“Hate starts with fear of others.”
“Be informed. Don’t judge. Learn love.”
“Remove appearance. We’re all the same.”
Ninth graders in Sara Mehltretter’s world cultures and geography class at Tampa Catholic High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote these six-word stories and many others, and shared them with not only each other but also their whole school.
The six-word stories are the product of the IWitness activity My Story Matters: Power of Story, which was the first resource offered as part of USC Shoah Foundation’s 100 Days to Inspire Respect program. Beginning on January 20 and concluding April 29, USC Shoah Foundation’s IWitness website began publishing one new resource a day, focusing on themes of respect, civil participation and cross-cultural understanding.
Mehltretter has used IWitness in her film classes before, but just a few weeks ago was her first time assigning “My Story Matters” in her world cultures and geography class. The activity develops students’ understanding of the power of testimony to counter hate caused by stories that isolate and dehumanize.
The testimony clips of Holocaust survivors Daisy Miller and Alicia Appleman-Jurman and Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda survivor Freddy Mutanguha in the activity really resonated with the students, Mehltretter said.
“[Daisy] didn’t think her story mattered. But this gave license to the students to understand that everyone’s story matters,” Mehltretter said. “It’s letting them express who they are. It showed the power of understanding others and letting them understand you.”
Mehltretter and her students had an insightful discussion about how distance, fear and anger can lead to hate. As students at a religious high school, they were also eager to talk about how one’s belief system can affect how he or she acts and feels toward others.
At the end of the activity, students write their own six-word stories that can inspire others to counter hate. Mehltretter displayed the stories in her classroom, but she and her students realized that their work wouldn’t have an impact unless they shared it more widely.
“IWitness is about bearing witness – once you know, what do you do with that information? Where does it go from here?” she said.
So, Tampa Catholic began including the six-word stories at the end of the school’s daily video announcements, and they plan to keep including them for the rest of the school year. The students are thrilled, Mehltretter said, and her colleagues are equally impressed with the learning behind the activity.
Mehltretter said “My Story Matters” helped bring the historical events to life for her students. The testimony clips made them feel a personal connection to people who experienced hatred firsthand and illustrated how hurtful stereotypes and intolerance can be. Mehltretter believes it’s a lesson that will stay with them a long time.
“These were real people this happened to, and I can see them,” Mehltretter said her students realized as they completed the activity. “They’ll have this resource forever. They’re always going to go back to [what they learned from] this.”