Wondering About “Othering” – Creating a Culture of Acceptance

By Mayura Tiwari

This is the first guest post from a reader. Meet Mayura Tiwari, who teaches Language and literature at an IB World School.

For Grade 6, we’ve just finished the first summative of the academic session. The task was to create a product to convey a message of culture of acceptance. And they have come up with beautiful and meaningful products.

Yes, and we often recited this line from a Sioux prayer in class, “O Great Spirit, keep me from judging another until I have walked in his moccasins.”

But for now, let’s go back to the beginning when I walked into class and arbitrarily divided the children into two groups – the good and the bad. I also told the good to keep away from the bad. There were some protests, some murmurs, then the class fell silent. I asked them to write down their feelings honestly and some of them were willing to read them out – we have an agreement that no will be judgmental during these “sharings”. Predictably, the “bad” expressed shock and disappointment, but the “good”, too, were upset at having their friends labelled “bad”. When I told them, no, they were all good, they expressed relief in their responses, and some wondered why. I told them I wanted them to experience firsthand what it feels like to be discriminated.

Many years ago, I came across this video “Blue Eyes Brown Eyes” on the experiment a Grade 3 teacher in the US did with her students after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. I have been using it since as a tool to explore identities and Relationships and perspective.  So, we watched a clip from the video. It made a deep impression on the children and they were able to identify the far-reaching effects of discrimination – low self-esteem leading to a drop in academic performance. The children talked about racism, about bullying, about being left out. We then got to ‘Who decided brown eyes or blue eyes are better?’’ – the teacher. But who should decide who we are?’ – we.

We then explored some vocabulary – ordinary, extraordinary, other, “the other”. Had they ever treated/  been treated like “the other”? And then they were given cards to draw what “othering” meant to them. This brought out a lot from their own lives. I asked them one last question – would they like to be ordinary or extraordinary? Obviously, they went with the latter. And then we began reading Wonder. We were barely into a couple of chapters when they decided being ordinary is not a bad thing after all.

Through Wonder, we focused on perspective, POV and empathy under the umbrella of Identities and Relationships – human nature and human dignity…, exploring how through “examining different points of view, characters and themes in texts, readers develop their own perspectives.”

The children loved the book. We read the first part as a class, in pairs, listening to the audio book – some came up to me to read out to them. And of course, everyone empathised with Auggie and were angry with Julian and also with Jack when he betrayed Auggie and were really upset about the ‘cheese touch’. I got them think about whose point of view was this part from.  The children identified why some parts were important, wrote responses to different parts using sentence starters shared with them, discussed the themes that were emerging. Since the book is a thick one, the children got into groups to read, understand and present the other parts. One of the things they had to do was talk about change in perspective. That was a big learning for them, and they were eager to talk about it and about the way R J Palacio made them think about this.

Along the way we did some activity to build perspective and empathy – they went out to the garden and wrote about the day from different points of view – the grass’s, the wind’s, the tree’s, etc. Then when we got to the part where Auggie comes back home after the tour, they stepped into the mother’s shoes and wrote about her feelings in a diary entry.

There’s one activity I have been doing for three years now, decode silhouette, and I did it again this year. It so happened that the children were experimenting with different forms of paintings and materials in their Art classes and this was a good opportunity to introduce another form and create interdisciplinary connections between Language and literature and Visual Arts.

I got groups of children to come up and act, dance and clown around before a lit-up screen; I did that myself. Then I asked them what they noticed and slowly it emerged, among other things, that we can’t see features. I asked them why they thought we did this activity. One or two mentioned Wonder and Auggie. When I asked why, they talked about the ‘look away thing’ and the fact that Auggie doesn’t want this focus on his face. We discussed silhouettes a little more and I then got them to choose a scene from Wonder (with Auggie in it) and create it using the silhouette technique, with a brief rationale as to why they chose that scene. The children made beautiful cut-outs; some drew directly. The activity once again worked very well – this expression of empathy through art, picking up from a book.

Through mask making we explored how the reason for donning a mask differs  – and how Auggie loved Halloween because it gave him a chance to be who he is and have people interact with “him”  and not “react” to his face.

Besides Art,  I linked to Individuals and Societies through a mindfulness and reflection activity. The children were in the middle of the unit Formation of the Earth and very excited about rocks. I gave the children a piece of rock from my collection. I then asked them to close their eyes and through mindfulness, I took them through the journey of a rock from the depths of the earth. Once we finished, I had them write what it felt like to hold a piece of rock in their hands. I asked them if they had hesitation (I told them in the beginning that these were rocks from different parts of the world) and they said they didn’t. I then asked them to reflect on why when we accept a piece of rock from anywhere regardless of shape, size and color, it is so difficult to accept people for who they are. This also worked very well, and the children were able to bring the discussion round to discrimination and the need to accept.

Another thing that worked well was identifying issues raised in the book and exploring these using the Issue Tree. The idea was to analyze an issue in its entirety – the causes, the effects and the possible solutions to the issue and how a solution is only possible when the causes are known. They worked in groups and presented it to the class. The children also wrote a response to Wonder on Google Slides – this was shared with the entire class that they could view and comment on each other’s posts.

These activities gave them a chance to engage deeper with the book and with the ATL skill of practicing empathy.

They were also done to feed into the summative assessment: creating a product to spread the message of a culture of acceptance.

We separated Criterion C from D so that the children could give free rein to their creativity. To check where they were with language and how well they could analyze their choice for the product and medium and the message’s connection with the unit, we had a second part to the task – writing a rationale.

A little later, they will read A Faraway Island by Annika Thor and find similarities and differences between the two, interact with her – we’ve done that in previous years – and also tell her how Wonder and A Faraway Island are connected.

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