Our Conversation with Steven Spielberg

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A man insulted in public for his religious dress, dozens of swastikas painted on a Jewish community center and the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in US history: All of these events have happened in the last month in this country. It has never been more important to educate young people about anti-Semitism, racism and America’s state of hate—and to give them the tools to build a world that respects the dignity and rights of all people.

As the United States experiences an increase in anti-Semitism, hate speech and hate-driven violence, the Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg joined the AFT to discuss teaching these difficult subjects. In a conversation with AFT President Randi Weingarten and Laura Tavares with Facing History and Ourselves, the director discussed the legacy of his landmark film Schindler’s List,” and ways to incorporate its lessons given the uptick in anti-Semitic violence plaguing American communities. The film is about to be re-released for its 25th anniversary.

“A majority of Americans feel that something like the Holocaust could happen again,” Weingarten said. “We vow never to forget this painful past, and to teach these lessons to our kids so they can fight injustice when they see it.”

“In many ways,” Spielberg said, “the world is a worse place than it was 25 years ago, some of the very steps that lead to the Holocaust, like racism, violence and xenophobia are resurfacing again.”

“The film is more important than ever for young people today who face a world where democracy is threatened,” Spielberg stressed. “It’s a world where hate and tolerance seem to be condoned, where students face drills because of school shootings.”

Attendees learned about lesson ideas and effective strategies to prepare students to be thoughtful, emotionally engaged viewers of the film while understanding its context in the contemporary landscape. The lessons create a space where educators can learn how to unlock children’s compassion and address these complicated issues of anti-Semitism, hatred and racism. Spielberg explained that using film in the classroom can help educators humanize stories for students and open their minds.

“Storytelling is a fundamental human act,” the director said. “It’s how we make sense of ourselves in the world. I’ve seen time and again how storytelling can shift the way we look at each other if we are willing to listen to the stories others tell us. Storytelling opens our hearts, our minds and helps us learn to respect what makes us different. I have great confidence in the entire teaching profession. We need you now more than ever."

“We believe that it is critical to provide teachers with resources to engage students in these courageous conversations so we can inform, educate and develop the leaders of tomorrow.” Weingarten said. “This is a significant tool for all teachers who have wondered how to teach their kids about the danger of history repeating itself. This particular Share My Lesson collection can help kids draw parallels between the historical genocide of the Holocaust and the troubling resurgence we see in hate speech and anti-Semitism today, and help provide meaning and structure to the concepts of empathy, compassion and bravery.”

Interested in hearing the full webinar? You can listen to a recording of the event. Register to get the on-demand link sent to you. And educators take note: This is an interactive, for-credit professional development webinar.

[Elizabeth Sell]