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How To Stand By An Upstander

Like so many of my teacher friends, I was driven to teach in the inner city by a passion for social justice. And like so many of those same teacher friends, I struggle with the awkwardness of doing so in a culture different from my own.

To infuse standards-based English lessons with messages of personal responsibility and multiculturalism is a purely intellectual task, one that was reinforced in my Harvard education master’s degree program but that I truthfully could have intuited. To create unit plans that come from my own values is also not particularly difficult; I have no interest in teaching if not to share something of my deepest-held beliefs about the human condition. But for my students, almost all of whom are black and all of whom code my white, Jewish, upper-middle-class air as “different,” what I know is irrelevant unless they believe I truly get them and am not here hoping to save the world. Unfortunately, it’s this small, intangible piece with which I struggle. So often, I’m too glaringly aware of all the reasons I’m not a suitable role model for my students to exude the confidence they are craving.

But last week changed everything.

In response to an outbreak of fights and gang activity at our East Flatbush, Brooklyn, high school, my principal volunteered me to lead an intensive week-long course on what it means to be an “upstander” as opposed to a “bystander.” These words were developed by the organization Facing History and Ourselves as a way of distinguishing between the two different types of non-Jewish reaction to the Holocaust as it happened: Upstanders were people or countries who chose to fight the Germans or hide Jews, while bystanders were people or countries (including, for many years, the United States) who turned a blind eye on the Jewish plight and allowed millions of them to be extinguished.

My principal appointed a film artist to work with my students and suggested I take students to the Holocaust exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum. Beyond that, an entire week’s worth of class time with 15 students was entirely in my hands. I didn’t feel even feel particularly confident in these parameters; I know nothing about film, and a colleague who’d taken kids to the museum said they’d been turned off by their docent’s suggestion that the Jews were to be pitied among the persecuted peoples of history. “Miss,” they’d complained, “we’re black. We know what it’s like to be discriminated against.” It’s true — research estimates the number of blacks who died on slave ships as being higher than the number of Jews who died in the Holocaust.  And here I was, a white woman, preparing not only to tell my black students to change their culture preparing to do it by waxing dramatic about how poorly white people had been treated. At best they’d feel disinterested; at most, they’d feel offended. And I wouldn’t know what to tell them.

Gulping every step of the way, I laid out a week’s worth of activities: a trip to the museum, a visit from a group of former gang members who now speak to kids about why they’ve turned their lives around, a short film dramatizing ways that Kurt Hahn students could choose to be upstanders in their every day lives as students. As with so many of my lessons, the structure was there, but there was no feeling. Kids fell silent in response to my opening activity, an invitation to place themselves on a spectrum from agreement to disagreement with the statement “I am responsible for stopping violence in my community.” I knew — the way you very quickly learn to trust your instincts — that this silence stemmed from a lack of trust. They didn’t trust me, didn’t trust the activity, and didn’t see how this activity or anything it led to could actually make a difference in what they all knew was a growing violence issue at our school. As usual, I responded by losing confidence and trust in myself. How was I going to process this activity? How could I inspire my students to change their culture when I am unable to appreciate that culture myself? But my principal was counting on me, and so was I. I wasn’t about to spend the next five days going through the motions about something I actually cared about. I decided to call it as I saw it.

“So. Not very many of you participated in this activity,” I said, surprised by the sudden confidence I heard in my voice. “I’m not surprised. We go to a school where I think it’s often unpopular to believe change is possible. But really, the only way for that change to happen is if kids like you believe it is possible — and act on that belief. Principal Brown can’t make that change, our video artist can’t make that change, and neither can I. That’s why we’ve brought you on board this week: You are the only ones who can figure out what needs to be said, and say it.” Nods all around.

