Finding Common Ground

Wouldn’t it be productive if schools established school-wide norms for civil discourse this fall?

Students need to learn how to share their ideas with respect and courtesy—even when they disagree with another person’s position. In education, this is often referred to as civil discourse. The inflammatory election season is motivating teachers across the country to practice civil discourse with students and teach about its importance within a democracy. Cultivating this skill is an essential part of our schools’ responsibility for preparing students to be engaged, active members of society.

But what about the adults? Wouldn’t it be productive if we established norms for civil discourse that every adult in the school agreed to?

Teachers and other school staff are chatting at lunch tables and in prep rooms about how to respond to the divisive tone of the 2016 election. Some schools have convened formal or informal groups to determine the response to ideas that challenge school norms. “Speak Up for Civility”—a contract that Teaching Tolerance created to encourage all adults in the school community to model civil dialogue around the election—adds value to these conversations by offering a framework to create a positive, proactive response. The contract can help bring about a shared understanding of the forward-looking skills and habits that will enable students—future voters—to learn to take care of our democracy. A staff meeting or professional development session organized around the contract could prepare adults across the school to achieve this worthy goal.

Election years can test relationships within the adult community at school. Lunch table conversations or chats in the hallway can quickly turn ugly in the absence of a shared norm of civility. Using the contract to remind the adults of the school’s established norm is yet another valuable use. From the colleague who makes an indiscreet joke to the one blasting a fellow staff member with partisan rancor, everyone needs reminders about civility from time to time. The contract makes those expectations explicit, and by signing it, individuals agree to be held accountable.

Part of the challenge of teaching in any election year is that partisan fervor increases sensitivity and scrutiny, especially from parents and guardians. Engaging families with the contract can enable them to see positive values being cultivated within the school community and potentially head off any concerns about partisanship seeping into the classroom. After all, promoting civility is the goal of most classrooms and schools. Schools could even encourage parents and guardians to sign and display the contract at home. It would be such a powerful statement for students to know that all of the adults at home and at school vow to uphold this value. 

The civility contract even has potential uses for students. Young people could reference it to come up with their own contract or use it as a basis for establishing classroom norms. Maybe they could “civility check” the debates to hold the candidates accountable. Or maybe it’s enough to see their teachers’ signatures signaling a commitment to respect, care and inclusion. Students will certainly find comfort, security and clarity in knowing that their educators seek to maintain these kinds of values, and those are the exact conditions under which students can prepare to be adults with civic responsibilities.

There is simply no way to escape this fall’s election. Our students and adults need support as they navigate this unprecedented historical moment. The civility contract offers that support and can help foster common ground during an election year that is anything but common.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

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