01/26/2006

Irish Educators Look to SPLC for Tolerance Tips

Facing the effects of decades of intolerance in their country, a group of Irish educators is turning to the Southern Poverty Law Center for tips on promoting tolerance in their own classrooms.

The educators are participants in the Education for Citizenship exchange program sponsored by the Irish Institute at Boston College. The group, which includes about a dozen teachers, principals and youth workers from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, traveled to Montgomery this week to learn more about the Center's innovative Teaching Tolerance programs.

Since 1991, Teaching Tolerance has worked to eliminate hate and bias in classrooms and communities across the United States. While focused on reaching K-12 students in this country's schools, Teaching Tolerance's resources can apply in Ireland as well, the visitors said.

"America is faced with some of the same problems as Ireland," said Jill Houston, a school principal who lives in North Belfast. Houston said her country has more in common with the United States than she had thought.

A willingness to become educated about other cultures can result in recognition that there are often more likenesses than differences, she said. Houston believes that Irish students should model this concept to eliminate barriers between races and religions there, particularly between Protestants and Catholics.

Mistrust through the centuries has bred bitterness and violence in Ireland. Community leaders, like Houston, consider the Center's work a way to help eradicate animosity among the various religious and ethnic groups.

The Irish educators and Teaching Tolerance staff agreed that reaching children at a young age is key to helping them embrace tolerance. In addition, Teaching Tolerance curriculum specialist Colleen O'Brien said more emphasis should be placed on similarities among students.

"Children don't need help recognizing differences among each other," said O'Brien. "It would be more useful to find ways to start conversation by welcoming humanity and building empathy."

Members in the delegation also learned about activities such as Mix It Up -- a national event that challenges students to break out of comfort zones for a day and socialize with someone of a different race.

Teaching Tolerance tools are much needed in a region where Catholics and Protestants can live without ever interacting. Adding to the complex situation is a large influx of immigrants to Ireland due to its relative peace and a booming economy.

"There could be several different ethnic groups in one classroom, and we're not used to it," said Bernadette Brady, director of the National Association of Adult Education in Dublin. "We don't know how to deal with it. We're not building a community just by putting people in one space."

There is hope in a land suffering growing pains and struggling with its past. Educators such as Houston, who started Hazelwood Integrated Primary School more than 20 years ago, work toward unity. Her school serves as a prototype for an amalgamation of Ireland's religious and ethnic groups. More than 400 children, ages 3-11, are enrolled.

Houston, who already supervises anti-bias curriculum at Hazelwood, plans to incorporate the Center's ideas into her curriculum.

"We're trying to start as young as possible so there will be a better tomorrow," she said.