Vermont Reads: Teaching Diversity

05/06/11 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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Vermont Reads 2011: "To Kill A Mockingbird"

VPR Photo/A. Evancie
Flags hang in the classrooms at Burlington High School. The school invests in teaching about diversity to promote harmony is a school system where students hail from 60 countries.
(Wertlieb) Good morning, I'm Mitch Wertlieb. This morning we conclude our series, Vermont Reads, To Kill a Mockingbird, VPR's collaboration with the Vermont Humanities Council's statewide reading program. Today, we explore how we talk to young children about race.

Harper Lee's book has become iconic in part because of the character Atticus Finch, the father of the narrator, Scout, and to many readers, the book's hero. Atticus Finch is admired for his loving parenting and unflinching good character.

In one scene he listens patiently as Scout complains about her terrible first day of school:

(Excerpt) "Bit by bit, I told him the day's misfortune. "-and she said you taught me all wrong, so we can't ever read any more, ever. Please don't send me back, sir."

Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.

"First of all," he said, "if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really can understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-"

"Sir?"

"-until you climb into his skin and walk around." 

(Wertlieb) Teaching students about tolerance, especially when it comes to issues of race, is a challenge that often takes a back seat to academics. It's especially challenging in districts where there's not much diversity. 

But in the Burlington School District diversity has become a priority.  More than 60 countries are represented in the student body, and 27 percent of the students are of color.  It's a multiracial, multicultural environment - and one that the district works hard to make inclusive. 

VPR's Angela Evancie has more.

(Evancie)  Once a year, Burlington High School holds a dinner called "Shades of Ebony."  It's a celebration for everyone who participates in BHS's academic support program.  There's food and music - and since this is BHS, the event doubles as a multicultural celebration.

(Evancie) Students from Bosnia and Burundi perform, and families of every color are in the audience.

(Emcee) Give it up! [applause]

(Evancie) But here's the thing: in Burlington schools, every day is a multicultural celebration.

(Zabili)  "As you can see, walking into our lobby, they have flags of every country up there."

(Evancie) Bodel Zabili is a senior at Burlington who came from the Congo.

(Zabili) "If you got a new student, and they didn't have their flag up there, they'll make sure right away to get their flag up there.  No one is left out and everyone is recognized."

(Evancie) Zabili says he loves going to BHS.

(Zabili) "You get to meet all sorts of new people every day, people you wouldn't normally interact with at other schools." 

(Evancie) Lamia Sehic is in the 5th grade.  She's from Bosnia, but she has friends from around the world.

(Sehic)  "It's really good because sometimes if you're close friends or you can meet them and they tell you about what their stuff is and you tell them about what your religion and what you do, and so then you get to know more stuff."

(Evancie) Dr. Dan Balón is the Director of Diversity and Equity for the Burlington School District.  He says he always feels a positive energy when he walks through the hallways.

(Balón) "And I think it has a lot to do with how well our teachers and administrators have created that climate.  You know it's one thing when you have diversity, but if we're not doing much to make it work, that's a problem."

(Evancie) The Diversity and Equity Office is doing a lot to "make it work."  They're recruiting teachers and administrators as diverse as the student body.  And they're helping those who already work in the district to build a safe and open learning environment.

(Balón) "We all know that student success is really anchored by how teachers are creating that classroom environment, so we have really emphasized in the last few years particularly, cultural competency, when we create that environment, when we're teaching a lesson, or how we teach that lesson."

(Evancie) Burlington students also participate in a national program called "Reading to End Racism."  Community members visit classrooms and help lead discussions about racism and discrimination.  Dr. Denise Dunbar is the Chittenden County Coordinator for the program.

(Dunbar)  "We touch on all topics, whether it's the plight of indigenous Americans, or global indigenous people, to immigrants and migrants, new Americans, refugees - the experience of all people that have been on the margins." 

(Evancie) Dr. Dunbar says it's helpful for students if adults reflect on their own experiences with racism.

