How to Teach Tolerance (and stimulate more curiosity!) Using Virtual Classrooms

Jul 14, 2021

What does it mean to teach tolerance in the classroom?

I think everyone probably has their own experiences that shape their approach to this and I’m no different. I come from a small-ish town in Kentucky. I grew up right outside of Louisville [you can say Lewa-vull or Looo-vull never Louis-ville]. You may have heard of it. Kentucky Derby… Muhammed Ali… Louisville Slugger baseball bats… any of those ring a bell? How about Kentucky Fried Chicken? I know I got you there. I’ve found KFCs from Indonesia to Kenya to Brazil. I literally never knew Colonel Sanders was responsible for a worldwide delicacy [if that’s what we want to call it!].

Growing up outside of Louisville, I thought my little small town was the bee’s knees. In truth, I didn’t like Louisville very much. It was so much bigger than my little small town. Everything felt different in the city. The buildings and streets and people and life in general just felt so --- different.

It wasn’t until I left Kentucky, left my little small town and by extension Louisville, that I realized how proud I was to be from Louisville. While it’s not a perfect city, I never realized the diversity that existed there. I never realized just how many Louisvillian’s welcomed and celebrated immigrants into the community. Or how full of color and culture and language the shopping malls and schools were. Some of these things I just never got the chance to see. But some of them I just never took the time to notice or appreciate. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met people while traveling who ask where I’m from and I get one of two reactions when I say Kentucky. I’m either met with a slight grimace… you know, visions of us Kentuckians standing in our front yards, shoeless, drinking moonshine and playing the banjo. Or, they’ve never heard of Kentucky and I have to use Chicago as a frame of reference (fyi, we’re about 4-5 hours south). 

The hard truth I learned though, Kentuckians have kind of a bad rap for being close-minded. And after spending the last several years traveling, living in, and meeting people from different places around the world, I can see why. Because that was me too.

For me, growing up, I would have never considered myself close-minded. But the truth is, I just didn’t have the kind of exposure to the big wide world that I believe I should have. And I think this is why the city of Louisville was such a turn off for me for so many years of my early life.

Louisville is by no means a “large” city, but compared to my small town, it was a totally different place. So much about the city felt outside of my comfort zone. I was in a bubble in my small town. Everybody pretty much looked the same. We did the same things. We held similar beliefs and interests. And there’s a sense of security in sameness. Louisville felt like a scary place for me as a kid. 

It feels a little awkward and embarrassing to admit to myself the irrational fears I experienced as a kid and the bias I spent most of my life unaware that I had. It wasn’t a bias against a certain thing, or person, or group of people, but a bias against what felt different than what I was accustomed to. 

Getting on a plane and leaving the country when I was 22 years old was the best thing I could’ve ever done and probably the most important thing that’s shaped everything else about my life to this point. It opened up a door for me where I was able to discover passions for this life I never knew I had. 

People and places and cultures and languages of this world are passions of mine. I so often wish I could have discovered this about myself sooner because it might have changed the path I took straight out of high school. I do believe that things happen for a reason and in the time they are supposed to. But I can’t help but wonder, what if someone could have helped me see what lay beyond the sleepy little town where my roots were planted. How would things be different?

I think most teachers will tell you that there’s a former teacher, or event, or circumstance, that drove them to pursue teaching as a career. For me, having the chance to expose students to a world [foreign places and people and messy issues and far out ideas included] beyond the one they know is one of the things that drives me. Because that’s what I wish I would’ve had. 

When I discovered my Teachure Trademark and was able to hone in on the core principles that drive me as a teacher in the classroom, I was able to identify tolerance and culture as two of these core principles of mine. A product of both of these principles became the virtual classrooms I created to use with my students. These classrooms became a way for  me to not only expose my students to places and culture and ideas from around the world, but in doing so, it became a method for me to teach tolerance. 

By the way, if you still haven't’ found *the thing* that brings you to life in your classroom, I’m talking what makes you feel EAGER and ENTHUSIASTIC to teach, then you haven’t discovered your Teachure Trademark yet. I help you do this in The Teachure School. I’ve got a free mini-course that will walk you through the process of zeroing in on the core principles that drive you as a teacher. You can check out more about that here.


What is a virtual classroom template?

If you made it through the pandemic year of 2020 as a teacher, you’ve probably heard about virtual classrooms by this point. Funny thing is, I taught for almost a full school year in a virtual public school before the pandemic moved most of the education system temporarily online, and the concept of creating a virtual classroom had never crossed my mind. 

