Teaching tolerance in the classroom

Dec. 18, 2003, midnight | By Brittany Moyer | 17 years, 1 month ago

Two senior girls hold a poster high in the air for onlooking classmates. Atop the poster, in thick red marker, are the words "Teen Mothers," a group of which these girls are a part. "We don't like annoying questions like, ‘What did your parents say?' or, ‘Did it hurt having a baby?'" one girl reads from her poster. Finishing her presentation, she looks down and begins to cry. Her classmates are momentarily silent, then burst into applause.

Discussions like this one are common in Diversity Workshop, a six-year-old program that attempts to confront intolerance in Blair's population. The program, MCPS' only student-run high-school diversity seminar, aims to have each Blair sophomore participate in a three-hour interactive workshop, the signature component of the program. However, the Communications Arts Program (CAP) has had difficulty finding a way to sandwich the workshop into its already busy program.

Usually, the Diversity Workshop sessions occur during tenth-grade English and history classes. But because CAP sophomores have separate classes in these subjects, they are oftentimes left out of Diversity Workshop. Many consider this ironic, since CAP is characterized by its less-than-diverse population. According to CAP Coordinator Dolores D'Angelo, CAP is 81 percent white, which is not representative of Blair's senior class' 29 percent white composition.

"If any group needed Diversity Workshop, it would be the one with the least diversity," two-year diversity leader Lilah Shreeve says, referring to CAP. "CAP as a program is isolated from everything else at Blair."

Early this school year, significant problems arose amongst the CAP ninth-grade students, according to CAP freshmen. When Ashley Bayton, a black CAP freshman, found herself a victim of racial slurs during school, she sought help by attending Diversity Workshop meetings, where she related her experience with racism to other students. Moved by Bayton's story, Joann Malone, founder and sponsor of the program at Blair, helped Bayton get Diversity Workshop into the ninth-grade CAP curriculum this past November.

Malone, a social studies teacher, originally introduced the Diversity Workshop program to Blair in 1998. "Everybody suffers," she says slowly. "And everyone can feel compassion. We can all open our minds, and the workshops help us do that," she says.

The turning point of each workshop, according to Malone, is an exercise called Hidden Identities, in which each participant says three things that someone wouldn't know by looking at them. "We've had stories of rape, death, suicide and harassment. It all just comes out," Malone says.

The key ingredient for the program's success lies in the trust that underlies sometimes-frank conversations. "You know no one will tell your secrets because you know their secrets, too," Malone explains.

Still, Diversity Workshop hasn't been added into the tenth-grade CAP curriculum because the CAP logistics don't allow time for three-hour workshops. "It's really hard to fit them in, with all of our curricular responsibilities and huge interdisciplinary projects," explains CAP NSL teacher Lansing Freeman.

Tenth-grade history teacher David Swaney feels differently. In his eyes, the workshop's effects outweigh the missed class time. "Who cares about the final exam?" he asks. "[Diversity Workshop] is more important."

The recent experience of the workshop in ninth-grade CAP, which freshmen called "amazing," may be the springboard to generate tenth-grade teacher acceptance. "Everyone feels like they can talk together after the workshop," says CAP freshman Avi Silber. "In school, you usually don't see people be emotional. But seeing people cry as they tell their secrets, you come out feeling some sort of a connection."

The workshop experience has generated significant changes in some lives. Silber has become a Diversity Workshop leader and joined the Gay Straight Alliance. "I felt so motivated to make a difference and spread what I had experienced," says Silber.

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Brittany Moyer. Brittany is a senior in the Communication Arts Program at Montgomery Blair. She has taken pride in being part of Blair's girls' soccer team, Blair's <i>a capella</i> group InToneNation, and of course <i>Silver Chips</i>. Outside of school, Brit goes crazy for arts & crafts, outdoorsy … More »

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