(Dunbar) "We all have at some time in our life experienced racism whether we have been the receiver, or the giver, or the person that stood by."

(Evancie) And the same goes for Burlington students.  Chaska Richardson teaches English to students who came here from abroad.  She says that students do experience racism from time to time.  But what's important is that there's an open dialogue in the classroom.

(Richardson)  "What I want my students to understand first and foremost is that it's okay to talk about race.  It's not always comfortable - it's really important, though...So that there isn't confusion about what words might be used when children think it's just a joke, or how to understand how hurtful that really is.  And children also need to be able to explore their own ideas and questions about race, but if we don't give them that opportunity, they'll come to their own conclusions." 

(Evancie) At the end of the day, diversity director Dan Balón says that it's all about the personal connections.

(Balón) "You know, we could always say you could attend a workshop, go to a conference, but I think the work is very personal.  And the extent to which you bring that into the classroom, students feel and they touch and they remember, and all of that contributes to students - of whatever background - learning, and that is our ultimate goal." 

For VPR News, I'm Angela Evancie.

(Wertlieb) While not all schools have discussions about race with students, it's something that some parents take on at home. For commentator Don Kries reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" to his daughter was that bridge to discussion. 

(Kries) What does a Vermont dad of a nine-year-old girl do for an encore, after bedtime readings of all seven volumes of Harry Potter and all 13 volumes of Lemony Snicket? 

After gazing at my bookshelf for a while, the perfect book occurred to me:  Harper Lee's Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

What dad, after all, would not like his daughter to be Scout Finch, the smart, assertive but still innocent girl who narrates the story?  And what dad does not fancy himself to be a bit like Scout's father, attorney Atticus Finch? It is Atticus's moral courage - and his wise but permissive parenting - that seems so perfectly calculated to help Scout grow up to become an acclaimed novelist, as Harper Lee did.

I know what you're thinking:  Too young.  People have argued for years about whether To Kill a Mockingbird should be taught in high school.  So how could it be suitable for a third grader?

The answer, of course, is that bedtime reading offers opportunities to stop the story and just talk.

For example, there is the moment after Atticus has successfully demonstrated to a jury that his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, stands falsely accused of raping a white woman.  Atticus tells Scout he thinks the jury will return its verdict very quickly.

And here is where Scout's Vermont counterpart, snuggled into her cozy bed in Norwich, is sure that Atticus has secured an acquittal for his client.

Really?, I inquire.  This was Alabama in the 1930s.  Do you know who got to serve on juries in a place like that, in a time like that?, I ask.  And my daughter gets it.  She knows what rape is.  She knows what racism is.  She knows that truth, and justice, are sometimes sacrificed to ignorance and hatred.

Those are good lessons for a Vermont kid to learn.  She's a white kid, in a mostly white state, who has now heard a novel written by a white women that is mostly about white people.  Others will teach her what it's like to be a victim of racism.

That all-white jury in Alabama does indeed consign poor Tom Robinson to his death.  But they take longer than expected to do it - and, because Atticus Finch knows he has made the jury think a little, he sees reason for hope.

Sadly, I am no Atticus Finch, if only because Norwich, Vermont in 2011 hides its contradictions much better than the fictitious Maycomb, Alabama did in 1935.  But our world is a perilous one, and my daughter may some day find herself challenged as Harper Lee's characters were.  When that day comes, I hope she'll remember To Kill a Mockingbird, in the sound of her dad's voice.

(Wertlieb) That was commentator Don Kries.

The Vermont Humanities Council has many more programs planned over the next few months as part of its Vermont Reads reading program. You can find links, and all of our series "Vermont Reads, To Kill a Mockingbird, here.

For VPR News, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

Vermont Reads was produced by Betty Smith and Melody Bodette, and edited by Ross Sneyd. Our technical director was Chris Albertine, and our webpage was edited by Tim Johnson. The executive producer was John Van Hoesen Special thanks to the reader of our excerpts, Ellen Bryant Voigt.

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