Three Recommendations for Schools in Our Region
What will our communities be like in November of 2024, at the time of the next US Presidential election? And what will happen in January of 2025, when Congress again convenes to certify ballots of the Electoral College? We can imagine a mixture of hope and worry. We can imagine people coming together, as well as painful divisions.
The “Strong Schools Dialogue Series” began with such questions and visions in mind. These spring 2022 gatherings brought together Vermont and New Hampshire educators to consider what school communities can do to remain healthy and strong in a time of polarization.
Participants included a diverse array of educators: teachers from the primary grades through high school; school principals, deans and other administrators; independent and public school faculty; staff from the VT Agency of Education and school support organizations. We had three goals:
- Solidarity among educators committed to strong school communities in a time of polarization.
- Strategies – old and new – for increasing trust and mutual understanding among school community members.
- Strategies – old and new – for increasing accountability to healthy, democratic community norms.
Our work included school visits and conversations with students and teachers. Much of our focus was on how to support discussions that increase trust and mutual understanding, while not shying away from hard topics and disagreements.
Across our region, educators remark that such discussions are getting more and more difficult to conduct in classrooms – not to mention school board meetings where respectful discussion can be even harder to find. Nevertheless, educators must not turn away from dialogue as an essential tool of our trade: a way to learn, a way to demonstrate knowledge, and a way to build a healthy community. Even though it is getting more difficult, schools must commit to face-to-face discussions as a way to teach, learn and solve problems.
Schools that have capacity for respectful discussion about important topics will remain strong school communities in the years to come. With this in mind, the participants of our dialogue series would like to share three recommendations for school communities to consider as school year 21-22 draws to a close and future planning gets underway.
RECOMMENDATION #1: SCHOOL-WIDE DISCUSSION NORMS
We met with students and educators who routinely mentioned the value of school-wide norms for classroom discussions. Norms – also sometimes called agreements – are guidelines for how to have discussions in any number of settings: from science class to social studies, from elementary to upper grades, from student forums to faculty meetings. While some teachers’ individual classrooms may have particular rules for discussion, there is special value in school-wide, common expectations when it comes to creating a climate of trust and accountability. We heard from 9th graders who referred to discussion norms they learned in 7th grade, and from an AP English Teacher who used the same norms in upper level high school classes. Based on what we heard, and on our own sense of what is needed, we have created some sample school-wide discussion norms. Drawing from the Vermont State motto, we call them the Freedom & Unity Discussion Norms. These guidelines can be adapted to any context. Please have a look! If you’d like to discuss how to begin cultivating school-wide discussion norms, or to discuss how to build upon the foundation you have in place, please reach out!
RECOMMENDATION #2: SLOW INSTRUCTION & CO-INSTRUCTION
Back when some of us were in school, a teacher might decide to change plans on-the-spot and have a discussion or debate about a topic that had arisen in class. Because of the polarized political climate and a social media environment where anger and insults are common, a much more intentional approach is needed today. In our dialogue series we discussed “slow instruction” and “co-instruction” as ways to carefully support student readiness for discussion about topics of importance.
- Slow instruction: Some schools use a structure called “Socratic Seminar” to slow down instruction and ensure students are well prepared for student-to-student dialogue when the time comes. It works best when there is a long, deliberate lead-up to the seminar discussion, which is called “Socratic” because of an emphasis on students asking each other questions. We heard from a middle school teacher about how he uses Socratic Seminar (and school-wide discussion norms) to support student dialogue about the decline of ancient civilizations. The Socratic Seminar process is a teaching tool, a learning tool, and a way to demonstrate and assess knowledge and skills. If you’d like to know more about this specific example, please reach out! And there are resources on Socratic Seminar provided by some thoughtful school support organizations: Facing History and Ourselves; Expeditionary Learning; and Edutopia.
- Co-instruction, or co-teaching, expands the number of adults in the room who can support student learning through discussion. We studied one example of a school counselor collaborating with an English teacher on a unit of study that included reading a novel, writing personal essays, and learning about sexual abuse prevention. We discovered that a lot goes into co-teaching such topics, including several key ingredients: a collaborative relationship between the adults; the careful blending of academic skills and interpersonal skills; the slow progression of discussions and activities from lighter to heavier topics. This was not a traditional co-teaching model in which teachers collaborate all year long; this was an instance of two people with complimentary areas of expertise joining forces for a particular unit of study. If you’d like to learn more about their approach or how such a strategy can be used to support classroom discussions in your setting, please reach out to us!
RECOMMENDATION #3: A STANCE OF VIGILANCE + CURIOSITY
Some of the ideas, language, and symbols that we encounter today are harmful to our democracy. They dehumanize others, amplify distrust, and can lead to violence. There are resources available to educators and families to help navigate situations where young people are exposed to – or expressing – such ideas and symbols. Participants in our dialogue series reviewed three of these resources to see if we would recommend them for our New England settings. The answer was yes! We asked ourselves, “Which of the tips and strategies seem particularly relevant to our setting/practice in VT/NH?” Here are three of the resources we recommend:
- Confronting White Nationalism in Schools, by the Western States Center.
- Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home, by the Western States Center.
- Guide to preventing online youth radicalization, by the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
These guides include “What To Do & What Not To Do” tips that we found useful. We also appreciated the emphasis on vigilance and curiosity. Schools need to be vigilant in responding to hate speech when it arises, ensuring that any harm stops and is repaired. And, at the same time, we need to take a stance of curiosity, seeking to understand what pulls an individual toward ideas that are dangerous. If you’d like support in integrating these resources into professional learning or community dialogue, please reach out!
Keep the Door to Dialogue Open
Our dialogue series included other topics as well, such as the value of sharing stories as a way of valuing all students, families, taxpayers and other stakeholders. We also learned about the power of restorative practice in addressing harm and strengthening community. We didn’t have time to formulate specific recommendations in those areas – but the dialogue will continue!
We hope that schools in our region will have a look at these three recommendations as the next school year approaches. And we know that many of our schools already have structures in place to help build community and reduce polarization, while not shying away from important and challenging topics.
We live in a time of polarization, which may only get worse in the years to come. Our communities can become divided through fear, misinformation and forces that push us apart. Let us keep the door to dialogue open in our schools. Discussion is an essential tool for learning, a means of building trust, and a way to hold each other accountable for making our society more democratic, inclusive and just.
This UVEI dialogue series kicked off in February, 2022. You can read about it here. In addition to the Upper Valley Educators Institute, this work is supported by the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab at American University, and the Vermont Community Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Alchemist Foundation. (Thank you!)
For more information and to continue the conversation, please reach out to Elijah Hawkes, Director of School Leadership Programs, UVEI: firstname.lastname@example.org