In the News

Letter from the Executive Director: The Power of Real Conversations in Challenging Times

November 18, 2016

I received an email yesterday from an Oregon principal asking for advice. In the wake of the election, incidents of serious harassment and bullying dramatically increased at his school. Perhaps you are experiencing this, too. So, how do we create a safe place for all children?

I do not have all the answers, but I can be part of the solution. There are things that need to be done in the short term, as well as putting a strategy in place for the long term.

I agree that in the short term, there must be consequences for individuals. A message must be sent to all students that harassing, intimidating, bullying behavior has no place in school. If certain behavior was inappropriate before the election and warranted sanctions, then after the election similar behaviors warrant similar sanctions. The principal, however, was seeking help beyond immediate consequences. What else can be done? What can we do to change course?

This is a complex, layered question for which there is no one answer. But I have some ideas.

The election results did not create the incendiary circumstances we are in. The fuel for the fire had been building for a long time. Election results merely ignited flames of discontent across the country. It took a long time to get to this place so it will take a long while to get out. There is not a quick fix.

We know that people of all political persuasions are hurting, and many are angry. When people are angry, they want to be heard. Isn’t that what we all want – to be heard?  Hearing requires listening. Talking, listening, discussing – learning how to be effective discussants has assumed a new level of importance.

I was reminded of the healing power of conversation by an  article by German Lopez appearing in Vox this week. Here were my key takeaways:

  • A recent study found that even a short conversation between two people asking that they put themselves in the shoes of a marginalized group led people to reevaluate their bias. I can relate. This makes sense. After all, I know that I am more likely to be convinced of something after a one-on-one.
  • Confronting people by calling them racist, misogynistic, and so on only makes matters worse. This also makes sense. Getting called out often makes one defensive, and feeling defensive is a barrier to understanding.
  • Finding common ground is key. Imagine that the person being railed against for his “white privilege” and being “racist” is learned to have recently become unemployed and lost a loved one due to a heroin overdose. Perhaps the crux of the issue is financial insecurity, hunger, or health consequences. Looking through a different lens paints a different picture. Empathy results.

Our challenge, of course, is how we create common ground and empathy for others in the school environment. Long-term strategies are needed. I suggest that we are deliberate in creating school environments where talking about controversial issues is commonplace. Learning how to talk about controversial issues is an important and necessary life skill, and it takes time. Lack of time should not be a deterrent.

Talking about controversial topics takes skill, and these skills can be learned. One place to start is by using the Deliberating in a Democracy materials put together by champions in civic education Constitutional Rights Foundation and Street Law. These deliberations include a wide range of topics, one of which is on hate speech. In these discussions, students practice examining, listening, reflecting, analyzing, and discussing. Another strategy is to use simulations such as mock trials, moot courts, and town halls. They all boost skill building in examining and appreciating multiple viewpoints. CLP’s weekly Current Events also include prompts that stimulate discussion of multiple sides.

Many social studies teachers are skilled in discussion techniques. I urge educators to think beyond social studies classrooms. I think we can all agree that high quality discussion should take place in every classroom.  Imagine analyzing the impact of a new discovery in science, questioning the statistics in math, and deconstructing the parable in literature using skilled, facilitated discussion techniques. I am not suggesting that teachers in other disciplines do not already have great discussions in their classrooms; many do. I am suggesting that educators in all disciplines find places in their lesson plans where students can practice more discussion. If teachers are not comfortable with their own skill level, then help is available. Mentoring, workshops, reading, practicing and so on are ways to bridge the gap. The work of Dr. Diana Hess, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dr. Walter Parker, University of Washington, is on point.

To make a course correction in school climate, we need to be in the same boat paddling together in the same direction. Every seat on the boat is a little different than the next and the view from that seat differs. But, oh-boy, if I am paddling one way when the person in front of me is going the other, we have a problem. Science is not Math, and Math is not Lit, and Lit is not Social Studies, but they are all classes where our students sit. Let’s provide a clear picture of the direction we are headed. I believe that picture should include high level, active, facilitated discussion.

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said that “in a democracy, the highest office is the office of citizen.” Not every student is bound for college, nor is every student bound for the workforce. Every student, however, is bound for being a citizen in our community. Let’s work together to equip them with the skills they need. In so doing, I think we can provide that safe school we are looking for, and strengthen democracy in the process.

I recognize discussion alone is not a cure all. But it can be a part of the solution. Let’s continue talking about it.


Marilyn R. Cover
Executive Director
Civics Learning Project