February 6, 2017
Power of the Plan: Developing empathy and community from half a world away
A group of parents discuss a film students and parents watched at Facing History New Tech High School.Story by Justin Glanville Photos by Julie Van Wagenen The lights go down in an auditorium at Facing History New Tech High School in Old Brooklyn, and a large movie screen flickers to life.The documentary film being shown is called “What Tomorrow Brings.” It follows a group of students in the first girls’ school in an Afghan town. Geographically, the school is half a world away from Cleveland. And while some of the girls’ situations — the need to drop out of school if one gets married, balancing education with outside pressures — elicit murmurs of sympathy or knowing tuts of disapproval from the audience, the severity of the Aghan girls’ situations seems to cast a hush over the students.One girl in the film relates how her father is trying to force her to marry his young bride’s 70-year-old father. Another speaks of her fear that the school may be forced to close before she graduates because of war-related violence.The mood is quieter, more contemplative, as the film ends and the kids return to their classrooms for facilitated discussion sessions.In one classroom, about a dozen students sit in a circle as two teachers ask their thoughts about the film and what light it shed on their own experiences.“I really liked it,” says a 9th-grade girl named Halima. “It was relatable but also not — to be in those situations all the time.”She says the movie made her think about the backgrounds of her parents, who emigrated to Cleveland from Kenya, as refugees from the war in Somalia, when she was a little girl.“There was always conflict going on where I’m from,” Halima says, and it limited her parents’ academic opportunities. “My mom didn’t have an education, and my dad had only a religious one.”Those insights are exactly the point of showing the film, according to teacher Shante Woods.“We’re trying to build empathy,” she says. “We want them to watch this film and think about how they relate to each other, how we can support each other and build community even though we come from different backgrounds.”Empathy and community are among the core values of Facing History and Ourselves, the national organization that partners with Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) to help support programs and curriculum at the Old Brooklyn high school. Facing History also partners with four other district and charter schools in CMSD, as well as five private schools in Greater Cleveland, to implement curriculum and nurture a safe and inclusive school culture.“The idea is to take these values of empathy and agency and embed them across whole schools,” says Mark Swaim-Fox, director of Facing History’s Cleveland office, which opened in 1999.Teachers and administrators use various tools to do that, including movies, books, and art projects such as one where students were asked to construct masks to convey both their private and public personas (see sidebar).Students aren’t the only ones who learn. The Afghanistan documentary, for example, will be shown at all five of the CMSD-Facing History schools this year. In February, teachers and administrators will gather to discuss how they and the students reacted to the film and brainstorm other ideas for building a compassionate school culture.The foundation for all that, according to Woods and Swaim-Fox, is encouraging students, staff and families to truly get to know each other, and to work together to build a school culture that is supportive for everyone.Back in Woods’ classroom, students pair up to answer questions about themselves and the school.One pair, a bow-tie-wearing 10th-grader named Manuel and a long-haired 12th-grader named Ninoshka, stand in the corner as they move through the list. They seem most engaged by a question that asks how people’s perceptions of them are different from reality.“People think I have an attitude and I look so mean,” Ninoshka says. “But I’m not.”“It’s true,” Manuel says. “I didn’t think you talked to anybody. But you obviously do. You’re smiling now.”“Whereas you seem hyped every single day, like nothing affects you.”“Things do affect me,” he says, “but I think it helps that this school is open-minded, that everyone’s connected.“It builds that trust and responsibility thing. That’s what I like about being here.”Halima’s MaskAs part of an assignment to understand the divide between people’s public and private personas, students at Facing History New Tech High School constructed masks to represent the full range of their personalities. The idea was to promote deeper empathy for what other members of the school community may be hiding beneath their external facades. Halima, a student in ninth grade from the Denison neighborhood, describes her mask below.I’m from Kenya. We had a lot of conflict there with Somalia, and my parents and I came to Cleveland as refugees when I was young.I wanted my mask to reflect my culture and tradition. The front has more traditional tribal colors and markings. On the back, I put sparkles — red, white and blue, because I’m in America now. The front of the mask is brown and the back is white, because I believe skin color doesn’t really matter.I wanted to put a lot of words on my mask in different languages. I wanted some letters to be bold, and some faded. My English is strong, but I’ve started to lose some of my original language as I adapt to American society.This assignment helped me see a lot about myself and also other people. Our identity changes all the time based on how we perceive ourselves in front of other people, and also how they perceive us. It was a really interesting assignment.