Day 22: Teaching Tolerance in Riga, Latvia

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a teacher in Riceville, Iowa planned a lesson that would change the world of education.

Knowing that her 28 third grade children could not understand discrimination without experiencing it for themselves, Jane Elliot devised an experiment wherein blue-eyed children would wear blue collars and the brown-eyed children would wear brown ones. The blue eyed students were treated better, told to ignore the brown eyed students, and over the course of the day found that brown eye students were even taunted on the playground by their blue eyed peers proving that discrimination was a learned behavior. Mrs. Elliot was thrust into the public spotlight and the reaction by some was swift:

How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there’s no way they could possibly understand it. It’s cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage.”

Nigger lover

Jane Elliot eventually went on the speaking circuit to teach similar lessons around the world, wrote books and established herself as a hero for teachers around the world with her lesson as a bastion of lore on the power of applied learning rather than just reading a passage from a book. Academic research in the 90’s showed that the exercise ’caused stress’ for participants and should be eliminated as an effective strategy to reduce racist attitudes, but her children (now adults) conveyed how powerful the activity was years later.

Teaching Discrimination in the Modern Era

Could Mrs. Elliot’s experiment be replicated in our current climate? In a time of xenophobia and entrenched nationalism, lines have been drawn with rival camps unwilling to listen to the other on issues such as immigration and politics with our news feed keeping us firmly seated in the belief that everything we’re doing is right and the other side is wrong. As a teacher, this makes teaching something controversial extremely difficult because of the ensuing backlash.

“Part of being a parent is also wanting to protect your child from the cruelty of human nature as long as you can.”

Teaching Tolerance

Being able to teach our daughter ‘how‘ we want for an entire year on the road with only ourselves to answer to is one of the perks of this trip. As we landed in Riga a few nights ago, tendrils of the nazi’s reach started showing themselves so Lisa and I debated on whether or not to teach our 4th grader the atrocities of the genocide here during world war 2. Would she be able to understand all the geopolitical forces at work? Probably not. The Holocaust is typically taught to students between grades 8 and 10 in traditional schools as they learn the history of western civilization, and have a stronger stomach for it. But as Jane Elliot proves, education is a powerful thing, capable of turning even young children into racists, and back into tolerant people with the right direction. After all, hate and empathy are learned behaviors.

We went to the Jewish Ghetto Museum of Riga, where thousands of Jews were deported to before being killed in the Rumbula forest in the swiftest large scale killing before the advent of extermination camps. The gruesomeness and cruelty of their deaths were left out of the exhibit and instead was a testament to the lives of the victims while they were alive. The questions poured out of Ava like a faucet:

What happened to all these people?

Where did they come from?

Why did this happen?

Is something wrong with Jewish people?”

Why did they die?

Building Comprehensible Input for Narrative Writing

The afternoon of teachable moments was a sign that Ava’s narrative writing piece could be to write from the perspective of a 9 year old Jewish girl living in the ghettos during world war 2. Her narrative writing piece is a larger, more process writing piece that she could share digitally than her daily journal entries, so we started building up her word bank of target vocabulary and content knowledge.

Assessment Blueprint for Un… by on Scribd

CK-12 CK-12 is a free learning management system that can deploy content to students via a classroom you set up, or to other platforms like ‘Google Classroom’. Below is a snapshot of a lesson that I found that was written for a 7th grade reading level and allowed Ava to highlight passages for discussion later.

Assigning content in CK-12

Youtube Playlists– One of the more useful tricks in youtube is to create playlists of videos. Simply log into the app and ‘save’ videos to a playlist which you can see on your left hand navigation bar.

Epic I’ve written about ‘Epic‘ before and found some great books for Ava’s lexile (reading level) about World War 2. We read a great book last night called “Rebekkah’s Journey” which tells the story through the eyes of a girl about the same age as Ava who emigrates to the United States with her mother to seek asylum, but the loss of her father during the war is a constant reminder of the past. Just this morning, we read about Anne Frank.

‘Rebekkah’s Journey’ Courtesy of Epic
10 Chapter Books

Graphic Organizers and Notability. CSI or ‘Color, Symbol, Image’ is a powerful visible thinking activity that can be used as either a formative or summative assessment. I downloaded the image as a picture into my photos on the iPad and then uploaded it to ‘Notability’ a note taking and drawing annotation app that is done more easily with the apple pencil than a mouse.

CSI template of ‘Genocide’.

We’re on our way to Lithuania and eventually, Krakow where just outside lurks the ‘Auschowitz-Birkenau‘ concentration camp. I think we’ll spare our daughter the horrors inside its walls, as that would be a lesson for another day.

In the meantime, Ava has started work on her narrative story and is about two pages in, filling her pages with details around us and echos of history as a testament for peace.

Related Posts

Designing Curriculum for a Global Education

Day 10: Making a Monster in Budva, Montenegro

Raising a Mighty Girl

Day 18: White Nights in Tallinn, Estonia

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7 thoughts on “Day 22: Teaching Tolerance in Riga, Latvia

  1. Heavy stuff, Gary. Re: not taking Ava to Auschouwitz – Birkenau – I think with the right preparation from you and Lisa, you could prepare her for the tour. I remember learning from an early age about the horrors of the Holocaust and how some of my mom’s relatives died in the camps; like, I don’t remember *not* knowing about it. Of course, I had relatives at family gatherings with numbers tattooed on their arms when I was really young, and young kids ask all sorts of questions. I think there are age appropriate ways to explain it once the kid is old enough to understand the concept of death. And it would be an extremely powerful thing for her to see and experience now, so that when she does finally have those social studies lessons in later years, she can connect the dots. ~Sharon

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