With that small success under my belt, I heard myself introduce the day’s field trip with even deeper honesty. “Today,” I said, “we’ll be visiting the Jewish Heritage Museum to learn about the Holocaust, a genocide in which 6 million Jews were killed. I want to be very clear about something: We are not studying the Holocaust because it was the first genocide, or the last genocide, or the worst genocide. We’re studying it because that is where the terms ‘upstander’ and ‘bystander’ came from, and because it just so happens that the Germans kept meticulous records of their attempt to destroy the Jews, which allows us to have excellent Holocaust exhibits today.” More nods.

I moved through that museum — and through all the activities that week — with the same mix of confidence and tremulous honesty. My message was, at once, “I’m not sure how this activity is going to work out,” and “I expect your projects to genuinely inspire change.” From day one, my students rose to the challenge. They made brilliant connections between the power of Hitler’s youth movement and negative peer pressure at our school. They readily compared themselves to our former gang member guests and explained, in their thank-you notes, why they were going to make positive life choices. Two of them soaked up and instantly regurgitated the history of gangs as organizations for community support, producing speeches that floored their classmates with what every teacher dreams kids will at last be floored by: the truth. And they produced three short films whose footage was real enough to be mistaken for candidly recorded student behavior.

Our week culminated in three brief presentations to other groups of students at our school. I felt renewed anxiety about these presentations, afraid that even the negative culture of our audiences would be enough to crack the fragile mentalities my students had developed over the course of the week. Before preparing for the presentations, I had them design “upstander pledges.”

“I don’t live in Dreamyland,” I told them. “I know it’s one thing to talk about being an upstander in the safety of this room, but that it’s hard to know how well you’ll be able to carry that out into your every day lives. So each of us — including me — is going to pledge one thing that we can honestly try to do as an upstander.” I contributed mine: a pledge to speak out when I see a student getting made fun of for knowing too much, or for not knowing enough. Few of them shared aloud what they’d written with the pledge, but each of them posted something to the board: help others, stand up against this or that friend teasing people, avoid violent solutions to conflicts. I didn’t insist on doing anything more with these pledges, but I left them on the board as we planned our presentations.

The presentation, which we delivered three times to three different classes, could not have gone better. My students not only memorized their parts, but owned them proudly as well. They came up with a task to involve our severely hyperactive student. They found ways to gently guide our audience through our presentation from the moment they walked into our room. They accepted feedback gracefully from both me and from each other. And they insisted, despite my warnings of potential heckling from the audience, on fielding questions during the presentation. It was the answers to two of these questions that told me how deep my success with them had gone.

“But why’d y’all go to the Jewish Heritage Museum?” a student asked, not taking the basic “we studied the Holocaust” for an answer. I gulped, but James, who’d helped his classmates see the parallels between the Hitler youth and the culture of cheering on a fight, didn’t skip a beat. “The idea,” he said, “is that we were taking things that happened in outside society and applying them to Kurt Hahn. Bystanders and Upstanders had impacts on Jews, and we have the opportunity to have an impact here.”

In another presentation, a colleague asked how likely students are to carry what they’d learned this week into next week. Before my students could even answer, a murmur of dissent arose from the audience. Shaun, whose pledge had been to stop negativity wherever he sees it, called out for kids to “shut up” and “show some respect.” “No,” kids shook their heads. “Never.” The group waited patiently for the murmurs and jeers to subside, and then rose, one by one, to insist that yes, they would take the lessons of this week with them. “I don’t know what impact our film had on y’all,” one of them said to the audience, “but for us, this stuff sank in.”

“We made pledges,” another added.

I left work last week with a different concept of myself as a white educator in a community of color. I have begun to glimpse myself, instead, as an educator in a community. Thanks to our lessons on the history of gangs, I now understand what that community has been capable of throughout history. I believe more solidly in what it is capable of now, if it were only to use its energy — the energy of the youth — for the same positive purposes that gangs were initially intended to serve. Listening to my students so nimbly absorb and push back against the negativity of their classmates, I don’t know why I ever doubted their abilities — and why my own abilities have, for so long, been standing idly by.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.