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Teaching in Turbulent Times: One Educator's Reflections

Mission Principles: Compelling & Connected Academic Program; Community's Inclusivity and Diversity; Connection to Local and Global Communities; Development of Exceptional Faculty & Staff; Small, Harkness Class Experience; Understanding of Social Justice and Global Systems

History teacher Scott Silk describes his quest to foster deep, respectful classroom dialogue about challenging topics in today's polarized political climate.

Name-calling. Insults. Hate speech. Fake news. A relentless 24-hour partisan spin cycle. This was the backdrop faced by schools across the United States as the presidential election of 2016 and its aftermath unfolded. In fact, it hasn’t changed much in the fall of 2017. What is a school, charged with preparing the next generation of citizens and doing so in an environment that is safe for all, supposed to do in this situation?

At Pacific Ridge, global engagement and ethical responsibility are two of our most important pillars, so it is essential for us to engage. Given our Harkness foundation and our training as teachers, we are pretty good at promoting student discussions and collaborative problem solving.

However, after the election, while our teachers and administrators were perhaps better prepared to manage the difficult conversations that needed to happen than their peers at most other schools, many of them still felt uncomfortable.  Understandably, they were nervous about saying the wrong thing, unintentionally taking sides, or offending another member of the community—students, parents, colleagues, and supporters.  What if the conversation got heated or personal—then what? 

In the end, while some teachers continued to ask their students to discuss the highly divisive events of the day, many of my well-intentioned colleagues chose to play it safe. While I understood their reasons, I was sad to witness the missed opportunities to promote greater understanding and empathy that were presented by the election.

Beyond my background in education, I am a mediator, a dialogue facilitator, and I founded the California chapter of Hands of Peace, a non-profit dialogue and leadership development organization that serves Palestinian, Israeli, and American teenagers. With all my experience, I should have had the tools to advise the administrators at my school, but I quickly realized that I had little to offer.

In this situation, the Harkness method alone did not offer enough equity or trust where people could feel safe enough to share opinions and personal stories without fear of judgment. And, the Hands of Peace dialogue method was a long form model that depended upon specially trained facilitators for success.

Feeling a need to do something, I went in search of a model that was highly structured, equitable, safe, and did not require experienced facilitators. I was lucky enough to find Essential Partners (EP) and their branded practice of Reflective Structured Dialogue (RSD).

The RSD model is designed to produce learning conversations (dialogues) and not debates. There is significant emphasis placed on careful preparation: establishing a clear purpose; considering who should be involved and establishing a team of planners; deciding what behaviors and patterns to promote and prevent; preparing participants to engage in a constructive manner and the facilitator to facilitate with strength, compassion, and fairness.

The dialogue itself can be designed to occur over one or many sessions. It relies on group norms, timed go-arounds, and plenty of time for reflection to create a safe and equitable space where all opinions are heard and respected. Carefully crafted questions are used to encourage participants to explore and share their life experiences, values, and the places where they feel conflicted or confused about their conclusions. Dialogue participants learn to craft questions that serve the receiver and not just the asker.

Shortly after the election, I contacted Bob Stains and John Sarrouf at EP and proposed that we work together to design a dialogue training that would be tailored to the specific needs of teachers, administrators, and school communities. EP would bring their knowledge and experience working with the RSD model, and I would bring my experience as an education insider who understands the unique challenges faced by teachers. We began the process of designing Meaningful Dialogue in Turbulent Times: Success Strategies for Educators, while working to sell the merits of the training to schools.

Finally, in early August, the fruits of our labor were realized when 17 teachers and administrators from five southern California schools gathered for the pilot training. 

By all accounts, the highly experiential training was a big success. One participant said, “This was my first workshop on dialogue and I learned a lot. I hope to review my materials and take this back to my community and take on a new role as a facilitator.” Another participant said, “It's useful to many people in many different roles.” Reflecting on the importance of learning the art of dialogue, yet another participant said, “In this global moment, real dialogue and connection are essential to mend an increasingly fractured world.”

For Bob Stains and myself, it was both fun and rewarding to see a talented and diverse group of educators engaging with the content and striving to obtain the necessary skills to promote meaningful dialogue in turbulent times. We can’t wait to hear about the ways in which they put RSD to work in their school communities.

As for me in my role as a history teacher, RSD has truly transformed my practice even when I am not attempting to engage my students in difficult conversations about identity, politics, or religion. I now use group norms in all of my classes and faculty team meetings. I am using timed go-arounds to promote equal student/faculty team member engagement while preventing anyone from dominating the conversation.

My students are learning how to move beyond simply drawing conclusions about others, and to ask themselves how their life experiences have influenced their views. I am very intentionally teaching my students to consider the impact versus the intent of the questions that they ask each other in class discussions. My service learning group is even trying to organize an RSD-style learning conversation about politics with a demographically divergent school in the Inland Empire of California. I hope it happens!

We are living in an unsettled time of rapid change and deep divisions. In order for our local communities and our country as a whole to continue to thrive, we must learn to listen to each other and explore ideas in a respectful way. Since many of our schools are not prepared to teach and model the skills for effective dialogue, we must offer our young people these techniques to help them learn and grow, and to build more peaceful communities.  One must ask, if not in our schools, then where?

Scott Silk