How To Honor All Students During Tough Classroom Discussions

Difficult Classroom Discussions

Note: The purpose of discussing literature and other print and nonprint texts in class is to gain a deeper understanding of the author’s purpose and to gain insight into ideas and experiences that may be the same or different from our own. Texts serve as both mirrors into our own lives and windows into other people’s lives, according to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. With that understanding in mind, we should seek to understand the experiences of both the authors and our classmates, not to argue or insist that our own opinion is the correct one. These discussions align with Critical Literacy standards in both the Oklahoma Academic Standards and the Common Core State Standards. OAS Standard 3 states: “Students will analyze, interpret, and evaluate increasingly complex literary and informational texts that include a wide range of
historical, cultural, ethnic, and global perspectives from a variety of genres.” 

I faciliate these kinds of conversations with my students through a method described by Marisa Thompson as TQEs, or Thoughts, Questions, and Epiphanies. You can listen to my interview with her and review additional resources at that link. 

After the death of Heather Heyer following the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville last year and the state of our national political divide became national news, I realized we needed to hold some tough discussions in our English classes, particularly in my junior level American Literature class. The idea of leading these discussions with a classroom full of teenagers, who may be impassioned one day and apathetic the next, was scary — and still is. But I know that it is important that all students have a safe place to discuss the issues that our country — and our world, really — is facing.

So, with the help of friends and resources online, I developed some guidelines to help ensure that all my students can safely discuss issues while honoring differences in opinions and perspectives.

I read several resources, including:

Based on those readings and conversations with colleagues across the country, I developed the following guidelines for my students:

Discussion guidelines

Every student in this class has a right to learn in a safe environment and a right to be respected. I know that many of you have grown up together, and that you have already exhibited a sensitivity to each others differences and perspectives. I want to make sure that we continue respecting each other, even as we grapple with difficult issues. To that end, I’d like for us to understand that there are closed issues and open issues. Closed topics are ones that are not open for debate in this class. You can recognize closed topics by these guidelines:

  • If it is blatantly unconstitutional (ex. slavery), it is off limits.
  • If it is not something you would hear being debated on non-partisan news shows (not just social media), it is off limits.
  • If what you’re going to say might [simple_tooltip content=’cause to feel upset, annoyed, or resentful’]deeply offend[/simple_tooltip] [simple_tooltip content=’cause a severe loss in the dignity of and respect for (someone or something)’]demean[/simple_tooltip] someone or [simple_tooltip content=’Treat as unworthy of serious consideration.’]dismiss[/simple_tooltip] their understandings and perspectives, do not say it.

I advised my students that as we discussed controversial issues, they need to remember to refer to our readings or non-print texts that we study in class instead of relying solely on their personal anecdotes. Doing so would enable us to discuss the issues without getting too personal and making people feel uncomfortable.

Last year, we were able to discuss Charlottesville in small groups and through written responses, and students held a Socratic Seminar over issues addressed in The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I want to do better this year.

What “ground rules” do you set in your class to help your students participate safely in class discussions about difficult topics?

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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