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Safe learning spaces allow students to explore issues of racism, politics, and more in an honest and open manner

4 ways to help students talk about tough topics


Safe learning spaces allow students to explore issues of racism, politics, and more in an honest and open manner

In a year where the U.S. has been rocked by a global pandemic, the impact of systemic racism, and acts of political violence, many educators have wondered how to create a “learning space” to address difficult subjects.

A “learning space” is both safe and brave–one where students are supported in expressing their views, as well as in challenging them and coming to new conclusions.

As an instructional coach who works closely with many educators, one concern I’ve heard recently is that teachers are afraid to address social issues without seeming to impose their views.

I help them grapple with the following question: How can we enable students and staff to meaningfully talk about racism, politics, and current events in a way that pursues racial justice and enables all stakeholders to remain engaged?

Exercising discussion muscles and embedding identity, oppression, and resistance into curriculum are just a couple ways to get started:

Practice #1: Make dignity non-negotiable

As Jonathan Gold explains in this article, making dignity non-negotiable is not as simple as including multiple perspectives. He writes, “Talking about perspectives without talking about power can imply an equivalency of viewpoints that brings with it a very real danger of erasing…injustice.” We can have disagreements in our classrooms, but we need to specify that a person’s or group of people’s humanity is not up for debate.

Upholding the dignity and humanity of others must be a core principle of discussion in our classrooms and with our peers if we want to engage in productive conversations. Students and teachers can decide what that looks like in co-constructed discussion agreements – for example, as described in this strategy, “Developing Norms to Support Productive Group Work.”

Recommended reading: Dignity by Donna Hicks lays out 10 elements of dignity, which she argues are essential for human cooperation. Agreements that stem from her work could include: help others feel like they belong; listen to understand; and if you violate a person’s dignity, apologize and commit to change.

Practice #2: Exercise your own discussion muscles

To lead students in productive discussions, educators need to do their own internal work to understand their biases, values, beliefs, and blind spots. Psychotherapist, leadership coach, and racial justice consultant Cherie Bridges Patrick describes what she called four “discourse capacities” of generative discourse on race and white supremacy:
● A liberating environment based in dialogue
● Adaptability
● A readiness and willingness to engage
● Vulnerability

In a class lesson or in a staff meeting, the facilitator (i.e., the teacher or principal) must commit to building these capacities and modeling for discussion participants. This is challenging, yet necessary and impactful work.

Creating formal spaces for fruitful conversation will carry over to informal conversations after school and online. This is critical because white supremacy cannot be rooted out after one conversation, lesson, or professional development workshop. To help you and your colleagues build their own discourse capacities, try implementing this staff conversation strategy, or some of the ideas shared on this list from Barbie Garayúa Tudryn at Learning for Justice.

Practice #3: Embed identity, oppression, and resistance into your curriculum

In addition to conversation skills, teaching for racial and social justice requires focusing on justice-based content as well as pedagogy. Gholdy Muhammad’s book, Cultivating Genius, provides such a framework. Muhammad’s research identifies four “pursuits” that were central to historical Black literary societies in the United States: identity development, skills development, intellectual development, and criticality, which she defines as “the ability to read texts to understand power, authority, and oppression.”

Whereas skills and intellectual development are fairly commonplace in educators’ lesson plans, identity and criticality are less common. As teachers design units and lesson plans and leaders support them in doing so, we can ask the question: How does this unit or lesson help students 1) learn something about themselves and/or about others? and 2) think deeply about power, equity, and the disruption of oppression? The strategy “Cultivating Critical Consciousness by Exploring or Reflecting on a Lesson or Unit” provides ideas for how to do this.

Practice #4: Create opportunities for students to say something new

While reflecting on a college class I taught recently, I realized I had heard far too many repetitive comments from students, like “That’s sad,” in response to texts that address oppression, or “She’s amazing!” about the activists who resist oppression. When we dug into issues, it was mostly a regurgitation of the talking points heard on TV. It felt like a punch to the gut when I realized I hadn’t been pushing their thinking! I forgot to ask a question that should be central to my dialogic pedagogy: Are they saying something new? All too often, the answer was no.

This was the final key understanding for me. All of the previous key ideas are necessary building blocks to get to this point, but the balance between centering racial justice and embracing a multitude of ideas comes down to our ability to provide students with opportunities (and support) to be able to say something that adds to the conversation. To dive deeper into topics like white supremacy, we need to ask better questions.

Recommended reading: Not Light, But Fire by Matthew R. Kay. There are many valuable ideas in this book specific to talking about race in the classroom, from building community first to re-using various discussion structures and naming the type of conflict showing up in a class disagreement. However, the biggest “aha” moment for me was this line: “There is no more effective form of intrinsic motivation than the opportunity to say something new,” (p. 132).

Individual students may feel more comfortable sharing in different discussion formats, so it can be helpful to try a variety of discussion strategies to see what works best.

Final thoughts

In a time where our students are constantly flooded with information online, we must do everything we can to help them meaningfully contribute to the conversation and see their potential to make change. When we make dignity non-negotiable, support all stakeholders to build their discussion capacity, address identity, oppression, and resistance regularly in lessons, and create opportunities for students to say something new, we create the conditions for us all to grapple with the big and tough issues, together.

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