It’s a fact that we cannot control what happens every moment of our student’s lives. We can’t prevent poor choices in the hallway, unkind statements in the lunchroom, or hurtful words on the bus. However, we can try to right the ship in our own classrooms.
As a member of our building’s diversity team, this message came through loud and clear during a presentation at our most recent Diversity Coaches Meeting. During this meeting, we spent an hour with Janet Chandler discussing the concept of Civil Discourse. During the most recent presidential election cycle we saw endless attacks from various candidates, and many were not living up to the decorum that we might hope for from our elected officials. The facts are that this type of climate has been in existence for a much longer period of time than just the past couple of years.
“A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams “a hideously hermaphroditical character.” Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr “bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country,” an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.
Go through the nation’s history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval.” – Ann Gerhart (The Washington Post, In Today’s Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tounge?, October 11, 2009).
Although uncivil discourse has been a part of our history, with today’s world of 24-hour news, social media, and technology, the noise of the less than civil statements seems to be nonstop. So what are we to do when that spills over into our classroom? Here are some tips that I took away from our conversation last week, as well as a link to a great resource from Teaching Tolerance (the link will be at the bottom of this post). These tips are in no particular order, but hopefully will provide you with some ideas about how to handle discussions that may be a little difficult within your classroom.
If not us, who?
It would be easy to say that these conversations on civil discourse are not our responsibility, but the fact is, there are uncivil things being said in our school building. We simply cannot have the attitude of “it’s not my problem.” When we become aware of issues, we have a responsibility to step in. I can’t recall, nor can I find, where I first heard this, but the quote “we’ve got to take care of the Maslow stuff before you can ever hope to get to the Blooms stuff” comes to mind. Our students can’t learn without their basic needs being met!
Set the example, not just the expectations!
It’s easy to talk about expectations. We can say again and again what we expect. But if, even once, we slip up, some of our students may follow our lead on this. In a civil discussion we use titles: Mister, Misses, or Miss; President; Senator; Representative, etc. If we refer to people without those terms, we diminish their role. Just looking at my Facebook feed in the past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of people who aren’t using titles. I’ve had people tell me that they won’t use certain titles because of a lack of respect in a person. Isn’t that part of the issue here? If you then read through Facebook comments on political posts, you see less than civil statements being made. When you use a title, you add a level of civility and respect. By modeling civility in your classroom discussions, you will help your students understand what that looks and sounds like. Remember – kids act in a way they they see the adults in their lives behaving. Modeling civil discourse will help lead to more civil conversations in the hallways.
Facts vs. Alternative Facts
I’ve referred to social media a couple of times, and I’m going to do so once again. No matter your political beliefs, your party affiliation, etc., I think that any of us who have been on Facebook can agree that there are some outrageous statements being made. The phrase fake news and alternative facts has become something of a joke. Earlier this school year I posted a blog titled “Finding the author’s purpose” (if you want to go back to it, click here: http://wp.me/p6BRrr-6J). In this post, I reminded you of the definition of nonfiction that Beers & Probst used in their book Reading Nonfiction:
“Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.” (emphasis added)
In that post, I went on to encourage you to teach our students to have a questioning stance when reading nonfiction. Every author has a purpose in what they have written – sometimes that purpose is not simply to inform. Facts can be twisted and manipulated to support either side of the political spectrum, and social media is one of the most likely places to see this play out. More often than not, the articles with the most extreme language seem to be coming from sites that are extremely liberal or conservative, or from sites you’ve never heard of before.
One important piece of a civil discussion is that it has to be based in fact (I could probably do a full post on the definition of the word fact…). If you are having a civil discussion and someone shares a “fact” that is truly extreme, or is something that is not agreed on by most in the class, it’s time to talk about the idea of triangulating sources – can we find that fact from more than one source? Do most people agree on this fact? These conversations are so important because as Beers & Probst remind us that there is a greater purpose to teaching our kids the nonfiction signposts:
“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”
If you read through the Teaching Tolerance link at the bottom, you’ll find a whole section on the three parts of an argument. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Assertion – The simple statement that is the basis or main point of the argument.
- Reasoning – This is the because part of an argument.
- Evidence – This is where you truly back your argument. This may include statements from experts, statistics, data, or other research that supports you assertion and reasoning.
If you’re trying to have a civil conversation, encourage your students to include all three of these parts of an argument. If you’d like more info on this, it can be found in Teaching Tolerance link below.
Probably the most important reason to work with our students on the concept of civil discourse is simply the idea of respect. We are all entitled to our opinions, and we are all allowed to disagree with one another, but we have to make sure that these conversations are happening respectfully. Our students need help to learn that it’s okay to agree to disagree. Again, we can’t control what happens everywhere for our students, but we can do our best to make things right once they come in to our classrooms.
What experiences have you had in working with your students on civil discourse? What has worked well? What hasn’t? Does the idea of having conversations like this in the classroom simply freak you out? Share your thoughts in the comments below. We can all learn from one another!