Fast-tracking Armenian Genocide education in the US

Amy Perkins overlooking Khor Virab church

Special Issue: Genocide Education for the 21st Century
The Armenian Weekly, April 2023

“You’ve challenged us to tell the story. And we’re very eager to share that story…” said Genocide Education Project (GenEd) Teacher Fellow Amy Perkins, describing  her mission after participating in the GenEd Teacher Fellowship Program in Armenia last summer. Following the program, Perkins, who hails from Michigan, presented a teaching unit she created based on the denial of the Armenian Genocide to teachers at the November 2022 National Council for the Social Studies conference in Philadelphia.

The 10-day immersive teacher-training program gave Perkins and 14 other high school educators from fourteen different states the unique opportunity to study the Armenian Genocide and its ongoing effects at the only Armenian Genocide museum in the world, while also becoming familiar with Armenian culture and current conditions in Armenia. Following the study tour, the new GenEd Teacher Fellows have been creating new lesson plans, providing workshops for other teachers and advocating for Armenian Genocide education within their professional associations.

Without fully recognizing and investigating the causes of the most destructive chapters in history, the human race seems doomed to replay them. Only after the true scale and pervasive nature of these acts are acknowledged and understood can individuals and societies act to stop them. It starts with education.

GenEd’s Genesis and Mission

The Genocide Education Project was founded with this mission at its heart. Established by Armenian-Americans in 2005, GenEd has steadily expanded its work to bring teaching materials and professional development programs to high school educators across the United States.  GenEd offers a particular expertise on teaching about the Armenian case as an essential episode in modern world history, WWI history and any curriculum that addresses human rights and genocide.

Indeed, the Armenian Genocide holds a singular place in genocide studies. It was the stimulus for Rafael Lemkin’s invention of the word “genocide” itself. It was the most significant human rights crisis of WWI, with record numbers of people murdered, an entire population erased from its historic homeland. New technologies made it possible to murder 1.5 million human beings faster than ever before, and the Turkish government’s total impunity for this unprecedented act served as inspiration for future perpetrators, beginning with Adolph Hitler. That impunity and the genocide denial campaign of successive Turkish governments also has a direct connection to the genocidal actions of Turkey and Azerbaijan against Armenians today, currently playing out with the months-long blockade intended to empty Armenians from Artsakh.

With this history and current events in mind, the value of including the Armenian Genocide in standardized social studies curriculum is indisputable. Yet, despite its important place in modern history and its unique and powerful educational merit, it has been overlooked in most secondary curricula. 

Providing students an understanding of key examples of genocide across time, their common stages (including the stage of denial which perpetuates a genocide and enables new ones), equips our students as they become responsible global citizens, to take action when the early stages begin to appear.

Through presentations at social studies conferences, teacher-training workshops in major U.S. cities, and dissemination of free teaching resources through its website, GenEd has directly reached more than 10,000 social studies teachers. GenEd also collaborates with numerous state education departments and genocide education commissions.

Critical partnerships with other educational organizations and Armenian-American community groups and volunteers around the country have significantly contributed to the introduction of Armenian Genocide education in schools and GenEd’s reach and success. Among GenEd’s earliest partners are its Rhode Island branch volunteers, Michigan’s Armenian Genocide Education Committee, local and regional chapters of the Armenian National Committee of America, Armenian General Benevolent Union’s The Promise film educational outreach committee and other ad-hoc community groups that have coalesced to take on the challenge of advocating for genocide education within their local government bodies and local school districts. Without the dedicated advancement by these advocates, the Armenian Genocide would be far less recognized today as an essential part of social studies education.

2022 GenEd Teacher Fellows farewell event

New GenEd Teacher Fellowship Program

GenEd’s single most impactful initiative to date is the GenEd Teacher Fellowship Program, inaugurated in 2022. Tapping its extensive network of educators and developing a rigorous application process, GenEd selected 15 highly-qualified and skilled teachers to become new GenEd Teacher Fellows. Through a unique partnership with the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute (AGMI), adjacent to the Tsitsernakaberd genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, the program combines GenEd’s expertise in training U.S. social studies and English language arts educators with AGMI’s unique role in Armenian Genocide remembrance and research, including its in-depth museum exhibit, collection of primary source documents and artifacts, and its ongoing scholarship on various aspects of the genocide, its aftermath and its continuing effects today. 

Sara Cohan leading an AGMI workshop

“Working alongside the staff at the Armenian Genocide Museum and Institute to educate American teachers on aspects of our history and share with them Armenia today was a dream come true,” said 2022 GenEd Teacher Fellowship Program director Sara Cohan.

