PEACE in Action

Teaching Combating Intolerance in High School

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Building a Culture of Peace in Schools and Communities
Teaching Combating Intolerance in High School

I have been teaching the Combating Intolerance course at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia for the last four years. I have been surprised and pleased to see an expansion of the scope, opportunities, and interest in the class. What has changed is that the students have become ever more willing to place their feelings and raw emotions in the open. Concurrently, I have had to be willing to accept the student offerings. The course does not revolve around the teachers opinions, but rather the student reaction and interaction around certain social issues. The teacher is not a model for the students; rather, the students are a guide to the inner sanctum of todays youth and culture. It was difficult at first to allow the students to gather momentum and take the class in a direction not anticipated by a lesson plan. However, I found that it was invaluable to play the role of an observer, rather than leader, of the discussion. Especially in this type of course, it is more effective for the educator to listen to the students, rather than trying to impose the teachers thoughts and concepts of what is right and wrong.

The course is based on Voltaires concept of "Ecrasez linfame" (Crush the Infamous thing). The students need to be made aware, from the outset, that freedom of thought is undeniable, whether in a democracy or a dictatorship. However, what creates a society in which freedoms are maintained is the ability to "crush the infamous thing." Bad thoughts—racist, sexist, religious biased, homophobic—will occur in even the most ethical of people. What sets us apart is what we do with our thoughts. Voltaire says to crush the thoughts before they are placed into the public domain. It is incumbent on the teacher to help the students feel comfortable with the concept that it is their responsibility, their charge, and their goal to create a better community through their ability to discern what is offensive and what is not doing harm to the fabric of society.

The discussion-based setting truly allows the students to develop. The course is not text-based, but rather context-based; i.e., the subjects discussed reflect the concerns and interests of the students. Their maturation in the ability to argue becomes evident as the course progresses. Some students are very comfortable from the outset, and others take time to build the courage to expose their emotions in front of their peers. This process also allows them to define and refine their opinions through argumentation. They come to love being challenged outside of their ideological comfort zone.

One way to set the tone for the course at the outset is to ask the students to jot down stereotypes. Afterwards, they can be asked to share something from their list. At first, there will be silence, but eventually someone will mention one of the items on his/her list. Then you can expect an expansion of responses, some of them strange; however, you must let them do the judging. The discussions that follow will help the students open up and also whet their interest, opening them up to a wide variety of useful topics.

The course is not a standard, formulaic type of Social Studies course. The guidelines are loose, and the course is so empowering for the students that to attempt a directed curriculum would weaken its impact. The course meanders through the topics of fundamentalism, religious fanaticism, racism, genocide, homosexuality, gender bias, and disabilities, to name a few. It is meandering because it is the students that are directing the topic and the depth of discussion. Were it to be a prescribed length of time for each topic, the teacher would feel the pressure to truncate discussions, limit the analysis of situations, or worse yet, not allow the students to fully explore the range of emotions they feel about each subject.

There is a plethora of materials available for the teacher of such a course. The local newspaper should have some national and international news, and this can encourage the students to become critical readers of the news. We analyze articles that the students feel pertain to the course. This allows them to attempt to decipher cause and effect of their actions within a community…within our community. We also look to newspapers outside this community and region, even outside the country. We translate some of the critical newspapers in order to understand the global situation of a particular intolerance.

The course also makes use of a number of clips from the Hollywood movies that directly apply to topics we are researching. It is the discretion of the county regulations, the administration of the school, and the individual teacher as to what is deemed appropriate for the course. It is advisable that the teacher send a letter home to the parents, and to have all concerned with the course and academic well-being of each student to give consent to discuss some of the more sensitive issues. This letter allows the teacher to use discretion with the student fully understanding that the material may not conform to mainstream teaching materials.

Finally, it is incumbent upon the teacher to be a risk taker and seek a variety of people to give talks to the group. We have had a bevy of renowned speakers who have come to the high school to talk with the students. This takes persistence, but I have found that most speakers have been happy to be regarded as an expert in their field. Also, the opportunity to share their knowledge with the students, with the possible reward of media coverage, is an attractive bonus. Our school has the advantage of proximity to the US Capital, which provides access to Congressional representatives and to foreign dignitaries. It gives our students an incredible sense of the power that exists in that city. Teachers in other communities may have to work harder to get outside speakers, but it is worth the effort.

It is not without some trepidation that I suggest the route described above as the prescription for course success. However, it is important to expose our students to the maximum opportunities at our disposal. Be cautious and always keep the administration in the loop regarding the progress and efforts of the class. Just don't allow it to hamper what could be the most rewarding course the students will attend in their high school, if not academic, career.

While our school has been honored with visits from a variety of personalities representing our multi-faceted community, the scope and focus of our topics have also drawn speakers from a number of states. Frequently, high schoolers are the center of their own universe without much regard or understanding of the world beyond their gerrymandered school zone. The Combating Intolerance course has allowed us to stretch their boundaries like silly putty.

