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5 tips to engage students in courageous conversations

How to give your students the tools and courage to engage in intelligent conversations with the power to inspire positive change

For the past six years, I’ve taught high school students in Washington D.C. about race, class, and gender in an elective course I created on social justice and Holocaust and genocide education. This year, with a news cycle that never sleeps and a student body with the internet at their fingertips, discussion of sexual harassment, hate, bigotry, prejudice, and oppression will be inevitable—and that’s a good thing.

I return to my classroom with renewed purpose: I must give my students the tools and courage to engage in intelligent, but intense, conversations with the power to inspire positive change. Adopt these five guiding principles to engage your students in courageous conversations.

1. Teachers must make themselves vulnerable.
It is important for teachers to make themselves vulnerable by discussing how these conversations affect them. During a conversation about gender, a student asked me, “So what is your role in this?” I had to pause and reflect the role I, a cis gendered male, play in the systemic oppression of women. I had to respond honestly to that question by acknowledging my male privilege and then bring it back to the conversation at hand. Once students realized I was not removed from the conversation, but a part of it, they were more open to discussing their own identities and stories.

Over the years I’ve taught about race, class, and gender, I’ve realized the more I talk about how I am both affected by these identities and the role I play in these identities, students are more likely to be honest about how their identities impact their lives and other individuals.

2. Create spaces of trust and safety—the conversation is not safe, the space is.
Creating a space where students feel comfortable having courageous conversations is crucial to facilitating honest dialogue around difficult topics. However, they must also understand that others in the room may challenge them on these ideas or personally held beliefs. I always make sure to remind my students that “the space is safe, but the conversation is not.” By this I mean, students have the ability to say what is on their minds and express notions that they have held or have been taught by parents or society without fear of being labelled for these ideas. However, students need to also understand that by being a part of this space, whatever they say, and whatever ideas they are bringing into this space, can and will be challenged.

To facilitate these discussions and ensure students do not feel attacked, I use the Accountable Talk Protocol, where students speak in “I statements” of I feel, I think, I believe… Thus, students can have ownership over what they contribute to the conversation and acknowledge the personal nature from which other students respond to their opinions and statements.

3. Give students the language to have these conversations.
Students don’t always possess the language they need to express their feelings or experiences. After reading Marilyn Frye’s piece on women in the “double bind,” one female student commented that she had always experienced the feeling that as a female, she was always in a “lose-lose situation,” but just never knew there was a term for it, or even how to explain it. That is when I realized how important it is to give students access to the language they need to effectively hold conversations about the complex issues facing the world.

Language helps us understand each person’s unique background and experiences; this is accomplished when we speak with established definitions and meanings. Another example of this is before we begin our Holocaust and genocide unit, I have students analyze three definitions of the Holocaust from lessons in Echoes & Reflections, an organization that gives teachers the skills, knowledge, and confidence to teach the Holocaust effectively, as having common language around the definition of the Holocaust is crucial for students to grasp in order to have further conversations on the topic.

4. Have honest conversations—not about sparing others feelings, but sharing how students themselves experience events.
One of the hardest conversation students have in my classroom is around social class. Acknowledging that one is poor or from a lower socioeconomic status is not easy. However, to have a conversation about how class impacts individuals and therefore impacts society, we need to acknowledge where we fit on the socioeconomic spectrum.

Before I begin this unit, I make a point to share how I grew up relatively upper-middle-class in my younger years living with my father’s family in Jamaica, and then moved to live with my mother who, despite working three jobs, still depended on public assistance to provide for me and my other siblings. I then ask them why they think I shared such personal details about my life. Students often reply that I want them to know where I came from, or that I am trying to relate to the topic and to them. Although as a student once reminded me, “Mr. Shaw, you might have grown up poor, but that does not mean you know what that is like now.” Despite this, students are often more comfortable with talking about their socioeconomic status openly and how it impacts them.

I highlight for students that if we are going to have a conversation about class and how it impacts society, we have to be honest about where we are within the class structure and how class impacts our lives, especially the opportunities that are given to us by virtue of our class standing. Being honest in these conversations give students the freedom to think more critically about where they can apply concepts and frameworks for how to not only recognize but also to break down and navigate social class in the world around them.

5. Guilt is not what you want students to feel; instead, it is an obligation to act.
When one student talks about their oppression, it is not to make students from dominant groups feel guilt, but rather to show them how they are in a position to act from a place of privilege to create change. Students tend to feel a burden of “So what?” when having courageous conversations, regardless if it is about class, race, gender, or systems of oppression. I very deliberately inform students that these conversations are not about pointing fingers or assigning blame. I encourage them to think about these issues more broadly, looking at systems that they operate within. While we as individuals are not the system itself, we do participate in it and can often benefit from it unknowingly and unwillingly.

Courageous conversations are about highlighting where we as individuals stand in order to figure out the role that we want to take on to be agents of change in society. I encourage students to ask themselves:

  • “Am I contributing to a system that disadvantages others and benefits me regardless of if I intentionally do so or not?”
  • “And if I do, am I comfortable with this?”
  • “Where do I see a place I can make a change to impact someone’s life for the better?”

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