Curriculum: Pause To Think

April 01, 1994 6 min read

These teenagers--who are African-American, white, Korean, Puerto Rican, and Indian--have come to the school in the wake of a snowstorm to talk about prejudice, analyze slang, and “rap about race.’' They’re taking a break from classes at their respective suburban, urban, and private schools to take part in a test run of “Ethical Choices: Dealing With Diversity,’' a video curriculum developed by the local public-television station to address the problems of ethnic, racial, and cultural bias.

Some 1,500 copies of the video and accompanying teachers’ guide will be shipped out to high schools across New Jersey and New York City, courtesy of WNET and a local health-insurance company. And the sponsors of the educational package are hovering around this seventhfloor schoolroom today to see it in action for the first time.

“Let’s pretend this is not a classroom; don’t raise your hands,’' directs Dana Freeman, the jovial “master teacher’’ who is about to lead the students in a quickpaced interactive dialogue. Freeman tells the students that he will be using the Socratic method to challenge their responses, demand explanations, and play devil’s advocate.

Flanked by two video monitors, Freeman strides confidently around the room, wielding a remote control in his hand. He clicks on the videotape. On the screen, Charles Ogletree, an assistant professor at Harvard Law School and an expert in the Socratic method, leads a discussion among a diverse panel of high school students. Ogletree, who has interviewed presidents, leading economists, and Nobel Prize winners in this round-table format for an occasional PBS series, now directs his attention to this group of teenagers. Speaking to Giselle Leung, a young woman of Asian descent, he presents a scenario: “We are in the city of Metropolis. You are going back to school. Some young white men drive by you and shout, ‘Asians go home!’ How do you react?’'

Leung says she wouldn’t say anything because she was alone but admits that she would “definitely feel intimidated and scared.’'

Freeman pauses the tape and poses the same question to his class. “How would you feel?’' he asks Heidi Gaetano, an 11th grader of Korean descent. Raising her shoulders, she says she would “shrug it off.’' Because she’s adopted, Heidi says, she isn’t really bothered by racial slurs.

“What causes people to act this way?’' asks Freeman, opening the question to the circle of students.

“These people are racist because of something in their past,’' one student suggests. “Society makes you that way. You are not born hating Asians.’'

“You are not born racist,’' Heidi exclaims from across the room, “but you can’t blame society for the things you do.’'

A brief lull falls over the class. Freeman clicks on the next segment of the tape, and the students stare up at the monitors.

“Are people free to say what they really want to say in this society?’' Ogletree asks the onscreen panel. “What if someone calls you ‘nigger’?’' he asks an African-American student, who begins to chuckle softly. He’s laughing, he says, because he thinks this imaginary harasser is “stupid and ignorant.’'

Freeman presses the pause button and looks furtively at the students. “Is it appropriate to use racial slang?’' he asks.

“No, it’ll start a trend,’' one student declares. “It degrades people,’' another blurts.

But Shameko Greene, an African-American senior at Plainfield High, disagrees; he thinks the term is acceptable in certain contexts. “When you say ‘nigger,’ it reminds you of the unity you have,’' Shameko asserts. “It’s just a term that reminds you you’re tight.’'

The video resumes, and rap artist MC Lyte agrees with Shameko’s view, defending the use of the term that many think is a bitter reminder of slavery and oppression. Among blacks, she says, the word is used to mean “brother.’'

Then Ogletree, who is black, asks, “Can I, if I’m white, say ‘nigger’?’'

“No!’' MC Lyte snaps back emphatically.

A Jewish student interjects that he thinks using the word at all desensitizes its meaning. “It shouldn’t be used until the feeling behind the word is addressed,’' he argues.

But in the lexicon of political correctness, sometimes it’s difficult to know where the boundaries of appropriate speech begin and end. And Matthew Loper, an 11th grader at suburban Watchung Hills Regional High School, admits as much back in the Plainfield classroom. “Sometimes you’re forced not to laugh if someone tells an uncool joke,’' he says. But he adds that he doesn’t always know what’s “cool’’ to say.

Most of these students, all residents of northern New Jersey, are no strangers to prejudice. Hali Barlow, an 11th grade student at Plainfield High, says he often feels stereotyped because he’s black. “If I wear jewelry,’' Hali says, “people think I’m a drug dealer.’'

A student of Middle Eastern descent volunteers that he’s often called “Aladdin’’ at school.

Shaalu Isanaka, a 10th grader from Watchung Hills Regional High, takes a decidedly pessimistic view of race relations. “All you need is one person to make evil,’' she says. “The only way we could end prejudice,’' she adds matterof-factly, “is to line racist people against the wall and shoot them.’' But most of the students in the room reject the idea that racism is some universal evil that defies peaceful resolution. Instead, they believe society instills prejudice in young people.

The hour is almost up. Freeman stops the videotape and asks the group of teenagers to brainstorm about how they would bring together our culturally diverse society. One student suggests that the entire student body should take a class on race relations. Another proposes a monthly school assembly where students could learn about different ethnic groups. Yet another suggests a mandated multicultural curriculum. Others think performing community service, tutoring disadvantaged students, or helping the homeless might help sensitize students.

Someone else suggests that a few more sessions like the one Freeman is leading here would do the trick. “If you take what you learn out of this room, and you apply it, it’ll work,’' echoes Kristen Simonelli, a senior at the private Gill St. Bernard’s School.

A few hours of rigorous discussion won’t make hate crimes disappear or eliminate intolerance, but Yvonne Duncan, director of school-based programs at Plainfield High and one of the event’s organizers, thinks this kind of interactive discussion can really help dislodge prejudice that is right beneath the surface. “After you work with students,’' Duncan says, “you learn that the unspoken prejudice is the worst because it makes them stick to themselves.’'

In addition to challenging students to explore their sense of ethics, the 30-minute video and 12-page teachers’ guide try to build critical-thinking and communications skills; the guide features tips on how to lead a stimulating discussion. Teachers can also find suggestions for followup activities, such as surveying students about their perspectives on diversity, making a film about prejudice, and analyzing a week’s worth of media coverage of race relations.

Although the Plainfield test run marks the program’s debut, WNET has already received hundreds of requests from schools and other groups interested in using the video and teachers’ guide. In fact, the station, which has spent $75,000 to date developing and producing the tape, hopes to expand the program into a 13-part video series, with units on AIDS, teenage pregnancy, and other issues.

When students see people discussing racism in this documentary format, they begin to see the underlying causes, asserts Ruth Ann Burns, director of WNET’s Educational Resources Center. “Television,’' she says, “can help defuse the animosity.’'

One of the students at Plainfield, speaking of personal responsibility and self-esteem, seems to crystallize the theme of the day. “You, as a person, ought to have enough sense to begin to form your own opinions,’' she tells her fellow students. Ultimately, she says, “you just have to decide for yourself.’'--Jessica Portner

For more information on WNET’s interactive television programs, call: (212) 560-6613.

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Curriculum: Pause To Think