Hasmig Minassian has been teaching history at Berkeley High School for nearly two decades.

She’s covered many topics over the years, but after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia this past summer, Minassian decided to scrap her regular lesson plans and develop something entirely new.

This year, her class of sophomores will be tackling controversial topics including the origins of white supremacy, white nationalism and the recent rise of movements linked to those ideologies.

Berkeley High School history teacher Hasmig Minassian introduces her lesson plan to her sophomore World History class. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

Minassian says she wants to help her students — particularly her white male students — deconstruct and really understand the issues at play.

“If we don’t talk about white male identity and address those questions in the classroom, they are going to be addressed on the internet,” Minassian says. “And there are people like Richard Spencer from the alternative-right movement who are more than happy to welcome our young white men.”

Spencer is considered by many to be the modern-day icon for young white supremacists.

Two years ago, Berkeley High was rocked by its own string of racial incidents — the most terrifying being a racist threat found on a library computer expressing support for the Ku Klux Klan and a public lynching.

The scandal raised something few on campus had considered before: Was there space at this liberal high school for students with extreme views or even conservative views to express themselves?

Minassian says teachers have been trying to talk more open and honestly about race relations with their students. 

“Our kids are really smart, and they see right through teachers’ attempts to gloss over or sugarcoat things,” Minassian says. “I’ll say to them, ‘Look, this is going to be a little messy. This is how grappling with history is.’”

Inside the Classroom

Sophomore students head into Minassian’s world history class for today’s lesson.

Minassian asks them to break into small groups and discuss these two key questions:

What makes a just society?

 How do you know if you are living a just society?

Sophomore Mara Halpern takes the lead in her group, saying the only way to learn is by hearing from different people.

“I feel like learning about these current events in class with people who don’t look like you, in the same room with you, is the solution,” Halpern says.

When the class regroups, Minassian challenges her students by asking them whether someone’s justice could be perceived as another person’s injustice.

Some students suggest perhaps like-minded people should stick together to prevent unneeded conflicts. Sophomore Kya Sweeney believes tolerance is a two-way street.

“If I’m going to accept you for all your hatred, and all your flaws, then you have to accept I am brown, that my friends are white, and that I can have an education,” Sweeney says.

Minassian says her point with her lesson plans is not to prove who’s right or wrong in her class, but to get her students thinking more critically about what is happening across the country and their own backyard.

How One Berkeley Teacher Is Tackling White Supremacy 19 September,2017Ana Tintocalis

  • Commentor

    Interesting subject. This story deserves more space. It ends just as it gets started.

  • mbrenman

    This approach is fraught with difficulty: “Minassian says she wants to help her students — particularly her white male students — deconstruct and really understand the issues at play.” Focusing on white male students commits a fallacy of essentialism. Why would the teacher think that her while male students are guilty of wrongdoing? Stereotypes about one class of people are no better than stereotypes about another class of people.

    • bud11

      Do you have to be guilty of wrongdoing to be taught about something? Nobody says they did anything wrong. Why do you assume that anyone thinks they are guilty of wrongdoing?

      White males are the students who are being sought after by hate groups or who could be lost in the shuffle when talking about the many demographics on Berkeley High’s campus. It makes perfect sense to spend some time focusing on their views as well, and to ensure that students feel safe sharing a widely diverse array of viewpoints.

      • mbrenman

        I didn’t read the teacher as saying she would “focus on their views.”

  • srobbins

    My daughter was in Ms. Minassian’s class several years ago. I remember her as a very thoughtful and caring teacher who encourages critical thinking, not jumping to conclusions.

  • The Deplorable Miss B

    http://www.transparentcalifornia.com I guess when you make almost 120,000 a year to work 5-6 hours a day teaching high school, it must be nice to just one day decide you don’t like the curriculum so you just up and create your own specifically targeting white students and then say it’s not propaganda and not racism. Time to get people like this out of the schools. We need our kids to learn English, Math, Science and AMERICAN history, not radical left ideologies.

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