A few months ago I received an email with an open invitation to students from Flagstaff to attend an event where Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager that shielded 1200+ Rwandans from slaughter in 1994, would be speaking. The event was free, the venue was close enough to walk to and after a small amount of investigation I decided to sign up my 135 students. It was not often that we get internationally known speakers, for free, in this mountain town.
While I was making the decision, it became abundantly clear that I couldn’t take these students to hear from this man without a serious amount of preparation. Genocide is not a topic that one introduces to students lightly. I struggled with the decision to focus on such a grim topic, not that war is not grim and history is not grim, but genocide, for some reason is different. The Rwandan genocide was recent, there were vivid images, the stories live on being told by the people who survived. It is very real, almost too real. I ran my decision past a few of my sounding boards to see if I was being overly sensitive, or if I should rethink genocide as a topic of study for a few weeks in January. Most people agreed that, yes, it was grim… but that doesn’t make it unworthy of study. I decided that the focus of the unit would be on the power of one… one person, one idea, one moment, one decision. After learning about Mr. Rusesabagina and the story of the Rwandan genocide, the students would choose one person who uses/used their life to positively impact the lives of other, tell the story and then at the end tell the story of how they plan on using their own life to positively impact the lives of others. The goal is to have each student make a short 3-5 minute movie.
Then, I received a call from the organizers of the event, the Martin-Springer Institute. They were calling to let me know that I could choose one student to attend. One, one student out of 135. This was not going to be easy. So I decided to turn the whole thing into a competition to earn the privilege to go to lunch. Each class will view another classes videos, vote for the top video… those five will be viewed by a panel of five impartial judges (a college professor, a PhD. candidate, a MS science teacher on sabbatical😉, a community college instructor and a web entrepreneur). These five would choose the top individual who would then be chosen to go to lunch at a very swank location in town with Mr. Rusesabagina.
We are on day three of genocide and the students still can’t believe the stories and realities that the people of Rwanda faced in 1994. As a related tangent, we have been looking briefly at Darfur and noticing the similarities and differences in the world response. Most students didn’t really realize that genocide happened anywhere outside the Holocaust. This has been an incredibly emotional topic. I am a little concerned that this is a little much. But, I fear that if they don’t hear the stories and grapple with the issues that they will grow up ignorant of the situations that happen on the global scene. Also, I want the experience to focus on the extraordinary actions of ‘ordinary’ people that step up in times of need. I want them to ponder for a bit what role they may play to help out their local community or more.
The phrase ‘never again’ is used time and again to describe the world committment to not allowing another genocide to take place. Well, it’s been never again over and over again. It is a story with extreme historical relevance and tangible connection to the students in my classes. By studying the story and hearing, first hand, from a man who lived through a genocide, I hope that the students may remember, may get it, may hold onto the story and act, think, feel something, as a result.
This is a new topic for me, and unchartered territory… I have faith that this will be a meaningful story to tell and path to take with the students, but we are only on day three… anyone have any suggestions? other ideas? thoughts on teaching about genocide to middle schoolers?