How to have difficult conversations in the classroom
It’s not you; difficult conversations are a lot right now. While it’s fair to say that the history of the world consists of “being a lot” at regular intervals, right now is a moment where multiple unlikely catastrophes have collided, exposing deep rifts in conventional society. A lot of people we know and love hold diametrically opposed viewpoints, and they aren’t afraid to defend them.
And that’s where you come in, dear educators. Because a lot of those people with those viewpoints are the students in your classes. And you want to talk with them about what’s going on, and how it’s affecting them as learners. How they can affect the situation themselves, as participating members of this society. But how? Is it even possible to have those conversations? And what happens if something goes wrong?
Why address controversial issues?
Every Vermont teacher interviewed for this blog post came back to the same reason for addressing controversial issues in the classroom: for the sake of our democracy. Kathy Cadwell, a philosophy and history teacher at Harwood High School in Duxbury, got right to the point:
“Dialogue is the heart of democracy. Civil discourse is the heart of community. …Why we engage in the art of dialogue, it’s not only to develop those personal skills but to develop the skills of citizenship and engagement in community.”
Kate Toland, social studies teacher at Peoples Academy Middle Level in Morrisville VT, added that in a democracy we ned to engage in collective problem solving.
“Real problems require deep thought and deep thought requires being able to swim around in a topic instead of trying to build a wall that builds your point…who does that benefit? Thinking deeply with many people who see an issue differently or from different perspectives is where many solutions can lie and practicing being in discussion like that is I think what we want students to be doing and helping each other do.”
In her Open Letter to a Parent Afraid of Anti-Racist Education, English teacher and equity expert Christina Torres pointed out that this is not something new. “Teachers don’t just teach ‘content.’ We never have. For generations, we have also taught our students to listen, share, and be empathetic. Teachers don’t just help students understand themselves and the world around them, we also model how to have constructive discussions with one another.”
In a world of polarized politics and abundant hot takes, these difficult conversations may be more important now than ever. “Today, students are already inundated on social media with this stuff, so it is important to provide them with a space to explore these issues deeply in structured, safe ways. It is also important to begin combating digital tribalism and echo chambers as early as possible,” noted Paul Kramer, who teaches Humanities at the Harwood Community Learning Center.
Middle School too? A big yes
Students should start delving into controversial topics as early as possible. We know, for example, that teaching about race and racism should begin as soon as students start attending school. They are already forming their ideas and without guidance those ideas will reflect the misinformation, biases, and white supremacist ideology that permeate our society.
Middle school is particularly crucial, in part because students are becoming naturally more aware of the world. As Meg O’Donnell, 7-8 grade Humanities teacher at Shelburne Community School, in Shelburne VT, noted: “It’s all around us. These topics are what kids hear in the news and see play out in social media. It is so important to create space to talk about these things.”
Young adolescents are more exposed to the world and actively working to formulate their identity. This combination puts them in a unique and in some ways ideal position to learn how to engage in dialogue.
Kathy Forrestal, 7th grade Humanities teacher at Lyndon Town School (Lyndonville VT) put it this way: “They are starting to question the world. They are noticing the world around them in slightly more mature ways. They are questioning who they are and how they fit into the world. Looking at who they are at home. And realizing that they are allowed to have a thought about it.”
For the sake of our democracy, students need to discuss and learn about controversial issues. And we need to get serious about this in middle school. Because they will be talking about these issues anyway.
Outside of the classroom
Research shows that children and teens worry about political issues. This anxiety may manifest in many ways, and when you throw in the social dynamics sometimes it can get ugly.
Lucia Johnson, Spanish teacher at Lyndon Town School, has seen and overheard some troubling examples this year:
I’ve had third grade students start a ‘Build the wall!’ chant while walking to computer class, sixth grade students declaring ‘I speak Taco Bell’ or ‘I speak American,’ and 7th graders ‘speak Spanish’ by putting on an exaggerated accent and making up fake words. Often they don’t understand the full impact that these words have, or the full context behind the issue.
Lucia noted that when she talked to students involved in these incidents individually, “about 75% of the time they didn’t understand what they were saying or how it could be interpreted.” She saw these conversations as crucial: “If you don’t talk with them and offer context and other perspectives, a massive opportunity for change is lost. These conversations are happening among even very young students, with or without the guidance of teachers.”
