How can I help students view differences as strengths?

Many young adolescents desire to “blend in” by hiding or shedding certain aspects of their identities due to social pressures. How can I help students view differences as strengths?

This is part 2 in “Mentor Me” questions about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). The need to conform
to seemingly popular ways of thinking, dressing, and acting is experienced by many of our middle level students. Helping students develop constructive relationship skills and social awareness are essential in order to foster healthy perspectives about themselves and others

One way I approach the relationship skills and social awareness aspects of SEL is by orchestrating opportunities for students to share meaningful moments about their lives throughout the regular course of class.

I also use Amy Tan’s very short story, “Fish Cheeks” to spark conversations with students about the importance of being open-minded and willing to listen to others. In the mini-memoir piece, Amy recounts the horror she experienced when her pastor’s family—who includes her crush—comes to dinner, and her mom makes the most exotic foods for Thanksgiving, replacing turkey with a giant fish, head intact. To make things worse, Amy is offered the “fish cheeks,” the most delectable part, further implicating her in having a very different culture.

Usually, I ask students to share their embarrassing moments when something about their family or cultural heritage has been hard to deal with. This prompt evokes thoughtful conversations, with students almost one-upping each other with, “This one time …” stories of embarrassment.

One aspect of the story that is important to analyze is the discomfort the pastor’s son (the crush) also feels. When we discuss this, I ask students to think about their embarrassing experiences and consider the feelings of others. This allows them a chance to entertain another’s perspective.

Students then examine the story’s theme that “the only shame is to have shame.” We talk about this theme as a truism, and students create bumper sticker-like slogans about the feelings of embarrassment that are a part of both growing up and cultural differences.

When students share their experiences within the safe confines of our classroom, many are able to begin to view differences as assets rather than deficits.

Using literature is an effective way to help students engage in discussions that may promote feelings of empathy toward others. Stories also provide pathways of opportunities for students to expand their thinking by considering others’ views.

Continual conversations and learning experiences that scaffold these habits of mind are essential components of our practice and help students develop care, compassion, and empathy, which are essential dispositions of social and emotional learning.