Academy of Hellenic Paideia: Inspired By Children, Driven by Passion
by Anastasia Cunningham
“Know thyself.” It’s an ancient Greek aphorism attributed to philosophy—but for the Academy of Hellenic Paideia, (AHP) a Greek school program opening its doors in September, it’s a way of life. According to the school’s mission statement, the idea is that “…by guiding each child’s mind towards what interests and amuses them, we may better discover and nourish their unique genius in an effort to help them achieve their fullest human potential; mind, body, and spirit.”
Located on Crescent Street in the heart of Astoria, the school’s approach to education is unique and innovative; and, for many New York parents who are fed up with the Common Core shift and all the state test prepping, it’s a welcome change. Students at AHP don’t simply “learn Greek;” rather, they might play instruments, discuss geography, settle in for a game of chess, engage in role play, sing in the choir, learn a Greek dance, contemplate philosophy, and spar in Pangration, an ancient Hellenic form of martial arts, where each command is given in Greek and attached to a myth.
All lessons are done in Greek and in English. The Greek language is always the star–as the students get older and are able to speak, read and write it, English in the classrooms is used less and less. AHP carries an educational model that’s based on an interactive way of teaching and learning. The participation of students in what they learn, and how, is not only appreciated, it’s encouraged. The school is secular, and children of all faiths and backgrounds are welcomed, whether they have a Greek parent or not.
Leading this incredible effort is a woman named Demetra Varsami, an educator with nearly a decade of experience and several degrees to go along with it. She, along with Antoneta Varsami and Theodora Fiotodimitrakis, founded AHP. Ms. Varsami’s passion for what she does is difficult to match. Her vision and adoration for the children she teaches is evident within a few minutes of conversation. She radiates knowledge and has an immense amount of love and respect for her Hellenic heritage and language, but views her role as merely a messenger. She has a gift for teaching and her job is, simply, to do it.
“Several years ago, I had the great pleasure of teaching a small group of children the Greek language alongside my mother,” says Ms. Varsami. “It was at this point I made two discoveries; first, that my true passion in life is educating children, and second, that the path to a meaningful education is identifying each child as a unique being. Thus, we need to inspire them, through activity and interaction, on a level that is personal to them.”
As Ms. Varsami discovered, the latter idea was not a new one. It was created thousands of years ago in ancient Greece, where it was known as paideia. Paideia referred to the upbringing and education of children. Aspects of this education included rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, arithmetic, medicine, music, poetry, and physical activities such as gymnastics and wrestling. Hellenic paideia is pursuing the ideal of excellence.
“It was at this point in my life that I became inspired to create an educational institution using these ancient ideas that are the basis for the entire Western society,” says Varsami. “I envisioned something more than a language school—an emotional sanctuary, free from the cacophony of the outside world, where children would not only learn Greek but also a philosophy that would prepare them for life by giving them decision making abilities.”
It’s hard to believe that AHP offers all this in an after-school and Saturday half-day program, but it does all that, and so much more. Standing with Ms. Varsami is a group of engaged and determined teachers, most handpicked by Ms. Varsami herself. Their teaching styles and approaches vary, but the one thing they have in common is their passion for education and commitment to Hellenic paideia. Most of the teachers on staff completed their education in Greece and hold degrees from some of the most prestigious Greek institutions.
Ms. Fiotodimitrakis is AHP’s Early Childhood Curriculum Coordinator and Language Teacher and has created the curriculum for the Kingergarten students. Philology and language are taught by Ms. Vivian Triviza. Ms. Christina Kaglou is a teaching assistant who is currently working on obtaining her bachelor’s degree in education from HunterCollege, CUNY.
Mr. Konstantinos Doikos not only inspires students through his teaching of Pangration; he is also a gifted author and lends his talents to the school’s acting workshops and theatrical performances. A play is already in the works for the spring of 2016. These performances are put together, directed, and arranged by Ms. Ioanna Katsarou, AHP’s Theatre Teacher.
“While singing in Greek, we co-exist in a harmonious vocal ensemble and we create a treasure of rhythmic moments,” says AHP’s music teacher and chorus director, Ms. Alexandra Skendrou. “Singing enhances and reinforces language learning, but most importantly, while singing, we become one with Greek culture; with its poets, lyricists, and composers.” Joining Ms. Skendrou in musical instruction is Mr. Yorgos Maniatis, a teacher with over 20 years experience teaching in schools and through private lessons.