Gina Ritscher agreed. As a math interventionist she works with students across Lyndon Town School. “Teachers should address these issues because kids are already hearing about them and thinking about them. Sometimes in biased versions.”
The same logic of talking about race and racism can be applied more broadly: in the absence of purposeful instruction, youth are left to form their ideas largely on the basis of confusing and often problematic messaging from society.
Outside events entering the classroom
When big stuff is happening in the news, teachers are forced to decide whether and how to explicitly address it in the classroom. When those events have a partisan charge, or relate to something that is personally affecting, it can complicate a teacher’s calculus.
The recent Presidential election was a good example. Many schools and classrooms that had mock elections in the past skipped it this last round. Some teachers cited the fact that with everybody already stretched thin by pandemic schooling, the focus was on maintaining community and supporting social emotional safety. They didn’t feel up to inviting the divisiveness of the outside world into their classrooms.
Andrea Gratton and Kyle Chadburn addressed the election in the grade 5-8 Humanities classes they co-teach at Orleans Elementary School. Before the election, they mostly focused on the basics of the electoral process. They also helped students connect learning they had done about personal biases to the presence of bias in media sources. Afterwards, they used classroom time to hold space for students to ask questions and process their reactions.
One question that often comes up for teachers is whether to reveal their own views in the classroom. All teachers interviewed for this post tended to keep things close to the vest. Kate Toland captured this approach well:
My advice to myself at the beginning of the year is to relax and realize there is absolutely no need to convince anyone of anything. It is not our job to create a particular set of political beliefs; it is our job to help students find their voices and express their thinking respectfully and to use and explore reliable and trustworthy evidence to make our decisions about issues.
This view aligns with what unabashed anti-racism educator Christina Torres noted in a recent interview on the Have You Heard podcast. She drew a sharp distinction between the way she approaches tough topics with adults versus her students. She noted that in her classroom the emphasis is on skill building: “’Here’s what a lot of people think, what do you think?’ I don’t present my own views. I’m not going to say what a 13 year old is doing is racist. I’m not saying they can’t be racist, but I’m not going to name it that way usually. Because I want them to come to realize that themselves.”
Even when current events are partisan and complex, and perhaps especially then, teachers are in a position to provide students with the space and skills to navigate the world.
Spontaneous classroom discussions
In many cases, students bring up controversial issues at times and in ways that teachers aren’t expecting.
Kathy Forrestal shared a recent example where a student brought up Black Lives Matter.
It vaguely related to the topic at hand but the classroom was quickly embroiled in a passionate conversation. Students expressed that they wanted to talk about racism and inequity in the context of current events more often.
Kathy asked them why.
- “Because we are the next generation”
- “We’re the generation that is going to be in law enforcement and government when you’re like 80”
- “This generation is growing up with [conversations about racism] and knowing what’s going on is important”
- “People are not addressing issues because they’re not knowledgeable about them – so we need to be knowledgeable so we can find solutions that are mutual”
- “Adults are uncomfortable talking about this stuff because their parents were uncomfortable talking about this stuff, so if we talk about this, we won’t be”
Students get it.
Meg O’Donnell shared a different sort of example, where the class learning was focused on politics, but the conversation went in a direction she hadn’t anticipated. Students were looking at historical polling data that showed the large extent to which views on various issues had become polarized. After a few minutes of introducing the data, Meg noticed that a contentious discussion had blown up in the chat related to one of the issues on the list.
“It’s like when you are stuffing the Thanksgiving bird and the skin rips. I realized that the norms I thought were established in my class was more of a thin veil. They weren’t tightly woven as I thought, or integrated into daily practice. … When we were tested we didn’t have a strong enough scaffold.”
Meg noted that the norms in this classroom were particularly tested by external stressors and by the online environment. “There’s something about this moment. This interface. This child would have never said that in person.”
It can be tough when things go sideways
But Meg, as a consummate professional, simply redoubled her efforts. She reached out to colleagues to process the experience and for advice on how to reinforce norms and scaffold discussion skills on a daily basis.
This recent incident has reminded her of something she’s always known:
“Norms can’t just be a cover, they need to be a foundation. Norm setting is not something you do in a day and move on, but something you hit every day, every opportunity. How to ask a question, how to respond to something when it lands hard on us. How to understand the speaker and the perspective but not just shout louder.”
