Marzena Wolschlaeger: “In the beginning was a Word …”

Inspired by the 2018 TOLI seminar in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Marzena Wolschlaeger, a History and Social Studies teacher in Bydgoszcz developed the powerful “In the beginning was a Word …” project together with Danuta Kopińska- Kołowacikin to show students how intolerance and discrimination are spread in their schools. “It began with words, then turned to actions – that is what happened in the beginning of the 20th century. Our duty is to remember this and prevent it from happening again in the 21st century.” 

The project began with `The Plate Day,` where a chosen class prepared plates/cards with writing which restricted access and imposed bans on specific people in the school based on arbitrary traits. The writing on the plates reflected diferent forms of discrimination. (e.g. “We don’t sell to brown-eyed students,” “Blond-haired students sit on the right,” “Biology students can’t enter,” etc). The cards were put in various places such as the cafeteria, on benches, in the hall, the stairway, or classrooms at the same time in both schools. . As part of the project, some students were discriminated against while others observed.

In a few classes, teachers provoked reflections on different forms of discrimination through physical activities in class, such as telling all students wearing glasses they must sit on the left side of the room. Through this activity, teachers explained concepts such as “bench ghetto” or “numerus clausus” to students participating in the lesson.

“Our goal was to sensitize students to other people’s needs so that they learned not to show indifference to those who are discriminated against in society. This led to a deep reflection concerning the consequences of indifference towards whole social groups, including nations, and the question of violating human rights. We drew students’ attention to the long-lasting consequences of these attitudes.”

The students who had written and hung up the discriminatory plates conducted short interviews with the other students to assess their reactions to the writing on the plates. Those who had been discriminated against felt stress, a lack of confidence, fear, indignation, sadness, confusion, anger, feelings of injustice, nervousness, and astonishment at the others students’ reactions. The students who had only observed felt surprise, laughter, a lack of understanding, a lack of any reaction, a lack of confidence, indignation (sometimes bigger than the discriminated ones’), indifference, and curiosity.

Reflecting on why students had these reactions, Marzena says: “In the student reactions we can find numerous analogies to historical events. People are often afraid to oppose others so as not to expose themselves to any danger or make their situation worse. Fear and conformism are more powerful than sympathy and the need to help.”

Additionally students took a trip to Polin, the Museum of Polish Jews, to show the connection between Polish and Jewish cultures on Polish land. The exhibition also showed how  words and various forms of discrimination and social indifference led to the Holocaust.

The aim of the lesson, Marzena explains, “was working toward one general reflection – how indifference and willful ignorance have led to human rights violations in the past and present.  ”

“If even just a few students reflect on the phenomenon of discrimination and stigmatization, we can consider the project a success. A thought is the first step toward changing our actions.”

The final message, originally written in Bulgarian to rhyme, by student participants in the group:


The aim of our civilization

is the ability of tolerance.

We won’t survive long without it

making our lives miserable.


Everybody is a living example.

Moses for next generations.

Let’s show how to use freedom

and how the lack of its knowledge hurts.

Discrimination has many names

and each of them may leave a scar.

Abandon even the smallest one

and create the world where no one cries.


Look at the world critically,

don`t be afraid to say “no.”

Respect other people’s work

even if it irritates you.


You are a human yourself, remember!

Fight against discrimination

and don’t discriminate against others.

It’s the calamity of our civilization.


The message of the project by Class 2C


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