I've gotten this question about teaching tolerance – or ones that are quite similar – many times from my followers:
“I teach in a primarily upper middle class white elementary school. Next year, my students will be going to a diverse middle school. While I wouldn't say my students are racist, many have misconceptions about what it means to be of a different race.
“How can I help educate them and facilitate this transition?”
It's a critical question, because intolerance of any type – racial or otherwise – can lead to bullying situations. Let's examine how to weave acceptance into the fabric of our classroom communities.
Your classroom climate and diversity
Teaching tolerance is a cornerstone of effective anti-bullying programs. If your classroom climate is to be completely free of the effects of bullying – and if you want to set your students up to be successful in future grades – start with this basic truth:
We are all different in some way
Whether or not we have a diverse classroom, we can start by taking advantage of teachable moments that occur in most classrooms regularly. Consider…
- Have you ever had a boy not want to be partners with a girl? (Or vice-versa)
- Have you ever had a student exclude another student from an activity because they were different somehow?
- Have you ever seen any of your kids alienated because of a speech impediment or an IEP?
These are not racial characteristics, but they are all opportunities to teach acceptance of others. A child is born a boy or born a girl, or born with a speech impediment or other issue, and it's what they are and they can't change that.
The key is that every single classroom will have some kind of issue that allows for an education in tolerance, for forming the basis of class discussions or lessons regarding diversity in the classroom.
So how do we provide education on acceptance?
Tolerance lessons from books and stories
Start by finding books, articles, and other texts that highlight differences. A great civil rights title with a very applicable lesson is White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman.
Read the story, then open up a discussion about applying the lessons to their personal lives. Expand the discussion to talk about race and ethnicity. Don't be surprised to find that your students have more experience in this area than you think, even if you teach in a non-diverse neighborhood.
Another idea is to invite guests of different professions and different cultures to come to your classroom. They can talk about their jobs, read a book to the class, etc. It is exposure to differences – any differences – from which your kids will benefit.
This is not a “do it once and you're done” thing. Teach these mini-lessons all year long when the need arises; repetition helps a lot.
Video tips: teaching tolerance
Daily lessons from partnering
Tolerance can't simply be a concept that your students understand intellectually. Rather, it must manifest itself in everyday actions and interactions or there will be no impact on your classroom community – or on your kids' lives.
How do we achieve everyday acceptance? With partnering.
My classroom mantra, often repeated by my kids at my request:
We are willing to work with anyone!
When you combine this with random selection of student partners, it becomes a potent reminder that courteous cooperation is not an option. Rather, it is an expectation and great preparation for appreciating and working with any kind of diversity.
Teaching tolerance can really be that simple: expecting each student to work with every other student, then reinforcing this with a classroom climate that allows no tolerance for prejudice of any kind. Kids may still struggle some with full acceptance as they make their way through life, but you will have provided a solid foundation and an example they can follow.
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For ideas on running a Martin Luther King, Jr. writing contest, click here.