So what do we do?
We have to be intentional about having tough and timely conversations in classrooms. We may still overhear stuff that needs addressing. And students will surely keep surprising us by bringing up topics when we least expect it.
But every situation will go more smoothly if we’ve scaffolded the art and skills of dialogue.
Laying the ground rules for the hard stuff? Starts with the easy stuff.
As we mentioned in our post about online communication, the late great Ned Kirsch, longtime educator and Vermont superintendent, used to insist that digital citizenship is just citizenship, but online.
From day one, you’ve worked with your students on learning who they are, where they come from, and what matters most to them. As a learning community, you’ve built norms for interacting. These likely cover everything from seating choice to restroom breaks, device check-out and unlimited testing re-takes.
In case they don’t also cover face-to-face (or mask-to-mask as the case may be) communication, here are three sets of norms to consider in creating or revisiting conversational norms.
3 sets of conversational norms:
1. The Craig Ferguson Route
Three simple rules:
- Does this need to be said?
- Does it need to be said by me?
- And does it need to be said by me right now?
2. Four Phrases for Kindness
Perhaps the most powerful phrases in any language are:
- “Thank you.”
- “I’m sorry.”
- “If I’m understanding you correctly…”
Those first three might seem overly simple, but in the heat of conversations about emotionally charged topics, these phrases can be key in dismantling tension. Especially if as a group, you all are used to using them.
Especially that fourth one.
Let’s take a moment:
“If I’m understanding you correctly…you just stated that you believe aliens have landed in Bellows Falls and replaced all our regular coffee with Folger’s Decaf? Is that correct?”
While we’re all going to be extremely lucky if decaf-bearing space travelers are the 2020 topic causing conversational mayhem, the key here is that you can use this phrase to do two things in the discourse: 1) slow it down, and 2) ask for clarification. Both these approaches can be life-savers.
Sometimes, we misunderstand people.
Sometimes, we don’t hear everything they’ve said because of background noise, a lag in our speech-to-text device, a momentary distraction or because what we think we hear the person saying has whipped up our emotions to the point where they’re difficult to manage.
Additionally, the rise of social media has created what Kathy Forrestal refers to as “Tik-Tok understanding”: the idea that we can fully grasp nuance and context from social media soundbites. They’re so short! So easy to make! So easy to consume! And yet, without rigorous online information safeguards, they can also be misleading, biased, or flat-out wrong.
Social media in general can cause us to speed up or gloss over our comprehension in actual, real-life conversations, whether online or in-person. As Meg O’Donnell put it: “They have the soundbites, the kernels, but don’t always have the historic thread or the depth beyond the soundbite. They have the retort, but not the wisdom behind it.”
Building background knowledge using a range of sources can help. Regardless: there will be points where it’s time to throw the handbrake.
“If I’m understanding you correctly…” is your handbrake
When you use it, what you’re doing is creating a space in the discourse to focus on one sentence, or one idea, and ask for additional detail. You’re creating a space where you can connect with the speaker more directly by establishing a feedback loop. That feedback loop, in turn, can help the speaker understand if what they said came out right.
Oh, we have all been there.
Perhaps what they meant to say came out wrong. Perhaps their own emotions overwhelmed them during the discourse. Now they have a chance to connect with their listener (or listeners; this absolutely works in a group setting) and clarify.
Even if (and this is key), in those few seconds where they hear their own ideas repeated back to them, they realize that they’d like to retract, or amend their statement.
Give them that opportunity. Give them that grace.
Breathe in, breathe out. Listen well. Accept retractions, amendments or apologies in the name of preserving or re-establishing community.
3. Would you say it to your mother?
Part of learning is the importance of recognizing context. Again, during conversations where emotions are running high, it’s easy to get carried away, that’s why we’re all here in this article. But if students already have a known and used norm of thinking about whether they’d make a certain utterance to a specific loved one, that can slow down the derailment.
Let’s unpack, just a little. First of all, we’re going to recognize that the mother example will not just not work for every student, but can, in certain cases, be traumatic for students for whom their mother is a traumatic figure. That’s absolutely something to negotiate and work around.
The key aspect of the strategy deals with the idea that when our emotions carry us away from staying present and focused on who we’re speaking to, it’s helpful to have this norm which encourages us all to identify and re-presence one individual, one particular person in our lives whose opinion we respect, and to whom we always try to present our best selves: our mother, our beloved grandfather, our cousin serving in the Navy, our priest, etc.
