Several news items caught our eyes—and made our hearts sink—this week: Jewish community centers and Jewish day schools all over the United States (and one in Canada) received bomb threats via anonymous phone calls. On February 27 alone, more than 31 such institutions were threatened. A day earlier, on February 26, a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated by vandals who toppled over 100 tombstones, a week after a similar act of desecration took place in University City, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis). And earlier this month, a Chicago synagogue was plastered with swastikas.
Since the beginning of 2017, 100 incidents of anti-Semitism in 81 locations have been recorded.
Although the recent—and ongoing—national conversation surrounding hate and bias incidents has focused largely on the targeting of Muslim, Latino and African-American individuals and communities, it is clear that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the United States and that its proponents feel emboldened. In community centers, religious schools and places of worship—places intended to offer safe spaces and support positive identity formation—such threats and attacks are particularly unsettling. And while anti-Semitic threats recorded so far in 2017 have not resulted in injury or loss of life, deadly attacks on Jewish spaces happened as recently as 2014 in the United States, and the FBI just weeks ago arrested a suspect for plotting an attack “in the spirit of Dylann Roof” on a synagogue in South Carolina. The danger is real.
While the news is at once disheartening and terrifying, Teaching Tolerance is firm in our belief that inclusive, anti-bias education is the antidote to the fear and hatred that leads to violence. TT was founded as a preventative program; we fight hate alongside our legal and intelligence-gathering colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center by equipping educators with the tools they need to reach students when they are young. By giving children opportunities to experience and embrace diversity via the curriculum, and teaching social emotional competencies like empathy, individual educators literally have the power to change thousands of lives—and to intervene when they see a child drifting toward the hollow messages pedaled by hatemongers.
Clearly, this work is more necessary than ever—and clearly we must include Jewish voices, perspectives and experiences in our teaching if we are to be responsive to the current climate of intimidation in our country.
Here are a few resources to help you teach about Jewish identities and anti-Semitism in your classroom or at your school:
- TT’s free film One Survivor Remembers and teacher’s guide
- Perspectives for a Diverse America texts “Out of Auschwitz,” “About Feeling Jewish,” “Danger on My Doorstep,” “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport” and “What Is Talmud?” (Use the advance filter to search.)
- Facing History and Ourselves’ anti-Semitism and religious intolerance resources
- The Anti-Defamation League (ADL)'s tools and resources for anti-bias
education and confronting
- A new classroom acivity from the ADL titled Anti-Semitic Incidents: Being an Ally, Advocate and Activist
- The United States Holocaust Museum’s tools and resources
We agree 100 percent with Gesher Jewish Day School, one of the schools targeted this week, that “the work of educating joyful young minds [must continue] unabated.” In a Facebook post yesterday, the school acknowledged the threat but encouraged its followers to “learn something new every day, practice justice, kindness, and respect.” It is only by committing to these principles that our work can move forward and help our young people grow up confident that those who look, love or worship differently than they do pose no threat to them personally or to the American way of life.
The value of pluralism is an idea many of us take for granted, but—as the events of the last weeks and months have shown—we cannot afford to assume that others do.
van der Valk is the deputy director of Teaching Tolerance.
What happens when you take one part students, one part faculty and staff, one part yummy food and one part Teaching Tolerance? You get Mix It Up at Lunch Day at Hartford, Connecticut’s Watkinson School. So, what’s the special sauce?
It turns out that special sauce is student leadership development. An annual tradition at Watkinson, the school first participated in Mix It Up at Lunch Day in 2004, two years after the Teaching Tolerance initiative began. And the involvement of trained student leaders has been integral to its growth.
Mix It Up At Lunch Day is not a “stand-alone” program at Watkinson. Rather, it is a collaboration with the Help Increase the Peace Project (HIPP), which Watkinson middle schoolers have participated in since 2000. A program of the American Friends Service Committee, HIPP is designed “to address issues of interpersonal violence, prejudice, and injustice with participants of all ages, with a focus on middle-and high-school age youth,” its website states. Middle school students at Watkinson are selected to become HIPP facilitators in the sixth and seventh grades, and returning seventh- and eighth-grade HIPP facilitators serve as leaders for Mix It Up. The students undergo a thorough, yearlong training to become HIPP facilitators. Mix It Up gives the students an opportunity to apply their training in a new way.
