History Nerdfest 2018: Fostering Civil Dialogue
It ranks right up there with the Holiday season, KC Chiefs football, and the first weekend of the college basketball tournament. It’s National Council for the Social Studies conference week. I’m lucky enough to get front row seats and am trying to live blog my way through it.
If there’s a theme running through my choose of session this week, this would be it. How can we encourage and support conversations around controversial topics? How can we tie current events to broader topics and past events without . . . you know, setting stuff on fire and throwing desks?
First session of the day is a focus on that issue. The Newseum and the Religious Freedom Center are part of the larger Freedom Forum Institute. The Institute concentrates on the first five constitutional Amendments and this morning, Ben and Jessi are walking us through how we can protect the Amendments through civil conversations.
Informed and respectful are the buzzwords for this morning – with a specific focus on religious freedom and the First Amendment. A problem that Jessi points out is that most students have no idea of what the First Amendment protects and what rights it ensures.
Ben points out the two parts of the Amendment’s free exercise and free establishment clauses. Public school teachers are required, by the establishment clause, to remain neutral around the topic of religion. Private school teachers are governed by the free exercise clause. But it still all comes down to teaching religion or teaching about religion. There’s a difference. What is allowed?
So . . . how can we facilitate civil discourse around religion (and other topics)?
We started by sharing barriers to teaching controversial topics:
- Audience sensitivity
Hard headed students – always trying to win instead of discuss
Other end of the spectrum – too much agreement
Parents failing to support instruction – especially via social media
- Classroom environment
- Teacher intimidation
uncertainty about process
lack of background
Benefits to having controversial conversations:
- Meeting a need
- Filling a hole
creating a safe space for debate
- Engaging your students
real world connections
Finding quality information:
Both Ben and Jesse say that we need to have correct information before and during these types of conversations. As an example, Ben asked the group what is the percentage of Americans who practice Islam. There were multiple guesses ranging from 25% to 14 % to 8% of the US population
The actual percentage?
How about which religious group suffers most from hate crimes? Most answers in the room also suggested Muslim groups. But according to the FBI, Jewish groups and Jewish synagogues endure more hate crimes than any other group.
So having a conversation around religion, for example, using incorrect data makes having the conversation difficult. We need to make sure that we have correct data, we need to make sure that we call out students who use incorrect information, and support the citing of facts.
Two ways to tackling controversial topics:
Use the Civil Dialogue strategy by Generation Global. (Download the incredibly useful PDF.) Some basics of the strategy:
Civil Dialogue is not:
- a debate – there are not winners and losers
- conflict resolution
- an encounter with differences
- process for seeking understanding – the goal is not come to 100% agreement
- promotes a non-binary world view. Not right or wrong, not us and them
- Think critically about issues
- engage confidently and genuine curiosity
- understand ourselves and others as complex individuals
Skills needed to participate in a Civil Dialogue:
- Open attitude
Lower the heat:
- slow it down
- say what you see
- say what you hear
- take a break
- reminders about ground rules
- park it
- dealing with infractions
- find a bigger question
(This article also might help.)
Jessi says that starting with a clear goal in mind that is communicated to students is very helpful for helping students stay focused and civil.
Another strategy is the Case Study Approach. Jesse shared an example created by the @NewseumEd staff that asks kids to solve an authentic problem about hate-based ads on public transportation.
Anatomy and structure of a case study:
- limited scope
- clearly defined role
- generate action
- Multiple choice format for options
- per-loaded prompts
Some sample prompts from the Case Study:
- Why did you select this position? Were you able to reach a consensus?
- What is the difference between law and ethics? Is there a difference in this case between what you legally can do under the First Amendment and what you ethically should do? What is legally allowed versus what is the right thing to do?
- Read the background that provides information about the real-life situation from which the case study is derived. Does this additional information change anyone’s opinion on what to do?
- How does this case study relate back to 9/11 and the debates and tensions that arose in this country after the 2001 attacks? Bring up the case study’s corresponding 9/11 image to spark ideas.
- For students who have completed the optional extended version of this lesson: What sources of information did you find most/least helpful? How did these sources shape your thinking about this case?