In college, I participated in numerous Awareness Workshops (disabilities, sexual harassment and sexual abuse, etc.), and I felt that these were positive ways of introducing and re-enforcing messages in campus life. There was normally one or two a year. Ambitiously, I taught four Awareness Weeks in my first academic year. They exceeded expectations, and by the fourth Week, the planning and execution was a matter of fact for that motivated, mature, successful, and forward-thinking group. The Weeks revolved around the themes of Islamic Awareness, Civil Rights Awareness, Sexual Equality Awareness, and Disabilities Awareness. Each was greater in effort and presentation than the previous.

The greatest challenges met from the different corners of such collaboration were only realized after the event occurred. The administration faced the challenge of accepting that such a colossal effort could be completed with relatively minimal funds, and with students running the show. The teacher had to relinquish control over the organization of such an event and play the role of overall manager, allowing the students enthusiasm to drive the machine. It was more difficult to keep track of their endeavors, and to ensure that all the refined administrative duties that they could not perform were appropriately addressed when the elements all started to intertwine as the Weeks approached. Finally, the students had to rise to the occasion to meet the teachers expectations of success. It was of course a subject expectation, in that I never expressed concretely what the measuring stick was. This allowed the students to set their own bar, and then reach for it.

One of the speakers who engaged our students in some of the more lively discussions has been Jon McCullough, a US National Paralympic Soccer Team player. He played in the Atlanta Games in 1996, the Athens Games in 2004, numerous World Cup competitions, and a variety of tournaments. He is a defender who has some palsy in his left leg, a result of a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) suffered in an accident while serving in the Coast Guard. Jon speaks of his good fortune to have had the chance to play at such a high level and with such talented athletes. He has helped the students to understand that Paralympics is just a different form of athletic competition. The competitors are no lesser athletes than Olympians. He likes to refer to these athletes as "para" athletes: differently abled, on a parallel with others, just a different track.

Mr. McCullough made a connection with some of my students who are children with Cerebral Palsy. One of them has been an avid basketball player and has continually tried to make the school team. Each year he has been unsuccessful, but each year he has worked harder to accomplish his goal. Jon encouraged him to try other sports (particularly soccer) because Jon saw the athlete within the student and because basketball is not a recognized Paralympic sport. In consultation with his parents, his teacher, and trainers, the student began running track. He recently recorded a silver, bronze and two fourth place finishes at the World CP Games in Connecticut. He has an eye on Beijing in 2008 to compete at the Paralympic Summer Games.

Another student has taken up swimming and is competing on the National level as well. Her mobility and muscle control has earned her a low classification (indicating that the control of her limbs is minimal), and she has worked with coaches to improve her times and her stamina. She is preparing herself for a chance at the Paralympic Games in Beijing as well. She has also started participating in track and field events with the possibility of competing in two sports.

While these stories are inspiring, what has happened since is even more inspiring. These students approached me last spring with an idea: a workshop about disabled athletes. I thought it might be too limiting for what I sensed was their true intent. I consulted, discussed and agreed with them that what was really needed to be exposed were the numerous disabilities and the impairments, perceived and real, endured by all people.

We arranged to have a full day Disabilities Symposium at our school. It seemed a monumental task for two students to handle. What happened though, is that they have received the resource of a Combating Intolerance class of 27 bright, motivated, and enthusiastic students eager to make a difference. The students so embraced the idea that effort has not been an issue. They raised funds to support the speakers' honoraria, the lodging for the guest speakers, and the food for the breakfast, lunch and reception hour. They wrote letters to potential speakers. They contacted local universities with departments and courses geared toward studying just these issues. They arranged for the use of the classrooms and meeting rooms in the high school. They were so enthusiastic that they got the student population of the whole school eager to understand the challenges of disabilities. This is due not to the effort of the teacher, not to the efforts of the class, but the expanded ambition of the two students who wanted to compete. Their inspiration was the desire to educate and not ridicule those who do not understand.

The greatest compliments are those that come from the students. To have them recommend, at the end of the course, that each student in the school be made to take the course is high praise from a 17 or 18 year old. Additionally, to have students approach me with ideas for educating the Madison High School community indicates that they believe that it is possible to change their community. It is possible to change the perceptions of those around you through educating them. To paraphrase Elie Wiesel, it is not those who deny intolerance exists who are the most dangerous. It is those who are indifferent as to whether or not there is intolerance. We need to educate. We need to help others understand. We need to be patient, realizing that it may be one person at a time. But we must persist. We must be direct. And we must always be hopeful.

Gideon Sanders has been teaching the Combating Intolerance course at James Madison High School of Fairfax County Public Schools in Vienna, Virginia since 2002. The course has been offered since 1994 at James Madison HS. Madison HS currently is the only school in the county to offer the elective through its Social Studies department. However, plans are in place for the course to be offered in two more high schools in the 2006-2007 academic school year. Mr. Sanders can be contacted at; the Combating Intolerance website, which is always a work in progress, is at

It starts with the children.

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