Taking Steps Toward Tolerance and Acceptance

There’s been a consistent gnawing at my cocoon of happiness regarding my class this year. While, in general, I find them to be an amiable, enjoyable bunch, I find that many of them lack one of my crucial requirements as a member of my classroom community – sensitivity toward others. 

It might be that they are unnerved easily. This might explain why, when we broached the topic of the Haiti disaster for the first time, and one of the students said she heard a lot of people died, two girls immediately burst into laughter. I was appalled and angered. The topic of death, or even the mention of someone dying, seems to bring out chuckles from this group. It always surprises me. I never expect it. 

The catalysts for today’s afternoon lesson (which I took some liberties in teaching – sometimes time is of the essence, though) were a couple of events that transpired over the previous two days. 

Before we left for the Broadway trip on Wednesday, I spoke with the ones who were going and made it clear how I expected them to handle themselves among their peers when they returned to school on Thursday. I knew they were listening and processing my words because everyone of them wore that slackjawed, tongue-wagging visage that says, “This guy is saying something important. He isn’t messing around. I can’t miss this.” Eyes were locked upon me as I told them they were not to discuss the trip with anyone who wasn’t on it unless asked. And if they were asked, they should say something like, “It was very nice. Thank you for asking. I’m sorry you weren’t there.” (As previously reported, this whole experience was difficult enough as it was without the ‘chosen ones’ pointing their noses in the air). 

Of course, Thursday morning, the class was particularly chatty. I have a pretty smoothly run classroom for the most part, save for maybe a couple of couplets that disrupt the others during quiet times in the day (such as reading). But on Thursday, it was a constant murmur. I was letting it go, just to see how it would play out. (I also feel there are some days when the kids align their stars in such a way that battling them isn’t worth the trouble, and as long as they’re staying on task for the most part, let it be. I mean, they are kids, after all). Anyway, I felt like Broadway was the topic fueling the chatter, and I have little doubt some of the play attendees were stoking the fire with their newfound sense of entitlement. 

Now, the lunch aide who monitors my class usually has nothing but lovely things to say about them. Truth be told, my class may be the only one quiet when I return to them after eating. But when I came back yesterday, she was incensed. They hadn’t been listening to her, she said, and that’s what set me off. So I launched into one of those slackjawed, tongue-wagging speeches, and the day proceeded beautifully. I made special mention that I was aware of what the kids who went on the trip were doing, and then laid on some pretty thick guilt, which, I’m sorry to say, is sometimes necessary. Today continued the smoothness of Thursday afternoon. 

The second issue that had me thinking occurred as we waited outside the doors of the theater before the show Wednesday. A man with a noticeable limp, being aided by a crutch and a companion, came down the stairs. On cue, and in unison, 15 heads turned to stare at him (slackjawed, tongue-wagging heads, I might add). There was down time, and they were enjoying eachother’s company, but here I stepped in to engage them in conversation about the theater. Much attention returned to me, but several remained fixated on the man as he walked down the stairs. 

When the students had remembered themselves (or gotten my point about not staring), I noticed one boy still fascinated by this man. I called him over to sit with me for a moment. He’s one of the top students in the class. Extremely studious, dynamic personality, and the kind of kid who ‘gets it’ when you talk to him about respecting others or doing the right thing. I told him that that man was just another person. Maybe he had something happen to him that made him need help walking, but he was still a person, just like us. There was nothing to look at, I told my student. He nodded, and I sent him back. 

(Kids will be kids, surely. I was much more understanding of incident number 2, the staring, because kids are always fascinated by something new to them, and I suspect many of them have hardly been in contact with a person with a disability. I chalk it up to inexperience and innocence. Incident number 1, though, I categorize as maliciousness toward fellow classmates – something for which I have a firmly stated zero tolerance policy). 

Last night, with frustration bubbling in me, I debated whether to stay home today and catch a break. Yet, knowing it was a two prep day and a couple of things were working in my favor for the afternoon, I figured I’d go in and see what I could do to take some steps toward tolerance. My class enjoys music, and I knew I wanted to do something through song. I pored over the internet for a couple of hours, trying to find a school-appropriate version of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Don’t Laugh at Me” and accompanying lesson plans and ideas. (Note: I’ve since ordered the kit to teach this wonderful song. You can do so here.) 

When that didn’t materialize, I considered Kermit’s classic ode to individuality, “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” I decided it was a little too lower elementary for my class, and that the slow tempo might turn them off. So, finally, I settled on “What a Wonderful World,” with the idea that the students would conceptualize their vision of a wonderful world and then illustrate it. Down the road, I planned to have them transfer these ideas to the bigger concept of our responsibilty to each other as humans. 

I copied the lyrics this morning and went to prepare the CD (I keep a box set of Louis Armstrong’s in the classroom). The only problem was the song was not on the set. So I defaulted to option number two – another Peter, Paul, and Mary recording, and an iconic American song, “This Land is Your Land.” I had the CD in school already, so I printed and copied the lyrics. 

I introduced it in the afternoon by asking the students to look at the lyrics and discuss the theme of the song. What was Woody Guthrie trying to say when he wrote it? Responses were fairly simple, but pretty much on the money: anyone can live in the U.S. freely; it’s not just yours or mine, but ours, etc. I gave them a little help on some of the lyrics and emphasized the notions of Americana in the song, and then we listened. 

(One thing that tickles me about this class is their love of music. Getting last year’s class to sing was about as easy as getting an elephant to sit down at the dinner table and use a knife and fork. This group really likes to hear music and sing along – which only motivates me to sing things to them wherever I can). 

We gave it a couple of listens and they took notes about what they saw in the song – what they could draw or create to symbolize the theme of the song. After two listens, one of the girls – one of the ones who laughed about Haiti – said, “Aw, come on, one more time!” How could I refuse? I played it for her, “by special request.” They were singing now – all of them – and enjoying themselves. After the third listen, I put their task in front of them: they would be responsible for creating a picture that symbolized their interpretation of the song. 

And they were off! Here came the markers. Here came the scissors. Here came the fresh glue sticks (but only after they informed me matter of factly that the old ones had all died). Paper was passed, both white and construction, and they were pondering with pencils in hand what they would draw. Then inspiration hit. Looking to combine The Mosaic Project with this initial foray into tolerance, I distributed old photography magazines and encouraged collages and creativity.

"All of U Fit In" - one of the messages I hope to impress upon my students. (More work below).

That was it. They worked for over an hour planning and pasting their scenes. (I couldn’t resist, and started creating my own!) The range was large, and the sensitivity was evident. 

It’s a beginning. I plan to explore “What a Wonderful World” and “Don’t Laugh at Me” in the future. With my guidance, I am hoping these impressionable sponges get my message: that this land is our land and you shouldn’t be laughing at each other. So realize it’s not so bad being green and help make our classroom a wonderful world of caring citizens. 


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