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Gun violence, climate change, immigration, abortion. There seems to be no end to the number of divisive issues that are causing people from all walks of life to lash out in angry ways.
It’s not just that we disagree; it’s that we seem to have lost all sense of common ground. In fact, many people actually believe that those who don’t share their political and social beliefs are bad or detrimental. According to a 2018 Georgetown University poll, an astonishing 60% of both Democrats and Republicans believe that “members of the opposing party pose a very serious or somewhat serious threat to the United States and its people.”
The prickly question for educators then is this: If adults – even our leaders – can’t discuss these thorny issues in a constructive way, how do we teach students to debate important topics with civility and mutual respect?
“We understand the youth is the next generation and will hopefully turn things around,” says Maya Mahoney, the development director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD). “Empowering youth to feel they can change the course of a conversation and how discourse is used is key.”
The NICD was established in 2011 in the wake of a shooting in Tucson, Arizona, that left six dead and 13 others wounded, including former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. NICD’s mission is to integrate research, practice and policy to promote healthy, civil political debate.
The NICD isn’t the only organization aiming to foster civil discourse. There’s also AllSides, a news organization that attempts to provide a well-rounded view of complex stories. Bridge the Divide is a group that unites politically active teens to promote respectful political conversations. And Better Angels is a nonprofit working to depolarize the U.S., in part by conducting workshops with people of different political views to help them find common ground.
Educators are also concerned and are looking for ways to help students engage in civil discourse. Kristen Mattson, the library media center director at Waubonsie Valley High School in Illinois, wrote a book on the topic. Digital Citizenship in Action offers ways for educators to help students become participatory citizens, actively engaging in their communities and developing relationships based on mutual trust and understanding with others in digital spaces.
Here are some ways she and other experts say we can help students – and ourselves – be better citizens, together.
With kids spending much of their time in online communities, it’s vital they choose social media communities intentionally and know the rules and culture of engaging within them. If the tenor of the discussion makes students feel uncomfortable, that’s a red flag. They should find another platform.
This doesn’t mean encouraging students to shut out views that are different from their own. Rather, it means expecting those views to be expressed respectfully and without hate.
How should a student respond if they see hate speech or some other inappropriate post? Teach them how to block an offensive user and report inappropriate content.
If the commenter is a peer whom the student already knows personally, Mattson suggests contacting the person face-to-face or via private message rather than calling them out in public. Kids shouldn’t feel the need to jump in and be the behavior police, but they can be a part of establishing norms and guidelines within their chosen communities.
NICD's Mahoney offers another strategy. “When I see something on Facebook or Twitter that offends me and I really want to respond, most of the time, no matter how much I craft a message to sound kind or nonjudgmental, someone is going to misinterpret it. Honestly, the most powerful thing to do regarding social media is ignore it or respond and ask to continue the discussion over coffee. Once you are no longer hiding behind a social media platform, a more productive conversation will come out of it.”
She offers these tips for educators and adults that can be passed along to students who are navigating difficult situations with peers from school:
Mattson says educators can help students engage respectfully both online and in person by teaching skills and strategies like these that are effective in either environment:
Socratic seminars: Formal discussions, often based on a text, during which a leader asks open-ended questions. Within the context of the discussion, students listen closely to the comments of others, think critically for themselves, and articulate their thoughts and responses to the thoughts of others.
Discussion circles: A small-group strategy where students read a text on their own and then share their personal interpretation, insight or questions. This technique can be used to prompt discussion about magazine or newspaper articles, blog posts or books. Evidence-backed viewpoints: An opinion supported and guided by reliable scientific evidence, reputable new sources or their own anecdotal experience. Students should learn to employ the CRAP detection method of media literacy, asking the following questions: Is the information current? Is it reliable? Who is the author and what are their credentials? What is the purpose or point of view of the author?
Respectful responses: Ways to keep discussions respectful are to listen first, avoid attacking the speaker or writer personally and use “I” statements instead of attributing opinions to the other person in the conversation. In Digital Citizenship In Action, Mattson offers some concrete tips for framing conversations to keep things civil. Specific to online discussions, she suggests students take time to understand the original post before responding, tag the person to whom comments are directed and carefully craft the message so that it’s more likely to be interpreted as intended. In addition, students can share evidence (fact-checked, of course) and personal experience, but remain respectful of the experiences of others.
Specific sentence frames can help students become comfortable with a robust, but civil discussion. To acknowledge someone’s viewpoint, try, “Thank you, ___, for presenting your viewpoint. I agree because ___.” To present an opposing viewpoint try, “___ said ___, but the evidence I found says ___.” “I think it’s important to remember ___ because ___.” Or “I appreciate the experiences shared by ___, but in my experience ___.”
