Last April, Humanities and Art teacher, Lindsey Mutschler received word that she has won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that took her to Berlin, Germany and Prague, Czech Republic for four weeks over the summer summer where she studied peaceful revolutions and the fall of communism. Ms. Mutschler shared her experiences with us...
This summer I was selected to join 14 other teachers from across the United States as a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar entitled "East-Central Europe 1989: The History and Philosophy of the Peaceful Revolutions." We spent four weeks in Berlin and one week in Prague studying the philosophies of and meeting with former dissidents who worked to end Communism in East-Central Europe. We learned about dissident contributions to democratic opposition and oppositional activities. A central take-away was recognizing the role the "power of the powerless" and the capacity of ordinary people to make extraordinary change.
While in Berlin, weekday mornings were spent in a small conference room at the House of Human Rights & Democracy, reading, debating, and teaching the philosophies of former dissidents. Afternoons were sometimes occupied with touring relevant locations like the former Berlin Wall, the Stasi Museum, and the DDR Museum, as well as site-based locations of dissident activity. As both a historian and an artist, exploring a city once divided by East and West was fascinating: the indelible imprint of a city once divided is present in the architecture, graffiti, and even neighborhoods.
Prague is an entirely different landscape--the "old world" still has its architectural stamp on Prague. The first night we arrived I walked along the famous Charles Bridge and gazed at the Prague Castle in the distance, captivated by the Gothic and Romanesque buildings. Studying dissident activity in Prague felt especially poignant this summer, following former Czech Republic President Václav Havel's recent death. In addition to being the first democratically elected President of the Czech Republic, Havel was a playwright, essayist, poet, and dissident. Havel's political manifesto "The Power of the Powerless" struck me deeply. Havel writes about the power of ordinary citizens--the powerless--to "live in truth". I thought about how as a teacher of social justice education, I want my students know their own power as citizens; to recognize their ability to impact change.
While in Prague we met with Dr. Martin Palous, current representative to the U.N. for the Czech Republic, who was also a major leader in the underground movement which lead up to the Velvet Revolution of 1989 which liberated East Central Europe from Communist dominion. Dr. Palous spoke of our responsibility to raise our voice for others, to be active participants in creating the kind of world we want to live in. I was moved by the simplicity of this belief, the idea that we are responsible first to ourselves, but second, to our community and neighbors. This idea of creating "small acts" in our daily lives continues to resonate with me. What "small acts" can I impart in my daily life that are in accordance with my values and beliefs? What choices would I have to make? What might I have to sacrifice? What small acts do our students perform in their lives as they are charged with using their strong voices for good?
Seemingly small acts like making art, music, or organizing groups for the exchange of ideas--represent the ideals of a democracy and philosophy of way of life which was at the heart of dissident activity in 1989. It is my hope that through educating students about the power of their individual voices, they are called to be active citizens, independent thinkers, and able to face challenges in their communities with creativity and confidence.
Of course I couldn't visit Europe without thinking about Holocaust Education. I embarked on a day trip (navigating the public bus system in the Czech Republic is another story entirely!) to Theresienstadt in Terezin, Czech Republic. As this was my first time visiting a concentration camp, the experience was overwhelming. I have a particular interest in Theresienstadt because it was Red Cross "model" camp in a propaganda effort designed to dispel rumors about the extermination camps to Western Allies. It was also originally designed as a "model community" for Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. Several notable writers, artists, and musicians were inmates at Theresienstadt. When I teach the Holocaust in 6th grade, we look at the art and poetry made by children who lived in Theresienstadt, and consider art as a means of spiritual resistance as well as documenting history. Creation of works of art was one of few weapons victims had at their disposal to fight against brutality and feel even a limited amount of control over it. Again, I thought of these "small acts" of ordinary people--the powerless--and wondered how I can mirror this in my own life. Indeed, teaching is itself a political act, the classroom a canvas, and our students a community. In the classroom, we get to practice true democracy each and every day.
I originally applied to be a participant in this seminar because it parallels our 6th grade Humanities curriculum which teaches nonviolent revolutions as a cornerstone. Although I do not explicitly teach European History like so many of the other participants did, I walked away with a much larger connecting thread: a deeply-held personal conviction that the goals of studying non-violent activism are far-reaching in our students' lives. A study of nonviolence imparts core human virtues and is a positive force rooted in courage, compassion, and conciliation. Doing so is key to fostering a peaceful and sustainable future.