Refuting stereotypes through 'Not in Our Schools'
In effort to stem bullying, discrimination, students offer opinions on ethnic and religious bias
"Not everyone is smart."
"Not all Jewish people are rich."
Students at JLS Middle School offered those suggestions when asked to name stereotypes they thought should be "dissolved" or "buried."
The exercise is part of "Not in Our Schools Week," an annual observance on Palo Alto secondary school campuses around this time of year.
Through art, rallies and teacher-guided activities, students consider how to recognize and refute discrimination and stereotypes — and reach out to get to know people they see as different from themselves.
In the Gunn High School quad this week, students posted anonymous recollections of times they've felt slighted because of their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
"It felt really bad when this girl was, like, 'You're actually proud to be Asian?'" one student wrote. "And I felt really bad about myself because I felt she was insulting my entire life, culture and heritage."
With enrollment from all over the world — and an Asian/Caucasian mix of 41 percent and 49 percent — Gunn has many teens who said they've had occasion to feel stereotyped or excluded.
One student, born overseas to German parents, said it hurts to be called a "Nazi," even as a joke.
"I don't like it because I don't want to be associated with those people," the student wrote.
Another student said she was devastated when a classmate at her previous school, not in California, called her a "half-breed b----" because of her mixed Chinese and European heritage. She wrote that she wished her friends — and the teacher — had taken a stronger stand against the taunting classmate.
A Muslim student said, "The thing I want is for everyone to stop judging us all based on what only a fraction of our population did."
Before returning a quiz Wednesday to her class of 30 freshmen, Gunn math teacher Gopi Tantod took time for a discussion about stereotypes.
"It's important for me that we think about this," Tantod told the class, asking students to put their heads down and close their eyes while she took a short poll.
Twelve of the 30 students raised their hands when asked whether they or a friend at Gunn had ever felt "unfairly judged or treated differently" because of their ethnicity.
In a class discussion that followed, students pondered whether it was appropriate to wear religious T-shirts or other clothing to school.
"I usually avoid the topic of religion because I thought I might feel like a loner," one student said, adding that he'd considered wearing a religious T-shirt but decided against it. "But when I go to school, I find out that half my friends are actually Christian."
Tantod told students they should resist pressure to be anyone but themselves at school. "We are in the United States, and we should be comfortable expressing whoever we are, whatever we are in whatever way we're comfortable with," she said.
Tantod encouraged students to post their experiences anonymously in the quad for others to see.
"It helps people realize, 'It's not just my problem, not just their problem, but a school-wide problem, a social problem, a society problem,'" she said.
She urged class members to make a point of speaking to students who are eating lunch by themselves.
"Just say 'hi,' because not everybody has been through Palo Alto Unified all their life, and not everybody knows everybody around them," Tantod said.
This week marked Gunn's eighth year of participation in Not in Our Schools, a project of the Oakland-based nonprofit media company The Working Group. The group, which produced the PBS series "Not in Our Town," says it combines media and outreach efforts to "battle against intolerance" and encourage democracy and citizen participation.
All five of Palo Alto's secondary schools observe "Not in Our Schools," with timing and activities driven by the interests of students and teachers.
A popular middle school activity is "dissolving" stereotypes — written by students on scraps of rice paper — in a wading pool or "burying" them in a coffin borrowed from the school theater.
At Palo Alto High School, Not in Our Schools week kicks off Monday with a ceremony of flags from around the world.
High schools give attention to discrimination based on sexual identity, with Gunn students Thursday encouraged to wear "Gay, fine by me" T-shirts, rainbow ribbons or purple armbands.
For younger students, there's a greater focus on standing up to bullies.
"We work on recognizing hate and talking about how it makes us feel," said Arvind Arya, a counselor at JLS where "Not in Our Schools" is in its fourth year and will take place next week.
"We talk about how, if we see bullying or hateful language, we can recognize it and be an 'upstander' rather than a bystander."
"Not in Our School" observances were held this week at Gunn and Jordan Middle School. Terman Middle School will participate the week of April 18-22.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.