Teachers’ journey to Middle East brings powerful lessons to Kansas City classrooms

Teachers (from left) John Kearney, Katie Laird and Jay Pitts-Zevin at Alta Vista Charter High School.
Teachers (from left) John Kearney, Katie Laird and Jay Pitts-Zevin at Alta Vista Charter High School. The Kansas City Star

By the time they were standing on a Palestinian rooftop in the West Bank, the plans of the three Kansas City teachers had long fled them.

Under a searing sky, they absorbed the sights of patched bullet holes in the water tanks beside them, the razor wire separating the Israeli settlements below, the chilling sniper towers.

They had given up hope of carefully chronicling each day’s journey.

They weren’t settling in at nights the way they had imagined to review the lesson ideas they would be taking home to their students at Alta Vista Charter High School.

This stark view over the city of Hebron was just another backdrop to people they had met — Israeli and Palestinian — whose stories one after the other had burst the teachers’ intellectual and emotional tanks.

“There was so much intensity,” language arts teacher Jay Pitts-Zevin said. “We ran out of bandwidth. How could we capture someone’s story and do justice to it?”

It was all they could do, in exhaustion, to write down as much as possible from their journey lasting a little over a week and bring it home.

Teachers Pitts-Zevin, Katie Laird and John Kearney set off for the Middle East in June with a grant they won from the national Fund for Teachers fellowship that the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation brought to Kansas City.

They embraced a pledge “to dream big,” Laird said, and gather up real and compelling experiences to spark gripping lessons back home.

They were going with the “full-on” curiosity they want in their students, Laird said.

“We knew we would say yes to any possibility,” Pitts-Zevin said. “Always say ‘yes.’”

Yes whenever anyone said, “I know someone you should meet …”

Yes to entreaties to cross through iron-gated checkpoints into the Al-Arroub Palestinian refugee camp.

Yes to invitations to visit Israeli settlements.

When they learned of the opportunity to make a pitch for a Fund for Teachers grant, they wanted to go somewhere that would help them connect with their students at Alta Vista in deep and challenging ways.

Alta Vista serves some 275 teens, more than 90 percent Hispanic, with 98 percent considered economically disadvantaged, qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.

Many are immigrants or the children of immigrants who left homelands in search of better opportunities, scattered with a sense of displacement.

“Why would you leave your home?” Pitts-Zevin asked his language arts students on the last day before winter break. “How do people wind up being displaced?”

This was how he was putting his own lessons from the West Bank into play, preparing his students — and himself — to come back in January to bring their reading and writing exercises to a high, personal level.

“Is immigration a choice? Or is it forced on you?”

The students together and in pairs or threes took their first stabs at the questions, priming their minds for the semester ahead.

Pitts-Zevin asked them, “Why do human beings still displace other human beings?”

This is the start of what the teachers dreamed of — bringing back a world view and enriching their students’ understanding of their lives through the search for place and meaning in the Israeli and Palestinian diasporas.

The model texts for encouraging students’ writing will be the teachers’ own narratives.

“We learned to value and appreciate traveling,” Kearney said. “The best way to learn is to go. It opened our eyes to the human side” of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

They know now, the teachers said, that differences of religion aren’t inflaming the conflict, but rather the way the Israeli and Palestinian self-identities are deeply invested in the land.

Westerners come chastising the people on the two sides of the razor wire for failing at peace, high school girls in East Jerusalem told the teachers, but the word “peace” rings like a cussword.

To the teenage girls, people who don’t understand, who ask, “Why not peace?” are essentially asking, “Why are you so angry?” It sounds like an admonition.

“Peace” means “calm down,” Laird said.

Some distance from Israeli and Palestinian cities they sat with a Palestinian peace activist, a wizened man named Ali, in a home without electricity around his chicken boiler in the ground.

His brother had been shot and killed at an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint during the Second Intifada Palestinian uprising more than a decade ago. So the violence for Ali was still as fresh as the spent rubber bullets and tear gas canisters the teachers had seen at their feet, left from the latest nighttime skirmish back in Al-Arroub.

“Palestinians don’t need a lecture about peace,” Ali told them. “We need a taste of peace.”

There can be more than one correct answer to the questions that will come. That message is written in red letters among the black lettering of questions handwritten across the wipe board of Pitts-Zevin’s classroom wall.

He asked his students: What defines someone’s “proper place”?

“The things you treasure,” one said. “Your mom,” said another. “What you value.” “Home.”

Pitts-Zevin’s final food for thought: “Who do you know who has been displaced? How were they displaced?”

Then he added: “It can be yourself.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

Grants for teachers

To learn more about the Fund for Teachers, go to www.kauffman.org/fundforteachers. Grant applications from teachers who meet the program’s eligibility are being accepted through Jan. 29.