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Travel abroad opens high school students’ eyes

Lori Jacobsen’s display of photos from 2016 travels inspires others

For many years, Lori Jacobsen’s East Valley High School European history and western civilization students have written essays and created art on the Holocaust for the annual Yom Hashoah commemoration at Temple Beth Shalom.

She has also invited Holocaust survivors to speak in her classes and taken students on nearly 20 summer trips to visit places where history happened in Europe —history from following Michelangelo’s footsteps to following the footsteps of people to concentration camps.

When students visit concentration camps on trips, Lori sees that their grief is real. Their disbelief at seeing the inhumanity that took place is also real.

“I hope students see it as their responsibility to make sure such inhumanity does not happen again, to work with their families and friends, so people do not hate, fear and make the enemy images, as people did before the Holocaust.

As students debrief from trips, they often say visiting a concentration camp and hearing from survivors were the most meaningful moments.

The Yom Hashoah essay and art contests are also a way to make history real and challenge students to think about the Holocaust in light of today.

Because Lori’s name was on so many entries in the essay and art contests, she was invited two years ago to serve on the planning committee to share her perspectives as a teacher in framing themes and evaluating submissions.

The 2018 prompt is on hate speech.“My students are not artists, but many chose to create art about it. Many show a wall. They connect to the idea of hate speech. It’s part of the world they live in,” Lori said.

“Hate speech has consequences. The role models in today’s contentious environment are not good,” she said. “People feel free to express themselves and make ugly comments more than I ever heard even five years ago.

It doesn’t matter what side we are on,” she said. “We need to be thoughtful and stop hate speech. It’s worth students taking time to reflect on it and create something.

Lori has promoted the contest with other EVHS teachers.

The 2017 first- and second-place winners were from EVHS, and they had winners in 2016, too.

Lori recently told her class that when she was a little girl, the bad guys in the movies were the Soviets. Now the bad guys in movies are Muslims, she said.

When she met students in the former Soviet Union, they said bad guys in their movies were Americans. Her students were amazed.

“We are products of our media,” she said. “Most students do not watch TV news or read newspapers but follow news online.

“It’s frightening that students today do not read or listen to news unless it’s short,” she said. “We educate students to pay attention to lessons of history, so they see the relationship.”

Lori lived in California and moved several times before settling in Spokane where she graduated from high school. She earned a bachelor’s in social studies and political science from EWU in 1985 and a master’s in social sciences in 1988 with a thesis on how education systems in other countries treat history.

Since 1990, she has taught AP European history, AP and regular world history, history through the arts and—as an adjunct professor with Eastern Washington University (EWU)—a college-level western civilization class for college credit.

Lori first went overseas to Hong Kong when she was 21 after winning a Dick Clark $25,000 Pyramid game show. She has since traveled around the world with and without students, mostly in Europe, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—when it was under communism and since.

She has led two- to five-week educational student trips, some including home stays, for 40 to 50 students and teachers from Spokane area high schools, and some parents. Over the years, she has taken hundreds of students to places they study in class.

“It’s an extraordinary teaching opportunity to retrace Michelangelo’s steps and contributions, or to go to Baku, Azerbaijan, where teens have never seen white American teens,” she said. “I see students’ jaws drop when they enter a cathedral.

”Lori makes arrangements through a tour company, requesting opportunities to interact with local people. Part of a trip is about people and part about history.

“We focus on society, economics and politics, so we look at the culture,” Lori said. “We are all human beings occupying the same planet, so we focus on similarities rather than differences. There are universals in every culture.

“We look at different religions and cultures to see what all value, such as family. Each has some kind of social organization. Some have nuclear families, and some extended families. In some, because of economics, 35-year-old children live with parents.

“Now that’s happening more in the U.S.,” Lori said. “We look at how economic, political and social challenges in other countries mirror those challenges here.”

In Italy recently, students saw growing racism against immigrants from North Africa and Syria, and saw similarities to U.S. attitudes about Hispanics and Muslims.

“In both cases, people left their homelands because of harsh economic and political situations,” Lori said.

She believes travel helps students understand the U.S. position in the world, and helps them develop empathy for people and appreciate their own country.

Some later study abroad. Some try to speak Spanish or French they learn at school.

“Students go from being wide-eyed to being able to discuss meaty issues,” she said.

This year, Lori has been teaching a class on history through arts. Students learn about the “rape of Europe” when Hitler stole and destroyed art, especially art created by Jewish people. Some was saved and some destroyed.

For many years, Lori has taught about the Holocaust, not only in the trips but also by bringing survivors, such as Carla Peperzak and Corander Koorkanian, and other speakers to class. Students hear different survivors’ experiences.

“It’s important to introduce them to survivors because the number of survivors is dwindling. They need to hear stories from people before they are only on video,” she said.

Some of the universal tenets of the world’s major religions are:

Attentive to commonalties, she sees many “wonderful aspects” in each religion.

As part of history, Lori teaches about world religions, even including science as a way some understand the relationship of human beings to the world.

“My goal is to break down stereotypes to promote tolerance and acceptance,” said Lori.

She also takes students on field trips in Spokane to religious and cultural festivals, like the Greek Festival, the Kosher Dinner and Yom Hashoah, and encourages them to go to performances at St. John’s Cathedral to see the architecture and art.

In addition, she connects students with refugees through World Relief.

“I want students to see people as people, and feel connected as I do with the many traditions and cultures around us,” she said.

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