At EduCon 2.7 this year in Philadelphia, a group of us held our second annual "Privileged Voices in Education" conversation. Last year's conversation, moderated by prolific edtech ombudswoman Audrey Watters and me, sparked a series of discussions about the various ways in which race, gender, and class play into who gets to call themselves an expert, who gets to go to conferences, and whose experiences are often dismissed as a result. This year, I moderated a similar conversation with edtech expert and parent Rafranz Davis, and the crowd felt readier to have these delicate topics come to the fore. Last year and this year, many attendees raved about the conversation we had. They came out feeling either relieved or energized, and, in some instances, both. Each time, we the presenters came minimally prepared, but with our hearts open, hoping to glean as much as we could from others and bring some of our private conversations to light.
An Environment for Asking and Listening
When we speak of empathy, what tools do we have that make our interactions more powerful, especially when issues of race, class, and gender come up?
Early and often, the keys to successful conversations start and end with empathy, but feeling something can't be enough. Here are some of the ways in which I prepare for these discussions.
1. Agreements as Environment
Fortunately for us, EduCon's values and mission help bring together folks who adhere to the ideas of inquiry and progressive education. We get to lightly remind the folks in the room that this is the lens from which we spark the conversation. Even in the most challenging moments, we can debate without losing that sense of humanity. Of course, not everyone works the way Science Leadership Academy does, which means that protocols are not only suggested, but necessary. Coming up with some group norms certainly works, but having an entire system of group norms and approaches works best, the way a code of conduct at edtech conferences helps women feel safer in these spaces. Setting up norms protects the voiceless more so than the most empowered.
2. Questioning Skills Aren't Just for Students
The best and worst thing about the internet is the speed at which we receive information. Sometimes, this means that we can connect with awesome folks across the country who can change the ways in which we operate. Other times, this means that we connect with folks in more adversarial ways, understanding that the person on the other side of the conversation doesn't truly want to form a relationship (this is usually when we float around the word "troll").
Yet with most interactions, my most powerful online and offline tool is to slow things down and truly understand the other person's point of view. Usually, this looks like a series of questions that either inform my thinking or push harder on the other folks as well. In asking these questions, I can listen for intent as well as message. If the conversation builds into something more productive, that's a win for both of us. If the conversation dovetails into something more derogatory, that's a lesson in and of itself. The questions usually start off impersonally, pointing less at the person who's asking them and more at the facts and opinions informing the other person in the conversation. Eventually, personal experiences come to the fore, but it's best to wait a few moments to get into the personal elements of the conversation.
3. Active Listening (Silence Can Empower)
In both of the aforementioned big discussions that we had at EduCon, the moderators did their best to keep conversation going without much input from us except at the beginning and end. We sometimes lightly threw questions at everyone to help them think, but otherwise, we found it most powerful to quiet ourselves. After both conversations, folks questioned why we stood so silent, suggesting that we should have spoken more.
Whenever this comes up, I also think back to my classroom and wonder, "Well, how does that help you if I'm doing all the talking?"
With people in different stages of learning all in one room, active listening is a powerful tool for navigating these spaces, even more so in a roomful of adults. As facilitators, we stood up there picking different voices to contribute to the conversation. It shouldn't always be same people speaking up in these conversations, regardless of their vantage point. Finding others to speak up empowers everyone to keep contributing. By the same token, some folks might over-share, and helping to steer them toward collective conversation creates a much-needed balance for all participants in the room, whether on or offline.
Active listening means picking up on central ideas and themes in the conversation, rephrasing for deeper meaning, and asking others what they thought about said ideas. When people don't do any one of these things, struggle ensues, and we miss out on creating an engaging environment for delicate, challenging conversations. At the same time, active listening and staying silent in these moments challenges others to collectively come up with answers. As moderators, by not interjecting our opinions, we put the onus on the other participants to deal with the problems under discussion.
At the end of the conversations, whether on or offline, it's critical to leave people with tangible, actionable steps. Sometimes, the “tangible thing” means providing resources (see Rethinking Conversations on Race Among Educators). It can also mean finding something that a school can do to create a better discipline policy for their students. The best moderator is one who can also pull together the resources and next steps that will keep the conversation growing. These conversations shouldn't end when the facilitator says, "Thank you all." Instead, these conversations should be where the learning begins.