“Being able to create and run a successful program as a mother and educator is an amazing gift,” adds Ms. Varsami. “Coming from a family of educators, it feels completely natural.” AHP definitely “runs in the family.” One of the teachers is Ms. Varsami’s very own mother, Ms. Antoneta Varsami, an extraordinary instructor in her own right with decades of experience.
Among the extra-curricular courses offered at AHP are a youth acting workshop, art, chess, embroidery, children’s chorus, an adult dance troupe or acting workshop, board and action games, music lessons, and a weekly discussion of the Iliad. Those are in addition to the regular curriculum offerings: students have a choice of two 2-hour sessions on Wednesdays and Friday evenings, or one 4-hour session on Saturdays, starting at 9 a.m. During those sessions, students engage in lessons surrounding Greek language, mythology, mathematics, music, arts and crafts, and Pangration.
The focus is always education, with none of the one-size-fits-all mentality that parents have seen becoming the norm in other city schools. Students are grouped first by age, then by Greek language knowledge. Classes at AHP are small, and children are looked after and evaluated during the course of instruction by their teachers to ensure that the class level they are in is appropriate for them.
When you’re a student at AHP, there’s always a lesson to be learned and appreciated. A simple conversation turns into a discussion of mythology and how it relates to what’s happening in a particular child’s day. Chit-chatting in English yields a plethora of words that are Greek in origin, and much spirited discussion ensues. What might otherwise be plain classroom instruction becomes interactive; children learn while playing musical instruments, drawing, playing board games, conducting physics experiments, or constructing technological ancient Greek inventions. The goal at AHP is to make learning joyous and fun.
There are no time outs; instead, children are asked to leave the room in order to do what Ms. Varsami calls “self-reflection,” and they return to their classroom when they are ready. There are no harsh lessons to learn here—after all, AHP’s vision is to “create a better world by the active pursuit of arête (excellence, virtue, goodness) for all.”
AHP is breaking ground in a new location. There will be ample space for several classrooms, a Pangration room, and a room with a small stage and floor pillows, where children will learn, read and act out plays, mythology, and Aesop’s fables. Eventually, Ms. Varsami plans to add a full-time Greek pre-school.
As it is a registered 501c3 (non-profit) corporation, everything the school is and does is motivated by a love for children, for educating, and for learning. “The need and the want for Hellenic paideia is the reason I am an educator,” says Ms. Varsami. “This is the continuation of something I began five years ago, that with the support of parents and friends has become a beloved part of our children’s lives. It is my honor and duty towards all these parents and their children to continue this work. I am grateful to have so many exceptional mentors and guides by my side so that we may go forth in this effort.”
Ms. Varsami and the teachers are looking forward to a bright future filled with the best they have to offer—an educational experience that is a pleasure for children, not a coercion. In this work, the school needs you. As Greek parents, we all fight for a common purpose: to convey the Hellenic tradition from generation to generation; in other words, to keep Hellenism alive through our children. AHP is actively fundraising and seeking donations. Your assistance will help fund construction and purchase everything from classroom desks to pencils to cleaning supplies.
“Learning Greek should not have to be unpleasant,” concludes Ms. Varsami. “Children should enjoy learning our language, our culture and traditions.” It is, after all, about the children. When Ms. Varsami started this effort, she asked her own son and daughter their opinions first. Their primary request? No quizzes. Instead, the children pantomime and act out the meaning of Greek words. In Ms. Antoneta’s class, she presents the quizzes as voluntary and asks the students whether or not they would like to be tested. “Every single child raises their hand to take the quiz,” she says.
Lastly, Ms. Varsami adds, “the goal is to inspire the great spirit that lies within all our children so that they may pursue life within their greatest potential and keep the ancient Hellenic culture alive for generations to come. I look forward to learning with you.” Registration began in mid-April and is on-going through the end of July.
The Academy of Hellenic Paideia is located at 25-50 Crescent St, Astoria, New York11102
To learn more about the Academy of Hellenic Paideia, or register for the 2015-2016 academic year visit www.HellenicPaideia.com or call 917 603 4437