Teaching Tolerance in Secondary Classrooms

Much of what goes on in our world makes its way into our classrooms in some form or another. In this sense, many view classrooms or schools in general as microcosms—mini representations of society. Ask any teacher, and tolerance is likely not part of their curriculum. However, much like with a productive and stable society, tolerance plays an essential role in creating a welcoming and productive classroom environment. Fostering a positive environment is no easy task, especially when our world is in the midst of such grave negativity. Tolerance in the classroom takes time, patience, practice, and reflection.

 

Remind students that everyone they meet knows something they don’t. Whether rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, foreign, or not—every single person has lived a different life, experiencing their own realities and garnering life lessons along the way. Instead of viewing someone’s vastly different experiences as weird or wrong, students should be reminded of the value that varying experiences, perspectives, and lifestyles offer.

 

Change the language of the classroom when it comes to discussing differences. To avoid “othering” certain groups, encourage neutral or positive ways to address differences. Instead of allowing students to use weird, odd, strange, unusual, etc. to describe people, groups, or customs, a positive classroom environment should be one where words like unique, unfamiliar, uncommon, fascinating, diverse, various, or distinctive are used.

 

Approach confrontation with logical questions. Since students bring differing experiences and opinions into the classroom, occasional clashes are to be expected. When this occurs, teachers can use these opportunities as teachable moments by addressing the issue with open, honest, logical conversations. Guided or rhetorical questions also allow students to reflect on their own perspectives and how they react to others. For instance, a teacher might ask, “In what way does his/her different opinion or belief threaten yours?” “Is there a reason that their differences affect you?” “How can we focus more specifically on ourselves and less on how others behave, speak, learn, etc.?” “What do you think you know about certain people? What if you took a moment to consider where these beliefs/opinions come from?” “Saying that someone’s choices are wrong do not necessarily make yours right.” “This argument could simply be de-escalated by considering it a difference of opinions.” All of these talking points prompt students to reflect on their own belief systems while maintaining an open mind towards others.

 

Learn how to recognize your own implicit bias. This is often a difficult practice for teachers—we aim to be impartial, objective, open-minded educators that provide equal opportunities to all of our students. Therefore, recognizing, questioning, and shedding light on our own innate judgments goes against what we are working towards in the classroom. It also summons feelings of discomfort by forcing us to identify our own stereotypes and belief systems. As difficult and uncomfortable as this may be, we must address our own biases before we can ask students to do the same. To foster tolerance, there must first be a foundation of understanding—what better way than to begin with our own reflections?

Create opportunities for students to learn about one another on deeper, more meaningful levels. Free writes, warm up topics, discussion starters, and icebreakers are all optimal opportunities to help build a solid, positive rapport in the classroom. Ask students to respond to questions such as:

 

  • What is one way that your family likes to celebrate an important accomplishment?
  • What types of traditions are unique to your family/community?
  • Do you have any rituals, superstitions, good luck charms, etc.?
  • Where do most family gatherings happen?
  • What important memory from your childhood makes you smile?
  • What does your typical Saturday look like?
  • What do you like to do on a snow day?

Teaching Tolerance in Elementary Classrooms

As educators, we know that there are many, many things that are beyond our control. In fact, some days it seems like outside variables are constantly working against our goals for our students. With home lives, belief systems, opinions, and habits already formed, our young learners enter our classrooms with some knowledge and prejudices that they may not even know that they have acquired. Simply put, what occurs at home or outside of the happy school bubble may not align with the tolerance that we hope to instill in our students. Below are a few activities to reinforce tolerance in the elementary classroom and reintroduce positive mindsets around what it means to be different.

 

Ask students to pick their favorite color and draw a picture using just that single color. The following day, ask students to draw the same picture using as many colors as they can. On the third day, place drawings side by side and ask students to reflect on their art. Prompt discussion by asking questions like:

  • Which drawings depict or show more variety?
  • Which drawings are more interesting or lively?
  • Which drawings reflect real life more accurately?
  • Which drawings attract the eye or incur more fascination?

 

As students discuss, introduce them to the idea that art imitates life. By this you mean that, just as our drawings are more vibrant and interesting when they are full of different colors and variations, our world becomes more beautiful when we appreciate the differences around and between us.

 

Encourage students to explore literature that includes a main character with drastically different life experiences from their own. As students explore texts offering new perspectives on the world, utilize a Venn diagram for a compare and contrast activity. Students will put themselves and the novel’s main character into the Venn diagram, which will reveal how similar they might be, despite their differences. In looking closely at the character’s struggles, worries, fears, and overall experiences alongside their own, students begin to empathize with a character that they originally saw as “other” or “different.”

 

Design challenging, collaborative learning experiences that essentially force students to lean on each other and cooperate in order to achieve success. One example might be a spelling, times tables, or other skills relay race, in which each member of the team must successfully participate to move the entire team forward. Quizlet Live allows teachers to create review games using a collaborative online platform. The site groups students randomly and asks individual questions to various members of each team. Progress is projected on the Smartboard in real-time and creates an intense form of comradery as teams digitally “race” to the finish. Activities like relays or digital relays build community among even the most reluctant students and teach tolerance along the way.

 

Highlight famous people and historical figures that experienced adversity, unique obstacles, and unconventional upbringings to show students that self-love and self-acceptance are key forms of tolerance as well. Elementary schoolers will be surprised to learn that some of the world’s most celebrated artists, athletes, leaders, and thinkers came from what we would consider to be strange or unusual backgrounds. By highlighting their successes, children begin to view differences as assets, as opposed to deficits.

