Divided into randomly selected groups, each knot of eighth-graders at South Junior High in Anaheim was a miniature United Nations. In one group, there was one each from Guatemala, Mexico, Denmark Argentina and the Philippines. In another, students were from India and Vietnam, and three white students said their families had immigrated to the United States from England, Hungary and Poland.
Each group huddled around a piece of butcher paper, and with fat felt-tip pens, leaders jotted down where everyone’s family was from, when they arrived in the United States, what they considered American traits, and what foods or phrases from other countries had become part of Americana.
But as soon as the students in teacher Tom Peters’ class finished their group exercise, this picture of international harmony dissolved: the Latino students went back to their seats with other Latinos; the whites went with other whites, the blacks with other blacks. Peters pointed that out to them.
“I notice some tension sometimes and my feeling is that . . . if we don’t number you off, some of you would not get together in groups with other students who are not like you,” he told them. “When you go out in the work world, you’re going to have to work cooperatively.”
But that was a rare piece of lecturing in a classroom experiment on prejudice and racism that Peters has been conducting these past few weeks.
His eighth-grade social studies classes are taking part in “A World of Difference,” a pilot program being introduced in schools throughout six Southern California counties. The curriculum--a mix of group exercises, computer games, class discussions and writing assignments--aims to diminish racism by teaching students that it’s OK to be different.
And if there was ever a need for such a program in Southern California, Peters and other educators say, it is now.
“We’re used to teaching that the big period of immigration for this country was from 1900 to 1920,” Peters said. “That’s not true anymore. There are more foreign-born people right now in Southern California than in any other time of our history.”
The “World of Difference” program began as a massive school, media and community campaign in response to the racial strife that had plagued the Boston metropolitan area for a decade. Designed by the Anti-Defamation League and other social service groups, the program was lauded for defusing racial tensions. Eighteen cities throughout the country--and school districts in and around those cities--have copied the model.
In December, the regional ADL, in conjunction with Milken Family Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the Southern California Human Relations Coalition and the Los Angeles Times introduced the program to educators in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. So far, more than 1,000 teachers, counselors or other educators from the six counties have attended the training workshops. Peters’ classes are among the first in Southern California to try them out as a pilot program.
At South Junior High, Principal Ken Moulton already had a campaign on global awareness to help teachers and students cope with their changing environment before conflicts arise, he said. When he heard about the ADL’s training, he immediately jumped at the chance to take part.
“We feel it’s good stuff, certainly needed in a school in transition,” Moulton said. “This was, 10 years ago, a very white, middle-class school. What we’re seeing here is what’s happened in Anaheim--there is a real demographic switch.”
In just 3 years, Moulton said, the student enrollment in his school has changed from 60% white to 58% nonwhite this school year among his 971 students.
“This places new demands on teachers. I think it certainly creates tension,” he said.
Moulton believes schools need to play a central role in helping students and educators obtain “skills to deal with conflict and change. . . .”
“They don’t get a lot of these skills in their own environment, in their homes, and they really don’t have the role models,” he explained.
And at South Junior High, as in many Southern California schools where the ethnic makeup of the student population is changing rapidly, the classroom is the crucible for lessons in race relations.
Not to address the issue of a changing school enrollment, Moulton said, can lead to conflicts and other social problems.
“Anaheim is feeling the changes that probably will come more and more to Orange County,” he said. “The answer is not to move to Mission Viejo to get away from it, because you won’t.”
The “World of Difference” program consists of a thick study guide with lesson plans that can be interwoven with a regular curriculum, and as such can be used year round or only occasionally, depending on the teacher, said Margery Green, ADL’s western states education director. The aim is to encourage students to examine racial and cultural characteristics and to talk about the origins of their own attitudes about race, and the consequences of prejudice.
“We now know there are several techniques (to diminish prejudice) that have proven successful. But preaching . . . that doesn’t work,” Green said. “It doesn’t effectively diminish prejudice. . . . We all generalize, and you have to break down those stereotypes.”
In Peters’ classes, students have had group discussions. They have seen films. They have worked on a computer game that allowed them to play President of the United States as immigration policy was being set for the country.
Educators note that racism is best combatted at an early age, before attitudes turn into hardened feelings of prejudice. The “World of Difference” is recommended for the sixth through the 12th grade in other school districts. But in junior high school, Peters has learned, a lesson on social equality contrasts with another reality: At this age, students are aching to fit in with any group.