The leadership of HIPP student facilitators in Mix It Up establishes a strong and positive tone in the middle school. These student leaders also lead icebreaker activities at new-student orientations, work with their peers in advisory to have difficult conversations and select the annual theme for the middle school bulletin boards. For the 2016-17 school year, the HIPP students chose the following theme: “How do we create a culture of inclusion?”
HIPP student facilitators decide on the role they want to play in Mix It Up. They pretty much do it all, from coordinating with the middle school art teacher to create a bulletin board template to choosing the colors of napkins and tablecloths. With scaffolding provided by faculty advisors, these student leaders choose appropriate quotes and team-building activities from the HIPP student manual, and they offer input regarding the grouping of students for each lunch table.
On the day of the actual Mix It Up event, the HIPP student facilitators, working in pairs, lead their table groups through the activities they helped to plan. Although there is one middle school faculty member at each lunch table, the HIPP facilitators are in charge. The middle school teachers have learned to step back and let the student facilitators lead. This, in turn, has contributed greatly to a culture of trust and growth for both HIPP student facilitators and teachers alike.
HIPP teaches the students listening skills and how to help others. When students encounter a dilemma, they are asked, “How do you listen? How do you ask adults for help?” This process promotes empathy because the students learn to focus on what they are hearing and feeling. It also allows teachers to collaborate with students to reach a solution.
Dr. Diane Weinholtz, director of the middle school at Watkinson, has overseen Mix It Up at Lunch Day and HIPP since their inception there. During that time, she has witnessed a direct impact on the culture of the middle school, which is a culture of kindness. There are fewer negative interactions and more supportive and helpful behaviors among students. “We don’t have to talk about bullying because we talk about the positive aspects of relationships,” Weinholtz says. “We ask the students what are they doing to show kindness, so the ways of being in a community are already in their minds.”
Webb teaches Spanish to middle and high school students at Watkinson School in Hartford, Connecticut.
Given the issues of intolerance for differences in our country and in the rest of the world, teaching intercultural understanding and respect is paramount if we are to make the world a better place. The educators at my elementary school—which has a very linguistically diverse student population, including those whose families have recently immigrated to the United States—have been intentional in selecting materials for our Media Center and our classrooms that are representative of the student population and aligned with our mission to provide students a global understanding.
One resource that we have had available to us are Cultural Kits through Carolina Navigators, a service-learning program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Global Initiatives. Each kit includes artifacts of everyday life in a select country. Recently, I visited a classroom that was using a kit representing Iran. In the kit were handmade items, photos, currency and other objects, including traditional Muslim clothing. Three of the students in the class are Muslim, which led to a class discussion about the differences in two of these students’ clothing: One girl wears traditional clothing, including a hijab, and another wears “Western clothing.” The three students—including the boy, who is often reluctant to speak in class—were animated and excited to talk about their respective cultures and customs.
What happened the next day was powerful. The Muslim girl who wears Western clothing to school each day had gone home and told her parents she wanted to bring in her hijab to show the class. She came to school eager to share, and her teacher gave her time to show her classmates how she wears her hijab. She also explained that she wears her hijab when she’s out in public with her family, but not at home when she’s only with family members.
Of course, creating this space needs to be part of an ongoing, comprehensive approach to making sure all children have opportunities to share their cultures and learn about the cultures of other students. This particular vignette affirms the power of opening the doors to cultural understanding to our students.
Many people from the Middle East and other Muslim-majority regions living in the United States, including friends of mine, are experiencing increased fear and being more cautious because of the rhetoric and actions taken against people who are Muslim or perceived to be Muslim. Fueled by Islamophobia and very real terrorism on the part of a few, so many people have not learned that we need to accept each other as individuals and not lump people together in divisive, artificial and dangerous groupings. Educators need to provide room in our schools to recognize and to honor the reality that each individual is unique and needs to be judged as such. I celebrate that, in providing a climate of acceptance, we were able to provide a forum for one little girl to tell her classmates about her hijab.
Lewis is principal of Fox Road Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina.
I was recently presenting a black history program, “Animalization of Black Bodies: A History Lesson,” for a student group at my university. At the same time, just across town at a high school basketball game, white male students were taunting a black player on the opposing team with chest pounding, arm scratching and monkey sounds. I was not surprised by the reality of this deliberate racial insensitivity by white students, though I am fascinated by their boldness.
In the same way, I wasn’t surprised that six white students at my local Arizona neighborhood high school spelled out the n-word as a human puzzle just over a year ago, creating a national controversy. Indeed, I know well that racism has not passed over this allegedly post-racial generation of youth. This particular way of expressing American racism, by dehumanizing black people, has a long and pronounced history, whether on high school, college or university campuses; among local or national government officials; or even among police.
