The beginning of the school year is an opportune time for educators to create a classroom culture that celebrates difference, says Katherine Boles, who directs the Learning and Teaching program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Along with colleague Vivian Troen, director of the education consultancy The Power of Teacher Learning, Boles developed a series of activities centered on the theme “Differences are GREAT!” Teachers can use these activities to help initiate conversations at the start of the school year about being caring, open-minded, and conscious of diversity. “Encouraging young children to focus on differences can help them understand and respect the strengths and weaknesses in others and in themselves,” says Boles.
By introducing these activities during the opening days of school, teachers can develop a foundation they can reference as incidents arise that result from differences. “The concepts can be continued and reinforced throughout the year,” Boles says. Educators can acknowledge a difference in approach or opinion and then comment, “But differences are?” leading the children to respond, “GREAT!”
Although these were designed for elementary-aged children, educators working with older students can alter them to include more sophisticated questions and thoughts, while maintaining the same principles and goals.
On a day early in the school year, initiate a discussion about being caring and open-minded. Set up some ground rules to create a safe environment where children can take risks. These rules can include:
Then, on the same day, gather the children in a circle on the floor to play a “getting to know you” game. Invite students to go around the circle and share their name and something they would like others to know about them. Encourage them not to repeat the same sort of comments. For example, “My name is Kitty. I’m an Irish-American,” and “My name is Vivian, and I like to have fun.” As you go around the circle, challenge the children to recall the names and interests of the students who have spoken before them.
The last child who speaks must remember everyone’s name and comment (peers can help), uniting the class in the knowledge of each other and in support of the final speaker.
Boles notes, “We have done this same activity on the very last day of school — and you would not believe how many children can recount exactly what other students said on the first day of school.”
The activity doesn’t end with the “getting to know you” game. Throughout the same day, continue to highlight the diversity among the children. Remind them of the importance of the morning activity, noting how all the children had demonstrated how different they were from one another. In the afternoon, follow up by asking the children to tell you the first words that come to mind when they hear other words sometimes used to describe people: smart, athletic, reads a lot, doesn’t like sports, strong, nice. Write the responses on the chalkboard and discuss the words in terms of similarities and differences. (The descriptive words can be made more sophisticated for older students, Boles says, and can include words signifying race, gender, and ability.)
Follow this whole-class exercise with a partner activity. Encourage the children to pick a partner they wouldn’t ordinarily choose. Have them write their partner’s name in large letters in the middle of a paper plate, and then ask each other the following cue questions:
Have the students record the answers with different-colored markers in a creative way on the paper plate. Then, share the differences among the children.
“Make sure to point out that differences make us unique, and that despite the differences among us, we can all be kind to one another and work together in our class,” Boles says.
Mount the paper plates and the nine cue questions along with the title “Differences are GREAT” on the classroom wall.
“By the end of the day your class will have gained three important things: a greater insight into their classmates, a better understanding of diversity, and a terrific bulletin board,” says Boles.
Adapted from an article by Katherine Boles and Vivian Troen called “Differences are GREAT!,” published in Creative Classroom.