It Is Our Business: Teaching tolerance in today’s schools |

It Is Our Business: Teaching tolerance in today’s schools

Cory Fisher

Everyone knows the sting of a comment that was meant to hurt.

But when someone gets called a name like “wimp,” “stupid,” “four-eyes,” or “nerd” in Cindy Cowen’s and Joy Rothschild’s South Tahoe Middle School Challenge Class, it’s not necessarily a time to scold – it’s seen as a meaningful opportunity to stop and talk.

“I learned that people usually put someone down because they think it will make them feel better,” said seventh-grader Jaryd Garrett.

“I used to call people names a lot,” said seventh-grader Lindsay Peterson. “But I’ve learned how much it can hurt people and I stopped – now I get along with people better.”

But teacher Cowen and teacher’s aide Rothschild aren’t only concerned with what goes on in the hallways, playgrounds and classrooms of their school – they see a much broader picture.

Viewing the growing diversity in South Tahoe’s schools as a tool to teach about prejudice and tolerance, Rothschild and Cowen have teamed up to create a rich series of activities designed to be woven into the existing curriculum.

“We teach them that it’s OK to disagree and express different ideas, but it’s not OK when it hurts other people,” Rothschild said. “We want to promote an appreciation of diversity by helping students to accept their own individuality and respect differences in others.”

“They’re learning how innocent stereotyping can progress to out and out discrimination or even genocide.”

Eleven years ago, when the two instructors began working together, both shared a desire to create a safe classroom environment where students felt free from ridicule and criticism. A variety of hands-on activities proved the most effective in illustrating the destructive nature of stereotyping, prejudice, bullying and discrimination.

Parallels between racial tensions or other social conflicts within the school are easily drawn with current or historical events, Rothschild said.

In one exercise, for example, students are asked, “In what ways are bullies in our school similar to historical bullies?” “What methods do they use to dominate?” “Why do they like to control?” “What can happen if it’s not stopped?” “What can be done?”

In another, students are asked, “Why do you think blacks and whites responded differently to the O.J. Simpson verdict?”

In a third exercise, students, while reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” and studying World War II, pretend they are part of a Jewish family about to be relocated in a threatened European country. Told they have “10 minutes to pack,” all valuable and nonessential items – those that would not have been allowed by Nazis – are taken away. Students then discuss the sadness, helplessness, anger, frustration and fear families must have felt. Emphasis is placed on empathizing with the broad spectrum of individual feelings.

“These exercises originally happened out of necessity,” Cowen said. “You can’t get much learning done if you don’t feel safe.”

Early on, the two instructors began to see a ripple effect on others outside of their own classes, including a sparked interest among their colleagues.

“Other teachers started seeking us out for advice – for example, they would ask us how to deal with bigotry in a particular class,” Cowen said. “We began to suggest activities that addressed specific issues.”

After years of developing exercises across the curriculum, Rothschild and Cowen decided last year that a compilation of their work could have far-reaching impact. The result is their new, yet-to-be published book, “It Is Our Business,” which is now being piloted by 15 teachers within the school district.

“A critical part of teaching tolerance is modeling the behavior,” Rothschild said. “Acknowledging that we all have prejudices is an important step – you have to first learn to discover it in yourself.”

Consequently, when teachers jointly participated in some of the book’s exercises, Cowen said many found it to be an eye-opening experience.

Cowen and Rothschild have since presented their work at teacher trainings in two counties, and for the California League of Middle Schools.

“My mom is prejudiced, and that’s where a lot of kids learn it,” said one student. “You have to learn to think about what you’re doing and saying.”

“It’s the sixth-graders who haven’t learned about tolerance that are the problem,” said Ricky Roy, an eighth-grader. “It’s good for kids to start learning about this when they’re young.”

“I used to be prejudiced – I wasn’t educated about other people,” said eighth-grader Jeff Baker. “You have to learn to deal with people you don’t know anything about. They have different parents, their own ways of growing up and their own prejudices.”

When sixth-grader Dustin Johnson was called a name while out trick-or-treating, he was reminded of just how much it can hurt. That’s why he thinks the “Tears Me Apart” exercise is a good one.

Students are asked to write put-downs like “fatso,” “teacher’s pet,” or “skinny” on different pieces of construction paper. Each paper is then torn into pieces, representing how one might feel after being called a name. After being given 10 minutes to tape the “person” back together again, groups are then asked, “How can names tear people up inside?” “How difficult was it to reassemble the person?” “How easy is it for you to become reassembled after being called a name?”

The infusion of tolerance into the existing curriculum only helps to humanize and enliven lessons by bringing points home, Rothschild said. In addition, each lesson builds upon the last, thereby creating an increasingly more trusting classroom environment.

“Teaching Tolerance” and other school-implemented conflict management programs are helping, says STMS Assistant Principal Kathi Jensen. Discipline problems were down 50 percent last year, and 33 percent so far this year.

“We hope all kids can learn to judge people by their actions and learn to work more inclusively – both in school and in the community,” Rothschild said. “We want to just keep passing it on – to have it become a part of everything.”

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