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Palm Beach Post

Role-Playing Helps Students Understand Cultural Biases


November 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved. 

Jesus Colon is half Puerto Rican and half black and he's on the New York subway at midnight when a white woman struggling with a suitcase and three children gets on the deserted train.

He wants to help her when it's time to disembark, but he hesitates. Will she feel threatened? What if she screams?

What would you do if you were Jesus Colon?

Lake Worth High School teacher Coral Robbins asked a class of 15-year-olds the same question last week as part of dual lesson on moral dilemmas, and understanding cultural biases.


Although the character in this situation is Puerto Rican and black, it was a lesson in understanding human behavior in general that can also be used in circumstances of religious and cultural bias.

Robbins was one of seven teachers who spent a week last summer at a seminar in Boston sponsored by a not-for-profit group called Facing History and Ourselves.

While the group's curriculum focuses heavily on the Holocaust and understanding Jewish persecution, there are other lesson plans that delve into racial dilemmas such as that of Jesus Colon's character.

The seminar, which cost about $5,000 a teacher, was paid for mostly by the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews.


''Our organization is about Christians and Jews, but we understand that there are broader concerns out there,'' said Karen Hough, executive director of the fellowship.

Over the past 10 years, the fellowship has paid for about 50 public and private school teachers to learn the lesson plans from Facing History and Ourselves.

This summer, a group of teachers from Lake Worth High were chosen because of the many cultures and races that mix in the 2,900-student school. About 34 percent of the students are white, 37 percent are black, and 25 percent are Hispanic.


''We wanted to find a neighborhood that would really be willing to embrace this course work,'' said Eileen Shapiro, program planner for the Palm Beach County School District's Holocaust studies department.

Lessons on the Holocaust, African-American history and character education are also required by Florida law.

Robbins said the plans from Facing History and Ourselves work perfectly into state requirements and the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

''The FCAT asks students to think at a higher level but the content they give us to practice with is very simplistic,'' Robbins said.

``This is interesting to them. It's human nature. It's situations they can relate to.''

For homework, Robbins asked the students to write a short essay about a similar moral dilemma they've had to deal with.

And there's no 100 percent right or wrong answers.


The kids in Robbins' class have mixed feelings about the white woman with the children and the suitcase on the subway.

Of the five students who answer Robbins' question about Jesus Colon, two wouldn't offer to help at all. They said they feared the woman would be frightened and may call for help, bringing the police who might misinterpret their intentions also.

Three students said they would offer help, but only from a safe distance so the woman wouldn't feel threatened.

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