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Tolerance in the Classroom - Every Melting Pot Requires Heat

Updated on November 21, 2016
Former students in my afterschool club.
Former students in my afterschool club. | Source

In my first year of real schoolteaching in inner-city Baltimore, I was surprised initially by two things:

1. My school had wonderfully unexpected cultural diversity.

2. Those wonderfully diverse cultures seemed to know nothing about each other.

The school is only 75% black American, a low percentage for a Baltimore City public school. My classes were sprinkled with students from various African nations, South and Central America, Mexico, Pakistan, Greece, Dominican Republic, Nepal, and even New York!

My initial envy of the students’ chances to learn from each other's various backgrounds turned to disbelief as I heard comments such as:

“You so black, you African!” Common black American insult that could lead to an instant fight if aimed at an enemy.

“We are not like them. They are lazy.” Black African who could think of nothing worse than being compared to an American black.

“He’s a terrorist! He’ll blow up your whole family!” Students joking about the mild-mannered Pakistani Muslim who had no choice but to laugh along.

“All Mexicans live with 30 people in one little house.” Young woman who was deadly serious about her knowledge of “Mexicans.”

How did this school not have the perfect amalgam of what America is supposed to represent? Why weren’t the components of this melting pot melting? Analogical answer: Because there was no heat. These differing cultures had neither the reason nor the opportunity to have more than the shallowest understanding of each other. We, as teachers, have to take advantage of the opportunity to encourage real cultural discussion.

Teachers have to be willing to learn. Too many of us think of our students as a mysterious and strange they, and the theyness only deepens when the students are part of an unfamiliar culture. Let’s drop the know-it-all teacher façade and really get to know our students. It’s much easier to ease into discussions of cultural similarities and differences if we’ve done the prep work of getting to know those students first. Read McLovin’s Dilemma for an example of a quick lesson resulting from getting to know two students beforehand.

Talking to the students is one way to acquaint yourself, talking to their previous teachers is another. I found that ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students had wonderful ESOL teachers who were more than willing to share important cultural norms and expectations with me (certain cultures abstain from eye contact, for example).

Fire up Google and Wikipedia for a quick culture check – anything to get a head start. Some of us are comfortably biased toward our culture, but there are some of us who are just straight ethnocentric...don’t be that person.

Students’ natural curiosity must be stoked and guided. Tact keeps most of our students from making inane, misguided, hateful, and plain ignorant comments about other cultures. Unfortunately, it’s hard to foster understanding without those kinds of questions and comments. Kelly Flores, a Spanish teacher at the school, had a wonderful activity to ease the kids into such conversations:

One of my favorite activities that I did in my classroom was “speed dating” with an ESOL class. My students had a list of questions that they had to ask. If their partner was a native speaker, then they had to ask them in Spanish and if they were from another part of the world, then they had a series of questions to ask in English (it depended on the level of the ESL class – sometimes the questions were very basic and sometimes they would be specific cultural questions). After about a couple of minutes we would switch “languages” so that the native Spanish speakers would have the opportunity to practice their English. What was great is that they were forced to interact with each other and by the end of class they were usually talking way off topic, but it didn’t matter because they were talking to each other. I think what they found out was that they had a lot more in common than they thought.

Ms. Flores’ students enjoy her class and enjoy each other in her class and out. That classroom culture is no accident. Her Latino Club has participated in several community events, including one in which they were able to showcase their cultures. Ms. Flores does a fantastic job being the fire under the melting pot.

Some of my own activities include playing games and organizing a classroom coffeehouse (read Relationship Building Activities). I also like to start them thinking about the difficulties immigrants face in a new culture (All-American Slurp). Guiding discussions of cultural differences goes smoother when the students have already had some shared classroom experiences – the “ignorant” questions and comments tend to be more about gaining understanding than about stereotyping and antagonizing.

Will I really make a difference? The resentment and distrust among students is there. I remember certain ethnic groups used to walk each other to class for fear of getting jumped. New international students were bullied and robbed in the lunchroom because they were easy prey. Students in the minority have no choice but to laugh along with stereotypes they know to be unfair if not completely untrue.

Proximity is not enough. Tolerance and understanding don't happen by osmosis.

We have their time and attention – let’s be productive with it. We will be amazed at what a little time, effort, and thoughtful discussion can do for a classroom and school culture!


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    • Greg Horlacher profile imageAUTHOR

      Greg Horlacher 

      6 years ago from Grand Prairie, TX

      Thanks, billybuc! I'm a huge fan! You're too modest about your teaching assignments, Mr. Alaska!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Wow! What a heavy duty teaching assignment. I taught for eighteen years but I had the cushy assignments in private schools. :) I admire you for taking on the jobs many teachers would not want, and I love your attitude about ethnic differences. Well done!

    • Greg Horlacher profile imageAUTHOR

      Greg Horlacher 

      6 years ago from Grand Prairie, TX

      Thanks for reading, Mohammad! I'd love to hear about your own experiences!

    • Greg Horlacher profile imageAUTHOR

      Greg Horlacher 

      6 years ago from Grand Prairie, TX

      Thanks, Sturgeon! After reading your comment, I think that maybe these articles should come with a warning label. I forgot to mention that there are many school systems and principals who will not like these lessons. Teaching like this shouldn't be risky, but it is. I don't have children of my own, so it's easier for me to take such risks. I wish I could explain how beneficial these strategies are in the long term, but finding empathetic principals is a crap shoot. I can say that I've dealt with some excellent assistant principals.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Tolerance in class room or in society or in country are essential . Every where tolerance are required. The negative teaching or influences of society creates hate among students and slowly spread out all over the country. Mr. Hitler taught ," German are the super human being with blue eyes and blond hair"

      German were believed on it and started to hate people all over the world.

      So, we have to start from the beginning to teach our children and to discuss on the history of mankind. Positive teaching and to live together , work together and study in one class room helps to gain tolerance among people and as well as in students .

    • Sturgeonl profile image


      6 years ago

      I admire your efforts to promote and teach cultural tolerance. They are exactly what we need. LET'S TALK ABOUT THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Only with education and accurate information will the mistrust and dislike among the students have a chance to heal. Hooray to you! The social activities you do with them (i.e. speed dating) are an excellent way to foster learning and positive communication among students. Whether it feels like it some days or not, you are making a huge difference! Voted up and awesome!

    • profile image

      Mohammad Wasim 

      6 years ago from To become a good human being need love.

      Lake of tolerance and hate are the great issue between the races. We are living in a global world's society. We have to educate the whole nation that the world is for all. Basic teaching of world religions to love . Unfortunately the religious scholars of different religions are spreading hate to prove ,"my believe is better than another believe". It must be stopped.

      We have to learn that different cultures are interesting to learn and participate to enjoy the culture. Think about,if one culture only in the whole world. It will be boring. Culture brings colour in human being life. The world cultural history must be teaches in every country to create relationship and communication between the different culture from the primary school and other communication institutions.


      This proverb indicates that the hate is always be created in a society. Human being born with a virgin brain. A class of people in a society start to propagate hate which becomes a intolerance.

      Heating the mind of people to melt on the wrong direction, must be stopped.

      love is only the way to remove all ugly thoughts and disputes.


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