critical thinking skills

Why didn't I learn this before?

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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Coexist Learning Director Mishy Lesser visited Springfield, Oregon on November 10 at the invitation of Ginny Hoke, language arts and Holocaust literature teacher.  Ginny learned about Coexist from Teaching Tolerance and stepped forward to organize an all-day professional development workshop for colleagues at Thurston High School and nearby middle and high schools.  We met in the school's chilly library to build community, explore the themes of the film, watch Coexist, and participate in a variety of simulation exercises.  High school teachers, counselors, and a co-principal and former curriculum director for the district came together to talk about genocide, examine othering in their classrooms, and explore ways to strengthen the upstander culture in their schools.  Participants were eager to learn how Coexist and the Teacher's Guide could foster critical thinking.  The group included two pre-service teachers, one of whom aims to adapt our material to the learning needs of elementary school students.  The Workshop was co-sponsored by the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, which was represented by its Director Sonia Marie Leikam.

The goals of the Workshop were to introduce the teachers to the film and Guide, help make connections to the lives of their students, and enlist them as consultants to the Coexist Educational Project.  All goals were met and I left Thurston inspired to add new stories about forgiveness to the 2013 edition of the Coexist Teacher's Guide.

This is a sampling of what I heard from teachers and counselors during the opening community-building Pair/Share activities when they talked about both the behaviors they appreciated and were troubled by in their schools:

Seeking lessons in empathy and questioning

*I want to teach my students more empathy and kindness. *I want them to invite more questions and not be fixated on "getting the right answer." *I appreciate when other teachers and students step in to protect someone who is getting singled out and treated badly. *I appreciate the new teacher who is a very soft-spoken straight man, and wears a gay pride button. In our school of 1,800, there are only 2 or 3 openly gay students (an extremely low number, if we consider the inaugural results of a new Gallup question which shows that 3.4% of U.S. adults identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender). *I appreciate the kids who speak up and say it's not right when someone is targeted because of their race or culture or the ways they are different *I appreciate the teachers who bring into their classrooms the last of the Holocaust survivors and WWII liberators of camps.

Troubled by "othering" and insults

*I am troubled by what happens when English Language Learners are pulled out of class. It smacks of segregation and the students are made fun of. *Our students are square pegs getting shoved into round holes; they have their own stories and no place to share them; it is troubling when other faculty don't see what we are doing to the students. *I am troubled when I see kids put down others and treat them like the enemy and by staff who dismiss this behavior by saying "that's what teenage boys do; don't make a big deal about it; they have a right to express themselves." *I am troubled that our kids, who are old enough to know about the big themes of history, know nothing about Native Americans, anti-Semitism, WWII. *I am troubled by our tendency to put our first reaction out there before we think about what we are about to say. *I am troubled by the number of students who don't feel safe, engaged, or accepted here.  I am adopting a baby girl from Africa and in my head I wonder what it will be like to bring her to a football game here.  How will she be treated? What stares will she (and I) get? What prejudice will there be behind those looks? What will she/we have to face? And how can we use Coexist and our work together here to create more open-mindedness and less prejudice?

An experiment in blind submission

Teachers and counselors had a strong interest in exploring how to use the film to talk with students about blind submission to authority. One of the teachers shared a story about the time she began to behave in an authoritarian way, instructing students to stand up when addressing her and speak "properly" by saying her name.  The class was told to follow a set protocol or they'd get detention.  Students were quick to acquiesce and comply with her unilateral and out-of-character demands. When she ended the simulation, it took the students a while to understand her intent.  To help them examine their personal responses, she taught them about the Stanford Prison Experiment and Philip Zimbardo's work, and Stanley Milgram's research into the towering impact of authority figures on individual and group behavior.  Her story provided a great example of the ease with which groups can descend into unquestioning obedience to authority.

Addressing the Common Core Standards

Other themes that resonated strongly at Thurston were bystanding and upstanding, and the use of Circle Process to reduce interruptions in the classroom and cultivate more open-mindedness among students toward divergent points of view.

Teachers underscored how well the film and Guide address the Common Core Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies because they provide textual evidence to support analysis of primary source materials for student reflection and critical thinking. They also pointed out that Oregon supports PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), which advocates for social-emotional-behavioral competencies and the development of safe and effective school environments. Schools are always looking for boosters to reinforce PBIS, and Coexist and the Teacher's Guide are excellent resources.

Going forward, one teacher plans to put Coexist into a Colonization Unit for which she has two weeks.  She thinks social studies education is teetering on a precipice, heading toward a complete revolution whereby textbooks are out and themes are in, and states and regions will choose themes that are geographically and culturally relevant.  Coexist fits well in the social studies during this important time of transition.

'Why didn't I know this?'

*Another participant suggested that Coexist makes a big contribution to comparative genocide studies and that it skillfully addresses the European-centric nature of genocide studies.  The film also becomes a source material because of the lack of material on Rwanda.

*Back in the 1970s Elliot Eisner looked at 5 orientations to curriculum to get kids to care about the world.   Right now the dominant paradigm is about giving kids a certain number of skills and content knowledge. Getting kids to care about the world and having a sense of social justice is key, and Coexist helps with this.

*Bringing the global perspective back inside our walls of our school is important. As a counselor, I could team up with our language arts teacher when she's teaching Coexist. I look forward to sharing this information with our global studies teachers and our leadership.  I advise the Multicultural Club and we work to silence bullying, raise awareness about bystanding/upstanding, and encourage more compassion.

*Another teacher shared that last year when she did a genocide and Holocaust Unit and taught about Rwanda, one student said somewhat indignantly, "Why didn't I know about this? Why didn't I learn this before?" The younger students are when you bring this material to them, the quicker and better they connect to it in their hearts.

By the end of our day together, teachers wished we'd had time for more simulation activities so they could see how I bring to life all the learning activities from the Teacher's Guide.  All teachers said they would use Coexist and the Guide, and recommend both to their colleagues.

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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. Read more articles about our work in schools here.

Read what people are saying about Coexist here.

Contact us at coexistdocumentary@gmail.com

View Coexist in Schools around the world in a full screen map

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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.

We invite you to join our community on facebook.

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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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View Coexist in Schools around the world in a full screen map

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.

Read what people are saying about Coexist here.

Contact us at coexistdocumentary@gmail.com

ORDER COEXIST NOW! | Screenings | Watch | Videos | How can I see it? | Education | Guide | Survey | Classroom | Glossary | Links | Coexistence is... | About | Mission | Proposal | Team | Board | Archive | Contribute | Subscribe | Connect & Share | Ways to Help | Supporters | News | Gallery | Press Kit | Coexisting Responsibly