The program is also a productive means by which two organizations — one outside and one inside Armenia — dedicated to the same mission of genocide education, learn from each other’s circumstances and perspectives. “I think that the partnership with The Genocide Education Project is very important for us at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, because we are receiving new methodologies of education,” said AGMI Director Harutyun Marutyan. “Being a professional teacher here in Armenia and being a professional teacher in the United States are different. So, for me it was very interesting being in touch with the American teachers during the training process, listening to their questions and hearing their reactions to our answers.” 

Harutyun Marutyan guiding the Fellows at Tsitsernakaberd

The American University of Armenia also joined the effort by hosting the GenEd Teacher Fellows for presentations by experts on Armenia’s current economic, political and educational conditions. Through this and other sessions throughout the week, the GenEd Fellows were able to understand the long, multi-faceted and compounding effects of genocide and continuing genocidal policies.

Allison Weller descending Khor Virab

“As a result of my participation in this program, I’m able to make those connections between the Genocide and the current geopolitics. And I think that that’s important to share with students,” said Allison Weller of New York. 

“It has actually been more important to learn about Armenia today and what the people who live here deal with… It’s still a battle for survival in the face of external threats…” said Justin Bilton of Massachusetts. “The lesson we learned is that silence on these issues benefits the perpetrators and awareness benefits the victims and the survivors.

The educators visited historic and cultural sites in the afternoons that enhanced their understanding of the academic content of the morning sessions. Throughout the experience, the GenEd Fellows engaged in many discussions on human rights and genocide education, Armenian history and culture and teaching pedagogy.  Moreover, these GenEd Teacher Fellows are equipped with a much deeper understanding of the history of the Armenian Genocide and with the skills to teach about it in a historically accurate and morally appropriate manner.

Justin Bilton (left) & Eric Bowers at the loom

“I feel like I can speak to this topic more authentically than I could have done prior to this trip,” said Jeff Lewis from Connecticut. “I look forward to taking everything I’ve learned here and bringing it back home and sharing these important lessons with not just my students, but my colleagues and my administrators.” 

Jeffrey Lewis (center) at the Madenataran tour

GenEd is now overseeing the second phase of the program, meeting with the GenEd Teacher Fellows regularly, discussing their experiences since their trip to Armenia, sharing new materials they’ve created and collaborating with them on preparing workshops for fellow teachers. The GenEd Teacher Fellows have expressed a strong desire to continue this work throughout their careers and to build on the relationships forged during the program in Armenia.

Kelly Rosati at Tsitsernakaberd

“I came here with a group of acquaintances, but I’m leaving Armenia with a group of lifelong friends,” said Kelly Rosati of Virginia. “It’s one of the most amazing feelings to know that going forward we have this group of inaugural Fellows who will always support each other. I wish that all educators could have this opportunity that I did.”

The GenEd Teacher Fellows have accomplished much since returning to their home regions. So far they’ve created at least four new lesson plans on different aspects of the Armenian Genocide; given or are preparing for presentations at the National Council for the Social Studies conference as well as sessions at the California, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Tennessee branch Council for the Social Studies’ conferences; given or are preparing workshops for school districts in Oregon, California and Massachusetts.

Teacher Fellow Jessica DePamphilis leading a workshop in Watertown

By the end of the school year, the 2022 GenEd Teacher Fellows will have trained approximately 300 other teachers, who will teach approximately 30,000 new students each year. In this way, the teaching of the Armenian Genocide is expanding faster and farther than ever before.

With the success of the inaugural Teacher Fellowship Program last summer, GenEd hopes to repeat it annually, as the fruits of its fundraising efforts will allow. The program is being made possible by generous donations from individuals and Armenian-American foundations that share GenEd’s vision that students across the country graduate from high school with an understanding of the Armenians and the lessons of genocide and the Armenian case. 

Once again, a group of teachers has been selected from 14 different states for the 2023 GenEd Teacher Fellowship Program. In preparation for the program, in the coming months they will be introduced to last year’s Fellows, which will undoubtedly add an important, positive dimension to the success of the program.

Roxanne Makasdjian

Roxanne Makasdjian

Roxanne Makasdjian is executive director of The Genocide Education Project (GenEd), a non-profit organization providing educators with professional development services for teaching about human rights and genocide, with particular focus on the Armenian Genocide and its relationship to other genocides of the modern era. She also is a member of the California State Council for Holocaust and Genocide Education. A former national television news producer, Makasdjian serves as director of broadcast communications at UC Berkeley. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in journalism, for which she produced “Charles Garry: Streetfighter in the Courtroom” about the famed Armenian American civil rights attorney. The grandchild of Armenian Genocide survivors, Makasdjian was born and raised in Los Angeles and lives in San Francisco.
Roxanne Makasdjian

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