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Talking about Tolerance

posted: 11.16.10 by Traci Gardner


You may not realize it, but today is the International Day for Tolerance. Established by UNESCO in 1996, the event is based on their 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance “to take all positive measures necessary to promote tolerance in our societies, because tolerance is not only a cherished principle, but also a necessity for peace and for the economic and social advancement of all peoples.”

One effective but simple way to explore tolerance is to look at how people talk about the concept. You can begin by asking students to record their own understanding of tolerance. They can record personal experiences, working definitions, and responses to events in the news. There is no right or wrong answer. The goal is to create a touchstone that they can return to later.

Next, take a look at UNESCO’s declaration. Article 1 specifically addresses the meaning of tolerance. Ask students to read the entire declaration, paying particular attention to that section. In class, discuss the definition in the declaration and how it compares to students’ own understanding. Explore the language that is used in the document specifically. Unpack the complex words, and note how the document attempts to be inclusive.

If class time allows, students can work in groups, each taking one point of Article 1 and rewriting the explanation using less formal language. They might imagine themselves writing for younger students or writing sound bites for a general audience.

Following the discussion of the declaration, allow time for students to record how the document relates to their earlier notes on the concept.

At this point students have a basic definition of tolerance, which they can compare to the ways that tolerance is discussed publicly. To do so, share news stories about bullying with the class. You can use local examples or these recent pieces:

You may also find videos that students can review and respond to from last month’s Make It Better Bits post by Jay Dolmage.

From here, instruct students to separate objective details and material from subjective details and material. Have them note when objective details are used and when subjective details are used. Discuss how purpose and audience influence the information and the language that is used to present it.

Then have students apply their definitions of tolerance to the articles by addressing the following questions:

  • Do the articles specifically use the word tolerance?
  • Are other words used to describe tolerant (or intolerant) attitudes?
  • How does the discussion in the articles align with the UNESCO declaration and students’ own understanding?

To finish the assignment, ask students to write about how one or more of the articles relates to their own or the UNESCO declaration’s understanding of tolerance. Have them draw conclusions about how tolerance is discussed (implicitly or explicitly) and defined.

Alternatively, students could share their exploration of tolerance outside the classroom. Students could create a text that explains tolerance and urges others to promote and practice tolerance in their everyday lives. They might create posters that are displayed on campus, write letters to the school newspaper, or produce video or audio podcasts that share their messages. Check with your school’s equal opportunity-affirmative action office, student affairs, or residence life for help distributing students’ work to the campus community.

[Photo: by codepinkhq, from Flickr Creative Commons]

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Campus Issues, Critical Thinking, Discussion
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