Responding to Difference in Democracy | Facing History & Ourselves
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Responding to Difference in Democracy

Students explore the varied ways people respond to differences by reading and reflecting on a poem.


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

Interfaith leader Eboo Patel says that differences and disagreements among people are an inevitable part of living in a diverse democracy, but they shouldn’t keep citizens from working together for the common good. In this lesson, students explore the varied ways people respond to differences by reading and reflecting on a poem. Then they listen to Patel tell the story of Ruth Messinger, a former president of the American Jewish World Service. Messinger’s experience of working in rural Oklahoma and finding allies across religious differences invites students to think about how we can better navigate religious and political tensions in democratic societies. Finally, students write a new stanza for a poem describing how they would like to respond to differences so that democracy works better today.

What can individuals do to respond to differences in a way that helps democracy work better?

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 readings
  • 1 audio
  • 3 extension activities

Preparing to Teach

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Lesson Plan


Give students copies of the reading What Do We Do With a Difference? that includes James Berry’s poem “What Do We Do With a Variation?” First read the poem aloud and check for students’ comprehension of the vocabulary in the poem. Then ask students to read the poem again, silently, underlining the verbs in the poem, and then choosing one verb or phrase that particularly stands out to them. Have students write in their journals about why they selected that word or phrase. How does it connect to something they have seen or experienced? Conclude your discussion of the poem with a quick Wraparound activity with each student saying the word or phrase they chose. What does the poem suggest about how people respond to differences?

Introduce Eboo Patel, the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization with a mission to foster interfaith cooperation and religious pluralism among young people. Patel recognizes that differences are a fact of life and both individuals and societies get to choose what we “do” with those differences. 

Listen to the first part of the podcast (00:00–02:44), Eboo Patel on Collaborating across Differences. Then use the questions below for discussion.

  • How does Patel define democracy? How does he define diversity?
  • Why is religion an especially powerful kind of difference? What do you think Patel means by “matters of ultimate concern”?
  • Patel says that in a democracy, people “get to make their personal convictions public.” What might that look like? What are some of the benefits and challenges of living in such a society?

Listen to the second half of the podcast (2:44–8:02) as Patel tells the story of Ruth Messinger’s experiences in Oklahoma in the 1960s. Then use the questions below for discussion and reflection.

  • Who is Ruth Messinger, and what was she doing in western Oklahoma?
  • What were some of the key differences between Messinger and other people in the community where she was working?
  • How did she find allies in her work to improve foster care and child welfare? What did she see in the small churches in her neighborhood? What did she recognize about them that might not have been obvious at first glance? What do you think her allies in the community might have seen in Ruth?
  • How would you evaluate the approach Messinger took to collaborating with people who had very different beliefs about “fundamental things”? What is gained in her approach? Is anything lost?
  • Can you imagine using Messinger’s approach to find allies and work for the common good in your community? What might that look like?

Return to the poem you read at the beginning of class. Ask students to think about a new verb to add to the poem—a verb that reflects something they’ve learned about how to respond to differences during today’s lesson. Then, they should use that verb to build a new stanza to complete the poem. Give students the opportunity to share their writing with the class.

Extension Activities

Learn more about Eboo Patel and the importance of communicating about religious differences in the reading Talking About Religion, excerpted from Patel’s memoir Acts of Faith. 

Read the introduction, What is Interfaith Leadership? from Interfaith Leadership by Eboo Patel to learn the full story of Ruth Messinger and consider how it can inspire interfaith leadership today.

Materials and Downloads

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