This We Believe:
Now, that all said, part of your classroom norms discussion inevitably covers what’s up for discussion, and what’s not. Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, authors of The Political Classroom, refer to these as “open” vs “settled” issues. (We love this NPR interview with them.)
As a community, you and your students sat down and decided on items that are established facts and firm beliefs; they are not up for discussion.
Black lives matter. Climate change is real. COVID-19 is not a hoax.
These are things that you can decide are simply not up for debate. They are settled issues. Instead, what could be up for debate are questions such as what to do about anti-Black police brutality, how to solve climate change, and what science says about preventing the spread of COVID-19. Those are topics that you can (and likely should) discuss.
When things go wrong (because they will)
Despite our best intentions, conversations will go awry. We’re all a little frazzled, we’re all 300% done with Zoom meetings. We’re all sad and scared and anxious and unsure. And while we’re all doing our best, we are in a situation where a lot of improbable events have congregated in one place and are cha-cha-ing all over our mental health. At the best of times, we all sometimes mis-speak or get carried away. And these are not the best of times.
Someone’s going to say something that hurts someone else.
That is the crux of miscommunication. As communication seeks to build connections, miscommunication severs them. So then the task we want to address is rebuilding that connection.
Let’s look at a couple ways to do that.
Learning to accept the consequences of your own actions, especially when they’re not always perfect, is a hard skill. Hard but necessary.
Rabbi Danya’s Guide to Repentance
Apologizing is a skill. And like other skills, you have to learn it. At the heart of every true apology lie two things: a recognition that you caused injury, and a focus on how you are going to atone for doing the injury.
Sounds simple. Too bad human emotions tend to get in the way.
Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone puts it this way: “No matter where it took place — in the workplace, the street, on Instagram or in someone’s DMs — if you hurt someone, you need to make it right.”
What makes a good apology?
Choose your venue: should you write it out on paper and share it with the injured party? Should you call them? Should you apologize face-to-face with authority figures involved? Does a text cut it?
First of all, the feelings and safety of the injured party are paramount. What feels safest to them? What would make them feel heard and attended to? And above all else, what will make sure to not compound the original injury?
Rabbi Danya Rutenberg has a thought-provoking thread unpacking teshuvah (תשובה), a process of forgiveness, atonement and repentance.
I want to distinguish between "atonement," "forgiveness," and "repentance," which are three different concepts in Judaism. The critical one, in my view, is repentance, where the real work is on the person who has done harm.
— Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) July 24, 2018
She focuses in her argument on how there is a large amount of very specific work for the injuring party to do, both on themselves, and in their community. How can your existing classroom and school norms support working through personal growth? If a communications breakdown occurs, what resources can your school bring to support examining the root cause of the utterance?
Calling in, rather than calling out
The prevalence of online communications, with its unfettered approach to crowd discourse, has given rise to a tendency to call people out on their utterances.
Instead: what does it look like for someone to misstep in a conversation, and for us to recognize that not only does the listening community need support in processing the impact of the hurt done, but that as we value every member of our community, we also need to attend to the hurt experience by the speaker that in fact causes the utterance?
We call people in, rather than out.
There are a number of educators doing amazing work around restorative justice in schools. At Randolph Union High School, in Randolph Center VT, students manage the school’s restorative justice system (video), which includes restorative justice circles.
But it’s worth it.
Students need to be able to engage in productive discussions about complex and controversial issues. They’ll be learning and talking about these things whether we address them in our classrooms or not. But with guidance they can build crucial skills in communication, problem solving, critical analysis, conflict resolution, etc.
We are obligated to “go there” for the sake of our democracy, but there are some short term benefits as well.
At the Harwood Community Learning Center, for the last several years teachers have set aside time in the daily schedule to talk about current events. Paul Kramer is amazed at how much students grow over time.
Students begin each year tentatively – not volunteering topics, passively listening – but as time progresses, we do see a change; students begin looking for content to share and engaging with each other using probing questions … it becomes a strong bonding experience for the group … I have actually come to view these discussions as a behavior support for my classes. They provide such an important outlet for some kids.
The world is a scary place. But when done well, delving into the controversies in our society and making sense together of the mess of misinformation can be hugely compelling for students.