George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I’ve always disliked the connotation of the word "tolerance" in schools because it reflects the language of a segregated society. We can tolerate the smell of ten-day-old sushi, but are we really addressing the problems of society by teaching our students to simply tolerate one another?

"Hello, My Name Is…"

A full room of students listening to directions.

As part of a culture-building field trip, students and staff at Craven Early College and Early College EAST in North Carolina were asked to open an envelop, remove a "Hello, My Name Is…" label, and stick it onto their shirt. These labels already included a variety of identities (e.g., Gay, White, Black, ADHD, 504, IEP, Ghetto, Suburban, Stoner, Redneck, Hispanic, Mexican, etc). Some students laughed while others were too embarrassed to wear their assigned identity.

Once everyone had their labels attached to their shirt, I asked, "How many of you would like to swap your label?" Many students raised their hands. Others wondered why peers should be able to change their labels if they cannot do this in real life.

Students wrote freely for several minutes about images associated with their assigned identity, and their positive or negative connotations. The responses varied. Some, although honest, could be categorized as culturally insensitive:

"Muslim. Kinda uncaring. Negative ‘cause it was like I was a terrorist."
"Asian. It has a negative connotation because it generalizes an entire continent."

Others stated that their assigned identities didn’t make them feel any different, but recognized people may view their label negatively:

"My label was 'gay.' It didn't make me feel any different, it was just a label. To others, it was a very negative connotation. I think they felt that way because, in the south especially, some religions teach that being attracted to the same sex is wrong, unnatural, and repulsive. Also, people just don't like things that are different from what they know."

After writing, students talked candidly in small groups about social labels, word associations, and how these labels and stereotypes affect an individual’s sense of self-worth.

Just Like Us

Students working together in small groups.

After our students completed the labeling activity, they were asked to list and identify their five closest friends (an exercise from the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance site) as "same" or "different," based on their race, gender, age, religion, and social status. In the past, I have facilitated this activity with teachers, administrators, and students -- it has been eye opening for each group.

My students realized that they spend time with people who are similar to them:

"I really did not have any other friends that were not white."
"Since I am biracial, my friends were one of my three races. They were around the same age as me, and had just about the same social status as me."

Adults in attendance were instructed to exclude coworkers from their list. One instructor realized that his friends were strikingly similar as he spends all his leisure time in the same circles, boating, golfing, or in church. "How do we expect our students to embrace diversity if we don’t?" asked Jennifer Smyth, a teacher at Hertford Early College. I recently followed up with Jennifer, who said that the activity made it clear "the degree to which I rationalize in confronting the sameness, the lack of diversity in my personal life: I was looking for a way to tell myself that I practice what I preach."

A few months after the workshop, I asked the students, "How can teachers and administrators ensure that all students within a school feel like they belong?" Their responses fell into three categories:

1. Create a Culture of Acceptance

Teachers and administrators can ensure that all students belong within a school, by welcoming them with open arms and with getting them involved with school life.
Make them feel like they can be their self and not be someone who they are not.

2. Address Feelings of Isolation

Personally, I've actually had instances where I got along with teachers more than I did with students and often this only made me feel more withdrawn from the people around me.
[They should conduct] activities that help us get to know each other more and [facilitate] projects where we have to work with people that we don't know.

3. Foster Meaningful Relationships

I believe getting to know the teacher, and the teacher knowing the student’s likes and dislikes will make a student feel more accepted. Knowing that they understand is one of the best steps you can take.
They can try to relate with the students and try to give the students opportunities to relate to each other.
Pay attention to the students and all the problems they may be having. And if you see a large problem, make sure to talk to them about it.

How do you help diverse students feel like they belong in your classroom or school?

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


There was a knock on the door and a seventh grader was touring around some kid the seventh grader said was maybe going to be an eighth grader around here next year and can he show him The Cozy Room of Learning.

The wide-eyed potential victim was named Dupont, we learned, and Dupont might have been about two feet tall but he seemed pretty sure of himself. We all welcomed Dupont and when he came into the room everybody wanted me to show their new friend Dupont The Teaching Stick and The Globe of Happiness and the wiggly plucked chicken. In other words, all the things they've been making fun of for most of their eighth grade career. Now, go figure, they were giddy with support and inspiration for everything that's ever occurred within The Cozy Room of Learning, which had been wonderful and fun and had changed their lives. I'm fairly sure of it.

Somebody screamed...Are you a knowledge seeker, Doo-pont!

Poor old Dupont, I could tell--profoundly and immediately--looked as if he had walked into a camp meeting of howler monkeys who were feeling very territorial at that moment and had been drinking a lot of beer. Every eye was on him. They were all leaning toward him. They all had grins on their faces that were--profoundly and immediately--a little blood thirsty.

I tried to break the ice. I asked Dupont if he liked...vexillology!

Dupont said he didn't know what that was.

I told Dupont we'd learn him some vexillology! No worries! Then I asked Dupont if he liked Georgia history!

Dupont said he didn't know yet. He was from Long Island.

A howler monkey screamed...Do you like to getting chickens chucked at your head!

Proudly, decisively, with his chin up, Dupont told the class that chickens make him extremely nervous.

We laughed at DuPont. Not with him...because he wasn't laughing along with us. He was one fearless little dude. I cannot fathom why Dupont would have said that to these chicken addicts. Man, could you feel the room getting humid. I scooted over real quick and opened the door for our visitors so they could get to safety.

Dupont and his tour guide scooted on out real fast.

I yelled after Dupont...Have a good summer! See you in August...maybe!

Then Spike summed up the event pretty nicely from my new Sella Mortis, the chair of nice living room chair I brought from home wherein only the teacher's pet sits. Spike said in a lofty tone of voice, as only a trusted teacher's pet can deliver without reprisal, that if Doo-pont comes back here next year he'll be surprised as hell. Spike looked up at me and winked.

I couldn't help it. I winked back. Dupont sort of annoyed me, too.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Sandy's picture

Hi Blake,

Thanks a lot for your post. I feel very passionate about culture. I am a foreign married to a local. I am an expat. These two are examples of the labels people from other countries can acquire. At school, there are many foreign teachers with work permits. Shouldn't we, the adults, the teachers, be the ones giving the example to our students, to our own children?
It is just so sad to think that if we, as adults, as teachers, as the more knowledgeable in the classroom don't embrace culture acceptance and foster meaningful relationships, what will be expected from students?
I would love to help to foster these qualities, primary, among our students and teachers as well. I would love to create an international students club, where not only foreign students but locals can take part of many fun and educational activities. I am in the early stages of this idea. Do you guys have any advice?
Muchas gracias!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thank you for this. I'm going to share it with my students asap! I think they sometimes assume tolerance is the goal, but this reframing (and great activity) will really help them see this issue in a new light!

Sandy's picture

Super Laura!

I would love to hear what college students have to say about that. As students what they can do to foster a positive environment. It is not just the word tolerance but most of all it is about actions.

emilykay's picture


Thank you so much for your article! I am moving to Kenya in a week and have tried to educate myself on being culturally sensitive in the classroom. I love the activity you did with the "Hi my name is...". I am a preschool teacher so unfortunately that wouldn't work too well in my room. However, you make some very applicable points. I will have a classroom of students from around the world. My goal is to create an environment that accepts all students of every culture. If I want my class to engage with all cultures, I need to model this as well. Currently, my closest friends are all very similar to myself so that is an area I can improve on. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas!

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