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Solheim Elementary students dive into Armenian culture


Bismarck Tribune

Barf. It’s enough to make a fifth- or sixth-grader bubble with laughter.

Especially when it’s the name of laundry detergent from Armenia claiming to be snowy white and make clothes sparkling clean.

Solheim Elementary School reading specialist Pam Rettig introduced eight students to Armenia through products, labels and photos. Soon, the students will meet Armenian students from Gyumri, Armenia, through the Internet.

It’s part of the Armenian Connectivity Program, sponsored by Project Harmony and the U.S. Department of State. It is meant to enhance cultural awareness by using computer technology. Students post their photos and type information about themselves and answer questions on a topic to get conversation flowing.

“It’s fun to get to know people from other countries and what they think about stuff,” sixth-grader Rachel Eckroth said.

Eckroth and seven other students met in Rettig’s classroom after school for the first time last Monday. They meet after school twice a month. They ate Armenian-style chicken wings and had a quick social studies lesson with photos from Rettig’s summer trip to Armenia.

The students’ goal is to be more aware of other cultures.

“The world is getting smaller and they really need ownership,” Rettig said. “They are part of the global community.”

In addition to learning about Armenia through the Internet forum, Rettig is sharing textiles and other items from her travels around the world. For example, the students drew names for two hand-woven Guatemalan blankets and Rettig will bring in items from her Fulbright teacher exchange in Japan.

The students want to learn about everyday life in Armenia. Sixth-grader Nick Goulet wants to learn about their culture and daily life, and fifth-grader Faith Ward wants to know what they eat.

They also learn about Armenia through Rettig’s photos. A one-room house without electricity or running water. Inside a building to make lavash, a flat, baked bread. People playing backgammon. Candles burning in church.

An earthquake hit the area about 15 years ago, but some areas look as if it were yesterday, Rettig said. Not many people want to build multi-story buildings and connect electricity or water. Many people also are poor and cannot afford such things, she said. An expensive rug costs U.S. $100, she said.

Armenian women spend their days rolling out balls of dough, which are stored in a recessed area of the floor, then cooked in a hot oven. Many people do not have refrigeration, Rettig said. People will store leftover food from earlier meals in the day in a cupboard for later, she said. At her going away meal with her host family, a piece of freshly broken bread fell on the dirt floor, then was picked up and placed back in the basket to eat.

“They have different ideas about sanitation because there is no refrigeration,”Rettig said.

Men play backgammon in their free time. Traditionally, women do not play it, Rettig said. She was taught while she was there, and the woman she stayed with knew how to play, which was unusual, she said.

In church it is candles and prayers instead of hourlong sermons stereotypical of church in the United States. Rettig explained people buy candles, go inside the church, say a prayer and then leave. The reason for the quick service is historical. Certain people were gathered up in churches and burned during the genocide in Armenia, Rettig said.

The social studies lessons will expand with each meeting, as Rettig adds more pictures each meeting to the bulletin board outside her classroom.

The students applied to participate in Project Harmony. Participation was limited by the program sponsors. They answered questions, as well as their parents, and were chosen from 40 students. It’s the second year Rettig participated in Project Harmony. A second group of students will participate in the spring.

The Web site the students use to share information with Armenian students is slower to pop up on the screen than most people with fast Internet connections would expect. Regardless of the speed of the Internet connection, it connects at the same, slower speed because the technology in Armenia cannot download pages as quickly as technology in America, Rettig said.

The Project Harmony forum has students type a paragraph about themselves, describe themselves in three words and answer several questions about stereotypes.

Rettig’s class opened the Armenian Connectivity Program to new schools in Armenia. Previously, the program was open to middle and high school students only. The program allowed it because Rettig did a similar Internet forum with a school in Africa, she said. One other U.S. elementary school, in Illinois, participates in the Armenian Connectivity Program.

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