Each year I drive up to northern New Hampshire to visit the Lancaster School for Tolerance Day, an unusual project led by language-arts teacher Deborah Fogg, who was her state’s 2009 Teacher of the Year. What Deb and her colleagues put together works so well that it’s worth sharing — especially this year, when Tolerance Day had a new twist.
Next fall, graduates of the K-8 school will join those from nearby Whitefield School at White Mountains Regional High School, so Tolerance Day is designed in part to build connections and understanding between the two groups. All seventh and eighth graders at both schools read The Revealers. The Whitefield kids are then bused to Lancaster, where each gets paired with a local student of the same age and gender. Those “buddies” stay together all day, moving through six 35-minute “stations” where class units gather for special workshops, activities and discussions.
Everyone rotates through a discussion with me, where we talk about The Revealers and the issues it raises. I sometimes mention that tolerance and intolerance aren’t only about distant situations; they come up in the choices middle schoolers make every day, when they decide how to treat someone who is different — who’s awkward or uncool or annoying, who doesn’t fit in or has different interests. This year I also introduced True Shoes, and we talked about cyberbullying along with, in several sessions, drama and how it plays out differently between girls and boys.
In other rooms that day, teachers used to lead sessions on topics like conflict resolution or seeing past labels. But here was this year’s new twist: as Lancaster School moves into what Deb Fogg called “a more student-led curriculum that challenges students to take learning into their own hands,” its eighth graders were invited to develop, then lead, all the other Tolerance Day stations.
They did, too. Their sessions included a song-writing workshop, student-created slide shows about each school, team-building games in the gym, and “Two Truths and a Lie,” where you had to guess the untruth in what another student said about him/herself. At the end of the day we — the student leaders, their teacher mentors (each session had one), plus Deb and me — gathered to debrief.
The teachers much enjoyed the initial feedback, because, well ... the student leaders had had a challenging day. One loudly announced, "I will never be a teacher." Another declared, “Seventh graders — they just don’t listen!” There was laughter, then there were real discussions. For example, if someone is determined to disrupt, how best to engage them instead of just asking them to leave?
The next day, when Deb discussed the day with all her students, “Overwhelmingly they all thought this Tolerance Day was the best! ... If I were to tweak things for the future,” she told me, “I might consider a balance between educating students about bullying issues in some stations, and offering team-building opportunities in others. It is always a learning experience for me. But I am so pleased with the students taking charge. As you heard, it definitely opened their eyes to the dynamics of teaching!”
And that’s tolerance — seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Don’t you think?