Stories that Move
In 2019 and 2020 Tolerspace held 12 webinars to promote safe, unbiased spaces for young people in local communities around Ukraine, introducing and using the Stories that Move anti-discrimination toolbox. Afterwards, we invited six of the most active teachers to Kyiv for a three-day workshop, each bringing two students, to work as mixed teacher-student teams learning how to develop and implement a project for their school or community. Topics included hate speech in schools, gender stereotypes and disability access. The mixed teams left full of ideas about overcoming obstacles, but also with new insights about themselves, about the education system in general and about the strict separation of communication and learning at school.
For starters, Stories that Move is an educational programme in which there are no right and wrong answers. How radical is that? And you have to say what you feel. To learn more about each other. Students ask, how will we be evaluated? The classroom falls silent, because they cannot understand what to say, or what the teacher expects from them.
Olga Kiselyova is a history teacher from the village of Zavereschytsya. “School is traditionally split into talking and listening, communicating and learning. Changing this order is difficult – both for the teacher and for the student. If you introduce new norms of ‘correct’ behaviour, students try to fit them into the context of the old system: if you get good grades for the correct answer, then there should also be a positive assessment for expressing feelings. Students do not know what to rely on, so they constantly rotate back to ‘good answer-good score’.”
Students can sometimes share their thoughts about moral choices and life challenges in literature lessons, discussing not their own life experiences but those of a fictional character, but that is about all. So as well as helping to raise the complex and important topics of discrimination and prejudice in school, we give teachers the tools to see and overcome this chasm between learning and communicating.
We didn’t think we could talk about it at school
A common reaction of students first encountering the Stories that Move toolbox: What’s that about? A guy with muscular dystrophy who is pleased when his friends sometimes forget he can’t walk, because they just see the person not the disability. A transgender girl accepted by her parents but fearful at school. A Roma boy rejected by his girlfriend’s parents solely on the basis of his photograph.
Teenagers’ thoughts are full of relationships and feelings, but talking about them is usually restricted to a 10-minute break between lessons in a school corridor. Lev Gryshchak, one of the student participants from the small town of Zhovkva, said the only time he and his classmates have the opportunity to discuss relationships, prejudices, discrimination, is when one of the teachers is sick and the school psychologist stands in. “That is, we must wait for the teacher to get sick in order to talk about the most important things.”
It may seem strange that in Stories that Move you put 15-20 students on different computers to communicate. But modern teenagers are accustomed to this: they chat and date in messages, admire each other on social networks, learn about sex from bloggers, and tell the their friends the most wonderful and disturbing stories on Instagram.
The Stories that Move toolbox also builds confidence. The student knows that only the teacher will see who wrote each answer. Classmates will discuss each position without knowing who wrote it. The ability to maintain anonymity can prompt candid confessions.
Is that bullying?
In a survey about training courses, most Ukrainian educators said that they wanted foreign language support and help preventing burnout, and almost a third of respondents expressed the need advice on combating bullying. Yet at the same time they did not feel the need for anti-discriminatory education. But bullying often goes hand in hand with discrimination – it may be on the basis of social or personal, external features, religion or ethnicity.
And while teachers felt they needed advice on bullying, teenagers felt the word – dinned into their ears – had lost its meaning for them. Lev Gryshchak said: “In Ukraine, they talk about bullying or cyberbullying all the time, but we just let it flow over us. In our classroom, children react to any easy joke by shouting: ‘Bullying!’”
So, what should we do? Tolerspace is fortunate to work with motivated teachers who are ready for real changes in the education system; ready to learn, change and implement new ideas. But they are still a minority. Almost everyone we talked to agrees we need more like-minded colleagues and closer cooperation with parents.
Why are teachers from rural schools, often lacking even enough computers, so keen to learn?
Most of the teachers we have collaborated with live and teach in small towns and villages. They are often the key mediator between students and the big world. They persuade parents to let a child go to university (and meet considerable resistance), they involve students in international projects, throw up information about opportunities and youth initiatives. They understand one simple truth: a village is a small community. If a child is disrespected, he or she has nowhere else to go and there is nowhere to find friendships – no clubs, no workshops, no sports clubs. Therefore, it is not enough just to repeat that we must not discriminate. We need to get to the root cause, to let teenagers understand what stereotypes sit firmly in their heads, how these stereotypes govern their decisions, and whether they want to continue to be influenced by established, comfortable but destructive ideas about the people around them.
By turning on the video stories of their peers from all over the world, we can help them understand that they are not alone in their excitement, and give names to those emotions and feelings that they may never have talked about before.
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