By Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.
Given the recent tragic events in Charleston, we are reminded once again of the importance of understanding and accepting different points of view in our society. Teaching Tolerance is an organization “dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences to our nation’s children.” Founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, this organization publishes free educational materials for teachers, students, and parents. Perspectives for a Diverse America is one such effort (http://perspectives.tolerance.org/).
Perspectives for a Diverse America seeks to promote four goals of anti-bias education, originally developed by Louise Derman-Sparks in 1989.
Identity: Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.
Diversity: Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.
Justice: Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.
Action: Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.
Specific standards and activities for each goal were developed by the Teaching Tolerance under the guidance of its director Maureen Costello.
At the heart of this curriculum is a Central Text Anthology composed of hundreds of excerpts from literary, informational, visual, and multimedia texts. Passages can be selected on various criteria: grade level, lens (community, immigration, religion, and gender, for example), themes (freedom and choice or struggle and progress, for example), and the four anti-bias domains.
Perspectives for a Diverse America offers an enriching program that helps parents, teachers, and students understand, discuss, and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds.
Since I have a son in middle school, I used the following criteria: Grades 6-8, Informational, Race and Ethnicity, Individual and Society, and Justice. From the several selections that appeared, I read an excerpt from Bone Black, a memoir by the African-American writer Bell Hooks. Hooks writes about the integration of blacks into all white schools in the 1960s:
“Although black and white attend the same school, blacks sit with blacks and whites with whites. In the cafeteria there is no racial mixing. When hands reach out to touch across these boundaries whites protest, blacks protest as well. Each one seeing it as a going over to the other side. School is a place where we came face to face with racism. When we walk through the rows of national guardsmen with their uniforms and guns we think that we will be the first to die, to lay our bodies down. We feel despair and long for the days when school was a place where we learned to love and celebrate ourselves, a place where we were number one.”
Using this historical text as a starting point, teachers could have students explore current issues related to racial integration. Students could journal about their reactions in similar situations. Students can write informed letters to corporate or elected officials calling for specific responses to a contemporary incident in the community. Students could plan, write, and distribute print or digital journalism related to this social problem. Students could also write and perform a skit or monologue that addresses racial integration. This curriculum offers specific lesson plans to help teachers with each of these projects.
During a formal evaluation of this program, one veteran teacher noted how this curriculum enabled her to talk about sensitive topics in the classroom: “When we started the training and we were concerned about how we would talk about this stuff, they gave an introduction to the program where they say right away: ‘You won’t be putting your kids on the spot or making them feel like they’re awkward or in the spotlight or feeling bad about themselves. You do it through the text.’”
Perspectives for a Diverse America offers an enriching program that helps parents, teachers, and students understand, discuss, and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds. Tolerance can be taught, and this education should help reduce tension and conflict within American society.
Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS (www.testprepexperts.com ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.