One of the most valuable skills is to ask questions, rather than spout out viewpoints. The purpose of a conversation is not to win the argument, but for everyone to be more informed. A sentence frame to ask for help with this is, “I realize my views on ___ are limited. Does anyone here have experience with ___?”
Mahoney says we must “listen for understanding. Don’t just nod your head and wait for your chance to rebut. Once you understand the point of view, you can respond more humanely.”
This step encourages students to take their passion for a cause and put it into action. Andrea Trudeau, library information specialist at Alan B. Shepard Middle School, an affluent public school north of Chicago, says developing empathy is key for taking passion and turning it into action.
Trudeau wanted her students to experience the world outside their bubble, so she showed some immersive videos using VR viewers. The students were transported to the shores of Greece, looking out at the ocean. As a boat arrived and Sudanese refugees came ashore with tears in their eyes, the students experienced a moment in the lives of refugees.
Trudeau learned that a local temple was sponsoring a family from Aleppo who spoke no English and knew nothing about American life. Her students were eager to help. They came up with the idea of a private Facebook page where the students created different “welcome” videos, each explaining a different aspect of American life. They offered basic tutorials on how to use a microwave, how to move through the lunch line at school and even one introducing all the Disney princesses. The videos became a library of resources.
Trudeau expected about 10 students to show up to make the videos, but more than 50 kids stayed after school. She says the project helped her students develop a sense of empathy. When students read articles, they may feel sympathy for someone, but it’s still easy to separate themselves from the others.
“We always say we want kids to be lifelong learners and improve their corner of the world,” she says. “Our kids were inspired to pay it forward and help.”
That’s exactly what the 17-member coalition that created DigCitCommit had in mind when they made “engaged” one of five competencies of their new digital citizenship movement. The initiative aims to change the conversation about digital citizenship from don’ts to do’s.
The “engaged” competency states that youth use technology and digital channels for civic engagement, to solve problems and be a force for good in both physical and virtual communities.
“When we think about how students ‘engage’ civically in their community we often think about traditional actions like service-learning projects, volunteering and voting,” says Emily Davis, partnerships adviser for ISTE. “Each of these actions reflect personal responsibility and respect for the social contracts that govern our society. However, today much of our participation as citizens happens beyond the traditional boundaries of our physical communities in digital spaces, and DigCitCommit aims to shine a light on the importance of organizing, engaging and advocating as a contributing citizen online.”
Have a conversation
The nonprofits AllSides for Schools and Bridge the Divide have joined forces to develop Mismatch, a platform that helps students make connections across different political, socioeconomic, ethnic or geographic regions.
Kris McCarthy, 10th grade world history teacher at Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota, says her students don’t have much experience with different cultures due to a student population that’s not very diverse. Using Mismatch, her class connected with a class in Arizona, near the border with Mexico. Mismatch sets up chat sessions for four students, two from each school, which they find to be ideal for a productive conversation. Students then connect from their laptops, and the organization provides a conversation guide and timer.
The first, and possibly most important, portion of the conversation is getting to know each other. The kids talked about what their schools were like, described their different proms and discovered that many of the Arizona students didn’t have to take Spanish because they were already fluent.
The topic of the conversation was citizenship, but the goal was to hear another person’s life story and understand their perspective. Did they all complete the lesson? “Nope,” says McCarthy. “They were too busy having an authentic conversation. They gained a connection with kids who are different from them. The idea of citizenship impacted their lives in such a central way, and it was great that my kids were able to hear about their lives.”
Mismatch has been beta tested with more than 300 students and all of the educators who participated rated it a “valuable” or “extremely valuable” experience. Eighty-three percent of participating students cited higher appreciation for different perspectives based on their Mismatch experience.
“I strongly believe that it’s important to be provided with opinions other than your own; along with having avenues to gain perspective on the lives of others,” says an eighth grade student who participated in the beta in North Carolina.
Kristin Hanson, director of Mismatch, says that’s what the platform is all about. “When students make a positive humanizing connection with someone from a different background.”
NICD says now is the time to act. Mismatch’s platform and projects like McCarthy’s Facebook welcome videos demonstrate how students can use technology to bring about positive change. NICD cites social theories that say that it takes only 3.5% of the population to act in a way that creates a cultural shift.
As digital citizens, our students can channel their passion for significant issues into a tipping point for inclusiveness, civil discourse and mutual respect.
Jennifer Snelling is a freelance writer based in Eugene, Oregon, and mom to two digital natives.