In virtual teaching, we use a lot of PowerPoints to share our lesson content. On the platform we use, in every "classroom" the PowerPoint slide deck is usually the first thing students see when they join the class session. As virtual teachers, we try our best to liven up these slides and give them more of a personal feel. But when I saw a virtual classroom for the first time, it took that personalized-feeling to a whole new level. 

If you aren't already familiar with virtual classrooms, they are basically digital classroom spaces that have the look and feel of an actual classroom. They may or may not be interactive. The best thing about virtual classrooms is they can be designed in pretty much any way you could imagine and can be used to deliver pretty much any content you want to cover.

I decided to take this freedom and run with it.


My Virtual Classroom Template Epiphany

So like I said, I knew I wanted to expose my students to new places and people and cultures around the world. But it wasn’t necessarily a possibility for me to take 30+ students on an actual trip across the globe [30+ preteens at that, no thank you, ha!!]. When I found the concept of virtual classrooms I immediately realized that this could be the next best thing. 

I would create classrooms that had the look and feel of a certain country. I would make it interactive so students could explore videos and Google Earth tours to get more insight into the country. I would also use it as a springboard for related content to use during lessons. 

After going through the process of designing my classroom  experience, I decided to make the virtual classrooms part of our daily warm-up/bellringer routine. The virtual classroom would be the first thing students saw when they entered the classroom space. While they waited for class to start, they’d have a chance to explore the interactive components of the classroom. For our warm-up/bellringer activity, we’d look at one prompt per day related to the country of the week.

Here’s an example of what this looks like in action. My favorite example to use is always Brazil, fyi. Maybe it’s because I consider it my second home, or maybe there was a mix-up and I’m part-Brazilian by birth. Nonetheless, here’s a look at what we talk about during the week when it comes to one of my favorite countries on the planet.

Brazil | Deforestation [I like to tie in a related 21st-century focused concept with each country, which gives us a chance to tie in vocabulary with discussions about current events going on in the world]

Day 1 |  See, Think, Wonder picture prompt [offer students a glimpse inside the country of the week - this stimulates that global and cultural awareness while providing an exercise in inquiry-based thinking and connection-making]

Day 2 | Vocabulary Builder [vocabulary introduction with mind mapping exercise, practice using context clues, and Frayer model organizer]

Day 3 | Paragraph Fix-Up [a deeper dive into the country and 21st-century concept, while at the same time completing an editing task to fix common writing mistakes my students struggle with]

Day 4 | Read For Evidence [since my school is heavy on CRQs, this task is a simplified constructed response question that challenges students to look for and use evidence in a written response, which is usually the most challenging part for them]

Day 5 | Quote Analysis & Response [a way for students to develop their confidence and writing abilities in a low-stakes way, while making connections in order to deepen their thinking]

This is just one example of how you can tie in the virtual classrooms to a purposeful, content-related activity that offers students exposure to the skills they need to work on. The possibilities for coming up with coordinating resources to use are endless though. 

But let’s shift gears and look at how the virtual classrooms specifically help to teach tolerance. 


How to teach tolerance using the virtual classroom template

Like I said earlier in this post, one of the things that drives me as a teacher is having the chance to expose students to a world [foreign places and people and messy issues and far out ideas included] beyond the one they know. Because, again, that’s what I wish I would’ve had. The virtual classroom template is one way to check all of those boxes.



01 | Post the virtual classroom template for students to see and interact with daily

As a full-time virtual teacher, you might be thinking it’s easier for me to post and share virtual classrooms for students because everything I do is essentially done in a virtual nature. True, but only sort of. 

My school doesn’t use Zoom, but we use something similar for our live class sessions, where students enter the virtual platform and I’m able to project the virtual classroom template for students to see when they come in. I also post the classroom under our class page announcements feed in the learning management system we use, which houses all of their assignments and textbook content for their core classes. 

If any element of your teaching is virtual, then of course you can find ways to incorporate the virtual classroom template into your daily routine. You can post in Google Classroom, or share the Google Slide link (which can host the virtual classroom) with your students. If you use a platform like Zoom, or something similar, to meet with your students for live class, you can make it so that the virtual classroom is what students see when they join the session. If you have a class website, you could also share it on that platform as well. That’s a great way to make it available to students’ families too, which could stimulate fun discussion at home.

