It was a class discussion with her eighth-graders that spurred Carol Gay's decision to venture into the student cafeteria.
Racial tensions, her young charges told her, were thriving at the school. So the next day, Mrs. Gay marched through the locker-lined halls and into the bustling lunchroom. And what she saw shocked her.
"I was so surprised by the drastic segregation all the Brazilians were sitting in one place, the Hispanics in another, the Anglos in their spot, and the African-Americans in another," Mrs. Gay recalls. "After everything we do, there is still an aspect of segregation."
That was last year. Today, the cafeteria at Fuller Middle School in Framingham, Mass., bears the same stratification. But more efforts have been made to mitigate growing racial divides. And one resource that educators have drawn on is reading.
Gay, who heads the language-arts department, knows there is much for her students to gain from literature that deals with racial issues. "It provides an important lens ... through which they can start to see race and racism from another point of view," she says.
Fuller's 900 students reflect the diversity of this town of about 65,000 residents, located 15 miles west of Boston: Whites account for 50 percent of the population, Asian and black students less than 10 percent. Brazilians, at 20 percent, have slightly overtaken Hispanics in recent years, a fact that has helped intensify rivalry between the two groups.
Lunchroom self-segregation is a common phenomenon in schools. But at Fuller, the problem extends further: the lockers and pick-up sports games are segregated by choice. So are buses, where the Brazilians and Latinos often brawl over whether to play Portuguese samba or Spanish salsa.
In some ways, it's a reflection of what kids see around a town where, for example, the green-and-yellow flags waving from Brazilian storefronts have prompted some people to ask that only American flags be displayed.
"In school, the students are often simply mimicking their parents' dislike for a particular ethnic group," Gay says.
This spring, Gay's seventh-graders are reading "Warriors Don't Cry" by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the first African-Americans to integrate into Central High in Little Rock, Ark.
Ayla Marinho, who has one Brazilian and one white parent, found the book particularly inspiring. "If I hadn't read the book, I know I would never have the courage like she had to stand up for my beliefs," she says, her blue eyes sparkling. "Now I think maybe I could."
That newfound courage translated into a recent encounter at the mall with her Latina friend, who is a few shades darker than she. "We ran into some of my white friends who asked what I was doing hanging out with her.... I finally stood up to them and told them they were being racist," she says.
Gay uses a curriculum called Facing History and Ourselves to help spur such conversations. Founded in Brookline, Mass., more than 25 years ago, its reach has extended to more than 15,000 teachers nationwide. Facing History's main goal is to provide activities and discussion questions that guide students through some of the most complex events in history, largely by helping them to relate the events to their own lives.
Subjects include the civil rights movement, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and apartheid in South Africa. As a result, students spend a lot of time talking about identity, conformity, and ostracism issues also at the heart of the adolescent experience.
"Things for kids this age already revolve around what is fair, or 'He got more than I got,' so they really understand when we're talking about race issues," Gay says.
Several classrooms away, eighth-grade language-arts teacher Anna Nolin is using Facing History to teach a book of poetry on the Holocaust. "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" compiles drawings and poems by children who were in the Terezin concentration camp near Prague between 1942 and 1944.
Her students each have made butterfly cutouts, copying poems on them written by the imprisoned children and then dangling them from the ceiling. A few strings are missing their butterflies: Each day, Ms. Nolin has taken one of them down to signify which young poet didn't survive the Holocaust.
"I've kept my eyes more open ... knowing what can happen. Even little racist comments can lead to something much worse," says Stephany Villanueva, who is from Venezuela.
She says that learning about Hitler has also made her follow news about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez more closely, because she is concerned about what his "racist ideas and comments" might bring.
Other students relate to historical events and literature from different perspectives. Back in Gay's class, redhead Marco Cross says the most eye-opening part of the book is when Melba attends the graduation of the lone black student at Central High, Ernest Green. "Everyone stopped clapping when his name was called to receive his diploma," Marco says. "It shows just how much the whites hated the blacks, even after all he had been through to finally be able to graduate."
Marco says the book has made him more tolerant of others "even my sister, who can be very annoying" and more interested in befriending students from different ethnicities.
That idea was the focus of an unprecedented after-school discussion in March, which drew together 80 students from various backgrounds.
The students offered suggestions on how to improve relations: mixing up the lockers, letting the bus driver decide the music, or having specific activities where they could get to know each other. Some cited positive experiences with trying to understand unfamiliar cultures.
Jaime Rodriguez says he has learned from both studying about and being in school with students from other cultures. When he first got to Fuller, he says, "I didn't know about Brazil or Portuguese.... I learned a lot about them and myself. I know I can get along with everyone."