How a Mystery Skype helped me fight stereotypes

I like to think of myself as a fairly open minded-person. I have my share of prejudices, just like everyone else, but I do try to become aware of them and change them as much as I can.

I was surprised, though, when I encountered a completely unexpected reaction from my 6th graders while reading a book. Background: every year, in class we read four books, graded readers, actually, since they are EFL students) One of those books is a short story called “Meet me in Istanbul”, a sort of detective story/romance set, of course, in Turkey’s largest city. This was probably the 5th group of students I read the book with and it’s a story they usually like. It has mystery, a bit of action, some romantic scenes; pretty interesting for an 11-year-old.

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This year, though, was different. When I presented the book I could already see some reluctant looks and even some requests for a different one. I was gobsmacked. Why? They didn’t even know what the story was about. I tried “selling” it the best way I could, but failed miserably. Still, I found it hard to understand why. And then it happened. One of them said, “I don’t want to read a book about terrorists”. My jaw dropped to the floor and it would have dropped to the basement too if we had one. I asked them to tell me a bit more about this and then it all made perfect sense: in their mind, anything related to the Middle East and Islam was equated with bombs, terrorism, and death. Inasmuch as I tried convincing them otherwise, it was just my word against, well, the world. And why would they believe a word I said? Every day for the past weeks, they have been bombarded with news about the Brussels bombings at the airport and metro.

I was faced with two choices: change the book and move on, or use this as a teaching experience. And you guessed it, I chose the latter. Fear is born out of ignorance and you fight ignorance with education. I figured if they had a hard time believing me, then I needed back up. I resorted to my PLN and managed to get the contact of a Turkish teacher who lived in Istanbul. For obvious reasons, we could not do the traditional Mystery Skype with our classes, one being in Turkey, the other in Buenos Aires, so she kindly accepted doing it after school, on her own. I got my students ready, they came up with questions they wanted to ask her and we set a date. The general feeling for the video call was positive, except for a few students, one in particular (the”I don’t want to read a book about terrorists” one)

I wish I could find the right words to express what it feels like to see the transition between very uptight and suspicious students into these open-minded and amazed. Their expressions and their posture changed. Arms uncrossed, eyes wide-open, hands flying into the air to ask more questions. Meryem had demolished all these prejudices in a 25-min conversation with patience, kindness and a bit of Meghan Trainor (isn’t she the best???)

You know an activity was successful when your students refuse to hang up and go to recess. And this was the case. Needless to say, the reading of the book was an absolute pleasure (and with interspersed comments like “This is the place Meryem told us about!”)

But by far the best comment came from that student that had inadvertently sparked this activity. As soon as we hung up, I asked them how they had felt and if they had learned anything from this experience. When she raised her hand, I have to admit I was slightly guarded. But then she said “I learned that Muslim people are good people” And my jaw dropped again, but this time, out of happiness.

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