Volume VII, Issue I
Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.
Let’s Hear It for Civility!
“Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”
Mary Wortley Montagu
Teaching Civility Through Courageous Classroom Conversations
Every day we see on social media and news feeds adults who struggle to express their opinions in a civil manner. Rarely do you read respectful debate on two sides of an issue; rather you read rhetoric that includes personal attacks, misinformation, threatening language, or unsubstantiated claims. What kind of example are we setting for our children and our future? Not a strong one, I’m afraid. The good news, however, is schools have the ability to shift this paradigm for the better. Now, more than ever, is the time for educators to model, explicitly teach, and practice meaningful and civil classroom discussions around topics of controversy as a part of their curriculum.
Our goal is to teach our students to be productive democratic citizens who can and do engage in dialogue that includes multiple perspectives and viewpoints. What we need in our teaching is a focus on civil discourse. Leading high quality discussions on controversial and important issues is a skill that can be taught and learned. Through the use of well thought out structures and a toolbox of teaching strategies, teachers can prepare the citizens of tomorrow to communicate in a way that is productive and beneficial to society.
Civil discourse requires people to express ideas in a manner that is informed, respectful, and reasonable. It also requires that people listen to understand and respect the differences in opinion of others. According to Jonna Perrillo in her post “Teachers, Schools, and Civil Discourse,” it is “responding rather than reacting, understanding more than arguing, listening as much as talking, and believing in the process even when one is unpersuaded by another’s ideas.”
Our students need better examples than the current discourse they see in the media. They need to learn to listen, understand, and engage in sustained dialogue that doesn’t undermine, offend, or personally attack others. What better place to learn these skills than school? Our schools are safe environments where students can share diverse opinions, communicate ideas, and receive feedback about issues that are controversial. This gives students opportunities to practice skills they may not hone outside of school and provides models of respectful participation in a democracy.
Setting the Stage for Teaching Civility
In order to have respectful conversations about controversial issues, the classroom environment needs to be one where every student’s opinion matters, every student is valued, and every student has a voice. The classroom has to be a place of tolerance and acceptance.
Having meaningful discourse in the classroom not only builds understanding, it fosters empathy and a sense of classroom community. Classrooms become a safe place where students can hone the skills needed to be successful participants in a democratic society. When students engage in discussion in their classrooms, their success should be measured not only on how much they participate, but on the quality of their contributions and the nature of their interactions with classmates.
Like any other skill, how to meaningfully engage in classroom discourse needs to be explicitly taught, with opportunities to practice and reflect. The best discussions occur when there are goals for the conversation. Teachers should consider ways to hold all students accountable for making contributions, and after a discussion there should be the chance to debrief, reflect, and set goals for the next discussion. In order to set students up for success, discussions should become a classroom routine, with regularly scheduled time to think, engage, and reflect on issues of relevance.
Establishing Ground Rules
There are certain standards of conduct necessary for civil discussion. Setting ground rules holds each participant accountable for practicing civility. Establishing rules alone will not create the respect and tolerance needed for these controversial discussions. The rules for the discussion serve to enhance the sense of community that should already exist.
When authoring ground rules, remember that they will work best when the participants have input in their construction. Be clear with students about your goals; your ground rules should address any potential issues that could arise when there is not agreement. For example, your ground rules may include statements like:
- We understand that personal insults and attacks will not be tolerated.
- We recognize that there will be differences of opinions and not all participants in our discussions will see the evidence in the same way.
- We agree to listen thoughtfully before responding and to not interrupt.
- We value evidence, and will support our claims with evidence rather than emotion.
- We commit to using respectful language and to remain civil during our discussion.
When involving your students in the creation of ground rules, guiding questions are an invaluable resource for prompting student thinking and ideas. Some questions to use when helping students to articulate ground rules:
- What does it mean to be civil?
- What will it look like when we are civil to one another?
- Why is it important to use evidence and reasoning in our discussions?
- What would make you feel comfortable when discussing a controversial topic?
- What would make you feel uncomfortable?
- Should discussions have a winner?
- How should we handle it when we disagree with what a classmate is saying?
