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Federal grant to send Mass. students on Rwandan trip

Michelle Sedaca

Over the next two years, students at two Massachusetts schools will learn just how much the choices they make affect both their own lives and the world around them.

Thanks to a recent two-year federal grant awarded to Brookline-based nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, students from TechBoston Academy — a pilot school in Dorchester —  Hudson High School —  a public school in Hudson, Mass. — will participate in a cultural exchange program with students from the African nation of Rwanda.

The grant, awarded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, will allow the local students to travel to Rwanda in July 2009. The Rwandan students from College Sainte André and College Christ Roi will complete the exchange the following year, visiting the U.S. in March 2010. Nine students will travel from each of the four schools, accompanied by two teachers from each school.

“These fortunate students will gain 21st century skills by studying together and in each others’ shoes,” wrote Margot Strom, president and executive director of Facing History and Ourselves, in a statement. “This special grant from the State Department will allow Facing History to build a global partnership that mirrors the work we do in classrooms locally and around the world.”

The participating schools in both countries were selected based on their pre-existing relationships with Facing History and Ourselves.

The nonprofit organization creates classroom curriculum materials intended to help teachers educate students on the importance of civic responsibility and social action, as well as the consequences of hatred, bigotry and indifference. TechBoston Academy and Hudson High School teachers offer an elective developed by Facing History about genocides of the 20th and 21st centuries, examining the Holocaust and the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.

“The Rwandan genocide is fresh on people’s minds,” said Steve Ensdorf, a history teacher at TechBoston Academy and one of the teachers accompanying the students to Rwanda. “There is fresh historical memory which [the students] can study firsthand but in a safe space.”

The students participating in the trip all had to apply for consideration in the exchange and undergo interviews with Facing History staff. The prerequisites included being juniors, possessing a high level of academic achievement and contributing positively to the school community.

“[The exchange] is important on several levels,” said Ensdorf. “It is an incredible opportunity for the kids to step outside of the world they know and learn about a new culture, and they see firsthand how the choices people make can have these unbelievable effects that aren’t just small-scale, but international.”

Though the contingent doesn’t depart for another eight months, preparation for the exchange starts now. Students will participate in a “Rwanda Club” in which youth “study all things Rwanda,” according to Ensdorf.

In the age of online social networking, exchange organizers plan to embrace multimedia tools. Students in both nations will soon be able to write blog entries, as well as post audio and video clips online, in an effort to connect and familiarize themselves with each other before the trips.

A key component of the grant involves a collaboration with the Pearson Foundation’s Digital Arts Alliance, through which the Rwandan and U.S. students will produce videos about their exchange experiences and community service projects.

American and Rwandan students will work in teams of four to create short films that highlight people who are engaged in their communities. The videos will showcase many aspects of the exchange, including the service projects, the process of how youth from different backgrounds learn about each other, and similarities and differences in the study of history.

“History is a vehicle,” said Juan Castellanos, a program associate at Facing History. “We want to get students thinking critically thoughtfully, and to reflect about what it means to make choices that have moral and ethical consequences.

“Everyone plays a role — there are perpetrators, bystanders, victims. … Choices matter,” he added. “Facing History utilizes Rwanda to probe deeply and ask the tough questions. After the Holocaust, we said it wouldn’t happen again. Why did it?”