NEW YORK – The Greek Teachers Association “Prometheus” held a symposium on Greek education in America dedicated to the memory of language teaching pioneer Dr. John Rassias at the Archdiocesan Hellenic Cultural Center in Astoria on January 17.
The presenters included Dr. Alexander Kitroeff, Professor of History at Haverford College, Dr. Maria Kaliambou, Sr Lector in Hellenic Studies at Yale University, and Alex Colombos.
One of the highlights were greetings from Dr. Rassias’ daughter Helene Rassias-Miles and his grandson Matthew.
Fr. Vasilios Louros praised the community’s exceptional teachers saying “without you the Greek language would have been erased” and presided over the vasiloptia cutting to begin the event emceed by Prometheus President Demosthenes Triantafillou.
Rassias’ language-teaching method was adopted by the Peace Corps and in 1978 he was named to President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies.
A brief film featuring Rassias talking about his teaching philosophy and method captured some the passion and charisma of the great educator whose approach included drama and which was rooted in empathy for the student.
In the community he is known for chairing the committee appointed by former Archbishop of America Spyridon to study the challenges facing Greek education in America. Rassias’ efforts led to a report that emphasized two tracks: 1) Improving the teaching of the Greek language at community schools, 2) Establishing Greek heritage classes in English – 90 percent of Greek-Americans reportedly now marry non-Greeks, thus their children do not hear Greek at home – to ensure that Hellenic identity is preserved among those who don’t take language classes.
Triantafilou said Prometheus shares Rassia’s view and looks forward to working with his family and others to promote them and implement his ideas.
Kitroeff is in a unique position to offer his perspective on the importance of Rassias’ report in the history of the community through his work on the history of the Archdiocese of America that he is writing.
He said that the realistic approach is not to take children born in America and make them Greeks, but to make them Greek-Americans. He also noted that to be effective the teachers must adopt the philosophy the students experience in their “American” schools which emphasize critical thinking and active, not passive learning.
Rassias-Miles was deeply moved. She said she had hoped to convey some of his essence to the guests but saw that their appreciation for her father’s work caused her to receive back some of his essence and said that “love is the fuel that will keep his project aglow.”
William Spiropoulos School Principal Athena Krommydas and St. Demetrios of Astoria Afternoon Greek school director Timoleon Kokkinos were present and among the guests were Col. Antonios Neroulias Greek school director of the Hellenic School of the Church of Our Savior in Rye, NY and Anna Megaris, director of the Greek school of St. John of Tenafly, NJ.
Colombo, who has Master’s Degrees in archeology, psychology, and Jungian psychology, used his presentation on the fascinating topic of who is buried in the Amphipolis tumulus as an example of how to get students excited about Greek history through the concepts of “history as mystery” and “the child as explorer.” By giving children the mission of exploring who exactly is buried and Amphipolis and where might the body of Alexander the Great be, and with imagination and technology – there are video games with ancient Greek themes – learning about their Hellenic heritage can be made fun and exciting for young Greek-Americans he said.
Finally, Dr. Kaliambou of Yale University made a presentation about her book, “The Routledge Modern Greek Reader: Greek Folktales for Learning Modern Greek” which teaches Greek through 25 Greek fairy tales and stories of everyday life – she also uses Greek dialects and non-standard Greek that Greek-Americans might encounter during visits – and even ancient Greek.
Dr. Thaleia Chatzigiannoglou, the new coordinator of education at the Greek consulate, spoke briefly about the Three Hierarchs, the great saints of the Orthodox Church who harmonized the Christian faith with Hellenic culture.
There was also an appeal to teachers to encourage students to participate in the Greek parade on April 10 by parade chairman Vasilios Gournelos.
The event concluded with a musical performance followed by a reception. Erasmia Voukelatos performed a piano piece by Franz Schubert and her student Alex Horen Farbrook dazzled with a Bach minuet on cello.