It is never too young to learn that loving others has to begin with ourselves first. Once we accept our own distinctiveness and individualities, we begin to seek differences in others to achieve personal growth.

Tough Conversations: A Tool for Parents, Part II


Now that we have scratched the surface of the compass from Singleton’s “Courageous Conversations about Race,” it is time to discuss exactly how parents can utilize the compass when having other courageous conversations with their teens. While the compass was originally designed as a method for structuring respectful and productive conversations around race, the same philosophies can apply when tackling tough discussions with teens at home.

Recognize and Validate an Emotional Viewpoint

Understand that, hormonally and developmentally, it is probable that many debates or discussions with your teen will result in your child entering and participating in the conversation from the emotional axis of the compass—and this is okay. Help your teen recognize when he or she is entering the conversation from an emotional angle by first validating his or her feelings. Simply acknowledging their feelings by starting with, “I see that you’re upset and I understand why” will allow teens to remove any defensiveness if a discussion becomes emotional on their end. Remind them and yourself that emotions can run high, and a conflict or argument can greatly benefit from some breathing room. If the discussion becomes combative or unproductive, allow your teen some time to pause, settle, and reflect before proceeding with the conversation. In the heat of the moment, emotions can take over, allowing no room for seeing someone else’s point of view.

Capitalize on Opportunities to Discuss Morality

Entering an important or intense conversation from the moral quadrant of the compass can be an enlightening experience for parents and teens. Let’s say that your teen was caught cheating on an exam. When discussing the situation, approach their misstep from a moral angle. First, ask why they decided to cheat—did they not study enough? Were they afraid of the possibility of failure? Were they trying to appease you with a good grade? What prompted this decision to cheat? Their answer will act as your springboard for discussing the moral implications of cheating. If the fear of failure is what spurred their decision, discuss that success is much more than a letter grade—true success or achievement means reaching an authentic goal or milestone, and there is nothing authentic about a grade that you didn’t earn. Allow them an opportunity to discuss how they quantify what is moral or right versus behavior that is immoral or inherently wrong.

Cold-hard Facts Can Help a Teen See the Light

An intellectual or level-headed approach to a conversation is easier said than done, especially when dealing with adolescents. When parents find themselves in a discussion, debate, or all-out conflict with their teen, it may help to have some fun facts on their side. Encourage your teen to look at the logical approach to an issue by presenting them with sound reasoning or resources to do the searching themselves. When teens have the opportunity to seek logical reasons for or against an important decision, they are less likely to make rash or rebellious decisions. Avoid playing the “know-it-all” role by helping them seek answers, as opposed to throwing answers at them or blatantly coercing their viewpoints.

School Day of Nonviolence and Peace

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As much as we’d like to move on from the past, memories of the news stories involving school violence continue to haunt us. Anniversaries of the tragedies and “remembering the victims” news specials are an all too regular reminder that school violence in the United States is catastrophically unique, as opposed to the rest of the world.

As a teacher, I, of course, have theories as to why school violence is more prevalent here. My theories revolve around many of the same issues and concerns that surround the debate on U.S. gun violence as a whole—gun control, mental illness, instant national infamy via our media outlets, etc. We can theorize all day long, but that provides no solution. We must catch these tragedies before they occur—especially our school-related acts of violence. Tune-in, be aware, and look for the typical signs because all too often, where there is smoke, there is fire.

Signs that your child may be in trouble:

        – Social and/or emotional withdrawal: This can be difficult to identify, especially because of the hormonal, brooding nature of teenagers. When a child seems exceptionally withdrawn from friends, family, and usual hobbies, this could indicate a major problem.

        – Self-isolation: Children who shut others out and spend most of their time alone may be exhibiting signs of future issues. Spending time alone may be indicative of hostility or resentment towards peers.

        – Signs of rejection: Similar to self-isolation, children who do not have many friends or opportunities to socialize with peers may experience feelings of rejection. This could lead to hostility and violence down the road.

        – Being bullied: Research indicates that children and teens who have experienced bullying and violence are at risk for harming others in the future. Again, victims of bullying often internalize hostility until it has built up to an unmanageable level.

        – Loss of interest in school/and or other activities: Students who appear to have “given up” on their academics or are suddenly displaying defiant or aggressive behaviors are sometimes trying to say something without verbally communicating. This type of frustration and negative attitude towards school could indicate that a child is on the verge of more serious methods of acting out.

        – Expressions of violence or aggression on paper: This is a BIG one. If a child is struggling to communicate, socialize, or express themselves verbally, they may resort to other expressive forms. Journals, drawings, poems, or stories that display or discuss violence in an especially detailed manner are major red flags.

        – History of impulsivity, bullying, or insubordination: Students with a lengthy history of defying authority, breaking rules/laws, and deliberately harming others are displaying blatant signs of future violence. This type of behavior screams, “I don’t care what happens to me, you, or anyone else!” Children that exhibit this type of behavior before the teenage years have a much higher chance of engaging in school violence than other children.

        – Inappropriate level of interest or infatuation with weapons or violent images: Children that have an “obsession” with weapons, specifically firearms or knives, may be indicating signs of violent behavior later. Moreover, a child with an unusual level of interest in weapons, who also has access to firearms in the home, could pose a great risk.

There is no denying the severity of our nation’s problem with school violence. However, there are ways to restore and maintain the peace in our schools. It begins at home by knowing the signs of trouble and how to effectively intervene and provide support. Be available to your children, encourage positive social interaction, and help them understand the detrimental effects of bullying. Teachers must also be vigilant when it comes to identifying and reporting potential threats of violent behavior. Together, we can foster a safer future for our students.