Classroom guests stir controversy

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BRATTLEBORO — A recent presentation at local schools on having difficult discussions has stirred the ire of some members of the local Jewish community.

"The plan was to have an assembly about having difficult discussions, to set the tone for future assemblies to go into whatever the conflict or social justice topic was under discussion," said Keith Lyman, principal at Brattleboro Area Middle School.

However, said Lyman, one of the speakers, a Palestinian who grew up in a refugee camp, "went off topic. He gave a little bit of his perspective on the history of Israel and Palestine from his experience. That was not something that was expected of this assembly."

Zeiad Shamrouch, a Palestinian from the Middle Eastern Children's Alliance, and Jody Sokolower, the founder of Rethinking Education, were the presenters.

At least one observer to the BAMS presentation took it as an attack on Jews and the legitimacy of Israel as a nation.

Marjorie Pivar took notes, which were forwarded to the Reformer. According to Pivar, lies told during the presentation included the statement that the Palestinians are the only indigenous people of Palestine; that Jewish colonizers stole Palestinian land and forced the native Palestinians into refugee camps, where they are contained like prisoners; and Israel arrests 13-year-olds and tortures them in prison for playing in the street.

Pivar said she was disappointed by the message presented by the speakers, because it's at odds with what the community is known for.

"We pride ourselves on teaching non-violence and respecting each other," she said. She was concerned that the children were presented with two role models, one who is what she calls a genuine peacemaker and the other who calls for violence in service of the Palestinian cause.

"To present her to our children as a peacemaker is irresponsible," said Pivar.

"Not only was this program one-sided, presenting a skewed, biased perspective, but apparently unauthorized by at least one school's principal all the while overlooking to inform two Jewish teachers about the program," wrote Stephan Brandstatter and Laura Berkowitz, co-presidents of the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, in a letter to the editor of the Reformer. "When they found out about it and did attend, they witnessed and were appalled by what they saw children being exposed to — a slanted anti-Semitic presentation of Jews as 'bad people' while skirting a balanced view about Palestinians."

While Lyman admitted he wasn't happy with the way the presentation played out, "I didn't take that from what I saw presented here."

Nonetheless, Lyman is not discounting the concerns of the Jewish community, but he believes the criticism might be a mashup of the discussions held around the supervisory union, and not just at BAMS. "The accounting is not completely accurate. There might be a blending of one school's experience with another," he said.

Lyman also expressed a concern that people who attended the presentation at BAMS might have misrepresented themselves. "We had a substitute at the front desk and they said they were coming to visit the assembly as parents. I don't believe they were parents."

But Pivar told the Reformer that she is a parent, with an 11th-grade child attending Brattleboro Union High School.

Lyle Holiday, superintendent for Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, said the presentation at BAMS morphed into something she believed was inappropriate for an age group that wasn't prepared to consider the complexity of the situation concerning the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

"This has been an a learning situation for us," she said. "We have put in place new procedures so that if people want to have guest speakers they have to go through a protocol so that the principal is aware and knows what is the content of the discussion."

"We see we need protocols, so we have a better idea who is coming in and what is the message. We are changing our procedures about bringing in outside speakers so we don't repeat this kind of thing."

What happened at two other schools

Andy Paciulli, the principal at Academy School, said four classes attended the presentations, which he said "were not appropriate for the age group. Developmentally, this was not an appropriate presentation for this age group. The students do not have the background knowledge to understand this highly complex issue."

He said while it's not unusual for a teacher to bring a guest speaker to a classroom, it's generally understood that they present on non-controversial topics.

"Not that an educational institution should not have a presentation or gathering to discuss controversial subjects. There certainly is a place for that when there has been preparation and it fits into the curriculum," Paciulli said. "This was not that. Our job is not to advocate for one side versus the other in controversial situations. Our job is to help kids develop the ability to understand complex issues and be independent thinkers so they can take actions and make decisions based on their convictions and belief systems."

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Pivar told the Reformer she met with Paciulli on May 3 and she was impressed by his knowledge of the conflict and his compassion for all those involved.

Putney Central School Principal Herve Pelletier said he attended large portions of both presentations, which were about 30 minutes long.

"I thought the presentation here, which was for kids in seventh- and eighth-grades, was fine," he said. "The presenter spoke primarily from a place of personal history, his experiences as a child growing up in a refugee camp and his work as a documentary filmmaker and advocate for fresh water. The kids asked good questions, and our library/media person, Lauren Pearlstein, spent some time de-briefing with the students."

The organizers respond

Janaki Natarajan, the director of the Masters in Teaching for Social Justice degree program at Marlboro College, helped bring the speakers to the local schools.

"I have found that children are curious, open and questioning," said Natarajan. "Adults often control knowledge and access to knowing, either to protect or control young people. I attended all the talks of our visitors and found nothing 'age inappropriate' in the information or images presented. The tone of the presenters was kind, asking for questions, certainly intense. All this elicited student attention and discussion."

Natarajan noted that there is no single method available for teaching students on having difficult conversations.

"Students have difficult conversations with mentors and teachers all the time. The teaching of human history itself is a constant preparation in critical thinking, evaluation, questioning, and in empathy, in compassion. The emphasis is always for students to understand different narratives from actual contemporary experience. We want the students to be exposed to the world, to create a human community at the school and globally."

Mikaela Simms, diversity coordinator for WSESU, said the intent of the discussions was to highlight that humans are all historical beings, and that history is not just long ago.

"We are making it now. We must all question and be willing to be questioned about our beliefs and how we see the world. Diversity and social justice education is about critical thinking and how we relate to each other," Simms said.

Simms said that folks who might be questioning when a discussion is age appropriate are not giving children enough credit.

"We often underestimate the ability of youth to grapple with complex ideas and difficult conversations. The younger we start, the better," Simms said. "We can learn from the openness of youth and their ability to make connections. There are multiple pedagogical perspectives about the readiness of youth to hear the stories of the difficult lived experiences of others. We have to constantly see the humanity in each other. Plunging into the difficulties of the world is a necessary part of humanization."

Natarajan said she was speaking on behalf of Shamrouch and Sokolower, and that they would not comment for this story.

Moving forward

Simms told the Reformer she continues to learn how to best fulfill her responsibilities as the supervisory union's diversity coordinator.

"The work of justice is not static. We are surrounded by the tragedy and difficulty of the world," Simms said. "We need to learn the skills to dig our way out. I have learned not to personalize critiques. I will continue to learn how to be more effective in my position moving forward."

"We here at BAJC hope and trust that appropriate actions will be taken toward those who organized this program and it will not occur again," wrote Brandstatter and Berkowitz. "If teachers and school administrators want to educate students about injustices around the world, that is fine and should be done, but do it responsibly and respectfully without inflammatory rhetoric or divisive images. Nothing is gained by that or can ever be solved with that approach."

Holiday, Lyman and Paciulli all noted that while they have received complaints and heard concerns from both staff members and the Jewish community, they had not received any complaints from parents.

Holiday told the Reformer she is in contact with members of the local Jewish community who have made suggestions for "a more balanced presentation" in the future.

"I have asked our diversity coordinator to pursue that prospect," said Holiday

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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