How Would You Teach Tolerance?

School BooksAfter 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot to death by a fellow student because he was gay, California Assemblyman Mike Eng proposed a new bill to “establish school diversity and sensitivity training to help prevent such tragedies in the future.” According to Gay Wired, “The new bill would require mandatory classes on diversity and tolerance in California school districts.” It would also establish procedures for teachers and administrators if they suspect a potential hate crime, reports the LA Times.

The LA Times has opined, however, that diversity and tolerance is “best taught to children through everyday interactions in the classroom and on the playground, by observant teachers, stern principals and strong school leaders.” Eng’s legislation, they say, “lays another Sacramento mandate on teachers who can barely squeeze required history lessons into the school day.” At the same time, the newspaper also feels a Virginia school superintendent “failed miserably” when he removed copies of And Tango Makes Three from elementary-school shelves. They conclude:

It takes common sense and sometimes bravery to nurture tolerance at school. There are teachers, school counselors and even students doing this every day. Leaders would be better off supporting their efforts than putting more requirements on their shoulders or forbidding true stories of acceptance.

They have a point, but only to a point. Students must not see diversity as something they only need to think about during one class period. (I’ve TA’d before; I know students will often not pay attention unless something is on the test.) It would be nice if all classes were imbued with lessons of tolerance. Clearly they are not, however, even if some individual teachers, students, and others are making efforts.

As is often the case, the key to success for Eng’s legislation will be in the implementation, weaving lessons into all classes as well as special ones and involving students, teachers, administrators, and parents (not to mention librarians). Teachers and students already active in promoting tolerance can help lead the way. A balance such as this will also keep the legislation from becoming a burden, for the Times is right that it will strain teachers’ already limited time and resources. I do believe, however, that schools need to prepare our children not only in academic subjects, but also in citizenship. Yes, diversity education would take away time from academics, but a child shot to death is a child left behind.

What are your thoughts on how to teach diversity and tolerance in schools? Is statewide legislation necessary? I’m especially interested in hearing your thoughts if you are a teacher, administrator, or librarian.