Communication Skills

Hot-Button Topics, Civil Conversations

Fostering productive discussions on contentious topics.

February 28, 2017
© Edie McDowell
Katie Dulaney listens as her students have a discussion.

When teacher Katie Dulaney learned about The New York TimesCivil Conversation Challenge just prior to the 2016 presidential election, she got excited. For weeks her eighth graders at the Franklin School of Innovation, an EL Education (formerly called Expeditionary Learning) middle and high school in Asheville, North Carolina, had been studying how the nation’s founders grappled with and debated the principles they ultimately wrote into the Constitution. The challenge invited students to post letters in an online dialogue about contentious contemporary issues. Dulaney knew that crossing ideological, cultural, and regional divides to argue with other students across the country would give her students a chance to step into the founders’ big shoes.

Over the next four weeks, Dulaney’s students wrote more than 600 impassioned letters on immigration, gun control, climate change, and civil rights. They posted their letters digitally and wrote back to other students who had responded to their letters. At the end of the challenge, Dulaney’s students were recognized by the editors at the Times for their extraordinary participation, intelligent comments, thoughtful questions, and the way they “politely pushed back to ask others for more evidence, or to point out inconsistencies.” How did Dulaney cultivate the art of civil conversation in her classroom and in print? Here are five tips for getting students to grapple productively with hard issues.

1. Establish Democratic Classroom Norms

“We started by making some agreements about how we would talk to each other,” said Dulaney. Students practiced active listening and inclusivity by using “accountable talk” prompts. They also used an “oops/ouch” system. “We all make mistakes, especially when we have strong feelings. So our norms included that a speaker could say, ‘Oops, that’s not quite I meant,’ and ask for the class to have grace with them as they tried to rephrase their thinking. A student could also say, ‘Ouch—what you said feels personal for me because...’ The oops/ouch system kept us all honest and allowed us to be human beings and friends even as we disagreed.”

2. Study the Art of Rhetoric

Before debating in a public forum, students analyzed historical presidential debates. They noticed that in recent years, the debates were more heated and polarized, and candidates often didn’t actually respond to the questions. Students decided that in their own debates, they would try to respond to their opponent, rather than just state an opinion.

Here’s one example from a student whose letter both agrees with and questions her opponent: “Jessica, I agree with you because with this election, social justice is very crucial, especially with the first woman running for president. I believe that a good president should be a role model for all the country’s youth and should accept any type of cultural or ethnic difference... How do you think our leaders could display this type of tolerance?”

3. Explore Evidence From Multiple Perspectives

Dulaney started by narrowing the issues students would debate so that they had time to research before they decided what they believed. “The best letter exchanges, and the best in-class arguments,” she said, “became authentic dialogues, with students digging deep into their resources to determine where they stood on an issue, rather than simply cherry-picking sources to support a long-held opinion.”

You can see high school students engaged in evidence-based dialogue about policing in America in this video of 12th graders in an EL Education high school:

4. Get Critiques Before You Go Public

“Perhaps the most important thing students learned about civil conversation,” said Dulaney, “is that putting their arguments on paper forced them to slow down, to consider why they believe as they do, to acknowledge their opponents’ arguments, and to check their reactive impulses.” Dulaney critiqued model letters with her students and taught them to use a peer critique protocol to give kind, helpful, and specific feedback on their writing before revising.

5. Help Kids Learn to Live With Contradictions

Dulaney and her students ended their unit on civil conversation by reflecting on Parker Palmer’s “Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy.” Students compared Palmer’s habits to their own school’s Habits of Scholarship, which include Collaboration, Inquiry, and Ethics. To bring their learning full circle, Dulaney invited her students to reflect on some of Palmer’s questions: “Do you live with a conscious belief that ‘we’re all in this together’? What are some ways you live—or would like to live—in recognition of our interconnectedness? What are some of the obstacles to living that way?”

Arguing with both passion and compassion is the essence of a civil conversation—and, as the founders knew, the heart of citizenship and democracy. If that’s a message you want to share with your students by putting these five tips into action, look for opportunities for students to debate with classmates, in your local opinion pages, or in online venues like the daily student opinion column published by The New York Times.

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  • Classroom Management
  • Critical Thinking
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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