Responding to Pittsburgh

How can we help students make sense of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting and a week of violence in the United States?

On Saturday, eleven people were murdered at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue by a gunman who shouted “All Jews must die” as he opened fire. Clearly antisemitic, the gunman was also motivated by anti-immigrant animus, according to reports of his internet postings. The suspected gunman is in custody and the FBI is investigating the killings as a hate crime.

The tragedy came at the end of an anxious, tumultuous week in the United States. Beginning Monday, October 22, pipe bombs were sent to over a dozen prominent Democratic figures, including former President Barack Obama, and to the CNN newsroom in New York City. The suspect, a right-wing extremist, is now in custody. On Wednesday in Louisville, Kentucky, two elderly African Americans were killed at a grocery store by a white shooter who had first attempted to enter a black church. This week felt extraordinary, yet Americans have been living through a time of increasingly visible, public bigotry and violence, including the 2015 killing of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist; the 2017 bombing of a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota; and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that same year, when marchers chanted neo-Nazi slogans and a counter-protester was murdered. The rise in hate, in these incidents and others, has been well-documented.

Americans must consider what these troubling events suggest about the current state of the country and the future of this diverse democracy. Such incidents are also on the rise around the world, including growing antisemitism in Europe, making hate an issue of global concern. Educators have an additional role to play. Even as we mourn, we also have to help our students process the week’s events within a safe and supportive learning community. Students need to share their reactions and hear those of their classmates, and with our guidance explore difficult questions about the past, present, and future. If we don’t make time to talk about these events, we risk normalizing them.

These conversations might begin on Monday morning, but they should continue long after, not just as a time-out from regular curriculum, but as a commitment to fighting hate and nurturing democracy that informs everything we teach. As Fernando Reimers, international education leader and Facing History board member, reminds us, “Addressing the most visible attacks, once they happen, requires the specialized knowledge and organization of law enforcement. Preventing them requires the concerted effort of each and every one of us. . .Preventing such hatred at the roots. . .requires deeper and earlier action in communities and schools.”

In this teaching idea, we offer some suggestions for opening a conversation about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and other recent events with your students, as well as selected resources to examine antisemitism and religious bigotry and to explore the role we all can play in standing up to hate.

In addition to the suggestions here, you might connect last week’s incidents to your ongoing discussions with students around the fractious and intense mid-term election campaign. It is worth considering the relationship between the two. To what extent does political rhetoric, whether by our leaders or in the debates we have individually with others, fuel hatred?  What responsibility do leaders and citizens have to appeal to each other’s “better angels” rather than stoking our basest inclinations through stereotypes and resentment?

Prepare for Class

Before leading a conversation with students, check in with yourself. How have you been affected by the events of the past week? What is on your mind? Being conscious of your own responses and concerns can help you foster a more safe and open conversation in your classroom.

Consider, too, the ways that your own students may have been impacted by recent news. You may have survivors of violence in your class, or students feeling newly vulnerable because of their identity and connection to groups who have been targeted. What support might those students need, and what resources in your school, including counselors and social workers, could help to provide it?

Finally, keep in mind that each of the news stories from the past week alone is complex and the shape of what is known and unknown changes quickly. Frequently-updated “What We Know” features on sites like the New York Times and Vox can help you stay abreast of the news, and can also be used as a reference point to ground discussion with students.

Create a Reflective Environment for Discussion

Let your students know that your classroom is a safe space. Begin with a brief contracting activity if you have not already forged that safe space. Then allow time for students to name what stands out to them in the news of the past week and then to process and reflect, perhaps writing in journals and then sharing some thoughts with a partner. You might use the following writing prompts:

  • The synagogue attack in Pittsburgh is disturbing and painful to learn about. It prompts us to ask many questions, some of which may not have an answer. What questions does this event raise for you? What feelings does it provoke?
  • How do you see the events in Pittsburgh, in Louisville, and around the country affecting people in your home, in your school, and in your community? Who in your community, including you yourself, might be feeling particularly vulnerable right now?

Graffiti boards and S-I-T are two other teaching strategies that can help students reflect on difficult topics.

Put Last Week’s Events in Context

The major events of last week made the front pages of newspapers across the country and around the world. They are part of a growing pattern of expressions of hate and antisemitism in schools and communities, including many events that don’t get national attention. In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, 19 swastikas were spray painted on a Jewish community center in early October - the second time the building was defaced in just over a year. Pro Publica’s Documenting Hate project and the Southern Poverty Law Center Hatewatch are two programs that track and document hate crimes and bias incidents in the United States.

You might choose to share information from these sites, or simply the selected October news headlines listed below, with your students.

After reviewing some of the events of the last month together, discuss:

  • What patterns or connections do you see among these events? What are some differences between them?

  • Does your local and personal context connect to this larger climate of hatred and violence in any way? Do you see examples of hate, exclusion, racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism in your community?

  • How do small acts of hateslurs, name-calling, graffitifracture communities? Do they make it it more likely that more violent acts will occur?

  • What other factors contribute to a climate in which perpetrators of hate crimes feel emboldened? How do we understand the connection between ideas, rhetoric, and actions?

Consider a Range of Meaningful Responses

As students reflect on the impact of this week’s events in Pittsburgh and beyond, they should also consider positive ways that individuals and communities can respond—by denouncing hate, offering support to those who have been targeted, and asserting inclusive norms and values. You might share some examples of how people have responded to support the Tree of Life synagogue community in Pittsburgh: there have been vigils around the country, interfaith statements of support, and fundraising efforts to help the congregation and victims.

Discuss with students:

  • What can we do if we ourselves are feeling vulnerable?

  • How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable?

  • What are some meaningful actions we can take, even if only in our own home, neighborhood, or school?

Extensions

Learn about the history and present reality of antisemitism: The lesson The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism, from Facing History’s Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior unit, focuses on the question “What is antisemitism, and how has it impacted Jews in the past and today?”

Choosing to Participate: At Facing History, we conclude our case studies in history and literature with conversations about how each of us can help to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and a build a more inclusive democracy. The readings below have particular resonance right now. Used singly or together, they can help students consider the values, tools, and actions that protect human rights, establish a sense of safety and dignity, and strengthen communities.

  • Not in Our Town: Residents of Billings, Montana banded together to stand up to racist and antisemitic violence in their town: “Intolerance, hatred, and violence test the strength of a community. How the members of a community respond is one measure of its citizens' commitment to democracy.” This reading includes a companion video and lesson plan.

  • Talking About Religion: Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, talks about his failure to respond to antisemitism in high school and how this experience of being a bystander informed his commitment to pluralism.

  • Give Bigotry No Sanction: Correspondence between members of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, RI and President George Washington in 1790 can inspire thoughtful conversation about the role of religious freedom in American democracy.

  • Walking with the Wind: Congressman and activist John Lewis tells a story from his childhood to explore how we can work together to create a better world:

    . . .America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.

     

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