His students practically bounce into his classroom, their appearances announcing what group they identify with.
There were cholos , Latino boys with khaki pants and white T-shirts. Another boy, 13-year-old Kyle Riggs, called himself a “skater,” explaining that the meaning of this should be obvious to others by his Ruff N’ Tough T-shirt, baggy jeans and tennis shoes.
There were Latinas with their bangs swept off their foreheads with mousse and black eyeliner ringing their eyes.
An Israeli girl, newly arrived in Anaheim, kept to herself.
Another boy said he was a “poseur.”
“That’s a wanna-be,” another boy explained. “It means he wants to be a skater or a surfer or something else that he really isn’t.”
Asked why they liked placing labels on themselves, Joey Tarantino, 13, said, “Nobody’s the same. It’s no fun to be the same. It would be really dull.”
But the students answered “no” in a loud chorus when asked if the different groups, racial or social, mix well with other groups in their school or community.
“The skaters don’t like the cholos , the skinheads don’t like the blacks,” 14-year-old Phillip Covarrubias said.
“Because they dress different. We dress different. We talk different, we move different,” said Cathy Santamaria, 14.
But several said being different did not have to mean being better or worse.
“Anybody can be different,” said Migdalia Rodriguez, 14.
Sergio Garcia, 13, called himself a cholo, but he drew a distinction between himself and others of his social group.
“When you see someone, you can tell if he’s a cholo, " Sergio said. “He has his hair back, he looks mean. . . . No, I don’t look like that. I’m not like a regular cholo, not like a mean cholo. “
Sergio said the “World of Difference” program has opened his eyes to a different kind of population in his city.
“I’ve learned about Vietnam, how the Vietnamese who are here had to leave their country because of the war,” he said. “I didn’t know that before.”
The day after each group of students wrote down their family origins, the butcher papers were displayed on the bulletin board and the class talked about what each group had written.
One group had listed the following as American traits: garage sales, Pic ‘N’ Save, schools, homes, work.
“To insinuate that people come here and didn’t know how to work doesn’t make sense,” Peters told them.
One student said immigrants had to learn about different types of work or different work values when they came to this country.
Peters next pointed out to them the racial mix in their classes and asked, “What can we learn from all of this?”
“That everybody’s from different cultures, and we’re all getting along,” one student responded.
“Are we typical of the city of Anaheim?” Peters asked.
Yes, they answered.
“Not places like Anaheim Hills,” one boy interjected. “That’s somewhere where everyone’s rich and all white.”
Peters then asked, “Are we learning more by being in this type of environment than if we were, maybe, in a rural area with not as much mixture?”
Mark, a white student, answered: “Of course, because I eat burritos and I’m sure they eat hamburgers, hot dogs, and we eat other things too.”
Some of Peters’ students said lessons such as these are helping their generation grow up with different attitudes than those of their parents.
“I know my grandpa is prejudiced,” Joey Tarantino said. “If there is a black around, he says something about it and I get mad. I don’t like it.”
After class, several students said racial tension exists every day at South Junior High, though it doesn’t often come to a head. But they guessed it was no different than anywhere else.
“Mr. Peters’ class is the only one where we talk about it,” student Hector Juarez said. “The others, they just want to forget about it.”
Moulton and Peters said there is little friction between the students, particularly considering how swiftly the school’s ethnic population is changing. Occasionally, however, it happens.
In Peters’ third-period class one day, as students were getting settled, some boys were talking in the back when one youth, a white student who was leaning back on his chair behind a computer, slipped and fell to the floor.
He jumped up and looked angrily at a Latino student who had been standing nearby and punched him in the face.
The students were stunned, but then a couple of them yelled out, “Get him . . . “
Peters held on to the Latino boy to keep him from hitting the other youth. The first boy was sent to the principal’s office and the second boy’s nose bled onto the floor, on Peters’ hands and on some of the students as the class waited for another teacher to assist.
Two girls were close to crying.
When both finally had left the classroom, Peters deftly turned the scene into an object lesson on violence, race and conflict.
“This is not an ethnic thing,” Peters told them. “It was not a white kid hitting a Chicano kid.”
The students agreed. The issue they were more interested in was whether justice dictated that the second boy should have hit back.
“I thought (he) showed a lot of maturity for not hitting him back,” Peters said.
Later, Peters said he feared that some students might have perceived it as a racial conflict had he not made them discuss it. “Sure, honestly speaking. But it was more than race.”