If you don’t have a big virtual presence with your students, you can still use these virtual classroom templates in an actual classroom. If you have a projector or Smartboard or something similar, you can project the classroom using this tool. Students may not be able to interact individually with the classroom in this way, but just having it where students can see it and start discussions about it can help with stimulating that global and cultural awareness.



02 | Use the links to expose students to (and celebrate) different cultures and ways of life

One aspect of tolerance is learning how to respect people who may hold beliefs and practices that are different from our own. When you use the links in the virtual classrooms [like links to videos or Google Earth tours, for example] to expose students to different cultures and ways of life, you are expanding their world of possibilities. Through continued exposure to ideas and ways of life that are different from their own, they can start to see beyond the security of *sameness* and begin celebrating things that are different than what they are accustomed to.

People where I live think it’s weird to eat bugs. I get it. I always kind of thought it was weird too.

But then I traveled to Kenya and saw a buffet of fresh insects at the deli of the supermarket. I watched a video of Gordon Ramsay eating worms from a Peruvian cactus because it’s considered a delicacy in the mountains of Peru. I found a food product supplier using Google Earth called Crunchy Critters, based out of England. I learned how insects are a popular dish on restaurant menus from Mexico all the way to Japan.

Guess what…maybe it’s not as weird to eat bugs as I thought. 

That, my friends, is what it looks like to become more tolerant through exposure to new things. The more you know, right?!



03 | Establish an environment of asking questions and moderating discussions

Sometimes, just by sharing the virtual classroom with students, you get questions and discussions without even trying. The virtual classrooms I created were designed to mirror the given country as much as possible. I tried to do this through the furniture, decor, and objects I chose to include in the room. For example, there’s a gutted-out jeep in my Australia room. And a boat for a bookcase in my Greece room. And a literal sarcophagus in my Egypt room. These are all elements that represent some aspect of the country and culture within. They are usually conversation starters. 

Other times, I like to share a prompt or short video related to something I want to share about the country. 

For example, when visiting Brazil I love to share a video about the surfing teenagers of one of the most dangerous favelas in the country. These are kids at the same age as many of my students, experiencing a very different daily reality, but who have found a sense of freedom through a sport/hobby. My kids can relate to this. 

Or, if I’m looking to add a little more structure to the discussion, I’ll give a specific prompt. Here’s an example that goes along with Ghana:

The point is to get students engaged and making connections. By setting up an environment where questions and discussions are encouraged, you facilitate the development of understanding and empathy through conversation. You can also stimulate connection-making, which helps students to see how things that might at the surface seem very different from what they are accustomed to, really might not be so different at the root of it.  



04 | Explain terms and concepts related to current events 

No matter where you travel to in the world, pretty much every place on this planet is struggling with some kind of overarching issue or challenge that affects people. Whether it’s the people that live in that place or not. 

It’s so important to help students see this because a.) it fosters a sense of community… we are all in this thing called planet Earth together, no one is truly alone, and b.) it can stimulate curiosity and a desire to affect change. We need to expose our students to the issues of their time because these are the issues they will be faced with as adults and expected to deal with in their lifetime.

I showed you earlier the daily routine for my bellringer journal, which is focused on our country of the week and one overarching 21st-century concept related to that country. Using a tool like this gives me a way for sharing concepts and creating awareness around these concepts. If you’re interested in this specific tool, you can click here. Or you can design your own with the same objective in mind. 

The key is to be intentional about using the virtual classrooms as an avenue for presenting and talking about important terms and concepts that might otherwise get left off the lesson plan.



05 | Encourage critical thinking and connection-making

To think critically means to analyze facts in order to reach a conclusion. It’s also about understanding and making connections. Both are essential skills for the 21st century student to have in their toolbox. Both are also essential skills for fostering tolerance.

This is a good reminder to us that virtual classrooms should be about more than just aesthetics. Yes, they are cool and sometimes a lot prettier than our own brick-and-mortar classroom might be, because hey, with a virtual classroom money is no object. The sky's the limit! 

But these tools are more than just a pretty face. It’s only when we USE and incorporate them into our classroom design that we can see how effective they can truly be.

Whether you decide to incorporate interactive elements, such as video or Google Earth tours, to generate a discussion, or create coordinating resources that relate to the content you are expected to cover, thus fitting nicely into your lesson plan, just be intentional. Challenge students in their thinking. Guide them in making connections. Foster a space where they can feel intrigued and comfortable to step outside of their comfort zone and experience something new. 

Because the opportunity you offer your students to see beyond their current reality might be the only opportunity they get that day. And who knows what kind of impact that can have on their life.



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