How do we teach acceptance when our students may not have a high level of English?
That’s the question running through my mind after I found out about the buses going around Spain to fight against an LGBTI group that is trying to raise awareness of children with gender identity issues.
My kids are 3, 4 and 5. The extent of their English is limited to phrases like “sit down” or “line up.” How can I teach them something as abstract as accepting people for who they are and respecting differences? To be honest, it’s something I struggle with as a teacher by profession limited to teaching vocabulary words and singing songs, rather than teaching any type of content. I have ups and downs with this, but I know that I can do some things to educate my students to think critically about messages like the one this bus is trying to send.
Nixing “Que Feo”
Their favorite saying, “que feo.” I hear it out of their mouths more times than I can count. It makes me sad that they are so quick to judge and criticize each other and say something negative about a friend’s drawing, toy, etc. While it may seem like a “kids will be kids” situation and most teachers’ reactions are to say, “Don’t say that” and leave it at that, it’s a really important teachable moment. When I overhear my students saying negative things to one another I ask them the following questions: “Why do you think it’s ugly?” “How do you think it makes the other person feel?” “What is something that you can say instead?” I want them to feel free to express their opinions but empathize with the other person and then have them think of a positive alternative. It’s the same approach when they hit each other or say someone isn’t their friend. Empathy can be learned at any age. (Read about how I have these conversations with them when they don’t speak English here.)
The Carne Crayon
Peach in English, “carne” in Spanish. This has bothered me for the past three years. When they color pictures of people and ask each other for the color “carne” (skin in this context), the implication is that there is only one skin color. It seems something small, but I think it’s important. One day in one of my primary classrooms I colored a doctor’s skin brown, and the kids started to say they didn’t like “negros.” This was first grade. I was floored. Though they were obviously repeating what they overheard adults saying, that was a prefect teachable moment to talk about differences. Every time it comes up in my classes, I stress calling it peach, and when I color with the kids I make sure to use colors other than this one.
Now this is something that can be done with students with older kids who have a good level of English. In my secondary school, the kids loved when we had debates and I did too. They are a great way for students to hear different opinions, to play the devil’s advocate, and to get angry. I wanted them to get worked up because that meant they were emotionally connecting to what we were talking about. Though the question of the debate may not have been resolved, the act of the debate itself, of forcing them to think and listen in a respectful way, to form their own opinions, is what the end goal always was. (Tip: give them sentences structures either on a handout or on the board to use during the debate. E.g.: “I feel that…” “I disagree because…” “I agree with…because…” “This is a good point because…” “I’m not sure how I feel about…”, etc.)
My Own Behavior
What’s hard about teaching these abstract concepts is that a lot of them are taught implicitly. Not only in our conversations with our students but through our own behavior. If my kids see me rolling my eyes or pulling faces after I’ve talked to a teacher I don’t like, they will pick up on that. I never underestimate what my kids see and understand no matter what their age, from pre-school through high-school they are incredibly observant. I think our role as auxiliares makes them watch us even more closely, because we are the foreigners and new, fresh faces.
I know these steps may seem simple, but most of the time when it comes to teaching, the simpler, the better, for you and your students. These four small steps can help to nurture empathy and compassion in your students.
Resources on Teaching Tolerance
- Teaching Tolerance – Filled to the brim with great lesson plans, mainly for secondary school, if some of them are too complicated for your students, it’s still an inspiring place to look for ideas.
- Diversity Lesson Plans – For elementary school, this has several lesson plans, organized by theme, ranging from ability to gender.
- The Global Fund for Children – A super comprehensive list of websites to more resources like the two above, check this out for even more resources.
How do you teach tolerance in your role as an English language assistant? What challenges do you face? What successes have you had? Share your comments below!