereotype that village students are less capable than others. “For me, the biggest challenge of Project Bloom was making the kids believe that their opinions and ideas do matter,” said Rosa Tadevosyan, one of the three Teaching Assistants present for the three-week endeavor. The Project Bloom teaching staff included two other teaching assistants, Khanoum Gevorgian and Afina Karapetyan.
TA’s Rosa and Khanoum are from COAF-sponsored villages and also completed the English Access Program when they were in school. Their credentials are impressive; Rosa recently gave a TEDx Talk, and Khanoum just spent a year studying in Hawaii after winning the FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange) scholarship.
Afina, equally impressive, is a COAF volunteer from Maryland. She said the depth and creativity of the students’ writing was something that really stood out to her. “They were able to translate their thoughts from Armenian to English clearly and with difficult vocabulary,” she added. Teaching Assistant Khanoum emphasized the importance of connecting with the students rather than just telling them what to do. All four members of the teaching staff made incredible efforts to build personal connections with the students.
Samuel, a teacher in Brooklyn, New York when not running Project Bloom, says his COAF students were definitely more driven than his US students. “They showed a far greater desire to learn, and I think it’s for many reasons. The COAF-renovated schools are like havens for the students. More importantly, COAF has introduced to these students a tremendously different style of teaching. Both the Access program and Project Bloom are interactive, social, and student-centric. This is very unique for them, as the education system in Armenia still very much leverages a classical and traditional model of teaching, which is more similar to lecturing and drills than actual teaching. Students in America – definitely in New York schools – might take that for granted by this point,” he said. His students grew extremely fond of him by the end of the program. He made an effort to connect to the students that none of them had ever experienced before; students even referred to him as Mr. Sam and enjoyed his happy and charismatic teaching style.
Student Marina said Project Bloom helped her become more independent, and not just in her writing. “I started to love writing because it really helps me to share my feelings with other and sharing became part of my life,” she said. She also said her favorite assignment consisted of students continuing the sentence, ‘I am most proud of:’ with their own narratives. “I wrote that I’m most proud of my country, my Armenia… There are some difficulties while living here, but they are everywhere. I’m most proud of being Armenian and living in this small village,” she said.
Another student, Lillith, said “Project Bloom really changed my life. Besides learning English, I gained many friends. From this project, I have learned how we can write a great story. Though knowing English is not enough for writing a story. We need to be creative and honest. And during Project Bloom, I learned to be more honest and more sociable.”
One of Project Bloom’s goals is to combine students’ short stories into a book entitled ‘Among the Brightening Bloom’. Publishing the book intends to open doors for the students. “Being published writers at such young ages provides many new opportunities for scholarships, internships, and even career paths,” Samuel said. The stories will also serve as content for COAF donors to see through the eyes of the students.
When asked why he thinks it’s important for others to read their stories, student Artur said: “I think my story’s importance is telling people that villager’s lives are not easy, because there are too many people who think that it is.”
Due to the success of the first installment, he hopes that next year’s Project Bloom will build on this year’s accomplishments. “This year’s Project Bloom was a pilot,” Samuel said. “Next year’s Project Bloom will not only have the momentum of this year’s wisdom and ongoing success but will– I hope– take place in multiple COAF-sponsored villages, perhaps even tripling the student-count. We have already had four of our thirty-one students express interest in becoming TAs for future English programs… And that desire to give back once having the ability to do so is the most important thing of all.”