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

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