Small Steps Activity: Teaching Tolerance
This activity is designed to examine the origins of prejudice with your students.
Nine students face one another in a circle. The eyes of around 40 other high school juniors and seniors fasten on the group. All of us -- two teachers along with our combined classes -- consider what the group represents: the consequences of intolerance.
The activity is one of several in which we've engaged during our month at the Tennessee Governor's School for International Studies, which takes place each June and July on the University of Memphis campus. Students from around the state come to the school for an introduction to global education, including languages, history and political, social and cultural issues. Our classes focus on Africa and East Asia, and while our students spend a good deal of time talking about the politics and culture of these specific areas (and gaining an elementary knowledge of Hausa and Mandarin, as well), they also participate in many activities that force them to think about international issues as a whole and their own roles in the world.
A Higher Level of Exploration
The circle described above is representative of the kind of students who are chosen to be among the 130 who attend the school; the nine comprise five girls and four boys; two African Americans, an Asian American, one visiting student from Eastern Europe and white students from both rural and urban areas from across Tennessee.
Our job as teachers at a program focusing on international issues is to convey more than just the importance of data and statistics about population, politics or foreign trade. In fact, we've learned to make "small steps," along with our students, a curriculum that gradually moves from simple information to a higher-level exploration of that information. We're preparing these teenagers for life in a global environment, and part of that preparation must include making knowledge seem relevant and vital to their lives.
When we first developed our program of international tolerance activities, we decided that the difficult issues we'd ask these students to contemplate would best be approached in a series of steps. Our students come to us bearing preconceptions (and misconceptions) that they've never questioned. Our job is to guide them from stereotyping to a true understanding and appreciation of multiple perspectives, the phrase we employ to define the practice of examining issues by also examining the cultures, beliefs and attitudes of those involved. Here are the steps we use:
1. Identifying stereotypes and preconceptions: how we see the world
2. Examining the process of labeling: why we feel the urge to stereotype
3. The consequences of intolerance: moving beyond limited perspectives
For each of these steps, we've developed an activity designed to gradually increase our classes' awareness of the importance of tolerance in today's global climate.
Step One: Identifying Stereotypes
The goal of our first activity is to identify the stereotypes and preconceptions we hold in regard to people of other nationalities, races or religions. (It is important to distinguish stereotypes from generalizations, which we all use to categorize individuals and groups. Generalizations tend to use words like "many," "most" and "often," and are not rigid or inflexible. Stereotypes imply that all members of a particular group act, look or speak a certain way.)
We divide the students into pairs and ask each pair to make two columns on a single sheet of notebook paper. The left column, they label "United States," and the right, the name of another area of the world, such as "China" or "Africa." (Substitutions for these labels could include the names of religions, races, ethnic groups or any other category that encompasses a large group of people).
The partners then take three minutes to come up with as many pairs of words as possible to describe the two places. The words may include contradictions and similarities or may even be identical, but they must come in pairs. For instance, students might write "urban" under the left-hand U.S. column and "rural" or "agricultural" under the right-hand Africa column. They might also include "city" and "jungle," "white" and "black" or "big" and "big." Since this is a brainstorming exercise, we encourage them not to be too judgmental and to include any words that spring to mind.
While two or three students share their lists, we hand out to each pair two sheets of colored construction paper (the colors don't matter, as long as each pair gets two different colors), scissors and a few pieces of Scotch tape. We're already getting an idea of stereotypes we hold about other parts of the world -- some students always use terms like "uncivilized" or "dangerous" to describe Africa, for instance, or describe Asians physically with words such as "short" or even "slant-eyed."
The next set of instructions is fairly basic. First, each pair quickly assigns one colored sheet to each area of the world, using whatever criteria seem appropriate to the two partners. Then, using only the materials we've provided, each pair creates a physical representation of the words on their brainstorming lists. The results might be collages, sculptures or any piece of concrete or abstract art, but each one needs to reflect the relationship between the two areas and our perceptions of those areas.
