by, Natalie Biden & Emilie Jones-McAdams – Bronx, NY
“I looked across the border – that invisible line which separated my family’s old life from our new one – and wondered what was in store for us.”
This was the opening line in one of my student’s free writes about what it means to be a survivor. Barely a teenager, he explained how difficult the process of immigration was on his family. Out of his family’s struggles with emigrating from Mexico to the Bronx, one struggle landed harder int he forefront of his young mind – the lack of cultural and racial acceptance from his peers. Of course, he describes it as bullying, but what it really is: prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. As teachers, we firmly believe that communities in which all cultures are celebrated are the most beneficial places for our students’ educational, social and emotional well being. It is the desire and passion for fostering strong classroom communities that inspired our fellowship.
We left our home in NYC and ventured into the American South and Europe in order to complete a comparative study looking at the significance of those two locations in relation to civil and human rights violations. Through our Fund for Teachers grant, we were able to travel from the American South to Post-Holocaust Europe to discover and research their shared history of both discrimination and reconciliation.
Our key questions were:
- How can we more effectively teach about the Civil Rights Movement in the American South and the Holocaust?
- How can students use these historical events to reflect on how they treat peers? and,
- In what ways can we use the idea of bystanders, victims, and aggressors in historical events to help our students gain a personal awareness of how they impact their peers and school community?
We visited over 10 cities (in America and Europe) in the span of one month. Our goal was to visit important historical locations, learn from guides and educators, and collect invaluable artifacts and pieces of knowledge that would aid us in teaching the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust.
We started in the South. Some of the highlights were:
- The Robert Russa
Moton Museum in Farmville, VA, (considered the student birthplace of America’s Civil Rights Revolution)
- Woolworth’s lunch counter where the non-violent sit-in protests began (now housed inside the International Civil Rights Center Greensboro, NC)
- The King Center in Atlanta, GA, which included a visit to his birth home, the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he was a pastor, and his grave site
- The Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, AL and,
- Activities in Alabama and Tennessee allowing us to physically walk us through locations of the Civil Rights March, including a service at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where Dr. King often spoke; Kelly Ingram Park, a ground for Civil Rights protests; and the Lorraine Hotel, the location of King’s assassination.
Then we headed to Europe.
We stepped onto four different concentration camps – Auschwitz, Birkenau, Dachau, and Buchenwald. Our Berlin Walking tour focused on periods of repression and persecution of various people groups in the city’s history, while Warsaw offered us a glimpse into its Jewish Ghetto past. By researching in cities such as Berlin, Munich, Krakow, Warsaw, and Prague via train,bus, walking, bike, and Trabant, we were able to appreciate these places for their history, their monuments and important markers of the past, as well as their growth and change over time into the modern cities they have become.
Each destination proved to be a powerful, moving and highly educational experience. In America and Europe, we were steeped in the rich histories, cultures, traditions, and stories. We paid witness to the shoes that the one of the girls was wearing when she lost her life during the 16th Street Baptist Church
bombing, and we paid witness to the thousands of shoes left behind by the victims of Nazi brutality. Never will we forget the things we saw during our journey.
After looking out at the world, it was time to look into our classrooms in order to help students develop a critical consciousness that allows for open and honest discussion and exploration of historical and current issues within a safe and supportive classroom community. As a result of our fellowship, students are tackling the complexities of human and civil rights violations. They are engaging in two new units on civil rights – one focusing on the Holocaust and the other on the Civil Rights Movement.
Viewing and discussing artifacts and pictures collected during our journey, and reading the challenging and complex texts gathered from the two major locations of our trip, students are being exposed to the histories of the South and Eastern Europe. We hope that the discussions and work that come out of these
topics will not only push our students thinking in ELA and social studies, but also encourage our students to think critically about the civil rights and equality issues of their time.
Culturally-responsive education research proves students thrive in classrooms where all cultural vantage points are considered valuable and celebrated. We believe that it is essential to not only teach tolerance,
respect, and acceptance, but it also important to carefully explore with students the times in history when human rights have been violated, and throughout the year, we will explore these moments in history.
Ultimately, the major impact on the students is learning how to turn tragedies from the past into lessons for the present and future. In the present, they are understanding why people should have basic human rights and what happens when people are denied those rights. This impacts the class by applying those same ideas to how they treat their classmates. When our students leave us and go on to higher levels of education and future careers, they will encounter people different from them and ideas different than theirs. We want our students to be good citizens and thoughtful people who impact their communities in positive ways.Learning to treat people with respect and celebrate differences will set them up to live honorably, think deeply, and engage in the social challenges of their times.