Courtesy of Creative Commons
After recent incidents at WCHS in which anti-semitic symbols were drawn on school property and a shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, WCHS has teamed up with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to introduce new forums where students can discuss their thoughts on hate within the MCPS community.
Each student’s English class during the week of Nov. 5 to 9 was dedicated to the ways students can be an ally, advocate and activist when combating hate. Students who take U.S. History, NSL (or government), World History or Psychology will have another lesson in those classes in the upcoming weeks.
The first incidence of antisemitism at WCHS this year occurred Oct. 25 when a student found a swastika on the back of a lab table in a science classroom. They notified their teacher, who made administration aware of the issue. An email was promptly sent to parents informing them on the issue.
“A variety of things came back to me,” principal Brandice Heckert said. “People were thankful for the timely communication and some wanted to know what the school’s response will be. Some people stated that this is something that has gone on here before, but were glad that people are acknowledging it. What I am thankful for is that people are saying things about it; some students say that they don’t find these symbols offensive and are desensitized by the notion of hate and since it wasn’t directed at a particular person some didn’t feel that it was a big deal—but that’s not ok either. It is a big deal.”
English department resource teacher Jennifer Miller adapted an ADL lesson to fit the WCHS English curriculum while teachers were also given the freedom to decide how to run their classes in order to have meaningful and open discussions among students.
For AP Literature teacher Jeffrey Savett, his class soon veered off into talking about anti-semitism in terms of today’s culture and community that students had noticed.
“We started discussing the climate and culture here [at WCHS] and whether they’ve seen things like that and the vibes they get when they’re in the hallways or in the bathroom,” Savett said.
One of the questions that went along with the Feb. 2017 NY Time article that students read in class (“Subway Riders Scrub Anti-Semitic Graffiti, as ‘Decent Human Beings’”) was ‘What makes a decent human being?’ Savett transformed his lesson by leading into a discussion about how people become who they are by creating an environment where students could openly voice their opinions.
“There were some really deep moments that we had where we talked about the sociology of identity construction and how we become people,” Savett said. “We generally establish an identity by finding an authority figure but if we can’t do that we do it by othering a group like saying ‘I don’t know what I am, but I’m not that.’”
For AP Literature and AP Language and Composition teacher Haroot Hakopian, his classes also discussed the topic of being a “decent human being,” as referenced in the article.
“It was fascinating to talk about my favorite line of the new york times article: ‘we just sort of went on about our business being decent human beings,’” Hakopian said. “By sixth period, I asked my class what it means to be a decent human being. A lot of people listed empathy, love and kindness and we talked about how those [characteristics] aren’t religious-based, political or economic or anything like that, they’re just being a decent person.”
Aside from the lessons in classes, WCHS is working toward bringing the community together to support families both here and in Pittsburgh.
“Next week, we are going to have Fall leaves in the gym where students can come write words of encouragement,” Heckert said. “It will be the tree of life and we are going to be sending these messages of encouragement to the synagogue. Whatever you believe in or don’t believe in, you can just send some encouraging words and we will send them as a community.”
As of now, WCHS is planning to continue with the idea of having open discussions about social issues throughout the rest of the year.
“The third Thursday of every month, we are going to be having open conversations led by the ADL,” Heckert said. “They have some sentence starters for conversations about tolerance, hate and acceptance. We will just open it up for any staff members of students who want to come and talk.”
Coming up, there is a parent meeting Monday Nov. 26 where the ADL representative for WCHS, Michelle Wagner, will be here as well as the PTSA, parents, staff and our cluster schools.
Due to many tragic events that seem to keep occuring in the community, it is difficult for educators to plan proactively for these lessons without them ultimately being tied to an event. However, it seems as though everyone at WCHS is doing their best to create an open and supportive community in which students to feel cared for during difficult times.
“We would love to be proactive and not reactive, but that’s just the way the world has been lately,” Heckert said. “It’s difficult because I don’t know who drew the symbols or how long they have been there. But, I am thankful for people talking about these events and that people are acknowledging them.”