While Talking Walls teaches many lessons about different people and cultures, the biggest lesson it teaches is to respect and appreciate differences. Growing up in a small town, I witnessed a lot of intolerance for people of different races, religions, and cultures. I never witnessed any violence, but I did hear a lot of derogatory remarks, and even saw kids at school shunned because they were different. From a very young age, I saw this injustice and felt empathy for these kids and couldn’t understand WHY they were being treated this way. It wasn’t until later that I realized most of this behavior came from a lack of understanding about the cultures from which they came. And the others…well, all I can say is that unfortunately, there are some very despicable people in the world who get a kick out of bullying others who are more vulnerable.
For many years I’ve pondered how I was able to escape developing this mindset since I was surrounded by it, and one day I realized it was mainly because of books and my passion for reading. Growing up, my nose was always stuck in a book, and I learned about different cultures and became “friends” with the characters in the books I read. Yes, they may have looked different, eaten different food, and worshipped differently, but the one thing they had in common was their humanity. Under all these differences, they were human. I remember always having a thirst for learning about different people and places and religions and customs.
When I started teaching ESL, I witnessed the same prejudices I saw when I was growing up all over again, and it didn’t come just from the American kids. Some kids in my classroom were prejudiced against other kids in the classroom from certain cultures. Thus, I set about on my crusade to teach my students to respect and appreciate differences. I created a “culture” unit where the students had to talk about where they came from, the common foods they ate, favorite pastimes, etc. My students knew that my number one rule was to respect others even if you disagreed with what they had to say, and there were never any derogatory remarks in my classroom. But many kids were uncomfortable talking about themselves, and the audience wasn’t really engaged. I didn’t feel like I was really reaching them or helping change their mindset, and even though I had established a rule in my classroom, I saw and heard different things in the hallways. I knew this stemmed from a lack of understanding and the environment they grew up in, that just talking about it wouldn’t work.
During my second year of teaching, I discovered Talking Walls, and realized that this was exactly what I was looking for. I had to start on neutral ground, and Talking Walls was this neutral ground. Instead of singling out students to talk about their cultures, Talking Walls enabled me to teach about different cultures from an outside perspective. No one was put on the spot and had to talk about themselves (at least in the beginning). Through the book and the supplemental activities I developed, students really were able to begin developing an understanding and even appreciation of differences. At the end of the unit, I had the students complete a project where they had to talk about traditions in their individual cultures, and I was pleasantly surprised when even the shyest kid presented her information with pride and every single kid in the class paid close attention to every presentation and asked thoughtful and respectful questions at the end. Through their differences, they were somehow able to find common ground, and to me, that was a tremendous success.