Eyes Opened, Voices Raised Over Bigotry
Thursday, April 13, 2006
After his students had arranged their desks in a circle, Gideon Sanders, a teacher at James Madison High School, pulled out a magazine article titled "Sexual Revolutions" and began to read aloud.
What is this sexuality that we struggle to historicize and about which we write? . . . Is sexuality an essential element of every human being? Is it desire? Is it behavior?
There were no uncomfortable glances, no giggling. Sanders's students are used to such subjects. They elected to take Fairfax County's only Combating Intolerance class and delve into some of the most sensitive and controversial issues facing society, including issues raised by Leisa D. Meyer in her article last month about sexuality's importance in understanding modern U.S. history. The article appeared in the Organization of American Historians' Magazine of History.
The two dozen or so teenagers, a mix of juniors and seniors, have discussed topics as diverse as the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq and evolution vs. creationism. They talk about discrimination against African Americans, Jews, Muslims, people with disabilities and gays.
"We're not afraid to talk about genocide or religion or homosexuality," said Annie Lee, 19. "This class is to bring up issues in the world. It's just something that we do."
Sanders, 35, who has taught the class for four years, said some adults are surprised that teenagers can take on topics that even some adults tend to avoid. But he says the discussions are thoughtful, mature and occasionally very lively.
"I ask the questions, and I get them to think," Sanders said. "People don't allow students to express their views enough, in my opinion."
Sanders and the students also encourage discussion outside the classroom. In past years, his students have hosted events for Sexual Equality Awareness Week and Islamic Awareness Week. The current class has put together a day-long series of speakers and workshops on understanding disabilities, an effort spearheaded by Annie Lee and Brandon Cassady, who have cerebral palsy. It is scheduled for April 22.
Topics in the class include the civil rights movement, Title IX and stereotypes about public school and private school students. Combating Intolerance touches on history and current events. But each session is also a lesson in public speaking, crafting compelling arguments and listening to the views of others.
Students said that from the first day, it wasn't a typical high school class. Sanders started the year by asking everyone to jot down stereotypes. Then he asked the students to share something from their list.
The room was quiet. "Nobody really wanted to say anything at first because people were like, 'What if it hurts somebody's feelings?' " recalled Ellie Hoptman, 17, a junior.
Then someone said black people eat catfish and someone else said Asians are good at math. Soon, Hoptman said, the absurdity of the generalizations became clear. "The longer and longer it went, the weirder it was," she said.