Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

If you are a humanities educator in 2019, you’ve most likely encountered a situation where you thought “uh-oh”, how do I handle this conversation? Difficult conversations are all around us, and they have probably seeped into your classroom at some point. Whether it is based in historical content, literature, or students processing what is happening in the world around them, understanding how to have difficult conversations begins in the classroom. If you are not equipped to handle these discussions as an educator, it can easily lead to a student feeling hurt, left out or an uncomfortably tense classroom.

Laying the framework for productive class discussions includes: respect at all times is a non-negotiable, understanding how miscommunication happens, the A-R-E-S method, how to respond when you disagree, and finally the decompress zone.

Here is a tried and true process for facilitating difficult conversations in your classroom, which will promote critical thinking and dialogue.

  1. Respect. In order to prep students for difficult conversations, take some time to discuss what it means to respect your classmates. Start off with giving your own example. For instance, respect means when one person speaks we all listen. In the classroom, a simple rule that falls within “respect” is: when one person speaks, we all listen authentically (i.e. empathic listening, as opposed to formulating a response in your mind while your classmate is speaking). Ask students what respect means to them and tie it back to what this means in terms of classroom discussions.
  2. Understanding how miscommunication happens is essential. TedEd’s “How Miscommunication Happens (And How to Avoid it) is a great springboard into the difference between passive hearing and active listening. What shapes our views? Having insight on barriers to effective communication can give students necessary communication tools.
This 4.32 minute video is a must when introducing your students to the intricacies of communication.

3. Implement the A-R-E-S method. In the high school debate realm, there a process in which you transform an opinion to a grounded contention following the Assertion, Reasoning, Evidence and Significance method. A very basic example below:

  • Assertion: I love chocolate. (Make the statement)
  • Reasoning: Chocolate makes me feel great! (Give the logic behind the statement)
  • Evidence: Flavanol in chocolate improves brain function. (Evidence supporting statement)
  • Significance: Optimal brain functioning is necessary for an educator because we are responsible for educating others. (Answer why the statement is important)

4. How to respond when you agree OR disagree. One of the ground rules for responding to a statement, or assertion you agree or disagree with is the following: I disagree/agree with the statement _________ (they have to restate what they heard indicating active listening) because ______________ (giving their own A-R-E-S at this point). This process ensures students are listening to their peers and engaging in ideas, as opposed to feeling like they are personally being attacked for agreeing or disagreeing with a concept/event that is being discussed.

5. Decompress zone. This idea came from Edutopia, and I’ve used “circle time” with high school students in multiple ways. Initially, they are a bit weirded out because they are not used to taking a few moments out of their day to reflect, but once they get used to it they actually look forward to concluding class with this circle. In the case of difficult conversations, ensure class ends with either an appreciation, apology, or aha! moment. This gives students a the space to decompress what went on in class, and leave any emotions in the circle, they don’t have to carry it out of the class with them.

Are there techniques you use in the classroom to facilitate difficult discussions in your classroom? How do you create an environment of respect, intellectual rigor and exchange? As a humanities educator, this is crucial because the critical analysis skills learned in your classroom can be implemented beyond school walls.

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