Over the years I have experienced a lot of success bridging divides with my students, and I thought that today I would share some of my experiences with you, in the hopes that it helps you to do the same. As our classrooms become ever more diverse and the topics become more and more heated in the news, it becomes ever more important to teach our students what tolerance really is.
My knowledge on the topic is extremely personal to me. I grew up the child of a racially diverse family. My father was Egyptian, and my mother was American. I say she was American and not some other nationality, because that was what I was taught. I was taught that my ethnicity was American. Not Egyptian, or Irish, or Middle-Eastern, or “Other”. For most of my childhood that was that. Young children are great that they usually don’t notice or care what someone looks like, its us grownups with all the hang ups. That all changed in middle school. Middle school is great for that.I had a teacher whose name I shall keep to myself. Who spent most of my 7th grade year standing int he hallway and singing “Walk Like an Egyptian,” as I walked down the hall. He would get the other children to try to get me to do it too. I learned to HATE that song. I also learned that as an adult I did not want to be that way.
My first teaching job was in rural North Carolina. My school district was approximately 30% students who were migrant farmworkers from Mexico. Most of those children started kindergarten speaking no English. Racial tensions were simmering under the surface, and would occasionally bubble up every now and again. In that town, the KKK openly marched in the fall festival parade, which I seriously could not believe still happened. I taught an ESL inclusion classroom so, 50% of my students were Spanish speakers, the rest were usually white. In that environment I learned a lot about teaching tolerance, and I worked hard to break the barriers down year ofter year. 1/2 way through the first year in that school, White and Hispanic parents alike were coming into my classroom asking for help communicating with each other because their children wanted to have play dates. SCORE!
How did this happen you may ask? I would love to share my lessons learned with you so that perhaps we can all be teaching tolerance a bit more effectively in school.
Remember that it’s the grown ups who have all the stereotypes and racial biases, not the young children.
Children generally speaking, want to like each other. Ask any preschooler about what they are excited about doing when they first go to school, and most of them will excitedly tell you something about making friends. It is the adults in their lives that teach them not to be friends with certain people, even if they are nice to them. Head that off at the pass by making sure to set a good example yourself. Have students talk about what makes a good friend, and how to recognize that in others. Set up a system where students are encouraged to praise other students for their acts of kindness. Before you know it students will choose their friends based on who is kindest to them, not on other superficial reasons.
Examine how you teach history.
Make a point of teaching the hopeful stories along with the rest of history. For example, for black history month I always read my young ones Martin Luther King Jr’s I have a dream speech. I make a point of acting a bit surprised at how he had to dream that his children could go to school with children of many different colors. Then I look around the room, really slowly so that they all look with me. Then I announce, “Wow… looks like dreams can come true if you work hard at them like Mr. King did huh?” Inevitably my students get really excited when for the first time all year it has actually occurred to them that they might not all be the same, and that that is a really great thing. We then talk about how there are still times today where Mr. King’s dreams have not yet come true, and students talk about how they would like the future to be, and how important it is to stand up for what is right, in the right way. With older students it is more tricky because they have seen more. They watch the news and it can make them angry and afraid. Try to focus again on more of the positives of history without glossing over the negatives. For example, when I taught middle school us history class and we got to the part about pre civil war slavery, there were more stories to focus on than there would ever be time for. My teammate and I decided to focus on the story of the Amstad. Through teaching of the story students learned of the plight of the people of Africa, their unthinkable slave trade, politics of long ago, and also the abolitionist movement. The story not only tells history as a black/white struggle but focuses on how problems are best solved when people from both sided get together, stand up for what is right, and make a difference.
Make everyone feel welcome in your classroom even the parents.
Modeling for your students how to treat others can go a long way, but they want to see you put your money where your mouth is. Inviting parents into your room to volunteer for an activity can make a huge difference. I learned that sometimes just asking for volunteers is not enough. In a diverse and divided neighborhood, once one group is perceived as the volunteers in your classroom or school start volunteering the other group(s) won’t show up. One year on a whim I decided that Friday afternoon read-Aloud would be parent time in my classroom. I called each parent on my class lists and told them that we would be taking turns and I would like to schedule them in, then I called and reminded them 2 weeks in advance that it was “their turn” to come share a story with the class. They were allowed to read a book from my classroom library, read a book from home, tell a story, or share a talent with the group. I even had copies of some books in Spanish that could be read. I tried very hard top make it clear that they were desperately wanted, and the class of sweet little faces were really looking forward to them coming in. No one ever said no. Parents came, the read in english, they read in spanish, they told stories, they gave cooking demonstrations. They saw how sweet their child’s friends really were, and they decided it was ok that their children wanted playdates with children whose families spoke a different language. Our ESL teacher spent so much time translating, “Can Jose Come play at the park with Michael Friday after school?” that she eventually made a form for that so kids could invite their friends over more easily (I wish I still had a copy – sorry).
Whether you call it “the Melting Pot”, “The Salad Bowl,” or “Alphabet Soup.” This nation’s diversity is what makes us special and unique. It should be celebrated, and students should be proud to be a part of it. Teaching Tolerance is not only possible, but it is imperative in today’s diverse, ever changing, and exciting classrooms.