Wiping Out Prejudices Before They Start

Teaching Tolerance, p.3

Teaching Over Preaching

Anti-bias programs have proliferated throughout the U.S. in recent years. In addition, today's programs reach out to the youngest possible audience in ways that are developmentally appropriate. Here's a sampling of the innovative ways kids are being taught to respect differences. If your school doesn't have a similar program, you may want to propose one of them.

Creating unity through music. In 1999, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary heard these lyrics sung at a folk festival: "I'm fat, I'm thin, I'm short, I'm tall, I'm deaf, I'm blind, Hey, aren't we all?" The group later performed the song, "Don't Laugh at Me," for 6,000 members of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, who asked Yarrow if they could use the song in their schools to inspire students. The singer did more than simply say yes; he founded Operation Respect and its Don't Laugh at Me program, which has so far reached 18,000 educators across the U.S. and Canada. (Principals, teachers, and parents can download teaching materials at www.dontlaugh.org.)

Yarrow sees his program as adding something irreplaceable to the anti-bias movement: music. "Where would the civil rights movement have been without 'We Shall Overcome'?" he asks. "We're trying to use music to communicate beyond the heads and into the hearts and souls of children."

The curriculum starts in second grade and continues through middle school, though some preschool teachers have adapted it for younger kids. Jane Harrison, an educator in Carlsbad, CA, is fond of an activity called "The Torn Heart," in which she tells the story of a day in the life of a child. Every time someone hurts the child's feelings, she tears the paper heart she's holding. "I've had great discussions with the kids about this," Harrison recalls. "They'd say, 'I've said things like that. I didn't know that I was being hurtful.'" Kids then learn to replace the put-downs with "put-ups," expressions that don't cause hurt feelings. At the end of every lesson, teachers drive the point home musically -- singing songs with the kids like "Don't Laugh at Me" and "Light One Candle."

Bringing lessons to life. The Miller Early Childhood Initiative (www.adl.org/education/miller), which was rolled out nationally this year, uses Sesame Street characters like Elmo and Big Bird to help teach 3- to 5-year-olds. The lessons are woven into the preschool day -- during art, science, storytime, you name it.

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