Finishing up the Debate Team

Gayane in a debate

Today I (finally) closed out my Let Girls Learn grant, which was used to start a debate team at my school. I wanted to share some of the pretty cool things that my community, my counterpart, and I accomplished. This grant was successful beyond what I imagined it would be, and even though we weren’t able to put on the final debate because of circumstances beyond our control, those kids were ready, they were excited, and they were working hard. The important part, I guess, wasn’t whether or not the kids were able to show off what they had learned, but that they had actually learned it.

Let’s just start with some impressive numbers:

  • I expected to attract 20 kids to the first few meetings and keep 10 of them on board for the whole project, and I was expecting most of them to be girls. However, I had 35 kids regularly participating in the project, girls and boys. Go kids!
  • I expected my counterpart to spend 35 hours helping me teach and design the material for the project. She spent over 200 hours on the project, and that’s only including hours that I could count. She spent countless hours learning the material herself and lesson planning with me.
  • We were going to meet once a week to learn debate and once a month to actually debate, but my counterpart and I were doing lessons in debate 6-8 times per week, and I think I lost track of the number of debates we actually had.
Me and Gohar 🙂

I also want to start by saying that a lot of times, projects like this that involve more learning from the kids than materials provided to the school fail quickly or don’t achieve as greatly as the volunteer expects because there is little support from the community’s counterpart. I wrote this project expecting little support, and instead, I got more support than I ever thought was possible. This project would never have been a success without my counterpart, Gohar. She was always pushing the kids and herself to think differently and critically, made sure everyone participated to his or her full potential, and taught the kids public speaking in ways I would have never been able to by myself. She also mastered a lot of different technology skills, like using Google Drive, how to use Google, and email, some things that other volunteers spend their whole services trying to teach their counterparts with no success. She was always so eager to learn and to teach, and I’m very grateful that I had the opportunity to work with her.

Now, the kids. I think I want to tell one of my favorite stories to demonstrate what my kids learned. They got to choose a lot of the debate topics, with many of them focused on gender equality, stereotypes, or rights that women and men have. Siranush in 11th form wanted to debate whether or not boys and men should be allowed to have long hair and piercings. The day we had this debate, we quickly found that not a single student could think of a reason why men and boys should be allowed to have long hair. That is, until I told them that when I was born, my dad had very long hair. One of them said that I was “normal.” How could I be related to someone who had long hair? How could someone with long hair be a father? Finally, when I asked them if my dad should have been forced to cut his hair, somebody said no, because it was his hair. I think that was one of my proudest moments with them. That was the moment that they realized that other people can choose what to do with their lives and bodies. “Your dad can do it, my friends can do it, but I would never do it!” said my 11th form boy. (They’re learning to accept others for who they are!!)

IMG_5898 (1)
Ani and Siranush doing debate research

I also can’t get over that debate we did over CEDAW, the United Nations’ document on women’s rights. You can see that blog post here. That was not only one of our most complicated debates, when we talked about whether or not Armenia and America should sign this document and turn it into law, but also a moment when my students realized that they were a lot smarter and more capable than they realized. I remember when I had to look through CEDAW in my university class. I don’t even know how much of it I understood myself, as a native English speaker. But those kids were able to pick out enough words, phrases, and sentences to make a little bit of sense over what it was saying. And from then on, all my kids were just slightly better readers. Besides learning about women’s rights from the text, the also realized that they didn’t have to understand every word in order to understand a text.

I think this is my favorite picture of those boys.

One more thing: I was very proud of the boys’ participation in this project. Yes, this was a “Let Girls Learn” project, aimed at teaching something to the girls, but in Armenia, things are a bit different when it comes to education. When you think of “the rest of the world,” often times, people imagine that the girls in rural communities are the ones that have trouble getting an education and need to be encouraged to go to school. This isn’t the case in Armenia. Volunteers quickly learn that the boys are the ones who hardly speak English, don’t want to participate and learn, and don’t attend school as much as they should. I was expecting one boy to maybe come to some of the debate team meetings. Instead, I had 19 boys working on this project regularly. (and 16 girls, for comparison.) 19 boys! This meant that we actually shifted debate topics to things that applied to boys, as well. We didn’t do as well in these debates, I think because the boys aren’t as comfortable with English, speaking out for what they believe in, and critical thinking. For example, we never did find out why the boys didn’t want to study hard and go to university, why they thought it was wrong for them to help their mothers in the house, and why they didn’t want to be involved with raising their future children. (I have answers, ones that Peace Corps and my counterpart told me and that I’ve observed on my own) but it was very difficult for the boys to identify these reasons for themselves. I guess I just hope that I planted seeds. That, even if they couldn’t share their opinions or answers, that somewhere in the back of their minds, they had ideas and thoughts that they’ll be comfortable with someday. Or they’ll work things out later. I don’t know. I’m just happy that so many boys participated and had the opportunity to even think about these things.

I’m very proud of this project. I feel like everyone, including myself, learned a lot from it. I’m sure, though, that it’ll live on in my counterpart’s future curriculums and classes, the knowledge will be useful to my students at university and in their future jobs, and I’m sure that they will be able to pass everything they learned about technology onto the younger grades when the time comes. As for me, now I understand just a little bit more about my students and their lives and ideas. And that’s one of the best parts.

This is a long post, but I wanted to share some of the debate topics we talked about in the classes. Many of these questions came from my students or my counterpart. After that I promise it’s over…

  • Is it easier to be a man or a woman?
  • Are men and women equal?
  • Should women be encouraged to learn to drive?
  • Should boys be encouraged to attend university?
  • Should girls be encouraged to go to university?
  • Should girls be encouraged to play football?
  • Is it acceptable for men to have long hair and/or piercings?
  • Should women have jobs?
  • Should men have jobs?
  • Should boys help their mothers with housework?
  • Should fathers help raise their children?
  • Do boys need to study well in school?
  • Are gender roles necessary in society?
  • Can a woman be president of a country?
  • Would you rather have a son or a daughter someday?
  • Can girls and boys be friends?
  • Should Armenia agree to the CEDAW document?
  • Should America agree to the CEDAW document?
Researching researching.

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