Lincoln Southwest teacher establishes institute to help Rwandan teachers

Lincoln Southwest teacher establishes institute to help Rwandan teachers

by Margaret Reist

Lincoln Star Journal
October 4, 2011

Mark Gudgel fell in love with Rwanda in 2008.

His first visit was a spontaneous one, driven by a conversation with a colleague.

While doing research for a presentation he was to give on the literature of the Rwandan genocide, he called a professor who'd written a paper on the subject and asked him what the country was like -- and the man said he'd never been there.

Gudgel, who teaches Holocaust literature at Lincoln Southwest High School, was shocked that someone calling himself an expert on the subject had never visited Rwanda -- until he realized he was about to do exactly the same thing.

So he called a travel agent, booked a flight and spent the next two weeks in the country.

"I just fell in love with it. I just absolutely fell in love with it," he said.

He loved the culture and the geography. He loved the warmth and the refreshingly progressive attitude of the people.

"I came back really wanting to do more," he said. "I wanted to do something of a real sustainable nature for the country."

The chance came a year later, when he saw Drew Beiter, who like Gudgel had been a fellow at the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., who teaches middle school in Springville, N.Y., and has a similar passion for Rwanda.

They decided education was the best vehicle and established the Educators' Institute for Human Rights, got some seed money from the Holocaust museum and raised $20,000.

This summer, they held the first educator's conference in Kigali, Rwanda.

"We wanted to give Rwandan educators a chance to dialog about what they do," Gudgel said. "We wanted to give them resources."

Pete Fredlake, who directs professional development programs for American teachers at the Holocaust Museum, said he encourages fellows to continue their work once the highly competitive museum fellowship is over.

"We want something bold, new. Something that's never been done before," Fredlake said. "They called my bluff."

The museum does workshops for teachers in other countries, but this was the first time the museum's fellows took on the challenge.

"I think what was unique about this program was it was initiated by these teachers," Fredlake said. "They made connections with the genocide center in Kigali, they found all the right partners. They made all the right moves in terms of making sure they were getting the support."

And they helped start something.

"When you go into a place like that you want to help establish a network so there's something sustainable when they leave. These guys couldn't have done a better job of that."

Gudgel's and Beiter's institute provided the Rwandan teachers with textbooks and books including Ann Frank's diary.

Presenters -- from Rwanda, the United States, Britain, South Africa and Poland -- discussed teaching about the Holocaust, an event most of the Rwandan teachers had not studied, Gudgel said. They saw immediately the similarities between the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

After the Rwandan president's plane was shot down in 1994, the Hutu majority killed an estimated 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and Hutu sympathizers over the next 100 days.

Teaching about genocide in Rwanda is different than teaching American students, most of whom have no direct relationship to the events, Gudgel and Fredlake said.

"It was clear immediately the word 'holocaust' is not capitalized (in Rwanda)," Fredlake said. "It is a synonym for genocide."

Studying the World War II Holocaust in Germany, he said, gave the teachers a structure to talk about their own genocide.

"The thing about the genocide in Rwanda is there is no one in the nation who is unaffected by it," Gudgel said. "It was 17 years ago and they're still very much recovering, still reconciling with what happened, trying to figure out 'how do you move on when 10 percent of your population is slaughtered.'"

Years before Gudgel helped establish the educators' institute, the Lincoln Southwest High School teacher was committed to teaching his students about the Holocaust and other genocides as a way to help them learn tolerance.

He said he came to Southwest in large part because he could teach Holocaust literature, a class that ends with students taking a trip to the museum in Washington, D.C. He's participated in a fellowship there and in a fellowship at the Imperial War Museum in London. He's visited Israel and studied in Poland.

He and Beiter want to continue to hold conferences in Rwanda, and the teachers there asked them to return. They'd like to expand their institute to include conferences to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations in South Dakota and to countries including Armenia, Bosnia, Argentina, Namibia and Poland.

Part of the importance of such conferences, he said, is the presence of the international community showing support for such countries.

Their efforts will require more fundraising, but Gudgel said they're committed to the project. They don't pretend to understand what people in those countries have gone through, but want to help equip teachers to educate students, he said.

"What we want to do is work in places where students are still grappling with what they've been through," he said.