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Faculty attend Teaching Tolerance conference for conversations on role of educators

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(Photo used by permission of Julie Nelson)
Lower-school music teacher Elena Bennett, third-grade teacher Kristi Mathisen, assistant head of school Tucker Foehl, art teacher Andy Cunningham, Spanish teacher Maya Pelle, director of after-school enrichment Joy Pangilinan and high-school Spanish teacher Patricia Portillo visit the Museum of Tolerance.

From Feb. 20-21, middle-school Spanish teacher Maya Pelle and six fellow faculty members (Elena Bennett, Kristi Mathisen, Tucker Foehl, Andy Cunningham, Patricia Portillo and  Joy Pangilinan) attended a Teaching Tolerance conference presented and funded by the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. The conference taught teachers four main principles – identity, diversity, justice and action – and how these ideals play out in the classroom. Pelle was interviewed about the conference.

Q: What did you do during the conference?

A: There was a lot of lecture, group work and discussion. We toured the (Holocaust) museum (a section of the Museum of Tolerance). We met with a representative of GLIDE (Gays and Lesbians Initiating a Dialogue for Equality).

Some (instructors) got a little extreme. They were like, “Assigned seating is oppressive!” (But the conference) was powerful and certainly inspired me to redouble my efforts (in) educating the whole child through my subject matter, as well as being aware of anti-bias and the awareness that I need to have (of bias) in the classroom and as a member of this community.

Q: How are the Teaching Tolerance values integrated into the classroom?

A: They have something called a central text anthology, which has speeches, poems, literature, photographs. It’s already broken down for (teachers). For example, if you’re an eighth-grade history teacher, there are (special) resources (for your class). (The resources also follow) the Common Core standard, so teachers aren’t having to add something into their curriculum – it’s (already) embedded.

Q: What was your favorite part of the conference?

A: The speakers from GLIDE were awesome – really engaging and had good personal stories.

The Holocaust Museum was eye-opening. They personalized it in a way that really makes you feel the experience, not just see it – to the extent that anybody can feel it without going through it, obviously. (There were) displays – huge dioramas with real pictures. It would be really dark and then a light would come on, and (the people on the screens) would have conversations among (themselves) – as if they were having conversations right in front of you.

Some of them were saying, “Oh don’t worry about it, everything is going to be fine.” And (others said), “Oh, easy for you to say; you’re not Jewish.” Eventually, you’d go to the next display, and the light would come on and you’d walk down the hallway and the next light would come on. It would be another scene, which made it very real because it felt like you were just listening to actual people talking. (They were) conversations that weren’t unlike conversations you’d hear these days.

The Holocaust survivor (who was visiting the museum) was also really powerful.

The conversations about social justice were interesting as well. There was anecdotal evidence, (and) that central text anthology had a lot of primary sources that we analyzed and talked about. Teachers (would talk) about times when they felt like they wish they had done a better job reacting to social bias. They would give examples of their own classroom (experiences) or when they felt it themselves. When we had to do some of the group work, everyone (would share) their experiences.

We talked about them as a group. We talked about why they happened, if they could have been avoided, (and) how to learn from them. We want to make sure we’re setting the stage so that students feel comfortable with who they are, they’re respectful of who other people are, and they feel empowered to make change in the world, or act when they see injustice, or have empathy towards people who are different from them.

Q: Which teachers were invited?

A: An email went out to the (Teaching and Learning Committee) first, but it was open to all teachers. Everybody filled the spots. We have one person who had to back out at the last minute because of an illness. It was first-come, first-served.

Q: Why did you decide to attend?

A: As a world language teacher, a world traveler and someone who grew up both in the States and abroad, I have my own perspectives and experience. I recognize and appreciate the experience of others, and I think empathy is a critical part of humanity. I wanted to educate myself about these issues from another angle.

(Photo used by permission of Maya Pelle)
Director of after-school enrichment Joy Pangilinan, high-school Spanish teacher Patricia Portillo, art teacher Andy Cunningham, assistant head of high school Tucker Foehl and lower-school music teacher Elena Benett eat dinner during the conference.

Q: What do you mean by “perspectives and experiences”?

A: For part of my childhood, I lived in the Philippines, where I was physically in the minority. People would come up and touch my (blond) hair. Growing up in a city like Manila impacted how I view the world.

Coming back to the United States (and) living in Washington, D.C., where there was a big international community, as well as traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Europe – that all had a big influence on my global perspective and perspective on the world and the people. I recognize how lucky we are to live in this country, and while we still have much work to do, I’m grateful for the freedoms, security and opportunity afforded to us in this country because that is not the case in many countries around the world – that’s something I never forget.

I also am aware of the cultural perspective of other people in a way I think I would not be if I had only grown up in Northern California. I recognize the world is a lot bigger than Northern California, and there are a lot of people who grew up very differently than we do here. That is something that needs to be remembered.

Q: What were the other attendees like?
A: It kind of had everybody from everywhere. There were two Spanish teachers. A lot of elementary school teachers were there. There were a lot of people who had similar beliefs, some a little bit farther along than my own. (All the people there) were educators and were interested in anti-bias, social justice curriculum. Everyone was there for a common goal, which made the group somewhat homogenous in terms of beliefs.

Q: What impact did the conference have on you?

A: It was about remembering that education is more than facts. It was about (how) understanding various perspectives and experiences is a responsibility, challenge and opportunity we have as educators.

There was (a poem by Chaim Ginott that I saw in a booklet) that spoke to me about the purpose of education. “Dear Teacher: / I am a survivor of a concentration camp. / My eyes saw what no man should witness: / Gas chambers built by Learned engineers / Children poisoned by Educated physicians / Infants killed by Trained nurses / Women and babies shot and burned by / High School and College graduates / My request is: Help your students become human. / Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, / skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. / Reading, writing and arithmetic are important only / if they serve to make our children more human.”

(Education is) not merely (about teaching) arithmetic, reading and writing but to raise educated, thoughtful, compassionate and responsible humans. So with each generation, we make the world better for all of us.

After coming out of the Holocaust exhibit and feeling so horrified and helpless at the same time, it gave me purpose, which made me feel a little less helpless going forward.

By Emma Boersma

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A Sacramento Country Day School Newspaper
Faculty attend Teaching Tolerance conference for conversations on role of educators