I promote the idea that classrooms should share in difficult conversations. These could be political, cultural, gender (when appropriate for age), etc. We have become so polarized in thought. We have stayed away from difficult conversations in light of political correctness and the idea that school is just for academics.
“This is not our role,” is heard so often.
They are difficult conversations to have sometimes and can be awkward at the least. I would say this is exactly our role. We are professionals who have developed relationships with multiple students from multiple backgrounds. We gather with them upwards of 7 hours a day. It is exactly our role. We are in the perfect position to have these discussions. It is italicized because they do not and should not always be verbal. If not in this environment, then how will they learn to discuss, debate, question, accept and deliver their ideas in a way that is meaningful and peaceful.
I have 3 children of my own, I push what I think is a positive inclusive message. I would have no problem if at school they had discussions about this. I just want them to have the space to do it, in a non-threatening environment. It does not and in many cases should not be verbal, it can be written, it can be private, it should be varied. There just needs to be a space and opportunity based on subjects, topics, or ideas that the teacher can present to the class or that students can bring to the classroom.
I think the role of the school (teachers, counselor, admin, etc.) is to provide a safe space for these conversations. They have to be the master moderator, again does not have to be verbal, where each person is given an equal opportunity and provided a medium for them to be heard. Adult opinions should be left out, but historical context, fact checking, and other answers based on what can be proven are the role of the school (teachers, counselor, admin).
For example if a student were to say something that is just false, questionable, or lacks context the teacher needs to be able to jump in and either correct or pause until more information can be found to further explain their point. This can be tricky, but can be done.
Examples of how to have these conversations: (keep in mind when it comes to certain topics like race, you want to go with the least open approach and work from there. Anonymity at this point is important)
- Open debate in class - Assign roles and ask students to argue the unpopular or misunderstood side (this might require extra resources) This would be for more fluffy type conversations that would not spark emotions or too many deep connections with students.
- Teacher makes statement “In the news it was reported that…..” Write your initial reaction to this. As a teacher collect it and present the ideas to the class at a later juncture for comment.
- Have students write a narrative from the perspective of a person that may have been involved. You will quickly understand their perspective and ideas this way.
- Find 2 different opinion pieces about the same story and assign students to defend sides.
You want to make sure whatever method you choose that it is accessible and available to all students in a way that will protect their anonymity if necessary and value their voice. I would not allow just an “open discussion” unless it is a part of an already established routine like a morning meeting and the topic lends itself to being a little more light. These can go to chaos quickly, offend students without warning, and more introverted/quieter voices can be lost very quickly. The more dominant personalities tend to take over and the idea of allowing students to share their ideas freely is lost. Those in the minority opinion are never heard and feel ostracized.
Push the idea of challenging uncomfortable conversations within a controlled environment. This can be done at all grade levels, just being mindful of what your students can handle and topics that can and should be discussed.