Tolerance in the Classroom - Every Melting Pot Requires Heat
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!