Courageous Conversations

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In last week’s blog entry, Dr. Shawn Healy stressed “the importance of preparing young people for democracy in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous republic.” This task can be daunting for the classroom teacher at the start of the school year but current events demand that classroom teachers respond so that we can empower our youngest citizens to be, in the words of Healy, “upstanders for fellow citizens and residents of this country.”

The new IL Civics requirement & Social Studies standards compel students to engage in current and controversial issue discussions in which they communicate their conclusions concerning essential questions using multiple sources. It is important for teachers to create a safe environment for such deliberations that establish clear norms of interaction that promote active listening, understanding and respect.

One key to productive discourse is to provide depth. In an interview with NPR cited by Chalkbeat, Dr. Diana Hess, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) cautions teachers to not start conversations by simply asking student reaction to political events that are often unfolding, but rather, to prepare students for deeper conversations about political issues. Hess cautions, “There's a big difference in talking about, ‘What do you think happened?’ and talking about a policy issue like ‘Should police officers be required to wear video cameras?’”

Dr. Diana Hess (left) and Dr. Paula McAvoy (right)

Another way to scaffold productive deliberations is to provide context. In the same NPR interview, Hess’ colleague, Dr. Paula McAvoy from the UW Center for Ethics and Education, explains the need to build curriculum to promote understanding, “Young people need to see these as moments within their historical context – need to understand some of the history.”

A recent article in the Washington Post titled, “The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help” explained that to meet the demond for resources surrounding Charlottesville, educators have been sharing resources through various platforms under #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. Listed below are several I have found helpful.
  • A recent #sschat hosted by Teaching Tolerance is archived and provides rich conversation and materials including resources from the Southern Poverty Law Center
  • Facing History and Ourselves has numerous curriculum resources and strategies to help establish safe spaces for classroom conversations as well as curriculum that provides context & depth for deliberations.
  • The Constitutional Rights Foundation of Chicago provides strategies to engage in civil conversations as well as resources that provide multiple perspectives on compelling political issues.
  • Deliberating in a Democracy also offers numerous Structured Academic Controversies to facilitate the use of multiple sources and evidence in student engagement.
  • A recent TedEd blog provides “10 Tips for Talking about the News and Current Events in Schools.”
  • National Public Radio shared a list of “Resources for Educators to Use in the Wake of Charlottesville.”
  • For those interested in a “deeper dive” into best practices surrounding the use of current and controversial Issues discussions in the classroom may want to read the award winning book, The Political Classroom by Hess and McAvoy
Do you have any resources to share to help facilitate current and controversial issue discussions in the civics classroom? Please send your suggestions to MDaneels@illinoiscivics.org. Together, we can prepare Illinois students for college, career and civic life.

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