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Voices from the Frontlines: July 2018
Today we go to Montana, where Rob Stanton works to combat hate and division by shaping students’ critical thinking skills in innovative ways connecting lessons from conflict in international contexts to inform the changing landscape for students here in the U.S.
As the head football and track coach at Billings West High School in Montana, I’m part of a faculty that teaches 1,800 students. Off the field, I teach world history and a senior elective course called “genocide” about past and current mass atrocities, human behavior, social justice issues, and current events. Many students have never been introduced to the genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia, and Myanmar. We focus on the "how and why" of these complex issues. I never want to change students’ minds, but show them a different perspective on many issues that they soon may be facing as future leaders.
In Montana, we have active groups of white supremacists and neo-nazis. We also have seven reservations, and we see discrimination and racism against Native Americans here, even at our school. I think it’s so important that we talk about racism, gender issues, anti-semitism and more with our students. I don’t want to "shock" them, but rather introduce important topics and then have them analyze and discuss.
I have noticed that our students, at times, treat people who aren’t like them with disrespect. As a teacher it is my job to make them care about other people, and to understand that we all have biases that need to be challenged. I let them know it is okay to learn each other’s names and show compassion and empathy for everyone in our school and community.
I also work to build relationships and trust; it’s amazing what students will share with each other when that happens. We play a great game of "devil’s advocate" in which I let the class know that whatever is stated, I will disagree with them. At times, I push the limits to get their brains to think critically. I find that when expectations are high, kids usually rise up to meet them.
Montana is becoming more populated and diverse. In some communities it is welcomed but others it is not. Recently, I attended a workshop on decoding and defusing Dangerous Speech. I learned a lot about the "us vs. them" mentality and how we can break down barriers, which is imperative. Our kids are engaging in a lot of social media and Dangerous Speech is a part of what they see, like, and share. I’ve already started incorporating the strategies I learned for defusing hate with my students and have been sharing them more widely with other faculty.
We have a lot of work to do in our respective fields. It can be challenging but hopefully in the end, rewarding.
Know any local community organizers and organizations doing amazing frontline work in our initial focus states* who would be interested in receiving free capacity building workshops?
*Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, or Texas