Spotlight Iowa City: A Love Of Languages

By Mitchell Schmidt

UI The Daily Iowan
February 01, 2010 7:30 Am

Ashot Vardanyan has lived in two very different worlds.

The UI visiting instructor has experienced Armenia during the Soviet
era and capitalist Iowa City – and he’s transferred decades of life
and culture from the former, using it while teaching at the latter
in the UI Asian and Slavic languages and literature department.

For Vardanyan – a native of Yerevan, Armenia – a focus on the everyday
use of Russian is most important. It shows in the way he leads his
classrooms, consistently using poetry, media, and literature from
his home country as examples.

"In language, it’s absolutely important; it’s a good way to organize
dialogue," said Vardanyan, referring to his teaching method.

Born in 1957 in the then-Soviet-controlled capital of Yerevan,
Vardanyan graduated from college at 23 but had to forgo his passion
for teaching after he was drafted into the Soviet military to serve
one and a half years.

By 1998 – and with years of teaching Russian and English on his
resume – he arrived at the UI campus to help write an Armenian civics
textbook. He was hooked.

"That was the time that I really fell in love with Iowa," he said,
leaning back in his chair at the UI Main Library, his Hawkeye cap
resting nearby.

Vardanyan eventually returned in 2002 to work toward a master’s degree
in Teaching Russian as a Foreign Language, teaching in the classroom
at the same time.

Jonathan Rosen, UI graduate student in actuarial science and a former
student of Vardanyan’s, said the 52-year-old integrated Russian life
in the classroom.

"He’s very enthusiastic and loves language," said Rosen. Vardanyan
creates an immersive classroom, focused on conversation, Rosen said,
and he even set up after-class meetings as casual get-togethers while
speaking Russian.

Vardanyan’s teaching eventually extended beyond the classroom. In
2003, his wife and daughter moved to Iowa City to live with him. His
daughter, Ani Vardanyan, didn’t speak English at the time.

Ani Vardanyan said her father was a big help in teaching her to learn
English, passing on his extensive knowledge of grammar and phonics.

Teaching in Iowa City has shown Ashot Vardanyan some differences in
the education system.

While the Soviet system emphasized facts and knowledge, UI education
focuses on critical thinking and creative learning, he said.

The UI instructor also noticed that while group work was limited in
the Soviet system, it is apparent in Iowa City. Vardanyan said he
saw students working and learning together all over campus.

So he’s integrated that observation by planning real-life group work
for his students, such as having them navigate downtown Iowa City
with directions in Russian.

"Students have to practice in possible, real situations," he said.

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