Our Favorite Experiences in International Education, Vol.1: Bringing Socialism to America

November 11, 2018

Allow me to introduce myself – I’m Lani Seelinger, the ESSR team’s American cultural translation consultant and editor. I came to the ESSR with several rounds of international piloting under my belt, because I was one of Socialism Realised’s co-authors. Of course I enjoyed and gained valuable information from all of the piloting and presenting we’ve done in Europe, with students and teachers from around the continent, but I have to say that my absolute favorite piloting experience was when I brought Socialism Realised’s material back home to my middle school, Duke School, in Durham, North Carolina.

Pedagogically speaking, Duke School has been ahead of its time for years. I now recognize that much of what we did when I was a student was interdisciplinary project-based learning. Constructivist pedagogy and inquiry-based learning, I assumed going into the class, would not be entirely new to this class of 13- and 14-year-olds. The challenge, I thought, would come with the subject matter. This was the ultimate practical test of all the theoretical work that had gone into choosing the material – were our video clips actually suitable for students who may never have heard the words socialism or communism in a setting?

I had decided to work with an earlier form of the Basics of Communism pathway, which aims to give students a broad look at characteristics that most of the Central and East European communist regimes shared – the ideology, the oppression, the adjustments people made for their everyday life, the dissidents, and the most complex subject of all: the various memories of communism that exist in today’s society.

In order to give the kids a historical basis, I started with a brief look at a timeline of 20th century Czechoslovak history and a map of the region. I could already tell that they weren’t going in blind, because they at least had a background studying World War II history. When I started playing the various clips about the communist period, I could tell that the subject was new for them, but they were no less engaged with the material than older students from different rounds of piloting had been. They were eager to answer the questions I was asking — which weren’t simplified from what we have on the website now — and they were asking their own as well. I had my answer to the overarching question: yes, even younger American students can engage with the material.

My favorite part of the whole class came at the end, after I played a clip we have from a 1990s documentary, of older women remembering their time on the collective farm in the 1950s. At this point, the students had already watched a propaganda video from a collective farm during the Stalinist period, and we’d discussed the propaganda that the regime engaged in. The women, however, remember the period fondly, as a time when they had access to far more than they had before or after the communist regime. It’s always a great video for students to engage with, because it makes them question the stereotypes they might have heard about communism being uniformly bad for everyone, and it helps them understand why there are conflicting memories of the period. I’m not sure exactly what I asked to prompt the one student’s response that I remember, but it was gratifying nonetheless.

“So communism was bad for a lot of people, especially a lot of the richer people,” he said. “But there were some people who it helped.”

Not the most nuanced view – but for an American eighth grader after an hour-long lesson, I was more than satisfied.