Fostering Healthy Classroom Debate
by Nancy Barile
Classroom debate is a healthy part of high school discourse. This past year, classroom debate often centered on the presidential election. Because hot-button issues like gender and race were widely discussed by candidates, I had to lay strong ground rules for conducting respectful and intelligent classroom discussions and debates.
One of the first things I addressed was fake news. Social media’s viral nature can circulate the awareness of issues, but it does the same with incorrect information. The proliferation of fraudulent “news stories” was unprecedented. My students often came to school excited to talk about something they read on the internet, and I wanted them to be sure they knew whether that information was true.
Eileen came into class one day reporting that the Pope had endorsed a certain presidential candidate. Juan immediately countered: “Really? Who told you that?”
“My dad,” Eileen replied. “And the internet.”
This was an excellent opportunity for students to develop the important skill of evaluating sources. As they began debating, I asked them to list the sources that provided this information — were they reliable, unbiased news outlets? — and check for counter-sources. I was careful to ensure we sought information in the spirit of investigation. I didn’t want Eileen to be embarrassed when the truth was revealed; I wanted her to feel empowered because she now knew how to fact-check what she heard and read.
Create a Safe Discussion Space
This presidential election was particularly challenging for me because of the candidates involved. As far back into my education as I can remember, I’ve been a feminist, a human rights activist, and a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court. Opening up my classroom to diverse views on women’s rights, diversity, and equality would present obstacles, but that’s how healthy debate works; kids learn to form and defend their opinions for the first time. It’s a hugely valuable part of their education.
Many of my students are young women, people of color, immigrants (some undocumented), and refugees. Some are Christian and some are Muslim. I couldn’t allow debates that created an uncomfortable environment for anyone. I knew I had to create a classroom of mutual respect by laying strong ground rules for discussion.
Students need to learn to really listen to their classmates. Differences in opinion can be respected, but hate speech is a line nobody should cross. Oftentimes, words construed as hateful come from a lack of education and empathy. I needed to train my students to stand in one another’s shoes and see the other side of issues they felt so passionate about. This was especially challenging when televised politicians (and their supporters) began using the same hate speech that’s forbidden in the classroom.
“Mark the Moment”
When I encounter language that’s personally offensive or non-inclusive of others, I “mark the moment.” This is especially important if a student drops a verbal bomb — a controversial or inflammatory statement. It involves taking a deep breath before responding, asking questions, and introducing new ideas. I had to do just that when a fight nearly broke out in my classroom one day when a student proclaimed loudly: “My great-grandparents came here the legal way. Illegals don’t, so they shouldn’t be allowed to be here!”
I marked the moment by pausing and then paraphrasing what the student said so that he and the rest of the class could hear and understand. “Did you know,” I asked the student, “that there was hardly any federal regulation of immigration until the late 19th century, and so, back then, there were virtually no laws to break? There were almost no numerical limitations on immigration, and immigrants didn’t need a visa before they came to the U.S.” I asked students for reasons why people come to the U.S. from other countries, hoping they would see that people leave their home countries for reasons including war, poverty, natural disaster, and violence. Adding new ideas to the discussion helps to diffuse difficult situations and often leads to a more meaningful dialogue.
At the end of any discussion, I always emphasize to students that we are a family; we may have differing opinions, but we need to respect each other. I also remind students that our diversity and freedom to express our opinions is what makes America so great.
Ask Questions to Clarify Intent
One day, I gave my students a discussion question, in which I quoted an intense op-ed from the New York Times: “Do you care more about a dog than a refugee?” I’ll admit, some of their responses terrified me, and one student said refugees were less trustworthy than dogs. Was this really how some students felt? I turned to the experts at Teaching Tolerance, who provide questions to ask the entire class when incidents like this occur:
- What do you mean by that?
- Where did that idea come from?
- What are the assumptions behind this idea?
- Is what’s being said true? What’s the evidence?
- Can you think of any counter-examples to this statement?
These questions have been enormously useful in helping to move beyond inflammatory statements.
Ironic, I know. But I try to guide my students away from absolutes to create a more empathetic classroom. I tell my students to scrap words like “all,” “always,” and “never” from their vocabulary when debating. Rather than allowing them to dismiss someone’s point with a sweeping generalization, have students present their arguments with facts and statistics within a larger context.
The new presidency has created many challenges for teachers, especially those who work in multicultural and underprivileged schools. But if we create classrooms that foster empathy, seek truth, and encourage respect, students can become effective communicators. Through strong and vigorous classroom debates, I’ve been able to teach my students to speak and listen with respect.
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