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East/West: Tolerance Training Targets Former Communist Countries

  • Ron Synovitz

A program that has helped teachers in the United States for almost 25 years to fight discrimination and build tolerance among their students has come to Eastern Europe and the former communist countries. The program's European director talks to RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about how to teach tolerance -- and about the program's ambitious goal.

Prague, 27 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S.-based educational organization is trying to show teachers in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics how to use lessons on genocide and segregation to raise their students' awareness of racism and discrimination.

Called "Facing History and Ourselves," the program promotes critical thinking and an understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.

For example, by studying the history of Germany in the 1930s, when the Nazi regime rose to power, students learn to connect their own moral choices to what they learn about the Holocaust.

The program's European director is Beverly Zemo. She says that her goal is to have the teachings of the organization incorporated into countries' education curricula.

To reach that goal, she says, program administrators are looking for English-speaking teachers in the region who want to be trained in the methods. The organization offers to pay costs for teachers from the former communist region to attend its week-long seminars in Western Europe.

Zemo says one preliminary objective is to train at least one teacher in each major city in the region and then build on the program from there. In Kazakhstan, three trained teachers already have passed their knowledge on to other instructors.

"The goal ideally would be to have a number of teachers and an administration -- ideally, an entire school district and an [education] ministry -- willing to morally, emotionally, and psychologically support the goals of this program. To have students who are engaged and actively participating in their democracies -- and to help many of these fledgling democracies survive."

John Crane, a teacher at the International School in Prague, uses the group's methods to instruct teenagers from 56 countries. He says students are given facts about historical events like the Holocaust, the massacre of Armenians, or the workings of apartheid in South Africa. But, Crane says, the method also encourages students to become personally engaged and try to understand the psychology of living through such events.

"What I find is that through the drilling process, through the drama, they retain information better, they understand it better and they are able to understand different perspectives. They can draw parallels that students I'd taught in the past didn't draw. It allows students to come up with their own ideas first, their pre-conceptions. Then it allows you as the teacher to help them challenge those ideas -- to see where their ideas came from and what value they have."

The annual operating budget for Facing History and Ourselves is about $8 million. Administrators say 90 percent of the funding comes from donations -- mostly from parents of students who have been through the courses.

The program's founder and executive director, Margot Stern-Storm, says the themes explored by the organization transcend national boundaries and ideologies. That claim may be tested with increasing frequency as the organization tries to expand its teacher training programs eastward.

National ideologies already have thwarted efforts to supply teachers in Turkey with materials about the deaths of large numbers of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Armenian and other historians say as many as 2 million were killed as a result of an Ottoman policy of genocide. Most Turkish historians, however, say about 200,000 Armenians died.

Beverly Zemo's co-director, August Zemo, says the Turkish teachers refused to take some educational videotapes back to Turkey, fearing they would be imprisoned for using such materials in a Turkish classroom.