Making Space for Tough Talks in Class

One teacher reflects on his first year in the classroom and the importance of trusting students with critical topics.
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The summer of 2016 had been hectic—I was preparing for life in a new state and school in the fall. I was thrilled to begin teaching and enjoying connecting with students in summer school before I moved to begin my first year, but I was eager to get into my own classroom.

Then, Alton Sterling was shot by a police officer as he sold CDs outside of a Baton Rouge convenience store. 

Immediately, my mind turned to my new community. In subsequent days, my colleagues would form reflection spaces to discuss how Sterling’s death might affect students. Some would drive the four hours to Baton Rouge to take part in protests. 

But I didn’t know how to take action. I didn’t know how the news would affect my future students. Would they need me to help them feel safe or to process the root causes of Sterling’s killing? Were the students in my eighth-grade history classes too young to realize the reality of being black in the United States? 

As I prepared for the new school year, I knew these were questions I’d have to face. And as yet another school year begins, I want to encourage you to consider how you’ll make space for your students to discuss critical topics with one another.

As teachers, we are often discouraged from these discussions. School leaders fear accusations of bias from families or doubt students’ capacity. “I’m not sure if our kids are ready for that,” one administrator admonished me.

As the first semester of 2016 began, I wasn’t sure either. My students represented the diversity of the communities they were part of; they were made up of mostly black students with a few Latinx and white students. How were my kids dealing with the shooting, the protests and the overall climate in Baton Rouge?

During the first few weeks of school, my principal walked into my classroom one day and asked to speak. For a few minutes, he discussed the shooting. When he made time for questions, a few students mentioned regularly riding past Sterling’s usual spot. One student asked, “Why do they always shoot us?” 

I could see the deflation in my students’ faces as our principal spoke about the killings of their peers across the country and about combatting these injustices through education. 

I learned a lot from that moment. Primarily, I learned that my students have a better understanding of these problems than they are given credit for. They are ready to talk about these issues—if we just get out of the way. 

Even though I knew that making space for these conversations would be critical, I was still somewhat nervous about the responses I would get. It helped that I made time to connect with students on a personal level. Whether it was during lunch or class transitions, I made sure to chat with students—not about their work but about their lives. They told me who was getting on their nerves that day or which teacher was "doing the most." Their comfort level increased once they knew that their lives and feelings were important to me and that I valued them. 

Differentiating between dialogue and debate was equally important. A few students volunteered to model what each type of communication looked and sounded like, and I explained that my goal was not to engage them in a debate but rather a discourse. We’d have a conversation with an exchange of ideas. This approach ensured a common goal for everyone. Students would have to work together to come to a shared understanding of what our community was facing. 

Giving young people space to discuss things they feel strongly about helps develop strategies to deal with conflict among other skills. It not only allows students to ask questions and shares their fears in the safety of a class but teaches them how to engage conflict with civility.  To establish a common language, I offered sentence stems such as, “I respectfully disagree with ...” “I want to add on ...” and “Connected to ...” 

During our first conversation, students had difficulty turning their lived experiences into a dialogue with their peers. I had to find a way to help bring out their ideas and add all different perspectives into the dialogue as only a few students were sharing. Asking clarifying questions and being comfortable with a few seconds of silence helped the ideas flow.

What began as one conversation became a weekly ritual. Every Friday, I set aside 45 minutes to talk about a topic in the news or one that I covered during the week but didn’t fully discuss. We talked about topics such as the celebration of Columbus Day, Islamophobia and more.

These conversations have become a regular part of my practice, one I call “USA Today.” Most recently, given the attention arming teachers was getting nationally, I wanted to see what my students thought about it. We read a short article and watched a quick video, and I asked for their opinions.

One student shot her hand up to begin the conversation:

“I think only teachers who have prior training, or a military background should be given an opportunity to carry firearms.” As she finished her comment, three or four hands went up. A classmate shared, “Teachers don’t even get enough pay for what they do right now, so why give more responsibilities to them?”

While they contemplated their stances and went back and forth, something jumped out to me: A few, normally reserved students were fully engaged and participating in this dialogue. It made me wonder how this tool could help increase their appetite for political action and activism. 

One student built on her neighbor’s point: “I want to add on that. I don’t think officers should be at school because sometimes they abuse their power.” 

Whether in my class or at home, it’s certain that, at some point, my students will be faced with tough conversations. By taking time to think about their positions and share thoughts with their peers, they were able to better connect with their own understandings of these topics and to form deeper connections with classmates they disagreed with. Just as importantly, they built more empathy for the community they will be charged with leading in the future.  

Cisse is an educator, a graduate student in Wilmington, Delaware, and the 2019 Lee Summer Fellow at Teaching Tolerance.

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