Greek-American Schools at the Crossroads: In Search of Kainotomia

September 19, 2020

The beginning of another school year – albeit under adverse conditions and controversial safety measures – always brings with it the opportunity for fresh starts and the challenge to break the mold. For Greek-American educational institutions in particular, many of which have been undergoing crisis for over a decade, each year in which they persist in conducting business as usual in terms of their approach to second language instruction brings them closer to becoming the next domino to fall.

Despite all the talk about buzzwords like “21st century practices” and “thinking outside of the box,” the degree to with which the vast majority of our Greek-American schools remain fixated on outdated approaches to teaching Greek is self-destructive. Particularly for the Greek Diaspora of the U.S., where Hellenes have enjoyed striking success and become industry leaders through their novel and ingenious approaches, our failure to implement proven modern approaches in our pedagogical practices is disappointing.

Before one hastens to point the finger at teachers, we must consider that part of the problem is systemic and has to do with the manner in which schools are run. If given the opportunity, teachers could collaborate and implement badly needed adjustments to the curriculum – even while being forced to work two to three jobs to augment their meager wages and support their families.

The real problem lies in the fact that our schools continue to teach Greek – their main selling point – as a foreign language, for just one period a day, independent of other subject matter. This approach essentially ensures that students will have limited opportunities to test their skills – especially on higher-order cognitive applications. Learners who have a strong language base at home will always retain a major advantage over their classmates who lack the home resources, essentially leading to dissatisfaction and disappointment among parents and students who need these services the most.

The United States has generally underperformed in producing multilingual, or at the very least bilingual students, partly because of English’s current status as the lingua franca. However, even within the U.S. public education system, important reforms have been implemented in recent years, yielding positive results. Native and non-native speakers alike participate in dual-language classes, learning content subjects like mathematics, science, history, etc. in both English and the target language. In North America, this strategy has been implemented in Canada – a nation with longstanding success in cultivating multilingualism – since the 1970s, with documented results of higher student performance in both languages.

Somehow, this instructional/curricular shift has managed to escape our parochial schools, which continue teaching Greek as a separate subject, without affording students the opportunity to apply their language skills to pursue knowledge acquisition across the curriculum. As a result, notwithstanding the few exceptions, registrations are on the decline, schools are strapped for cash, morale is low, and closures have begun to follow a domino effect.

Besides bilingual/dual-language classrooms, which are now operating across most public schools, there are private or charter schools that have served as sterling examples of best practices for years. Institutions like the Lycée Français de New York or charter schools dedicated to producing fluently bilingual (although not ethnically homogeneous) students, such as Harlem Hebrew Language Academy, have created model programs that could easily be implemented in Greek-American schools. Moreover, there are some notable (non-Archdiocesan) Orthodox Christian schools that are even teaching their students classical Greek – the language of the Gospel – from the elementary grades, while some graduates of our own Holy Cross Seminary are so functionally illiterate that they give new meaning to the phrase “it’s all Greek to me.”

If our schools are to remain seminal and solvent for the generations to come, the concept of literacy in Greek must take on a new meaning and extend beyond just making small talk with grandparents. Bold innovation must be undertaken. Greek teachers must work together with content teachers to provide dual instruction across most subjects. This means splitting instruction between the two languages throughout the day – not just for one period. If students don’t associate learning Greek with the acquisition of knowledge in their favorite subjects or other intellectually stimulating activities, there will be no motivation to continue learning it. Furthermore, classical Greek must make its way into the curriculum from the elementary level, not through tedious grammar exercises or rote memorization, but as a gamified activity. 

Parents concerned that this emphasis will deter their children’s progress in English and place them at a disadvantage compared to peers attending English-only schools are strongly encouraged to review the research. Findings have repeatedly shown that students receiving dual-language instruction not only present unrivaled growth in the target language, but outperform their English-only peers in standardized testing as well, thus remaining highly competitive.

The current measures aimed at combatting Covid-19 have placed a major strain on schools. Attendance may drop as some parents opt for remote learning, but small classroom size might be the ideal environment to introduce this instructional shift. Besides, as private schools struggle to remain relevant, innovative changes like the ones described will provide the added value necessary to attract new registrations.

With the crisis affecting Greek education in America still ongoing, a communal strategy is needed to overcome the challenges of our era and ensure that the treasure of Hellenic paideia is passed on to posterity. The Greek word for innovation is “kainotomia.” If our schools don’t exhibit this traditionally Hellenic trait, we will have no one to blame for failure to adapt – hence survive – but ourselves.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas


This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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