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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Teaching about Hate Crimes: The Laramie Project

A film that I have found success with in talking about hate crimes and stereotypes that exist in the United States is HBO's adaptation of The Laramie Project.  The play by Moises Kaufman was transformed into a film that is available on Netflix along with some materials, put together by Time Magazine's Time Classroom, for use by teachers.  The film The Laramie Project includes some famous actors as well.

I have taught this unit in a psychology course when we studied Social Psychology, but it can easily be adapted to a Sociology course, English course, Philosophy, really anything.  I have uploaded some documents that I used to prepare for teaching the unit, as well as some materials that I created.  A great amount of preparation came from reading the material available on the Time Classroom website and Kaufman's website.  Another way that I prepared for discussing this topic and this material was having discussions with my mentor teachers and others who have taught topics like this one before.  I spent many hours thinking about, and practicing in front of the mirror, how I would present the information and respond to uncomfortable questions from students.

Individual Accountability
I asked students to keep a graded notebook during this film.  I provided them with the final assessment sheet and told them that instead of an essay or a test for this unit, they would be responsible for a graded discussion.  I found that students who are unwilling to share in class, especially about a topic like this one, were able to show their thought and understanding using their graded notebooks.  Many of my students who often were uncomfortable participating in class, found ways to include their ideas in the discussion.

The discussion was based on the following essential questions for the unit:
  • What is hate?
  • Where does hate come from and how does the mind impact that development?
  • How can one personally overcome hatred?
  •  How can one help others to overcome their hatred?
  •  How do words or thoughts of hate impact the mind?
I also asked students to be prepared to discuss the questions they were required to keep notes about. I never really had to say to students, "Now let's talk about question five" and instead, they were able to guide the discussion on their own, without me.

I also invited guest speakers to talk about their experiences, either with this type of hatred, or with the film/play.  I taught at a school that a few years prior, had done its own production of The Laramie Project, so I asked the director to talk with my students about the experience.  I also had colleagues that worked on a documentary about the First Amendment and had interviewed various people about religion and gay rights.  They provided me with an interview that I was able to listen to and watch clips from with my students.  You should check out films by Scott Strainge and Josh Silveria who both run Blind Squirrel Productions.

I will be posting soon about their documentary titled What a Piece of Work Man Is and sharing some strategies a colleague of mine used in her biology classroom to talk about evolution.

Before showing this film, I made sure that I had fostered an environment in my classroom that allowed for students to share their personal thoughts and ideas about any given topic.  I have to work hard at the beginning of every course to make sure that students are able to challenge the ideas of each other and also my ideas in a respectful way.  

Depending on your school's policy about "controversial topics" (which I have a problem calling topics this, but I will post a response about that in the future) you may need to get permission from administration and/or parents/guardians.  If you need to do that, I usually send out a letter at the beginning of the semester saying all of the "controversial topics" I am going to cover (this letter I learned, borrowed, and adapted while interning).   The list is usually long, but for an example, you can see one here.   You can also get by with including a statement in your course syllabus, given the age of the students and the course you are teaching. 


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