So, better late than never...in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
This is a tough word to explain to 8 year-olds, but I know in my heart it is essential that we do. If I do nothing else as a teacher, I hope that I make my students feel accepted and valued in my classroom. I build (yes, build is the correct word) with purposeful daily effort an environment that allows for mistakes and failures.
I teach Gen.Ed. 3rd grade, but over the years I've had the pleasure of having several Autistic students mainstreamed in my class. I enjoy each and every one of them and have kind of made a reputation for myself as the teacher who will take "those" students. They always seem to have a special talent that I try to highlight. My "regular" students always accept them as one of their "pals" and I believe are enriched by opening their hearts to a student they would probably never, ever talk to otherwise.
Sometimes it's not an outright lack of tolerance that is so awful, it's not being given the opportunity to learn it. If kids are in an environment where they have the opportunity to talk, help, and work with someone with special needs (ie. Autistic, Developmentally Delayed, Physically Disabled children); they very quickly learn that this person is not so different after all. The "regular" child soon accepts their new "friend" and then a wonderfully magical thing happens...the "regular" child starts to become blind to those differences!
A few years ago, I had an Autistic student named Normandy. He had many of the classic Autistic quirks; shouting, roaming, choosing which activities he liked and which ones he didn't like! He told the same joke over and over; "Hey! Look under there!" to which we would answer, "Under where?". And he would laugh and say "Ha! Ha! You said 'underwear'!" Normandy had an aide who helped him complete his assignments, and who would take him for walks when he needed a break.
One day pretty far into our school year, one of my students asked me, "There aren't any SPECIAL kids in our class, huh?" I didn't understand what he meant. So of course, my "teacher" answer was; "Yes, we are ALL special!". "No" he said, " I mean 'special'" as he held up his fingers and made air quotes. I knew he meant Normandy. This student went on to also question why Miss Laurie (Normandy's aide) was in our class. It took this child over half of the school year to wonder about Normandy and his aide. For most of the year, he just figured Normandy was a little goofy and liked the crack jokes. I have to say that none of my students ever even hinted about why "those" students were in our class. When a tolerant environment is built, teachers do not even need to overtly teach what tolerance means...it is simply there!