Most people condemn things they know nothing about

Irena Martinkova, a teacher, and her students at Jan Patocka Grammar School, Prague
in conversation with
Gabina Setunska, Prague Coordinator of the Stories Exchange Project
[Since February 2001 students at the Jan Patocka Grammar School have participated in the Stories Exchange Project.
Irena Martinkova received her diploma at the Technology Faculty in Prague and teaches chemistry and informatics at the school.
She has included work with the stories in her computer education course, and has cooperated with Gabina Setunska in organizing other activities.]
Gabina Setunska
When did you get acquainted with the Stories Exchange Project? What was your first impression?
Irena Martinkova
At first I didn’t know what was it all about, or what should I expect. I thought it was a sort of an experiment for both sides.
But I enjoy analyzing information, and I thought it might help make the lessons more interesting. And it might be a good influence.
I could not imagine then how it can grow and spread. The Project has inspired me to do many other things.
Gabina Setunska
How did you begin working with the Project?
Irena Martinkova
We started by finding the Web-page of the Project,, and I based a lesson on one story.
We read it together, and the students wrote their responses.
After a while I asked them to produce stories of their own: either to write about their own experience or to get a story from someone else.
During these lessons we also discussed the problem of nationalism, of definitions of the nation and the foreigner. I let the students express their own views.
Then we continued with discussions about the family. We compared Romany families and Czech families.
Each of the lessons was followed by a task: to write a page or two about the problem we had discussed.
We invited foreigners from Ukraine, USA (Colorado, Michigan, Ohio), South Africa and Kenya to discuss the topic with us.
When we had some experience with the Project, we organized a survey. A group of students went outside the school and asked people questions.
These questions were focused on the problem of foreigners and Roma. Thestudents were to question ten people at least. I think it was interesting for my students to see what people really think.
Gabina Setunska
Of the many stories on our Web-page you chose to have your class discuss “Can those boys still be considered skinheads?” in the Meeting Others menu: a story about the Romany boxer Standa Tiser.
Why did you choose this story?
Irena Martinkova
I thought it was interesting and up-to-date for young people.
And in my opinion it gives opportunities for discussion and response. You can talk about many things: skinheads, Roma, how to spend free time, sports. You can discuss the limits of tolerance. Or the issue of young people forming gangs.
Gabina Setunska
Stories gathered by the Stories Exchange Project are real stories of real people.
Do you think that lessons based onthe Project are different from those based on textbooks and theory?
Irena Martinkova
That certainly has an influence.
Students of course tend simply to accept what they are taught as theory.
And the friends of one of my students took her to a boxing club and she realized that she was in the club of Standa Tiser, the Romany boxer who appears in the story we were discussing!
When she came to school she was very happy and enthusiastic and we talked about it.
She told us: “I just happened to go to the club, and I met Mr.Tiser, I could see everything with my own eyes. The atmosphere was very pleasant, and I was surprised that something like that really exists.”
Gabina Setunska
Your students had an opportunity to discuss the story. Do you think that they know how to take part in discussions, or is it a problem for them?
Irena Martinkova
I think it’s a problem. I am not sure if the problem is the relation between the teacher and the student. I thoughtthey might be able to discuss better among themselves.
But apparently they have problems even when a teacher is not there. They’re notused to concentrated listening, and they can’t tolerate and respect the opinions of others.
My task is not to make conclusions but to learn to share ideas.
So we sit in a circle and I ask only one question which everybody has to answer.
And I try to make them listen to each other’s answers.
Gabina Setunska
How do your students respond when they have a chance to express their own points of view?
Well…I myself didn’t know how to take part in a discussion, and it was difficult at first. We didn’t know what to say.
And when we began to understand, we all spoke at the same moment, and interrupted each other.
But little by little we learned how to discuss things.
Tereza Stenglova
Teachers seldom ask us our opinions. We’re taught definitions.
I think it would be much better if we could discuss things.
That’s why I liked the Project. And I think it would be good for everyone.
Gabina Setunska
Do you find the stories to be a good basis for discussions?
Do they include topics that are interesting and inspiring for students?
Irena Martinkova
The stories on your Web-page are very interesting.
They focus on a subject which is quite complicated. Even adults don’t know what they think about it. This problem has not yet been solved.
That’s why it might be good for students to discuss it.
There are no definite answers and no final solutions; students can bring new points of view.
Gabina Setunska
Was the Project interesting for you as a person?
Irena Martinkova
I had always thought that I would be teaching information theory and technology, and talk about data transmission and analysis.
The Stories Exchange Project is fulfilling my secret wish to do something like this: to discuss,to talk with students.
Other teachers also see the need for discussion, but they first have to teach theory to make a discussion possible.
Gabina Setunska
You’ve told me that students are not very much interested in talking about bits and bytes.
Was working with the stories refreshing for your students?
In which lessons do you think the Project could be used?
Irena Martinkova
The Project can be used very nicely to combine subjects.
I think there could be a combined subject in which students learn how to analyze information, and in which English and Czech can be included – as well as social and civic training.
Stories can be a good motivation, and such lessons can help integrate students’ education.
Gabina Setunska
Four classes took part in the Project. I had an opportunity to listen to studentsdiscussing certain problems, and I interviewed some of them.
What does the Project mean to you?
Zuzka Vitova and Pavel Kourimsky
It was something new for us.
Gabina Setunska
Was it interesting? Did it give you anything?
Zuzka Vitova
Sure it did. It was interesting to listen to schoolmates’ opinions. It was valuable for us.
Pavel Kourimsky
It’s about getting to know our friends: getting to know their points of view, and their responses to certain topics.
Tereza Stenglova
I think that reading such stories can have a great influence on people.
And when they write their own stories, they think about their experiences: they think them over and over. And they might begin to understand.
Jakub Jirkal
I think it has a meaning. People tend to take only one side when thinking about Roma, and they condemn the whole group. When they read or listen to a story, they might change their minds. Gabina Setunska
Students have different experience with Roma. Some students have never met any Roma. Some students wrote abouttheir experience – and as we can see most of it is negative. But there are some positive experiences too.
Prokop Hycl
Many Roms live in our housing development. I have not had any bad experience with them. I have friendsamong them. I don’t care if a person is Romany or a member of the majority: I’m interested what kind of a person he is. I accept people as individuals. I don’t care what group they belong to.
Jakub Jirkal
I have nothing against Roma. I used to have friends among them. We used to go play football…and if they have goodleadership, you can make friends with them.
Gabina Setunska
Sometimes you could feel that working with the stories made them think about the problem, and about their attitudes to their environment, and the society as a whole.
Pavel Kourimsky
I have no Romany friends, but near where I live there is a very strong Romany community. The teacher who helped me with schoolwork lived in the area and I didn’t want to go there.
When we were reading the stories Ithought: perhaps I should have gone there. I should have tried.
Tamara Fricova
I was surprised that there are Roma who have no prejudice.
Gabina Setunska
Do you know anything about Romany culture, about the way they live?
Gabina Kocova
I know now. I didn’t know anything about them, and I wasn’t even interested I felt no need to know more.
Now I see I was mistaken. Most people condemn things they know nothing about.
Prokop Hycl
I think that both cultures can enrich each other. Romany traditional customs seem interesting.
Gabina Setunska
There were many more questions, responses, and opinions.
And the students would like to meet someone from the Romany community and talk with him. We are planning to organize such discussions during the next school year.