Tolerance is language

Coexist is a documentary and educational outreach project in use by more than 3,000 schools and community organizations in 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Our project includes a 40-minute film and a four-lesson Teacher's Guide, which can be used in the classroom and in support of positive school climate campaigns, to counter bullying, and to encourage positive choices to prevent violence.

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-Del Dios Middle School, Escondido, California

Coexist learning director Mishy Lesser spent two days with teachers, counselors, and students at the Del Dios Middle School in Escondido, California this week. Escondido is a city of 144,000 people, located in a shallow, "hidden" valley northeast of San Diego. It is one of the oldest cities in the county. According to the 2010 Census, Hispanics are almost half the population in the city but in the middle school, teachers say Hispanic students comprise over 60%. In 2006, the city agreed not to enforce an ordinance that tried to ban landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. A coalition formed to challenge the legality of the ordinance, and the city backed down. Escondido was ranked the eleventh most conservative city in the US in 2005 by the Bay Area Center for Voting Research.

Here are Mishy's thoughts on the experience:

The social reality here in complex: the students I meet are African American, Pacific Islanders, Asian, White, Hispanic with deep ancestral ties to the valley, Newcomers from Mexico with legal status and considerable economic resources, and children of undocumented Mexican workers, known by some here as illegals. There are 19 elementary schools, 5 middle schools, and 7 high schools. One of the first things teachers tell me is that students who are the children of undocumented workers often repeat the refrain, "I'm not going to college. I'm Mexican." I am eager to meet all the Del Dios students and know I'll get my chance on Monday. For now, my focus is on working with their teachers and counselors and the school principal to introduce them to Coexist and our work bridging genocide to all forms of "othering."

An educator, Janice Lee opened the workshop with a story about the recent parent conferences led by her 8th grade language arts students. At the time, Janice had been working with her students on Rwanda and Coexist for over a week and she asked her students what they will share with their parents about Coexist during the conferences. A brainstorm followed with prompting questions about Coexist and its connection to language arts. One student, a girl, burst forth and said, "I got it. Lanuage Arts is about tolerance. That's it. Tolerance is not just an act; it's a language."

Our Saturday teacher workshop lasts almost seven hours, one hour longer than I'd planned. I have three goals: introduce them to the film and Teacher's Guide; make connections between the film and the lives of their students; and enlist the participants as consultants to this project. We are a small group of nine: teachers, counselors, the school principal, plus a literacy coach and counselor from another nearby middle school. I am thrilled to have the counselors in the workshop because of their mandate to address "othering" or bullying in their schools, and the important perspective they bring to the complex forces that shape the socio-economic, cultural, and emotional lives of their students. The reason the workshop goes over in time is, in part, because the teachers and counselors are eager to talk about the fissures that course their way through the school culture, whether manifesting in speech or behavior by faculty, students, district, or the city. While I've come here to talk about our film on post-genocide Rwanda and introduce them to our Teacher's Guide, we can hardly have a meaningful conversation unless we look at how dehumanization, humiliation, internalized oppression, unquestioning obedience to authority, the routinization of violence and cycle of violence, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation play out in their local reality.

We begin by building community and creating trust, and sink more deeply into the work with help from a two-part Pair/Share activity on othering (both when we've been othered and when we have othered) and upstanding (both when we've stepped in prevent harm and when we've felt paralyzed and unable to step in).

I introduce the group to Circles, explain their origins among First Nation Peoples of North America and the role of the Talking Piece, and we begin to pass around the beach stones I brought from the New Hampshire shores. The first rounds of questions give us a chance to examine the behaviors, speech, and actions they both appreciate and are troubled by from staff, teachers, and students that challenge and reinforce stereotypes. We also look at behaviors that reinforce upstanding and those that reinforce bystanding.

I introduce the participants to the genocide in Rwanda through a simulation activity and then we create a group definition of genocide, starting with the human capacity for brutality. We underscore the deliberate nature of genocide, role of dehumanization, routinization of cruelty, and unquestioning obedience to authority. I ask who gets dehumanized here in Escondido, who gets othered in both the school and larger community, and who they include in their community of compassion.

During lunch participants watch the Rwanda history video and Coexist, and do a quick Pair/Share so they can talk about what struck them in the film. We review some of the learning activities in the four lessons of the Teacher's Guide and materials in the Resource Section. I give them a choice of talking about one of the quotes contained in Lesson 2 of the Guide and they decide to drill down into Domitilie's quote:

“Probably they want to show the whole world that there’s peace in Rwanda. But for sure…the victims are still in danger. The hands that killed still intend to kill once again.... They are still threatening us even though we gave them our hearts and showed them that we understand that the previous government forced them to do what they did. But they're not understanding.... They're still randomly killing genocide survivors.”

We are beginning to run out of time so I quickly introduce them to a variety of themes from Lessons 3 and 4. We briefly talk about how they would measure the success of our work together, and have a final circle to talk about how they might envision moving this work beyond the classroom to address othering in the larger school system and community.

Working with Del Dios Students On Monday, I work with 140 eight-graders, most of whom are students of Ms. Lee, the lead organizer of the teacher professional development workshop. She has been working the theme of genocide and Rwanda for three weeks and I have her first group for 90 minutes. The other classes last 45 minutes. In the final class we are joined by another teacher and her journalism students. The room is packed.

The students were for the most part, impressive, knowledgeable, animated, curious, collaborative, and able to connect the material about Rwanda to their lives and experiences. And some students seemed painfully shy, like they wanted to remain invisible in this conversation. I did my best to make them feel safe, pull them into the conversation, yet not intrude on their mode of participation. In all 5 classes, we developed a group definition of genocide and used a simulation activity to review the key facts about the genocide in Rwanda. We talked about bystanding and upstanding, how today's victim could become tomorrow's perpetrator if there is a culture that rewards revenge rather than the slow and complicated and bumpy road of reconciliation and forgiveness. I underscored the role of name-calling and scapegoating in Rwanda and asked how those behaviors played out in their school. We made a list of all the groups that exist in the school and the teachers and counselors were surprised by the number and breadth of groups named by the students. We ran out of time just as we were beginning to talk about the groups that are most vulnerable and invisible at school, and what it would take to protect them.

We can see already how Coexist is rippling through the Del Dios community from Amy who works with students on the newspaper. She shared with other teachers a major shift for the publication "The journalism students and I were very moved yesterday. A unanimous decision to scrap our current spread in the "Be the Change" section and shift to a focus on 'Circles of Compassion' was made. We look forward to highlighting and celebrating how Del Dios shifts into a culture of up-standers and compassionate people in the paper!"

We'll keep sharing what unfolds at Del Dios and other schools as we learn more.

-UP Learning DirectorMishy Lesser

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How Coexist is working in Schools

Here's a link to one example of what happens in classrooms where we teach Coexist. That school now plans to broaden and deepen the conversation about violence prevention.

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