Tolerance is the wrong word, says Erin Gruwell. What people can learn, and what she hopes babies are born with, is acceptance. The former teacher published a best-selling book with her secondary school students in 1999 — a mosaic of anonymous diary entries that helped the once-divisive peers relate to one another.
The students called themselves the “freedom writers” after the Freedom Riders, bus-riding activists who defied segregation during the civil rights movement. Their diary attracted Hollywood movie makers and led to the Freedom Writers Foundation, which trains teachers and students.
“We try to learn lessons from man’s inhumanity of how we can be more accepting,” said Gruwell. She thinks that teachers are the single greatest educational resource for students. (Studies suggest the same.) Here are some of Gruwell’s most effective techniques to teach people how to accept those they may hate:
The Line Game: Students stand silently, face-to-face around a line taped to the floor. Ask fun questions to draw the students’ attention, then move to more serious questions. “‘Stand on the line if you’ve ever been homeless,’” Gruwell asks, sometimes adding “or if you know someone” to let students shield themselves. Eventually, everyone stands on the line, learning they have things in common.
Journal writing: Forget about commas and dangling modifiers, “write what needs to be written.” Gruwell encourages students to express themselves through stories that can be anonymous if all the students agree to type with the same font and spacing, using numbers instead of bylines. By editing each other’s journals, they see how a singular experience may be universal.
Good, relevant books: Assign academic content that relates to what students are experiencing. That could mean Romeo and Juliet, a story about civil strife, or The Diary of Anne Frank, which speaks to intolerance and isolation.
The now: Foster understanding through real-world problems, using current events as fodder. In response to the Paris attacks, Gruwell said she would look at different sides. “I’d talk about free speech, find a [non-Muslim] Parisian and a Muslim, and bring them into the classroom. Let’s hear what they have to say.”
Toast For Change: Fill plastic champagne glasses or paper cups with apple cider. Standing in a circle, allow volunteers to come forward and announce something they want to do differently. Tell them it’s never too late to start over, starting today. After the vows, drink.