Recently, we tried this activity on the first day of class with our students studying Africa. One student from Nashville wrote the following description afterwards: "My partner and I made a picture of two hands. One was white, representing the U.S., and the other was black, representing Africa. The white hand was much larger than the black hand and the black one was overshadowed by the white one. This represented America's greater amount of money and power, as well as the way Africa and its many issues (war, politics, poverty) are all but ignored by the U.S."
We display the results and discuss them as a class. Some of our questions might include: Which pieces have a message that is immediately obvious, and how do they deliver it? Which are more abstract, and what might they mean? What similar perceptions, generalizations and stereotypes do more than one of the works share? And we also ask one key question: On what basis did students form these stereotypes or generalizations?
The result of this discussion is usually two-fold. First, we arrive at an actual list of our perceptions and misperceptions of other areas of the world. Here, for instance, is part of an actual list of stereotypes regarding China from one of our classes:
Chinese people are smart.
Chinese people are short.
They are all communists.
They live in tiny, often dirty houses.
They treat women badly.
They ride bicycles.
They do not have many children anymore.
Later in the program we came back to this list and discussed it again with the factual knowledge to support or debunk some of these ideas.
Second, the activity is a springboard for a discussion about the nature of stereotyping and why we're compelled to create stereotypes, topics that feed into the second step of our tolerance program.
We finish this activity with a single telling question. What stereotypes would arise if students from another part of the world were to create similar works of art while thinking about their relationship to us?
Step Two: Examining Labels and Why We Create Them
The next day, when our students walk into class, we place an adhesive nametag on each person's back. As we do so, we tell them they can read each other's name tags, but that they're not to discuss them, give hints to others about the words on their backs, or try to guess what their own tags say until the activity begins.
What the nametags have written on them are names of countries from around the world (again, this activity works well with labels for other groups such as races and religions). Well-known countries work well -- France, Iraq and China always call to mind strong images for our students -- but using lesser-known countries makes an interesting point as well. The job of each student, after we give instructions, is to talk to other people in the room and try to figure out what his or her own nametag says.
Here's a written reflection from one student who participated in this activity: "We had to give each other clues about our countries... my country was Spain, and the clues given to me were 'Spanish,' 'bull-fighting' and 'matador.' Some people had a very hard time discovering what their country was."
There are rules: No person is allowed to use any derogatory comment or name (these include words like Greaser, Nazi or Kraut); no one may use any actual country names whatsoever; and no direct questions may be asked (this eliminates tactics such as, "Am I the country directly north of the United States?").
After five minutes of interaction, we tell the students to sit down again with students who represent their neighbors from around the world. One part of the room is designated as Europe, another as East Asia, another as Africa, and so on. Once they're seated and quiet, we allow them to remove the tags from their backs and check to see whether or not their guesses were correct; incorrect guessers then move to the correct part of the room.
Our debriefing of this activity begins with a few simple questions: If you guessed right, what one clue gave it away? If not, what might have helped you? We list the student responses on the boards and, once we've compiled a fairly long list of clues, we go back and label each as a stereotype, a fact or both. Some answers seem easily identifiable: "Your country had a revolution in 1789" is a different kind of clue from "People in your country eat a lot of bread and drink a lot of wine." Others are less so; "Your country supports bull-fighting" is an arguable statement -- should it be considered fact, generalization or stereotype?
Inevitably, some name-calling comes up among the clues students recall. Often, slang terms and names are so ingrained in our minds that they just slip out. On the other hand, these words make the activity much easier. What we try to lead students to see is how easily generalizations become stereotypes, and how stereotypes can lead to this sort of name-calling. Once you pigeonhole a person and assume you know everything about his or her tastes, feelings and beliefs, it's easy to slap a label on that person, almost like an invisible nametag.
One student summed it up this way:
"What interested me was hearing the clues given. For the U.S., clues included words about power, dominance and money. For other countries, clues included words about poverty, warfare and inferior governments. It was amazing to me to hear my peers speaking in terms of cultural stereotypes. We, in the Western world, including myself, seem to have a highly superior view and subordinate all other cultures."
Step Three: Discussing the Dangers and Consequences of Intolerance
We call our third activity "Small Steps: From Name-Calling to Genocide." It has proven to result in one of the most powerful lessons of our month.
