Building Community With Student-Driven Conversations
Conversation groups allow students to explore vulnerability about their experiences and build trust in one another.
This school year, many educators face the challenge of building relationships with new students virtually. How can they foster a sense of community without the camaraderie and spontaneity of in-person, classroom interactions? One approach is to make more time for personally meaningful, nonacademic, youth-driven conversations.
In my teaching practice, this has taken the form of This Teenage Life, a dialogue and podcasting program cocreated with young people where students talk about issues relevant to their lives, record them, and create a podcast. These conversations can serve as catalysts for storytelling projects and can be used to build trust and a sense of community. Facilitate successful conversation groups by building trust, allowing discussions to grow organically, encouraging participation, and practicing reflection.
Build Trust at the Outset
With your group, develop norms about how the group talks and listens to each other. For example, a group may decide that people should only share what they feel comfortable sharing and should not share other students’ stories. My students and I devised a variation on the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm, and never pressure an individual or a particular group to talk about something they don’t want to share.” After discussions, reflect on the norms in postdialogue reflections. Did the group abide by them? How could they have done better? If there are individuals consistently violating norms and undermining trust, have a one-on-one conversation about how their actions are affecting the group dynamics.
At the start of the conversational practice, begin with topics that feel light, funny, and easy. Consider focal points that will support the sharing of anecdotes. For example, conversations around what teens miss about childhood; silly superstitions; or surreal, reoccurring dreams can allow students to share stories without feeling vulnerable.
These topics are less closely connected to young people’s core values and identities, and conversations around them can lay a foundation of trust. As trust builds, the group can delve into heavier topics that are more connected to who they are, what they care about, and who they want to be. Follow students’ lead, and wait until they propose heavier subjects. For example, my students’ conversations about queerness and the importance of Black Lives Matter happened once students felt safe in their processing of the issues, and they suggested the topics for discussion.
Follow the Energy
In traditional discussion groups, students receive prompts and are told to stick to a specific subject given by a teacher. To have more fluid, decentralized, student-led conversations about meaningful, nonacademic topics, the group can start by generating a list of topics. Provide some prompts as examples and then let them riff. Keep track of their ideas in a written document.
Encourage topics that help students get to know each other as they might do informally at a dinner table with friends or a bonfire. For example, students could discuss times they’ve gotten in trouble, things they believed as a child but no longer believe, stories of people they look up to and why, or times they’ve been scared.
Successful topics will create a conversation with momentum where young people are enthusiastically sharing and listening. Be aware that sometimes strange topics end up working well. For example, one student pitched “snacks and breakfast” as a topic in our group. While at the outset it seemed like an odd topic, the students had so much to say about what they liked to eat, foods they liked to cook, when and why they ate different snacks. Even though it was not a deep conversation, they laughed and learned about each other.
Authentic tangents that emerge from follow-up questions or forays into more specific subtopics can lead to deeper dialogue. For instance, during a conversation about parenting and climate change, one teen casually asked, “Have you ever realized that your parents are people too?” The tangent led to thoughtful dialogue and an episode titled ”Parents Are People Too.” Allow ample time for tangents to occur, as they may lead the conversation in an unexpected direction. If a topic elicits silence for minutes, look at your topic list and offer something else, or ask the group if there’s anything anyone wants to discuss. If a random tangent is too off-topic from a thoughtful, fun conversation, ask a follow-up question that returns the conversation to the agreed-upon topic.
Celebrate All Forms of Participation
Unlike in classrooms, where young people are often graded on participation, dialogue sessions function best when they are not graded, so that students have a safe space where youth voice is elevated.
In these student-led conversations, it’s important for adults to recognize that they are not the primary drivers, so that they don’t dominate the conversation. By choosing to listen, adults can give more space for young people to surface their own ideas and share their stories. In a remote learning setting, breakout rooms can allow adults to move between groups, giving young people a space for their own self-directed dialogue.
In these dialogues, active listening and follow-up questions are crucial to furthering a good conversation. Students can also participate in other nonverbal ways. For example, students may—during or after a conversation—create art or media related to the topic, as illustrated by the web-art and student-created activities in our conversation and activity guides.
Reflect on Dialogue
Students may raise sensitive issues they are grappling with as conversation topics.
After such a discussion, share resources that might be useful. For example, after a conversation about anxiety, I shared a self-care tool kit with the group.
In the last few minutes of every conversation, reflect on what worked, what didn’t work, how the group could improve, and how people felt during the conversation. Keep track of the feedback, and resurface it at the beginning of the next gathering.