After all, history will consist of the choices they make
November 22, 2015 12:00 AM
By Avi Baran Munro
It was a summer of unforgettable images. Rickety boats overloaded with people trying to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean. Surge after surge of desperate migrants streaming onto European shores. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers seeking refuge in Germany and Hungary, fleeing violence and poverty. The heart-wrenching photo of a drowned toddler lying alone on a Turkish beach. And then, with summer barely behind us, we’ve reeled with news of horrific terror attacks on innocent civilians in the streets of Israel, in Beirut, in the skies over Egypt, in Paris.
Filtered through the distancing lens of the photojournalist’s camera from the relative comfort of our American lives, it’s easy to imagine these tragic events unfolding far away and happening to a people who may be far different than us. It’s easy to forget the connections between history and the moral choices we confronting today.
But you can only imagine and forget for so long ― perhaps until you read that there are nearly 60 million people currently displaced by war and persecution, half of them children, and more than at any time since World War II. Or perhaps until you watch Czech authorities writing numbers on the hands of migrants, with connotations of a different time when your own people were systematically tattooed with serial numbers at Auschwitz.
And, sadly, one need not look across the Atlantic for the tragic detritus of hatred, bigotry and senseless murder. Mass shootings, gun violence right here in Pittsburgh and the drumbeat of narcissistic and nihilistic culture that is invading our children’s minds and hearts through every digital portal available ― all these are too real. Too pervasive. And too easy to shrug off as “not my problem, what can I do about it anyway?”
My 94-year-old father Moshe Baran is a Holocaust survivor. He experienced a ghetto and a forced labor camp. He escaped from the Germans with stolen weapons and joined the resistance. He was with the Soviet Army when it liberated Germany and later met my mother in a displaced persons camp in Austria after she lost her entire family and survived three years in a harsh labor camp.
Today my father maintains an anti-hate speech blog called “Language Can Kill ― Messages of Genocide.” He watches with sadness, resignation and dismay as the world he thought would be never again embroiled in the madness that was World War II and the Holocaust sinks deeper into a different, but all-too-familiar type of madness. And yet, he awakens each day full of hope, ready to challenge, not at all even close to surrendering.
Why? Because he speaks to young people. He speaks to Jews, Christians, Muslims, elementary school students, high school students, university students. He speaks to all those who will listen. He is inspired by them because he feels they can hear his message.
And his message is quite simple. To be complacent is to be complicit. You may not be able to do everything. But you can do something.
For me that means taking seriously my responsibility to educate the young people in my charge to understand that message. How? How do we break through the daily and incessant noise in our young people’s heads, drawing them into the seductive and toxic cultural siren song that for all of us is literally one click away?
Here’s one strategy that we think is working:
Community Day School was selected this summer as a partner school in the Facing History and Ourselves Innovative Schools Network. Facing History and Ourselves is an international educational organization whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism to promote the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. As a partner school, our courageous teachers are integrating Facing History teaching strategies and lessons throughout our curriculum in social studies, language arts, library and across other disciplines ― even math and science.
As educators, perhaps our most important responsibility to our students ― and indeed, our gift to society ― is to teach them to be upstanding, people who recognize when something is wrong and act to make it right. To teach them to understand that history is the collective result of every individual’s choices. And to teach them not only the history, but also the critical thinking skills required to make good choices that result in a world where things such as terrorism and the Syrian refugee crisis become unthinkable. Because choices matter.
That’s why our normally joyous (and sometimes even raucous) middle-school hallways fell completely silent during ninth period on a recent afternoon.
Our sixth-grade students had just completed the 2002 biography “The Children of Willesden Lane” by Mona Golabek describing a child’s escape to London from Nazi-controlled Austria on the famed Kindertransport. The class also had been examining poems, first-hand written accounts and selected clips from the Academy Award-winning documentary “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.” In addition, the class listened to an interview with human rights activist Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian refugee in the ’70s who was adopted by an American couple, and discussed current events.
How do 12-year-olds respond to these challenging subjects? How do they make connections between the Jewish refugees of Willesden Lane from the 1940s, the 1970s Cambodian refugee crisis and the Syrian refugees of today ― connections that humanity at large seems to be forgetting or conveniently ignoring?
Our teachers helped these middle-school students respond to their new knowledge and associated emotions using a pedagogical strategy called a “museum gallery walk.” Questions were posted on the hallway walls and lockers. Have we really learned from past mistakes? Why is it important to know each other's stories? How does sharing stories help to create community? What prompts some individuals and groups to help others in a time of crisis, while others turn away?
The students wrote down their reactions to these tough questions on Post-It notes. “I wonder what it is like to leave and then your family is killed and then you can’t go home?” one student wondered. “Sharing stories helps to create a community because that’s how you get to know people better; it’s not what they look like,” another sixth-grader wrote.
It all happened in hushed silence like in a museum gallery. You could have heard a pin drop in the hallway!
As I reflect on our students in that hallway, I am gratified to know that once a week throughout this school year, our lead Facing History and Ourselves educator is taking this curriculum to her middle-school students at the Higher Achievement Pittsburgh after-school program in Homewood ― students from homes and school experiences that are very different from those of our Community Day School students.
It gives me hope, even as I read about terrorist attacks and growing pressures to close Europe’s borders as the migrant crisis continues to escalate. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, the head of school at a Jewish day school and a citizen of America and the world, I have every reason to believe that the curriculum these middle-schoolers are studying today will inform their choices as human beings tomorrow. I know this because I have seen hundreds of CDS students graduate from eighth grade armed with a passion for history and a personal mission to make a difference in the world in whatever small and big ways they can.
My fervent hope for young people everywhere is that they are similarly blessed with passionate educators who can inspire them to make good choices. Their choices today will be our history tomorrow.
Avi Baran Munro is head of school of Community Day School in Squirrel Hill.
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