Choosing Topics for Discussion
When civic learning fails to include controversial issues, according to the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the result is “young people may not learn how to engage productively with the issues and events that animate our political system today and will continue to do so in the future.”
We live in a time where complex issues abound and the public is immersed in controversy over questions of policy, ethics, or the environment. Addressing these topics in our schools has become unavoidable. The good news for educators is that studies have found that when students address controversial topics in school, they are practicing critical literacy skills, learning to grapple with all sides of an issue, using evidence to draw conclusions, and communicate effectively. This work can have a profoundly positive impact on students, as they learn to express and hear opposing viewpoints in an environment that is safe and that maintains a sense of objectivity. When we add meaningful dialogue about controversial subjects into our classrooms, we are teaching our students how to manage the kind of controversy they will see outside of school.
Choosing an issue to discuss in the classroom is not a decision to take lightly. There needs to be careful consideration for the developmental appropriateness of the topic, the background of the students, and the relevance for the students. Above all, the content for discussion needs to be chosen with a clear purpose and goal for student learning. According to Karen Hess in the Kappan article “Using Controversy as a Teaching Tool: An Interview with Karen Hess,” to lead a conversation well the teacher needs “a clear sense of what they want students to learn and what it means for them to learn those things.”
In order for students to learn the skills of civil discourse, the topic being discussed must in fact be controversial. Students should be discussing issues that are subject to debate because there is no consensus. One place to begin is to think about current events with cross-curricular connections. It is also important to begin instruction with topics that are less demanding. Then, as students acquire the skills of civil discourse, the topics can become increasingly sophisticated.
As facilitators, we also need to examine for ourselves where we stand on issues. While recognizing our own discomfort will not make the conversations easier, the awareness we gain will guide us as we engage in challenging conversations. It is critical to continue to reflect on ways that can build your confidence and realize that you don’t have all of the answers and can learn with your students. Some prompts to ask yourself when considering a topic:
- The relevance of this topic for my students is…
- he hardest part about talking about _______ is…
- The beneficial part of talking about ________ is…
- My initial opinion about ___________ is… I believe this because…
- My questions about ______ include…
- I believe my students will ask…
Successful Classroom Discourse
Classroom discourse around controversial subjects should never be unplanned or spontaneous. When students have not had time to prepare for a conversation, they are less likely to engage in the discussion. However, if students have already done some research and have had exposure to both sides of the issue before the dialogue, they are much more likely to participate in an equitable and meaningful way.
The purpose of preparation for the discussion is not so students can come to the conversation with already formed opinions. Rather than publicly taking a position on a topic at the start of a discussion, students need to learn all sides of the issue and be prepared to change their mind as a result of the discussion. We need to model for our students the importance of listening to understand, and that the viewpoints and evidence presented by others can, in fact, have the power to change our opinions. It is much harder for a student to change their opinion as a result of the discussion if they have already put a stake in the ground with their initial stance on an issue.
To prepare, students need to have researched all sides of the topic. Students need to read and annotate articles and resources that explore multiple viewpoints on an issue. It is important to put resources in students’ hands that are at a variety of levels and that represent a balance of perspectives. Through their research, students will learn the value of reliable evidence. In addition to research, keep vocabulary instruction front and center in the preparation for the discussion. For example, as students learn more about the topic, the class can construct a list of topic specific words that will likely be used during discussion.
Provide Students with Language for Success
Our students need ready access to the language they will use when having discussions about controversial topics. Students will need to know when to validate another’s thinking, probe with questions, or express their own understanding of a topic. Questions are not meant to judge, criticize or present an opposing viewpoint, but rather are meant to build understanding.
Some questions with students may include:
- I hear what you are saying, but it makes me wonder…
- You raise an important point, but have you thought about…?
- Did I understand you correctly when you said that…”?
- While I can appreciate your stance, I know that…
- What do you think is the next step?
- Can you say more about…?
- What do you think should happen instead?
- Why do you feel this way?
- Are there any exceptions to this rule?
- How will _________ stop ____________?
