Literature is used to teach perspective in Needham public schools/ Credit: Needham Observer

While tensions over events in the Middle East remain high in many colleges and universities, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst is confident Needham students and staff are dealing with the issues in a productive manner. 

“Initially after the terrorist attacks of October 7, there were some hiccups and bumps,” said Gutenkanst. “Now students are settled and know that they can have a civil conversation without getting angry.”

Students have brought a lot of the disinformation they receive from social media into the classroom, he said.

“It has been a really tricky time for secondary teachers,” said Gutekanst. 

“We lean on the state’s curriculum frameworks to guide our thinking, planning and program development,” said Gutekanst about the Middle East curriculum. 

Lessons also reflect the values of the Portrait of a Needham Graduate, such as being able to listen to and analyze information. 

“We work with kids throughout the school system to be free of bias, antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Seventh grade students study the basic tenets of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The ninth grade world history course includes Jewish and Muslim perspectives on major events such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation. Tenth grade students study the Holocaust and genocide from the nationally acclaimed Brookline-based educational nonprofit, Facing History and Ourselves. That curriculum also includes lessons on the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. 

“In U.S. history in grade 11, there is a discussion about antisemitism that sprang out of the America First movement,” Gutekanst said.

Gutekanst said the issue is part of the larger lesson of teaching students to be socially and culturally responsive. “At every level there are conversations about respecting others and learning from others.”

He stressed the role that literature plays in creating this perspective.  “The eighth grade has a six-week unit on Holocaust literature. It includes “The Book Thief,” “In My Hands, and “I Have Lived a Thousand Years.” All of Pollard reads “Refugee.”

Prejudice is also dealt with through literature at the high school with books such as “Night,” “Snow in August,” and “The Color of Water.” 

“They even read books such as ‘The Great Gatsby’ which have anti semitic themes, and that is discussed,” said Gutenkanst.  

He said it has been challenging to balance the students’ right to free speech with the need to minimize disruption.

“We have the structures in place to have good conversations,” he said. “Fortunately we have students who are pretty savvy and know how to do that.”

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