Children at a refugee camp in Chad

Image via Wikipedia

I just started a new unit on diversity and what it means to be part of a community.  I really want students to gain more of an understanding about the world around them–to understand some of the reasons why people leave their country of origin and go to another place to start over, and further, I want them to perspective-take and try to see the world from a refugee‘s point of view.  Usually when I choose literature topics I address topics related to diversity and equity as they come up, but because some of my students have recently been involved in harassing other people because of their race and nationality, I’ve decided to address these issues as a whole unit of study.

I thought about what I really want students to come away with.  Then I met with someone from our school’s diversity and equity office to get some resources and insight, and I began planning the unit.  I know that I’m not going to change students’ perceptions overnight; some of them have been raised with misconceptions and prejudices from birth, so my goal is to introduce new kernels of thought and establish some seeds of change.  My essential questions are based around “push” and “pull” factors and discussing facts and myths around refugees and resettlement programs.  The city we live in is a major resettlement area in our state, so there are rampant myths and misconceptions I hear all the time.  Those myths and misconceptions become the base of why students are bullied and harassed.  All of these myths are purely based in ignorance and misinformation, so if I can get students to learn the facts that will help them begin to change their preconceived notions.  I also want to help my students understand that bystanders are as much a part of bullying and harassment as the perpetrators themselves.  I have students who say or do nothing when they see someone being bullied or harassed because they think (and I’ve actually had students say this to me) that it’s better to just “stay out of it” and “not rat on anyone.”  Passivity is as much a part of ongoing bullying and harassing as the actual words and actions.

So, having established my big ideas and essential questions, I began choosing resources and topics.  There are so many to choose from that I had a very difficult time narrowing my focus.  I decided to choose topics related to three of the major refugee populations in our state.  I set up a Wiki to be a central point of posting resources to share with my students and to be a place where we can have an ongoing discussion to process questions and thoughts.  I also asked students to share what they think they know about the topic and to share the ideas they currently have, so students can see their growth after studying the topic.  Each day I share a video (or two) and a short article with them from the wiki and then they login to answer discussion questions and post information to develop our topic further.  I will soon be introducing some of the activity ideas that I got from meeting with a diversity and equity consultant in our district so that students can put themselves in different situations and try to see things from another perspective.  All of this will lead up to their final project which will include creating a digital resource targeted to the very youngest students in our school district.

I will share an “ah-ha” moment one of my students had the first day we did the unit.  This 15 year old boy is one of my students who is passive to bullying and harassing situations around him because he “doesn’t want to get involved.”  He also has actually said, “I hate Africans because they think they’re all big and bad and try to take over the neighborhood.”  The first day of the unit I shared a slideshow and information on the drought and famine in Somalia and then asked students to tell me why people might escape that situation and resettle somewhere new.  Of course they figured out that “starvation” was a major push factor, but it was the information he learned about the militant groups in Somalia that led one student to his “ah-ha” moment.  He said, “Wait, so there’s no government and all these groups will just kill people for no reason…no wonder they come here; I would too.”  I’m really excited about embarking on this journey with my students.