By: Michael Kokozos, Ph.D. and Maru Gonzalez, Ed.D. 

Given the current political climate marked by an increase in school-based hate crimes, engaging students in authentic conversations related to the social, cultural or political—without fear of alienating those who hold different opinions and ultimately compromising curiosity, openness, and critical thinking—can seem like a near-impossible task. Further, educators often express a lack of pedagogical confidence to effectively navigate challenging topics in the classroom, particularly when the conversation veers toward matters of identity, power and privilege.

Amidst this backdrop of hostility and division, we have an opportunity—through dialogue—to push our students outside of their comfort zone, beyond the constraints of familiarity, past the limited purview of their own lived experiences, and into a place of real growth, understanding and empathy. This is in contrast to another method of communication in the classroom, debates, whereby a controversial topic is introduced and students are tasked with arguing the merits of their side with the aim of “winning” their case. Debate culture, which values righteousness over understanding, permeates beyond the classroom; it is reinforced by political pundits and news outlets, reflected in our social media feeds and present in our interpersonal exchanges. By contrast, the practice of dialogue is intentional, as it goes against our socialized individualistic tendencies.

Dialogue is about moving beyond the ME and opening oneself to learning from and about the experiences of others with the goal of a deeper connection and mutual understanding. At the core of debate vs dialogue is the ME vs WE dichotomy: students in debate come to believe they have the answers, and the best results will be achieved if others agree with them. WE students, on the other hand, believe that results come from exploring possibilities, assessing and evaluating options, and agreeing upon a course of action. Indeed, research demonstrates that dialogue can motivate attitude change and improve relationships across social identity groups. Among youth specifically, participation in dialogue has proven effective in fostering a more critical understanding of social justice and social change, driving civic engagement, and nurturing cross-cultural communication.

While dialogue can take different forms, shared among the various approaches are the following components, outlined below: creating the space, promoting active listening, raising critical consciousness, and nurturing collective action. Dialogue is further enriched when it is integrated throughout the semester and when educators have the necessary tools and training to serve as competent facilitators. The dialogic process is both linear and iterative; for example, creating the space must precede the other components, but efforts to facilitate active listening, critical consciousness and collective action are continuous and enriched by a supportive and trusting space.

Create the Space

You have likely heard about safe spaces. You may have heard about brave spaces. What’s important is for the facilitator to collaborate with students as to what they would like the space to become—what values are central to dialogue that can be treated as guidelines if ever the dynamic were to go awry. Establishing trust is an essential first step in cultivating a culture of connection and understanding across differences. To build trust, students and educators must work together to engender a dialogic space where empathy, understanding and compassion thrive. Creating a set of collectively established guidelines for supportive dialogue, often called community agreements or ground rules, at the beginning of a new school year or before an emotionally-charged lesson is one way students can express what they need in order to feel comfortable speaking authentically in the classroom. In addition, community agreements help a group transition through difficult conversations by detailing how they will work respectfully and effectively during conflict. Such a process enables cooperation because everyone has input and the teacher, rather than dictating expectations, can focus on empowering members of the group to hold each other accountable. The example below illustrates how a process of posing a few questions, such as  ‘what would make this space productive and constructive for learning? ’ and ‘when problems arise how will we handle them?’ can quickly generate consensus.

An example of community agreements, outlined on chart paper.  Image source: Flickr

Promote Active Listening

Once trust has been established, opening one’s self up in a group setting can be a powerful experience. It allows students to connect with others on a deeper level and find the common threads that exist in all human stories. Much in the same vein, inquiry and reflection help shape the structure of dialogue and set the foundation for meaningful exchange. In this sense, the two concepts are very much connected; that is, inquiry necessitates reflection while reflection generates a more intentional and authentic level of inquiry. Combined, they allow students to explore complex issues—including and especially those related to oppression and social identity—at a more profound level. Within the classroom, there are numerous strategies educators can employ to promote active listening such as think-pair-share, fish bowls, the jigsaw method and journaling.

