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July 2001 - Issue No. #43 (p.12-14)

Teaching Against Prejudice (TAP)

by Elise Klein

TAP President, Connecticut, USA

Dealing With Prejudice - Why?

People often ask me why I choose to spend most of my life working with the issue of prejudice. After all, there are many other worthwhile issues one could choose to work on: environmental issues, gun control.... But when you think about these issues, they all have an element of prejudice and stereotype to them. For example, many people think that all environmentalists spend their time hugging trees or chaining themselves to the front gates of nuclear power plants. By the same token, all people who own guns are power hungry death penalty supporters while all those who are pro-gun control are trampling on the 4th Amendment. All stereotypes. How many of us ever sit down and talk with each other about these issues, let alone more obvious ones like racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.?

If we don't talk with our peers about these issues, how and why would we ever discuss them in class? After all, we're ENGLISH teachers - not moralists, or even necessarily multiculturalists. You don't believe me? Think about comments you've heard in the staff lounge or teachers' cafeteria. Trust me, there are many people who think that teaching English is enough - it's too much work to learn about other cultures. Of course, this is not the case for everyone, but that's the point in looking at stereotypes - nothing is true of everybody.

Peoples, Cultures and Stereotypes

In our ESL/EFL classrooms, we either have students from "all over the world" or from the country we happen to be living in, whether by accident (your plane landed in that country and you liked it), by accident of birth (you happen to be born there) or by design (Hey, I always wanted to live there!).

Your students, like you, have images and impressions of other people and other cultures, some the same images as you, others different. How is that? How can we have these impressions when, ten-to-one, we've never really had a conversation with that person or possibly ever met somebody from that country? Are we born this way? I don't think so. I believe that we are all victims and/or beneficiaries of the world around us: our parents, our peers, our teachers (there's that word again), our houses of worship, and oh, yes, the media.

How bad can this problem of prejudice get? Those of you who are ESL teachers have, invariably, encountered the situation where student "x" doesn't want to work with student "y" (and we are not talking about chromosomes here). It could be because of a deep-seated historical root (my country has always fought against your country), it could be because one country conquered another, or it could be because of race or religion. Usually, it's not because any of these students took the time to talk with the other and found out they don't like each other based on individual personalities!

What can we do about this? First you need to decide for yourself, as a teacher, if you want to do anything. After all, nobody can force someone, not even a teacher! I decided a long time ago that I did want to do something.

An English Course About Prejudice

In 1992, as the academic director of an ESL school, I tried to figure out a way to get below the surface of behaviors. I wanted to do something to start a dialogue without being preachy. I tried to figure out what I could use to incorporate skill work with critical thinking. I realized from having worked with students over the years that whether titled "Driving Miss Daisy" or "Miss Daisy und Ihre Chauffeur" (the German title) students from different corners of the world had all seen the same movies. I realized that students, whether or not they could speak English, knew Bill Cosby (TV) and Steven Spielberg (films). And then I knew I had it: I'll use film and TV - it'll improve listening and speaking (you have to talk about what you've seen, even if you don't understand every word). I could assign parallel readings (sometimes) and written assignments (How did what you've seen affect you? What would you have done in his/her position?). The result: an elective entitled American Film: Focus on Prejudice. After the first two "go-rounds", there was always a waiting list to get into this class!

The amazing thing is: the class, and my approach, worked. Students talked with each other about the issues of prejudice (their own and their fellow students') and the resulting stereotypes. They didn't just talk during classtime, they talked during lunch, they talked after school, they talked with people who weren't even in their classes! You know what? Years later, they're still talking! I get Master's theses in Spanish, articles in Portuguese and just plain old e-mails, each one of them in their own way telling me what impact that class had on their lives, their view of the world, and each other. It caused them then, and later, to think before they act. To think before they say something. To think before they make a joke about anybody. Now, it's 2001 and I'm still teaching and using film and TV shows.

TAP and its Mission

After a number of years giving work-shops on "Confronting Prejudice Using U.S. Films and TV Shows", I was approached by a group of teachers who said: "Elise, we want to do what you're doing but our administrators aren't all like you." "There's no network for us." or "There are wonderful organizations out there but any 'teaching' they do is only an 'arm' of the organization. We need something for us!" I took their words to heart and, in April 2000, founded Teachers Against Prejudice (TAP).

TAP's mission is "to work with students and educators from middle school to college on issues dealing with prejudice and discrimination through the critical examination and exploration of television and film." TAP also serves as a network for teachers to connect their classrooms with classes and students in other parts of the world or the U.S. Although TAP started out working with ESL students, it has evolved to the point that it now works with teachers and students, ESL/EFL and mainstream. After all, no one group has a "lock" on prejudice.

TAP's Activities

TAP's activities are varied and expanding (like its membership) but its main aim is to involve students, teachers and critical thinking. Activities include:

  1. In-service workshops at local and area schools discussing methodology, films, participants' viewpoints (i.e. prejudices) as well as the historic roots of prejudice.

  2. Conference presentations for TESOL, the National Association of Multicultural Education (NAME) & Adult Education.

  3. Community activism where TAP has a display table and meets with people at forums like Urban League activities and Pete Seeger's Multicultural Festival.

