Teachers’ Exploration of Irish Potato Famine Informs Local Student Prejudice Issue

(March 17, 2011) Minturn, CO, a small town on the outskirts of Vail, relies on international visitors for its livelihood. Ironically, it’s also the increasingly immigrant work force that’s fostering prejudice at Minturn Middle School. With a racially-divided student population (52% Hispanic/47% Caucasian), cultural discrimination extends even to “established” and “new” Hispanic students. Seventh grade teachers Noel Falk and Stephanie Gallegos chose to address these schisms with history. Turning to an earlier era marked by ethnic turmoil, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-50, this teacher team traveled to Ireland on a Fund for Teachers grant last June to better understand how that crisis led to Irish immigration, American stereotypes, and, ultimately, prejudice.

Noel and Stephanie stand by a soup pot once used to feed famine victims.

“With our $9,500 Fund for Teachers grant, we chose to use Ireland’s Potato Famine and resulting mass emigration to help students comprehend the enormity of leaving one’s home country with only a “dream” as a lifeline – much like our Hispanic families who emigrate from Mexico,” explained Falk. “By applying this first-hand research toward a two-trimester course on immigration, we hoped to show our students the cultural and economic roots of prejudice and how we can address it in our own culture.”

During their nine-day odyssey, Falk and Gallegos visited Skibbereen, the worst-affected area of the famine and home of the Skibbereen Heritage Center and its Great Famine Commemoration Exhibition, and the Abbeystrewery Cemetery, where nearly10,000 Potato Famine victims are buried; the Heritage Center in Cobh, an emigration port for 2.5 million Irish; a traditional farm in County Kerry that simulated an Irish farmer’s life 200 years ago; and the Famine Warhouse 1848 in County Tipperary, where the Young Irelanders Rebellion protested British rule and British reaction to the famine.

Noel and Stephanie tour Abbeystrewry Cemetery, a mass gravesite for famine victims.

Back at Minturn Middle School, the teachers’ experiences and primary sources sparked dialogue about immigration past and present. Students spent the fall digging into the Potato Famine and its impact on Irish/English relations. As students moved across the Atlantic with the Irish, they learned that the rough journey for the Irish immigrant didn’t end when they passed inspection at Ellis Island. Rather, the Irish spent decades climbing the American social and economic ladder while experiencing nativist perspectives and prejudice in the United States. As students now begin studying Mexican immigration, they realize how much the two cultures have in common. The curriculum created a safe forum for students to discuss the roots of prejudice and how groups can overcome social injustices with facts and dialogues. Consequently, Falk and Gallegos report that students’ own preconceived notions of others are changing.

“This Fund for Teachers fellowship provided us the contacts, connections and perspectives we lacked, but that now help us effectively address the central lesson for our students: Individuals can lessen prejudice by better understanding one another,” said Gallegos. “By bringing Ireland to our classroom and shrinking the world for our students, they begin to realize how similar our cultures are and that the Mexicans who immigrate to the United States in search of a better life are not that different than the Irish who preceded them.”

A national, donor-supported organization, Fund for Teachers makes an important contribution to America’s educational conversation by expanding the definition of teacher professional development. By investing $14.5 million in 4,000 educators over the past ten years, Fund for Teachers inspires teachers’ pursuit of meaningful, self-designed work that translates into skills and scholarship directly impacting student learning. For more information, visit fundforteachers.org or facebook.com/fundforteachers.

For more information on Fellows who have traveled to Ireland, visit our Teacher Project Search, and search for “Ireland.”