This animalization of black people has its roots in American slavery. Robert Guillaume, in the documentary Story of a People (1993), explains:
To justify slavery, black Americans had to be dehumanized. A moral and legal framework to support slavery was constructed at the same time. The distortion of the black image begins here. If it is believed that a man is inferior, subhuman, it becomes easy to treat him as a pet, a toy, an object of comic relief, a crazed lower animal who must be controlled and ruled.
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) underscores this naming and treatment of enslaved people as chattel:
We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses and men, cattle and women, pigs, and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being and were all subject to the same narrow examination.
The very presence of the Obama family in the White House these last eight years created a proliferation of derogatory images of and references to them—including older daughter Malia—and other black people as monkeys, chimpanzees and apes. Such perceptions of black people as less than human even show up in research: White nurses and nursing students do not believe black patients experience the same levels of pain as white patients; they are thereby more apt to give pain medicines to white patients than black ones.
The list goes on and on. Former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch is referred to by the nickname “Beast Mode.” LeBron James’ 2008 Vogue cover with Gisele Bündchen connects him with King Kong. Ellen DeGeneres’ meme about running her errands while on speed runner Usain Bolt’s back ignores the history of enslaved black people being treated as beasts of burden. Serena Williams, according to one sports commentator, is more likely to appear in National Geographic than Sports Illustrated. Entertainers Leslie Jones and Normani Kordei have received racist taunts in the form of being imagined as or called “monkey” or “ape.” Even the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not escape being called a “filthy, abnormal animal” by the FBI in a 1964 letter begrudging his civil rights leadership.
Add incidents, headlines, illustrations and images of black people as primates to historical pseudo-scientific efforts to equate black people to animals, and you challenge the notion of a supposed 21st-century post-racial United States head on. Such is the case with former Charleston Daily Mail columnist Don Surber, who described Ferguson, Missouri, teen Michael Brown as an “animal” that had to be “put down.”
It could be President Obama imagined as a chimpanzee in a 2009 New York Post cartoon about his stimulus package, Serena Williams compared to the racing horse American Pharoah or Saartjie Barrtman being paraded around Europe as a “freak show.” It could be the depiction of Little Black Sambo, who whets the appetites of three tigers in the popular 1899 children’s book by Helen Bannerman, or the reality of black babies used as alligator bait. New or old, real or imagined, these examples and countless others show that U.S. race relations inextricably connect the past with the present.
Today’s racism is not this overt Jim Crow sign from the 1940s and 1950s: “No Niggers/No Jews/No Dogs.” Nor is racism just about calling someone the n-word. Racial bias, racial misrepresentation, racial assault and racial mockery all factor into American racism. Knowing American history, then, is better understanding Malcolm X’s pronouncement, “History is a people’s memory, and without a memory, [humans are] demoted to lower animals.”
Lester is Foundation Professor of English and the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.
The Atlantic: “How are teachers best able to help students make sense of the many historical comparisons and the controversial issues facing the nation?”
CNN: “School districts from Pennsylvania to California have stepped up efforts to allay fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities.”
Edmodo: “Remembering to practice empathy and patience isn’t easy, but putting in the effort will pay off by helping your students understand tolerance and making your classroom a safe space.”
The Hechinger Report: “‘Welcoming refugees is not a political issue. It’s about people.’”
The Hechinger Report: “Emerging evidence suggests that one of [virtual reality’s] biggest strengths is its ability to tap student emotions, notably empathy and the can-do confidence known as self-efficacy.”
The Jose Vilson: “Every teacher has decisions to make about their identities when they become teachers for longer than a couple of years. For teachers of color, they must either assimilate so as to appear safe or they must become activated so they don’t feel like a lie.”
National Public Radio: “In sometimes spare language, the ads represent the deep family ties that endured through the Civil War and beyond slavery, despite the best effort of slave owners to sever those ties.”
National Public Radio: “Legal arguments about whether protections against sex discrimination in Title IX and other federal laws extend to gender identity, central to the lives of transgender people, are still very much active in the courts.”
The New York Times: “On the occasion of Black History Month, I’ve selected the most influential books on race and the black experience published in the United States for each decade of the nation’s existence — a history of race through ideas, arranged chronologically on the shelf.”
The Root: “Students at Westminster (Md.) High School are planning to take a stand after school administrators in Carroll County demanded that teachers take down posters promoting diversity from classrooms.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.