  4. "Nature and Human Nature" walks where children and teenagers compare and contrast our relationship to nature and its relevance to humankind.

  5. Our newsletter, the first edition of which we hope to publish this fall. This serves as a way for our members to share with each other issues and questions that they have - or haven't yet - dealt with.

  6. Our annual essay contest for middle and high school students. This is open to all students of TAP members, wherever they are. Our next contest (September 15 - December 1, 2001) will include entries from Canada, Brazil, Japan, and from all over the United States. If you're interested in having your students participate, all you have to do

As a 100% volunteer organization, you can see from the above how firmly we believe in fulfilling our mission. Now that we've looked at who and what TAP is, the question is: Why should language teachers deal with and/or teach about prejudice?

Why Teach About Prejudice in EFL?

The truth is, prejudice is all around us. Prejudice and stereotyping are the main reasons we've seen so much hatred and bloodshed in our past and present. It's a contributing factor to why segments of "our" population are prevented from achieving everything within their ability to achieve.

TAP believes that, if we deal with these issues, we may not make the situation go away but we will mitigate its effects AND understand how responsible each of us is. TAP's main goal is to create a more "global" community where people and friendships are looked at as individuals coming together as opposed to generalizations and stereo-types based on the "Big Six": race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and body image. We aim to provide a vehicle for teachers to learn from each other as well.

How can language teachers deal with and/or teach about prejudice? The obvious answer, for me, is through film and television. (In truth, you don't have to have a VCR monitor to use film and television).

Let me give you an example: there's a classic film about prejudice - an "oldie but goodie" - called "Gentlemen's Agreement." In it, Gregory Peck stars as a reporter who's been given an assignment: to write about anti-Semitism. He searches for an "angle" but hits a brick wall until he comes up with the idea of calling himself Phil Green and passing for a Jew to experience for himself prejudice and anti-Semitism. He doesn't change how he looks (hint!), how he acts (hint!), or how he talks (hint!). He just changes his name. And, if anybody asks if he's Jewish, he says "yes." Suffice it to say there is a lot to be learned from this film - the obvious and the not-so-obvious.

In the movie, however, there's one scene in particular - and no matter who you are, where you live, or how old you are, we have all been in this situation. What would you do if you were with friends or colleagues and somebody told a joke or made a comment about "them" - a certain group of people (and it could be any "group")? Or think back, what have you done, in this situation? This is one of the most central points - how what we do, or don't do, impacts others. If we do nothing we allow the person to continue. This is called giving tacit approval. We need to discuss the range of possibilities of what individuals can do. In this way, we don't change minds, we open minds. That is the aim of TAP: to open minds.

A Guest Speaker in Class

Let me give you another example. I was the Director of another ESL school. I'm Jewish. My Director of Admissions was and is a person of color. My Academic Director, Daphna, was a lesbian who has been out since she was 15. She will forgive me for telling you that she is now 36. We called ourselves the "trinity" and felt that our students were bound to learn something (besides English) from us. Daphna did not tell everybody she was gay but neither did she hide it. If it came up, it came up.

In one of my film classes, we were watching the film "In and Out." I had students, at the start of class, write a short essay on the difference(s) between hetero-sexuality and homosexuality. It was one of those rare essays which weren't graded. We watched the film over the course of two weeks allowing adequate time for discussion. My students came from all over the world - Venezuela, Argentina, Taiwan, and Palestine. The final event, in conjunction with the film, was a visit by a guest speaker who was gay. The students were asking, "Is it a staff person?" "Is the person male or female?" The only response they got from me was that the guest speaker was a human being.

The day of the "speaker", Daphna walked into the room. The students were all excited and asked Daphna if she was there to listen or if she knew where the guest speaker was. Daphna told them the guest speaker was already in the room. After looking behind the door, it suddenly dawned on one of the students, at which point Daphna told them that, yes, she was the guest speaker. My Palestinian student told her that was impossible! The guest speaker was gay and he knew she wasn't gay! It was impossible! Suffice it to say, a lot got talked about.

Did viewing and discussing that film change minds? For some, yes. Did having this particular guest speaker (who all the students respected and loved) change minds? For some, yes. Did it open everybody's minds? Unequivocally, yes. And that was the goal: opening minds.

Essays on Prejudice for the Classroom

Let me give you one last example of what you can do to incorporate film and television into the classroom, even if you don't have films at your disposal. Download last year's TAP essay question from our website (! All your students have seen TV and gone to the movies. Use that! Another possibility, which has been done, is to download the winning essays from our website and have your students react to the essays. That will get quite a discussion going!

If you do want to tackle this issue and use film and television in your classroom, or if you just want to support those of us tackling these issues, please consider becoming a member of TAP. We value our members and serve as an on-going resource. If you join, we'll send our methodology out to you wherever you are. In addition, we are constantly updating our website as to which conferences we will be at - maybe one day we'll be at a location close to you! We're also available for in-service workshops and I have gone as far as Sao Paulo to do those!

Whatever you decide to do, know that you don't have to go it alone! We're here to help, and in doing so, to strengthen our profession, our students, our communities!

Elise Klein, President, Teachers Against Prejudice (TAP), 58 Pine St, New Canaan, CT 06840 USA
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