In this wild and scary world there are numerous challenges facing teachers. There are so many aspects to being an effective teacher that begin with mastering content and developing a strategy for how to teach it, meeting ever-increasing state mandates, dealing with the mass of paperwork and finally, meeting the learner in the classroom. There is the curriculum, mandated and explicable, but then there is the hidden curriculum reinforcing inequities and socio-economic differences and based on some abstract idea that there is a regular learner.

And then there is difference.

Perhaps the most important thing for any teacher to know is that students don’t listen to what they say, they watch what they do, particularly in relation to perceived difference. Never has it been more crucial for our kids to understand cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. Whether their future takes them as soldiers to foreign battlefields or to the large cities of the United States they will need to understand that not every story has the same storyteller, not every value is shared and that virtue itself is subject to cultural interpretation.

Understanding cultural difference is key in teaching our classes not just with one eye on the future, but to help create a just, humane and empowered citizenry right here on our own Island. We educators have to examine our own practice and recognize that we are role models of power. We create the climate in our own classrooms. Is that climate inclusive, is it democratic, are all voices heard or is stereotyping reinforced? A challenge indeed, but one which the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School has accepted. 

In April 2007, the department hosted a workshop from Facing History & Ourselves, an international organization based in Brookline dedicated to the teaching of history, ethics and government as a series of choices and moral dilemmas. This empowering program emphasizes for students that culturalconflicts and genocides are not inevitable, but are a result of choices made. Teachersfrom several schools, religious and cultural organizations and parent representatives were invited to attend the workshop, and accepted the invitation. The consensus was that serious conversations had begun at the workshop, led by Jennifer Jones Clark, and should be continued. With the support of principal Margaret Regan, the history department voted to host another workshop on Oct. 17 to do just that.

The workshop titled Choices in Little Rock was presented by Facing History’s Jimmie Jones, who presented the famous events at Little Rock during the integration of that school through the lens of many of the key players. The landmark Supreme Court decision that declared “separate to be unequal” led to the integration of Little Rock High School. Only nine African American students were involved, and their attempts to attend school were greeted with enormous hostility, led by the state governor. Despite the almost carnival atmosphere of harassment and cruelty shown to these students ofcolor, so me whitepeople chose not to follow the governor, or theKu Klux Klan, but to obey their own consciences. One of them, the mayor of Little Rock, was never reelected as a result of his refusal to condone racist violence on the African American students, and another young woman, who shared her books withthe five students, was ostracized by her own white community.

Nevertheless, they chose not to follow their community, and it was the power of their refusal that led to change. JimmieJones connected the concept of exclusion as it operated through the Jim Crow laws of the South with his own experience as a Mexican American growing up in San Antonio, Tex., making it possible for others to make connections on their own experience.

Working in groups, participants discussed the first time that they had been made to feel different, and how that difference inevitably felt negative. For Carrie Camillo Tankard of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP, the most powerful part of the afternoon was the showing of the famous film Eye of the Storm, in which pioneering teacher Jane Elliott responded to a question from one of her students after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. She divided her entirely white class by the color of their eyes to demonstrate the crippling effects of racism, and all the other “isms.”

Ms. Tankard said: “I found it fascinating that one little boy refused to go along with the eye color segregation thing even when he would gain advantages from it — and he was punished for that, but he just would not buy into the idea. He knew right from wrong. Was that his upbringing?” The question of the price paid for standing up against injustice was one that resonated for the group. Teachers, parents and community leaders argued the merits of examining the motivation of bullies. 

Images of babies dressed in Ku Klux Klan regalia were haunting for Amie Lukowitz, a teacher at the Oak Bluffs School, and led to an interesting discussion about how hatred is learned. Janette Vanderhoop of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) talked about how discrimination can be expressed in subtle ways, andthe lasting effects of that type of injury. The group discussion led to an examination of our own environment and the effect on students of labeling them. The notion that thoselabels create divisions within a student community and take power f rom students who are classified as having a learning disability while entitling others, generated some interesting exchanges. Therole that schools play in affirming socio-economic divisions was discussed and ideas, based on experiences, were shared.

Participants from the various cultural, ethnic and religious organizations displayed passion in the conversations, and relationships began to form. John Tirrell, a global history teacher at the high school, said he really enjoyed the workshop. “These are important things to talk about and the presenter was really good. I would like more opportunity to really talk and discuss what we are learning because this stuff is crucial,” he said. Charter school teacher Jonah Maidoff agreed and urged more discussion. Kim Lawrence of the diversity council said: “Just talking to other people and getting to hear their stories challenges the whole basis of stereotyping and scapegoating.”

Where does the group go from here? The process can be judged on many levels. Facing History models successful teaching strategies and provides curricula materials which are invaluable for teachers. Hopefuly the dialogue can continue among teachers, schools and the community itself through further workshops, shared learning experiences and, most important, tokeep examining our own practice and keep talking.

This is where change begins.

Elaine Cawley Weintraub teaches history at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.