Learning To Think Differently About Difference: A Lesson Plan by Alice Rothchild


When we learn about people who are different from us or conflicts and wars in other parts of the world, we see these people, conflicts, and wars through the lens of our own societies with our own assumptions, preconceptions, and language. Often our media reinforces these assumptions through language and point of view and fails to challenge us to think “out of the box” which is the first step in imagining creative solutions and actions that can lead to greater understanding and resolutions of controversial issues.

Issue Description:

For example, discussions around Israel/Palestinian often trigger heated emotions that come from the legacy of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the treatment of the indigenous Palestinians, and the narrative that major powers and mainstream media use to describe this history. Often they pit people and religious groups against each other as if the situation is “hopeless.”

The language that is used in the US media often assumes that “Israelis only want peace,” various peoples and governments are “eternally anti-Semitic,” and "Palestinians are “terrorists."

Another way to frame this discord involves not only respecting Jewish trauma and the role of anti-Semitism in history, but also the legitimate trauma and loss of Palestinians who once shared this part of the world with Muslims, Christians and Jews fairly peaceably.

Essential Questions:

  • What are your assumptions, preconceptions and concerns about this issue? What language do you use to describe Israelis and Palestinians?
  • What images and language do you see in the media that implies a sympathy for Jewish Israelis and ignores the realities for Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories or sees them as less human or deserving?
  • What feelings do these images and this language trigger in you? Can you examine where these attitudes are coming from and explore “out of the box” thinking? Does this make you feel uncomfortable? Why? Do your parents agree? Disagree?
  • What words do politicians use to describe Israel? Arabs in general? Palestinians in particular? Do they recognize the existence of Palestinians?

Expected Learnings:

  • 1. Students will learn about how to talk about difference in a non-threatening way with each other.

    2. Then they will identify their own preconceptions and some of the assumptions and omissions that occur in mainstream media when it comes to understanding Israel/Palestine, Muslims, Arabs, terrorism, “othering,” with a particular focus on language. 

Description of Activity:

Part 1: Exploring Individual Differences and Similarities. Have each student interview 3 students. They should explore the other students' backgrounds, using the following questions (they can add others if they like). Remember, the interviewer's role in this exercise is to listen and to try to understand! 

  • How did they (or their families, however far back) get to the US?
  • What are their favorite foods? Movies? Music?
  • What challenges have they, their siblings, or families experienced in the US?
  • What makes them uncomfortable?  
  • How are they different from the interviewer? (For example, ask, "How are you different from me?" and see what the other student says.)
  • How are they the same? 
  • How do these similarities or differences make the interviewer feel?  
  • Write essays discussing what has been learned and use these essays to lead a class discussion about difference, sameness, and tolerance. 

Part 2: The Politics of Difference in the Israel/Palestine Conflict. Using what they have learned from each other about difference, sameness and tolerance, have students review newspaper articles (or popular web-zines, TV news programs, Facebook reports, other social media) and record the language and visuals used to report events in Israel/Palestine.  For instance: When Jewish Israelis are injured or killed, do they have names, photos, photos of their families, stories about their lives, does the reporter say “killed,” “murdered,” assassinated”? Do they state if the person lived in Israel or the occupied territories? Do they use the word Judea and Samaria instead of occupied territories? What are the implications of these different names? Think about how each of these words carries meaning.  Are injured or killed Palestinians reported in the same manner with the same detail? If not, explore why not.

Part 3: Make Your Own News. Prepare your own news report that mirrors your findings and then prepare another news report that challenges the assumptions of framing, language, whose story matters, etc.  See how you have the power to frame the story differently. 

Resources to Support Activity:

Watch segments about the Israel/Palestine Conflict at Democracy Now!

Watch Alice Rothchild's documentary Voices Across the Divide (order a copy for the class at www.voicesacrossthedivide.com).

To learn more, check these links: