Monday, January 12, 2009

Carefully Taught

I couldn't be more energized by the discussion I have had with students today about racism, tolerance, and the origins of hate. It was one of those days where kids were still debating as I collected pencils, after class had ended.

After several concerned discussions with colleagues about some of the clear tension here between some of the African American students and the Hispanic students, several of us decided we needed to address the comments and behaviors directly. I have long argued for this being a part of every kid's classroom, everywhere, and so the discussion was a natural extension of the literature we read (currently 12 Angry Men), and the topics I suggest for writing.

Today's topic asked students to consider whether we have to be taught to hate, or if we come by it naturally. The evolution of their thinking over the course of the discussion was great to see. Many students initially answered that it's natural. One even wrote that there's "no choice". But when I prodded for examples, and asked follow up questions such as "Where'd those negative feelings come from?", students began listing everything from communities and schools to parents, the media and even U.S. foreign policy as ways in which kids are taught to hate. When one student mentioned Iraq as reasons why he feels the U.S. is hated by Arabs, I reminded them that Dr. King had written similar sentiments in his speech "Beyond Vietnam". King wondered how we can credibly tell kids to not solve problems by fighting when their country solves problems with bombs.

Quite rightly, I think, they also emphasized the role of envy in hatred. One student mentioned the inequalities of how students are sometimes treated in schools, a sure "hidden curriculum" if ever there was one. Another mentioned how, years ago in her kindergarten class, a classmate colored on her paper and the teacher instructed her to color on the other girl's paper, to be fair. An eye for an eye? I don't see how that's problem solving, myself. Cooperation and conflict resolution are not simply skills we absorb by day to day life. Nor are they skills teachers just intuit how to teach. It must be direct, explict and a part of every classroom.