Teaching Tolerance Through Picture Books: Celebrating Diversity



The theme for this year’s Democracy Week is “connect with democracy.” During this week we are all invited to celebrate democracy by connecting with individuals and organizations that reflect Canada’s democratic values. Democracy Week provides a great opportunity for educators to help students explore the rights and responsibilities that they have in their communities and to understand how important the voting process is. For teaching resources, elementary lesson plans, secondary lesson plans, lists of events, and other background information you might want to check out the Canada’s Democracy Week website (democracydemocratie.ca).


Now in its third year, Canada’s Democracy Week has its origins in the United Nations’s Day of Democracy which has been celebrated annually since 2007. For a list of current UN events and activities, visit un.org.

Reading is so much more than just decoding words. It is also the process of using effective literacy strategies to create meaning from the text. One of the most powerful of these strategies is the ability to make connections. Strong readers connect to a story when something in that story evokes a memory. The characters, the events, the emotions expressed and the illustrations can all trigger memories.

A carefully selected picture book can become a catalyst for classroom discussion and a way for students to recognize and make personal connections to Canadian democratic values. Tolerance of diversity is one of those values.

Feathers and Fools

by Mem Fox
illustrated by Nicholas Wilton
Voyager Books, Harcourt, Inc.,1989
ISBN 0-15-202365-8 (pbk)
$7.00, 36 pp., ages 6 – 10

Feathers and Fools is a colourful and beautifully illustrated book by Mem Fox. It tells the story of two groups of birds who begin to fear each other because of their perceived differences. This book provides a springboard to a classroom discussion about similarities and differences and makes a link to the acceptance and celebration of diversity being an important goal for a democratic society.

The story begins by introducing a pride of magnificent peacocks and a flock of elegant swans. One day, one of the peacocks observed that it was very strange that the swans should fly and swim when the peacocks did not. The pride became uneasy with the thought that the swans had such strength. They began to make plans.

And so it came to pass that the peacocks gathered a great quantity of feathers which they sharpened into arrows and concealed in the shadows of their gardens.

“Now we can defend ourselves against the swans,” said the first-and-most-foolish peacock, raising his voice that the swans might hear: “We shall hurl these arrows at their throats and slaughter every one should they ever try to change our way of life.”

The swans responded by preparing their own arsenal of weapons. Over time both groups of birds added to their pile of arrows and became increasingly more terrified of their perceived enemy. One day a swan flew over the peacocks with some nest building material in her beak. The peacocks, thinking that she carried an arrow, ran down to the lake with their weapons.

Soon cries filled the air and blood darkened the earth. A cloud of feathers rose into the sky and haunted the sun.

All of the birds were killed in the battle.

Then, in the shadows of the gardens, an egg hatched, and a small bird staggered out into the bloodstained stillness.

Among the reeds beside the lake a second egg hatched, and another small bird teetered out into the ruins.

They stumbled towards each other, alive with curiosity and trust.

“You’re just like me,” said the first. “You have feathers and two legs.”

“You’re just like me,” said the second. “You have a head and two eyes.”

The story ends with the two young birds becoming friends who face the day together in peace and without fear.

LESSON: Accessing Prior Knowledge/ Making Connections

Note: This lesson may be spread out over a number of days depending on the age and ability of the students. Very young students could be guided through the lesson orally.

  •  to access prior knowledge
  • to make text-to-self connections
  • to identify similarities and differences
  • to recognize tolerant and intolerant behaviour
  • one copy of Feathers and Fools 
  • chalkboard
  • one Venn diagram per student
Before Reading
  1. Draw a Venn diagram on the chalkboard.
  2. Print the word “different” underneath each circle.
  3. Explain to the students that sometimes when we are reading information or a story, we make connections to what we already know about the topic. This is called connecting to prior knowledge. Tell them that a Venn diagram is one way to organize this information.
  4. Show the cover of the book to the students. Read the title and check to see that the meanings of the words “feathers” and “fools” are understood.
  5. Have the students identify the two birds on the cover. Label the circles in the Venn diagram: “Peacock” and “Swan.” Explain that you are going to record how the two birds are different.
  6. Have each student turn to a predetermined partner and share their background knowledge about peacocks and swans.
  7. Model sharing your own background knowledge and print the information on the Venn diagram.
  8. Have some of the students share their background knowledge about the birds’ differences with the larger group.
  9. Record the information on the Venn diagram.
  10. Explain that you will now read the book aloud and you’d like them to listen for any other ways that peacocks and swans are different. Explain that at the end of each page you will stop reading and record any new information that they have found.
During Reading
  1. Read the first page. Talk about the content and examine the picture. Record any new information on the Venn diagram.
  2. Continue reading and talking and recording information.
After Reading: Part 1
  1. Review the information on the Venn diagram.
  2. Ask the students to make a personal connection to the story by considering something that is different about themselves and their best friends.
  3. Have each student turn to a predetermined partner and share their thoughts.
  4. Model sharing your own thoughts and print the information underneath the diagram on the chalkboard: “Something that is different about me and my best friend is…”.
  5. If the students are creating their own Venn diagrams they could complete the sentence frame on their papers.
After Reading: Part 2
  1. Print the word “same” under the midsection of the Venn diagram. Explain that you are now going to record things that are the same about peacocks and swans in this section.
  2. Ask the students to listen for the ways that the two newly hatched birds were the same as you reread the last three pages of the book.
  3. Have each student turn to a predetermined partner and share their thoughts.
  4. Model sharing your own findings and print the information on the diagram. For example: have feathers.
  5. Have some of the students share their ideas with the larger group and record their responses.
  6. Ask the students to make another personal connection to the story by considering something that is the same about themselves and their best friends.
  7. Have them complete the sentence frame: “Something that is the same about me and my best friend is…”.
  1. Discuss: there are many ways that people can be the same and different.
  2. Discuss: when people do not understand or accept differences in others it can cause intolerant behaviour.
  3. Discuss: how intolerant actions can hurt others.
  4. Discuss: the meaning of “tolerant.”
  5. List some examples of tolerant behaviour (celebrating diversity).
Other Resources

The following picture books would be suitable for classroom discussions about similarities and differences and could connect to the theme of celebrating diversity. Free lesson plan information for each of these is available in back issues on the Canadian Teacher Magazine website (canadianteachermagazine.com).

Ordinary Mary by Emily Pearson. (May 2009: “School Start-Up Literacy Event”)

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill. (March 2010: “School Wide Literacy Event – The Recess Queen”)

The Great Fuzz Frenzy by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Grummel. (Spring 2007: “The Great Fuzz Frenzy”)


Brenda Boreham
Brenda has 35 years of classroom experience. She has presented workshops on literature-based themes and literacy strategies, and has written a number of resources for teachers. She remains passionate about matching up kids with books.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2013 issue.

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