9 December 2009

Genocide Studies as a History Course

An article in the "Toronto Star" caught our attention and we felt we needed to share it with our readers:

This Toronto history course makes student cry

December 9, 2009 00:12:00
Louise Brown Education Reporter

There is a Grade 11 history class in Etobicoke that has been known to make students cry. Teacher Shelley Kyte gets nightmares just from planning some of the lessons.

In a course believed to be unlike any other in the country, the focus is genocide, the worst of human atrocities. They have covered the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust already; now they are discovering Rwanda, a horror that happened during their short lives.

Here in Room 219 at Scarlett Heights Entrepreneurial Academy, near Royal York Rd. and Lawrence Ave. W., students as young as 15 have watched footage of a Tutsi couple kneeling before being beaten to death. They have learned that "everybody took part in the killing – even teachers," said student Joshua Watkis.

This week, they were to play Pax Warrior, a computer game that lets you imagine you are a United Nations commander facing horrific choices during the Rwandan bloodbath.

"It's heavy, what we learn in this course," said Watkis. "It's pretty raw; it's hard to watch, but it's real and the more our generation looks into stuff like this, the more we can stop it."

For the first time since the course was launched last year within the Toronto District School Board, a genocide class opened its doors to a reporter and photographer this week, plus two Scarborough teachers who hope to run the course next year and the board consultant who will help them with the highly charged material.

Despite initial controversy over the brutal subject matter, more than 10 school boards from as far away as Vancouver, Montreal and New Brunswick have expressed interest in the curriculum.

"You could do this course very badly – `Here's a bunch of atrocities, humanity sucks, let's all give up' – but we try to give children the tools to understand how those events are perpetrated so they can understand how they can be prevented," said Kyte, one of 20 teachers leading the course, and a co-author of some of its lessons.

"I screen out some of the more horrific material – that's why I get the bad dreams – and I limit the amount we do watch," said Kyte. "But I actually like when students get upset, especially boys, when they realize this isn't a slasher film. This is real. Some hide their eyes. Some cry, but they need to appreciate the gravity before they can develop empathy and then hope."

Trustee Gerri Gershon proposed the course last year as a way to teach teenagers "the depths of the darker side of human nature, because sometimes when we are moved by some terrible thing, it can bring us to some positive action.

"It's sad and it's horrific," she said, "but it's also very real and there can be a tremendous amount of rich learning about empathy and civic responsibility and not standing by passively when these things begin."

Students learn the eight stages a group goes through before committing genocide, as outlined by U.S. law professor Gregory Stanton: classify "us vs. them;" label them with symbols like the Jewish star; dehumanize them with slurs, such as Tutsi cockroach; organize groups to carry out the hate crime; polarize anyone who disagrees; segregate those to be killed; exterminate them – then deny it.

"These students can see violence all over TV and YouTube," said Kyte, but the course offers a way to analyze the roots of this type of hatred.

"This course really hits you hard. Sometimes when I leave the class I can't stop thinking of it for a while," said Keisha O'Leary, 15.

"But it provides awareness so people like us won't ignore it when we see it starting."

Perhaps our readers might consider lobbying their provincial governments to include a course related to genocide studies in their respective school programs of study?


bluntobjects said...

It's sad to say, but in Alberta it would get killed by Bill 44 before you could blink.

nos200 said...

It's sad to say, but I think you're right.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Pretty sure if Alberta teachers can't talk about sex or religion, they won't be allowed to talk about genocide. Sad, since Alberta seems to need this kind of information more than any other Canadian province.

Anonymous said...

While I do appreciate the sentiment behind it and think this course is terrific, the fact that it completely sidesteps the genocide perpetuated on Canada's "First Nations" peoples is very problematic.

However, I would support something like this in Alberta, even though it has a snowball's chance in hell of making it through

TorontoSHARP said...

This is a great idea for a course... wish it was around when I was a kid

alan said...

there is no way that schools in canada will even consider that one of the most horrific genocides of history took (is) taking place in Canada and throughout North America. Its much easier to "study" genocide in Africa or Bosnia, but don't mention genocide against First Nations in Canada; that threatens profit from mineral and oil resource extraction.