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The Wall of Intolerance: an Exercise in Cultural Mapping
By Jamie Tuttle 11-Mar-14
International schools strive to foster a welcoming and culturally curious environment. Students from all over the world combine to make a rich tapestry of ethnicities, religions, nationalities, and world-views. Although this diversity is what we pride ourselves on here at Graded, The American School of São Paulo, it can also be a test of bias and stereotypes as different worlds come together. As an international school, we are not unique in the fact that along with all of the positives, there are situations where ideologies collide and biases form. This is our story of how the middle school turned a negative situation around through individual and community introspection. We examined ourselves, took a risk as a community, and decided to move forward. At the beginning of the school year, we found our world map, which was displayed in one of our hallways, defaced with several racist, classist, and xenophobic remarks including the following: “Cocaine” (written over Colombia); “Ching-Chang-Chong” (over China); “Boom, Mother------!” (written over Hiroshima, Japan); “N---- Please” (written over Africa); “Poor People!” (written over Panama); and a Swastika, drawn over Germany. It shocked our school, and we knew that something needed to be done. A Grade 8 student, Juan Caballero, brought up the idea of working together as a school to create a new world map. As the conversations about this idea grew, we felt that we needed to confront the issue of bullying and how racist and derogatory words can be very damaging to an individual and to a community. We decided to confront these issues first, by creating a Wall of Intolerance. Each middle school student (and faculty member) received a piece of paper in the shape of a brick, and was asked to write down a word that has been used against them in a hurtful way at some point in their lives. We placed these “bricks” on the wall where the map was previously displayed. We left the Wall of Intolerance up for several days in order to allow the community to reflect on the words. As a result of this first step in the process, conversations about the power of words grew. Our purpose was to confront those words head on, in order to take the power away from them and the people who use them to demean others. It was explained to the students that there were many words on the wall that were curse words and very offensive to others. There were other words that were not necessarily bad (“gay,” “skinny,” “weird”), but when used to put someone down, take on a negative connotation. Many topics of discussion have grown from this project, such as body image, self-esteem, race, class, gender, academic intelligence, and many more. This project aimed to bring awareness and acceptance of others. Our school believes in the merit of being part of an international community, and we are continuing to work hard to preserve those values. The next step in this process was to create an assembly to tear down the Wall of Intolerance. We had many students and faculty members speak to the entire middle school about a personal experience in their lives when they were bullied or teased. Our entire middle school gathered together for this powerful experience. The Wall of Intolerance was behind them, on display, as they shared their stories. Stories of harassment, bullying, homophobia, and other acts of intolerance, were bravely told by the students who suffered such injustices. Following their personal story, each person turned around and tore off a piece of the wall. It was a very moving and cathartic experience for everyone in the room, as we literally and figuratively took the power of those words back. Our community rallied, heard each other’s stories, shed tears together, and walked out of the assembly stronger than when we walked in. The next phase in this process was to create a new world map for our school. Each advisory class took a section of the world and worked together to develop new words that describe that region in a positive and culturally correct way. This new map is now displayed in the same space where the previous, defaced map hung. Not only is it a new map of the world, more importantly, it is a symbol of our community—a community that perseveres through difficult times. The students at Graded are keeping this positive momentum going by staying active and making sure their voices are heard. A new student-led group, Student Voice, was spawned from this experience. Student Voice plans to coordinate online and school day efforts to support and foster a positive community at Graded. The group is in the process of creating an online blog that will be a resource for all students, and the goal is to have an online support community. Student Voice will ensure that conversations about maintaining and sustaining a positive community are part of the daily life at Graded. Topics such as bullying, relationships, racism, and general advice-giving will be central. As we look forward as a school, we understand that challenges are a part of life and will always be a part of our community. What is different now is that we have a better sense of how to tackle these issues. Not only do we feel better equipped to solve community-wide problems together, our community also has a better sense of what it truly means to be an international school. Finally, we decided to chronicle our journey through video and pictures, in the form of a documentary that other schools and communities could use as a teaching tool. Watch the documentary at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeiFRiua9Uk.Jamie Tuttle is Middle School Counselor at Graded, The American School of São Paulo (Brazil).
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03/14/2014 - Jamie
Thank you Kate! It was a wonderful group effort and I'm very proud of our school.
I hope you take part in a similar activity at Nido de Aguilas soon - it's a very moving experience for everyone. Please feel free to contact me at any point if you want to brainstorm some ideas on how to tear down walls.
Thanks - Jamie
Jamie Tuttle - Middle School Counselor, Graded School, São Paulo, Brazil
03/13/2014 - Kate
Thank you for bravely sharing with us! It is not easy to show the world when we, as a school community, have an "ugly" moment. Your community is clearly stronger because of the amazing process you took to grow past the unfortunate start. You have given us all a lot to think about and an excellent idea for tearing down walls.
Kate Harvey, Middle School Counselor, at the International School of Nido de Aguilas, Santiago, Chile