Deirdre Boyd, Larry Gravelle and Jenny Shea: An opportunity to teach tolerance |

Deirdre Boyd, Larry Gravelle and Jenny Shea: An opportunity to teach tolerance

To the members of our Steamboat community,

As humanities teachers who have developed the 10th-grade interdisciplinary American Studies curriculum at Steamboat Springs High School, we are troubled, disappointed and heart-sick that students from our school engaged in the hateful act of using swastikas to threaten and intimidate fellow students.

But we are also heartened by the response from you, our community, and by the responses of our students, colleagues and administrators as we all work to understand these senseless acts, and we wish to reaffirm our commitment to tolerance, safety and community.

As educators, we instinctively want to use these awful moments as a way to teach, and we are so thankful that our community has taken this opportunity to engage in an open and honest conversation about what we stand for as friends, neighbors and human beings. By the very act of having this dialogue, our school and our town is standing up for tolerance and against hate.

We also wanted to take this opportunity to share some of what we do at the high school to help our students understand the complexities of human interaction as they become adults. In addition to the constant message of inclusion from the administrators, teachers and staff, we offer many courses that stress awareness and action on issues of social justice.  

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For example, during our required 10th-grade American Studies course (team-taught history and literature), students engage in historical explorations of intolerance, bigotry and discrimination throughout American history.

In addition, during the unit where we analyze America's involvement in global conflicts, we conduct a three-week intensive study of the Holocaust that delves into the human psychology of group behavior, and the destructive impact of stereotyping and fear.

Students learn that every aspect of the Holocaust began with small steps and with ordinary people who simply turned away from what was happening around them. For various reasons, they decided that it was not their problem, or that their small actions, either for or against the Third Reich, would not make a difference.

We use a specific and very detailed Holocaust curriculum from "Facing History and Ourselves," an organization that is dedicated to teaching tolerance and awareness of injustice, and we have a constant conversation using the vocabulary of "upstanders" and "bystanders" as we discuss and debate the merits and implications of standing up to violence and injustice in the world.

In addition, our students read “Night,” the memoir by Holocaust survivor and humanitarian Elie Wiesel, we watch “Schindler's List,” and we have been fortunate to have several Holocaust survivors speak to our students about their experiences and about how powerful an upstander can be.

The humanities departments long ago agreed that we must reserve a special and dedicated space in our curriculum to teach the history and literature of the Holocaust and to have those essential conversations, and American Studies is where it fits best. We agreed that our students cannot graduate from high school without that knowledge, and without grappling with the philosophical, and sometimes very real decisions, of whether, when and how to take a stand for what is right and moral.

We want to thank you, the members of this community, for your engagement in this conversation, and we hope that we will all continue to discuss any issues that might arise that are controversial, hurtful or intolerant. We are a strong and respectful community, unafraid to face these issues head on.

We know that we speak for our colleagues when we say that we are proud to live and teach here, and proud that our life's work is to have these difficult but important conversations with the incredible young people that are our future. Thank you for being part of their educational experience and for modeling civic and humanitarian engagement.

Deirdre Boyd, Larry Gravelle and Jenny Shea

Steamboat Springs High School American studies teachers