Educators have to engage in courageous conversations in our classrooms. Teaching is a political profession. Our students look to us to help them understand the complex issues they hear about in the news or via social media. The reality is that it is all too easy for us to look the other way.
Tackling these conversations in our classrooms requires courage. Sometimes it may mean going against the leadership of your school who prefer that you leave ‘that topic’ out of your classroom. It means being prepared to hear a range of opinions from your classes that may fundamentally differ from your own. It requires you as an educator to get uncomfortable, to make your students uncomfortable and to realize that discomfort is a necessary prelude to discourse and change.
I am definitely not an expert on having difficult conversations, but I wanted to share with you some of my experiences, resources and strategies for tackling courageous conversations in the classroom.
- It is important to discuss explicit and implicit biases with staff and students and recognize that we are not immune.
We all have biases. So do our students. Our beliefs and values are products of our socialization. We need to recognize this before change can occur. The video series Who, Me? Biased from the New York Times effectively examines how our implicit biases impact our actions. Each video is only about 2 minutes long and could be used at a staff meeting and/or in the classroom as a discussion prompt for looking at our own biases. Another activity is to have students reflect on their own political socialization. I recently had my Grade 12 Politics students create a reflective piece examining their political socialization. Some students recognized that many of their beliefs are shaped by their family/social media and that they themselves know little about the issues. The point is to get students thinking about their thinking (metacognition), and reflecting on how we are influenced to believe what we believe. Teachers/Admin need to do this as well.
- We have to build a climate in our classroom for courageous conversations.
When Trump first proposed his immigration ban, I tried to discuss this topic in my classroom. I had a number of articles, resources, quotes, videos, etc, that I had stayed up late curating. I was nervous, but I felt prepared. I wasn’t. My class became extremely emotionally charged and divided. I had to stop the lesson, apologize to my class and tell them that we would revisit this topic. I think this happens to a lot of us. We plan to tackle a difficult issue, we lose control of the class and we decide to walk away from it. However, I wasn’t prepared to walk away.
I went home that night and worked on a presentation on how to have Difficult Conversations. We also looked at the Oatmeal Comic The BackFire Effect. We then practiced having courageous conversations with some historical topics. Later, we revisited Trump’s immigration ban and were able to tackle the issues as a class together courageously.
This year in my Politics class, I reused my presentation on Difficult Conversations but I turned to a lesson plan from Facing History to help me tackle issues of race in my classroom and create a contract for courageous conversations. Before discussing Charlottesville, we looked at our own biases, practiced how to have difficult conversations and created a contract for courageous conversations in the classroom. You can see the overview of this lesson here in: After Charlottesville adapted from the lesson plan: Lesson: After Charlottesville and the Fight Against Bigotry.
- There are certain issues we need to address explicitly. Our goal as educators is to teach students how to think not what to think. We want our students to be critical and creative thinkers. This can make us uncomfortable to share our beliefs with our students. There are many times when teachers should keep their opinions to themselves and try to facilitate a conversation that reflects/values differing viewpoints. However, there are times as teachers where we have to be worried about the dangerous middle ground. Sometimes there is no middle ground. Racism, misogyny, homophobia, prejudice and discrimination are wrong and have to be called out by teachers in the classroom. We need to talk about why the middle ground that we are often taught to value can sometimes be dangerous and perilous. We need to stand up for human rights – otherwise all of our courageous conversations are little more than empty words.