The activity ends with the circle of students described in the introduction to this article. It's a powerful image, not just because of the variety of students involved but also because of what those students represent. Our goal for this activity is to provide just that: a shocking visual image of what happens when the results of the first two steps of the tolerance program go unchecked -- how names and stereotypes can lead to far more damaging consequences.
The activity begins with students responding to the following statement: The Holocaust began when the first racial or ethnic joke was ever told.
We then elicit students' opinions as to whether name-calling (put-downs) and stereotyping jokes are harmless and fun or represent a threat to the identity of the targeted groups. After a brief discussion, we give the students two historical examples to ponder. First, we mention that Jews in Germany were first "named" as a race, and therefore no longer a religion (eliminating any hope of conversion), in the late 19th century. Second, we recount Hitler's description of the Jews in his book Mein Kampf as "maggots," "parasites," "vermin," "pimps" and "snakes."
Most recently, when we combined our classes and led them through this activity, the mood of the room changed considerably. A few of the boys in the classes had gotten excited about the opportunity to recall racial or ethnic jokes they thought particularly funny, and a few had defended them vigilantly. After our discussion, not everyone was convinced that these jokes are "dangerous" or lead to more serious "steps," but they were at least beginning to consider the possibility. Our goal, after all, is not to make students feel guilty or ashamed, but rather to lead them to think about the consequences of their actions.
Once we've discussed such concerns, we place the students in nine random groups and each group is given a numbered index card with a single term on it. These are the terms:
Each group is asked to create, by consensus, a definition of the term on its card, and then to discuss and write down one historical or current example in which the term (or the idea behind it) is practically applied.
When each group is ready, we call a spokesperson from the first group (name-calling) to the middle of the room and ask him or her to read the response. As each spokesperson comes forward, they begin to form a circle. The result becomes gradually apparent: By the time the last spokesperson comes forward, everyone can see that "genocide" will have to stand next to the persecution and name-calling spokesperson. As each spokesperson presents, we write on the board the progression of terms and brief examples.
At this point, all of our students see, through the visual power of the circle, the possibility that "small incidents" such as jokes and stereotypes may contribute to the development of larger, life-threatening acts of persecution and even genocide.
We've approached the debriefing of this activity through two means: class discussion and written response. Either way, we ask the same series of questions:
1. All of the spokespeople are standing in a circle (with name-calling next to genocide). What does the circle symbolize or represent?
2. Why do societies like Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Cambodia in the 1970s, or Rwanda in the 1990s or individuals you know let intolerance progress?
3. At what stage would you place the U.S. in 2000 and why?
The following response from one of our students is not atypical of the written reactions to this exercise. She wrote, "It made me think about the racial jokes I used to tell. I learned that although I thought the jokes were funny, it was still a form of prejudice. I am proud to say that as a result of that lesson I no longer tell racial jokes, and I am very conscious of what I say and how I say it."
Holocaust survivor Ervin Straubb offers a powerful message with which to end this activity through discussion or writing, as well: "Goodness, like evil, often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren't born."
In our classes at the Governor's School, we have only a month to help students make the connection between small individual acts and larger trends in society that may have global consequences. We hope for that moment of insight when our students see the power of ideas historically, politically and in their own lives. Over the years, our curriculum has developed with this end in mind.
Tolerance and intolerance are not abstract ideas that have little connection to a 16-year-old's life; rather they are real issues that personally affect every student. The interaction demanded of students by our activities forces them to grapple with issues of identity, diversity, culture and human rights. Ultimately, we want our students not to be bystanders but to act as responsible citizens who will stand up for others, think critically about the use of power in the world, and support reasonable points of view through clear speaking, persuasive writing, the use of evidence to support arguments, and the consideration of multiple perspectives when approaching issues.
As Gandhi stated more than 50 years ago, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
Paul Fleming teaches World Studies and Humanities at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School in Nashville, and Barry Gilmore teaches advanced placement English and International Studies at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis. They have team taught for five summers at the Tennessee Governor's School for International Studies on the University of Memphis campus.