On October 27, 2018, the Pittsburgh community was the victim of the deadliest Anti-Semitic attack in the United States. Even as the tragedy was continuing to unfold, the entire Pittsburgh community – all ethnicities, all religions, all races – began to rally around the Jewish community in ways that were unparalleled around the globe. Pittsburgh has always been seen as a melting pot – historically because of our many different ethnic neighborhoods – but more recently for the way our religious, communal, ethnic, racial and governmental entities work together for the common good of our neighbors. Inspired by our own Mr. Rogers – Pittsburgh has always taken pride in the fact that the mantra of ‘Love Your Neighbor As Yourself’’ is at the core of our community. As time has passed – this idea of teaching others what we mean by the words community and neighbor has become a critical factor in moving Pittsburgh past its’ darkest hour and letting the light move us forward.
The idea of community encompasses people who live next door and people we have never met, people similar to us and people who seem completely alien. We learn this from the wisdom of the Jewish civil rights activist Joachim Prinz’s words when he said, “Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.” This collective responsibility challenges us as individuals to keep expanding our definition of ‘We’ until it becomes ‘Us’ – stepping away from our tendencies toward self-interest and instead bearing witness to lives and challenges other than our own – a place where everyone belongs and everyone can prosper.
The concept of community and their role in it is often especially difficult for students of middle and high school age. They are bombarded on a daily basis with examples of division from social media and the news as well as from the daily interactions with their peers and classmates. Unfortunately, these outside pressures can lead to feelings of ostracism and isolationism that run counter to their universal desire to belong. All too often, in order to achieve a sense of belonging, students choose to conform to the norms and behaviors of one specific group – and lose their idea of self in the process. This idea of conformity also tends to lead to greater division which adds to the confusion. It is essential that the students learn that bringing their unique contributions to the community as a whole and understanding their individual role and responsibility in the community will lead to a greater sense of belonging.
In this lesson, students will study the classic Dr. Seuss story “The Sneetches”. . This story has been used for decades as a warning against discrimination and prejudice. Dr. Seuss wrote a shorter version of ‘The Sneetches” in 1953, when the Supreme Court was hearing testimony in Brown v. Board of Education. He completed the longer version of the story, with illustrations in 1961. Many scholars believe Dr. Seuss wrote the original story to express his opposition to discrimination against Jewish people in Europe. In this tale, Sneetches with stars on their bellies have more status than those without stars. Yet even when the plain-bellied Sneetches get stars on their bellies, they are still denied entrance to the elite community of star-bellied Sneetches. An outsider, Sylvester McMonkey McBean, comes to town with a machine to add and remove stars, forcing the Sneetches to question their differences. Ultimately the Sneetches learn that stars or no stars, they are all members of the same community. The story prompts us to ask several very meaningful questions that can help us to clarify issues underlying prejudice and discrimination:
The lesson will then expand to how the answers to the Sneetch story plays out in their everyday lives and in the world around them. They will participate in a demonstration of how they as individuals and in cooperation with others can play a role in determining the outcome of these stories by choosing to be ‘by-standers’ or ‘up-standers’ and how their choice ultimately leads to a new understanding of the idea of neighbor and community.
It is suggested that this lesson be followed up with a lesson that reinforces the understanding that it is our collective responsibility to build and maintain healthy neighborhoods and goes into more depth about the concepts of Bystander and Up-stander and gives students concrete examples of the do’s and don’ts of being an Up-stander.
Suggested Technology: Computer for Presenter, Internet Connection.
Instructional Time: 2 hours.