Engage All Students
There are a number of tools that can be used to ensure that all students are engaged in civil classroom conversations. For example, protocols or structured routines are valuable tools that protect the time necessary for reflection during the discussion, promote active listening, and ensure that all voices are heard by a non-judgmental audience. Using a structured process helps keep discussions free from skepticism, interruptions, or inequity while giving students the opportunity to look at issues from multiple points of view.
Educators frequently feel uncomfortable leading discussions of controversial topics because of the potential dissention and unrest that can occur. If the tension caused by a difference of opinions is still productive and students are engaged in meaningful conversation and learning, then it is appropriate to continue the dialogue.
On the other hand, if the conversation has gotten highly emotional, personal, confrontational, or unsafe, it is time to end the dialogue and take steps to diffuse the situation. For example, invite students to write rather than speak. Students could respond to prompts such as “I feel ______ when discussing ____ because…” or “The ground rules that were broken during our discussion were____. This negatively affected our conversation because…,” or “Some unanswered questions about this issue that I still have are…”
It is important to encourage students to use “I” statements when they are discussing their opinions and to recognize that the other person (people) in the discussion are not “the enemy.”
A challenge we are up against as educators is when public figures or people of significance share derogatory opinions, and it is up to us to refute them. When these situations arise, rather than acting on your instinct to immediately dismiss certain opinions, invite your students to process the following questions that were shared in Teaching Tolerance’s article “Teach 2016.”
- What do you believe was meant by that claim?
- Where did that idea come from?
- What are the assumptions behind this idea?
- Is what’s being said true? What’s the evidence?
- Can you think of any counter-examples to this statement?
Many teachers fear that if they lead discussions on controversial topics, they will indoctrinate their beliefs on to their students. However, when teachers acknowledge and discuss controversial topics it doesn’t mean they are advocating or criticizing a particular viewpoint. In fact, it is during these discussions that students learn both sides of issues and learn to participate in balanced discussions. Through these discussions our students learn how complex and multi-faceted issues can be, and the importance of hearing all viewpoints.
In the document “Civil Discourse in the Classroom” from Teaching Tolerance, the thoughts of Jonathan Silin are shared. He tells us:
“Children quickly learn to provide expected, politically correct answers in the morning, and then later during the same day can be seen at lunch or on the playground displaying the very behaviors about which they strongly objected just minutes before. The only solace is knowing that we have acted authentically in addressing tough topics, that we can always return to the chalkboard and revise our work, and that if we have fostered a community in which dialogue is continuous, then there will be many opportunities to ask new questions and prompt further conversations about the things that really matter to us.”
In the issue of Making the Standards Come Alive! titled “Let’s Hear It for Empathy,” I wrote of the importance of empathy and how it is necessary for academic success, confidence, self-worth, and happiness. It is also essential for our students to be good citizens. We need our students to be empathic listeners who are willing to listen and respect the viewpoints of others, even when they are different from their own. Students need to learn that when people disagree on important issues, the dialogue that surrounds those issues is not for the purpose of determining “a winner,” but rather to build a deeper understanding of the issue at hand and of others’ views.
We live in a pluralistic society where differences that sometimes make us uncomfortable exist. When our students learn how to listen empathically, the discomfort that exists diminishes. Civil conversations won’t happen without the ability talk and listen to views on difficult subjects. Engaging children in these conversations helps them experience the beliefs, feelings, and emotions of others, therefore, closing the empathy gap that exists in our world today.
Our future lies in the hands of our students, and through this courageous work we can rebuild a democratic society where people can learn from and listen to one another.
Additional Resources and References
Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, The Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. Silver Spring: Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, 2011. Access at www.carnegie.org/media/filer_public/ab/dd/abdda62e-6e84-47a4-a043-348d2f2085ae/ccny_grantee_2011_guardian.pdf
Richardson, Joan. “Using Controversy as a Teaching Tool: An Interview with Diana Hess.” Phi Delta Kappan, December 2017/January 2018.Access at
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Clayton, Heather. “Let’s Hear It for Civility!” Making the Standards Come Alive! Volume VII, Issue I 2018. Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. ©2018. All rights reserved.