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Roots of Terrorism
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Student Assignment Sheet: A Class Divided

Facilitating Discussions on Racism, Prejudice, and Discrimination


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    Student Assignment Sheet
  • Definitions and Discussion Prompts
  • It takes a great deal of experience to safely and productively facilitate Jane Elliott's "blue eyes/brown eyes" exercise, so unless you have special training in diversity and/or psychology, it is not recommended that you attempt to duplicate her experiment. You can, however, use the film to engage students in a deep exploration of the central issues. Here are some tips that can help ensure productive discussion:

    Set ground rules for discussion. Ask students what rules would help them feel safe enough to participate openly. Typical guidelines include: no one may interrupt someone who is speaking; no one may use a "put down" or "slur"; yelling is off limits; people may speak for themselves ("I think...") but may not generalize for others ("everyone agrees that...").

    You'll also want to agree on strategies for how people will take turns or indicate that they want to speak, and how you will prevent one or two people from dominating the discussion.

    Make a distinction between "comfort" and "safety." It is nearly impossible for anyone to be truly challenged or engage in deep reflection without feeling at least some discomfort. On the other hand, honest conversation isn't possible if people feel threatened. Let students know that it's OK for them to feel uncomfortable and make sure they feel safe. Acknowledge that talking honestly about racism, prejudice, and discrimination is hard and applaud their willingness to grapple with issues most people choose to avoid.

    Be clear about the purpose of the discussion or activity. There are many reasons that discussions veer off course, including a desire to shift to more comfortable topics. To keep the group on track, make sure that everyone in the room understands the goal(s).

    Talk about the difference between "dialogue" and "debate." In a debate, participants try to convince others that they are right. In a dialogue, participants try to understand one another and expand their thinking by sharing viewpoints and actively listening to each speaker. When dealing with sensitive issues like prejudice and discrimination, dialogue will be more productive than debate.

    Take care of yourself and group members. Discussing things like racism can open up deep wounds. When the intensity level rises, pause to let everyone take a deep breath.

    If your class includes students from diverse backgrounds, you might consider providing safe space to "vent" by creating opportunities for students to do activities in segregated groups before engaging in interracial dialogue. If you choose this strategy, be sure to provide options for people who are bi- or multi-racial or who are not black or white.

    Extend the dialogue beyond anger and guilt. It is natural for students who have been the targets of discrimination to feel angry when the issue is raised, but if that's all they feel, their anger will block them from engaging in productive work on the subject. Others who have experienced bias may feel that they don't need to study the issues because they have lived them. For these two groups of students, just talking about the consequences of racism or prejudice is probably not enough. Challenge them to think about how they might change the status quo. Note that it is not the exclusive responsibility of minority groups to combat prejudice -- but as part of the community, they are inevitably part of the process. Ask them to consider the question: "What does that next step look like to you?"

    Students who have benefited from racism or discrimination, even indirectly, may react defensively. Guilt can prevent people from acting, so it is important to state that the purpose of addressing the issues raised in A Class Divided is not to make people feel bad. At the same time, racism and discrimination have real consequences and it is important not to dismiss them. Help students separate their individual behavior, for which they are totally responsible, and institutional practice from which they may benefit but which they did not create. Encourage them to brainstorm ways that they might use the privilege they have to combat prejudice and discrimination.

    Value people's good intentions. Sometimes people are hesitant to engage in dialogue about racism or other kinds of prejudice because they are afraid they will unintentionally say something that will offend. You can help students get past this fear by starting with the assumption that it is likely that we will sometimes make mistakes. Let them know that the mistake is not nearly as important as what they do about it when it happens. Things said in error or ignorance are different than things said to intentionally offend, but they can still be hurtful, so it is important to be aware of the impact of our words, to apologize when appropriate, and most importantly, to learn from our mistakes so we don't repeat them. Engaging in some of the activities in this guide might be a good step in that educational process.

    Anti-bias work is always an ongoing process for people of all races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds. No one passes a test one day and is summarily declared free from prejudice. Remind students of how they have changed over time. Aren't there things they understand more deeply now than they did when they were in elementary school? Encourage students to continue to give one another the space to change. Help them rehearse how to respond to bias-related incidents with calm and respectful challenge rather than by rushing to assigning constrictive, negative labels like "racist."

    Help students find a way to take action. Taking action is one of the best ways to combat frustration and cynicism. Planning next steps can help people leave the room feeling energized and optimistic, even when the discussion has been difficult. Remind students of the small everyday things they can do such as not making assumptions about individuals, challenging discriminatory comments or actions, and learning more about different religions and cultures.

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