Think-pair-share, for example, is a collaborative learning strategy. Teachers begin by asking a question and giving each student time to think about what they know or have learned about the topic. Then, pair off students to share their thoughts or responses.  Finally, reconvene the class by giving each pair an opportunity to share before leading a larger discussion. This simple strategy gives students time to develop their ideas, which increases their confidence, testing them out with their peers who are expected to listen carefully. Also, each student learns from their partner as they brainstorm and begin integrating multiple perspectives. Educators can complement this task by providing each student with sticky notes or message balloons so that they can jot down some of their initial ideas and then post them, if desired, to see how their initial thinking has evolved. This same benefit is also offered through padlet, a personalized online bulletin board. Students can add an individual virtual post-it and then a pair post before the entire class reflects upon a tapestry of comments (or photos, documents, weblinks, videos, if that mode of expression is preferred).

If you need a think-pair-share place to start or practice, check out conversation starters.

Two white message balloons. Image source: Pexels

The jigsaw method also promotes collaboration by breaking the class into groups and assigning students a unique role or task so that the groups’ overall effort is dependent on the contribution of each member. The method has roots in ameliorating racism (i.e., Elliot Aronson, a social psychologist, applied the method in response to the tensions that erupted after school desegregation in Austin, Texas) by facilitating intergroup communication and teamwork. Teaching Tolerance has a lesson created to honor that history; students apply the method as they identify and analyze the underlying causes of structural racism and the manifestation of racial disparities.

Here are even more advanced discussion strategies and variations that promote active listening, engagement and equity in the classroom.

Raise Critical Consciousness

Raising consciousness refers to creating awareness and critical understanding of the dynamics of power, socialization, and social inequality across social identity groups. Integrating the stories and experiences of marginalized populations into the curriculum can further aid in disrupting dominant and misguided narratives about said populations, thereby reducing prejudicial attitudes and behaviors. The personal sharing of stories is another effective method for raising consciousness and cultivating connections across differences.

Digital storytelling, which includes the use of audio and video podcasts to tell stories, is especially engaging for young people. #PassTheMicYouth—an innovative, critically grounded youth-led program out of North Carolina State University aimed at amplifying youth voices—affords young people the opportunity to submit their written and digital stories to the program’s podcast or blog. Each blog and podcast episode includes questions for extended dialogue that educators and youth-serving professionals can use to further explore featured narratives and how they connect to broader themes of social justice. Additional resources for developing critical consciousness are also outlined on the program’s website.

Nurture Collective Action

Once students have developed a more critical understanding of difference, they will be prepared—and likely motivated—to move from awareness and analysis to informed collective action. Students should be encouraged to participate in coalition building across identity groups and engage in social change initiatives such as advocating for policy change, attending a protest, or creating awareness about social justice issues. Involving and motivating students in both the execution of the project and its knowledge production as a means to foster positive social change is necessary to demonstrate the power of WE.

The dialogic process necessitates introspection and intentionality. It calls on us as educators to shift the climate in our classrooms from one of competition to one of cooperation, respect, authenticity and openness. Dialogue requires a personal commitment on the part of the educator to learn, to share and to fully participate in the collective transformation—however challenging and messy—that takes us from the ME to the WE. Even during this chaotic time, dialogue provides the WE an opportunity to convene and collaborate rather than exclude and alienate stemming the tide of polarization and bridging the deepening divide between YOU and ME.

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Michael Kokozos is a high school and college social science instructor in Miami, Fla. earning his Ph.D. in education, culture and society and specializing in critical curricular and pedagogical theory and applications.

Maru Gonzalez, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the Youth, Family and Community Sciences program at North Carolina State University. Over the course of her career, Dr. Gonzalez has worked with youth in various capacities, including as an educator, researcher, intergroup dialogue facilitator and school counselor.

This posts featured image is courtesy of the co-hosts of #PassTheMicYouth, a youth-led podcast and blog aimed at amplifying youth voices.

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