Teaching tolerance and mutual respect!

Traditionally, the introduction into the world of other cultures happens at an EL lesson close to Christmas. The first mystery our students face is this: why is Christmas celebrated on December 25 in many European countries while in the Russian Orthodox Church it falls on January 7? I remember trying to understand the whole idea of different calendar systems that our EL teacher explained to us in second grade. In middle and high school today we can suggest that our students research the subject online and make their own short reports in the classroom. With the primary school children we need to find some simple explanations for this phenomena.

Halloween was completely unknown in my country until recently. It presents a different mystery because it falls on the same date as everywhere else in the world, the dual calendar does not apply. There is no trick or treating, at least not yet, but some people like to make the usual pumpkin decorations. Teenagers may come to school with all sorts of “scars” and scary face paint or dress up as vampires, usually for their EL lesson.

I introduced many customs and traditions from other countries at my lessons while doing any international projects. This required a lot of preliminary work together with my colleagues.

• We would make a list of participating countries and check our academic year to be sure of our vacation days, which did not always coincide.

• Imagine working with teachers and children from ten different countries, from every continent. We made charts with my students into which we entered the holidays and events which were unfamiliar to us, and our partners did the same.

• To give some examples, our US partner class taught us about Halloween; we learned a lot about Guy Fawkes Night from the UK. The Queen’s birthday and the way it is observed in the Commonwealth is a fascinating topic worthy of a special lesson and project page.

• The New Year is the most popular public holiday in Russia, with lots of customs and traditions surrounding it. We share the holiday menu and astonish our partners with descriptions of how we decorate the New Year’s tree, outside, at -20C or below.

• We learned a lot about Kwanzaa and about the Chinese New Year. Boxing Day is a beloved topic in any discussion of the winter holidays.

• My school organizes Spring Festivals when each class is free to choose any country and present it to the best of their abilities. Students make national costumes, learn several songs in the language of their chosen country, compose short plays, make drawings, and finally present their shows in April. It is a very popular event, with practically the whole town in attendance at the final Gala when the best performance is chosen. Teachers and parents help to organize this huge event. When my own children represented different countries with their classes I attended every rehearsal and helped any which way I could. To this day I can sing Sakura in Japanese and O Sole, sole Mio in Italian.

As a teacher I have always known that we do not teach just a sum of curious facts when we introduce different customs and traditions into our lessons. What we are doing is a manifold job. One, we teach our students how to speak about other countries in English and how to find the necessary information. Two, we show them that there are many unfamiliar habits and ways of observing or celebrating an event in the world. I believe if we manage to teach them that to be different does not mean to be bad, that people can understand each other if they only listen, we can achieve one of the main goals of today’s education. What seems odd, unusual, even incomprehensible at first may gradually become understandable. If we manage to teach them tolerance and mutual respect we may convey a very important lesson indeed.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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